Purchase these Items
 

 

Overlord (FW115)

OPERATION EPSOM

By Richard Chambers

Background

Despite all the fears of the Allied commanders and some initial setbacks, overall the D-Day assault on Fortress Europe had been a great success. With their overwhelming air and naval superiority, as each day passed it became increasingly unlikely that the growing numbers of American, British and Canadian troops could be dislodged from the beachhead and thrown back into the sea.

However, as with all military endeavours, everything had not quite gone according to the carefully laid plans. Caen, the strategically important city south of the Sword beach had not been taken by the end of the first day, as the Allied Land Forces Commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery had wanted. Subsequent attempts to outflank the city, first on the east by the 51st Highland Division and then in the west by the ill-fated 7th Armoured Division in Operation Perch had also both failed. 

Although delayed by ‘The Great Storm’, Montgomery continued to prepare his third attempt to capture the city – Operation Epsom. This would be the largest Allied offensive since D-Day and would involve Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps overwhelming the German lines on a four mile wide front to the west of Caen, advancing through Cheux, forcing crossings on the Odon and Orne rivers and seizing the high ground at Bretteville-sur-Laize which dominated the southern approaches to the city. Success in this operation would force the Germans to abandon Caen.

To assist O’Connor’s men, XXX Corps would cover VIII Corp’s right flank and take the heights which overlooked the Epsom attack area, while I Corps prepared to move on Caen if the operation was going well. 

The British

The British troops involved in the main thrust of Operation Epsom came from the VIII Corps, commanded by the desert veteran, Lt-Gen Sir Richard O’Connor.

Operation Epsom

He had been captured in North Africa during 1941, and spent two years in an Italian Prisoner of War camp before escaping after the capitulation of Italy. His corps was composed of the following units:

•    15th (Scottish) Infantry Division (44th, 46th & 227th Infantry Brigades);
•    43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division (129th, 130th & 214th Infantry Brigades); and
•    11th Armoured Division (29th Armoured Brigade & 159th Infantry Brigade)

They would be supported by the following units:

•    31st Independent Tank Brigade;
•    4th Armoured Brigade; and
•    elements of 79th Armoured Division

In total, O’Connor could field 60,000 men and over 600 tanks, although only the 4th Armoured Brigade was considered experienced, having campaigned in the Western Desert. Supporting VIII Corps were 736 guns, including those of XXX Corps and I Corps on the west and east flanks respectively, the medium and heavy regiments of the 8th Army Group Royal Artillery (AGRA) and naval gunfire support from three cruisers and the monitor, HMS Roberts at anchor in the channel. 

The RAF’s Second Tactical Air Force would provide close air support, and as a prelude to the attack, a bombing raid on the German lines would be carried out by 250 RAF heavy bombers. 

21. Panzerdivision The Germans

The German force facing the Scots and Tommies was the I SS Panzer Corps, commanded by SS-Obergruppenfűhrer (Lt-Gen) Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich. The Corps consisted of 21st Panzer Division, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, and the Panzer Lehr Division. It was the young soldiers of the Hitlerjugend that stood directly in the path of VIII Corps, with elements of 21st Panzer Division to its east and Panzer Lehr Division to its west.

Units from III Flakkorps were emplaced behind the main defensive lines and as Epsom approached Dietrich had two companies of Tigers from the SS sPzAbt 101 moved up behind the Hitlerjugend.

Many of these men had been fighting for three weeks now and despite everything that had been thrown against them they were holding strong and remained in good spirits. They knew the land they were defending thoroughly and had been using every day since the invasion to strengthen their defensive positions and carefully site machine-gun and observation posts and camouflage anti-tank guns. Their positions included the small French villages behind the main line with their stone farms and cottages that had been further fortified. I Panzer Corps was also still well equipped with tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. 

The Germans were also rushing desperately needed reinforcements to the coast.

Continually harried by the Allied air forces and the French Maquis, these units included the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and SS-Obergruppenfűhrer Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzer Corps, made up of 9th SS Panzer Division Hohnestaufen and 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg. The German commanders planned to use these newly arriving SS Panzer Divisions in a bold counter-strike to drive an armoured wedge between the American and Commonwealth armies, splitting the Allies so each could be defeated in turn.

JUNE 25

What would become Operation Epsom, began on June 25 as Operation Martlet, a supporting attack on the right flank of VIII Corps. It was carried out by the 49th (West Riding) Division Polar Bears, and 8th Armoured Brigade of the XXX Corps with 250 guns. The 49th Division’s mission was to take the Rauray spur and its surrounds, denying the German the heights from which their artillery observers could survey the Epsom attack route. 

The Polar Bears initial advance was quite successful, but the Germans quickly counter-attacked, meeting the attack with several tank companies and a battalion of SS Panzergrenadiers. 

SS Tiger crew
49th West Riding Division "Polar Bears"

By the evening the 49th Infantry Division had made some advances, yet had had not gained the Rauray spur. The Germans, thinking this was the British main attack, began to reinforce their positions in preparation for a major effort the next day. They drew units away from what would be the Epsom attack route the next morning, leaving just four battalions to face VIII Corps. Much more seriously, however, from the Allies point-of-view, the weather was deteriorating and an unseasonal rain began to fall over the Normandy battlefield.

JUNE 26

The 49th Division continued to exert pressure on Rauray, attacking before the main Epsom offensive started. However, their advance was met by the Hitlerjugend reinforcements moved into the line during the night and the attack soon stalled. 

The 12th SS commander, Kurt Meyer was then informed of the massive VIII Corps attack now underway. He quickly ordered his troops to move once again, back towards their original positions.

Due to the steady rain, the battlefield preparation by heavy bombers was cancelled and for the first time since the landings, there would be no air support for the troops. Still, after a 15 minute preliminary bombardment of massive artillery and naval gunfire, 15th Division’s 44th and 46th Brigades stepped off through the cornfields to their front at 0730hrs behind a rolling barrage. With them were the Churchills of 31st Tank Brigade and the ‘funnies’ of 79th Armoured Division. Their initial goal was the bridges over the Odon, five miles to the south.
Almost immediately they ran into heavy fire coming from German positions that had been well dug-in and had not suffered from the shelling. On some occasions, so good was the camouflage of these defensive posts that the Hitlerjugend were able to allow both the barrage and the first waves of infantry to pass them by before revealing themselves and ambushing the following troops, causing much confusion. From the small villages, farmhouses and woods on the opposite bank of the Odon scything machine-gun and mortar fire began to cut into the advancing infantry while the hidden anti-tank guns started to devastate their supporting tanks.

As the Scots moved slowly forwards into this fire the terrain began to change from open cornfields to thick bocage defended by even more enemy troops. Still, into that maelstrom the British troops stoically attacked, while the Germans defended and counter attacked. 

15th Scottish Division on the move

Villages were won and lost and won again, and by the early afternoon the British advance was three hours behind schedule.

Still it was hoped that if the 11th Armoured Division could be unleashed, they could race to the Odon and capture the bridges there. 29th Armoured Brigade, led by the division’s reconnaissance regiment began to advance on the town of Cheux, but their every move was observed from the Rauray spur and checked by concentrated artillery and tank fire.

At the end of the first day of the operation the British had pushed a shallow salient of about two miles deep into the German lines, but they had not taken the bridges over the Odon. Their attacks had been successfully fragmented and slowed by the actions of the Hitlerjugend. The Germans still possessed the vital high ground and although they had suffered considerable casualties they knew that II SS Panzer Corps were close and every delay inflicted on the British meant a better chance of eventual success.

Taking cover JUNE 27

The second day of the operation started with the 227th Infantry Brigade and the 29th Armoured Brigade attacking at 0500hrs. During the night the 43rd Division had come forward, taking over the ground already won by the Scots, freeing them up to continue their advance.

The British attack was again slow in making progress with the Highland Light Infantry’s assault on Grainville failing, but the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (2nd Argylls), supported by the 23rd Hussars seized Colleville while the 3rd Royal tank Regiment captured Mouen. 

The momentum was shifting to the Allies as the 49th Division finally took Rauray denying the German observers their panoramic view of the battle area. 

Finally at around 1700 the 2nd Argylls seized an undamaged bridge over the Odon at Tourmauville and established a small bridgehead south of the river. They were quickly joined by elements of the 23rd Hussars who were followed by the 8th Rifle Brigade and 11th Armoured Division’s 159th Infantry Brigade. As darkness fell British had achieved a springboard from which the next phase of the operation could be launched. This was Hill 112 , the next dominant piece of terrain south of the river. However, the VIII Corps salient remained extremely narrow and its flanks were still vulnerable. This slender piece of land had become known as the “Scottish Corridor”.

Escorting a prisoner to the rear
German troops move forward to head off the offensive

JUNE 28

The Germans moved to counter this success by throwing everything that was available into the line against VIII Corps, with Hill 112 being the linchpin of their defensive positions. The title Hill 112 is quite grandiose for what is really a barely noticeable ridge, running between the Odon and Orne rivers. That said however, Hill 112 was a distinct obstacle that both sides placed great value in and much blood would be spilt over. Hausser even claimed, “He who holds Hill 112, holds Normandy.”

Early in the morning of June 28, the German’s suffered another blow, when Generaloberst Friedrich Dollman, the commander of the Seventh Army, responsible for this portion of the theatre, committed suicide. 

Much of the day was wasted as a number of changes in the command structure were made with SS-Obergruppenfűhrer Paul Hausser taking command of Seventh Army while SS-Obergruppenfűhrer Willi Bittrich took over II SS Panzer Corps.

As the day progressed Grainville fell and the 2nd Argylls took another bridge over the Odon, this time at Gavrus. By now however, the first elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich had arrived at the front. They were formed in Kampfgruppe Frey and Weidinger respectively, and immediately tasked attacking the flanks of the salient and pinching off the British offensive. KG Weidinger would attack the western flank towards Mondrainville while KG Frey assaulted the eastern flank towards Colleville. Although these attacks came within one mile of linking up, they were eventually held, mainly through the use of overwhelming artillery fire. This in turn led to the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division being tasked with the clean up the British left flank, strengthening their defensive positions in preparation for the large counter-attack that was expected once II SS Panzer Corps arrived.

Meanwhile, the depth of the salient was being increased by the 23rd Hussars and 8th Rifle Brigade who advanced from the Odon bridgehead onto Hill 112 which was being held by panzergrenadiers, dug-in tanks and 8.8cm anti-aircraft guns. Despite serious losses, including 40 Shermans over the course of the day, 11th Armoured eventually drove the Hitlerjugend troops off the summit. Now the hill became a target for every German gun in range, and was subject to numerous counter-attacks. Late in the afternoon 8th Rifle Brigade was forced to withdraw to the northern slope of the hill, where surrounded on three sides they in turn dug-in.
Fighting through a headge row

At this point Montgomery, Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, Commander of the Second (British) Army, and O’Connor began to receive Ultra intelligence that II SS Panzer Corps was approaching the front and had been ordered to attack and destroy VIII Corps. They decided that it was necessary to consolidate their limited gains, ensure the safety of their flanks and to defeat this new threat before 11th Armoured could continue to advance on the Orne river. Thus despite the successes of the day, VIII Corps went onto the defensive, awaiting whatever II SS Panzer Corps could throw at them. 

JUNE 29

43rd (Wessex) Division was now in charge of the left flank and 15th (Scottish) given responsibility for the right. Their aims were to widen the corridor while the 11th Armoured retook Hill 112 and Hill 113 (another small hill to the southwest of Hill 112). With the improving weather, air support would also be available.

On the left the 1st Worcesters put in an all-infantry/artillery (no armour) attack on the village of Mouen, eventually wresting it from the tanks and panzergrenadiers of Kampfguruppe Frey. 129th Brigade , supported by the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys then moved past Mouen, crossed the Odon and started to clear the souhtern bank of the river. 159th Brigade was also active, strengthening the defences of the bridgehead and clearing out the area northwest of Baron-sur-Odon.

British Infantry aproaches Hill 112 15th (Scottish) Division attempted to widen the corridor and link up with the 2nd Argylls who had remained somewhat isolated at Gavrus. The advance of the 8th Royal Scots and 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers was opposed and the 2nd Argylls remained exposed. Meanwhile 44th Royal Tank Regiment and motor infantry struck out for Hill 113, but they ran into elements of the 10th SS Panzer Division preparing for their own attack and were forced back. On Hill 112 29th Armoured Brigade with 8th Rifle Brigade again sought to take the summit and after capturing the woods near the crest were once more pummeled by artillery and Tiger tank gunfire. The continual shelling of Hill 112 by artillery, German and British, had now reached Great War proportions; the pounding scouring the trees and grass from the hill sides.

At this point British intelligence summised that II SS Panzer Corps was about to strike and all VIII Corps offensive actions ceased and the 4th and 29th Armoured Brigades were ordered to the rear of the Odon bridgehead to form an armoured reserve for the coming battle. The British pulled back to the northern slope of Hill 112 and the initiative of the battle shifted again, back to the Germans. 

As anticipated, that afternoon 9th Panzer Division and Kampfgruppe Weidinger attacked north of the river valley aiming to take Grainville-sur-Odon, Mouen, Cheux and end up at Carpiquet airfield. 10th SS Panzer Division and Kampfgruppe Frey advanced from the south, assaulting the British defences south of the river, with Gavrus, Baron-sur-Odon and Hill 112 being their objectives.

The 9th SS Panzer Division’s main effort, a battalion of panzergrenadiers and a company of Pathers, attacked along the Noyers-Cheux road. After crossing the Rauray spur they were stopped by dug-in British infantry with anti-tank weapons, plus supporting artillery fire.

This thrust succeeded only in creating a small German salient between Rauray and Grainville. 

After their earlier clash with the British force advancing on Hill 113, the 10th SS Panzer Division attack started later and ran head-long into the waiting VIII Corps troops. Panzergrenadiers forced their way into Gavrus and pushed the 2nd Argylls back to the bridge there but could advance no further. Other units fought their way to the summit of Hill 113 but the battle lasted so long that they were unable to push onto Hill 112. As the day progressed into night the British troops were able to use the bocage to their own defensive advantage and defeat each German counter-attack. More importantly, Allied air superiority meant each time II SS Panzer Corps forces assembled to attack thoughout the day they were pounced on by the Typhoons of the 2nd TAF.

The British command could not believe that they had just defeated the main counter-attack of II SS Panzer Corps. Surely that was just a taste of the bigger attack to come. So as the Germans continued their assaults during the night O’Connor remained cautious and held his troops back and on the defensive.

SS Troops wait for the next attack
Churchills of the 31 Tank Brigade JUNE 30

By dawn the redeployment of the 4th and 29th Armoured Brigades had been largely completed and the German attacks during the night had been beaten off, again largely due to effective British artillery fire. 31st Tank Brigade remained in the salient in support of the infantry, along with numerous anti-tank guns, positioned in depth along the length of the Scottish Corridor. To reduce the length of the front, VIII Corps withdrew its troops from Hill 112.

The Germans continued to probe and launch minor attacks against the British lines and by midday, the they had recaptured Hill 112 and Hill 113. With these ‘summits’ in their hands the Germans were able to observe most of the Epsom battlefield, and thus bring down heavy artillery fire on any movement from VIII Corps along the Odon Valley, which had rapidly become known as “Death Valley”. The British artillery regiments returned the favour and 8th AGRA alone fired 38,000 shells over the 24 hour period.

The Scottish corridor was battered, but it still held. It was not expanding however, and certainly did not look like doing so anytime in the near future. 

SS MG team

Still unaware that they had endured the worst of II SS Panzer Corps attacks, the British remained on the defensive and so the commander of the Second (British) Army Lt-Gen Dempsey called an end to Operation Epsom.

AFTERMATH

And so the Epsom offensive was over and it looked like it was a draw at best for the British. Overall their objectives had not been achieved and casualties, particularly for the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, had been high. They had not made it past Hill 112, had not crossed the Orne or reached the high ground at Bretteville-sur-Laize. They did not dominate the southern approaches to Caen, which remained in German hands along with the hill over which so much blood had been split.

12. SS Panzer IV It had not gone all the German’s way either. Their defensive success had cost them any chance of taking up the offensive initiative as the II SS Panzer Corps expended all their strength defending the Epsom front rather than driving an armoured wedge between the American and Commonwealth armies. The SS Panzer Divisions had been desperately feed into the battle piecemeal as they arrived and were extensively written down as a result. Irreplaceable men and fighting vehicles were lost and thus it could be said the Operation Epsom played its part in weakening the German Army in Normandy. 

Never again would the beaches be threatened, while the Allies grew in strength as each day passed. On 8 – 9 July Commonwealth troops entered the northern suburbs of Caen, bringing to an end that part of the campaign.

The Germans continued to hold Hill 112 and despite other attempts, particularly Operation Jupiter, it was never actually captured. A patrol from the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division found the hill abandoned on the night of 3-4th August 1944.
VIII Corps
Lt-Gen Sir Richard O’Connor

VIII Corps Troops
91st Anti-Tank Regiment RA; 121st Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA

21st Army Group Troops (under command VIII Corps for Epsom)
8th Army Group Royal Artillery

79th Armoured Division Troops
141st (The Buffs) Regiment, RAC

15th Scottish Division

15 (Scottish) Division
Maj-Gen G.H.A. MacMillan

44th (Lowland) Infantry Brigade Brig H.D.K Money
8th Battalion, The Royal Scots (The Royal Regiment)
6th Battalion, The Royal Scots Fusiliers
6th Battalion, The King’s Own Scottish Borders
141st (The Buffs) Regiment, RAC
A Company, 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
190th Field Regiment, RA; 159th Anti-Tank Bty, RA; Light AA Bty, RA
81st Squadron, 6th Assault Regiment, RE; 279th Field Company, RE

46th (Highland) Infantry Brigade Brig C.M. Barber
9th Battalion, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)
2nd Battalion, The Glasgow Highlanders
7th Battalion, The Seaforth Highlanders
A Squadron, 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry (under command)
141st (The Buffs) Regiment, RAC (two troops Crocodiles)
B Company, 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
181st Field Regiment, RA; 161st Anti-Tank Bty, RA; Light AA Bty, RA
81st Squadron, 6th Assault Regiment, RE; 278th Field Company, RE

227th (Highland) Infantry Brigade Brig J.R. Mackintosh-Walker   
10th Battalion, The Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment)
2nd Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders
2nd Battalion, The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
C Company, 1st Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
131st Field Regiment, RA; 286th Anti-Tank Bty, RA;
391st Light AA Battery, RA; 20th Field Company, RE

Divisional Troops
15th Reconnaissance Regiment, RAC; HQ and 346th Battery, 97th Anti-Tank Regt, RA
HQ, 119th Light AA Regt, RA; HQ, 15th Division Engineers Regt
31st Independent Tank Brigade Brig G.S. Knight
(under command of 15th Infantry Division for Epsom)
7th Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment
9th Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment
C Squadron, 2nd County of London Yeomanry (Westminster Dragoons)
B Sqaudron, 22nd Dragoons

43rd Wessex Division 43 (Wessex) Division
Maj-Gen G.I. Thomas

129th Infantry Brigade Brig G.H.L Luce
4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
4th Battalion, The Wiltshire Regiment
5th Battalion, The Wiltshire Regiment
A Company, 8th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
94th (Dorset and Hampshire) Field Regiment, RA; 235th Anti-Tank Bty, RA;
Support Troop, 360th Light AA Bty, RA;
30th Independent AA Troop, RA; 206th Field Company, RE

130th Infantry Brigade Brig N.D. Leslie
7th Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment
4th Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment
5th Battalion, The Dorsetshire Regiment
B Company, 8th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
112th (Wessex) Field Regiment, RA; 223rd Anti-Tank Bty, RA;
Support Troop, 362nd Light AA Bty, RA;
32nd Independent AA Troop, RA; 553rd Field Company, RE

214th Infantry Brigade Brig H. Essame
7th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
1st Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment
5th Battalion, The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
C Company, 8th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
179th Field Regiment, RA; 333rd Anti-Tank Bty, RA;
Support Troop, 361st Light AA Bty, RA;
31st Independent AA Troop, RA; 204th Field Company, RE

Divisional Troops
43rd (Gloucestershire) Reconnaissance Regiment, RAC;
HQ, 8th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment (Machine Gun)
HQ and 236th Battery, 58th (Hampshire) Anti-Tank Regt, RA
HQ, 360th and 362 batteries, 110th (7th Dorset) Light AA Regt, RA;
HQ, 43rd Division Engineers Regt

11th Armoured Division
11 Armoured Division
Maj-Gen G.P.B. ‘Pip’ Roberts

29th Armoured Brigade Brig C.B.C. Harvey
23rd Hussars
3rd Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment
2nd Fife & Forfar Yeomanry
8th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (Motor)
13th (Honourable Artillery Company) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery
119th Battery, 75th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA

159 Infantry Brigade Brig J.G. Sandie
4th Battalion, The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry
1st Battalion, The Herefordshire Regiment
3rd Battalion, The Monmouthshire Regiment
2nd (Independent) Machine-Gun Coy, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
151st (Ayrshire Yeomanry) Field Regt, RA; 117th Anti-Tank Bty, RA;
81st Squadron, 6th Assault Regiment, RE

Divisional Troops
2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry (less A Squadron);
77th Medium Regt, RA; 75th Anti-Tank Regt, RA; 58th Light AA Regt, RA (part)

4th Armoured Brigade Brig J.C.C Currie
(under command of 11th Armoured Division for Epsom)
The Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons)
3rd County of London Yeomanry (The Sharpshooters)
44th Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment
2nd Battalion, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps (Motor)
4th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery
144th Anti-Tank Battery, RA (Self-Propelled)


Last Updated On Wednesday, July 10, 2013 by Blake at Battlefront