At around eight o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 13 June, an armoured column comprising the 4th County of London Yeomanry and 1st Battalion, the Rifle Brigade rolled into the country market town of Villers-Bocage, some 15 miles south-west of Caen. This collection of Sherman and Cromwell tanks, half-tracks and trucks spread out in a long line along the main road through the town and paused, enjoying the enthusiastic reception of the townspeople. Meanwhile, the Yeomanry’s A Squadron pushed on to a notable knoll to the east of the town, labelled on their maps as Point 213.
This column was the spearhead of the famed 7th Armoured Division – the Desert Rats – sent forward to exploit a gap in the German defensive line. The D-Day landings had taken place a week earlier. During that time, the German panzer (tank) divisions in France had been ordered to hasten to Normandy – specifically, to the Caen area, at the eastern end of the Allied bridgehead. By 13 June, three panzer divisions had reached the front, but a gap remained between them and the infantry division to their left. Allied intelligence reports suggested that the 2nd Panzer Division would also arrive very soon, so there was an urgent directive to capitalise on the vulnerability while it existed.
Unbeknown to the British, watching this scenario unfold from just south of Point 213 were Tiger tanks of the 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion, rushed into the area ahead of other Waffen-SS panzer units. Commanding the Tigers was panzer ace Michael Wittmann, who decided to send three of them into action immediately: he directed two to attack the British tanks on Point 213, while he himself trundled to the town. While the British column stood at a halt in the main street, Wittmann rumbled forward and attacked at almost point-blank range, taking the British completely by surprise.
In a matter of minutes an entire troop of three Cromwell tanks and one Sherman was knocked out, along with a number of half-tracks, trucks and carriers of the Rifle Brigade. Wittmann pulled back, leaving a scene of astonishing carnage; however, as he climbed out of the town, his Tiger was disabled by a British gunner, and he and his crew were forced to scramble away on foot.
Meanwhile, on Point 213, the now-isolated British tanks were picked off one by one. The battle did not stop there; British and German troops continued to arrive, and that afternoon the roles were reversed – the Germans, carrying out a typical counter-attack, were ambushed, losing six Tiger tanks and a similar number of Panzer Mk IVs. Since the Germans had only 36 Tigers in Normandy at that time, this was a significant blow. Overall, the British lost between 23 and 27 tanks, the Germans between 13 and 15.
Mopping-up operation Canadian troops on the lookout for Germans on 19 July amid the ruins of Caen. Though the city had been taken 10 days earlier, German snipers continued to plague Allied troops. (Photo by AP-PA Images)
The clash at Villers-Bocage has become one of the most infamous episodes of the campaign. It is often branded as symptomatic of the British performance in Normandy, in which amateur conscript troops were outfoxed by the tactical genius and dynamism of the Germans. The view has been expressed that the cumbersome British forces, on the back of this defeat and tired after long years of war, became ever more bogged down, hitting a brick wall of German panzer divisions through which they seemed unable to break.
It is a view that has its roots back in 1944, when US and British war chiefs examining maps in Washington and London saw a British 2nd Army making little progress. Furthermore, those maps showed a British advance that was some distance short of the goals that had been pressed upon the combined chiefs of staff by Operation Overlord’s land commander and primary architect, General Montgomery.
Just because it is a long-held and entrenched view, however, does not mean that it is correct. For an accurate appraisal of the campaign’s successes and failures, we must look at the nature of the armies involved, their strategies, the Allies’ targets and what was achieved.
Allied planning for the Normandy campaign was meticulous, involving an astonishing degree of co-operation between Britain and the US, even though the two nations were acting as a coalition rather than part of a formal alliance.
Both the British and US armies were, traditionally, small, yet had turned themselves into machine-based, technologically driven forces that had grown exponentially during the previous four years.
Supporting them were vast navies and air forces that, in the early years of rearmament, had taken priority over the army – for entirely logical reasons. Britain was an island with a vast global reach. To successfully invade the island, an enemy would have to win command of the skies; for its part, Britain would need to ensure the flow of shipping. Thus a large, co-ordinated air defence force and a powerful navy and merchant fleet were the most potent means of safeguarding Britain’s survival. The US had also built up its air force and navy before its army, for much the same reasons: any threats from Germany and Japan would arrive by air and sea.
This strategy for military development paralleled the inherent faith in technology of these two modern, forward-thinking nations and a determination not to repeat the excessive blood-letting of the previous war. “Let metal do it, not flesh,” was the motto.
The idea was to keep to a minimum those at the coal-face of the fighting, and to support them with a vast arsenal of firepower, principally in the form of artillery and air power. Many of the hard yards still had to be covered by the infantry, but the aim was to keep those efforts to a minimum. It was an entirely logical approach. The most efficient way to fight a war is to defeat your enemy while suffering the lowest possible number of casualties. The Germans understood this – but so did Britain and the US.
New model armies
The armies of both Britain and the US were young. A year before the outbreak of war, Germany’s army comprised more than 2 million soldiers, while Britain’s numbered just 187,000; that of America was smaller still. In addition, Britain’s small but highly mechanised army had been forced to abandon most of its equipment in France during the Dunkirk evacuation, so effectively had to start re-equipping from scratch. Yet just three years later, Britain and the US were involved in the largest amphibious invasion the world had ever seen – the assault on Sicily. It was no small achievement.
Germany, on the other hand, had begun the war as a large but under-mechanised army. By 1944, after several damaging episodes, they were even less mechanised; the 10 panzer divisions in the west represented the principal elite strike arm remaining. Certainly, units such as the Panzer Lehr and the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division were among the best-trained, most-motivated troops in the entire Wehrmacht. But these were not all deployed in the Normandy area; the Germans had been forced to hedge their bets, keeping their mobile armoured divisions spread. In addition, the speed with which they were able to reach the front was hindered by a split and parallel command structure and by the weight of Allied air power.
These tanks, weapons and cars pictured at Dunkirk represent a small fraction of the equipment that had to be abandoned by Allied troops during the forced evacuation in June 1940. (Photo by AP-PA Images)
The Allies had expected that the coast would be bitterly contested and, potentially, the toughest part of the campaign. There was a limit to the troops and materiel that could be landed in the first instance, so the key would be to secure a bridgehead and build up a critical mass of troops and supplies before the Germans could mount a concerted counter-attack.
The Allied expectation was that, as long as the initial counter-attack was repulsed, the German army would then do what it had in north Africa and Italy: retreat gradually in stages, keeping its forces intact as long as possible and well clear of the coast (the closer they were to the sea, the greater the risk of bombardment by massed naval guns lying offshore). What’s more, the bocage terrain of Normandy – small fields, woods and sunken country lanes – did not lend itself to a war of manoeuvre. Military logic suggested that the Germans would quickly retreat inland to country of their liking. These were the basic assumptions that informed Allied planning.
Since the start of the war, the Allies had devised an effective strategy for beating the Germans, based on three core principles: making the most of Allied advantages, rigorous analysis, and the need to preserve lives. This latter was important because 75 per cent of the Allied armies now comprised conscripts – specifically, civilian conscripts from democracies, which would influence their actions. In Britain, for example, desertion was not punishable by capital punishment. In contrast, by 1944 more than 7,000 German soldiers had been executed for desertion.
The key characteristic of the best troops is motivation. In the final year of war, Waffen-SS troops often provided the toughest opposition – not because they were necessarily the best trained, but because they were the most determined to keep fighting.
Linked to motivation is initiative: a soldier has to want to use his initiative. Most British and US conscripts wished simply to keep their heads down, to survive. German troops, on the other hand, have been much lauded for their practice of Aufstragstaktik – or ‘mission command’ – which was one of the German doctrinal principles. Yet it wasn’t the case that Allied commanders didn’t understand that concept. Indeed, elite units such as the SAS, Commandos and Airborne Troops were far better motivated than most; they wanted to be the best soldiers and they thrived when given the chance to use their initiative – little different, then, from the best German troops.
But the German Aufstragstaktik doctrine was far from universal. German troops were trained within the division, and the quality of that training varied massively. There were plenty, especially towards the end of the war, who owed their advancement more to being good Nazis than being good soldiers.
The best German troops repeatedly proved themselves to be highly flexible, and to have the ability to form themselves rapidly into ad hoc but highly dogged formations. Paradoxically, the rigidity of their doctrine could also be a flaw. A key principle was to counter-attack quickly, the idea being that an attacking force, having expended energy and ammunition, and having become less coherent as a result of the forward thrust, would be at its weakest. But a counter-attacking force would be immediately exposed, and was invariably cut down by the Allies’ superior firepower. For the last three years of the war, German troops were most effective when defending – dug in, protected from the worst of Allied shelling, hidden from view and able to bring to bear most effectively the firepower they still had.
The key to defeating the Germans in the field, then, was to draw them out into the open by launching attacks to provoke inevitable counter-attacks. Allied forces would probe forward, destroying as much of the enemy defences as possible, then wait for the inevitable response before unleashing their immense arsenal of artillery, armour and air power. Even Tiger tanks could not withstand such an onslaught.
That was pretty much what happened in Normandy. True, the main British operations did not achieve the decisive breakthrough until the end of the campaign, but Operation Epsom (a British attempt to capture Caen staged between 26 and 30 June) ended any chance of a co-ordinated German armoured counter-attack, and devastated the Waffen-SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Operation Goodwood – a major tank battle of 18–20 July, which has attracted heavy criticism – further ground down the German panzer units, as did Operation Bluecoat, an attempted British breakout that lasted from 30 July to 7 August. By the end of the campaign, the cream of the German panzer divisions had haemorrhaged against the implacable advance of British forces.
One of Montgomery’s repeated aims for the campaign was that his British and Canadian eastern flank should block the bulk of the German armoured units in the west, protecting US forces as they cleared the Cotentin peninsula and pushed south. This they achieved spectacularly well. By the end of the campaign, all that survived of two German armies were a handful of tanks and a few thousand men.
A Wehrmacht propaganda photo from around 1943–44 shows the crew of a Panzer Mk IV tank of the division nicknamed Hitlerjugend, later devastated during Operation Epsom. (Photo by Bundesarchiv)
It is true that British and Canadian troops did not take Caen as quickly as hoped, nor secure the high ground to the south and south-east of the city – but this was of little consequence. By fighting closer to the coast, the Germans were vulnerable to offshore naval fire throughout most of the six weeks of fighting around the city. Inches on the map were largely irrelevant while the enemy continued to bleed its best troops, and in an area where Allied supply lines were shorter than they would have been had the Germans fallen back. As General Bayerlein, commander of the Panzer Lehr, commented: “The higher commanders were happy that the German divisions had held up so long, not realising that what was happening was good strategy for the Allies.”
General Montgomery observes action south of Caen with Lieutenant General Crocker. (Photo by AP-PA Images)
Montgomery was at fault in not honestly conveying the adjustments he made to the plan in light of the German strategy to fight for every yard. Communication was poor: not only with the combined chiefs, but also with Eisenhower (the supreme allied commander) and with the Americans. In part this was due to Montgomery’s prickly, obstreperous character, and in part because his Tactical HQ in the field was severed from his main 21st Army Group HQ. Tac HQ was designed to keep Montgomery informed of what was happening on the battlefield, not his superiors. Many of the misconceptions about the British effort in Normandy stem from his poor communication with allies and masters.
And Villers-Bocage? The story of the famous Desert Rats being destroyed by a lone panzer ace and his Tiger was certainly a hit in Germany – and, as has so often been the case, German wartime propaganda has continued to exert a powerful hold on our own views of certain episodes of the war.
The truth, though, is that Villers-Bocage was a small-scale tactical engagement; the chances of tidying up German resistance in Normandy in that one offensive had always been slim. Nor were the British the only ones to lose significant numbers of tanks in quick order. The 21st Panzer Division lost most of a battalion when ambushed on D-Day by the Staffordshire Yeomanry – an incident that, unlike Villers-Bocage, is not well known. And during Operation Epsom, the entire 12th SS Panzer Division was reduced to just 15 operational tanks – another statistic that has been obscured by the legendary and overblown engagement at Villers-Bocage.
Anniversaries provide welcome chances to re-examine history. On this anniversary of the Normandy campaign, it is time we changed our view of this bitter, bloody episode, and give the Allied forces who fought there the credit they deserve.
James Holland is a bestselling historian, writer and broadcaster.
This article was first published in the June 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
The plan and the reality
How final outcomes measured up to four Allied objectives
Objective 1: Capture Caen on D-Day
Caen, Normandy’s largest city and an important confluence of roads, railway lines and rivers, was a key objective for D-Day. It lay 10 miles inland from Sword Beach – a significant distance, but not insurmountable, as the 1943 assault on Syracuse in Sicily proved (that Italian city was also 10 miles from British landings and was taken on D-Day). The principal force given the task of achieving this goal was the 3rd Division, an enlarged formation – but one burdened with the twin aims of taking the city and securing crossings over the river Orne. It was an over-ambitious objective for the troops involved, and Caen did not fall until D+34 (10 July).
This map illustrates how initial Allied advances into Normandy were slow – but that the bridgehead expanded rapidly once established. (Map illustration by Martin Sanders.)
Objective 2: Capture high ground south and south-east of Caen
From the outset of planning for Overlord, Montgomery had stressed the importance of swiftly capturing important high ground between Caen and Falaise. He intended to use this as his pivot from which the Allies would wheel east, and to establish landing grounds. High ground is always important but, though the Germans were not dislodged from the designated area until August – much later than hoped – airfields had already been established closer to the coast, and the overall aims of absorbing the bulk of German panzer divisions and creating a base from which to pivot were achieved.
Objective 3: Scythe through the Bocage
The Americans were fully aware of the challenge of combat among Normandy bocage – small fields lined by thick hedgerows, and linked by narrow, sunken lanes. However, they had expected to wrap up the Cotentin peninsula and the area south of Saint-Lô quickly, and thus had not trained to fight through this terrain. Fortunately, thanks to American ingenuity and the speed with which new ideas were approved and implemented, the troops soon adapted. An example of innovation was the hedge-cutter, invented by a former mechanic using German beach obstacles and welded to the front of a Sherman tank. Within two weeks of its approval, 60 per cent of all US Shermans in Normandy were equipped with the device.
Objective 4: Develop the Allied bridgehead
Montgomery had stressed that a pre-invasion map showing phase lines was no more than a guideline. Even so, by D+17 the Allies had been expected to have reached at least 50 miles south of the coast, having taken the Cotentin peninsula and Cherbourg. In the event, they were nowhere near. Yet by D+90, when plans anticipated progress as far as the river Seine and the river Loire at Orleans, the Allies had progressed much farther – indeed, Paris had already fallen. However slow the Allied advance may at times have seemed, the overall outcome was better than had been expected.
Normandy in numbers
Statistics relating to the campaign reveal surprising facts about resources and results
During the nine weeks leading up to D-Day, 197,000 sorties were flown over France in support of the invasion, and around 200,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped (for comparison, a little over 18,000 tonnes were dropped on London during the Blitz). The Allies had more than 13,000 aircraft, including 4,000 bombers and 5,000 fighters.
Wounded British soldiers descend from a landing ship on 7 June, after evacuation from the Normandy beaches. More than 2,500 British and Canadian troops were killed on D-Day. (Photo by IWM H39197)
Casualties on D-Day
Despite the common belief that the Americans suffered by far the most casualties on D-Day, the reality was quite different. Final figures are still debated, but combined casualties on the US landing beaches of Utah and Omaha were between 2,616 and 3,114, while on the British and Canadian beaches those figures were between 2,515 and 3,380.
Casualties of the Normandy campaign
Though the Allies tried to minimise the numbers of troops fighting at the sharp end, Normandy was a brutal experience for those in the thick of the fighting as well as people caught in the crossfire. The average daily number of casualties during the 77-day campaign, across both sides and including civilians, was 6,674 – higher than at the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele.
During the Normandy campaign, US troops had a manpower advantage of 3:1 over the Germans, while for much of the campaign the British and Canadians had an advantage of just 2:1. Standard military doctrine suggests a 3:1 advantage as the minimum required for a successful attack.
British D-Day resources
The Supreme Commander was American, but all three service chiefs were British. On D-Day itself, 892 of the 1,213 warships involved were British; 3,261 of the 4,126 landing craft used were British; two-thirds of the 11,590 aircraft involved were British; and two-thirds of the troops landed were British or Canadian.
Despite the fame of the Tiger tank, only 1,347 were ever built, plus 492 King Tigers. In contrast, the Americans built more than 64,000 Sherman hulls, of which 49,000 became Sherman tanks, with the rest developed into specials, armoured personnel carriers, tank destroyers and self-propelled guns.