Operation Perch

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Coordinates: 49°05′N 0°39′W / 49.083°N 0.650°W / 49.083; -0.650

Operation Perch
Part of Battle for Caen
TillyCromwell.jpg
Centaur IV tank of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group near Tilly-sur-Seulles
Date 712 – 14 June 19443
Location Normandy, France2
Result Failure of British operationa
Belligerents
 United Kingdom  Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Bernard Montgomery4
United Kingdom Miles Dempsey5
United Kingdom Gerard Bucknall5
Germany Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg6
Germany Sepp Dietrich6
Strength
1 Armoured Division13
2 Infantry Divisions27
2 Armoured Brigades137
3 Panzer Divisions89
1 Infantry Division8
1 heavy tank battalion10
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown
aMore detailed information is available in the Overall section

Operation Perch was a British offensive of the Second World War which took place between 7 and 14 June 1944, during the Battle of Normandy. The operation was intended to encircle and seize the German occupied city of Caen, which was a major Allied objective in the early stages of the invasion of northwest Europe. A combination of fierce German resistance and failures at the British command level foiled the operation before its objectives were achieved.

Operation Perch was originally intended to take place immediately after the British beach landings, and was to be an advance to the southeast of Caen by XXX Corps. This depended on Caen's early liberation, but three days after the invasion the city was still in German hands so the operation was altered. Perch was expanded to include I Corps and became a pincer attack aimed at capturing Caen. Beginning the following day XXX Corps, forming the western arm of the encirclement, pushed south before becoming embroiled with strong German forces in a hotly contested battle for the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles, which would change hands several times before its liberation. I Corps's eastern thrust was launched two days later from the Orne bridgehead, secured on D-Day by British airborne forces during Operation Tonga, but made little progress in the face of determined resistance and constant counterattacks. With mounting casualties and no sign of an imminent German collapse, by 13 June the offensive east of Caen was abandoned.

Meanwhile, to the west, American pressure had opened up a gap in the German lines. In an attempt to keep operations mobile the 7th Armoured Division was diverted from the combat around Tilly-sur-Seulles and ordered to advance through the gap in a flanking manoeuvre intended to force the Germans to fall back. After two days of intense fighting that included the Battle of Villers-Bocage, on 14 June the division's position was judged untenable and it was withdrawn. Plans were made to resume the offensive once 7th Armoured had been reinforced, but these were dropped when a severe storm in the English Channel seriously disrupted allied supply operations.

Both the decision to exploit the gap and the handling of the subsequent battle have been subjects of controversy. Historians generally agree that, because of failures at the British divisional and corps command levels, an early opportunity to capture Caen was squandered. However, to contain the offensive the Germans had been forced to commit their most powerful armoured reserves in a defensive role, in which they incurred heavy losses and were incapable of counteroffensive operations.

Background

Infantry of the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division storm ashore near La Riviere on 6 June

The Norman town of Caen was a D-Day objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division, which landed on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944.11 Caen's early capture, while "ambitious", has been described by historian L F Ellis as the most important D-Day objective assigned to Lieutenant-General Crocker's I Corps.nb 1 Operation Overlord called for Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey's Second Army to secure the city and then form a front line from Caumont-l'Éventé to the south-east of Caen, acquiring airfields and protecting the left flank of the United States First Army while it moved on Cherbourg.14 Possession of Caen and its surroundings would give Second Army a suitable staging area for a push south to capture Falaise, which could be used as the pivot for a swing left to advance on Argentan and then towards the Touques River.15 The terrain between Caen and Vimont was especially promising, being open, dry and conducive to swift offensive operations—the Allies greatly outnumbered the Germans in tanks and mobile units, and transforming the battle into a more fluid engagement would be to their advantage.16

Original plan

According to its pre-D-Day design, Operation Perch was intended to create the threat of a British breakout to the southeast of Caen.17 The operation was assigned to XXX Corps; 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, landing on Gold Beach on 6 June, was tasked with moving rapidly inland to capture Bayeux and the road to Tilly-sur-Seulles.23 The 7th Armoured Division, reinforced with the 8th Armoured Brigade, would then take over from 50th Northumbrian and spearhead a further advance from Tilly-sur-Seulles to Mont Pinçon.13

Operation Wild Oats

Tanks from the 4th County of London Yeomanry, 7th Armoured Division, move inland from Gold Beach, 7 June 1944

Having landed on Gold Beach at 07:30 on 6 June,18 XXX Corps succeeded in clearing seven exits off the beach and advancing 5 miles (8.0 km) inland, but because of heavy fighting in Le Hamel were unable to achieve all their D-Day objectives before dark.19 Patrols had reached the outskirts of Bayeux, and contact had been established with elements of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, who had landed on Juno Beach.2021 The 47 Royal Marine Commando, advancing along the coast to link up with the Americans moving inland from Omaha Beach, fell short of reaching Port-en-Bessin-Huppain by 3 miles (4.8 km).19 During the afternoon LXXXIV Corps ordered its reserve, Kampfgruppe Meyer, to strike into the flank of the 50th Division north of Bayeux. En route to conduct the counterattack one battalion was ordered towards Omaha beach, weakening the counterattack force. The attack failed with heavy casualties.22 On 7 June the bulk of the 7th Armoured Division was landed on schedule and XXX Corps secured its remaining D-Day objectives, including Bayeux and Port-en-Bessin-Huppain.223 During the day LXXXXIV Corps launched the only remaining reserves available, Mobile Brigade 30, towards Gold Beach in an attempt to repeat the previous day's counterattack; the attack failed and the brigade was effectively destroyed north of Bayeux. The remnants of the two failed counterattacks were then driven into a pocket north of the city by the Anglo-American advance, although the Americans were unaware that this had taken place.24

Not all had gone as smoothly for the forces that landed on Sword Beach. I Corps's 3rd Infantry Division had struck inland towards Caen as planned but had to divert elements to subdue strongly held German positions along the 9.3-mile (15.0 km) route to the town. With its effort being progressively diluted and its armoured support delayed by congestion in the beachhead, the division was unable to generate enough momentum to reach Caen on D-Day and was stopped short of its outskirts by the 21st Panzer Division.25

On 9 June Caen was still firmly in German hands, so the Allied ground forces commander General Bernard Montgomery met with Lieutenant-Generals Miles Dempsey and Omar Bradley (commanding the British Second and United States First Armies) and decided a new plan for Second Army. Caen would be taken with a pincer movement, code-named Operation Wild Oats.nb 24 The eastern arm of the pincer would consist of I Corps's 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade. The armour and Highlanders would cross into the Orne bridgehead, the ground gained east of the Orne by the 6th Airborne Division during Operation Tonga, and attack southwards to Cagny, 6 miles (9.7 km) to the southeast of Caen. XXX Corps would form the western arm of the pincer. In an alteration to Operation Perch, instead of making for Mont Pinçon the 7th Armoured Division would swing east, crossing the Odon River to take Évrecy and the high ground near the town (Hill 112).717 To complete the encirclement it was suggested that the 1st Airborne Division be dropped between the two arms but the allied air commander, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, opposed this move. He refused to fly the division into Normandy, arguing that the drop would scatter the division too widely to fulfil its objectives and that the drop zone was in any case too dangerous for his pilots.27 Despite Montgomery's "bitter anger" at Leigh-Mallory's intransigence,26 the pincer attack went ahead without its airborne component;5 according to historian Hubert Meyer it was incorporated into Operation Perch and Wild Oats was dropped as a separate operation.27

Main offensive

German preparations

In response to the invasion, late on 7 June I SS-Panzer Corps was transferred from Seventh Army to Panzer Group West.6 The commander of OB West, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, initially ordered the group under General Geyr von Schweppenburg to plan a counterattack for 10 June, but this was aborted by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel as the necessary forces could not be concentrated in time.28 Nevertheless the available German units were rushed forward from their staging areas to contain the Allied beachheads. I SS-Panzer Corps was a powerful formation consisting of the Panzer-Lehr-Division (one of the strongest divisions in the German armynb 3), the "fanatical teenagers"29 of the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, and the veteran 21st Panzer Division.30 Despite losing up to 200 vehicles to aerial attacks during its 90-mile (140 km) drive from Chartres,nb 4 the leading elements of Panzerlehr arrived during the night of 9 June in the Tilly-sur-Seulles area opposite XXX Corps;3435 having been diverted from concentrating against I Corps, to face XXX Corps due to the successful advance of the 50th division and to halt any further advance.36 Elements of the 12th SS-Panzer, 21st Panzer and the remains of the 716th Static Infantry Division were moved into positions around Caen, facing I Corps.8

XXX Corps attack

Although a concentrated counter-stroke from all three panzer divisions of I SS-Panzer Corps did not materialise, several attacks were launched against the Anglo-Canadian beachhead north of Caen.837 In the early hours of 9 June the survivors of Kampfgruppe Meyer and Mobile Brigade 30 broke out of the pocket north of Bayeux.24 Later in the day XXX Corps established a land link to the Americans while the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division reached the northeast outskirts of Tilly-sur-Seulles and first encountered the tanks of Panzerlehr.38 During the evening Panzerlehr and the 12th SS-Panzer Division counterattacked; although they were beaten off the following morning one British company had been overrun.39 On 10 June the 7th Armoured Division took over portions of 50th Northumbrian's front, with 50th Northumbrian's 56th Infantry Brigade being detached to 7th Armoured.40 By day's end the division had reached Tilly-sur-Seulles's northwest outskirts, and the following day elements entered the town and secured the central crossroads. The British occupation was brief however, as the Panzer Lehr launched several counterattacks, forcing a withdrawal.38 Further attempts by 50th Northumbrian bogged down in the bocage, unable to overcome the formidable resistance offered by Panzerlehr.41

Starting on 11 June Army Group B planned to replace their armoured forces, facing Second Army, with infantry divisions so that their armour could be concentrated in the Carentan area to avert the danger to Cherbourg. However due to the attacks launched by Second Army, and Adolf Hitler’s opposition, Rommel was unable to orchestrate this move. The next day Rommel was ordered, by Hitler, that no retreat was to be authorised and to roll up the Allied beachhead from east to west starting with the Orne bridgehead.42

I Corps attack

While XXX Corps was battling for control of Tilly-sur-Seulles, on the I Corps front the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade were delayed getting into position, so their attack was rescheduled for 12 June.7 Ludovic Fortin implies that in the event 51st Highland advanced alone, giving the 4th Armoured Brigade's first major combat as Operation Epsom, prior to which it was supporting the 50th Division.43 On 10 June German infantry, supported by armour, launched numerous attacks against the 6th Airborne, who were holding the Orne bridgehead in anticipation of 51st Highland's and 4th Armoured's arrival. The paratroopers held firm and, with naval gunfire support, counterattacked; one captured German officer remarked that his "battalion had been virtually wiped out" during 12 hours of fighting.44 In the evening the Germans attempted to retake Ranville, but this attack was also stopped and then countered, the paratroopers once again inflicting severe losses. The lead formations of 51st Highland arrived during the evening, and the following morning launched an assault on Bréville. Although this was repulsed with heavy casualties, other elements of the division quickly secured Touffreville.4445 During the afternoon of the 11 June The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and 1st Hussars launched an attack to capture Le Mesnil-Patry to facilitate the advance of 50th Division’s 69th Brigade; the attack, the Battle of Le Mesnil-Patry, was a complete and costly failure.46

On 12 June further German attacks were launched from the Bréville area against the Orne bridgehead. Fighting lasted all day and casualties were severe on both sides, but during the evening the Germans pulled back. To close the gap in the British perimeter the decision was made to secure Bréville. A successful attack was launched by the 12th Battalion the Parachute Regiment that by midnight had captured the village, but of the 160 men that began the attack 141 casualties were sustained.2847 However, 51st Highland was facing stiff resistance from the 21st Panzer Division in its efforts to push south to Saint Honorine and with the Highlanders unable to make progress, the offensive east of Caen was called off on 13 June.45

Caumont Gap and the Right Hook

Allied and Axis dispositions on 12 June 1944

Although the envelopment of Caen had stalled, on XXX Corps's right flank at the junction between the British Second and United States First Armies, a potentially favourable situation had developed. Since D-Day the British and Americans had destroyed five German battle groups including the reserves of LXXXXIV Corps,24 leaving only the battered 352nd Infantry Division covering the TrévièresAgy sector.48 The 352nd Division had been in action since its defence of Omaha Beach on 6 June and had received few replacements for the heavy losses it had suffered.1 Under severe pressure from the United States 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions,48 the 352nd Division's left flank collapsed. With its position no longer tenable, on the night of 9–10 June the division received permission to pull back to Saint-Lô.49 The 352nd Infantry Division's withdrawal created a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) hole in the German lines near the village of Caumont-l'Éventé.2450 Only the reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, which had been left behind, when the rest of the division was moved further west to prepare for an attack against the Americans at Carentan, remained in the area.51 The Germans made plans to bring up the 2nd Panzer Divisionnb 5 to plug the gap. On 10 June the bulk of the division was strung out between Amiens and Alençon and was not expected to arrive in strength for another three days. Reluctant to commit 2nd Panzer until it was fully assembled, General Hans Freiherr von Funck of XLVII Panzer Corps was nevertheless persuaded to rush the division's reconnaissance battalion to Caumont with orders to hold the high ground there.51 In addition I SS-Panzer Corps commander Sepp Dietrich ordered his only reserve, the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, to position itself behind the Panzer Lehr and 12th SS-Panzer to cover his open left flank.10 Anticipating the importance the British would assign to the high ground near Villers-Bocage,54 the 2nd Company of SS-Panzer Battalion 101, under the command of Michael Wittmann and with only five serviceable Tiger tanks, was positioned just south of Point 213 on the Villers-Bocage ridge.55 It arrived on 12 June after a five day drive from Beauvais.5456

A diagram of the Caumont Gap and the advances made by the Anglo-American forces, as described in the text.
During the night of 9/10 June the German 352nd Infantry Division retired towards Saint-Lô, creating a wide gap in the German lines covered only by light forces. On 12 June the British 7th Armoured Division passed through the gap heading for Villers-Bocage and the ridge beyond, while the US 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions launched their own attacks in support.

On 12 June Operation Perch was altered.5 Conscious of the opportunity presented, Dempsey met with Lieutenant-General Gerard Bucknall commanding XXX Corps and Major-General George Erskine commanding the 7th Armoured Division and ordered Erskine to disengage his armour from the fighting around Tilly-sur-Seulles.57 7th Armoured was now to exploit the opening in the German lines, seize the town of Villers-Bocage and advance into the Panzer-Lehr's flank.558 A ridge 1.6 miles (2.6 km) to the east of the town was the final objective;59 it was believed that the appearance of British armour in Panzerlehr's rear, occupying high ground and cutting important lines of communication, would compel the Panzer-Lehr-Division to withdraw or surrender and thus keep operations fluid.606162 In support of the 7th Armoured's flanking manoeuvre, the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division would maintain pressure against the Panzer Lehr Division around Tilly-sur-Seulles.63 Simultaneously, elements of the United States V Corps would push forward. The US 1st infantry Division was tasked with wresting Caumont from its defenders and securing the heights, while the 2nd Infantry Division would attack towards Saint-Lô.64

Despite the need for rapid action to take full advantage of the German vulnerability, the 7th Armoured Division was slow to redeploy and spent the morning of 12 June attempting to advance on Tilly-sur-Seulles according to its original orders. At 12:00 a meeting was held between Major-General Erskine and Brigadier Hinde, the commanding officer of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. Hinde was ordered to move immediately through the gap.62 With the 131st Infantry Brigade ready for action, the 7th Armoured Division transferred the 56th Infantry Brigade back to 50th Northumbrian.61 Now consisting of the 131st Infantry and 22nd Armoured Brigades, the lead elements of the 7th Armoured set off.65 The 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars—the 7th Armoured Division's armoured reconnaissance regiment66—began to reconnoitre the route the brigade would take; the rest of the division departed from the village of Trungy at around 16:00.65 Four hours later the main body was approaching Livry after a 12-mile (19 km) unopposed advance,67 the last 6 miles (9.7 km) of which were though German-held territory.58 Minor resistance was encountered north of Livry when the 8th Hussars's leading Cromwell tanks were destroyed by an anti-tank gun of the Panzer Lehr Division's Escort Company,65nb 6 but riflemen and tanks were brought forward and within two hours the position was cleared.6769

Hoping to keep the Germans guessing as to his force's objective, on reaching the vicinity of la Mulotiere Hinde ordered a halt for the night.70 While the main force conducted routine maintenance,65 the 8th and 11th (Prince Albert's Own) Hussars (the division's armoured car regiment66) reconnoitred the flanks.71 The 11th Hussars found no resistance on the right flank and linked up with the US 1st Infantry Division near Caumont,nb 7 while on the left flank the 8th Hussars located elements of the Panzer Lehr Division just under 2 miles (3.2 km) away.71

Battle of Villers-Bocage

The transport vehicles knocked out by Michael Wittmann

The British advance resumed at 05:30, and around three hours later the vanguard of the 22nd Armoured Brigade group, an ad hoc force composed of various elements of the 7th Armoured Division and based around the 22nd Armoured Brigade tactical headquarters,nb 8 entered the western end of Villers-Bocage.6573 Over the next half hour one squadron of the leading armoured regiment, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), moved through the town and occupied Point 213, an area of high ground to the east. The regimental headquarters and a company of infantry positioned themselves in the eastern end of the village and along the main road.73

At approximately 09:00 the lead British tanks were ambushed by between three and five Tiger I tanksnb 9 of the 2nd Company, Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101.74757677 One Tiger, under the command of Michael Wittmann, entered Villers-Bocage and destroyed several tanks of the 4th County of London's regimental headquarters and reconnaissance troop. It then engaged additional British armour entering the town from the west before attempting to withdraw.7879 However, Wittmann's Tiger was soon immobilised and he and his crew abandoned it, fleeing towards Château Orbois to report to the Panzer-Lehr-Division.8081 In less than 15 minutes, 13–14 tanks, two anti-tank guns and 13–15 transport vehicles had been destroyed by the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, the vast majority being attributable to Wittmann.8182

During the remaining hours of the morning a British infantry battalion from the 22nd Armoured Brigade group took up defensive positions in the town. Meanwhile the troops outside the town on Point 213 had become cut off, so a force was put together to attempt to extricate them.83 This was unable to make any progress towards the ridge,84 and when additional German forces arrived near the high ground between 11:00–13:00, the trapped squadron surrendered.858687 Further German troops were by now harassing other elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade group along the road back to Livry.83

One of the several Tiger tanks knocked out in Villers-Bocage.

Tanks of the Panzer Lehr soon arrived with orders to seal off the north and west exits from Villers-Bocage,84 but they encountered British anti-tank guns and several were disabled before the British position was silenced.88 The next German assault, launched by the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, ran into an ambush in the town centre. Some Tiger tanks and a Panzer IV were disabled by a combination of anti-tank guns, a Sherman Firefly and infantry.89 The damaged German tanks were later set on fire, and British and German infantry clashed throughout the afternoon. British positions were subjected to heavy artillery fire, while several German attacks were repulsed by artillery firing over open sights.9091 One British company was overwhelmed and a platoon taken captive, and the battalion headquarters came under increasing fire.92

Brigadier Hinde decided that the British position was becoming untenable and that his brigade group should be withdrawn until the morning to Point 174, an area of high ground to the west of Villers-Bocage near Amayé-sur-Seulles.92 At 20:00 the withdrawal began under cover of artillery fire, and was accomplished largely unmolested.91

14 June

On the morning of 14 June Montgomery abandoned the idea of a pincer attack on Caen, as he lacked "sufficient strength to act offensively on both flanks". He proposed that XXX Corps should continue its offensive alone in a "concentrated single blow"; the activity of the 51st (Highland) Division on the eastern flank was "piped down".93

The 50th (Northumbrian) Division had kept attacking southwards to keep German focus on them and not the 7th Armoured Division;63 on 14 June, supported by its entire divisional artillery and the Royal Air Force,94 the 50th Division launched a two-brigade attack to capture the villages of la Senaudière, la Belle Epine, Lingèvres and Verrières.9596 Dependent on the success of these offensives, a further attack would then be mounted to capture the village of Hottot-les-Bagues.94 To prepare the way, a reconnaissance-in-force was mounted the preceding evening; the panzergrenadiers of the Panzer-Lehr-Division inflicted heavy losses upon the British. Panzerlehr's losses are unknown, although one tank was confirmed destroyed.97

Two of the five Panther tanks knocked out by Sergeant Wilfred "Spit" Harris, commanding a Sherman Firefly and Trooper Ian Mackillop, the tank's gunner, are still visible at the west end of Lingèvres where the second attack was launched.98

The main assault began at 10:15 the next morning when the 151st (Durham) Infantry Brigade,99 supported by tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards,100 advanced towards Lingèvres and Verrières.99 The German defenders held their fire until the British were less than 150 yards (140 m) away and it took five hours of fighting before the 6th Durham Light Infantry (DLI), with heavy artillery support, cleared the German front line positions. Two companies were pushed forward and captured Verrières, which was found to be unoccupied but further advances were checked by infantry and tanks.101

The 9th DLI were also caught by heavy German machine gun fire and were forced to commit their reserve companies to break through the German front line.99 Between noon and 13:30 the battalion captured Lingèvres and positioned anti-tank guns within the village, although most of these were put out of action by the first German counterattack.96100102 Two Panther tanks were then spotted approaching the village by Sergeant Wilfred Harris, commanding a Sherman Firefly.103104 Harris engaged the first at a range of 400 yards (370 m), destroying it and disabled the second. While Harris ordered his tank into an alternative firing position, a tank-hunting party led by Major John Mogg the acting battalion commander, finished off the damaged Panther.99103 Further tank-hunting parties drove off another Panther, a British M4 Sherman was destroyed and a third Panther was knocked out by a Sherman.103105 Three more Panthers responded by moving towards the village; Harris destroyed the lead vehicle before it entered the village and the other two within its bounds, although one did manage to reach the centre of Lingèvres before the crew bailed out.106

After heavy fighting the 231st Infantry Brigade was able to reach all of its objectives by nightfall and linked up with the 151st Infantry Brigade.96 One officer in the 6th DLI stated that the attack was the most successful carried out by the battalion during the course of the operation; in all nine German tanks were knocked out during the course of the day, although the DLI had suffered up to 353 casualties.96107 Nonetheless the division had been unable to break through the Panzerlehr's defences.95

Battle of the island

With the British withdrawal from Villers-Bocage complete, on 14 June the group formed an all round defensive position; a "brigade box". The location of this position is disputed by historians. Carlo D'Este states it was between Amayé-sur-Seulles and Tracy-Bocage, around Hill 174.108 Dan Taylor locates the box around the brigade's tactical headquarters positioned on Hill 174 and presents a map showing the brigade mostly to the south of the village of Amayé-sur-Seulles;109 a position supported by French historian Henrie Marie.110 George Forty places the box to the north of Tracy-Bocage, around the hamlet of St-Germain111 and draws on a report by the 22nd Armoured Brigade group's commanding officer who states the position was east of Amayé-sur-Seulles and included St-Germain.112 The fighting that followed on 14 June is known as 'The Battle of the island', or 'Island Position',113114 this name deriving from the 22nd Armoured Brigade's after action report.115 Other names given to the action include 'The Battle of the Brigade Box'116 and 'The Battle of Amayé-sur-Seulles'.117 Forty and Taylor agree that the box was less than 2 square kilometres (0.77 sq mi) in area.116118

The Panzer-Lehr-Division had moved so that it was able to defend against the renewed assaults by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division and attack the 7th Armoured Division's penetration;116 attacks that would be supported by the 1st Company, Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101.119 The 2nd Panzer Division's reconnaissance battalion, with other small infantry units had also arrayed to face the brigade box, although the division's panzer regiment would play no part in the battle as it had yet to reach the front.9116

A 4.5 Inch Medium gun of the 5th AGRA's 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.120 The 155mm guns of the United States V Corps also supplied defensive fire during the Battle of the Brigade Box.121

By now the 131st Infantry Brigade, composed of an infantry battalion and armoured regiment, had moved up to Livry;116 throughout the morning of 14 June the 131st Brigade kept open the road from the brigade box to the Livry–Briquessarrd area,122 while Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers launched attacks against German positions near the box. German infantry spotted moving towards the British lines were subjected to heavy allied artillery fire, breaking up their initial attack but around 09:00 more infantry closed in on the Brigade box. Too close this time for artillery concentrations to be called in, fighting erupted with a British platoon being overrun. A counterattack with tanks and infantry repelled the Germans and restored the position but the Germans then subjected the British to harassing sniping fire, mortar bombardments and at 14:00 heavy artillery fire.116 At 19:00 a major two-pronged assault, supported by a long artillery bombardment and tanks, struck the brigade box from the north and south.120123124 This penetrated the British lines and closed in on the brigade headquarters before being driven back, with fighting dying down around 22:30.120

Although confident the position could be held, the inability of 50th Northumbrian to break through Panzerlehr and relieve the 7th Armoured Division prompted the decision to withdraw the brigade group and straighten the front line.116125 The withdrawal, codenamed Operation Aniseed, began just after midnight.116120 Noise cover was provided by an RAF bombing raid on Aunay-sur-Odon and Evrecy that destroyed one Tiger tank and put a further three out of action, inflicting 29 casualties.126127 Harassing artillery fire was directed to the north and south of the withdrawal route but the Germans did little to intervene.126

An estimated 700–800 casualties were inflicted upon the Germans during the battle and between eight and 20 tanks destroyed including several Tigers.120123128 British casualties were reported as light, including the loss of only three tanks.120 Michael Reynolds disputes the reported German casualty figures, calling them "exaggerated". Brigadier Hinde, in his official after-action report, wrote "It is questionable whether the expenditure of artillery and small arms ammunition was justified by the scale of the enemy's efforts".119

Aftermath

The remains of a universal carrier blown up by a mine in Tilly-sur-Seulles, 19 June 1944. The town "was one of the first of the many towns and villages which were well-nigh obliterated in the process of liberation".129

Over the following days fighting went back and forth between 50th Northumbrian and Panzer Lehr.130 By 15 June XXX Corps claimed to have destroyed at least 70 German tanks,131 and on 18 June British infantry once again entered Tilly-sur-Seulles. The town was secured the following day against light opposition;130 it had changed hands 23 times before its final liberation.132

The same day an attack was launched towards Hottot-les-Bagues. Facing determined resistance from Panzerlehr, British infantry gained a foothold in the village but were soon forced out by German counterattacks supported by tanks. The British succeeded in retaking the village and holding it against further German assaults, but with insufficient numbers to secure their position they withdrew during the night, and Hottot-les-Bagues was reoccupied by panzergrenadiers.133

The 7th Armoured Division was pulled back to be bolstered by the 33rd Armoured Brigade,95 which was in the process of landing and forming up within the British beachhead.134 It was planned that the reinforced division would renew its assault,95 but on 19 June a severe storm descended upon the English Channel causing widespread disruption to the over-the-beach supply operations, and further offensives were abandoned.135

Battle honours

The British and Commonwealth system of battle honours recognised participation in the expansion of the bridgehead during the period of Operation Perch in 1956, 1957 and in 1958. One unit was awarded the honour Port En Bessin, one formation the honour Sully, four units the honour Breville, and 11 regiments the honour Villers-Bocage. Additionally for participating in the expansion of the bridgehead between14–19 June ten units were awarded the honour Tilly Sur Seulles.136

Casualties

While casualty figures are not available for this specific operation by the end of June the Panzer-Lehr-Division had suffered 2,972 casualties and reported the loss of 51 tanks and assault guns, additionally 82 halftracks and 294 other vehicles had been lost.nb 10 By 16 June the 12th SS Panzer Division had reported 1,417 casualties and by 26 June the division had lost 41 tanks.nb 11 From the beginning of the month till 16 June the 21st Panzer Division suffered 1,864 casualties. Prior to the invasion the division had 112 tanks however by 16 June the division reported only 85 combat ready tanks, with an unknown number under repair.138 During Operation Perch the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 suffered 27 casualties139 and by 16 June the battalion had only 15 operational tanks; they had lost nine tanks destroyed and a further 21 were under various repairs.140

By the end of June the 7th Armoured Division had suffered 1,149 casualties141 and had lost at least 38 tanks during the Operation Perch period.112142143 Likewise by the end of the month 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division which was nearly twice the size of a normal infantry division had suffered 4,476 casualties.141

Analysis

British infantry march through Douet, 11 June 1944.

The right hook

Whose idea it was to outflank the Panzer-Lehr-Division through the gap in the German lines has proved difficult to establish. Historian George Forty states that "although it was clearly Monty's final decision to send the 'Desert Rats' right flanking, it is not entirely clear whose idea it actually was to undertake the 'right hook'." Forty then quotes 7th Armoured Division commander George Erskine, who claims both that the idea originated with him, and that he believes the manoeuvre could have been conducted 24 hours earlier.41 That the flanking move could have been launched earlier is supported by John Buckley.5 Dan Taylor goes further, suggesting that although Gerard Bucknall of XXX Corps knew about the gap for 24 hours, he was restrained from exploiting it by Second Army commander Miles Dempsey, who was still focused at that time on Operation Wild Oats.62 The official campaign historian, L.F. Ellis, states that Bucknall orchestrated the move but only after consulting with Dempsey.144 Historian Carlo D'Este writes "while the idea had most certainly been under consideration at 30 Corps, the problem was that Bucknall had done absolutely nothing to implement it until Dempsey arrived on the scene... [and] spurred the corps commander to action".145 Consensus opinion among historians appears to support Dempsey as the instigator, both in developing the plan for the right hook and ordering its execution.5758146147

Overall

The failure of the operation led Dempsey to write shortly afterwards that there was "no chance now of a snap operation with airborne troops either to seize Caen or to deepen the bridgehead on XXX Corps front. It is clear now that Caen can be taken only by set-piece assault and we do not have the men or ammunition for that at this time".148 After the war he remarked "this attack by 7th Armoured Division should have succeeded. My feeling that Bucknall and Erskine would have to go started with that failure ... the whole handling of that battle was a disgrace. Their decision to withdraw [from Villers-Bocage] was done by the corps commander and Erskine."149 Although D'Este calls Dempsey's comments "excessively harsh",150 historians generally support them, suggesting that a great opportunity to swiftly capture Caen was squandered by Bucknall.127151152 Fully supporting Dempsey, John Buckley claims that Bucknall was unprepared to support the attack once problems developed and that Erskine was not suited to the task at hand.153 Major Ellis is somewhat less critical, calling the immediate result of the fighting "disappointing" but stating that with Panzerlehr's stubborn resistance and the unexpected arrival of the 2nd Panzer Division, the 7th Armoured Division "could hardly have achieved full success".154 However this view is refuted by Michael Reynolds, who notes "2nd Panzer's tanks were nowhere near Villers-Bocage at this time".9

Hubert Meyer claims the main reason for the failure of Perch was the inability of the 50th Division and its supporting armour to make head way against the Panzer-Lehr-Division, the collapse of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Divisions attack and the speedy counterattack launched by the lead elements of the 2nd Panzer Division.155 A further reason given for the operation's failure is that insufficient infantry was allotted to the offensive. Michael Reynolds notes that two infantry battalions and most of the 7th Armoured Division's 1st Rifle Brigade were uncommitted throughout 13 June. He further identifies three unemployed infantry brigades that could have been committed to the right hook with 7th Armoured when it went into action; he blames Bucknall for failing to concentrate enough force at the right place and the right time.156 This analysis is supported by D'Este, although Bucknall defended his decision claiming "49 [Division] ... [had] no recent battle experience and it was important to launch them nicely into their first fighting in a properly coordinated battle, and not bundle them helter-skelter into hot armoured scrapping like that around V[illers]-B[ocage] and Amaye."157 According to John Buckley, the most crucial factor in the operation's failure was a corresponding failure at the command level.153 Historian Terry Copp notes that Miles Dempsey continued to underestimate the German strength and commitment to defending the ground they held63 while Mungo Melvin states that Dempsey and the Second Army displayed weakness in handling its subordinate formations; not giving their subordinates definite tasks, clear intentions and allowing the subordinate formations the liberty to arrange how they would be carried out (which would appear to be a criticism of 'mission command').158

Chester Wilmot casts a different light on the result of Operation Perch, calling it a strategic success. "By the premature commitment of his armour, Rommel had delayed the British advance, but in the process he had played into Montgomery's hands for, once the panzer divisions were locked into battle with Second Army, they could not be used for their proper offensive task."148 Historian Stephen Badsey notes that Montgomery’s message to Bradley, "Caen is the key to Cherbourg", held much truth; the British threat of a breakout past Caen immobilised the German armoured divisions forcing them remain committed on the British front and unable to counterattack the Americans. Badsey states that Hitler’s interference in the campaign saved Rommel's military reputation; due to the unsuitability of the Cotentin for armoured operations, the difficulties involved in moving and supplying such a redeployment and the strength of the Anglo-Canadian force would have led to a more rapid and complete defeat of the German army in Normandy. Badsey also notes that Hitler’s order on 12 June set the attritional agenda for the rest of the campaign.42

Notes

Footnotes
  1. ^ "The quick capture of that key city [Caen] and the neighbourhood of Carpiquet was the most ambitious, the most difficult and the most important task of Lieutenant-General J.T. Crocker's I Corps".12 Wilmot states "The objectives given to Crocker's seaborne divisions were decidedly ambitious, since his troops were to land last, on the most exposed beaches, with the farthest to go, against what was potentially the greatest opposition."13 However Miles Dempsey always considered the possibility that the immediate seizure of Caen might fail.3
  2. ^ Wild Oats was planned by Miles Dempsey and the staff of 2nd Army5
  3. ^ The division contained 237 tanks and assault guns as well as double the number of half-tracked vehicles when compared to other panzer divisions, a total of 658.8
  4. ^ Hastings, quoting a post-war interview of Bayerlein, the division's commander, gives losses of 130 trucks, five tanks, and 84 self-propelled guns and other vehicles, of a total complement of over 3000 vehicles.31 However historian Niklas Zetterling calls these losses exaggerated. He states that the Panzerlehr records show the loss of only 92 vehicles during the whole of June 1944.32 Steinhardt quotes Ritgen, author of the divisional history and the commander of 2nd Battalion of the 130th Panzer Regiment's maintenance company during this battle, as saying that Bayerlein's numbers are "probably in excess of reality".33
  5. ^ Reynolds also mentions the 3rd Parachute Division being sent to cover the gap,52 but Harrison claims the 2nd Parachute Corps was diverted to the Carentan sector53
  6. ^ Daniel Taylor states that only the lead tank was destroyed,67 while George Forty claims that two tanks were lost.68
  7. ^ The town was found to be occupied by two companies of the 2nd Panzer Division's reconnaissance battalion; the US 1st Infantry Division took part of the town on 12 June and the remainder the following day.64
  8. ^ The Brigade group consisted of the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade,72 1/5th Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey),61 1/7th Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey), 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars,72 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own),61 and the 260th Anti-Tank Battery72
  9. ^ Taylor claims four Tiger tanks engaged the British tanks in this initial ambush; three tanks to the south of the road and a fourth to the north of the road.74
  10. ^ Panzerlehr casualties comprised 490 killed in action, 1,809 wounded and 673 missing. Tank and assault guns included the loss of 24 Panzer IVs and 23 Panther tanks had been knocked out.32
  11. ^ 12th SS Panzer Division's casualties comprised 405 killed in action, 847 wounded and 165 missing. Tank losses consisted of 26 Panzer IVs and 15 Panthers.137
Citations
  1. ^ a b c d e Taylor, p. 9
  2. ^ a b c d e f Forty, p. 36
  3. ^ a b c d e f Buckley (2004), p. 23
  4. ^ a b Stacey, p. 142
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Buckley (2004), p. 24
  6. ^ a b c Reynolds, p. 71
  7. ^ a b c d e Ellis, p. 247
  8. ^ a b c d e Forty, p. 29
  9. ^ a b c Reynolds, p. 109
  10. ^ a b Reynold, pp. 99–100
  11. ^ Williams, p. 24
  12. ^ Ellis, p. 171
  13. ^ Wilmot, p. 273
  14. ^ Ellis, p. 78
  15. ^ Ellis, p. 81
  16. ^ Van-Der-Vat, p. 146
  17. ^ a b Trew, p. 22
  18. ^ Clay, p. 238
  19. ^ a b Gill, p. 22
  20. ^ Clay, p. 247
  21. ^ Stacey, p. 114
  22. ^ Buckley (2007), pp. 58–59
  23. ^ Randell, p. 11
  24. ^ a b c d Buckley (2006), p. 59
  25. ^ Wilmot, pp. 284–286
  26. ^ Hastings, p. 155
  27. ^ Meyer, pp. 296 – 297
  28. ^ a b Hastings, p. 154
  29. ^ Hastings, p. 147
  30. ^ Forty, pp. 38–39
  31. ^ Hastings, p. 151
  32. ^ a b Zetterling, Panzer-Lehr Division
  33. ^ Steinhardt, p. 63
  34. ^ Forty, p. 39
  35. ^ Reynolds, p. 73
  36. ^ Buckley (2007), p.60
  37. ^ Reynolds, pp. 63–71
  38. ^ a b Gill, p. 24
  39. ^ Clay, p. 254
  40. ^ Clay, p. 256
  41. ^ a b Forty, p. 37
  42. ^ a b Buckley (2007), p. 61
  43. ^ Fortin, p. 44
  44. ^ a b Ellis, p. 248
  45. ^ a b Ellis, p. 250
  46. ^ Stacey, p. 140
  47. ^ Ellis, p. 249
  48. ^ a b Harrison, p. 370
  49. ^ Harrison, p. 369
  50. ^ Weigley, pp. 109–110
  51. ^ a b Harrison, p. 373
  52. ^ Reynolds (2001), p. 96
  53. ^ Harrison, p. 371
  54. ^ a b Forty, p. 57
  55. ^ Reynolds, p. 100
  56. ^ Reynolds, pp. 80, 99
  57. ^ a b Hart, p. 134
  58. ^ a b c Wilmot, p. 308
  59. ^ Forty, p. 47
  60. ^ Clay, p. 257
  61. ^ a b c d Ellis, p. 254
  62. ^ a b c Taylor, p. 10
  63. ^ a b c Copp, p. 76
  64. ^ a b Harrison, p. 374
  65. ^ a b c d e Forty, p. 50
  66. ^ a b Fortin, p. 13
  67. ^ a b c Taylor, p. 11
  68. ^ Forty, p. 126
  69. ^ Marie, p. 53
  70. ^ Taylor, pp. 11–12
  71. ^ a b Taylor, p. 12
  72. ^ a b c Forty, p. 51
  73. ^ a b Taylor, p. 16
  74. ^ a b Taylor, p. 19
  75. ^ Forty, pp. 57, 58, 66
  76. ^ Buckley (2004), p. 25
  77. ^ Reynolds, p. 103
  78. ^ Taylor, pp. 23–33
  79. ^ Forty, pp. 63–64
  80. ^ Forty, p. 65
  81. ^ a b Taylor, p. 33
  82. ^ Forty, p. 66
  83. ^ a b Taylor, p. 43
  84. ^ a b Forty, p. 74
  85. ^ Forty, p. 73
  86. ^ Taylor, p. 56
  87. ^ Reynolds, p. 104
  88. ^ Taylor, p. 59
  89. ^ Taylor, pp. 65, 67
  90. ^ Taylor, p. 69
  91. ^ a b Taylor, p. 76
  92. ^ a b Forty, p. 76
  93. ^ Stacey, p. 143
  94. ^ a b Forty, p. 90
  95. ^ a b c d Ellis, p. 255
  96. ^ a b c d Clay, p. 262
  97. ^ Forty, pp. 163–164
  98. ^ Forty, pp. 169, 174–175
  99. ^ a b c d Forty, p. 91
  100. ^ a b Forty, p. 92
  101. ^ Clay, pp. 261–262
  102. ^ Forty, p. 168
  103. ^ a b c Forty, p. 172
  104. ^ Forty, p. 169
  105. ^ Forty, pp. 172–173
  106. ^ Forty, pp. 174–176
  107. ^ Forty, p. 94
  108. ^ D'Este, p. 184
  109. ^ Taylor, pp. 76–77
  110. ^ Marie, p. 121
  111. ^ Forty, p. 81
  112. ^ a b Forty, p. 78
  113. ^ Lindsay, p. 40
  114. ^ Delaforce, p. 39
  115. ^ Forty, p. 77
  116. ^ a b c d e f g h Taylor, p. 77
  117. ^ Marie, p. 120
  118. ^ Forty, p. 159
  119. ^ a b Reynolds, p. 110
  120. ^ a b c d e f Taylor, p. 78
  121. ^ Forty, p. 83
  122. ^ Forty, p. 82
  123. ^ a b Forty, p. 85
  124. ^ Forty, p. 84
  125. ^ Forty, p. 160
  126. ^ a b Forty, pp. 86–87
  127. ^ a b Reynolds, p. 107
  128. ^ Forty, p. 87
  129. ^ Clay, p. 263
  130. ^ a b Clay, pp. 262–263
  131. ^ Gill, p. 27
  132. ^ Forty, p. 182
  133. ^ Clay, p. 264
  134. ^ Fortin, p. 69
  135. ^ Williams, p. 114
  136. ^ Rodger, pp. 241–242
  137. ^ Zetterling, 12. SS-Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend"
  138. ^ Zetterling, 21. Panzer Division
  139. ^ Meyer, p. 237
  140. ^ Zetterling, 101. SS-Pz.Abt.
  141. ^ a b Forty, p. 100
  142. ^ Lindsay, pp. 32–34
  143. ^ Marie,p. 53
  144. ^ Ellis, p. 253
  145. ^ D'Este, p. 175
  146. ^ Delaforce, p. 32
  147. ^ Reynolds, p. 99
  148. ^ a b Wilmot, p. 311
  149. ^ D'Este, p. 196
  150. ^ D'Este, p. 197
  151. ^ D'Este, pp. 197–198
  152. ^ Wilmot, pp. 310–311
  153. ^ a b Buckley (2004), p. 27
  154. ^ Ellis, p. 256
  155. ^ Meyer, pp. 236–237
  156. ^ Reynolds, p. 108
  157. ^ D'Este, p. 191
  158. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 29

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