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Operation Spring 25 July 1944

Following Operation Atlantic the Regiment withdrew to the area of Vaucelles for two days of maintenance and replenishment in preparation for the next assault. The aim of Operation SPRING was somewhat larger than what I will describe here. However, the 1st Hussars were only involved in the centre around the town of Verrieres and on the right at the town of May-sur-Orne. Our role was to support the infantry onto the final objectives of the villages of Fontenay-le-Marmion and Roquancourt in the valley beyond Verrieres ridge. The planned attack was very similar to the final phase of Operation Atlantic 5 days before although in this case with considerably more armoured support. Unfortunately securing the start line for the operation which was still in enemy hands fell to two of the very under strength battalions that had been so badly mauled in the original attempt on the ridge 5 days before. Predictably they failed to achieve their objectives. The assault battalion in the centre, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was forced to fight for it’s start line at the Troteval farm as it had been reoccupied by German infantry and tanks after it had been reported clear. This delay caused the battalion to fall behind the artillery barrage and as a result it had to traverse almost a mile of open ground under intense small arms, mortar, and artillery fire. Despite suffering heavy casualties, the village of Verrieres was secured by 09:00

1st Hussars portion of Operation Spring

During the early morning of the 25th the Hussars began moving out of their harbour in Vaucelles towards their forming up points (FUP). B-Squadron moved to the area of Beauvoir Farm while C-squadron headed for their start line at Troteval farm. However, the German Luftwaffe were very active in the area and in the words of the Regimental War Diary “Gave the Regiment a thorough dusting off with Anti personnel bombs” putting two C-Squadron tanks out of action and causing several casualties. As soon as word was received that Verrieres had been taken C-Squadron began to move on Rocquancourt in support of the Royal Regiment of Canada. As they approached the crest of the ridge Captain Conron the squadron 2ic spotted 8 Panthers counter attacking Verrieres approximately 1000 yards dead ahead. He immediately directed each of his crew commanders to engage specific targets and all 8 Panthers were soon destroyed. Return fire accounted for a single Sherman, another was disabled by a mine a short while later. However, as the Squadron moved to bypass Verrieres at about 09:30 they became embroiled in an intense firefight with a large German tank destroyer on the left flank. This was reported in the War Diaries as a "Ferdinand", a heavily armoured machine mounting the powerful 88mm gun. However it was more likely "Jagdpanzer Mk IV as the Ferdinand was not deployed to France. The crews were quite dismayed to see their shots bounce harmlessly off the German vehicle while it methodically destroyed three Shermans from Lieutenant Caw’s troop. The Squadron Commander Major D’Arcy Marks manoeuvred his Squadron into a small field surrounded by a hedge which shielded it from observation by the tank destroyer. In the next few minutes Major Marks miraculously escaped death as most of his squadron was destroyed in a vicious counter attack mounted by a mixed group of tanks and self-propelled guns. He had just dismounted to peer through the hedge when his tank was destroyed. The speed and violence of the attack caught the Hussars completely by surprise. Captain Conron the 2ic ordered the Squadron to reverse below the ridgeline but he was too late and 7 tanks were knocked out in short order. Only 5 tanks made it off the ridge line and 3 of these were badly damaged. One of them had been penetrated three times and lost a track to a mine as it backed away. Remarkably it was able to return to the harbour under it own power and became a celebrity for the next few days as “The most badly damaged Sherman to ever bring its crew out alive”.

At this point there was no question of continuing the advance. The infantry was frantically digging in under intense artillery, mortar, machine gun, and tank fire while at the same time fighting of fanatical counter attacks by SS Panzer Grenadiers. To relieve C-Squadron’s situation and in an attempt to save the attack A-Squadron was pushed forward to engage the enemy armour and promptly lost 3 tanks including that of the acting Squadron commander Lieutenant CA Mills who was shot out of his second tank in 5 days. Although the attack had stalled the timely intervention A-Squadron managed to stabilize the situation in the centre and they remained in position supporting the infantry until last light.

B-Squadron was under strength as it left the harbour with 15 tanks and it lost an additional vehicle to a mine as they entered St. Andre-sur-Orne. Making contact with the Black Watch they realized that they were several hundred yards West of the rendezvous point (RV) which was to be the South East edge of St. Martin-de-Fontenay. Here things were definitely not going to plan. They were informed that the Black watch had lost their commanding officer while they had fought to secure the RV point which was still a mile short of the planed start line in May-sur-Orne. Since it could not be confirmed that the start line had been secured the decision was made to delay the start time for the Black Watch/Hussar attack until 09:30 while the situation was clarified. The B-Squadron commander Major Harris, dispatched a troop to reconnoitre the situation. Moving down the right flank they entered the northern outskirts of of May-sur-Orne but lost a vehicle to a well-placed anti tank gun. Here they found that the battalion that was supposed to secure the town had been stopped cold several hundred yards short of the objective and that only one badly mauled company in desperate need of ammunition had made it as far as the northern outskirts. Reporting back, they were told to remain in place and assist with any further attempts to take the village. This left Major Harris 10 Shermans to support the attack.

As he was attempting to clarify the situation to his front the acting commanding officer of the Black Watch received two messages and a visit from his Brigade commander urging him to get moving. As a result of the constant pressure, he determined that he would begin the assault from a new start line in an open field approximately 1000 yards short of the objective. B-Squadron wound cover the right flank between this point and their original start line at May-sur-Orne. At the appointed time the Infantry started off on what was one of the most heroically brave and tragic actions in Canadian military history. They were moving up a long slope against well prepared infantry positions supported by mortars, artillery and many dug in tanks. From the very beginning they were under intense fire from everything that the Germans could bring to bear. B-Squadron manoeuvring through narrow sunken roads arrived in position to see the infantry already moving forward under incredible pressure. They immediately moved into the field and began to engage targets but almost instantly they came under accurate fire from well sited and practically invisible tanks and anti tank guns sited the ridge to their front and May-sur-Orne to their right. In a matter of minutes, the squadron commander Major Harris was wounded and they were forced to withdraw leaving six burning wrecks in the field. To add insult to injury an additional tank was lost when the survivors were attacked by one of own Typhoon ground attack fighter bombers as they retired from the field. At 09:30 approximately 300 Black Watch soldiers in 4 companies advanced up Verrieres ridge, an hour later only 15 returned. In total the Regiment lost 307 young men that day.

Back roads in Normandy were very narrow and often lined by hedges

That evening the battered squadrons withdrew behind the ridge and assumed a holding/counterattack role. Even here the enemy artillery and air attacks were relentless resulting in the loss of a further two tanks. Fortunately, the crews escaped without serious injuries. The next morning B and C Squadrons were combined into a composite squadron mustering 14 tanks. A squadron had a similar number. However once again 54 LAD and the unit fitters working around the clock managed to get several more repaired and returned to service. On the 28th the Regiment was relieved and moved back to their former harbour in Vaucelles. The next day a mobile bath was set up which was heartily enjoyed by the men and that night a movie was shown by the Auxiliary Services Manager which was also much appreciated. On the 30th after 56 days on the front lines the Regiment was informed that it would have no operational role for 72 hours. On the 31st the Hussars ended the month being entertained in the harbour by the ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) this organization was made up of popular and professional British performers from Shakespearean and film actors, to popular singers, dancers and comedians. The war diary does not mention who was in the group but did say they were “Quite Good”.

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