Friday, 5 November 2010

9th June - The taking of Cambes Wood

On the 9th June 1944 the Battalion attacked and captured Cambes. The attack was fiercely resisted by the Germans, and the Battalion, two thirds of which had not been in action before, conducted itself with great gallantry.

The picture was as follows: Cambes and Galmanche (another small village some 800 yards south of Cambes), thought to be lightly held by the enemy, were defended strongly as outposts. Buron and St Contest, two villages a further 1000 yards or so south and south west of Galmanche were strongly held. On the east side, La Bijude, some 800 yards south east of Cambes, and Epron, some 500 yards south of La Bijude were held by the enemy with unknown strength.

The general idea was for 9th British Infantry Brigade (2nd Bn. The Royal Ulster Rifles, 1st Bn. Kings Own Scottish Borderers and 1st Bn. The Suffolk Regiment) to capture the St Contest area, the attack hinging on whether Cambes was taken or not. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade were to give covering fire and anti-tank support during the attack from ground which they had captured some 2000 yards to the west.

The 2nd Bn. The Royal Ulster Rifles had additional troops as follows:

Under Command, one section Field Ambulance. In support, one 6" Cruiser, Royal Navy, the whole of the Divisional Artillery, two troops Anti-Tank (RA) - one ordinary and one self propelled. One company 4.2" mortars, one company Medium Machine Guns; one regiment of Sherman tanks (East Riding Yeomanry); and finally Royal Engineers in the shape of assault demolition and mine clearance teams, with five Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers in support.

It will be recalled that the ground from Anisy to Cambes is open, its distance being approximately 1500 yards, and its width approximately 800 yards. A dusty track with no bordering or fence of any description runs straight from Anisy to Cambes.

The intention of the Commanding Officer was simple and direct; "2nd Bn. The Royal Ulster Rifles will capture and consolidate Cambes".

The plan was as follows: The advance from Anisy to Cambes over the open ground was to be carried out with B Company on the right, A Company on the left with their left on the track, D Company supporting B Company, and C Company supporting A Company, the advance to be carried out under cover of an artillery barrage. The advance was to be in open order, with A and B Companies clearing the front edge of the village and guarding the flanks, and with C and D Companies passing through and capturing the far edges of the village, the whole operation requiring both wood and street fighting.

Prior to Zero Hour, the Naval Cruiser gave a five minute concentration onto the village, followed by the Fd Arty giving a series of concentration, behind which the Battalion were to advance. The anti-tank gunners were to protect the flanks, and the East Riding Yeomanry tanks were also to assist. The assault companies, A and B, were each given a demolition and mine clearance team for use until their final objectives, when they were to pass these on to the supporting companies, C and D. The Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers were to move forward with the Battalion ready to deal with any strongpoints.

The 4.2" mortars were given two tasks of crumping onto A Company's first objective, and then to transfer to C Company's final objective.

The Medium Machine Gun Company were (1) To cover the left flank, and (2) To consolidate on the final objectives in order to deal with counter attacks.

The Battalions own 3" Mortar Platoon were to be prepared to fire on call from the Assault Companies, and then from the two Supporting Companies.

The Carrier Platoon under command of 5 Company Commander, Major C. R. P. Sweeny, MC, were to remain at Anisy and be prepared to ferry up ammunition or any other requirements to the objectives.

The anti-tank platoon were given protective tasks once the objective had been gained

The Pioneer Platoon, whose Commander, Lt D. Greer, had left the Battalion on the 7th June to collect some stores from a dump and had not since returned, were to be ready should the Royal Engineers not be in a position to fulfil their commitments.

Lieutenant D Greer

At 1515 hours 9th June, A and B Companies crossed the start line followed by the Battalion O Group behind A Company. The men were well spaced out and advanced in good order, direction being steadied by the Commanding Officer from the left.

As the Companies reached the ridge some 1100 yards from the objective, whence they could be permanently observed by the enemy they came under a heavy barrage of mortar and shell fire accompanied by machine gun fire.

The Commanding Officer of the East Riding Yeomanry, who had fought with the Guards, observing the advance from the start line, said to himself "This is where they get to ground, and the attack is held up". To his astonishment however, the Battalion continued to advance in open order keeping perfect distance.

Certainly there is no doubt that the Companies advanced through what appeared to be an impassable barrage with the same unconcern as that shown on a company field firing exercise.

Men were dropping all round, but still the advance continued.

A Company under Major W. D. Tighe-Wood were particularly unfortunate, losing all three of their Platoon Commanders, Lt R. S. Hall being killed, and the other two, Lt D. Walsh and Lt J. St. J. Cooper being wounded in such a way that they could not carry on. Further, one Platoon Serjeant was also knocked out.

Major Tighe-Wood

      Lieutenant R S Hall              Lieutenant D H Walsh          Lieutenant J H St J Cooper

 But Major Tighe-Wood, despite these difficulties, succeeded in establishing his Company upon the objective and inspired all ranks by his example of cool and determined leadership. Cpl O'Reilly finding himself the senior person left in his platoon, took command and did very good work during the difficult period of consolidation which followed.

In the same Company, Rfn Miller finding his section leader-less, took over command and led his section with great initiative. L/Sjt McCann, A Company, was badly wounded in the face, but refused to drop out of the fight until his Platoons objective had been obtained.

B Company on the right, under the command of Major J. W. Hyde, came under heavy mortar and machine gun fire from the flank about 400 yards from the near edge of their first objective. With great presence of mind Sjt Kavanagh of 11 Platoon engaged the machine guns with his Bren groups and also directed the attention of a tank on to the trouble. Subsequent patrolling located several enemy dead in the target area.

Major J W Hyde

The first objective was quickly taken, 10 Platoon passing with great speed through the village to the church, their final objective. One German, an SS sniper was wounded and taken prisoner.

A and B Companies reached their first objective by 1630 hours. In passing through A Company, C Company, who by this time had the Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers tanks under command, lost these to German 88 mm guns firing from La Bijude.

These tanks manned by Royal Engineers had done great work, their crews having shown a strong desire to get to grips with the enemy, carrying out tasks which strictly they were not intended to do.

However, C Company Commander, Major J. C. S. G. de Longueuil, could not communicate with them during the battle, and they fought until their tanks were knocked out underneath them.

Major J C S G de Longueuil

When C Company with great vigour and dash, had fought their way through the wood to their final objective, they were unfortunate in losing one of their Platoon Commanders, Lt R. C. Diserens, who regardless of his own safety, was running about in the open under fire, putting his platoon into position. This very enthusiastic young officer was severely wounded and died later from the effects, a great loss to his Company and to the Battalion.

Lieutenant R C Diserens

D Company, which it will be remembered was sadly depleted, went through B Company, and almost immediately, two of its remaining three officers were wounded, Captain J. Montgomery the acting Company Commander, though wounded twice in the leg, carried on throughout the battle, and Lt Lennox, after leading his Platoon with great determination was severely wounded and could not carry on.

Captain J Montgomery            Lieutenant S M Lennox

Had D Company not secured its objective, it is possible that the enemy could have used this portion of the village and wood to make a very vigorous counter attack. In this battle D Company lost a further two killed, fifteen wounded, and one missing.

Immediately the leading companies had reached their first objectives, the Anti-Tank Platoon under command of Captain C. R. Gray was ordered to move forward to assist in consolidation.

Captain C R Gray

All gun detachments moved forward in the face of an accurate 88 mm and mortar fire, and succeeded in being manhandled into position with the exception of one detachment. This was commanded by Cpl Boyd and received a direct hit from an 88 mm shell which besides knocking out the carrier, wounded Cpl Boyd and Rfn Heald and killed Rfn Bingham. Rfn Walton the remaining member of the crew escaped without injury. The gun itself was later recovered and manhandled into position.

Whilst consolidating against a probable counter attack, the enemy subjected the position to a vicious attack of mortar and shell fire which lasted for five hours, so that the digging in was carried out under the greatest difficulties. During the consolidation, Captain M. D. G. C. Ryan, Headquarter Company Commander, was severely burnt in the hands by the explosion of a Phosphorous Smoke Bomb, and evacuated, and Major Brooks, MC, the very popular commander of the RA Battery which had supported the Battalion since 1939, was killed.

Captain M D G C Ryan

At the end of the day, the Battalions total casualties were three Officers and forty one Other Ranks killed, seven Officers and one hundred and thirty one Other Ranks wounded and evacuated, three Officers and three Other Ranks wounded but not evacuated, one Officer and ten Other Ranks missing, making a total away from the Battalion of eleven Officers and one hundred and eighty two Other Ranks.

Many of the wounded had been amazingly cheerful, joking in the face of the most frightful wounds. The Medical Officer, Captain C. R. Wright, RAMC, and his staff of medical orderlies and stretcher bearers had been a pillar of strength, dealing with patients with the same calmness and a good deal more humour than was normally shown on the non operational sick parade.

Captain C R Wright

Mention has already been made of Captain Aldworth and Lt Diserens. Lt Hall had not been with the Battalion for as long as them, having joined in January from the Coast Artillery, but he was already marked out for promotion by his ability and excellence as an officer, while to his many friends, his death meant the loss of one for whom loyalty and reliability were always paramount virtues and for whom gaiety and good humour were as essential as the breath of life.

Captain Aldworth, Lieutenant Diserens and Lieutenant Hall - all killed at Cambes Wood along with   41 other members of the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles.
7 Officers and 131 other ranks wounded and evacuated.
1 Officer and 10 other ranks missing.

Morale in the Battalion never faltered from the beginning. The Battalion took its victory and its wounds as if they were normal everyday occurrences. After consolidation, the Officers and Men soon learnt the advisability of digging deep, and the Germans regular strafing was soon the cause of much laughter and singing of such songs as "Run Rabbit Run". Cambes was not liked, but it was looked upon as a stepping stone to bigger things, and in order that the Germans could know this too, strong fighting patrols soon took up the offensive.

Remains of the stone walls around Cambes Wood originally circa 10ft high

When the 2nd Battalion was ordered to move forward again, it was not weaker owing to Cambes but stronger, and the Germans soon learnt to recognise the strong fighting spirit of the Royal Ulster Rifles.

It was learnt later that as a result of this operation, Major W. D. Tighe-Wood, Captain J. Montgomery and Lt S. M. Lennox had been awarded the Military Cross, Cpl O'Reilly the Distinguished Conduct Medal, L/Sjt McCann, Rfn Long (who as a Signaller with C Company had attended a wounded man under severe shell fire with complete disregard for his own safety) and Rfn McGlennon (who as D Company's runner had maintained personal communication throughout the worst phase of the battle) the Military Medal.

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