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.
`THE CROSSING OF THE RIVER SEINE AT VERNON'
( 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 `
started. The magnitude of the task to be accomplished in just three days silenced even `Von Thomo’, but only
for 30 minutes!.
North along the Western bank of the
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!.
Following delays en route whilst a bridge was repaired and a Bailey Bridge built alongside, at Pacy, 129
Brigade arrived in
Middlesex in support. It seemed that the enemy who had left
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.
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’
Central to the Brigades front was 7 Som who were by now dug in some way into the
Brigadier Essame ordered his three battalions as follows: 1 Worc R to capture the
Gisor road. 7 Som to clear the lower forest making for the
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.