BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL WAR CHRONICLES OF THE OXFORDSHIRE & BUCKINGHAMSHIRE LIGHT INFANTRY VOL4 1944-1945
The situation in the divisional bridgehead area when the 52nd landed was as follows: 7th Parachute Battalion was in position holding an area west of the River Orne bridges. The remainder of the 5th Parachute Brigade (12th and 13th Battalions) were holding the bridgehead to the south-east of the bridges in the Bas de Ranville—Ranville——Ranville le Mariquet area. The 3rd Parachute Brigade, having destroyed the German coastal battery south of Merville and the bridges over the River Dives, was operating on an approximate line Hauger—Le Mesnil—Bois de Bavent.
The 1st Special Service Brigade was fighting its way towards Sallenelles. All battalions had had very heavy fighting during the day against heavy German pressure on the bridgehead. By 2300 hrs on the 6th June the 52nd was concentrated east of the River Orne. The move to the area was uneventful except that the night was dark and our move coincided with a supply drop in the area by the R.A.F.
Large hampers full of stores were falling to the ground close to our route and occasionally the parachutes failed to open and the threat from a “free drop” hamper seemed worse than the odd enemy shell. When passing over the Orne bridges we learnt first hand of the brilliant success of our coup-de-main party.
Major John Howard met the commanding officer on the bridges as we passed over. It was, however, sad to hear of the first 52nd casualties, particularly the death of Lieutenant Dan Brotheridge, who was killed at the head of his platoon in its gallant assault on the western end of the bridge.
From the concentration area the Regiment was ordered forward at 0130 hrs to the area of the chateau at Ranville with orders to go forward to Herouvillette at first light. At Ranville companies took up all-round defence positions in the chateau grounds. The 13th Parachute Battalion was holding this area and had had a tough time since landing the previous evening. Lieutenant-Colonel P. J. Luard, their commanding officer, was, however, in good heart and told us that they had been in contact with the enemy till darkness had fallen. He thought that Herouvillette was held by the enemy.
During the early hours of the morning of the 7th June C Company sent a fighting patrol into Herouvillette but found the it deserted. At Ranville the coup-de-main force returned to the Regiment. Captain B. C. E. Priday and his glider party also turned up.
7th June.—At 0430 hrs. on the 7th June the Regiment moved off towards Herouvillette. C Company, in the lead, soon reported Herouvillette clear of enemy, the handful of enemy there having run off in the direction of Escoville. At Herouvilette we tha rescued an injured glider pilot who had been locked up by the Germans in an attic, without food or water, for twenty-four in hours. There was a certain amount of enemy shell fire on Herouvillette, particularly on road junctions leading to Escoville and Ste Honorine. The occupation of Herouvillette was soon completed and at 0830 hrs the advance to our final objective, Escoville, was started. Patrols from A and B Companies moved forward to Escoville, which lay some 1,000 yards to the south of Herouvillette across all fields, mainly pasture with very thick hedges and numerous trees. Patrols reported Escoville clear of enemy except for the presence of numerous snipers.
At 1000 hrs. the Regiment, less C Company, which was to form a firm base in Herouvillette, moved forward into Escoville. It was soon clear that the enemy was going to oppose our occupation of the village, and, although by 1100 hrs companies had reached their defensive positions Ed and had begun to dig in, enemy resistance gradually increased. Regimental headquarters were unable to reach the Chateau d’Escoville owing to the presence of a self-propelled gun south of the village firing at the chateau. Piat mortar parties were unable to silence the gun.
Escoville was not the ideal defensive position that we had believed from the briefing models and air photographs. The high ground to the south and east of the village completely dominated our positions and gave the enemy excellent observation. We, on the other hand, had no observation and any movement forward of anti-tank guns brought down heavy and accurate fire. Between 1200 and 1500 hrs. forward companies tried to dig in under fairly heavy mortar and artillery fire.
Casualties began to increase in spite of the efforts of our mortar platoon to counter the enemy’s fire. They could claim little success, as the enemy positions were well concealed and observation was difficult. Several enemy self-propelled guns were, however, engaged with some effect.
At 1500 hrs enemy infantry, closely supported by armoured fighting vehicles, began to infiltrate forward into the village. Artillery and sniper activity increased and it became obvious that Escoville would be impossible to hold without severe casualties, since consolidation of the village had been prevented and in particular because anti-tank guns were not in position to counter an armoured attack.
The commanding officer therefore asked for permission to withdraw the 52nd to the village of Herouvillette, which was on higher ground and which offered a superior defensive position. At about 1600 hrs when the move to Herouvillette was confirmed, A, B and D Companies were fairly heavily engaged at close quarters and in house-to-house fighting. C Company was therefore moved to a covering position forward of Herouvillette and forward companies withdrew through C Company’s positions. Part of A and D Companies became cut off at Escoville, but a spirited counter-attack led by Major Edmunds (Flaps) relieved the situation sufficiently to allow them to extricate themselves, not, however, without further casualties.
The Regiment then took up defensive positions in Herouvillette and fortunately the enemy did not follow up his advantage. In the fighting up to and including the action in Escoville the 52nd’s casualties were seven officers and approximately eighty soldiers.
During this awkward period Major Mark Darell-Brown had taken over command of the Regiment from Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Roberts, who had continued to command until, as the result of injuries received in his glider crash, he could no longer walk. He was evacuated on the evening of the 7th June.
9th June.--For reasons known only to himself the enemy left us alone until the 9th June, thus affording us ample opportunity to make our position in Herouvillette impregnable. Work to this end continued throughout the quiet period allowed us.
On the morning of the 9th June our patrols reported Escoville clear of enemy and C Company was ordered forward as a battle patrol into the village. The result of this foray was identical to that of the 7th June except that this time there was only one company of the Regiment involved. The company reached the Chateau d’Escoville, but, on coming under observation in the southern edge of the village, came under observed mortar and artillery fire. Infantry supported by armoured fighting vehicles again infiltrated into the village and round the company’s flanks.
A self-propelled gun continued the demolition of the chateau. At about 1600 Hrs. further enemy reinforcements, including a troop of armoured cars, appeared in the village. At about 1630 hrs the company was ordered to return to its position in Herouvillette and this was successfully carried out. Patrols left in the area reported at 1730 hrs further enemy infantry and tanks entering Escoville and it became obvious that the enemy was going to put in an attack on Herouvillette.
At approximately 1830 hrs. the enemy opened his attack with heavy concentrations of mortar and artillery fire. Messerschmitt 109 aircraft carried out a series of strafing attacks on the village of Herouvillette. This softening-up process was followed by an attack due north from Escoville on to Herouvillette carried out by tanks, self-propelled guns and infantry. The respite given us for the preparation of our defensive position had not been used in vain. The defensive fire plan worked well and artillery, medium machine guns and 6-pounder anti-tank guns all had good shoots.
Particularly impressive and effective was the artillery shoot. The large number of medium and 25-pounder guns on call to the division put down a terrific concentration on Escoville and its northern exits. The enemy got to within a hundred yards of the forward Regimental positions held by C and D Companies, but in the face of intense fire could advance no farther.
At about 2130 hrs he withdrew, leaving two Mark IV tanks on fire within a hundred yards of our positions. Four more tanks were destroyed at longer range and also two armoured cars, one of which was recovered from a ditch and used by D Company for some time. We were particularly pleased with our success in this action, as it levelled the score with our opponents from the 21st Panzer and 1st S.S. Divisions. They had scored in Escoville; we had scored in Herouvillette.
During the night of the 9th/10th June patrolling continued. Captain J. J. Molloy led a patrol into Escoville and came back with two prisoners. One, however, only counted as a “winged bird,” as the unfortunate fellow had been run over by one of his own tanks.
The country between Herouvillette and Escoville was ideal for snipers and until we got the upper hand we suffered several casualties. A great loss to the 52nd in this manner was that of Captain J. Marriott, G.M., who was killed whilst giving first aid to a wounded member of the patrol he was leading.
10th June.--On the morning of the 10th June the enemy attacked through Breville towards Ranville. Their path was blocked by the 13th Parachute Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Luard.
From our rear positions in Herouvillette we had an excellent view of the attack, which at first seemed to be directed at us. The enemy attacked westwards in about regimental strength across the open fields to Ranville. This was a very different form of attack from the one we had experienced the day before. It was carried out by infantry with scarcely any artillery or mortar support. From our position on the flank of the attack our medium machine guns and mortars were able to inflict considerable casualties on the enemy until they reached the cover provided by the gliders on landing zone N. For some time half our 3-inch mortars were firing south into Escoville and half north on the attacking enemy. The attack was broken up by the 13th Parachute Battalion, who waited till the enemy were at short range and then opened up with everything they had. The enemy losses were devastating.
Up to the 10th June the 52nd had suffered the following casualties:
OFFICERS June 6th: killed. Lieutenant H. D. Brotheridge;
wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel M. W. Roberts and Lieutenants D. J.Wood, C. A. Hooper, L. Nicholson and R. A. A. Smith.
June 7th: wounded, Lieutenants P. H. Godsal, R. N. Prince, D.M. Neale, M. Aston, P. S. Jones, C. H. Davis-Goff and P. G. Bulford.
June 8th: wounded, Lieutenant G. C. Chicken.
June 9th: wounded, Captain M. J. Brabner.
June 10th: killed, Captain J. Marriott, G.M.
SOLDIERS June 6th: killed, 2; wounded, 15; missing, 53. June 7th: killed, 10; wounded, 43; missing, 27. June 8th: Nil. June 9th: killed, 1; wounded, 29; missing, 9. June 10th:killed, 2; wounded, 10; missing, nil. Totals: 15 killed, 97 wounded, 89 missing.
11th June.--A report of large armoured forces moving from Caen in our direction caused considerable activity, especially in the fortification of chosen buildings. All civilians were evacuated from Herouvillette and the unlucky owners must have been disgusted when they returned to find their homes fortified, for this involved the removal of all glass and outside drainpipes, the wiring up of the lower floors and, in general, the destruction of all their amenities. The attack never materialized, although our patrols reported the presence of enemy armour in Escoville and a heavy artillery concentration was put down on our positions during the afternoon.
12th June.—This was a quiet day for the Regiment and except for normal patrol activity it gave us a chance to check up on administration. Some men were able to get improvised shower-baths, the first since leaving England.
During the day our fire plan was checked over by our forward observation officer, who fired a few harassing tasks. A forward officer, bombardment (F.O.B.), arrived and directed a number of salvoes into Escoville from a warship lying off the coast. The shells sounded like express trains as they passed over our heads and we were glad not to be at the receiving end.
During the evening we had a grandstand view of the battle for Breville. The attack was made by the 12th Parachute Regiment, a company of the 12th Devons and a squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, with full corps artillery support. This attack was successful but very costly. It closed the gap at Breville which had been the only part of the commanding ground, running from Le Plein in the north to the Bois de Bavent in the south, held by the enemy. This gap had been a thorn in the side of the divisional area and its capture denied the enemy observation into the area and on to the bridge over the River Orne (by now christened Pegasus Bridge after the divisional sign worn by all members of the division).
Our divisional commander, Major-General R. N. Gale, describes the battle for Breville as the turning point in the fight for the Orne bridgehead, for in this battle the 340th German Infantry Division was beaten and never put in another attack, but was content just to hold its positions in front of us and mortar the area we so thinly held. When the 52nd moved to Breville later on it was a mere shell of a village and the final battle there must indee have been, as the divisional commander described it, “a night hell.”
During this attack our brigade commander, Brigadier Hugh Kindersley, D.S.O., was wounded and evacuated.
1. The Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Chronicle, Vol 4: June 1944 - December 1945 Pages 81-87