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D-Day: British D-Day: German

Hill 112 and Operation Epsom

By Gary Martin

It was said that ‘Who holds Hill 112 holds Normandy” and on 29 July the British 2nd Army were the owners of that ground. The trip there had been tough but the 15th Scottish Division and 11th Armoured Division had fought their way there during the first 3 days of Operation Epsom.

A counter-attack mounted by Panzergrenadiers and self-propelled guns from 10. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’ made good progress at first, but in the end the British lines held, although in a far more vulnerable position than before.

Back at 2nd Army headquarters the situation was not looking good to Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey. The German attack on Hill 112 was part of a grander plan which involved attacks north and south of the River Odon. Although these attacks were repulsed he was confident that they were only the prelude to a larger counter-attack planned for the following day.  

To help redress the lines he decided to withdraw the defenders from Hill 112 and during the night and the high ground was abandoned without a shot being fired. Secure behind the bridgehead at the Odon they prepared for the counter-attack which never came. The axis forces had been committed a piece at a time and did not have the strength for another major attack.

Operation Epsom ended on 30 June. It had failed to meet all its goals but did play its part in the strategic plan as a large amount of German armour had been committed to the area and weakened the American sectors in preparation for the breakout.

Windsor and Charnwood

After Epsom the focus of the Allied attacks on Caen changed. Rather than out flank the city Monty decided to drive straight in from the north. There was still one major obstacle on that side of the city, Carpiquet Airfield.

Operation Epsom

It had been reached on 7 June but as yet no one had tackled its formidable defences. Pill boxes, mine fields and about 150 men from 12. SS-Panzerdivision stood ready to defend the airfield. Operation Windsor started with the thunder of the 16” guns of the HMS Rodney firing at the surrounding buildings from over 24km away. 

Three battalions of infantry advanced at dawn behind a massive artillery barrage. The Winnipeg Rifles (3rd Candian Division) got close to the hungers but were repulsed with heavy losses and by early evening they were back at their starting lines. This was not the end to this bloody day. During the night elements of 1. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandate Adolf Hitler’ attacked from the north as a diversion so all the besieged troops could withdraw to the south.

Men of the 15th Scottish Division The attack into Caen had to be delayed by another two days as the approach to the city was not clear, the Germans still held the hangers to the east of the airfield

Operation Charnwood involved three infantry divisions attacking from the north of the city with tanks from several brigades in support. The operation opened with heavy bombardment on the German lines with artillery and naval gun fire. A huge air attack hit the city that night but most of the bombs hit the northern suburbs rather than the German front lines. 21. Panzerdivision had several weeks to prepare the defences and had a 3km deep defensive belt ready for the Allies. The first days fighting resulted in little gain and a further heavy air bombardment was needed that night.

The Canadian and British units made better progress the next day and managed to drive the Germans out of Caen as far as the river Odre. Charnwood came to a close with a large part of the city was now in Allied hands and Monty was now ready for the next phase of the operation.

Operation Jupiter - Return to Hill 112

Efforts were now made to tidy up the lines to the west of Caen and Dempsey decided to complete his move over the River Odon and retake Hill 112. This time the attack would be by the 43rd Wessex division who had mainly been performing a supporting role until now.

43rd Wessex Division advance

Panzergrenadiers of the 10. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’ had moved back into their old positions on Hill 112 and were well prepared to defend it. 

An indication of the high importance of this ground can be taken from the amount of support dedicated to it from both sides. The entire Werfer-Brigade 8 was firing from Evrecy which drew the fire from every British mortar in return. A rolling barrage from the guns of four divisions (15th, 43rd, 53rd & 11th Armoured) and the 8th Army Group Royal Artillery would prepare the way for the Wessex men, with Naval gunfire smashing any German strong points. The barrages were so intense that the division had started to run out of ammunition by the end of the operation.  

On 10 July Operation Jupiter was launched with this thunderous artillery bombardment on the German lines. Infantry from the 129th and 130th Infantry brigades set off through the waist high corn fields with Churchill tanks from 31st Tank Brigade and Crocodiles of 141st RAC in support. They made their way through the remains of the tanks lost in the first attack and managed to get near the top of the hill with little resistance. Churchills of the 31st Tank Brigade
Destroyed tanks from the earlier battles of Operation Epsom

This all changed when fire from well concealed MG-42 positions, mortars and artillery swept the crest of the hill inflicting heavy casualties on them.

The men of the Somerset Light Infantry and Wiltshire Regiments would pay a dear price for the ground that had been given up so easily. A very heavy toll was taken by the armoured regiments as well as many of the Churchill tanks were knocked out by the well concealed guns in the woods. The carnage on the top of the hill was summed up by this report from an officer in the Greys. 

”The skyline was dominated by Churchill tanks brewing-up, not a pretty sight. They had gone too far over the ridge and had been knocked out by the enemy who were in extremely good positions. There were dead and wounded men lying all over the ground in the long grass, rifles stuck in the ground marking the positions of their owners, a gruesome sight”

Counter-attacks were launched on the hill and the surrounding towns by the 9. SS-Panzerdivision and Tigers from the 102. Schwere SS Panzerabteilung. Most of the British reserves had to be committed to hold against these fierce attacks.

More Churchills of the 31st Tank Brigade
SS Prisoners By mid afternoon a fresh attack was planned for Hill 112 and 7RTR and the 5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry were sent up to re-enforce the Wiltshire troops who were dug in on the side of the hill. They arrived just in time to fight off another attack and continued to battle their way to the crest. Hill 112 was back in British hands again but they would have to fight to keep it.

There was constant pressure on the British positions that night with heavy mortar fire and several assaults sent in by the SS troops. They were all repulsed with horrendous casualties inflicted on both sides and in the morning Hill 112 had to be abandoned again. This time it would stay vacant for the rest of July as any move on to it was greeted with heavy bombardment from the other side.
A Butchers bill of over 2000 casualties was paid by the men of the 43rd Wessex Division in about 36 hours of fighting and in the end they still didn’t hold their objectives. Some of the infantry and armoured regiments reported up to 75% losses for this action. Was this small rise in the Normandy landscape worth such a high price? Probably to the Tommy in the field it didn’t but as part of the operational goals it was. Four panzer divisions and most of the German reserves were committed to the defence of Caen and the surrounding area. By the end of July the US 3rd Army would launch Operation Cobra against the depleted defences which would lead to the collapse of all resistance in Normandy and take them all the way to Paris.

If you are interested in recreating the battle for Hill 112 have a look at the excellent Axis of Attack Campaign by Craig Courtis.


Caen by Ken Ford
The Battle for Normandy 1944 by Robin Neillands



Last Updated On Monday, April 20, 2020 by Wayne at Battlefront