Scottish Lion On Patrol Ch 7
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Into Battle (Caen Front)

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The fields of St Gabriel were a quiet introduction to life in a Normandy of war, and the slit trenches that were dug were only a little deeper than the token slit trenches of exercises. I t was not easy to realise that only a few miles away the rest of the 15th Scottish Division, having landed more than a week earlier, was fighting the battle which has been called-in its honour-the Battle of the Scottish Corridor. Its official title was more prosaic - Operation Epsom. The regiment had arrived just in time to join in its closing stages, unspectacularly but not without loss. The division's attack, supported by the 7th and 9th Royal Tanks and 320 guns, started from Le Mesnil - Patry and Norrey en Bessin on the morning of June 26th. Now the maps showed a long finger jabbed into the German lines, a finger which covered Cheux and had its tip beyond the Odon at Mondrainville, where the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had captured the bridge intact. The ground won, nearly six miles forward and in places only 2500 yards wide, was being held against counter-attacks by men and tanks of seven panzer divisions. On the evening of June 29th the regiment received orders to move from St Gabriel to Putot en Bessin on the following day to become divisional reserve, and long before light on June 30th the harbour parties, with Major MacDiarmid in charge, were groping their way forward by torchlight and the flashes of the guns astride the main Caen-Bayeux road. There was much traffic in the darkness. There was much when the main body of the regiment moved soon after dawn. So many vehicles and guns had been poured into the bridgehead that the roads were nearly always crowded. The distance to Putot en Bessin, through Coulombs, Le Parc and along the Bayeux-Caen road, was only about seven miles, but the journey took several hours. As soon as the regiment had reached its place among the barking guns in the fields just west of Putot en Bessin C Squadron was given a warning order to move forward and take up a position under the command of 44 Brigade. Major Mills left for brigade headquarters, and troop com-manders for an RVat Cheux.

The close fighting of the Caen front, in which armieswere locked like wrestlers straining toe to toe, gave no scope for the employment of the regiment as a whole in the type of reconnaissance for which it was best equipped. Until the opportunity for this occurred the unit was used piecemeal as the division's odd jobman-occupied variously as infantryman, traffic policeman, messenger, chauffeur, ambulance man. The one essay in squadron reconnaissance on this sector brought out the difficulties which attended such a venture if it started while the infantry were already closely engaged with an obstinate enemy. But that had no place in this first battle. The first task, which had fallen to C Squadron, was to assume the role of infantry and fill a gap on the boundary between VIII Corps and XXX Corps, which was on the right. The position was about a mile south of Le Haut du Bosq. Just before noon that day, June 30th, the squadron started from Putot en Bessin on its first slow, bumpy, dusty, unforgettable journey to the front. The roads were tracks. Maps were useful only to give the general direction; the important thing was to have sharp eyes for, and blind faith in, the signs "Ship Route Up".  The way was between fields where tanks were scattered while their crews re-equipped them after battle, brewed tea and rested. From the top of a rise the country looked so full of 25-pounders that it seemed impossible that room could be found for even one more. Groups of infantry trudged forward, glancing enviously at the vehicles which made the dust clouds that  enveloped them. Other groups were coming back, escorting a few wretched-looking prisoners. At the men tramping back, at the men beside the tanks, C Squadron stared curiously. They were men who were different, for all the sameness of battle dress; they were men who had been in battle. Faith in "Ship Route Up" was not misplaced, and in the rubble and smell of Cheux the squadron found its troop commanders waiting.

In the early afternoon the squadron took up a position which was of necessity very different from the positions advised in military text books. The area was thickly wooded, and the field of fire was not more than two hundred yards. Vehicles were lined along a hedge on a front of nearly four hundred yards. There were no anti-tank guns, as they had landed only that morning. Wondering what was in the wood in front, straining to identify among the many noises those which betokened danger, the squadron dug furiously, and hoped. Shortly after midnight the positions were heavily mortared, and C Squadron suffered the regiment's first casualties. Sgt Cameron was killed, and Tpr Beard was fatally wounded. Lieut White, Sgt Collins, L/Cpl King, L/Cpl Mincedorf and Tpr Bateman also were wounded. They were sent back through the infantry under difficulties and later the regiment learned that Lieut White, one of its ablest and best liked troop commanders, who had served unscathed in the B.E.F., had to lose a leg and two fingers. That morning some of the laughter had gone from C Squadron's world. But there was not much time to dwell on the loss of comrades. At eight o'clock the air shook with a louder thunder of artillery; the Germans had counter-attacked to the south. For more than two hours, armoured car crews at their guns and. carrier crews in slit trenches stared anxiously at the wood, where a section of the assault troop was posted to give the alarm. But the German attack did not spread to those four hundred yards, and by noon the situation had become calm enough for the squadron to dig deeper.

Back at Putot en Bessin, RHQ had become the first part of the regiment to experience enemy shellfire somewhat to its own surprise and certainly to the loss of some of its dignity. This happened not long after C Squadron had left on June 30th. Everybody was becoming accustomed to the shriek of shells which followed the crack of the guns in the neighbouring fields, and the dinner queue at the cook's truck did not realise until two shells had burst that this time the crack followed the whine. The awful truth seemed to explode in every mind at once. In a few moments, the only people who remained above the ground were the colonel, sitting at his wireless and calling for a "shellrep", his wireless operator, and those who lay prone under the cook's truck, having been slow starters in the race to the slit trenches. In the rush a plate of rice pudding, borne in the second " wave", spread itself over the head of one of the swift starters who had already reached the comforting depths of a trench. That was the only direct hit, although twenty-five shrapnel shells exploded over the area and there were casualties nearby. RHQ's sharpened preception of war was summed up by the action of the trooper who did not emerge from his trench when the shelling stopped, but groped over the edge for a spade and pick. In the evening, RHQ and A Squadron watched a stream of Lancasters and Halifaxes fly relentlessly through a curtain of anti-aircraft shells and drop 1500 tons of bombs on Villers Bocage, eight miles to the south, where an armoured counter-attack was believed to be gathering. The dust and smoke from the flattened town spread over the area like a fog.

On the morning of July 1st, while C Squadron was anxiously scanning the wood to its front, A Squadron was ordered to move forward and fill another gap in the Haut du Bosq area, where C Squadron and the King's Own Scottish Borderers, of 44 Brigade, were out of contact with the 49th Reconnaissance Regiment, the XXX Corps unit on the right of them. The gap was so wide that A Squadron, deployed as infantry, never got into touch with the troops on the right. Only one platoon of the Borderers could be spared to cover the squadron as it took up position and dug. At first there were no anti-tank weapons available, except the PIA T, but a few tanks from 34 Brigade arrived in time to ward off an attack by German tanks, some of which were hit. Digging was punctuated by the groan and crump of German mortar bombs, and there were casualties in 4 Troop. Sgt D. Heath and Tpr Milligan were wounded.

In the afternoon the regiment's anti-tank guns, their waterproofing hurriedly removed after their later landing, reached the forward area, and were quickly sited on both squadron fronts. The gun crews regarded their field of fireonly two hundred yardswith pained surprise, but, whatever their private misgivings on this score, their presence' gave a feeling of greater security to the two squadrons throughout an uneventful night and a day that was quieter than the one before. That day, July 2nd, 44 Brigade was relieved by 160 Brigade of the 53rd Welsh Division, and in the evening A and C Squadrons, their places taken by squadrons of the 53rd Reconnaissance Regiment, were able to go from the smell of dead cows and horses to the purer air of Secqueville en Bessin, where the regiment was concentrated in reserve. The 15th Scottish Division's first battle was over. The regiment's part had been the smallest, and the pride with which it read the praises that followed was the pride of one member of a family in the achievements of his brothers. Special Orders of the Day were issued by Major-General MacMillan (" I am proud indeed of all officers and men in this division.") and Sir Richard O'Connor ("Your courage, tenacity and general fighting qualities have confirmed in battle the high opinion I have always held of you."). "Scotland can well feel proud of the.
15th Scottish Division," wrote Montgomery, and Sir Miles Dempsey, the army commander: "It has been a great start, and you have every right to be proud of yourselves."

Somehow war's rough hand had brushed lightly over Secqueville en Bessin, a pale village clinging to the skirts of its old church, cupped among low green hills. Large guns still spoke loudly from the hollow, and at night the red balls of tracer floated lazily up to an inquisitive German plane, but the village had already become the sanctuary of cattle that had survived bullet and bomb, mine and shell. They crowded a large field, lowing and forlorn, but not so forlorn as the stiff legs and swollen bodies in the fields of Cheux. The regiment made itself comfortable on hillside and in hollow, stretching tarpaulins from the sides of vehicles to make tents over the shallow trenches. Weapons were cleaned, batteries charged, vehicles maintained and experiments carried out with baths which ranged from a petrol tin for each leg to a tarpaulin lining a hole. The results of the latter method surprised those who had not realised that the sheet was heavily tarred. Peasant girls going to milking stood agape. A brief entry in Lieut Sadgrove's diary is eloquent of another important activity of those days: " July 4-rained all day. Not a good drying day." Parties marched to Cully, a little more than a mile away, to visit the mobile cinema. A football match in which there were three balls, three referees and 240 players was won by A Squadron, and a basketball tournament by C Squadron's 10 Troop.

While the regiment played and rested maps displayed at RHQ and squadron headquarters showed the changing line of battle, and welfare wireless sets boomed the news from London of what was happening within half an hour's drive of Secqueville en Bessin. On July 7th the hill above the village became a grandstand from which to watch the R.A.F. drop two thousand tons of bombs on the industrial district of Caen as a prelude to the attack in which the 3rd British, 3rd Canadian and 59th Divisions occupied the whole of the town north and west of the Orne. On July 8th, A Squadron was warned to be ready to move. It was to be placed under the command of 46 Brigade with the object of helping to mop up the area west of Caen and Carpiquet.

On July 9th A Squadron moved off, flying the pennants which distinguished troop from troop. The sign of 1 Troop was a flying pig, while 2 Troop paid a compliment to its commander, Michael Blair, by flying a bulldog astride a rugby ball. Billie the Bun, by which 3 Troop was known, was inspired by a little rabbit which travelled in a car turret but always kept out of the way in action. Less inventive, 4 Troop paraded its number. After threading its way through the traffic on roads and tracks, the squadron halted in a cornfield near Verson, dug deeply and slept fitfully. Its orders for July l0th were to reconnoitre in front of the brigade in the direction of Verson, Eterville and Maltot with the intention of reaching the Orne about half a mile beyond Maltot. It was thought that the area was fairly clear of Germans. In fact, they were in great strength on the reverse slopes behind Eterville. Approaching Eterville, the squadron was attacked by enemy fighter planes, and Sgt Robinson, of 1 Troop, firing a Bren, shot one down in flames.

The operation was planned to begin with the capture of Eterville by a battalion of the 43rd Division, after which the 9th Cameronians were to pass through, with A Squadron unleashed in front of them, to gain the high ground dominating the river. The Wessex bat-talion, however, was unable to capture the village, and, instead of passing through, the Cameronians had to take over and clear it. They were already fighting when the three reconnaissance troops of A Squadron were sent forward: 2 Troop (Lieut Blair) leading, Troop (Lieut J. M. Arundel) next and 1 Troop (Lieut G. R Blount) last. The road through the village was blocked by burning vehicles and the village church, which had collapsed across it. Lieut Blair's troop found a way round, through a field and a farmyard, and made good progress to the area of Louvigny, where it came upon German infantry and shot some of them.

After crossing the main Caen-Eterville road, 3 Troop, heading for Maltot, also met enemy infantry, who disappeared into the cornfields. Lieut Arundel called his carriers forward to support the armoured cars, with which he intended to cut through the enemy and reach the river. Tpr J. Connor, who was in a carrier, has given this account of what happened:



The situation was extremely tricky, as the whole troop was perched on the top of a hill, from which we could see the opposite bank of the river. The Brens in the carriers and the Besas in the armoured cars were firing at the enemy snipers, who would pop up, fire and dive back into the corn. My carrier commander, Sgt Munton, told me to keep their heads down with bursts from my Bren. I did. I saw two J erries rise at once and had a go at them, but I do not know whether I got them. My gun slipped from its resting place and fired through the front of the carrier above the driver's head; my head was bleeding slightly, and for a moment I thought that the holes in the carrier had been caused by German bullets.



A smoke screen on the right flank cleared, and five German tanks, which had been hidden behind it, opened fire, dispersing the troop and knocking out the two leading armoured cars. Sgt Ireland and his crew escaped from one, but in the other big, bluff, kind John Arundel and his driver and friend, Tpr Griffiths, were killed, although it was ten days before the regiment could find out what had happened to them.

Because the battle was not what had been planned, the enemy resistance being fiercer than had been expected, 1 Troop was ordered to abandon its original task and to consolidate on the left flank of the Cameronians and prevent the enemy from infiltrating back into Eterville. It came under heavy fire. Major Rowlands, the squadron commander, was in his reconnaissance car when it was hit by a shell, and for twenty-four hours nobody knew what had happened to him. Then it was found that he had been seriously wounded, and his driver, Tpr C. H. G. Ballard, killed. In the meantime Capt Davies, the second-in- command, was directing the squadron. Lieut Blair's troop, having met the Canadians near Caen, found its return route blocked, and reconnoitred another, thus adding to valuable information which the squadron was able to give 46 Brigade at a cost that day of twenty casualties. L/Cpl J. R. Hutchinson was killed, and Cpl J. Innes was fatally wounded.

That evening the squadron harboured just south of Verson, but found little rest. This section of the front was mortared repeatedly, and a German plane dropped a stick of bombs in the harbour. During the night the squadron was lent to 214 Brigade and ordered to dig itself into position before dawn on an exposed flank of the brigade, which was trying to establish itself on Point 112. This was high ground which dominated the area, and in the fighting for it many infantrymen of both armies lost their lives. It had been captured by 129 Brigade on July loth, but counter-attacks in the evening drove the brigade to the west. To obtain exact information about a confused situation 214 Brigade sent officer patrols from A Squadron to
the forward battalions on July 11th. After these patrols had made their reports the squadron was given permission to return to Secqueville en Bessin.

The interlude of Secqueville en Bessin was ended by Operation Greenline, an attack on the far side of the Odon towards Evrecy. Its object was twofold: to deepen the bridgehead, and to draw German forces away from the First United States Army on the right. The regiment's part was to have been fourfold, but owing to lack of opportunity C Squadron was not called
upon to go into action with 227 Brigade, under whose command it was placed. Light cars driven by Tpr Yount and Tpr Flavell were lent to the commanders of 44 and 227 Brigades as "chargers" ; A Squadron's carriers, commanded by Lieut Gordon Dalton, brought wounded over ground which ambulances could not cover; and RHQ, part of A Squadron and part of
Headquarter Squadron became an organisation for controlling the traffic approaching and crossing the Odon. Traffic points were set up on five routes, called Hereford, Dundee, Quarry 2, Coal I and Coal 2. RHQ, the control headquarters, established itself in an orchard where Quarry route turned off the main Verson road. "Doc" Watson, the regiment's genial new medical officer, had his post among the disordered contents of the house on the opposite side of the Verson road. C Squadron moved into fields near Verson on the night of July 13th, and on July 15th the traffic control organisation took up its positions, which were linked by lines laid and courageously maintained in the face of dangers and difficulties by signallers of the 11th Armoured Division.

The attack opened on the night of July 15th in artificial moonlight supplied by batteries of searchlights. The crossroads Le Bon Repos, within a thousand yards of Esquay, and the high road to the west were secured by 227 Brigade, whose commander,
Brigadier J. R. Mackintosh-Walker, was killed by a mortar bomb. Next day 44 Brigade captured Gavrus and Bougy, but counter-attacks and mortaring prevented further advances. C Squadron went forward to an orchard between Baron and Gournay, but after waiting under shellfire was sent back to harbour.

Mortar bombs and shells burst frequently on the roads to the Odon and the crossings of the river. One of the casualties was Lieut Blair, who was fatally wounded by a mortar bomb at his traffic point. This was a blow to his troop, his squadron and the regiment. Everybody liked this stocky, dark-haired Scottish rugby footballer, and everybody respected his soldierly qualities. Tpr G. J. Grant was killed, and when C Squadron's harbour was mortared Tpr D. B. Torrance was fatally wounded.

On the night of July 16th, low-flying planes bombed the Verson road, where a long line of tanks was waiting. Sgt Millroy, bringing dispatches to RHQ, swore his way from ditch to ditch along this unpleasant stretch of road after Tpr Merryman's jeep, in which he had been riding, had collided with a carrier in the darkness near Verson. On the night of July 17th the Scottish Division was relieved by the Welsh, and the 53rd Reconnaissance Regt took over traffic control. Lieut-Colonel Grant Peterkin had a lucky escape when a shell burst close to him in the orchard.

The traffic control parties' made their way back to the rest of the regiment, now harboured near Fontenay Ie Pesnel, south of Cheux, under the long black barrels of 155 mm guns-Long Toms. That night flares lit the harbour, and German planes attacked. Cpl H. A. Ward, a professional footballer and a mainstay of the A Squadron team, was killed. So was Tpr R. Forster, another member of A Squadron. Seven vehicles, including two ammunition trucks, were set on fire, and a party quickly organised by Lieut Blount drove the other vehicles clear of the blaze and the exploding ammunition. The fire burned for several hours, but no more planes came. Next day, C Squadron found the explosive from a German Beetle tank in the middle of its area, and, thinking on the night's events, moved to another field.

B Squadron, the residue, arrived on July 19th, full of enthusiasm, eager to hear what the regiment had done and learned, and remarkably forbearing in the face of "old soldier" airs and tall stories. Rain fell heavily on the dusty fields for several days. Umbrellas appeared-whence, nobody knew-and Capt Kemp, the P.R.I., produced the first liquor ration with the air of one consciously performing a great public service. On July 21st, the three assault troops, commanded by Lieut R. W. Parker (A Squadron), Lieut G. J. Harvey (B) and Lieut K. B. M. Shirley (C), were combined to form Macforce and sent under Major MacDiarmid's command to help the 7th Seaforth, who were holding positions in the area of Le Baltru. What life was like there has been described by one of Macforce :-



The position was high ground, with a valley and high ground in front of us-a lousy place that stank to high heaven. It rained like hell for the first two days, and we were mortared. The infantry were down to eight men to a platoon and were very tired. They rested while we manned forward posts and patrolled. One of the posts, right. down in the wooded valley, was periodically cut off. We had German patrols coming and looking at us. A patrol of three men from each troop was sent out on reconnaissance, down through the valley and up the other side, and as it was crossing a field it saw that the hedge in front was lined with German machine guns. These opened up when the patrol was backing out, but everybody except Tpr W. J. Pugh, of C Squadron, who was killed, managed to get back. Another patrol, looking for the Germans in the blackness of a rainy night, was nearly shelled by our guns. During a burst of German gunfire one member of Macforce mistook a latrine for a slit trench in his dive to avoid a shell which killed two infantrymen in a slit trench nearby.



  
  
  
  
  
  
 


 

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