Friday, February 24, 2012

Sword Beach

Sword, commonly known as Sword Beach, was the code name given to one of the five main landing areas along the Normandy coast during the initial assault phase, Operation Neptune, of Operation Overlord; the Allied invasion of German-occupied France that commenced on 6 June 1944. Stretching 8 km from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer the beach was divided into several sectors and each sector divided into beaches; thus the British 3rd Infantry Division, assigned to land on Sword, assaulted a two mile (3 km) stretch of Sword codenamed Queen Sector - Queen Red, White and Green beaches.

Sword is around 15 km from Caen, the ultimate goal of the 3rd Infantry Division. The initial landings were achieved with low casualties but the advance from the beach was met with traffic congestion, heavily defended areas behind the beachhead and was met by the only armoured counterattack of the day, mounted by the 21st Panzer Division, that halted further progress towards Caen.

Following the Fall of France British Prime Minister Winston Churchill vowed to return to continental Europe and liberate the Nazi German-occupied nations. The Western Allies agreed to open a Second Front in northern Europe in 1942 to aid the Soviet Union. However with resources for an invasion lacking it was postponed but planning was undertaken that in the event of the German position in western Europe becoming critically weakened or the Soviet Union's situation becoming dire, forces could be landed in France; Operation Sledgehammer. At the same time planning was underway for a major landing in occupied France during 1943; Operation Roundup. In August 1942 Anglo-Canadian forces attempted an abortive landing—Operation Jubilee—at the Calais port-town of Dieppe; the landing was designed to test the feasibility of a cross-channel invasion. The attack was poorly planned and ended in disaster; 4,963 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. The decision to prosecute the Battle of the Atlantic to its closure, the lack of landing craft, invading Sicily in July 1943, and Italy in September following the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa in May 1943 resulted in the postponement of any assault on northern Europe till 1944.

Having succeeded in opening up an offensive front in southern Europe, gaining valuable experience in amphibious assaults and inland fighting, Allied planners returned to the plans to invade Northern France. Now scheduled for 5 June 1944, the beaches of Normandy were selected as landing sites, with a zone of operations extending from the Cotentin Peninsula to Caen. Operation Overlord called for British Second Army to assault between the River Orne and Port en Bessin, capture the German-occupied city of Caen and form a front line from Caumont-l'Éventé to the south-east of Caen, in order to acquire airfields and protect the left flank of the United States First Army while it captured Cherbourg. Possession of Caen and its surroundings would give Second Army a suitable staging area for a push south to capture the city of Falaise, which could then be used as a pivot for a left right to advance on Argentan, the Touques River and then towards the Seine River. Overlord would constitute the largest amphibious operation in military history. After delays due to both logistical difficulties and poor weather, the D-Day of Overlord was moved to 6 June 1944. Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery, commander of 21st Army Group, aimed to capture Caen within the first day, and liberate Paris within 90 days.

Units of the British 2nd Army led by Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey were assigned the beach. Troops from the British 1st Corps led by Crocker continued the beach assault. The landing was concentrated in the Queen sector of the beach Hermanville-sur-Mer. The key objective was to take the key town of Caen and the nearby Carpiquet Aerodrome to the west. Landings began at 07:25 am when the 3rd Division landed in Peter and Queen. Attached commando units 1st Special Service Brigade and part of 4th Special Service Brigade were tasked with seizing the bridges on the River Orne and the Caen Canal, linking up with paratroops of the 6th Airborne Division who were holding the bridges and had earlier destroyed the batteries at Merville.

Resistance on the beach was weak. Within 45 minutes, by 08:00, the fighting had been pushed inland and on the east flank the Commando units had reached the Orne, linking up with British paratroopers who had landed by the Orne waterways inland from Ouistreham, by 13:00. The British could not link up with the Canadian forces to the west until much later in the day. The only significant German counter-attacks on D-Day came into this area, starting around 16:00. In two attacks the 21st Panzer Division pushed all the way from near Caen to the beach between Lion-sur-Mer and Luc-sur-Mer and were only fully neutralised by late evening. By the end of 6 June, the 716th Infantry Division had been almost entirely destroyed, many having fought to the death.

The only real German counter-attack on 6 June took place at Sword Beach. British troops had not been able to link up with Canadian troops from Juno according to the plan, and they were attacked by men of the German 21st Panzer Division. The 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiment reached Sword Beach by 20:00 but many vehicles were destroyed by British air attacks. The flak units attached to the 21st Panzer had been spread thin, and as a result many vehicles were destroyed.Many of the units deployed by the 21st were obsolete, such as the 80 light Czech tanks that the division was equipped with, making them inferior to most Allied units and easier to damage.

Still, the 22nd Panzergrenadier along with about 50 Panzer IV tanks attacked the British-held position. The British had constructed effective defences and the counter-attack was defeated. Despite this, one company made it through the gaps in the defences and reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer. Finding the coastal defences there intact, they set about reinforcing them. By coincidence, 250 Gliders of the British 6th Airlanding Brigade, on their way to reinforce the Orne bridgehead, flew over their positions. Believing they would be cut off, the Germans abandoned their defence. By the end of the 6 June, the 21st Panzer Division had lost 50 tanks to British anti-tank guns.

The day ended after 28,845 men, of I Corps, having come ashore across Sword Beach. The British campaign historian, L.F. Ellis notes that "in spite of the Atlantic Wall over 156,000 men had been landed in France on the first day of the campaign." British losses, in the Sword beach area, amounted to around 683 men.

The advance on Caen resumed the following day and the British and Canadians linked up, however three days into the invasion the advance on Caen had been halted. On 7 June Operation Perch, a pincer attack by the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and XXX Corps was launched to encircle Caen from the east and west. However the 21st Panzer Division halted the highlanders advance while XXX Corps's attack resulted in the Battle of Villers-Bocage and the withdrawal of XXX Corps leading elements soon after. The next offensive, codenamed Operation Epsom, was launched by VIII Corps on 26 June to envelope Caen from the West.German forces managed to contain the offensive, but to do so were obliged to commit all their available strength.

On 27 June the 3rd Infantry Division and tanks, launched Operation Mitten. The objective was to seize two German-occupied châteaux—la Londe and le Landel. The initial evening assault was repulsed, but the following morning further attacks gained the objectives and destroyed several German tanks. Operation Mitten cost at least three British tanks and 268 men. Historian Terry Copp calls the fighting for these châteaux the "bloodiest square mile in Normandy". Divisional historian Norman Scarfe claims that had the operation gone more smoothly, further elements of the division and elements of the 3rd Canadian would have then launched Operation Aberlour, an ambitious plan to capture several villages north of Caen. However, this attack was cancelled by Lieutenant-General John Crocker. Several days later I Corps launched a new offensive, codenamed Operation Charnwood, to gain possession of Caen. In a frontal assault the northern half of the city was finally captured. However, German forces retained possession of the city south of the Orne river and this area would only be liberated during Operation Atlantic by Canadian infantry

No comments:

Post a Comment