On the 15th, ‘C’ Squadron came under command of the 131st Brigade and was attached to the 1/6th Queens, commanded by Lt Col Forrester, at Briquessard where they were reunited with the rest of the Regiment.
Already members of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons looked like veterans, hung round with egg grenades and with tired faces and stories to tell of casualties suffered already in the few days they had been in France. However, ‘C’ Squadron were very shortly going to make up for having missed the Villers Bocage action.
After the withdrawal from Villers Bocage, there was a three-mile gap left between the Rifle Brigade on the 7th Armoured Division’s left and the 50th Division. This gap was covered by the Regiment who did much excellent patrolling, a difficult task for a tank as the noise and dust made movement impossible to conceal, and the ground too was to their disadvantage.
While the rest of the Regiment remained in a cornfield south of La Butte, in reserve and doing some much-needed maintenance, Huth of ‘C’ Squadron left his second-in-command, Captain Firth, to bring the Squadron to Briquessard in the afternoon while he and Lieutenants H. R. D. Peglar, Scott and Young went ahead to do a recce of the area they were to occupy. He was ordered to carry out a recce immediately as far as Amaye to find out, firstly, if that area was occupied by the Germans and, secondly, to confirm the number of enemy vehicles destroyed during the withdrawal of the 22nd Armoured Brigade from Villers Bocage.
Before leaving, Huth placed troops out to forestall any imminent attack, Lieutenant Peglar and One Troop, with ‘B’ Company, 1/6th Queens, in the area immediately south, and Lieutenant Scott and Two Troop, with ‘A’ Company south-east of Briquessard.
Then, having collected his troop leaders he made a careful recce of the area concerned from the top of a small hill to the north-east. However, whilst giving orders to advance on down the road, a report came in from One Troop of an infantry attack starting up near Le Quesnay, south of Briquessard, and also of fourteen Tigers about four miles east.
By 5 p.m. Lieutenant Scott and Two Troop began to advance up the road with Three and Four Troop in support. Lieutenant Peglar and his Troop were still holding the attack around Le Quesnay, and Lieutenant G. Atkinson-Willes and Five Troop moved two miles east to try and find out more about the previously reported Tigers.
Meanwhile, Captain Firth and the Sergeant Major, with an observer from the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery, moved to a good viewpoint just north-east of Briquessard to be able to support the troops should they run into trouble.
Scott’s Troop reached Amaye and reported it held by about a hundred infantry. They fired some high explosives into them, and a house which must have been storing petrol went up in flames. Meanwhile, Sergeant Hunter’s tank, Cyclonic, had become ditched and Lieutenant M. S. Payne and Four Troop stood by to give protection as sniping was continuous.
Lance-Corporal French got out to stalk a sniper but was shot, but Trooper Stack promptly shot the sniper. Payne made a gallant attempt to reach Lance-Corporal French, but the sniping was too accurate. The Armoured Recovery Vehicle under Corporal Swetman, R.E.M.E., was sent out and that also became ditched. The situation threatened to become critical on account of the snipers.
By now Atkinson-Willes, seeing and hearing nothing of the fourteen Tigers, had been ordered to make a small detour to the east and come in behind Two Troop, which they did having found nothing to report.
At about 9.30 p.m. the order to withdraw into the Briquessard box was given out, and all troops returned complete, except that it had been found impossible to salvage ‘Cyclonic’ which had to be abandoned. The crew rode in on the back of the Armoured Recovery Vehicle which was then hit by the German equivalent of the Piat from close range. Sergeant Hunter was killed and the vehicle itself was slightly damaged. All troops returned to leaguer for the night except Scott and Two who remained with ‘A’ Company, and Peglar and One with ‘B’ Company.
During the day Peglar had gone forward with an infantry patrol to locate the enemy and had become involved in a hand to hand fight with a German patrol. He had been hit over the head with a rifle, but apart from that returned unhurt and with some very useful information.
However, during the early hours of the next morning, June 16th, this gallant officer went out again with a patrol, was wounded and subsequently died of his wounds.
All that day, the 16th, the enemy made three separate attacks to capture Briquessard and each one was driven back by the 1/6th Queen’s and ‘C’ Squadron. The village was shelled intensely and things were not made easier when R.A.F. Typhoons put the fear of God into everyone by shooting up Briquessard with rockets, causing some casualties among the infantry. They had mistaken the village for Cahagnes from which place the enemy was shelling. (Our own troops were partly to blame as we had failed to put out ground/air recognition strips.)
During the morning, One Troop, ‘C’ Squadron, now commanded by Sergeant Langmead, with the help of the infantry and a 17-pounder, had knocked out one Mk. VI Tiger, damaged one Mk’ IV and caused casualties to the enemy infantry. They were, however, forced to withdraw and in doing so took the wrong track. Sergeant Langmead in ‘Cresta Run’ became bogged and all the crew returned except Langmcad who was reported missing. Lance-Sergeant Pilkington’s tank was last seen moving east, and both tank and crew became missing and were believed to have run into an enemy patrol and anti-tank gun known to be in that area. Lance-Corporal Gibbins in ‘Captain Cuttle’ also became bogged, having previously been hit, but the crew of three returned safely.
During this time three separate attacks were being put in against ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Company sectors. Young and Three Troop took over from Sergeant Langmead with ‘B’ Company Payne and Two Troop with ‘A’ Company had helped to knock out a German armoured car, whilst Squadron Headquarters with ‘D’ Company had assisted in beating off the attack.
Corporal Smith’s tank, belonging to Two Troop who were watching the west side of the village, developed engine trouble and while the crew were repairing this, Smith, the tank commander, was wounded in the leg by a splinter from a mortar shell, the same shell killing Trooper Stark, the hull gunner.
During the night, Scott’s Troop was left out in the ‘A’ Company Sector, Young’s in ‘B’ Company’s and Atkinson-Willes’ in ‘C’ Company’s, west of Briquessard, watching the Caumont road. Sergeant Langmead’s Troop came back to Squadron Headquarters in the ‘D’ Company area.
On the first day at Briqucssard, Major Huth’s own tank had been damaged by going over “some of our own mines which should not have been down and had no sentry over there.” The result was a damaged track and clutch and a cut over his eye. The next day, his Humber scout car had also been hit by an anti-personnel shell about 6 inches below his feet, but no great damage was done. During the night his jeep was hit by shelling.
‘C’ Squadron stood to all that night expecting an infantry attack, and by the morning of the 17th were very tired, having been in their tanks for three days and two nights. After a night of continuous sniping and shelling a bigger attack developed at about 4.30 a.m., involving two battalions of Panzer Grenadiers, supported by tanks, but this attack was held although Squadron Headquarters had to move its position.
During the morning, Sergeant Major Cole spotted an Mk. VI Tiger in a narrow lane about 1,500 yards from Squadron Headquarters. After manhandling a 17-pounder anti-tank gun from the Norfolk Yeomanry into position, the Tiger was hit with the fifth shot and brewed up, amidst great shouts of glee.
The Commanding Officer, Major Huth, and the Yeomanry Troop Commander were debating the wisdom of satisfying their natural curiosity by going forward to examine the tank when an enemy patrol of three men started to walk towards them. The British party slipped behind the hedge, a click was the only sound as the cocking handle of the Bren gun was drawn hack, to be followed a few seconds later by a staccato burst of fire. Death was as sudden to the enemy as it was unexpected.
As evening drew on the 1/6th Queen’s and ‘C’ Squadron were ordered to withdraw from the village, ‘C’ Squadron to join the Regiment at Cahagnolles and the Queen’s to go to Briquessard wood, some 500 yards to the north. The withdrawal was timed to start at 11.15 p.m., but buy 10.30 shelling began which continued up to the time of the get out, and was directed principally on the exit from the village.
At the same time enemy artillery made an extremely accurate and unpleasant stonk on the western side of the ‘box’, which held Squadron Headquarters, a description of which was written at the time by Lt Col Goulburn and is quoted:
“Brigadier Ekins, Tony Case and I ran for the nearest slit trench and jumped in. Although a long one, it had six men packed in it already. I succeeded in getting my feet on the ground but the best I could do for shelter was to lie over the top of a young Queen’s soldier who was blubbering with fear and fatigue.
Shells were bursting so close that earth and stones were coming in on top of us. Something heavier landed on top of us, however, in the shape of Trooper Smith, my scout car driver. He had been sheltering in my car until a shell burst under it when he decided to bale out and run for a slit trench.
“Whenever there was a break in the shelling we all came up for air, if thick dust, smoke and cordite could be called air, only to crouch down again a moment later as a fresh stonk fell upon us. After fifteen minutes the shelling ceased, and this seemed the moment to get mounted and on the move. I had a quick look at my scout car which appeared towable. We fixed the tow rope to the fitter’s half-track, Case jumped aboard the latter and I into Henry Huth’s tank, and we pulled out of the orchard onto the road. Thank goodness the traffic was on the move even if only crawling, and very soon all four troops of the Squadron reported themselves clear of the village.
“On reaching the village of Livry, which was being shelled, we met our first traffic check. While waiting to get through, a shell burst against a house close behind our tank, and a shell splinter penetrated Huth’s silver flask in his breast pocket. By 1 a.m. the Squadron was back safely in the Regimental Headquarters leaguer.
In spite of a certain amount of confusion, the withdrawal was carried out with no casualties to ‘C’ Squadron. They even managed to take with them two 17-pounders that would otherwise have been left to the enemy.
During the three days and two nights in Briquessard, ‘C’ Squadron had lost five tanks, Lieutenant Peglar, Sergeant Hunter, Lance-Corporals French and Stark killed, Sergeant Langmcad, Lance-Sergeants Pilkington, Wade, Bennett, Sherriff” and Lance Corporal Shirley missing. On the other hand, they had supported the 1/6th Queen’s to such good effect that largely due to them the position was held. They had a half-share in knocking out two Tigers and one Mk. IV was damaged, as well as approximately fifty Germans were killed and they rejoined the Regiment more than ready for a well-earned sleep.
All three Squadrons remained in reserve during the 18th, and on the 19th orders came through that the Regiment was to move back to a new area near La Butte in case of an enemy thrust from the south-east. Accordingly, Lt Col Goulburn ordered the Squadrons to carry out a reconnaissance of battle areas south-east of St. Paul du Vemay, and to be prepared, if necessary, to hold them. The Regiment spent the night at the La Butte cross-roads with ‘C’ Squadron which had received five new tanks to replace those knocked out during the fighting, at St. Paul du Vemay.
For the fighting between the 12th and 19th June in the thick bocage country, the Regiment was granted the major battle honour of Villers Bocage.
The 20th and 21st of June were spent in reconnaissance of battle positions and in maintenance. As a result of what they had experienced in their first engagements, a hundred Sten guns were issued to tanks and scout cars.
Apart from a certain amount of shelling the rest of the month passed fairly quietly. The three battalions of the Queen’s Regiment were holding a ridge now, just north of Briquessard, with the Rifle Brigade on their left around Le Pont Mulot. The five thousand yards between the Riflemen and the 50th Division east of St. Paul du Vemay were covered only by the 8th Hussars.
The enemy-held villages opposite Anctoville, St. Germain, Granville and Longraye, were strongly held by infantry with tanks well back. The ground in between was held by a thin screen of machine-gun posts which changed their positions frequently and were reinforced by night. It was a wearying time of short nights and little sleep. The enemy was constantly on patrol, and the country was ideal for mines and trip wires and booby traps.
On June 24th, Lance-Corporal Balcombe of ‘B’ Squadron was killed when the Squadron area was shelled. On the 25th. the Regiment was ordered to relieve the 4th County of London Yeomanry near Quesnay Guesnon. ‘A’ Squadron was to be forward with ‘C’ in reserve in front of Regimental Headquarters. The positions were recced and ‘A’ Squadron moved forward, ready to send out patrols at first light.
On the 26th, the Regiment came under command of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. The Squadrons took up their positions, ‘C’ Squadron camouflaged in an orchard. ‘A’ Squadron moved on to the La Butte crossroads, facing south towards Granville and St. Germain d’Ectot.
“Two Humber armoured cars streak past my position and one is knocked out by an anti-tank gun 300 yards forward round the corner,” reads the diary of a newly-arrived ‘A’ Squadron subaltern. “Report of Tigers in area. Standing-to. I wonder if I will knock out a Tiger? Two bloody survivors return from armoured cars. Bill Bellamy, very brave, rescues a third. At night moved back to the village and slept in a deserted priest’s house.”
For the next two days, slight enemy activity was reported by ‘A’ Squadron, and the usual shooting at night kept everyone on their toes. On June 29th, the Regiment came under command of the 56th Infantry Brigade of the 50th Division and was visited by both General Erskine and Brigadier Pepper. The 2nd Battalion of the Essex Regiment moved in ahead of them that evening so that they then had protection in front of them.
For the Regiment June ended quietly, and they remained with the 56th Brigade. At the end of the month, the 7th Armoured Division handed their sector of the front over to the American 2nd Armoured Division and withdrew to rest and refit near Jerusalem.
They had lost some 1,149 officers and men during their three weeks in Normandy, as ‘bocage’ was a horrible country from an armoured point of view, and it could only be hoped that the open fields east of Caen would give the tanks a better chance.