Thursday, October 27, 2016

“Ride of the blazing Panthers!”

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel arrived at the headquarters of Panzer Lehr just as the Canscots were retaking Putot. He was quickly briefed on the situation, and was informed of the devastating effects of naval fire, which had ‘cut to pieces’ units of the division, including a vital heavy weapons company. Rommel ordered Panzer Lehr to shift west and organize an attack to retake Bayeux. General Witt, the 12th SS commander, reported that his Panzer battalion was waiting for dusk to attack Bretteville and Norrey. This attack was intended to secure the start line for a full-scale divisional thrust to the coast. Rommel approved these plans and departed for his headquarters.

The battlegroup preparing to attack the Reginas consisted of two companies of Panthers, a motorcycle company, and two batteries of self-propelled howitzers. Kurt Meyer was in command. His plan called for a direct attack down the main highway into the village. How tanks with few infantry were to accomplish this was quite unclear. The Panthers, ‘staggered one behind each other,’ came under flanking fire from 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, which carefully waited until the lead tanks were at the edge of Bretteville. Three Panthers were destroyed before this approach was abandoned. Just before midnight, two Panthers groped their way down the main road into Bretteville. Lt.-Col. Matheson described the result:

One came opposite battalion headquarters and was struck by a PIAT bomb, fired from behind a stone wall at 15 yards range, safe from the tank’s huge gun. It halted for a moment started again and after 30 yards was hit by a second PIAT. It stopped, turned around and headed out of town. A third PIAT hit finished it off so that it slew around out of control running over a necklace of 75 grenades which blew off a track. The crew dismounted and attempted to make off but were killed by small arms fire. During this incident the second Panther had remained farther up the road. Seeing the fate of its companion it commenced to fire both 75mm and MG wildly down the street like a child in a tantrum doing no damage whatsoever except to set fire to the first Panther. Rifleman Lapointe, J. E. with great coolness and determination was instrumental in knocking out the first tank. 

Meyer now employed his self-propelled artillery and one company of Panthers as a fire base, shelling the entrance to Bretteville while his second Panther Company swung left in an attempt to enter the village from the south. At Cardonville, they encountered Dog Company and were soon involved in pounding the Regina company with everything they had. But as Acting Major Gordon Brown, Dog Company’s commander, noted: ‘Tanks without infantry and at night made no sense. They could take ground and batter buildings, cause some casualties and generally terrorize us but without infantry they could not hold what they had captured.’

Back in Bretteville, the situation was even more frustrating for the Germans. The motorcycle company had suffered heavy losses, and the Panther crews with their limited visibility found night fighting in the streets of Bretteville confusing and pointless. German veterans of the Eastern Front knew that ‘the tactic of surprise, using mobile fast infantry and Panzers, even in small numerically inferior Kampfgruppen, had often been practised and proven in Russia.’ But as Hubert Meyer notes in his history of the 12th SS: This tactic, however, had not resulted in the expected success here against a courageous and determined enemy, who was ready for the defence and well equipped. Through good battlefield observation, the enemy had recognized the outlines of the preparations for the attack and drawn his own conclusions. The deployment of D Company to Cardonville had prevented a breakthrough by 2/26 from the farm south of the rail line to Bretteville, only 1000 meters away. The antitank defences all around the village were strong enough to thwart all attempts by Panzers to by-pass the town to the south and north. The surprising use of parachute flares with glowing mag- nesium light blinding the Panthers and clearly outlined them to enemy Pak. The enemy was especially strong in the defence and could not be taken by surprise. He fought with determination and courage.

The disastrous attack of 8-9 June, which cost 12th SS a further 152 casualties as well as six tanks, did not persuade ‘Panzer’ Meyer that his operational doctrine was flawed. He ordered a new assault concentrated on Norrey, which he now believed to be the key to unlocking the Canadian defences. The 3rd Panzer Company of 12th Panzer Regiment, which had not participated in the previous attack, was to cross the railway line and advance on Norrey shortly after noon on 9 June, when the skies would, it was hoped, be free of fighter-bombers. The first battalion of Mohnke’s 26th Regiment was to advance simultaneously on Norrey from the south.

The operation turned into a nightmare for the Hitler Youth. The infantry were quickly hammered back into their slit trenches by artillery and mortars. The Panthers drove on Norrey ‘as a body at high speed without any stops’ until the lead tank was hit. Then another Panther had its turret torn off. Five more were lost in the next few min- utes; the remainder withdrew at full speed. A single 17-pounder Firefly of the First Hussars accounted for seven of the Panthers, which had advanced on Norrey with their vulnerable side-armour exposed.

Even this costly setback did not persuade 12th SS to abandon piecemeal attacks on the Canadian positions. The next morning, the pioneer battalion tried to follow the ‘heaviest possible barrage’ into Norrey. Charlie Company of the Reginas used its own weapons and the divisional artillery to crush the attack. Four attempts to capture Norrey had failed at a cost of more than three hundred Hitler Youth. Their divisional historian later noted:

This village together with Bretteville, formed a strong barrier, blocking the attack plans of the Panzerkorps. For this reason, repeated attempts were made to take these positions through a number of attacks. They failed because of insufficient forces, partly because of rushed planning caused by real or imagined time pressures. Last but not least they failed because of the courage of the defenders which was not any less than that of the attackers. It was effectively supported by well constructed positions, strong artillery, antitank weapons and by tanks. 

While 7th Brigade was successfully defending its sector, other units of the Second British Army were engaged in offensive operations aimed at securing their D-Day objectives. Montgomery proposed an attack on Caen, with 51st Highland Division pushing out of the Orne bridgehead and 7th Armoured advancing from Bayeux to Villers-Bocage and Evrecy. If these operations were successful, 1st British Air- borne Division was to seize ground south of Caen and complete the encirclement.

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