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Off the beach

Once the beaches had been secured the tanks needed to get inland to support their assigned infantry companies. To assist with this operation were specialist vehicles of various types known as Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers “AVRE” and armoured bulldozers from the British 5th Assault Regiment Royal Engineers, and the Sherman “Crab” (Mine sweeping flail tanks) of the British 22nd Dragoons. Beach exits had been previously identified and assigned designations from West to East. M1 (Green Gap) and M2 (Yellow Gap) were on the Mike Beaches (Green and Red) assigned to A-Squadron. M3 (Blue Gap) and M4 (Red Gap) were on Beach Nan Green assigned to B-Squadron. The specialist vehicles landed within minutes of the DDs touching down and their crews performed much of their work while the beaches were still under enemy fire. These special engineering vehicles were also known as "Hobart's Funnies" after the name of General Sir Percy Hobart the person responsible for the development and fielding of these very odd-looking vehicles.

General Sir Percy Hobart

The target beaches and exits

Nan Green was less heavily contested, and by shortly after 9AM the previously identified exits M3 (Blue Gap) and M4 (Red Gap) had been cleared. The Sherman Crabs had dealt with any mines, and “Fascines”, huge bundles of brushwood deployed by one variant of the AVRE were used to fill in the anti tank ditch located just behind the beach defences that blocked access to the town of Couresuelles-sur-Mer. Blue Gap was further improved by an AVRE “Bobbin” laying its huge role of matting to allow wheeled vehicles to negotiate the soft sand. Both lanes were further improved by the armoured bulldozers. However, the exit from Nan Green was not totally without incident as M4 (Red Gap) was blocked shortly after it was opened by a large trailer that overturned while crossing the anti-tank ditch. In a testament to the meticulous planning for the day not one but two AVRE “Small Box Girder Bridges” (SBG) were available to span the gap. The first attempt saw the AVRE fall off the track while crossing the dunes. The second vehicle successfully emplaced its bridge and by 09:45 traffic was moving again. The story of B-Squadron’s move inland was covered earlier.

The situation on the Mike beaches was quite different. In addition to being heavily defended in the harbour area where the wind and currents had forced the landing, Mike Red also had some natural defensive advantages. Directly behind the beach and running parallel to it was a large bend in the Seulles river creating an effective natural anti-tank barrier. In addition, much of the area behind the dunes was either flooded, or blocked by minefields. Some of them would later turn out to be fake, but they could not be ignored and would take time to clear.

Although most of the immediate beach defences had been overcome, and the infantry had begun to move inland, the engineers working feverishly to clear the identified exits for the tanks were still under heavy fire from mortars, artillery, as well as the occasional machine gun and sniper. The tanks of A-Squadron were kept busy ferreting out these positions that were dug in on a hill overlooking the beach. A-Squadron's primary exit, Gap Yellow lay just to the west of Courseulles-sur-Mer. Two of the Crab flail tanks cleared a path over the dunes only to discover a large crater blocking the path. While attempting to clear a path around the obstacle both were disabled by mines. A third Crab succeeded in clearing the route for about 150 yards until it came upon a destroyed culvert creating a 60-foot flooded obstacle. As it reversed to allow the AVREs to come forward and bridge the obstacle it slid off the road and became bogged down and had to be towed out. The first AVRE that came forward with a Fascine misjudged its approach and fell into the culvert becoming completely submerged. The crew was forced to bail out under heavy fire and all became casualties.

C-Squadron commanded by Major A. D’Arcy Marks, landed on Mike Red along with the tanks of the Regimental Headquarters which included Holy Roller at 08:20. By this time the infantry with the assistance A-Squadron, despite their diminished numbers, had the battle for the beach well in hand. However, being unable to get through the exits the beach was becoming quite congested. The problem was further exacerbated when the guns of the 13th Field Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery also landed at 09:00. These guns spent much of the day set up along the waterline. The situation on the beach was such that several attempts were made to find alternative routes inland. In one case the Regimental commander, Lieutenant Colonel Ray Colwell and the 2ic Major Frank White walked the entire length of the beach which was still under fire in a vain attempt to locate an alternate exit. In another case Captain Brandy Conron (The Battle Captain) of C-Squadron and Lieutenant Bill McCormick # 2 Troop leader, made it over the dunes and through a minefield covering the approaches to a bridge over the Suelles river. In his own words, Conron said, “The Bridge looked too flimsy and was blocked by barbed wire, but I thought I would nip out and check it anyway”. He jumped down from the tank and was immediately taken under machine gun fire. Noting that the wire appeared to be booby trapped, he returned to the tank to confer with Lieutenant McCormick. As he stood on the back deck a mortar bomb hit the back of the tank taking out his legs. Returning to the beach Conron was turned over to the medics and that ended his day. Fortunately, his wounds were not severe. He soon returned to the Regiment, and following a distinguished wartime career, went on to command the Regiment. Lieutenant McCormick would also gain a certain amount of acclaim later that day when his troop missed a rendezvous with the Canadian Scottish Regiment and proceeded inland to the town of Bretteville. This gave the 1st Hussars the distinction of being the one unit in the entire invasion to come closest to their final objective for the day. Unfortunately, finding his troop without support he was forced to withdraw.

Captain A.B. "Brandy Conron

Directly above Mike Red: Captain Conron's bridge is near the centre and Exit M2 (Gap Yellow) is on the left of the picture. A large number of vehicles are still on the beach.

By about 09:15, Yellow Gap was opened. Fascines had been placed in the first crater and a box girder bridge had been emplaced at the culvert using the sunken AVRE as a pier. Bulldozers using logs stored by the Germans on the beach had created a rough causeway across the flooded area beyond. Nine A-Squadron tanks got across before the causeway failed, and traffic had to be stopped. This exit was not back in commission until noon or later. Due to the weather and sea conditions both engineering troops had landed on Mike Red opposite Gap Yellow which became a primary focus for resources. However, about 200 yards further West on "Mike Green" beach the second exit, Gap Green, proved a far easier proposition. It was cleared primarily by bulldozers and manual labour. Several bundles of “Chespale tracking” (250-pound rolls of hard wood slats three feet wide and 25 feet long that could be wired together to form a continuous track over soft ground) were laid to improve the surface and it was in action by 09:30. This became C-Squadron’s primary exit.

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