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Le Havre 1944

by Major A.H.R. Chalmers, MC
(Back Badge, 1947)

The 61st took over from the Hallams at Le Mont Rouge, about 3000 yards from the suburbs of Le Havre. There as a unit of the 49th Division, 1st Corps, we carried out all the preliminaries for an attack on the fortress. Much patrolling work had to be done to establish the exact enemy locations. One enemy post was "done to death" by a stout patrol led by 2nd Lieut. E.G. Smith and Sergt. Mardell. A minefield which extended right across the front of the enemy's position required a lane through it. This had to be mad without the enemy's knowledge. The RE, covered by patrols of the 61st, worked for 2 nights, but on the 3rd night the project was discovered by the enemy and had to be abandoned. Flails were introduced on D-Day in lieu.

The Intelligence section, under Lt. H.F. McAuley, constructed an excellent model of the area. We also had a supply of air photographs for study of the ground. The German garrison was 5000 strong. The outer defences consisted of inter-supporting pill-boxes and concrete emplacements. The pill-boxes looked like cottages or villas, all looking very innocent.

On D-2 the RAF began its programme. Heavy bombers in their hundreds were over. This was repeated on D-1. D-Day was 10th September, when suqadrons of Typhoons also visited the area. During the bombing the Battalion was withdrawn a mile back to Fontenay for safety purposes. The forces for the assault included artillery: 12 field regiments , 4 medium regiments, 2 heavy regiments; infantry, tanks, AVRE's, Crocodiles (flame-throwing tanks) and Flail tanks. The 56th Brigade (61st, 2nd SWB, and 2nd Essex) were to lead the assault. The 61st were given the honour of carrying out the initial assault.

At 1830, Sunday 10th Sept. the Flails started across the minefield, covered by a troop of Churchill tanks. Shortly after, "D" Coy. started across, to be followed by "A" and "B" Coys. "D" came under fire and among those killed was Major J.K. Lance, MC. But the assault went exactly to plan and the Battalion took all of it's objectives. The next phase was to be the 147th Brigade pushing on through the initial attack. However, they were held up by a mined road south of Montivilliers. On hearing this the CO asked for permission to push on. This was readily granted. We became a "mounted" battalion. "C" Coy. took the lead on Churchills and, we had a support section of carriers and a detachment of mortars. The Battalion reached the Place de Liberte, almost in the centre of the town. From here patrols were pushed forward and to the flanks. Civilians began to appear and the Free French also appeared in large numbers, and were most useful in getting prisoners to the rear.

When the advance continued in the evening "D" Coy. took the lead mounted on tanks. The leading tank was fired on by a 5.5cm gun from the fort. The fire was returned and a platoon under Lieut. Nicholas made a right flanking move to deal with it. But only the barrel appeared out of the fort and at close range this was damaged by Sergt. MacLean with 3 shots of a PIAT.

During the night there was little activity. Patrols examined the fort, but were not interfered with. Before dawn a German medical officer, who had been running a hospital in a tunnel now in No Man's Land, sent a French Red Cross orderly to contact the Battalion as he wished to surrender himself and his staff and and patients. Capt. H.J. Lovett accompanied the orderly and found 200 German patients in the tunnel.

That morning, "D" Coy. with its tanks prepared to attack the fort. But after the tanks and mortars bombarded the fort, a white flag was hoisted. The leading platoon entered the fort and found the garrison lined up in their hundreds, with baggage already packed. Also, 4 RAF men were found in the fort, along with 30 Algerians, 30 Italians and some French women. CQMS Burnett ("D" Coy) was quickly on the spot to take advatange of the fort's very well stocked cellar. He was hotly persued by all the other CQMS's.

The 61st advanced on to the sea, none of the Germans appaeared to have any fight left. As they approached it seemed to be the immediate signal for the surrender of any Germans in the area. The Battalion took some 1500 prisoners, including the Garrison Commander, the CRA, and the Admiral Commanding the fort. It was found that Le Havre had been prepared to withstand months of siege. The 61st withdrew to Notre Dame de Gravenchon the next day, where the overjoyed civilians welcomed the Battalion.


by Capt. H.H. Holgate
(Back Badge, 1981)

By 13th Sept. the battle for Le Havre - Operation Estonia - had resulted in a complete success. On the afternoon of the 13th we moved from Gravenchon to Notre Dame de Gravenchon about 20 miles due east of the port, four miles north of the Seine. We were billeted in small modern houses belonging to an American oil company, and set about in the next few days overhauling all vehicles and equipment. The rest, which lasted until the 18th Sept., was possibly the most enjoyable we had. On 18th Sept. the 61st, preceeded by Major Argeon-Jones and Capt. Cottingham with the advance party, moved in transport to a concentration area about 12 miles east of Dieppe, in the village of Grattepanche. We were joined here by Lieut. T.R. Davies, J.H.B. Couch and 2/Lts. T. Shaw, L. Morgan and R.J. Ellway. Major H.J. Lovett had taken over command of 'A' Coy. We stayed here for 3 days, during which a route march was carried out. At 0420 hrs on 22nd Sept. we set off in TCVs for Belgium to catch up with the front line. The Belgian border was crossed at 0820 hrs on 23rd Sept. and by night we were concentrated in Ichtegm, about 20 miles west of Ghent.

The Divisional plan now was that crossings over the Canal were to be seized by the forward brigades, then the 56th Brigade was to pass through 146th Brigade and swing right, advancing as right forward brigade. On 25th Sept. the 61st moved forward in preparation for this, and harboured in a a wood near Oostmalle. 146th Brigade were having trouble at the Canal, their small bridgehead being repeatedly counter-attacked by enemy battle groups. 'A' Coy. was moved forward during the night to lend a hand if needs be, but 146th Brigade established themselves and our company was withdrawn. On the following day the 2nd South Wales Borderers and the 2nd Essex crossed the canal, and heavily counter-attacked. We moved forward about one mile to Steenweg, in readiness to cross the canal and form a link between the SWB and Essex if necessary. At 1430 hrs we moved in TCVs to debus a few hundred yards short of the canal. With 'B' Coy. leading and supported by 2 troops of tanks, we crossed the R.E. bridge over the canal and set about the task of clearing a wooded area about one mile half-right from the crossing point. The country here was perfectly flat and open except for large but widely separated cultivations of fir trees. 'B' Coy. made good progress, and met no opposition until 1630 hrs, when a Spandau post was encountered. 'C' and 'D' Coys. then came forward on either side of 'B' Coy. and a general mopping-up process took place through the wood. Isolated Spandau posts and snipers were the only resistance met, and these were quickly cleared out. By 1900 hrs that evening the area was clear, 16 Germans known to have been killed and 1 officer and 17 ORs taken prisoner. A patrol of 'B' Coy. sent north to Blackheide, came in with a further batch of 16 prisoners.

We were relieved later that evening by the 7th Duke of Wellingtons, and marched to a concentration area about a mile to the west, just south of Ryckevorsel. The new commitment was to swing south the following morning towards the canal, clear up pockets of resistance, and secure a bridgehead one mile to the west of our original crossing place. The REs were due to build a bridge there on the night 27/28th, to enable a Canadian Armoured Brigade to cross and strike north. That night was quiet and the following morning at 1050 hrs 'A' Coy. moved forward as advance company. We had been shelled intermittently since 0700 hrs, suffering a few casualties and the loss of 1 A/Tank gun. 'A' Coy. passed along the road leading back to the canal, and were quickly on their objective, a group of houses on a smaller road about 100 yards west, having met no opposition. 'C' Coy. then pushed through and headed south-west, well spread out in this very open country, their supporting Canadian tanks moving with them. 'B' Coy. then came though, reached their objective, and finally at 1930 hrs 'D' Coy. moved to the brickworks by the canal. Here they did bump a single strongpoint, quickly attacked and the enemy ran up a white flag. During the rest of the patrolling was done. Altogether 117 Germans were found in buildings in the area and made prisoner.

On the night 27/28th Sept. the REs completed their bridge and the Bn remained in this area until the 30th Sept. patrolling extensively but meeting no enemy. Early on 1st October we took over St. Leoanrds from the Canadians to protect the supply route to the Canadian Brigade. We were in place by 0945 hrs, part of a very thin line. All was quiet that day, but from the 2nd onwards we came in for a fair amount of shelling and mortaring. Patrols were now encountering enemy posts to our front, and German patrols were becoming active. 2nd Lt. T. Shaw was wounded on patrol; he was brought in by a fighting patrol from 'A' Coy. but later died of his wounds.

Two Battalion snipers, setting out from Chateau D'Yeuse (held by 2 Platoon, 'A' Coy.), forward of our main position, saw a German enter a house. They made their way to the rear of this house, searched some rooms with no result, but found one German enjoying a wash in an outhouse. They grabbed him and got him back unobserved. On interrogation the prisoner stated that there was an officer and 20 men in the house, and indicated another occupied by the enemy. A stonk was laid on and both houses were flattened. Capt. D. Fosdick and Lt. H. Roberts joined us at St. Leonards. On the 7th Oct. our positions at St. Leonards were taken over by a composite group got together to "plug the line" named Bobforce, freeing us up to take over Aarle from the Hallams. Aarle turned out to be a very hot spot. The area was under enemy observation and we were subjected to heavy shelling and mortaring. On the first night enemy patrols were very active. At first light on the following daya cool Bren gunner in 'A' Coy. forward platoon allowed a small enemy patrol to approach within five yards before he opened fire. Two Germans killed as a result were identified as Herman Goering Division troops. Enemy shelling continued and our guns were very busy also. From 1500 to 1600 hrs on the 8th Oct. they fired between 10 and 12,000 rounds into enemy gun areas.

On 11th Oct. we were relieved by the 2nd SWB, except for 'A' Coy. as the SWB could only muster 3 companies. We moved to Poppel and remained there from 12th to 17th October; 'A' Coy. rejoined us on the 14th. Capt. D.I. Grant, Lt. C. Walter and 2nd Lt. A.J. Thacker joined us in this area. On the 18th we took over the positions from Bobforce. At 0700 hrs on the 20th Oct. we were ordered to advance, supported by tanks and artillery. 'B' Coy. were to move to Kloester, 'C' Coy. to Het. 'A' and 'D' were then to push through to Dorens. During the advance Major A.H.R. Chalmers, MC ('D' Coy.) was wounded by a mortar bomb fragment and had to be evacuated to England. On the 22nd 'A' Coy. moved into Dorens. On 23rd we pulled back once more to St. Leoanrds and next day relieved a Canadian unit at Esschen. We remained there only one day and then prepared for an attack on Nispen on the 26th. This started at 1120 hrs on the 26th Oct. Although enemy shelling was heavy, however the village was captured by 1525 hrs. Major C.L.C. Roberts and Capt. F.P. Thompson joined us on this day, the former taking command of 'D' Coy.

The 27th and 28th were spent in patrolling to investigate the small river Molen Beek. On 28th a fighting patrol from 'A' Coy. moved into the village of Borteldenk and a bridge was constructed by sappers for the Bn to cross by 1800 hrs. About a mile ahead was the town of Roosendaal, which appeared to be heavily defended. Patrols went out on the 29th to check the enemy positions. But the Germans withdrew from the town and on 30th Oct. 56 Brigade advanced. The 61st advanced on to Oud Gastel, which was also clear of enemy troops. On 31st Oct. patrols pushed towards Stampersgat. The Germans blew up the dykes in the area and flooded the plains.

Night of 2nd Nov. a fresh attack was to take place. But now the only approach was by a road flanked by shoulder high water. Just before the attack a single enemy shell landed on Bn HQ, mortally wounding Col. Butterworth, DSO and wounded Capt. P. Burton, MC. At 1900 hrs on 2nd Nov. 'A' Coy., covered by a very heavy barrage, moved up the road towards the Bund. The barrage lifted at the last moment and 'A' Coy. overran the enemy Spandau post at the top of the road before it come into action. 'B' Coy. followed through and into the village. 'D' and 'C' Coys moved through and secured the outksirts of the village. 'C' Coy. advanced on the large sugar factory and fighting continued into the early hours of the 3rd Nov. when the position was secured. However, a platoon of 12 men under Lt. Cough had vanished. Later it was found that they had been surrounded and captured during the confused fighting at night. They were marched away and locked in a cellar, but were recovered by British troops just 5 days later.