Photos: Royal Norfolk’s battle in the cornfields of hell
11:27 01 June 2014
As the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy draws near, STEVE SNELLING hails a compelling new book that sheds fresh light on an enduring D-Day controversy which embroiled hundreds of local men.
Geoff Duncan was drenched in sweat. He felt his strength ebbing away, sapped by a kind of nervous exhaustion he had never experienced before. As bullets scythed through the standing corn, the Norwich teenager wished he were anywhere else other than a field in Normandy on the afternoon of D-Day.
“We were well and truly pinned down,” he later wrote. “Anyone showing himself above the top of the corn was promptly cut down… I thought to myself, what the hell am I doing here. Why hadn’t I joined the Royal Artillery like my elder brother…”
As a 19-year-old private soldier in B Company, 1st Royal Norfolks, he was part of a force tasked with the most ambitious and critically important mission of the greatest amphibious landing in history: the capture of the key city of Caen and the high ground around it.
That much he knew, but what he could not have realised, as he began to edge forward in the contorted manner of the so-called ‘Normandy crouch’, was that he and his mates were caught up also in what the author of a compelling new book has called “an enduring controversy”.
The epic saga of D-Day, June 6, 1944 has been well-chronicled as a triumph of courage and ingenuity, a Herculean accomplishment to rival any operation of war.
Less well-known, however, are the setbacks associated with the Allies’ hard-won lodgement on the shores of north-western Europe: the failure to effect link-ups between all of the invasion beaches, the failure to capture the key harbour of Port-en-Bessin and, most significant of them all, the failure to seize Caen which is the subject of Dr Andrew Stewart’s timely new study.
Caen Controversy: The Battle for Sword Beach 1944 focuses on 3 Division’s attempt to achieve the first day’s “primary operational objective”, the capture of the enemy’s main communications centre in Normandy, a strategic hub recognised as the “potential pivot around which the Allied campaign could swing”.
It charts the planning, the execution and the shortcomings of a D-Day operation that would have terrible and far-reaching consequences for a bogged-down British army engaged in one of the hardest-fought campaigns of the Second World War.
Dr Stewart, who is a reader in conflict and diplomacy at King’s College, London, pulls no punches. “The result of our inability to capture Caen is that the British army got chewed up fighting in and around the city for another month,” he says. “Units would be involved in heavy fighting with First World War level casualties.
“Consequently, by July, when the city eventually fell, the army was running out of reserves and it was necessary to ‘collapse’ existing units to use them as replacements to keep the army going.”
So what went wrong and how was it that two East Anglian battalions came to be embroiled in one of the most contentious of all D-Day operations?
Dr Stewart’s study highlights a series of command-level failings which fatally undermined what was already, in some people’s eyes, an overly-ambitious plan, reducing it to a veritable ‘mission impossible’ that would mire hapless infantrymen like Geoff Duncan in a controversy and a failure for which they were in no way responsible.
The men of the 1st Royal Norfolks and 1st Suffolks had key roles in General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s boldly conceived strike on Caen. Following the initial landings, the Suffolks were to push on and capture two German strongpoints, allowing a tank-supported infantry brigade, that included the Norfolks, to make a dash for the city.
It was a plan that relied heavily on speed and decisive action, but which, in reality, showed little evidence of either. So far as the Suffolks and Norfolks were concerned, the prolonged struggle by one, enforced delay on the other, with unforeseen consequences for the former unit’s reputation.
According to the timetable laid down for the Sword Beach operation, the Suffolks were required to complete its tasks within two hours of landing. However, on D-Day, despite coming ashore more or less on schedule with few casualties, they did not reach their second objective until an hour after they were supposed to have captured it and then spent the next seven hours battling to overcome its defenders’ stubborn resistance.
By then, the Royal Norfolks’ advance, reduced literally to a crawl at times, had come to a halt, miles short of Caen, atop a gentle rise, codenamed Rover, near the village of Biéville. In the process of their detour around Hillman, they had suffered a fearful baptism of fire that left many with their abiding memory of D-Day.
Years ago, during a trip back to the Normandy battlefields, Jack Cutting told me of the terrifying moments when his platoon was trapped in the cornfields, caught in a cross-fire between German machine-guns at Hillman and British tanks that were supposed to be assisting them.
“It was terrible,” said the former sergeant from Oulton. “Our company commander held up aircraft recognition triangles to try and make them stop firing, but he was shot down and badly wounded. I think we lost more men to our own fire than we did to the Germans.”
What the battalion’s second in command, Major Humphrey Wilson diplomatically referred to as “a lot of loose firing” and company commander Major Eric Cooper-Key described as “an uncomfortable time” developed into a fire-fight that lasted more than two hours. Those furthest from Hillman were able to bypass the hazard, leaving two companies to worm their way through corn strewn with dead and wounded.
“All you could do was lay low,” recalled Ernie Seaman, a stretcher bearer from Flitcham. “It was suicide to lift your head… Believe me, we were young and we were frightened.”
The failure to rapidly subdue the heavily fortified Hillman complex led to delay and indecision, not to mention casualties to those Norfolks caught in its line of fire, and was subsequently seized upon by war correspondent turned historian Chester Wilmot as a prime reason for the Allies’ inability to capture Caen on the first day.
This then was the crux of the controversy that came to fascinate Dr Stewart and it was while visiting the remains of the Hillman strongpoint at the head of a Staff College tour that the idea of taking a fresh look at the struggle took root some five years ago.
“One of the chaps on the tour was from the Royal Anglians,” he recalls, “and he was extremely passionate about his regiment’s historical predecessors and what took place at Hillman. We got talking and, having taken my lead from him, I began to look more deeply into it all.”
What became clear early on was that the real blame for the failure to capture Caen on June 6 lay not with the Suffolks, still less the Royal Norfolks, but elsewhere, at a higher level of command.
“So much of battle is about speed and tempo,” he explains, “and if that gets dislocated or is disrupted in some way, then you have a problem.”
That Hillman was responsible for serious delays in 3 Division’s Sword Beach plan is irrefutable, but, as Dr Stewart’s study underlines, there were other forces at work which ensured that the Royal Norfolks and their comrades in 185 Brigade had little chance of achieving success.
In part, the problem was one of scale. The planners were handicapped from the outset by the size of the landing sector on the eastern end of the invasion zone. It effectively reduced the initial assault to a single brigade which meant harder fighting to secure the beach and log jams in trying to advance from its cramped and chaotic confines.
“Given all of that,” says Dr Stewart, “Caen was just too far away. Monty has this nonsensical idea not just of capturing the city but of actually establishing a defensive line the other side of it, which is even madder when you take into account the fact that you simply cannot generate sufficient force.
“Even if they had been quicker off the beach, it would have been a struggle. Hillman, obviously, became an issue. I don’t think the Allies grasped how difficult a position it would be to take. And then all sorts of things conspired to make it an even more difficult proposition than it already was: the aerial bombardment missed it and the naval liaison officers who were supposed to direct the fire of ships’ onto the target were killed on the beach.”
Even without Hillman, however, Dr Stewart argues that there were other more significant factors responsible for derailing the advance on Caen and for effectively destroying what little hope of success may have existed. “Ultimately,” he explains, “it really comes down to the quality - the skill and the expertise - of the commanders on the ground.”
The problem, he stressed, lay not at battalion level, but at brigade level command and, in particular, with Brigadier Kenneth Pearce Smith, an officer who Montgomery had already ‘sacked’ once because of his lack of recent battle experience.
In fact, through no fault of his own, Pearce Smith had seen no action during the war prior to D-Day beyond garrison duties in the besieged island of Malta.
Dr Stewart is not without sympathy for the brigadier’s D-Day predicament. Almost from the moment he stepped ashore, he was assailed by reports and rumours of threatened enemy counter-attacks. There were suggestions of an impending armoured thrust against the thinly-held bridges over the River Orne captured by glider-borne troops and uncertainty about the Canadian landings on the next-door Juno Beach and a German force thought to be forming up in readiness for a counter-attack against the Sword beachhead.
“The reality was that he didn’t know an awful lot about what was really happening,” says Dr Stewart. “He was getting bits and pieces of information but the radios weren’t working very well…and, as the man tasked with the key role, it all comes down to him. Ultimately, he has to make the call and the call he makes is to delay and eventually divert troops away from his main objective.
“Basically, he takes the plan that he and his brigade has spent months practicing up in Scotland and he completely hacks it around and what’s more he does it all in the space of an hour.
“And from that moment on, the chances of really getting anywhere near Caen were always going to be slim to non-existent.”
In fact, given the delays and the depleted force available to carry out the advance on Caen, Dr Stewart reckons the overall achievement of 185 Brigade was “remarkable”.
One unit, the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, supported by tanks and an anti-tank battery, had beaten off one armoured attack and ventured as far as Lebisey wood, barely three miles from the city, astride the last of three main ridges between Caen and the coast.
The Royal Norfolks, their fractured progress hindered by the fracas near Hillman, eventually congregated a little further back on a rise codenamed Rover where they dug in around a farm they dubbed Norfolk House.
But what the unit historian regarded at least as a partial success did not satisfy Humphrey Wilson.
“We had not gone nearly far enough,” he later observed. “I still think that the lack of information and proper co-ordination on the ground was the cause of this slow progress. We certainly could not lay the blame on fierce enemy opposition as there was practically none…”
For his part, Dr Stewart believes their failure to cover the last few miles into Caen had less to do with the fight for Hillman and rather more to do with the performance of Pearce Smith, who was later sacked for a second time by Montgomery and transferred to an East African backwater.
Whether or not he was merely a scapegoat for others’ failings remains a moot point, but Dr Stewart certainly believes his appointment to such a crucial command was a mistake.
“It was a poor choice,” he says. “He should never have been there. Whoever was going to take charge of that brigade with such a key role needed to have been an exceptional officer with a considerable level of fighting experience which he didn’t have.
“He also needed to have a supreme ability to assess risks and the rewards. In short, you needed to have someone with a special quality with drive and dynamism and Pearce Smith, sadly, wasn’t that man.”
Caen Controversy, The Battle for Sword Beach 1944, by Andrew Stewart, is published by Helion & Company, priced £25.