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Posted on Mar 10, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Operation Bluecoat – Opening The Way From Normandy

By Wild Bill Wilder

By the end of July 1944 the two bottlenecks to Allied advance, Caen to the east and St. Lo to the west had been wrested from a tenacious German grasp and were now in the hands of the American and British forces. It had been six weeks since the invasion at Normandy with the costly advance through the dreaded hedgerow countryside of western France.

Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had borne the hardest part of the fighting, with resistance coming from nearly all of the Panzer groups in the west. Very little armor was deployed in the American sector. Hitler and his subordinates considered the Brits to be the greater of the two threats and sent troops to the battle accordingly. The Fuhrer still did not consider the American fighting man to be a resolute, well-disciplined soldier. That would change with time and experience.

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The loss of Rommel on July 17th when he was severely wounded in an Allied air attack near Viontiers and the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th had the German heads of command in total confusion. They now had to look ahead toward the inexorably advancing Allied forces and behind them for the shadow of the SS at their doorstep. It was not a pleasant time for German leaders in command.

As American forces prepared for the dash into Brittany under the leadership of General George Patton and the newly arriving 3rd Army, the forces of the United Kingdom to the east were preparing for their own breakout. A general advance in the last week of July produced good results for the British VIII corps near Caumont. The XXX Corps to its left encountered stiffer resistance and was slowed considerably.

VIII Corps on the Move

The commander of VIII Corps was General Sir Richard O’Connor. It was O’ Connor that had won the stunning victory at Beda Fomm, and for a time became a prisoner of the Germans in North Africa. On O’Conor’s left flank was the British XXX Corps, commanded by General Bucknall. To his right was the junction with American forces. The adjacent unit was General Gerow’s V Corps.

The initial terrain that the troops of VIII Corps would face was that infernal “bocage” or hedgerow country. It included fields of varying sizes separated by sunken roads with earthen banks on either side. Growing from them were hedges of at times enormous heights.

There were also depressed leafy lanes, isolated farms, and small villages intermingled among the trees. The density of the growth made movement difficult for ground troops and nearly impossible for vehicles. Armor commanders for maximum visibility rode with their hatch open and head exposed. They thus became ideal targets for enemy snipers, piano wire stretched between trees and low hanging branches.

It was ideal defensive terrain and the Germans used it to full advantage. The entrance of the smaller, hand-held antitank weapons such as the panzerfaust and panzerschreck made the life of a tanker a constant dread of what might be hidden in the next group of hedges. Death stalked them at every turn.

The leading element of the new advance would be the Scottish 15th Division. The Scots were feared by the Germans. They showed no mercy to their enemies. Word had spread early on of German atrocities committed against their brothers and the Scots were not in a mood to taker prisoners. Backing the Scots was the British 6th Guards Tank Brigade. It included three Guards battalions: the 4th Grenadier Guards, the 4th Coldstream Guards, and the 3 Scots Guards. They had between them over 170 of the latest model Churchill tanks. Though slow and still under-gunned comparatively speaking, the Churchills were heavily armored and had the capability of passing over terrain that would prove to be too much for other pieces of armor.

Normally one tank battalion would be assigned to an infantry regiment for support. The scope of the attack by the British however was a narrower one brigade front that intensified the presence of tanks in support of the walking soldiers. In addition, armored units had been attached from the 79th Armored Division to assist in the breakout phase of the advance. These included Crocodiles (Flame throwing Churchills) of the 141st Regiment RAC and Sherman flail tanks of the 1st Lothians and Border Horse units.

Facing this formidable armor-infantry force was the weakened 326 Infantry division, commanded by General Viktor von Drabich-Waechter. They had entered the line on July 22nd after a time of rest from the initial Allied assaults at Normandy. Though not a “top of the line” infantry force, they had in their short time at war become quite adept at forming and holding defensive positions.

Backing them was the 654th Tank Destroyer Regiment, with over 20 of the dreaded Jagdpanthers. These were heavily armored, big-gunned monsters that could take on anything armored that the Allies had with relative ease. In reserve for the entire German 7th Army was the 21st Panzer Division, now barely a shell of it earlier formidable strength.


Elements of the 21st Panzer Division on the move

On July 30th, the attack began. The first phase moved with relative ease, Sherman crabs and Churchill flame tanks moving at the front with the advancing infantry. Initial German resistance in the hedgerows proved as deadly as feared but the advance continued. Near Le Borg, a concentration of tanks hit a minefield that disabled seven of them, including two Crabs. The remaining flail tanks finally forced through a way and the advance continued.

Though the initial advance had broken the crust of German defenses, pockets of German resistance still picked at the British as they sought to move ahead. Small pockets of German soldiers armed with antitank weaponry proved deadly to a number of Allied pieces of armor.

Still the tanks rolled on, pitching and heaving in the uneven terrain. Many of the crewmen were soon black and blue from the bruises, some even being knocked unconscious by the fierce floundering of their vehicles.

When on level ground tank commanders were forced to open their hatches for increased visibility. The fact that they were more in the open meant that they could be spotted easier. Tanks, like aircraft often achieve the victory over their opponents simply because they get off the first shot. But again, exposed commanders became targets.

Hill 226 became a key point to be held to guard against any flanking maneuvers by German armor. The Scots Guards took up position there. Suddenly enemy artillery increased and tanks of “S” Squadron began bursting into flames. In a matter of minutes two entire troops were knocked out, and without any visible explanation.

Then, in the erroneous belief that they had killed all the British tanks, 3 Jagdpanthers broke cover on the left. They came under immediate fire from the remaining Churchills. Two were later found abandoned with severe track damage.

Meanwhile the principal objective of Hill 309 had been reached by tanks of the 6th Armored Brigade. The infantry, bogged down in mopping up enemy resistance had not kept pace and the tanks were on their own. Infantry of the Seaforths and the Glascow Highlanders finally reached the area as darkness closed in.

To the right of the Scots, the British 11th Armored Division also went into action. Its commander was General G.P.B. Roberts. He had also served in the North African campaign and was well respected among his subordinates.

Roberts had reformed his division into two Assault Brigade Groups. The 159th included the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, the King’s Shopshire Light Infantry (KSLI) and the Herefords. The second group, the 29th Assault Brigade Group was made up of the 23rd Hussars, the 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), the 8th Battalion, Rifle Brigade and the Monmouths. Both were powerful weapons of war and advanced with relative ease through Dampierre and to the outskirts of St. Martin des Besaces.

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8 Comments

  1. Re: Op. Bluecoat.

    hill 309 was NOT taken by 6th armoured div. but by 4th Battalion Coldstream guards (6th Guards Tank Brigade).

    This hill was originally assigned to the 3rd S.G, but due to their losses on Hill 226, this was reassigned to the Coldtream Guards of the 6th Guards tank brigade.

    source of info: My Father, main gunner ‘Skye’ tanks, 8 troop , 3rd Battalion Scots.Guards.

    Sgt Peter Findlay 2701168….his was one of the tanks destroyed on hill 226…the dead interred at Hottot les Bagues war Cemetery, Normandy.

    Eain Findlay.

  2. My Father served in” Findhorn” a churchill of the 3rd battalion Scots Guards B company ,is there any information regarding what part if any they took in the mentioned action ?

    • Findhorn Tank was in Left Flank Squadron, 12 troop. A churchill mk iv.
      source material? The National Archives and the war diary of ‘The 3rd battalion Scots Guards’.

  3. I can confirm that it was the Coldstream who took Hill 309 (now called Coldstream Hill). My father commanded Jaguar in #2 Squadron

    • Dominic
      Just come across your comments which I found of great interest

      I was a radio operator/loader on tank Cheetah of No. 2 Squadron and as such was obviously acquainted with your father. Our tanks were ones of the first to take up a defensive position on Hill 309 and awaited, rather nervously, for the arrival of the understandably delayed infantry.

      Regards
      John

  4. What is best source material?

    • Best source material?…
      The National Archives centre at Kew, London.
      P.Forbes book ‘the 6th Guards Tank Brigade
      Operation Bluecoat by Ian Daglish
      Operation Bluecoat ‘Over the battlefield’ by Ian Daglish….a more comprehensive book than the former.
      Charles Farrell A scots Guards Officer in Training and at War.
      Michel letenturier et George Bernages (?) A book in French detailing the Guards actions in operations Bluecoat and Grouse, against the 9th SS Panzer Division.

  5. I’m not massively knowledgeable on the history of World War two but my Grandfather Reginald John Cassidy served in the Scots Guards which I believe formed part of the Guards Armored Division. He was part of Operation Bluecoat and traveled from Normandy to the Falaise Pocket and eventually ended up in Berlin. His tank was damaged but luckily he survived and he traveled the last of the trip in a half track.

    I remember there being a documentary about Operation Bluecoat which my Grandfather showed me before he died and I’d love to find a copy. If any one may know where I can find this documentary or somewhere that might know I would be very grateful?

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