THE ADVANCE TO THE RIVER SEINE 17th TO 31st AUGUST 1944
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL4 1944-1945 1
During the first fortnight in August it became apparent, owing to the situation on the main Allied front at Falaise, that the enemy would very likely pull out at short notice all along the line and retire towards the River Seine. The 52nd at this time was occupying the Le Mesnil position. Our patrols were particularly active and it was no surprise when, on the night of the 16th/ 17th August, A Company reported that enemy posts to our immediate front were no longer occupied and that our old friend Triangle Wood was clear. In accordance with a prearranged plan a general move forward was immediately made.
C Company, which had moved that very night into the rest area, was pulled out and moved forward as advanced guard with orders to make good Varaville and then swing northwards to cut off enemy reported to be withdrawing in face of the 12th Devons in the Breville area. This move was carried out successfully with only minor opposition from machine-gun posts left behind to delay our advance, and sharp artillery and mortar concentrations on cross-roads on the line of our advance. No enemy came back into our ambush position. B Company met some opposition at the village of Descanneville, and A and D Companies were about to put in a two-company attack with artillery support when the enemy pulled out.
The night of the 17th/ 18th August found the Regiment with C and D Companies consolidated at Gonneville and Merville and with A and B Companies at Descanneville.
Regimental headquarters were established in the coastal battery position which had been attacked and silenced by the 9th Parachute Regiment on D Day. The wide area was cratered by R.A.F. bombs, but the concrete gun emplacements were intact despite direct hits from heavy bombs. The area of the battery was heavily mined and traces of the intricate wire defences were still evident. It was not until we visited the area that we realized the magnitude of the task set the attacking parachutists on D Day. The 52nd remained in the Merville area until the 20th August and it was here that we learned the plan for the continuation of the advance.
The general plan was for the 6th Airborne Division to make what progress it could along the northern routes to the line of the River Seine. It was not expected that the division would be able to move very quickly, as it was still on an airborne basis and lacked the transport of the ordinary infantry division. This surmise was not the divisional commander’s or the division’s form at all, and it was determined that, far from lagging behind, we should, in fact, move as fast as or indeed faster than anybody else. That this intention was carried out is proved by the fact that the parachute brigades had already captured Pont Audemer when the 49th Division on our right was making a plan so to do.
However, the division was to move forward on three lines of advance. The Belgian contingent, which had joined us in July, was allotted the coastal route and we of the 6th Airlanding Brigade the centre route. The main divisional thrust was to be made by the parachute brigades towards Pont l’Eveque and Breuzeville.
The advance was to be made with the greatest possible speed and determination.
On the 20th August the 52nd marched southwards through Troarn and, from a concentration position just east of the town, carried out a difficult night march on a very dark and wet night through unknown country to relieve the 1st Special Service Brigade, which had reached Brucourt. This march was made more hazardous than usual because communications with the special service brigade had broken down and they did not know we were coming. The enemy were known to be still in the area. The march was completed without incident and great credit was due to those who marked and picketed the route.
On the following day our brigade moved off along the center route. The battalions of the brigade, 52nd, 1st Royal Ulster Rifles and 12th Devons, took turns to lead. Only minor opposition was encountered and the routine became fairly regular. On entering each village the inhabitants turned out in force and gave us a terrific welcome. Flags and bunting appeared as from nowhere and food and drink were pressed into our hands. When in the lead it was difficult to keep the foremost platoons going, as they received the brunt of the onslaught from the friendly villagers. The enemy had a habit of leaving delaying posts on the far side of villages, and often it was a case of being petted, kissed and then, a few minutes later, shot at.
On the morning of the 22nd August the 52nd, with D Company as advanced guard, was leading the brigade. A member of the F.F.I. appeared cycling down the road bearing the news that the Germans had withdrawn to the east bank of the River Touques. Two jeep patrols were sent off to confirm this information, and the intelligence officer took a trip up to Deauville to find out the situation on the coastal route. Both reconnaissances confirmed the F.F.I. information, but also reported that all bridges over the River Touques had been blown up.
On the night of the 22nd/23rd August the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles attempted a night crossing of the river but without success. The next morning a further F.F.I. report came in that the enemy had withdrawn from the river line and from the town of Touques. Meanwhile the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles had moved farther south looking for an alternative crossing. The 52nd was ordered forward to cross the river at Touques and D Company moved to the high ground overlooking the river. They suffered some casualties from shelling, but were able to report that the inhabitants of Touques were waving flags and dancing in the streets. D Company then swam the river and established a firm base on the far side, collecting a few prisoners en route.
Captain A. C. Mason was sent forward to organize a crossing for the remainder of the Regiment. including its vehicles. The River Touques at the small town of Touques is thirty feet wide with a fast current and up to ten feet in depth. It is also tidal. A task of considerable difficulty faced Captain Mason for the only possible approach to the river was by the road to the demolished bridge. On the northern side the river bank was obstructed by demolished houses and to the south a steep embankment prevented approach to the river bank.
The actual banks were steep and faced with slimy mud. However. Providence in the shape of the local population came to the rescue. They were quickly organized into a party on either side to pull a boat backwards and forwards across the river. The boat, overlooked by the retreating Germans and found by D Company, did sterling work and the Regiment, less vehicles, soon crossed the river and consolidatedon the east bank.
To get the vehicles across was the next task. The local inhabitants were again to the fore and under instructions from Captain Mason they collected and ferried across a quantity of rafting material. Our pioneers were soon working waist-deep in water constructing rafts, and by the evening the entire Regiment had crossed with the loss of only one jeep, which is probably still in the middle of the River Touques.
During the day we were favoured by a visit from the G.O.C., I Corps, Lieutenant-General J. T. Crocker, C.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., and our divisional commander, Major-General R.N. Gale, D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C., who were much impressed by the Regiment’s efforts to effect a speedy crossing of what had appeared to be a serious obstacle to the advance.
The 52nd received a particularly warm welcome in Touques. The Regiment continued in the lead the following morning on a route which led through the villages of St. Philibert, La Correspondence, Petreville and Malhortie.
At about 1130hrs. a report was received that a Belgian armoured car from their reconnaissance regiment had been knocked out just short of the bridge at Malhortie. The bridge at Malhortie and the high ground to the east around the village of Manneville la Raoult were reported held by the enemy.
The brigade commander, who happened to be present at the time, ordered Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Roberts to seize the crossing over the river as soon as possible. B Company put in a company attack on the bridge at about 1300 hrs. and captured it intact, but met with stiff resistance east of the river.
Meanwhile C Company was ordered to execute a right-flank attack, to link up with B Company and if possible push, on round the village of Manneville la Raoult to the line of the road that ran north-south to the east of the village. This flanking movement took a deal onger time than expected, as the country was very difficult. It was not till 1600 hrs. that contact was made with B Company and the company commander decided to push on to Manneville la Raoult. Enemy were encountered some 300 yards short of the village, but after a sharp exchange of fire and some good work by Lieutenant F. Scott’s platoon, the enemy withdrew, leaving six prisoners and some casualties behind them. C Company then pushed on to its objective, captured on its way some half a dozen horse-drawn transport vehicles complete with drivers and stores, and at dusk consolidated its position. Unfortunately all touch with the remainder of the Regiment was lost at this stage, for the arduous nature of the approach march had proved too much for the wireless sets. The forward observation officer’s signaller fell headlong down an almost perpendicular railway embankment fairly early on and that was one set and artillery support gone. The mobile fire controller’s (mortars) signaller fell into a stream and that was another set and mortar support gone. This was too much for the company’s set, which packed up in sympathy with the others. Touch with the remainder of the Regiment was not made till later that night.
Meanwhile, hearing nothing from C Company except the sounds of battle, the commanding officer launched A and D Companies through B Company to capture the village of Manneville la Raoult. D Company had a very stiff fight in the village itself, but after a spirited action cleared it of enemy.
The Germans put down mortar and artillery fire on the village while their own troops were still in position, causing casualties to their own as well as our troops. By nightfall D Company was in possession of Manneville la Raoult and had taken a number of prisoners. They also captured a quantity of horse-drawn transport. During the night the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles passed through C Company’s position en route for Berville.
At first light on the 26th August the 52nd moved forward to what proved to be its final objective. This was the village of Foulbec, which is on the River Risle and just short of the River Seine itself. By 1900 hrs. the 52nd had consolidated in the Foulbec area. The enemy had withdrawn over the river, having of course blown the bridge, and contented himself with mortaring us at intervals. The mortar platoons had a good shoot in response.
We spent until the 31st August at Foulbec and this was a quiet period except for various official and unofficial patrols.
On the 30th August all non-airborne arms and equipment were handed in to ordnance. We also had to dispose of our German horse-drawn transport, which, since the action at Manneville la Raoult, had proved of great value, not only for carrying extra equipment but also for light recreation in the form of riding.
It was on the 31st August that orders for the return to England and Bulford were received and on the next day we set off— marching to start with, as the troopcarrying transport failed to materialize. The night of the 1st September was spent at a transit camp at Ryes and on the following day we embarked from the Mulberry harbour for home with thoughts of leave in our minds.
During the advance to the River Seine the Regiment suffered the following casualties: Killed: 1 officer and 5 soldiers. Wounded: 42 soldiers. 1
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 91-96