Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Bad Day

Tilly-sur-Seulles was one of the fiercest battles the British faced in Normandy. It was on the eastern end of a defensive line held by the elite Panzer Lehr Regiment.  The village held out for a number of weeks and involved many engagements. The final capture of Tilly-sur-Seulles was completed by the 2nd Essex Battalion which had had a bad time in Normandy.
Looking for mines in the aftermath of the battle
The 2nd Essex was landed on D-Day, and as British forces pushed inland it was moved up with the rest of the 56th Infantry Brigade to provided the needed additional infantry to the 7th Armoured Division.  The need for infantry was due to the Bocage country.  The 2nd Essex was sent with the 5th Royal Tank Regiment through Bernières-Bocage to cut the Tilly-sur-Seulles road. On their way they had to size a place called Verrières Wood.

From the 2nd Essex's position they had to cross 1500 yards of open ground, and that was uphill. Verrières Wood stretched from the crest line down the other side of the hill, and was in a perfect reverse slope position. The first 1400 yards was an open cornfield, the last 100 yards didn't even have the half grown wheat as cover as it was just a meadow.
Verrières Wood is the line of tree's in the distance, this was the view that greeted the men of the 2nd Essex.

There was meant to be tank support, however it never showed up, mostly in part due to confusion within the 7th Armoured Division as to their role.  At the same time as the 2nd Essex was planning its attack the 7th Armoured had been tasked with an end run through a gap in the German lines.  They were to pass around the western flank of the Panzer Lehr line, and to their date with destiny, as after their movement they were to end up a place called Villers-Bocage.
So at 1800 on the 11th of June, the 2nd Essex moved out expecting tank support. In perfect formation they waded through the corn, like a week earlier they'd waded through the Normandy surf.
An artillery bombardment was falling on the woods to give them cover. After the first 500 yards nothing had happened, the tension was rising as they marched forward. The corn field was brightly light by the sun in the pure blue sky, if the Germans were in the wood they couldn't fail to miss them.
After another 500 yards the Germans revealed their positions. Showers of mortar bombs and tank HE started landing along the line. The men of the 2nd Essex continued to stride into the haze caused by the barrage, firing from the hip as they went. Whenever the scream of incoming shells was heard the line would throw itself flat, seconds after the explosions they'd scramble right up and continue advancing.
When they entered the meadow German infantry and machine guns began to open fire, by now the casualties had been heavy and there were holes ripped in the neat skirmish line. As the remains of the battalion closed with the Germans they had bayonets fixed and ready to assault the German position. But the Germans withdrew suddenly.

The English battalion pushed through the wood and found the Germans on the other side. Some had taken up defensive positions in a small farm that was assaulted and cleared by a single platoon.
However the Germans had a sizeable force in the next line of trees, so the Essex men held their position and dug in.

As German forces often did they launched an immediate counter attack. A battalion of tanks rushed at the battered Essex battalion. With only PIATs to stop them they tried their best but were running out of ammunition. The German tanks simply overran the line. However, the English soldiers held their ground, dug into simple slit trenches the battalion commander called the artillery down on his position, knowing his men would be protected by the trenches.
Equally at this point the Germans were running low on ammunition and were using AP rounds from their main guns in desperation. The dogged resistance caused the initial German attack to fall back. They carried on assaulting throughout the night, including at one point bringing up half track flamethrowers.
In the early hours of the morning the battalion anti-tank company deployed forward.  At about the same time a platoon of M10C Achilles was brought up to the front. It's a matter of debate why the AT guns were not brought up sooner, and while the Battalion Commander was removed from post overnight for this error, one should remember the exposed advance and the fact that tanks were rampaging around inside the wood, and should one of those meet the Carriers with their guns limbered the results would have been deadly.

As morning approached the battalion Padre appeared at the front. The vicious fighting had been raging all night and numerous Germans had been cut down as they advanced, many were wounded and still in no-mans land calling out for help. The Padre began to venture out in the darkness, alone and unarmed, to rescue or if they were too badly wounded tend to them.

Later that morning the anti-tank company formed a screen, allowing the rest of the battalion to withdraw. After the infantry had swept their line of advance and pulled back the Carriers were bought up and hitched to the guns. As they did so the Germans spotted them and their withdrawal. Several Panther tanks began to take shots at the Carriers, however all the anti-tank company made it away without a casualty.
By the time the 2nd Essex reached safety the three infantry companies were reduced to the strength of just one, and a large portion of the officers were amongst the casualties. Over the next week replacements began to fill out the ranks. On the 17th the 2nd Essex was detailed to capture Tilly-sur-Seulles. Several other assaults by infantry regiments had been put in against the village over the previous week, and all had been repulsed.
This time however supporting attacks covering the flanks would also be launched, and the 2nd Essex would be joined by 81st Assault Squadron. The 81st was equipped with the Churchill AVRE. They'd been part of the assault waves on D-Day, and had lost four tanks, two had drowned and two had been knocked out by enemy action.
The assault started at 1600 on the 17th of June. As the tanks and infantry pushed down the road fierce fighting erupted. One of the AVRE's was nearing the cross roads, spraying machine gun fire into likely looking bushes. Its gunner was Sapper Sydney Blaskett. Suddenly just in front of the tank a Panther appeared at the short range of only 50 yards.
Load Dustbin!
 Under orders from his commander Spr Blaskett rotated the turret round.  The cavernous maw of the 290mm Spigot Mortar was stuffed with the 40Lb "Flying Dustbin". With a bang the heavy projectile was hurled towards the Panther. It whirled through the air, arcing straight towards the point of aim. Spr Blaskett had aimed his shot at the Panthers turret ring. The round exploded after hitting a telegraph pole three feet away from the Panther. When the explosion had cleared the Panther was still, and never moved again. The blast from the round had put it out of action.