The Breakout from Normandy (Operation Bluecoat)

On 16th July 1944 the 6th Guards Tank Brigade, as part of VIII Corps, British 2nd Army, were ordered to embark at Gosport on to tank landing crafts for their journey by sea to Courseulles-sur-Mer on Juno Beach.

Montgomery had originally wanted to disband the Brigade and use the men as reinforcements for other armoured units but reluctantly had to concede to pressure from Winston Churchill and other senior officers to retain it in its entirety !

“S” Squadron, 3rd Scots Guards had an eventful journey – the landing craft provided by the Royal Navy not only incorporated the number 13 in its identification markings (this did not bode well for the superstitious among them !) but it was also unaccustomed to transporting heavy tanks like the Churchills and during the night in a heavy swell several tanks broke their chains, colliding with each other and the side of the deck leaving many guardsmen in a state of panic (not helped by several suffering from acute sea-sickness) ! Temporary repairs were carried out under considerable danger but it was decided that the craft would return to Gosport to have heavier chains fitted. This decision left officers waiting for several hours on the beach in France fearing that they had fallen victim to attack, perhaps by “U” boats. The situation was not helped due to a ban on all radio contact. The squadron eventually harboured with the remainder of the Brigade near Bayeaux, in the midst of apple orchards, awaiting further orders.

Due to the refitting of different specification armaments to the tanks, whilst in the UK, the Brigade were fortunately not involved in the heavy fighting around Caen during Operation Epsom – but its officers and NCO’s were able to see at first hand the devastation caused to other tank units by the defending German tanks and heavy gun batteries.

The role of the tanks was one of infantry support – dealing with snipers or pockets of enemy resistance with effective rounds of high explosive . The supporting infantry, whilst clearing up, would often find shell damaged buildings littered with enemy corpses !

Typical Normandy “Bocage” scenery featuring narrow lane with high earth banks

Churchill Mk IV as used by 3rd Btn Scots Guards

Located at Maltot, Normandy

 

The conditions experienced by tank crews were less than pleasant with the heat and odours of several men in close proximity combined with the smell of cordite (a shell propellant). With the frequent prescence of dead cattle and human bodies, flies and other insects were also in abundance. It was also extremely difficult for tank crews, just like their accompanying infantry to keep clean and dry. The tanks would often resemble mobile launderettes with clothing hung to dry in the vicinity of the hot exhaust outlets !

The Churchill tank was very effective in dealing with the terrain of Normandy – the Bocage – narrow lanes surrounded by tall hedgerows – they could deal with these with ease but crews were frequently tossed around as their tanks pitched and rolled over earth banks . Rounds of high explosive shells would soon eradicate stubborn earth mounds and hedgerows. They also received frequent peltings of falling apples, from the orchards, penetrating their open hatches !

Dangers were all around in the form of mines, snipers, hidden enemy tanks (Panthers & Tigers) and infantry with “Panzerfaust” anti-tank weaponary concealed in hedgerows and ditches. Even inadvertent bombing and rocket fire from their own allies would pose a danger ! The men actually slept beneath their tanks at night to minimise the risk to themselves – though had to be careful that the tanks didn’t sink on soft ground ! Spare tracks were frequently welded around the turret and other vulnerable parts of the tanks to afford greater protection from armour piercing shells .

Battle of Caumont

Much action had taken place around Caen and St.Lo following D-Day and the Brigade were ordered to take the high ground South of Caumont an area known to be held by the enemy . Due to heavy mortar and sniper attacks the accompanying infantry of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders fell behind the tanks who were then ordered to proceed alone to secure their objective – they then found themselves on July 30th several miles in to enemy territory near Les Loges .

The 3rd Scots remained on the hill (later named Hill 226) at Les Loges waiting for their infantry to catch up and many of the guardsmen had disembarked from their tanks waiting for further orders from their officers when suddenly all hell let loose – tanks all around began exploding and catching fire ! “S” Squadron were particularly badly affected losing eleven tanks in five minutes !

The attackers broke their cover – three large self-propelled 88mm guns mounted on Panther chassis – Jagdpanthers (“hunter panthers”) – their first appearance in the Normandy theatre. According to German accounts “The Tommies sat on and beside the tanks smoking, as if they were at a training area …. we fired at them with high explosive rounds and machine guns. Hunting fever had gripped all of us.”

Jagdpanther, courtesy of German Federal Archives

Guardsmen, where possible, fled for their lives – many being machine gunned in the process, some perished inside their tanks unable to escape. Some tanks had been hit at point blank range (the tank of the squadron second in command was hit with such force that the turret was blown right off due to the impact of the shell and the exploding ammunition within the tank – see photo below) – the armour of the Churchills could be penetrated easily at such close proximity ! The 88mm gun was one of the most feared and accurate pieces of armament in use at the time and could be used at long range (it was originally designed as an anti-aircraft weapon).

One of the Jagdpanther commanders was seen to be smiling and giving a mock salute as he passed near to the burning wrecks of the British tanks !

The remaining tanks of the Battalion opened fire causing significant damage to the side armour and the tracks of the Jagdpanthers, some of which were later found abandoned by their crews .

My father, as a member of “S” Squadron, would have experienced this horrendous ambush and either managed to escape the carnage or was fortunate to be in one of the few tanks which remained unscathed . If I am correct that he was in “Iona” tank (tanks were often named after towns or in the case of 3rd Scots after Scottish Islands) then there is a strong possibility that his tank was destroyed in the attack as the commander Sgt.Thorn was one of the casualties of the day !

Could he have been the Guardsman who, according to Daglish (in his book “Operation Bluecoat – Breakout from Normandy”), had crawled on his hands and knees down the hill towards the supporting infantry of the Argylls shouting “Don’t go up there, it’s murder !” ?

My father later told me that he had lost many friends in WW2 and this particular event would surely have accounted for a large number of them. He never spoke of this incident !

Following the events of 30th July “S” Squadron withdrew from engagements to re-form and re-equipe whilst other elements of the Brigade were engaged in action at Estry

Destroyed Churchill Tank

(believed to be that of Major S Cuthbert)

Photo courtesy of Muir Findlay

Battle of Chenedolle (otherwise referred to as “China Doll”)

On 11th August, supporting units of the Welsh Guards infantry, Guards Armoured Division “S” Squadron, now back to full strength, advanced towards Chenedolle countering stiff opposition from troops and Panthers of a defending SS Panzer Division. The attack was successful in disposing of many Germans who had defended their positions to the bitter end and those remaining were taken prisoner. The brigade then moved Eastwards towards the Seine whilst other Allied units surrounded large numbers of retreating German troops at Falaise.

Further reading

  • “6th Guards Tank Brigade – The Story of Guardsmen in Churchill Tanks” – Patrick Forbes
  • “Over the Battlefield – Operation Bluecoat – Breakout from Normandy” – Ian Daglish
  • “La Percee du Bocage Vol 2” – Stephane Jacquet
  • “Reflections” A Scots Guards Officer in Training and War – Major Charles Farrell
  • “La Garde contra la Hohenstaufen” – Michel Leteinturier
  • “The Fifteenth Scottish Division 1939-1945” – Lieutenant-General H.G.Martin
  • “Lion Rampant – The memoirs of an infantry officer from D-Day to the Rhineland” – Robert Woollcombe
  • “The Guards Armoured Division” – Major-General G.L.Verney
  • “The Story of the Guards Armoured Division 1941-1945” – Captain the Earl of Rosse & Colonel E.R.Hill
  • “The Charge of the Bull” – Jean Brisset
  • “D-Day to Victory” The Diaries of a British Tank Commander – Sgt Trevor Greenwood
  • “By Tank into Normandy” – Stuart Hills

 

Some links of interest

  • 6th Guards Tank Brigade Website Click Here
  • 6th Guards Tank Brigade Facebook Page Click Here
  • 6th Guards Tank Brigade in Normandy Click Here
  • 3rd Tank Battalion Scots Guards – War Diary (Jan to Dec 1944) Click Here
  • Debut at Caumont and the final Battle for Normandy Click Here
  • Guards Armoured Division Click Here
  • 11th Armoured Division (The Black Bull) Click Here
  • 15th Scottish Division Click Here
  • A personal account of a Scots Guardsman in Normandy Click Here
  • A memorial to Guardsman John Prentice kia 30/7/1944 Click Here
  • Tactics and the cost of victory in Normandy Click Here