61st at Thury-Harcourt
(Back Badge, 1948)
Early in August 1945, the Battalion, still with the 56th Brigade, came under command of the 59th Division, and the first task given to the Brigade was to enlarge the bridgehead over the river Orne. The Battalion crossed on 9th August and after overcoming local enemy resistance were ordered to carry out a night advance to enlarge the bridgehead still further. The advance was completely successful, but the following morning we came in for some heavy shelling, when Lieut-Col. D.W. Biddle was wounded by shrapnel. This was a great low to all of us, and Major J.K. Lance, who landed on D-Day as OC "A" Coy., now found himself in command of the Battalion.
The remainder of the 10/11th August was spent in digging in and patrolling, but on the night of 11/12th August the Battalion was concentrated with a view to attacking Thury-Harcourt on the 12th should conditions permit. Thury-Harcourt was a small town nestled among the hills and on the east bank of the river Orne. On the north there was a steep hill, and on the west lay a range of high hills on the far side of the river. The ground rose to the south fairly sharply in steps, while to the east the country was a succession of thick woods and valleys. Through the town from east to west ran a small stream, a tributary of the Orne, and the ground around was wooded, with the gardens thick with vegitation. Several main roads converged on the town, including the Caen road and that to Falaise. There was also an important bridge across the Orne on the northern outskirts of the town. It was important to take Thury-Harcourt at the earliest possible moment so that 21 Army Group could close the Falaise Gap.
12th August 1945. At 0900 hrs the CO received his orders to attack and capture the town, and owing to the complicated artillery plan it was essential that zero hour should not be later than 1200 hrs. Lack of time was one of the chief problems in this battle. The CO had insufficient time for adequate ground reconnaissance and all orders had to be given off the map without previous reconnaissance. The CO asked for more time for adequate reconnaissance, especially of the high ground to the west of the Orne, but no delay was permitted.
At 1100hrs the following orders were given: "Battalion plan: Double pincer encircling the town. "B" Company right. "A" Coy. left (plus 1 section Pioneers U/C). Start line: road Ferme du Hom-Croisilles. Primary objectives: "B" Coy., Orne bridge and line of houses, then chateau. "A" Coy. small bridge to north of town (including clearance of mines), then town square. Follow up by "D" Coy., plus squadron tanks of 34th Armoured Brigade. "D" Coy. to pass through "A" Coy. and clear the rest of the town. "C" Coy. to form firm base area Ferme de St. Silly and be prepared to move forward when ordered. Squadron tanks to shoot-up first objectives from 1200 to 1230 hrs and then lift on to second objectives. Supporting fire by Divisional artillery (3 field regimentsn and 1 medium regiment) Z minus 20 to Z to Z plus 10. Z= 1200 hrs."
The attack moved off according to plan. "A" Coy. were soon in difficulties. The enemy opened up with considerable Spandau and small-arms fire. No. 9 Platoon (Sergt. Nicholas) succeeded in securing the small bridge to the north of the town, and the section of Pioneers quickly moved all mines. This action was done under heavy fire that pinned No. 9 Platoon down and resulted in all the Pioneers becoming casualties. The enemy were well dug-in in commanding positions and were firing from the cellars and ground floors of houses. Major G. Wakefield, CO "A" Coy., committed his remaining 2 platoons (No. 8 under Sergt. W. Airey and No. 7 under Sergt. Benfield), but both were pinned down and suffered several casualties.
"B" Coy. (under Major Julian Fane) had moved in and the leading Platoon (No. 12 under Lieut. Bangs) had managed to seize the area of the Orne bridge; but the platoon was pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire. No. 11 Platoon then attacked and seized the line of houses. A machine-gun opened up on No. 12 Platoon from a mill. Major Fane, CSM Wright and L/Cpl. R. Harris, plus a Piat, then tried to get to the mill. They fired the Piat in the alley leading to the building and put down smoke from a 77 grenade, but enemy sniping prevented any movement down the alley. However, under cover of the confusion caused by this party, No. 12 Platoon managed to move off the open ground into positions on the edge of a wood, from which they could still cover the bridge. The mill route looked impassable so the Company Commander decided to reconnitre a new route through the gardens of the houses. While he was moving back, L/Cpl. Robert Harris was killed by a bullet from an enemy sniper which struck and exploded a 77 grenade he was carrying. Thus the company lost a grand soldier and one of the best snipers in the Battalion.
Major Fane then tried to get No. 10 Platoon (under Lt. Morgan) forward to attack the chateau, but communications by wireless were so hopeless in the wooded country that he had to send the CSM to fetch them up. At about this time the enemy began to open up with heavy mortars and a few 88-mm. These were firing so accurately that it soon became obvious that they had re-established O.P.s on high ground. Casualties soon began to mount up. The squadron of tanks which had moved off close behind the leading companies were held up at the top of the cliff, they were however, giving valuable long-range fire support. Major Lance decided to commit "D" Company to take over the area of the small bridge and enable "A" Coy. to move further east. The arrival of "D" Coy (under Major Chalmers) caused a fresh outburst of small-arms and mortar fire, but they succeeded in forming a link between "A" and "B" Companies.
The enemy mortar and artillery fire increased and we were unable to reply effectively. Our own 3-inch mortars and the squadron of tanks did their best, but no artillery support was available. "A" and "B" Coys began to run short of ammunition. A very fine effort by Capt. R.D. French (O.C. Carriers), who personally delivered 2 boxes of ammunition to "A" Coy. HQ under heavy fire, temporarily relieved the shortage. Shortly afterwards Capt. French was wounded by shrapnel. Stretcher-bearers from all 3 Companies were doing very gallant work. L/Cpl. Williams (attached "B" Coy.), Pte Watters (attached "D" Coy.) and Pte Gray (attached "A" Coy.) were outstanding.
The evening was drawing near and it was soon obvious that Thury-Harcourt could not be taken that day. The Battalion CO again stressed to the Brigade Commander that the town could not be captured until the hills overlooking it were cleared once and for all. He also pointed out that withdrawal was impossible without and effective smoke screen. Eventually at 1900 hrs the order to withdraw was received. Artillery, assisted by 4.2 mortars, put down a smoke screen over the town and the 3 Companies were extricated. Thury-Harcourt was left in flames. The Battalion withdrew to high ground north-east of the town and were in position by 2200 hrs.
The next day Sergt. Maclean led a strong patrol from "D" Coy. into the town, only to find that the Bosche had gone. The 61st moved in among the ruins of still burning buildings and occupied the town. It was reported by the French that the Germans had pulled out of the town at exactly the same moment as the 61s withdrawal had begun and that German casualties had been very high.
(Back Badge 1951)
The 2nd Gloucesters spent the 14th August 1944 among the ruins of Thury-Harcourt, with the Battalin HQ in the chateau area and the companies in a defensive ring round the town. The enemy's withdrawal had been complete, and was marked by unnecessary acts of destruction. The beautiful 17th century chateau was a smoking ruin. The town itself was an appalling mess and bore witness to the heavy fighting that had taken place two days before. On this day Major F.W.A. Butterworth, MBE (West Yorkshire Regt.) joined us and took command of the Battalion.
On 15th August we had orders to move from Thury-Harcourt to the area of Bas Breuil. We were now reserve battalion in the woods in which the 2nd Essex had seen some bitter fighting 5 days before. The next day was spent checking equipment. All ranks had a hot bath in a mobile bath unit and lectures were given on the "big picture" of the Normandy Campaign to date. At midday on the 17th August the Battalion had orders to take over an area of Pierrepont from the 177th Brigade. We embussed in TCVs at 1345 hrs and reached the assembly area by 1515 hrs. Some enemy, mainly snipers, were found in Les Loges Saulces and cleared out by "C" Coy. We remained in this area until the 19th, patrolling to the line of the river La Baise.
On 19th August our 56th Independent Brigade were taken from 59th Division and joined the 49th Division; under command of the Ist British Corps. The 61st were lifted in TCVs to Airan, where we rested until the 22nd August. We remained in the open for the 19th and 20th in an area swarming with mosquitoes which seemed to relish the anti-mosquito cream provided. On the 21st we occupied empty houses a mile or so back in Airan itself owning to torrential rain. About this time we were joined by a draft which included Captain J.L. Wood, Lieut. A.C. Machin, and 52 other ranks.
The Germans were now beating a hasty retreat to the River Seine. On 22nd August the 56th Brigade were ordered to move forward in TCVs to a concentration area around Bonnebosq. The intention was to move to Quilly-le-Comte, where a bridgehead over the river had been secured. 23rd August we moved forward at night but were shelled and forced to leave our vehicles. The Germans were holding Norolles and making any passage through Quilly-le-Comte difficult. The Battalion was ordered to infiltrate across the river in the dark and establish a base at Breuil-en-Auge. We set off at midnight and by 0300 hrs all companies had crossed the river and we marched along the main road and by 0900 hrs had reached our objective, having met no opposition.
We snatched a few winks during the morning and at 1530 hrs we were on the move again to take up a left flank protective position for the 2nd Essex, who were on the outskirts of Cormeilles. The Battalion are was lightly shelled in the evening. At 0900 hrs on the 25th August we set off for the river Risle. "D" Company came under fire on the main road from Epaignes. They attempted to close in on the village through close-wooded country intersected by paths. The German rearguards were fighting very well indeed. Their sighting of machine guns was good and they had good artillery and mortar support. "D" Coy. got close enough to exchange grenades and fighting continued until 1700 hrs. "D" Coy. suffered casualties and some of their platoons had become isolated. Meanwhile, "A" Coy. had moved round to the right and by 1345 hrs were to the south of the village. At 1700 hrs Colonel Butterworth decided to put in a Battalion attack to clear the village, which was now burning fiercely in some parts. "B" Coy. went in from the front and "A" from the rear, supported by tanks. By 1730 hrs the Germans had retreated. The 61st lost 12 killed and 41 wounded. They took 5 German prisoners and counted 48 enemy dead. The Battalin spent the night in the village.
During this time Major A.J.A. Argeon-Jones joined the Battalion and Lieut. W.E. Nicholas (Canadian Army) joined "B" Coy. On 26th August the Battalion made a short move forward and rested until the 28th August. At 0955 hrs on 28th we had moved up to cross the river at Pont Audemer and were ordered to proceed towards the Seine through the Foret de Brotonne. This was a very considerable forest. By that evening we had arrived at the outskirts of the forest at La Haye de Routot and so far all was clear. Patols that night, however, drew mortar and spandau fire.
At 0820 hrs the following day, 29th August, "A" and "B" Coys. were on the move and very quickly "A" Coy. drew fire. Close scrapping continued until midday, when it became obvious that we had been confronted by nothing more than MG and mortar teams who, as soon as they were pressed, withdrew fast. The advance continued, good progress was made and no further opposition met, although some mines were found. On the 30th August at 0930 hrs the Battalion reached the northern edge of the forest at La Mailleraye-sur-Seine. We were astonished at the chaos that was found in the wood. Masses of equipment had been hidden under thick foliage. Horses were running loose and by the river were many brewed up vehicles and tanks. There had not even been time for them to booby-trap this tempting array of souvenirs.
31st August was a day of rest. 3rd September some road parties went out while the Battalion crossed the river in DUKWs and assault boats. There was no sign of the enemy on the other side of the river. The Battalion then moved to Sainneville en route for Le Havre. That night we were in position by 2130 hrs on some high ground which gave us a good view of the approached to Le Havre, and we began intensive patrolling and planning for the capture of the fortress.