Engagements - 1944
During 1944 the 7th Armoured Division was involved in the following battles and campaigns. These include thePreparations in England for the Normandy landings, The Normandy Campaign (including Villers-Bocage, The Battle of the Brigade Box, Operation Goodwood, Operation Spring, Operation Bluecoat (Mont Picon) and the Breakout for the Seine.
Belgium and Holland, (including The Liberation of Ghent, Clearing the Maas and Guarding the Maas)
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Preparations in England
England in January 1944, was a very different place to that many of those who had started the war already in North Africa, had last seen at least fours earlier. The huts in Norfolk, let in the wind, it was wet and bitterly cold, especially for the veterans of the long desert war.
Most of the Division were stationed in an around the Mundford, the Thetford forest and Swaffham areas of Norfolk, while the 11th Hussars had left the Division under an order from General Montgomery, who wanted all armoured car reconnaissance regiments under Corps command instead of the individual divisions. Although based at Ashridge Park, Berkhamstead, 11th Hussars did exercise with the Division in April 1944. It was while in the UK that 'D' Squadron was officially added to 11th Hussars strength. In practice this was to have little effect as 11th Hussars worked closely with the Division in Normandy and eventually rejoined it later. As previously mentioned the Division was in Norfolk, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade in Nissan huts at High Ash Camp north of Mundford (where the Divisional Memorial is now), with its HQ at Cockley Cley, while 3rd RHA were to the north near Swaffham and 5th RHA nearby the tanks, to the south, at Cranwich Camp and 1st Rifle Brigade close by at Dixon's West Camp, Ickburgh. The 15th (IOM) LAA Regiment was spread out with their RHQ at Morley Hall, Wymondham, while 1 LAA Bty was at Hargam Hall, Attleborough, 41 LAA Bty at Uplands House, Diss, (now part of Diss High School) and 42 LAA Bty, at Moss Manor, Gissing, near Diss. Click here for a list of all the unit locations in the Spring of 1944.
As part of the re-fit all the Tank regiments were given the newCromwell tank, armed mainly with a 75mm gun, but with some 6-pdr versions. To strengthen their capability against the German Tiger and Panther tanks each troop had 1 Sherman Firefly, armed with a 17-pdr gun, along with the three Cromwells. The 7th Armoured Division was the only division to be fully equipped with the Cromwell, with the others having either all Shermans or a mixture of both. The Cromwell was a fast reliable tank, although still under gunned, but had the advantage of not 'brewing up' as easily as the Sherman. Its engine was fitted with a governor, which was soon removed to give speeds of upto 50 mph. The Crusader Anti-Aircraft tank also made an appearance now, with it being armed with 2 x 20mm Oerlikons Cannon and its role was to provide armoured anti-aircraft protection for the tank regiments.
The 8th Hussars (based at West Tofts) became the Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment for the Division and were also equipped with Cromwells in the three Squadrons, and with Stuarts for their Recce troops of the HQ Squadron. They too were also issued with Crusader Anti-Aircraft tanks.
The artillery regiments were also re-equipped, with 5th RHA receiving theSexton self-propelled gun, so it could provide direct support to the tanks. 3rd RHA and 15th LAA Regiment received new 25-pdr and Bofors Guns respectively, with the latter also including 18 lorry mounted versions for 41 LAA battery. The Norfolk Yeomanry, were located with their RHQ and 257 and 260 Btys at Kimberly Hall near Wymondham, with 258 Bty billeted in Attleborough and 259 Bty in Wymondham itself. They received Achilles (M10 - 17 pdr) and Wolverine (M10 - US 76mm) Tank Destroyers, which equipped the 260 and 258 Batteries, respectively, along with towed 17-pdr anti-tank guns for 257 and 259 batteries. During this period all the artillery regiments were inspected by H.M. King George IV at Sandringham. The Norfolk Yeomanry was had arrived back in the UK almost 3 years to the day after they had departed for Egypt and although it was back in Norfolk and really home, a large number of those who had left 3 years before were either dead or prisoner, and the Regiment was no longer made up almost exclusively of Norfolk men.
The Queen's Brigade and Rifle Brigade were supplied withM3 or M5 Half Tracks to provide more protection from small arms fire, while 11th Hussars were given the large Staghound armoured car. The latter was not really suited to narrow lanes of Northern Europe, so when ever possible they still used their Humber cars instead.
Much training took place during the time before the Normandy landings, but in early May 1944 the Division moved to its assembly areas near the embarkation ports. The 22nd Armoured Brigade moved to the grounds of Orwell Park School, near Ipswich, Suffolk, where waterproofing of the tanks and other preparations for the invasion of Normandy were completed ready for embarkation at Felixstowe, while the rest of the division moved the Tilbury, Essex, or East London, ready to embark at Tilbury docks. 11th Hussars and 5th RHA found themselves in the West Ham Dog Stadium. Meanwhile, the 8th Hussars had moved to the south coast ready to embark from Gosport. On the 3rd June 1944 all the tanks of 22nd Armoured Brigade moved by road to Felixstowe Docks where they were loaded on to LCT's (Landing Craft Tanks) and the whole Division had embarked and were ready to sail, by 4th June the Division. The next day, 5th June 1944, the Division set sail for Normandy.
And sail they did, with 4th CLY landing on the evening of 6th June 1944, on Gold Beach near Arromanches. The rest of the Division followed them, later that night and into the morning of 7th June and for several days afterwards. They were marshalled of the beach by Royal Navy Beachmasters, along white taped lanes, cleared of mines. The 8th Hussars were not far behind sailing on 9th June 1944 to be in Normandy as part of the Division ready for its first actions.
The 7th Armoured Division had arrived in Normandy, to face their old adversaries Field Marshall Rommel and the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Some very hard fighting lay ahead of them.
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Although 7th Armoured Division was not involved in the assault elements of 22nd Armoured Brigade started landing on the evening of 6th June (D-Day itself) the entire brigade was not ashore until the evening of 7th June. They started to assemble behind their old friends from the Desert, the 50th Division. The Queen's Brigade did not complete their arrival until 12th June, due to the great storm causing problems with landing in the beaches or via the Mulberry harbours. By then 5th RTR had already assisted 56th Brigade in the close bocage countryside. One tank commander actually had to fight of German infantry who had jumped onto the top of his tank from the high banks. This was something that had never happened in the desert!
The area of Normandy the Division was to start fighting in as the Calvados region, south of the Bay of the Seine. It could be divided into to parts. The open campagne area south and south east of Caen, with rolling fairly open country side and the close bocage area to the south and south west of Bayeux. In 1944 this bocage was a maze of small, high-banked fields, thick copses and woods, narrow lanes and steep sided valleys. Visibility was usually no more than 50 yards. This was not ideal tank country as the Germans could easily lay in wait and ambush the armour with their Panzerfaust infantry anti-tank weapons.
On 10th June 22nd Armoured Brigade, 5th RHA, along with 8th Hussars and some Queen's infantry were ordered to advance on Tilly-Sur-Seulles, with 4th CLY in the lead. The enemy was first encountered at a small hamlet called Jerusalem, where a Panzer IV was knocked out by 4th CLY, before advancing onto Buceels, but the infantry sustained a number of casualties and the advance stopped there for a while.Click here to view the Divisional Order Of Battle at this time.
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Villers-Bocage: By 12th June all the Queen's Brigade was ashore and when the Division was ordered to advance and take the village of Villers-Bocage, they joined the advance. On 13th June, with 'A' Squadron, 4th CLY in the lead, with 'A' company of the Rifle Brigade accompanying them, they passed through Villers-Bocage and halted at point 213 to the east of the town on the road to Caen. Behind them were the Recce troop in Stuarts, the Regimental HQ (RHQ) was in the town, then 'B' Squadron and finally 'C' Squadron to the west of it. Meanwhile the rest of the division was between Villers-Bocage and Tracy-Bocage, or still advancing from the North West. The object of the advance was to be able to swing round an attack Caen from the west. Unfortunately, the Germans knew the importance of Villers-Bocage and had sent the Panzer Lehr Division to occupy the area and then to allow 2nd Panzer Division to pass through and attack the Americans further west.
Despite various reports of German troops in the area by the 11th Hussars, within a few hundred yards of where 'A' Squadron, 4th CLY was stopped was II Kompanie, 101st (SS) Heavy Tank Battalion. This unit was equipped with Tiger tanks and commanded by Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann - a veteran of the Eastern Front in Russia. The British had stopped for an officers conference and while this was happening tea was being brewed. The first 'A' Squadron, 4th CLY and 'A' company, Rifle Brigade, knew was a tank at the head of the column being destroyed by an 88mm shell. Next a vehicle at rear was destroyed, effectively trapping the advance units. Wittmann then proceeded down the road into Villers-Bocage where he effectively destroyed RHQ, before withdrawing to re-arm and refuel. At this point a 6-pdr anti-tank gun knocked out Wittmann's Tiger. He escaped and returned shortly afterwards with four more Tigers and a Panzer IV. A fierce battle ensued in the town with the British tanks in the town, firing by sighting down the barrel because of the short range. A number of tanks from both sides were destroyed, with some of the German ones even being set on fire by the British with petrol. The 1/7th Queen's slowly fought their way into Villers-Bocage and went "Tiger hunting" with theirPIATs, while 6-pdr anti-tank guns waited to ambush any German tank that moved around the town.
Meanwhile the men of 4th CLY and Rifle Brigade at Pt 213 were effectively cut of and although the artillery spotters from 5th RHA were able to call down supporting fire, they could not find a way out, as by now Panzer Grenadiers were all around the position. Eventually only about 30 men would make it out of Pt 213 to rejoin the Division. To the west of Villers-Bocage 1/5th Queens had taken up positions to the east of Tracy-Bocage, along with 5th RHA. Here they were attacked by two battalions of Panzer Grenadiers and some tanks. The fighting was again very fierce with 'CC' Battery, 5th RHA engaging the enemy over open sights and withBren Guns. Even the cooks and storemen joined the battle. During this part battle the Panzer Grenadiers suffered severe causalities and eight Panzer IV tanks were knocked out. In Villers-Bocage itself 1/7th Queens lost 8 officers and 120 men, while destroying nine German Tanks.
By evening Villers-Bocage was in British hands, however, the Division was out on a limb, as a push by 50th Division down from Tilly-Sur-Seulles had been halted by the Panzer Lehr Division. So with the Germans bring up fresh troops during the night of 12th/13th June the Division gradually withdrew to form a "Brigade Box" south of the town of Amaye-Sur-Seulles, to the west.
Click here to go to the Villers-Bocage Commemoration page.
Click here to see the Division's Memorial in Villers-Bocage.
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The Battle of the Brigade Box: During the day as the British withdrew there was sporadic fighting which petered out by nightfall on 13th June. By the morning of 14th June the Division had formed itself in what was known as a Brigade Box - a formation much used in the desert where each unit could provide support to the others involved. However, this position was still in advance of the main allied lines.
On the German side, the British position was being assessed and they realised that 7th Armoured Division was out on limb. Although the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division was pushing hard in the Tilly area, the staff of the Panzer-Lehr Division decided that could halt the British advance and also attack the Brigade Box. So during the night of 13th June the Germans moved up their reinforcements, a task made easier by the poor weather of the late afternoon and early evening which had prevented the allied air forces from intervening. Also more units of 2nd Panzer Division were staring to get into position, although the Panzer Regiment itself was still some way from the front.
All available cover was used and within the perimeter were the remaining two squadrons of 4th CLY, 8th Hussars, 11 Hussars, 5th RTR, 1/5th and 1/7th Queens, 1st Rifle Brigade and 5th RHA. Behind the "Box" covering the single road to Livry, were 1st RTR and 1/6th Queens. The 4th CLY were positioned amongst some scattered house in Amaye, near the 22nd Armoured Brigade TAC HQ, with C Squadron being forward of the main position. The 8th Hussars were also within the perimeter, while 11th Hussars were patrolling to try and find out where the Germans were and what their movements were. The forward, eastern, edge of the 'Box' was formed along a sunken road and manned by 1/7th Queens, with 5 RTR covering both flanks. 1/5th Queens manned positions along the southern edge of the perimeter. 1 Rifle Brigade covered the northern flank, on the top edge of the 'Box'. The Division was also supported by artillery from 50th Division to the north, an US artillery battalion to the west, plus the guns of AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery). The position was overlooked by higher ground on three sides and due to the country side the effective range at which the enemy could be spotted was 50-100 yards.
At first light an air attack by rocket firing typhoons swept in to harry the Germans, boosting morale as it did so. To the north of the box 'I' Company, 1st Rifle Brigade spotted some enemy movement in a wood and duly called down an artillery bombardment from AGRA and by the time it had finished the wood had effectively vanished along with most of it's occupants. At 09:00 hours 1/7th Queen's reported German infantry to the east, which were engaged by 5th RHA and 1/7th Queen's mortars as they were too close to the British lines for the other artillery units to fire on safely. However, the German advance continued, so at 10:00 hours 5th RTR sent out a patrol to engage the infantry closer. As the German advance was exclusively made up of infantry, the tanks were able to wreck havoc with their machine guns, with the Panzer Grenadiers being mown down in ranks as they advanced. Even the battle hardened tank crews were horrified at the slaughter. At one time the Germans managed to overrun a position held by a forward of the 1/5th Queens on the left flank, but a counter-attack from 'C' Company 1/5th Queens and supported by artillery was organised and soon the Queens reported the position had been retaken, by 10:40 hours. Later on at about 14:00 the positions held by 1/7th Queens were bombarded heavily forcing one of their company's to withdraw slightly.
By now there were reports of enemy activity all around the 'Box' with regular mortar attacks being received and as the day carried on various other attacks were made by the Germans on all sides of the "box". Although the position was in a strategic situation, being relatively easy to defend while inflicting heavy causalities on the attackers the British high command decided that the Division should withdraw to straighten the front line, as 50th Division were unable to make much progress in the Tilly area. This was to be accomplished during the night of 14th June, being called 'Operation Aniseed'.
Early in the evening the order for the withdrawal to commence at 23:15 hours was being passed down to all the units, just as various units in the 'Box' reported signs of of an imminent German attack. This took the form of two Panzer Grenadier battalions, supported by some tanks to the south with small company size units on either side of the main force to prevent reinforcements being moved in to the area of the main attack. At about 20:00 hours the attack fell upon 1/5th Queens, accompanied at the first time that day a sustained attack by German artillery, which was mainly against the positions held by 1/7th Queens. At this time another attack a group of Panzer Grenadier and Tanks attacked the northern part of the box where 1st Rifle Brigade were, but made no progress. By now the demands on the services of 5th RHA were so great, it split its fire down into its component batteries, with G' Battery firing over open sights on the Panzer Grenadiers as they advanced on the southern site of the 'Box', coming with 400 yards of the guns. 'K' Battery, fired mainly to the east, while further back 'CC' Battery supported the south. During the day 'G' Battery alone fired 244 HE and 89 smoke shells and support was also provided by 155mm guns from US 1st Division near Caumont.
This attack nearly reached Brigade HQ before being repulsed and the fighting died down by 22:30 hours. A watch was kept in case further attempts to disrupt the withdrawal were made and as a precaution the withdrawal was postponed for an hour. In spite of the ferociousness of the German attack, British causalities were relatively light, with 5th RTR being the only unit to loss any armour, with this being only three Cromwells. However the Germans had suffered badly with up to 20 tanks and hundreds of dead or wounded Panzer Grenadiers laying in or around the Brigade Box.
At 00:30 hours, the exhausted Brigade, having been in almost constant action for the last three days, began to pull out. This was covered by an RAF bombing raid on Aunay-sur-Odon and an artillery barrage to cover the noise of the vehicles. The last units to leave were a contingent of 1/7th Queens riding on the back of tanks from 5th RTR, with the infantry almost asleep as they went. However, due to the actions over 13th/14th June 2nd Panzer Division was no longer an effective fighting formation and it had also been prevented from attacking the Americans flank. The Division now moved to positions east of Caumont, where it remained until the end of June.
On 30th June the Division withdrew to an area near Jerusalem to a rest and re-fit, as casualties had had exceeded 1,000 men. There were comments at the time that the Division did not function well and that it had lost it's flair, but it should be remembered that most of the men had now been fighting for over 3 years and they had become cautious old soldiers. Additionally, the bocage country was alien to everything they had experienced in the past, including their time in Italy. Also most of the other Divisions in Normandy then were fresh from training and "eager to the fray", unlike the veterans of 7th Armoured, 50th (Northumbrian) and 51st (Highland) Divisions, plus 4th and 8th Armoured Brigades, all of whom had long since realised that war held no glamour, but was a nasty bloody, business instead. Some even considered the 7th Armoured and 51st (Highland) Divisions a law unto themselves due to their apparent lack of discipline. However, the Division would soon be able to show what it was made of again. NB. There are occasions when the old 8th Army, then in Italy, is referred to as D-Day dodgers, but Montgomery had brought the old 30th Corps to fight in Normandy as they were some of the most experienced troops in the British Army at that time.
The Division did not take part in 'Operation Epsom' - the next attempt to take Caen - which fell to the three newly, arrived armoured divisions of 8th Corps. The offensive lasted from 26th June to 1st July and although it did succeed in pushing the beachhead as far south as the River Odon, it cost over 4,000 men. So having tried twice to attack Caen from the west, Montgomery decided the next assault would be on the east of the city. This was to be called Operation Goodwood and was to start on 18th July 1944.
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Operation Goodwood: The plan was for the 11th Armoured, the Guards Armoured and 7th Armoured Divisions to move across the Orne river and increase the size of the bridgehead on the far bank, plus to engage and destroy as much of the German armour as possible. The British would then advance onto Falaise. Although the country to the east of the River Orne was not bocage, there were few suitable bridge over which the armour could cross. This meant that each division had to advance in Brigade columns one after the other, which was not an ideal formation for three armoured divisions to mount a surprise attack from.
The Division moved up from Jerusalem to positions north and north west of Caen on 17th July and found that 11th Hussars had temporarily returned, for this forthcoming attack. Thus, as in the past the 11th Hussars led 7th Armoured Division across the Orne river bridges on 18th July. Shortly after 5th RTR met German tanks at Cuvervilles, losing six tanks, while 11th Armoured Division lost over 100. On 19th July, 5th RTR engaged Tiger and Panther tanks at Bourguebus, where despite heavy shell and congested roads they took the town on 20th July, along with 1st Rifle Brigade. On the same day 4th CLY reached the Caen-Falaise road near Bras. The weather then broke and torrential rain turn the ground to mud, so the Division concentrated near Demouville. They remained there for eight days, being heavily shell all the time. Thus 'Operation Goodwood' ground to a halt in the mud, in front of the defences and artillery of Bourguebus Ridge, however, the attacks had drawn a lot of the German forces away from the American front - which went unappreciated by those who fought at Goodwood. Although the Division did suffer losses during the Goodwood battles, the worst casualties were mainly suffered by 11th Armoured and Guards Armoured Divisions. The lighter losses were partially due to the experience of tank warfare the Division had gained from its long years of battle.
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Operation Spring: This was in support of the 2nd Canadian Corps, as a combined infantry and tank assault down the main Caen-Falaise road, being effectively an extension of Operation Goodwood. The attacked started on 29th July with 2nd Canadian Division on the right flank, with 7th Armoured Division supporting 3rd Canadian Division, which were heading for Verrieres.
As usual an air bombardment and artillery preceded the attack, but the Germans had 1st SS Panzer Division on the ridge with a 100 tanks, plus a battle group from 2nd Panzer Division. The Canadians suffered heavy casualties, particularly The Canadian Black Watch, the Fusiliers Mont Royal and the Calgary Highlanders. During the battle 4th CLY, with the aid of Typhoons, destroyed five German tanks and Self propelled guns, with their Fireflies, with 1/5th Queens moving towards Beauvoir farm, while 1/6th and 1/7th Queens were north of the town of Ifs.
On the night of 26th/27th July the Germans counter attacked in the Verrieres area, but these were driven off with the help of artillery fire from 3rd and 5th RHA. Eventually, Verrieres and Tilly-la-Campagne were taken at great cost to the Canadians, with 7th Armoured remaining in defensive positions in the area. 5th RTR were with 4th Canadian Brigade at Verrieres, 4th CLY across the Caen-Falaise road, with 1st RTR in reserve and the Queen's Brigade held a triangle at Tilly-la-Campagne, Soliers and Hubert-Folie. The latter were often attacked by fighter-bombers at night and shelled at all hours of the day, which did cause heavy casualties to 1/5th Queens as they received 1,500 shells each day, in the Beauvoir farm and Ifs area.
The 9th Canadian Brigade relieved the Queen's Brigade, on 28th July, and the Division was then ordered to rejoin 30 Corps. On 29th July 4th CLY were ordered to leave their tanks at Carpiquet airfield and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (the 'Skins'), joined the Division to replace them. 4th CLY left the Division to be amalgamated with its sister regiment, 3rd CLY, to form a new unit 3rd/4th CLY as both regiments had suffered heavy losses in the campaign.
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Operation Bluecoat: On 30th July, 11th Hussars finally rejoined the Division and remained with it until the end of the war and the Division then moved forward to Caumont. On the morning of 1st August, in thick mist, the Division saw action again as it advanced towards Aunay-sur-Audon, but became entangled with the traffic of 50th Division, who were also using the same roads. As they were fighting through Rommel's fortified villages, two days later the Division were still 5 miles short of their original object of Aunay-sur-Audon, although 11th Armoured Division were making good progress towards Vire. During the afternoon of 3rd August the German 326th Division counter attacked and fierce fighting took place around Aunay-sur-Audon, where both the Queen's infantry and 5th RTR suffered heavy casualties. The 5th RTR was engaged by several Tigers, Panthers and Panzer MK IV's and 'A' & 'B' squadrons were nearly annihilated. On that day 1/6th Queen's suffered 150 casualties, 1/7th Queen's 35 casualties and the Norfolk Yeomanry lost three guns, with 35 casualties.
On 4th August, 8th Hussars relieved 5th RTR, but progress was still slow, due to the minefields protected by anti-tank guns, but 11th Hussars finally met up with 69th Brigade of 50th Division south of Villers-Bocage. The main armoured thrust was then redirected to La Poste, a few miles west of Villers-Bocage. The plan was to move south and then outflank Aunay, which was now in ruins, which fell to 50th Division the next day. By 6th August the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were below Mont Picon and they waited in support as during the night of 6th/7th August 1/7th Queens attacked, gaining a foothold on the plateau on top. Meanwhile the 43rd Wessex Division, with tanks from 13th/18th Hussars, also worked their way up the hill, via an old farm track. During the attack SS troops stripped to the waist came shouting and screaming at them, only to be stopped by the Vickers Machine Guns of the Northumberland Fusiliers. The battle for Mont Picon was hard as the Germans had over forty 88mm and 75mm guns on the top to defend it, of which three 88mm and a 75mm were captured, along with 142 prisoners. During the battle the RHA had provided good artillery support, clearing the way for the Queen's in specific areas as required. The Germans counter attacked at 07:00 on the morning of 7th August, but this was driven of with the assistance of the RHA and it should be noted that during the battle the RHA fired 600 rounds per gun in a twelve hour period.
By 7th August Mont Picon had been captured and General Horrocks, the commander of 30 Corps established his command post on the top. The slops of Mont Picon offered excellent views of the surrounding countryside and he wanted to launch an attack by two columns of infantry and tanks towards Conde, ten miles away. Neither column got very far as they met stiff opposition, with the countryside being too thick for the tanks to work well. So the advance halted.
By the evening of 9th August the ridge from Aunay, via Mont Picon, to La Vallee was in British hands, so all the Division, excluding the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and 3rd and 5th RHA, withdrew to near Aunay where some of them were entertained by George Formby. The Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and RHA stayed to support the 43rd Division with the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards engaged in a brief action supporting 5th Wiltshire's to capture the high ground at Le Jardin-la-Vadiere.
During Operation Bluecoat, Montgomery had ordered to push on regardless of casualties and this had certainly been heeded. The Division had suffered another 523 casualties, which with the 1,000 since the end of Goodwood left many units well below strength. A good example of this were rifle companies of 1/6th Queens which totaled 8, 15, 40 and 55 men of all ranks, instead of the normal compliment of 450. Reinforcements soon arrived from 59th Infantry Division, which was being broken up, but the Queen's still remained under strength.
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Breakout for the Seine: During the second week of August, the Allied Armies managed to pin the German forces into an area known as the Falaise Pocket. The fighting was desperate, but the Germans managed to keep the 'flap' of the pocket open while a number of units escaped, but massed artillery and air strikes did terrible damage to those that remained. The Falaise Pocket became a mass of burning tanks and vehicles, dead and injured men and since the Germans still used horse transport, hundreds of dead horses. On 15th August, while the Falaise Pocket was still being closed, the Division moved to join the 1st Canadian Army, for an advance on the Seine, a distance of about 75 mile. With the German front collapsing 7th Armoured Division was on the move again, sweep through the campagne countryside to that of Picardy.
The countryside between the Orne and the Seine is not like the bocage to the west of Caen, but rather it is open and rolling, with a series of rivers, none of which are very wide. However, the rivers were still wide enough to provide good defensive positions when necessary. The Division advanced on 17th August, with of course 11th Hussars in the led, with the Queen's Brigade and 8th Hussars in support. The Luftwaffe was still active at night, but on the 18th the River Vie was crossed near Livarot, with the town being captured on the 20th. 1/6th Queen's and the engineers were greeted by the townsfolk waving flowers and bottles of wine. The bridge over the Vie was strengthened to allow the 22nd Armoured Brigade to cross that afternoon and they were soon advancing on the road to Lisieux, towards the River Touques. There a bridge was found intact and on 21st August the advance continued, despite small groups of German troops and tanks attacking periodically, plus the normal hazards from mines and booby-traps. Some of the tanks were Tigers from 12th SS Panzer Division.
The town of Lisieux was strongly held, but did eventually surrender on the morning of the 23rd, having been attacked by 1/5th Queens and the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. The Division was aided in its attack by 51st Highland Division. Meanwhile 1/7th Queens had skirted the town to post some men on the banks of the River Orbiquet. The 11th Hussars, managed to make their way through the town on 24th August, with 22nd Armoured Brigade following them shortly afterwards, and they enjoyed a 10 mile run to the River Risle down the main Route National, waved on by groups of cheering Frenchmen. When they got to the river all the bridges were down, but after advance 26 miles in two days the Division was in top form, so they searched immediately to find a way across the river. Here the Divisional Bulldozer proved it's worth by clearly rubble from blocked streets and filling in craters, in order to allow the Division to continue its advance. The Inniskilling's found a bridge near Montfort and the Scout troop found another in good repair at Pont Authou, which meant that rest of 22nd Armoured Brigade were across the Risle that afternoon.
For the next three days the Division pushed on across rolling wooded country, between the Risle and the Seine, taking many prisoners in a series of short actions against small pockets of German troops. By the evening on 28th August, the Division reached the Seine by the Foret de Bretonne. They had come a long way in the last few weeks, suffering spiritual and physical problems, but now they were in real fighting form again.
Over the years some people have referred to the 8th Army as the "D-Day dodgers", but (as my own father - 5th RHA - politely, but firmly, pointed out to someone who said this at the D-Day Commemorations in 1994) the men of 7th Armoured, 50th Northumbrian and 51st Highland Divisions, had come back, from Italy and North Africa, to Britain to fight their way out of Normandy. Many had been killed and many wounded, but now the frontiers of France and Belgium, with Holland and Germany beyond, lay before them.
Of the original fourteen German infantry and ten Panzer Divisions, who had been fighting in Normandy, only about 65,000 men and 115 tanks escaped, to try and re-group across the Seine. By 25th August the Free French, under General Le Clerc, had re-captured Paris and by the 30th Patton's Americans were in Sedan and Verdun. The war in Europe had just seven long months to go, but now was time for the Desert Rats' 'Great Swan'.
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Belgium and Holland
Ahead lay the process of Liberating the rest of Europe, starting with Belgium, with the cities of Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent. It was the latter which was to fall to 12th Corps and 7th Armoured Division, while the former two were to be the prizes for 11th Armoured and Guards Armoured Divisions, of 30th Corps. Meanwhile, the Canadians were to move up the coast liberating the channel ports and destroying the V1 sites as they went.
Liberation of Ghent: For this task the Division was bolstered by the attachment of 4th Armoured Brigade and 10th (Medium) Regiment, Royal Artillery, along with the Royals. These three units were already fighting north east of the Seine, which gave the Division a bridgehead for their advance onto Ghent. The advance began on 31st August, on a two brigade front, 4th Armoured Brigade and Royals on the right, with 22nd Armoured Brigade and 11th Hussars on the left, with the Queen's brigade in reserve. As the advance started, so did the rain and with only two bridges over which to cross traffic congestion immediately caused problems, with it taking 3rd RHA ten hours to cover just eighteen miles. However, once the Division was across the river, the speed of advance quicken and by 09:00 on 1st September, 11th Hussars were halfway to the Somme, encountering small groups of the enemy armed with machine guns and Panzerfausts which caused many casualties. The Inniskilling's made a run of 72 miles on the first day of the advance, encountering the first enemy roadblock after 19 hours, at Abancourt. This was duly cleared by the Rifle Brigade. The 4th Armoured Brigade reached the Somme on the 31st, only meeting scattered pockets of resistance on the way.
The crossing of the Somme proved very difficult as all the bridges in the Divisions area had been blown up, except for one at Hangest, which then collapsed as the first Squadron of the Scots Greys tried to cross it. The Royals and 44th RTR of 4th Armoured Brigade did get across near Amiens and aBailey bridge was flung across by 4th Field Squadron RE, near Picquigney, five miles to the west. The advance then continued to the next river obstacle the Authie, where stiffening resistance was met from German companies and battalions. By now the Division was so far ahead of Corps HQ, it had lost radio contact. On 2nd September, 4th Armoured Brigade and the Royals reverted back to the command of 12th Corps and 7th Armoured had advanced so far that it was off the edge of it's maps, but still it moved onwards, quite often during the night. Its aim was to move so fast, it could get to the next enemy strongpoint and pounce on it before the Germans were ready. On the 2nd 1/5th Queen's captured a V1 flying bomb site, with 400 prisoners. Meanwhile, with 8th Hussars and the 1/5th Queen's infantry crossed the Authie and advanced on Frevent and St. Pol.
At St. Pol strong resistance was met and a tough fire ensued, with 8th Hussars and the 1/5th Queen's infantry eventually flushing most of the enemy out, except for a small force with three anti-tank guns. This was left for the 1/7th Queen's to mop up at their leisure the next day. While 1/6th Queen's masked the Division from the enemy at Auxi-le-Chateau, 1st RTR, 1st Rifle Brigade and 'CC' Battery, 5th RHA, started 25 miles south, to bypass St. Pol and advance due north to Tangry and Cauchy a la Tour, which they reached by midnight. On 4th September, the Division was ordered to make a final dash across the Franco-Belgium border for Ghent, but by now it was consuming 70,000 gallons of petrol per day, over seventy tanker loads of fuel. Therefore, it was decided that only a force no larger than a brigade could be kept moving all the 70 miles to Ghent. So 'Ghent Force' was formed, comprising, the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 5th RTR, 5th RHA, 1/6th Queens, 'A' Company the Rifle Brigade, 22nd Brigade HQ and of course it was to be led by 11th Hussars.
The force started off at 04:30 on the morning of 4th September and met no real resistance, crossing into Belgium two hours later, meeting a tumultuous welcome. TheCromwells were fast enough to keep up with the half tracks and lorries, with the ground they raced over shaking as they went. Soon the vehicles were full of flowers, fruit and bottles of wine and brandy. Some men received unique injuries for modern warfare, from bunches of grapes thrown by the well meaning locals! It was not a good idea to stop in the towns as any vehicle that did was instantly surrounded by jubilant locales, but by nightfall 'Ghent Force' halted near Audenarde (or Oudenarde), after an advance of nearly 50 miles.
At dawn a small German force was met at Nazareth, just eight miles from Ghent, but once this force was overcome as curious incident developed on the outskirts of the city. The German commander of the city, General Daser, approached Lt-Colonel Holliman, of 5th RTR. Although the Germans were prepared to surrender the whole garrison (estimated to be about 1,000 men with 88mm guns), the German General would only surrender to a British officer of equivalent rank. Initially, Lt-Col. Holliman tried to pass himself off as a General, but one of his mean accidentally called him 'Colonel', so Brigadier Mackeson came forward and to persuade the Germans that he was almost a General. The German General, then announced that his Corps Commander had ordered him to fight on, but fortunately his forces has already started to withdraw to the northern outskirts of the city, thus sparing its historic centre from probable destruction, from the likely street fighting that would have ensued.
At dawn on 5th September, 11th Hussars and the Inniskilling Dragoon Guards entered the city from the east. They fought of attacks by roving groups of retreating Germans. In spite of some opposition from snipers and pockets on infantry by 20:00 that day the bulk of the Division had entered Ghent and its tanks were parked outside the Town Hall. During the next three days the city and surrounding areas were cleared of any pockets of resistance and the Division prepared for a counter-attack, as its position was precarious, being well ahead of the main part of the rest of the British forces. There was continued shelling and problems with snipers, while the men of 4th Field Squadron, RE, repairing a bridge at Wettern, were attacked by a company of Waffen SS. Aided by some drivers from Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, they killed 24 Germans, taking another 10 prisoner. It should be pointed out here that the men of the Royal Engineers and those of the RASC were the unsung heroes of the Divisions rapid advance as they built bridges, clear mines and booby traps and brought up supplies, respectively, under heavy fire at times.
To the south of Ghent lay the German 15th Army, which could still muster eleven depleted divisions. Their commander, General Von Zangen, seemed determined to concentrate his forces around Audenarde and fight his way back to Germany. This would have taken them straight through the lines of communications of the 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions. Therefore, 11th Hussars kept a careful watch on this force, while the Engineers blew every bridge over the River Lys. Thwarted by this action the German 15th Army changed it plans and withdrew north across the Scheldt.
Once the whole Division had re-assembled in Ghent, it spread out to the east of the city, with sporadic fighting along the River Scheldt, until 11th September, when the Polish Armoured Division arrived to take over the area. They left Ghent to much cheering from the citizens of the city, and the Division then moved east to Malines, south of Antwerp, where there was little room for the tanks and armoured cars to operate, although the Queen's Brigades snipers came into their own. On 21st September they "bagged" 16 kills and 4 woundings, alone.
The casualties of the past month has fallen heavily on the infantry of the Rifle Brigade and the Queen's Brigade, which meant that some of the mortar men and anti-tank crews had to pick up their rifles and move into the line. The Queen's Brigade had been under strength for some time, with its commanders preferring to operate with each battalion effectively less a company of men, than to have to train up replacements. During the rest of September the Division was engaged in mopping up operations in Belgium and was not involved in 'Operation Market-Garden', the airborne attack on Arnhem, Eindhoven and Nijmegen.
During October, the Division held the line west of the town of S'Hertogenbosh and then gradually moved into positions along the River Veghul, south of S'Hertogenbosh, south and east of the River Maas. Here they held a front line of some fourteen miles, which put a great strain on its already slender resources, with a steady stream of casualties, especially amongst the infantry. During this period a German supply depot in the town of Oss, with bacon, cheese, butter - food no one had seen for ages - what discovered. The Dutchman in charge was more than happy to supply both armies as long as everything was signed for.
From D-Day, upto 1st October, the Division had suffered 2,801 casualties, while 11th Armoured Division had suffered 3,825 and Guards Armoured lost 3,385 men.
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Clearing the Maas: At the end of October, the Division was ordered to clear the enemy away from the Maas and advance on Emelhuen, passing through the 51st Highland and 15th Lowland Divisions on the way. This was a distance of about 30 miles, through thickly wooded country, which gave way to polder country, with large fields surrounded by dykes. Like the bocage it was not ideal tank country, with little room to manoeuvre, while offering good defence. The advance started at 04:00 on 22nd October 1944, with a heavy artillery barrage. The Queen's Brigade, supported by the 8th Hussars and by flail and Crocodile flame-thrower tanks were in the lead.
The Germans were dug-in in village strongpoints manned by infantry and artillery, surrounded by mines. On the first day the 8th Hussars lost 8 tanks, with the Division suffering 60 casualties, but by that night 1/7th Queens had taken Middelrode, with 130 prisoners. On the 25th the Division crossed the river and after a hard two day battle it captured Loon-op-Zood, on 29th October. Travelling over icy roads and in bitterly cold weather, 11th Hussars, 1/5th Queens, pressed on towards Dongan, where they received a warm welcome from the Dutch and an even warmer one from a group of Germans with tank and artillery support. The Division moved along banks of the Maas, still meeting pockets of resistance, advancing for a week in total. This operation cost 22 tanks and over 100 men, but they had pushed on as ordered, taking nearly 900 prisoners in the process.
For the next ten days, the Division had a quiet time resting on the Maas, but this was not to last. The start of November saw little contact with the enemy and the troops enjoyed being billeted in warm Dutch houses, when not on guard or overhauling the tanks and equipment. With the Allied Armies, American, Canadian and British, had been on the move for four months so with Belgium and most of Holland free of Germans, there was time for a short pause, before the final big push into Germany.
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Guarding the Maas: On 10th November, the Division moved to fresh positions along the Maas and the Wessen canal, in countryside sodden with water and full of mines. Here the outposts were manned by the Queen's, the Rifle Brigade and the ever vigilant 11th Hussars. The latter were now wearing new multi-zipped winter clothing, called 'zoot-suite' by the men, but a real benefit in the winter of 1944/45. On 14th November, the Division took a small but costly action to clear the enemy away from east of Weert. 1/7th Queens and 'C' Squadron, 8th Hussars were ordered to take a lock on the canal at Panheel, but the attack met with very fierce resistance and artillery fire. Within 45 minutes only one of the Queen's officer was still standing with the rest either killed or wounded. Their losses that day were over 30 men, killed or wounded, which was a bitter blow to an already depleted battalion.
It was about now that the manpower of the Division was further effected by the 'Python' and 'Lilop' orders. All men who had served overseas for five years could be returned to the UK (Python), of, if they volunteered to return have extended leave (Lilop - Leave in lieu of Python). As a result many experienced men of the Queen's RHA, RTR and Hussars, now left the Desert Rats to return home. About 100 men each of 1/6th and 1/7th Queens' returned to the UK to the 50th Division - now a training unit. The remainder of 1/6th and 1/7th Queen's then joined the 1/5th Queen's. As the men of the Queen's Brigade left the Divisional area they were surprised to see the 25-pdrs of 3rd RHA lining their path, with the barrels elevated to 60 degrees in salute. Everyone cheered and applauded their comrades who they had served with since the desert.
The 131st Queen's Brigade now became the 131st Brigade, as the two replacement battalions were 2nd Devonshire's and 9th Durham Light Infantry, both from the 50th Division. They joined the Division on 30th November 1944.
On 7th December, the Division moved east across the Maas to relieve the Guards armoured, on new front about 7 miles long, with 131st Brigade on the right between Millen and Tuddern. On 16th December, German counter offensive in the Ardennes - the Battle of Bulge - began, but the Division was not involved. By 21st, the Inniskilling's were moved back to Munster Geleen and they painted their Cromwells white, but with rumours of Germans dresses as Americans coming out of the Ardennes, a few jeep loads of real Americans were arrested as a precaution at this time. The weather was bitterly cold and Hurricane lamps were leave burning in the tank turrets all night and the engines of all vehicles had to run every two hours to prevent them freezing up. The oil on the machine guns had to be removed as it froze too. One driver in 5th RHA, resorted to putting a mixture of hot water and rum in his command vehicle's engine to act as antifreeze!
The Division arranged a Christmas concert party for the men, which went off well and some of which had leave in Brussels. A German attack on Christmas night did spoil the peace for some of the men 11th Hussars and 5th RHA, as they lost some vehicles and tanks at the village of Gebroek. The Division enjoyed what it could of what was to be the last Christmas of the war, listening to the King's Speech and a broadcast from Montgomery.
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