Login
Get your free website from Spanglefish

See website “hill112.com/index2.htm” for background info.  Albert Figg is

famous as the chap who obtained the Churchill tank that sits beside the 43

Wessex Division Memorial on Hill 112.

                 _________________________________

 

VERNON.  FRANCE

AUGUST 1944

`THE CROSSING OF THE RIVER SEINE AT VERNON' 

 

 THE WORCESTERS RETURN

( A BIG THANKYOU TO BILL EDWARDES,THESE ARE HIS NOTES,WRITTEN IN 2000. AND TO STAN BERROW FOR NOTES AND PHOTOS)

56 Years ago on Sunday the 27th August 1944 the 1st Battalion of the 29thRegiment of Foot, The

Worcestershire Regiment fought out a ten hour battle with a heavily armoured German Battle group intent on

throwing the British back into the River Seine which had been crossed during the preceeding two days at

great cost in lives lost.

 

 

During that Sunday so long ago the men of the Worcesters fought doggedly to widen and protect

the bridge head so recently won.

Without armoured support, as the tanks could not cross the river until the bridges were built, the 1st Battalion

met, head on, the full onslaught of the German counter attack led by what was the biggest, fiercest and most

feared tank in the world; the German Tiger Tank, and there was another in reserve. The story of the knocking

out of the first Tiger Tank by one of the Battalion`s small 6 pounder anti tank guns is

recorded in pride of place in the annals of the Regiment. The second Tiger presented a different

problem as it, in its turn, destroyed the anti tank gun. So the battle raged, up and down the road

to Gisors and through the densely wooded slopes on either side until late in the afternoon when two British

Sherman tanks arrived on the scene forcing the Tiger to withdraw enabling the Worcesters to regain control

and, eventually to win the day. Of the 533 men of the 1st Battalion who had set off that morning, 26 were

dead and now lay in the churchyards of Vernon and Vernonnet. Another 65 had been wounded.

On Sunday the 27th August  2000 a party of 44 which included survivors of the battle, together with families

and friends gathered on the site of the Battalions Headquarters to witness the unveiling and dedication of

a memorial to mark the sacrifices made 56 years before. During a moving service led by the

Reverend Prebendary `Benny` Goodman, ( who was a platoon commander with the Worcesters during the

Battle), a piece of rough hewed stone quarried from the Malvern Hills weighing one tonne and bearing a

bronze plaque was unveiled by the Chairman of Worcestershire County council, and Vice Chairman

President of the Worcestershire Regimental Association, Councillor Peter Carter.Councillor Carter, in

addressing the assembly, spoke of his pride in the contribution made by the soldiers of The

Worcestershire Regiment to the restoration of freedom. He told the Mayors of Vernon and Tilly and the Regional

Senator that it will never be possible to quantify the value of the sacrifices made “but there can be no doubt

that it is in moments of time such as the battle we are remembering today” he said “ that the course of

history was changed  both for your country and for mine“. Following the unveiling of the stone by Councilor

Carter, homage was paid to the fallen whilst Drum Major Kevin Hellings of the 1st Battalion The

Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment blew the ‘Last Post`. Regimental Standards Carried by

veterans Jack Bullock and Dave Plant (both of Malvern) and the Standard of the 43rd Wessex Association

carried by its secretary and organizer of this memorial project, Worcesters veteran Bill Edwardes, were dipped

for the homage. Side by side with Peter Carter stood the Second in Command of the present day 1st

battalion, Major Mark Holden who, together with the Drum Major, had travelled over from Northern Ireland for the occasion.

Whilst in Vernon in Vernon the Worcesters joined with the Mayor and the citizens of Vernon to honour

members of the Resistance Movement and those civilians of the town who had died during the

occupation. Many kind words and votes of thanks to the Worcestershire Regiment were spoken and the

hospitality of the French hosts was kind and generous. The two days of ceremonies was capped of by a cruise

and lunch aboard a river boat along the river Seine.

The “Worcesters` Lay By” project was conceived by a small group of veterans who wanted to mark the place

where so many of their comrades fought bravely to the death. The stone was donated by the Quarry through

the good offices of Malvern veteran Jack Bullock; The transportation of the one tonne block was carried out

by Malvern veteran Dave Plant and the Plaques were made by the Blacksmiths shop at Leigh Sinton. Huge

amounts of help has been given to the project by a Vernon Military Historian Benoit Cottereau.

The total cost of the project was kept to £900.00 about one half of which has been recovered in donations from

veterans in Britain and in Canada and from the Regiments own Lodge  of Glittering Star. Other

organisations and Associations have been approached and it is hoped that enough will be raised to cover the

costs so far incurred and to provide a properly constructed explanation board close to the memorial.

Details of the costs and donations so far can be obtained for the Project Coordinator, Bill Edwardes on

telephone 02380 253847 or by internet at bill.edwardes@ which.net

End 29. 08.00

SOME BACKGROUND NOTES ON THE PART PLAYED BY THE 43RD

WESSEX DIVISION AND, AS A MEMBER BATTALION THE 1ST BATTALION THE WORCESTERSHIRE REGIMENT

In compiling these notes I have supplemented hazy personal memories and limited knowledge of the “big

picture” ( usually afforded to private soldiers!) at the time, with extracts from “the Wessex Division at War”

by H Essame and “Assault Crossing” by Ken Ford. Ken Ford has kindly given me permission quote from his

book and to reproduce some of his maps.

AUGUST 22ND 1944

Following the virtual destruction of the German Army caught at the Falaise Pocket in Normandy, the 43rd

Division was placed in reserve. The Division`s Commander, Major General Thomas, was called to 30

Corp HQ to receive an order to force a crossing of the river Seine at Vernon on, or about, the 25th August and

to consolidate a bridgehead deep enough to cover the building of at least 2 bridges and then to allow the

passing of 30 Corp armour in hot pursuit across Northern France. (See Map 6) Operation `Neptune’ had

started. The magnitude of the task to be accomplished in just three days silenced even `Von Thomo’, but only

for 30 minutes!. Vernon was a 100 miles away and the way was blocked by the US Army which was advancing

North along the Western bank of the Seine. An entire Division consisting of nine infantry battalions, a heavy

machine gun battalion, anti-tank and field artillery, signals and all the brigade, Division and Corp support

HQs and, most importantly of all, bridge building engineers. Add to all this ammunition, fuel, bridge

sections, assault boats and vehicles and rations and the size of the task grew by the minute. Upwards of 15,000

men and over 4000 vehicles had to be moved across 1000 miles of French countryside, breaching the US

Army`s  line of advance during three very strictly observed times. Perhaps you can imagine the air of

near hysteria as we were hustled into preparedness from a state of relaxed rest which we expected to go

on for a while longer.

The task of the assault crossing was allocated to 129 Brigade which consisted of the 4th Somersets and the

4th and 5th Wiltshires. The 1st Worcestershires were detached from 214 and placed under the command of

129 Brigade making the crossing a 4 battalion operation. So it was that our Battalion was with the

first convoy to set forth on the mad dash, literally from `Hell to High Water’. Drivers of the 1437 vehicle long

convoy were ordered to stay as close as possible and to move as fast as possible. Overlooked were the normal

convoy orders of 20mph and 20 yard spacing!.

AUGUST 24th

 Following delays en route whilst a  bridge was repaired and a Bailey Bridge built alongside, at Pacy, 129

Brigade arrived in Vernon with 1 Worc R attached and with machine guns and heavy mortars of the 8th

Middlesex in support. It seemed that the enemy who had left Vernon but still occupied the opposite bank at

Vernonnet, had no idea that advance units of 30 Corps had arrived on their doorstep. We were ordered to

remain hidden towards the back of the town whilst those who needed to recce, such as assault battalion

commanders, engineers and FAOs, went stealthily forward. Some were required to wear US Army helmets

in case they were spotted.

The unenviable task of being the first to cross was allotted to the 5th Wilts, on the right of the demolished

bridge and the 4th Somersets on the left. 1 Worc R stood to, in reserve and the 4th Wilts were tasked to

defend the town against possible counter attacks. (see map 4 & 5 )  At 18:45 the Wiltshires set off in assault

boats under the cover of smoke. The smoke cleared prematurely and the boats that were getting stuck on

the mud banks were getting cut to ribbons by the murderous gunfire from machine guns nested in the

rising cliffs on the eastern side of the river. The Wiltshires did get a few troops across who

subsequently fought gallantly to obtain, and keep, a toe hold on the shore; But many were killed or

drowned in the first attempt to cross. On the left the two leading companies of the Somersets found

themselves marooned on a small island separated from the east bank by a flooded gully which was thought to

be dry. Another Coy. Of the Somersets crossed closer to the bridge and began to advance to higher ground

on the left.

Now the reserve battalion was called on to attempt a `dry’ crossing by clambering up and down the broken

sections of the road bridge. 1 Worc R`s A Coy. Met a well placed machine gun at the eastern entrance of the

bridge and were forced to withdraw.  Darkness had now descended. Although a narrow bridgehead had

been established it was under constant threat and getting reinforcements across was proving increasingly

difficult. 4 Somersets had to reembark its stranded companies to join the rest of the battalion trying to

cross further upstream. 5 Wilts had, by now only one assault boat left and were finding the launching of the

DUKW`s almost impossible, only managing to get only one into the water. Getting the rest of the battalion

across was proving to be a slow business. Pressure was building on those men who had crossed and with its

numbers being slowly reduced A Coy. was eventually overrun. The enemy meanwhile had begun to move

against the threatening bridgehead. Its 49th Infantry Division had moved into the area behind Vernonnet.

AUGUST 26TH

Failure to cross the previous evening at least meant that some rest and a meal could be taken by the men

of 1 Worc R who were placed under, and around the cathedral just a few hundred yards from the bridge. At

dawn the battalion commander was orderd to force the bridge “at whatever the cost”. Fortunately and to the

great relief of A Coy. again leading the machine gun post which had caused so much trouble had been

abandoned. With the rest of the battalion following in short order 1 Worc R was soon moving through

Vernonnet with a view to occupying the high ground beyond.

By noon three battalions were across. What remained of the 5 Wilts  securing the southern approaches to the

village., 4 Somersets the northern approaches and 1Worc R in the centre. The infantry were over but only

holding a three hundred yard perimeter with no armour or anti-tank support without which not much progress

could be made through terrain of this sort, nor could any serious counter attack be resisted. The heights

overlooking the river and, therefore, the bridge builders, were still strongly held by the enemy.

It must be remembered that in the midst of this melee the Royal Engineers and their Service Corp supporters

were defiantly progressing with the job of building two bridges across a wide, fast flowing, river whilst under

near constant fire that at times work had to be stopped. The Engineers were working to a standstill

and many of them lost their lives.

By nightfall the two remaing battalions of 214 Brigade ( 5th DCLI and 7 Som. ) had crossed and 1Worc R was

reunited with them. On the extreme left the DCLI experienced some determined activity during the night

which led to Lt Col. Taylor`s famous order of the day which included the words “…this position WILL be held

to the last man and the last round.” ( 1 Worc R veterans will remember `Tanky’ Taylor as their 2 i/c).

Central to the Brigades front was 7 Som who were by now dug in some way into the Forest of Vernon.

AUGUST 27th

Brigadier Essame ordered his three battalions as follows: 1 Worc R to capture the village of Tilly on the

Gisor road. 7 Som to clear the lower forest making for the village of Panilleuse. 5 DCLI to capture Presagny

and then also to advance on Panilluese. Although 1 Worc R was on the left of the Brigade front it had

Somersets either side of its advance which was to be directly up the main Gisor road which clung to the

hillside cutting through the forest. To the right the forest rose steeply form the edge of the road and to

the left it fell sharply away, also from the edge of the road. The ability to deploy off the road in the face of

attack was severely curtailed so there was no option but to use the road for advance. Accompanied by the

bad news that there was no armoured support until later, the battalion moved off at 8:10 am in what was

called ` advance to contact’ formation.

D Coy, leading, was not to have long before its first brush with the enemy in the shape of a part of the 49th

Division named after its commander. Battle Group Schrader was task with mounting a strong counter

attack down the very same road along which the 1 Worcs were advancing. The battle Group had also

fanned out to its right and left and was heading for the Somersets who were advancing through the forest.

Both Battalions were to take the brunt of the action that day. As D Coy of 1 Worc R rounded a bend in the

road the leading man was cut down by a well placed machine gun fire. Thus pinned down without the space

to deploy to deal with the machine gun it was to be another hour before supporting  mortars could

eliminate the enemy and the advance could resume. It fell to 1 Worc R to meet Schrader head on. (See map

9) The first of his two Tiger tanks ( and they really were Tigers this time) began to descend the hill. With

no armoured support and only the only anti-tank weapons available were the battalions own small 6

pounders and the infantry carried small anti-tank bomb thrower called the PIAT. To pit a 6 pounder against the

Tiger`s 17 pounder (88mm) was akin to pitting a pea shooter against a machine gun. The anti tank gunners

just had to get the first shot home on a vulnerable part of the tank; there would be no second shot if they

missed. Gunners manning the two 6 pounders positioned themselves and waited, tensely, for the

monster to appear. With a limited view of the side of the tank the first shot was a winner: before the tank

could complete its turn it was hit just below the turret. The second shot also carried home and Schrader`s first

Tiger was dead in the road, as was its crew. It was now clear that armour was required to fight armour and, as

the weight bearing Bailey bridge was not yet completed, 1 Worc R was ordered to halt and consolidate.

In the meantime German infantry was infiltrating on both flanks and with the news that a second Tiger was

on the move D Coy. Was in great danger of being overrun. Of the two dangers, the advance down the

road and the infiltration of the higher ground to the right, the second was the greater. As C Coy. was

already deployed on the slope, D Coy. ( until then in reserve ) was sent up to the high ground with orders to

impede any further infiltration. And it was up there that Major Algy Grubb`s massed bren guns kept the

enemy`s heads down.

Lt. Col Osborne-Smith, the battalion commander, found the only piece of ground that was actually off the road

to set up his HQ. together with the Mortar Platoon and the Regimental Aid Post through which the mounting

casualties were passing on their way back to Vernonnet. The lay-by was just a few hundred yards

below D Coy`s position astride the road and immediately under the sloping forest in which the

enemy was making his presence felt even though he could not be easily seen. To assist in his

discouragement concentrated field artillery and heavy mortar fire was directed onto the woods themselves.

Schrader`s second Tiger tank had now entered the battle, this time forewarned of the danger around the

bend in the road. With its machine guns blazing from side to side there was little chance to mount any

counter fire even with the PIATs. The battalions second six pounder was now at the tank`s mercy. Before even

one round could be fired the tank`s 88mm gun sent a shell crashing into the `peashooter’ killing all of its

crew. The tank was wreaking havoc as it turned on a RECCE Scout Car which met the same fate as the anti-

tank gun. Under such pressure D Coy, whose leading platoon had now suffered 30% casualties, was given

permission to withdraw. Battalion HQ was now under threat as the tank lumbered nearer. But in the nick of

time the `calvary’ had arrived in the shape of two Sherman`Firefly’ tanks which had been ferried across

the river.

This was the most critical part of the battle. Confusion reigned. Not realizing that D Coy were withdrawing

under orders the supporting A Coy could only see their comrades hurry back and were inclined to join them in

what they thought was a battalion withdrawal. To clarify the position and to stem the flow, the

battalion`s second in command, Major Tony Benn stood in the middle of the road to rally the men and to

persuade them to stand FIRM. He was killed where he stood. Major Benn is buried in Vernonnet Churchyard.

Faced with the

shermans and lacking infantry support, The Tiger withdrew and a impasse developed. No impasse

though, up on the higher slopes where B Coys Brens were effectively preventing Schrader from encircling 1

Worc R. As the appearance of the second Tiger was the critical point of the battle so D Coy`s resistance was its

high point.

Down to 1 Worc R`s left the 7 Somersets were engaged in a fierce battle through the woods and were,

themselves, defeating an encirclment attempt but at the great cost of an entire company in the process. On

the far left DCLI had secured pressagny and were closing on Panilleuse. To the right the 4th  som were

pushing out towards their objective of Bois Jerome but were having to deal with Schrader`s  troops who were infiltrating behind them. On the extreme right the 4th 5th Wilts had cleared the cliff tops and had captured Giverny.

By nightfall it could be said that the 43rd Wessex Division had successfully blunted a determined counter

attack but of the 533 men of 1 Worc R who had set off that morning 26 were dead and 65 wounded (some of

whom died later). The survivors were too exhausted to be too concerned about the torrential overnight rain

which followed the day of action.

AUGUST 28th

Throughout the night the two bridges were in constant use. 130 Brigade of 43 Division was now across the

river enabling the advance  to secure all bridgehead objectives to continue. 1 Worc R moved to Pressagny

to release DCLI for its advance on Panilleuse. Thus ended the battle to secure a bridgehead across the

River Seine.  Just six days from orders to accomplishment; a truly remarkable feat of war. Major

General Essame records the achievement:

“So long as the art of war is studied, the Division`s crossing of the Seine will serve as a model. Primarily it

is a supreme example of quick planning and ruthlessly efficient execution by a commander who had not only

thought out in advance and practiced over many years the major operations of war, but who had also selected

and trained others who realized instinctively what was in his mind. The operation therefore stands

unchallenged as the triumph of an exceptionally clear military mind”

The remainder of 30 Corps now flooded across the river to `swan’ off across Northern France and into Belgium virtually unopposed.

Whilst recognizing 1 Worc R`s contribution, it must be said that the Battalion could not have defeated

Schrader alone. The highest possible praise must go to those that achieved the first foothold, the Wiltshires

and the Somersets and to those who stood either side of the Worcesters during that eventful Sunday in

August, the DCLI, the Somersets and the Wiltshires who were making sacrifices in plenty.

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM ALL.

MAPS AND PHOTOS, 3 WITH MAPS TAKEN IN AUGUST 2011, THE REST TAKEN IN 2000

PHOTOS FROM AUGUST 2011 , ON MAIN PAGE

See website “hill112.com/index2.htm” for background info.  Albert Figg is famous as the chap who obtained the Churchill tank that sits beside the 43 Wessex Division Memorial on Hill 112.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                   

                                                

 

1
1
2
2
map 4
3
3
Map 5
4
4
Map 8
5
5
Arthur Gough, Veteran of Battle, On West of river (Vernon Side) holding photograph of Engineers repairing pontoon bridge after mortar attack, site of bridge directly behind photo. 25th Aug 2011
6
6
High ground and cliffs on East side of river where Germans were positioned
7
7
East end of road bridge to vernonnet
8
8
Map 9. Attack by battle Group Schrader
9
9
11
11
12
12
13
13
14
14
15
15
16
16
From Left, Jack Bullock, Bill Edwardes, Drum Major Hellings, Dave Plant
17
17
Click for Map