Friday, 5 November 2010

9th June to 3rd July - Cambes Wood

We took Cambes Wood on June 9th 1944 and left it on July 3rd. During that period two Battalions of the Brigade were in Cambes Wood and the third was in reserve at Le Mesnil about half a mile away. A system of frequent Battalion reliefs was arranged but, by chance, we were only relieved once for four days, and so consider that we held the position for the whole period.

By July 3rd the geography of Cambes and its surroundings were firmly imprinted on our minds. The village itself must have held a population of some 300 before the war, but now, of course, there was none, the last civilians - four old ladies - being evacuated by ourselves on June 12th.

The main road ran from North to South through the village from Villon Les Buissons on its way to Malon, and ultimately Caen, having Galmanche and St Contest on its right, and La Bijude and Epron on its left. North East and North of the village lay the wood, and through it into the village ran a track from Anisy, which was our main channel of supply and communication. This track was generously bordered with trenches and ditches, and many a visitor, trapped in a spell of Boche harassing fire, abandoned his vehicle for one of these.

Within the framework of these roads stood the Chateau, a large white impressive structure set in what a few years before must have been beautiful surroundings. The back windows looked down an avenue which connected La Bijude with Cambes, and the front looked across the Northern stretches of the wood which contained our own Mortar platoon and half the other Battalion that was holding this area with ourselves.

Some 200 yards to the West of the Chateau stood the Church, the meeting point of all roads and tracks leading into and out of the village. It was a fine old Norman church and once it had dominated the village architecturally just as its preachers and doctrines influenced the lives of all that dwelt there. Now, penetrated again and again by shells and shrapnel, its grandeur was a mere shadow of its former self.

The railway followed along the Southern edge of the wood, crossed the Avenue at a level crossing and then swung South to follow a tortuous path towards Caen. Just East of the level crossing was Cambes station or halt - a building which we would have described as a signal box. It revived memories of travelling on the French railways before the war - nothing else need be said about it.

The Battalion was disposed on either side of this shell swept village. Two companies were on the right of the main road and of the two on the left, one was based on the station and the level-crossing, the other in the woods with Battalion Headquarters.

It is difficult to say whether any one position was preferable to any other. The Company in the wood near Battalion Headquarters had the advantage of not being in direct contact with the enemy, but then everybody suffered equally from the Boche artillery. Probably the companies dose to the village had the most acceptable lot.

The houses themselves had little to offer because they had suffered irreparable damage from the attention of a Naval Cruiser and our Divisional Artillery in the attack upon the village, and they had been thoroughly looted by the German during his stay. But these companies, dug into vegetable gardens, acquired plentiful forage to supplement the Compo Ration, and for those who cared to look, the odd bottle of wine had in places escaped the attention of the Boche in his hasty retreat.

The enemy were extraordinarily close to us in this position, at the nearest point no more than 150 yards away. From half way down the avenue some 200 yards forward of the level crossing - a system of entrenchments ran continuously round our positions to Galmanche and at no point was his line further away from our most forward troops than 250 yards.

From our observation posts - two in houses on either side of the wood beyond the village and a third in the attic of the Chateau - we had a complete picture of these trenches, of the wire in front of them and of the Germans walking quite freely up and down them.

This activity was carefully observed and chronicled by the observers but by itself would have been deceptive in estimating the strength of the position. We soon learnt that when the Boche chose to expose himself he did so with a purpose: it was to distract attention from the real strength with which he held the villages of La Bijude and Epron, Malon and Galmanche.

Some picture of this strength could he gathered by scrupulous tireless observation which noticed the change in colour in foliage where some natural camouflage on a tank or SP gun died, or some suspicious shape which had obtruded itself where previously there had been nothing. But information about the enemy was amplified and confirmed as always by patrols.

Three listening posts were found each night on different parts of the front; and sorties further forward brought our men to within yards of the Boche so that such activities as feeding, mining, wiring and digging could be studied at close range.

Additionally the Battle Patrol operating first under Sjt Murphy both of the Carrier platoon brought in a wealth of detailed information. The Battalion Battle Patrol, formed from volunteers, trained and operated by Major Sweeny, MC, undertook the bulk of the reconnaissance patrols in this area.

Sjt Martin, probing down the avenue one night towards La Bijude, walked into the path of a Spandau on fixed lines, and so the Battalion lost a cool and adventurous patrol commander. Sjt Murphy carried on this invaluable work, patrolling with great success until the end of our stay in Cambes.

One other patrol deserves mention if only as an indication of the things that will go wrong under battle conditions. Lt Purcell, patrolling with a section in the direction of Galmanches bumped, on the outskirts of the village, a sentry who shouted "Halt". Lt Purcell pressed the trigger of his Sten. It jammed. Simultaneously the men on either side of him attempted to fire their Stens. Both guns jammed. Thereupon, without further delay, they made one of the swiftest withdrawals on record pursued by the shots and shouts of the Boche sentry.

Observation by day and patrolling by night was the policy decided upon by the Commanding Officer, Lt-Col I. C. Harris. Undue activity by the Boche was dealt with immediately and severely either by the Battalions own 3" Mortars or by the Royal Artillery whose representative, Major Nicholson RA, was tireless in supporting our endeavours.

However there was little scope for the snipers, because a fold of ground between the enemy lines and our own, caused the bulk of our positions to be in dead ground, so that the only good fire positions were the OPs from which alone the enemy could be seen; and it would have been foolhardy to compromise this valuable source of intelligence for the sake of shooting a few Germans. As it was, we were able to hand over to our successors a storehouse of information the worth of which was proven in the subsequent attack.

The governing factor in life at Cambes was, however, the intensity of the Boche shelling and mortaring; this was eternally imprinted upon the minds of those who survived until July 3rd, the day we left Cambes. During the period we lost between three to five men killed or wounded each day from shellfire.

The Boche was adroit enough to select times when he could rely upon people leaving their slit trenches for one reason or another. He had the main road past the Church, the Chateau, and the area of Battalion Headquarters exactly ranged, while among the forward Companies it seems certain that he was able by some means to carry out observed shooting.

At all events he obtained results, and casualties included Captain N. R. V. Watson second in command of C Company and Lt Lyndon-Adams the Mortar Platoon Commander, two officers whose excellence had made a long standing mark and whose loss was a great setback to the Battalion.

Our Reinforcement Company under Captain K. G. Perona-Wright had been absorbed after the Battle of Cambes to bring the Battalion back to full strength, but now, as casualties mounted, so the gaps began once more to re-appear.

This period was one of intense strain for all ranks, for the feeling that we were pinned down by Boche fire was prevalent, but under the circumstances morale remained remarkably high. It was well known that for every one shell fired by the enemy, two hundred could be and were put down by our own gunners.

Also it was realised that our role as part of the Division was to protect the bridgehead while supplies were built up and plans for thrust and expansion were matured. On our sector alone, we were faced by 12 SS Panzer Division - the Hitler Jugend Division - parts of which we had driven back in the battle for Cambes.

Further East was 21 Panzer Division another potent armoured formation. On the other hand between ourselves and the beach there was nothing save the gun area and various beachgroups, so that retaining contact and yet holding these powerful formations required the maximum vigilance and effort. Appreciation of this delicate position by all ranks encouraged them to endure with determination this period of static defence.

As one means of strengthening our positions, mines were laid on an extensive scale. Long belts of anti-tank mines bridged the gap between ourselves, the Canadians on the right and 8th Brigade on our left. Additionally our own Pioneer platoon under Lt Shimmin covered our own front, working always by night, since they were within speaking distance of the Boche.

Anti-personnel mines were laid around the level crossing as a precaution against infiltration by Boche patrols down the avenue. This field caused a tragedy, when the Commander of the platoon covering the minefield, Lt Frost, accidentally set off one of the mines and lost his life. This was a most expensive loss for the Battalion as Lt Frost had been with the Battalion for over a year, and had proved himself a very gallant platoon commander.

In the last fortnight of our stay in Cambes, small parties were sent off to A Echelon at Cazelle for 48 hours rest. Cazelle was about a mile North East of Cambes. It was intermittently shelled and here like everywhere else on the advanced section of the bridgehead men lived at lead half below ground. But at least a bath, a change of clothing and a good long sleep could be obtained, and this did something to assuage the hardships of life in Cambes Wood.

We thought on various occasions that we might have to go forward from the wood to attack the positions in front of us that we had so carefully patrolled and observed. On one occasion an abortive attack on La Bijude was conceived wherein a squadron of tanks from the East Riding Yeomanry and one of our Companies were to move into La Bijude in concert with activities of the Brigade on our left.

The attack developed to the extent that the tanks went forward first while B Company were waiting to debouch from the wood as soon as the armour had crossed the ridge and began to drive down into the village, but it was swiftly called off when six tanks were knocked out by 88s from the village as they crossed the ridge. The task was patently beyond the resources of a single squadron and a single company.

On another occasion, it was thought that our Brigade should improve its positions by capturing Galmanches, Malon and St. Contest but this plan was postponed at a comparatively early stage, as it was not thought that the time was ripe to go forward on this front. Nor can there be doubt that we should have suffered heavily in attacking this position, as did the Division who took over this sector from us.

As it was, we were reserved for another role, which was to prove no less difficult but ultimately more congenial.

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