June 11th 1944 was indeed The Black Day of The Hussars. Many things went wrong that day and it cost the Regiment grievously. I do not intend to assign blame nor dwell on the outcome of the battle. In this part I will describe the events leading up to the battle and in the next I will provide some personal accounts of the men that survived.
June 10th was cloudy with rain and the Regiment began the day moving across the beachhead to a new harbour at Cairon 7 kilometres East. In the afternoon the Regiment received notice that the Brigade would be mounting an attack that would extend the centre of the Canadian bridgehead to the next area of high ground approximately 3 miles to the South. The attack was set for the 12th of June. To make up the losses incurred since D-Day the Regiment received another 20 replacement Shermans and crews. These reinforcements brought the Regiment over strength at 76 tanks and allowed B-Squadron to be reconstituted with a total of 21 tanks. As many of the new crews had not yet been in combat and in many cases had not even fired a 75mm gun, much of the day was spent sending new personnel to the echelon and bringing forward as many trained troopers as were available. However, there were still many new troopers and the veteran crews were broken up to have as many experienced crew members as possible in each tank. As might be expected this was not an ideal situation for a regiment about to go into battle. That evening the Regiment moved forward to a new harbour at Bray. The Germans took this opportunity to give them a warm send off in the form of an air raid on the harbour. Fortunately, no casualties ensued.
Replenishment In the harbour L-R. F. Fowler, G. Coates, C. Robinson, W. Reid, D. West,
While the Regiment settled into its new harbour the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Colwell was receiving his orders for the coming battle. The operation would extend the centre of the Canadian position by 3 miles, secure Mue Valley, capture Rots on the left, and take the next high feature just south of Le Mesnil-Patry on the right. The battle would be carried out in two phases. The first phase would be carried out in the Mue Valley by our sister regiment the Fort Garry Horse on the 11th of June. The 1st Hussars along with a company of infantry (most likely to be the Queen’s Own Rifles) would follow up with an attack through Le Mesnil-Patry on the 12th and occupy the high ground around Cheux. It is interesting to note that the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade War Diary specifically notes that the 1st Hussars “Were to make uses of the 11th to get as much rest as possible for tank crews, who were thoroughly tired out”. As we shall see that did not happen. The C.O. Col. Colwell returned to the harbour at 04:00 on the 11th of June with the clear understanding that he would have 24 hours to prepare his plans. He carried with him the most current intelligence summary compiled by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. In brief it stated that activity by the British on the right flank had “Probably caused the withdrawal of enemy armour from our area and given the first evidence of the enemy running, and his general tactics in the actions on the 10th, it is more likely that he will continue running and attempt to deny ground as he does so”. However, at the same time the commander of the British 2nd Army, which commanded the Canadian forces at the time, was planning an attack of his own to out flank Caen on the 11th. He felt that the attack planned for the Hussars on the 12th would be a useful addition to his own plan and ordered the Hussars attack to be moved up by 24 hours.
At 08:00 on the 11th the Hussars received notice that their attack would go forward at 13:00 that day. The Brigade orders were set for 11:00. The first time the Queens Own Rifles heard that they would be in action that day was when their commanding officer was ordered to attend the Brigade briefing. The fact that the Queen’s Own had never worked with the Hussars was ignored and no time was allowed to coordinate procedures. At the Brigade briefing the Commanding Officers were shocked to learn that there was no information available on the strength or disposition of enemy forces. However, based on the Divisional intelligence summary noted above it was expected to be light. Requests to delay the start time to allow the commanders time to conduct a standard reconnaissance and prepare an artillery support plan were denied. In fact, in the middle of the Orders Group notice arrived from the Divisional Commander that the attack must go forward at the earliest possible moment. The most immediate result of this haste for the Hussars was that the squadron officers had no time to brief their crews other than to give the order of march and direction to follow the tank in front. As we shall see some thought that they were simply moving out to conduct an indirect shoot with the artillery. Without time to conduct even the most basic reconnaissance the Hussars did not know until the very last minute that their forming up point (FUP) for the attack was in fact in a Canadian laid minefield. This forced the Regiment to now proceed through the narrow streets of Norrey-en-Bessin and complete a very difficult 90 degree turn in the centre of town. Moving through the town was expressly forbidden during the brigade briefing precisely due to the very narrow streets. This move caused a considerable delay in arriving at a new start line on the western edge of the town which was a full 90 degrees off the originally planned route. Another factor which contributed greatly to the coming disaster was the fact that on the 9th of June the Germans had captured a complete set of 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade radio frequencies and codes and they were listening as the attack was forming up and knew in real time exactly where the attack was at any given moment. The result was that the Germans targeted Norrey-en-Bessin with every available gun and mortar at their disposal. This greatly hampered the movement of the vehicles following B-Squadron
The opposition facing the tankers of the Hussars and the infantry of the Queen’s Own Rifles that day turned out to be both formidable and resolute. B-Squadron carrying the infantry on their tanks was advancing against 5 heavily dug-in companies of SS infantry in the fields in front of Le Mesnil-Patry while the town itself was the location of a Battalion Headquarters. The German Infantry were liberally supplied with hand held anti-tank weapons and they were supported by very effective 75mm anti-tank guns along with 2 companies of Mark IV tanks.