BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL4 1944-1945 1
After the battle for the Breville gap the task of the 6th Airborne Division was to hold firm on the line of the Breville ridge and thus secure the eastern flank of the Allied bridgehead. The divisional front extended from a point in the Bois de Bavent, due east of Escoville, to the sea, a distance of nine thousand yards.
For this task the division had nine weak battalions plus the 1st Special Service Brigade and the 4th Special Service Brigade of the Royal Marine Commandos. Since it was essential to hold one brigade at a time in reserve, and to give them a rest after continuous action since D Day, the line was very thinly held.
During this period the 52nd were continuously in the line on the Breville feature and occupied, in turn, positions between Amfreville and Le Mesnil. To give a day-to-day account of our activities would be tedious, as most days were identical. Suffice to say that it was a trying time for morale and that the happiest and most inspiring thing about the period was the will with which the men of the Regiment faced their tiring and uninspiring task.
On the 13th June the 52nd moved up to Breville. The situation after the battle for Breville was still uncertain, and, although they never did, the enemy were expected to counter-attack on the village. It was at 0215 hrs that we were ordered to move, and despite the absence of any warning we had, by 0430 hrs, handed over our positions to relieving troops, and were on the move from Herouvillette, where the 52nd had made itself very much at home. It was a pleasant little village where we had dug ourselves in, in both meanings of the term. Regimental headquarters occupied a villa in the centre of the village, the cellar of which was commandeered by the signal officer, Lieutenant S. F. Robin. This was a very popular refuge if one was caught in the village street during a “stonk.” A “morale reviver” was always forthcoming and light conversation possible with the late mistress of a German officer formerly stationed in the area. This good [sic] lady placed herself and her child under our protection, and her stories of the German occupation were interesting, to say the least.
The 52nd’s position was to be at the Chateau St. Come, some 500 yards south of Breville. The route to this locality lay up a lane known as bomb alley and it certainly lived up to its name as we moved up off the plains into the wooded country on the western slope of the Breville ridge. The Chateau St. Come in its day must have been a fine example of a small French chateau with excellent stables and well-kept gardens, but when we arrived there the evidence of battle was everywhere. The chateau itself was scarred, the stables half burnt down and, as a number of animals had perished in the flames, the stench was unbelievable. A troop of burnt-out Sherman tanks lined the chateau drive, and the debris of battle covered the ground. Many corpses of friend and foe gave evidence of the grim struggle that had occurred there.
The 52nd took over the position from a battalion of the Black Watch which had suffered very heavy casualties in a battle in which no quarter was given by either side. We quickly consolidated our position and dug in at our best speed, which by now was remarkably quick. The position was held with three companies up, C Company occupying the actual chateau and its out-buildings. Regimental headquarters were situated in a villa on the western slope of the ridge. Enemy mortaring and shelling were intensive during the day, but, thanks to our digging, casualties were light. The Regiment suffered, among others on this day, the loss of C.S.M. Flexen, a very well-known character to many of the Regiment and a fine Regimental soldier.
The 52nd remained at St. Come until the 21st June. We were shelled and mortared spasmodically throughout the period, but not in sufficient weight to prevent the mprovement of positions and the tidying up of the area. One of the most unpleasant tasks was to dispose of a number of wounded thoroughbred mares and foals, for at St. Come was a stud where some of the finest French racing stock was bred. It was pathetic to see wounded mares and foals struggling in the fields, and somewhat precarious, in the early stages, to go to help them owing to the presence of enemy snipers. The value of the horses destroyed must have been very great. We found the stud book among the debris in the chateau and it was eventually returned to the owners.
The 19th and 20th June were unlucky days for the 52nd. Major J. S. R. Edmunds was wounded on the 19th when leading a fighting patrol and his successor as officer commanding B Company, Major Teddy Favell, was killed by shell fire early the next morning.
Captain A. C. Mason, who took over S Company, was also wounded about the same time, and our excellent quartermaster, Lieutenant James, was killed in a “moaning minnie” mortar stonk on Regimental headquarters.
Thus between dusk and dawn three company commanders and the quartermaster, all irreplaceable, had been lost. This brought our officer casualties since landing to over twenty.
It was at St. Come that we started the static warfare period, for from our arrival there until the day we advanced towards the River Seine no major action took place. The order of the day was patrolling and domination of the no-man’s-land between us and the enemy. We were now in real bocage country consisting of small fields and orchards surrounded by very thick hedges generally growing on a bank with ditches on either side. Observation and fields of fire were very limited; it was real sniper country and we had considerable success in this line. Forward companies patrolled every night in strengths varying from small reconnaissance patrols to fighting patrols. The men became really expert and some excellent information was obtained by patrols which often moved well behind the enemy’s forward localities. Throughout the period our immediate opponents were a low-class infantry regiment composed mostly of conscripts from various nations under German domination. However, they fought well and though under the iron discipline of their German officers and N.C.Os. Very few deserted, in spite of the attempts to encourage them to do so made by loud-hailer from our forward positions. The usual reply to our efforts was an immediate stonk on the position of the loud-hailer. During this time the various localities to our front were named; those that come to mind are Bugle Corner, Fox’s Wood, Devon Orchard, Johnny’s Orchard, Stickies Corner and Triangle Wood.
During this period, except for a few fortunates, the Regiment lived in their slit trenches come rain come shine. All had head cover, which proved essential and saved many head wounds, particularly from mortar bombs bursting in the trees above. Sometimes the weapon pits were wet and slimy, sometimes they crumbled in the sun. The toll of men from mortar and shell fire was a steady drain on our resources. Cooking was mainly done on a platoon basis in rest areas immediately behind their positions. It was some time before we received fresh rations and when they did come, except for the bread, most men preferred the “compo” rations to which we had become accustomed. Ingenuity was soon exercised to improve administrative comforts, and bath-houses became a matter of company pride. The one at the chateau at St. Come was a magnificent erection in one of the stable lofts. One could be in the bath and at the same time get an excellent view of the countryside through a shell-hole in the wall—slightly draughty on a cold day, but the boiler was to hand, and with the minimum of effort the temperature of the water could be kept to one’s liking.
Occasionally companies retired a few hundred yards to a so-called rest area, but tension was never absent, as the area always seemed to receive an undue number of “overs” from enemy mortars and guns.
Such was the life led by the 52nd for two months. Whether at Breville, St. Come, Le Mesnil or Amfreville, conditions were basically the same and there was no change from the routine of alertness at all times and patrolling by night. Everybody lacked sleep, but morale was excellent. 1
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 87-90