Operation Tractable - The Mad Charge

As soon as Operation Totalize was called off planning began for Operation Tractable set to begin on the 14th of August. The enemy were to be given no rest. This was the operation that finally closed the famous “Falaise Gap” Once again this was a huge operation and I will deal mainly with the role played by the 1st Hussars. Tractable was essentially a replay of Operation Totalize. The main difference this time was that it would be mounted in broad daylight using artillery to lay a smoke screen to minimize the effect of the defending anti-tank guns. The German defences were anchored on the Laizon River and the high ground about 1.5 miles to the south. The German infantry occupied defensive positions on the north bank of the river supported up to ninety 88mm guns with tanks stationed on the high ground to the south. Intelligence estimates stated that the Laizon river would not pose an obstacle to tanks.

Operation Tractable was to be a brute force modern day combined arms (Infantry mounted in Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers and tanks supported by artillery) charge in broad daylight. 160 Shermans would mount the initial assault along a 2-kilometre front. This was followed immediately by 90 more tanks in the second wave which were in turn followed by the infantry in their armoured vehicles. It was expected that surprise, speed and the sheer numbers of tanks and other armoured vehicles involved would carry the day. Any bypassed resistance north of the river would be overcome by the follow-on Infantry. Phase one, later to be named the “Mad Charge”, entailed breaking through the German main line of resistance crossing the Laizon river and occupying several high features to the south which were in positions to dominate the main road out of Falaise to the east. The 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade would advance down the right flank of the attack with 1st hussars on the left and the Fort Gary Horse on the right. Each regiment would have attached 1 squadron of Sherman flail tanks to clear mines, and although the Laizon was not deemed to be an obstacle 6 "Fascine" carrying AVREs (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) and a bulldozer were also added. These would soon prove to be vital.

Sitting on the start line Major Conron commanding A-Squadron later remarked that there “Seemed to be tanks as far as the eye could see”. 8 Squadrons were in line abreast with only a few yards between vehicles and immediately to the rear were 4 more squadrons and 2 brigades of infantry mounted in their Kangaroos. Shortly before noon the artillery began to fire and the now almost obligatory air raid announced the opening of the attack. At precisely 12:00 hours the Hussars moved off the start line at the mandated 12 mph. The imperative was to smash though any opposition, get to the river, and across as quickly as possible. It was expected that this would only take only 13 minutes. However almost immediately things began to go wrong. As Major Conron put it “The speed of the advance over rough and uneven ground had ammunition continually falling out of its racks and made it impossible to read a map”. In addition, the tanks had to maneuver around bomb craters, over a sunken road, and deal with a more determined resistance than expected, all while almost completely blinded by dust and smoke. In yet another example of appallingly bad luck a Canadian officer returning from an orders group the previous evening blundered into enemy lines and was killed. On his body the Germans found a complete set of orders for the coming attack and as a result, the 12th SS Panzer Division was able to deploy an additional 500 grenadiers and 15 tanks, along with twelve 88mm anti-tank guns along the expected line of approach. Visibility very quickly became so bad that drivers were ordered to “Steer towards the sun” which unfortunately resulted the leading squadrons veering too far east and becoming mixed in with the 4th armoured Brigade creating a colossal traffic jam as they attempted to cross the river in Rouvres. For someone not there it is hard to understand the chaos experienced by the troops that day. The enemy was everywhere. As Major Conron later described the scene “Tanks were crashing through obstacles at top speed and were continually confronted by 4-6 anti-tank guns behind each hedge”. “These were often simply run over but invariably one or more tanks became casualties and the path to the Laizon was marked by numerous burning tanks. It was essential to maintain speed as any hesitation was immediately countered by determined attacks by German infantry”.

The onslaught

German anti-tank guns and artillery were everywhere


A-Squadron

Number 3-Troop leading A-Squadron on the right never made it to the river. Shortly after crossing the start line two tigers appeared to their front the first was promptly dispatched by Sergeant Arthur Boyle. Unfortunately, the troop leader’s tank taken out by the second Tiger which was in turn destroyed by return fire from the Sergeant Dunham’s Firefly. 3 troop then adopted an “Unintentional” hull down position as they became bogged down in an anti-tank ditch. Unable to extricate themselves they continued to support the rest of the squadron forward, accounting for several German half tracks and 6 artillery pieces. Major Conron’s vehicle was put out of action during the charge and while attempting to trade places with his Sergeant they came under fire from enemy an anti-tank gun. Reacting quickly Sergeant Shaw saved the day by destroying it with his 75mm. Changing tanks Major Conron proceeded to the river where he was able to discover first hand that the intelligence assessment that the Laizon would not be an obstacle to armoured vehicles was in fact completely incorrect. The banks were quite steep and very muddy and his vehicle promptly became stuck fast. He spent the next 45 minutes fighting off determined enemy infantry with high explosive cannon fire until relieved by the arrival of the following infantry. Many tanks in the leading squadrons were either bogged down or destroyed as they attempted to find a way across the river. Colonel Cowell the Regimental commander in his after-action report noted that “The fighting on the river bottom was the most hectic of the day”. “Never had the Regiment engaged so many infantry or thrown so many hand grenades”. In the end only 5 A-Squadron tanks made it across the river that day. Of those that made it were the four of Sergeant Kenyon’s number 4 Troop. For his actions that day Sergeant Kenyon was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. On the approach to the river under heavy artillery and anti-tank fire Sergeant Kenyon’s troop over ran and destroyed 3 enemy guns. His was the first B-squadron vehicle to cross the Laizon however, in doing so his tank’s engines became wet and lost almost all power. Despite this handicap he continued to lead his troop beyond the river towards the objective. Once across the river his troop came under fire from several 75mm anti-tank guns. He was able to destroy four of these guns before being ordered to withdraw back across the river to regroup. When attempting to recross the river his and the other remaining tank from his troop became bogged down. Under intense enemy small arms fire, he managed to extricate his tank and it was the only 4-troop tank to reach the rally point at the end of the day. When the final count was taken that night B-squadron mustered 6 tanks.

C-Squadron

In the charge to the river C-squadron fared worse than A-Squadron loosing 11 tanks and many crew commanders including the squadron commander Captain Stan Brydges who died trying to discard a hand grenade that had been thrown into the turret. Curiously it seems that the Captain may have had a premonition regarding his fate. Shortly before the battle he confided to a friend that he did not think that he was not going to make it through the “do” this time. When his friend suggested that he report sick he replied that “He could not live with himself if he did”. His main concern was not for himself but for his crew. His actions that day saved his crew. In another selfless act that day Sergeant Roy Lilley mortally wounded when an antitank round passed through the turret of his tank used his dying strength to traverse the turret away from the co-driver’s hatch allowing Trooper Harold Newbrugh to escape. For his actions he received a “Mentioned in Dispatches” which the only award that could be given posthumously other than the Victoria Cross. The survivors of C-Squadron were eventually able to cross the river on a “Fascine” laid by one of the attached AVREs. On the south side of the river the remnants of C-Squadron were out of touch with the Regiment as the Squadron headquarters along with the rear link had not survived. Never the less they formed up and continued to engage any enemy that they could see eventually accounting for 13 anti-tank guns. That night when the count was made at the rally point C-Squadron amounted to 9 tanks but only 4 remained battle-worthy.


B-Squadron

Starting the day in reserve B-Squadron commanded by Major Bill “Rip” Gordon by sheer good luck arrived at the village of Rouvres which, while east of their intended crossing point and in the area assigned to the 4th Armoured Brigade it had a damaged but functional bridge. Moving through the town the squadron silenced numerous enemy positions with main gun and machine gun fire but did not stop. Once through the town and across the river the Squadron quickly formed up and assumed the lead. Advancing on the Regiment’s final objective point 184, Major Gordon skilfully manoeuvred his squadron in the face of intense artillery, anti-tank, and machine gun fire in the process suppressing numerous machine gun positions and over running and destroying eight 105mm artillery pieces and six 75mm and 88mm antitank guns. By 19:00 B-Squadron was consolidated on the objective awaiting the infantry who finally arrived at 22:00. During the day the Squadron had lost 2 vehicles to enemy fire, 1 to a mine and one to mechanical failure. They ended the day with 13 serviceable vehicles. For his bold and decisive actions that day, and later at Cap Gris Nez which will be chronicled later Major Gordon received the Distinguished Service Order.


Sergeant Leo Gariepy

Sergeant Gariepy was a Troop Sergeant in B-Squadron. During the Mad Charge north of the river he and his troop accounted for four 88mm guns but in all the dust and confusion he became separated from his troop and crossed the river as the 5th vehicle with another troop. His tank was having difficulties. He could receive but not send on his radios and his machine guns were not functioning as they had over heated due to extreme use in the advance. He continued the advance using his main gun until the electric firing mechanism failed. Looking for a place to stop and attempt to fix his guns he came to a small copse and was about to stop when he spotted a group of Germans in the wood line charging forward preparing to fire, he apparently scared them and they very quickly surrendered. In all there were 16 men commanded by a Major. While his co-driver covered the men with his “Sten gun” Gariepy questioned the Major and discovered that there were more men nearby. Gariepy had the Major order the men to surrender and for good measure he had his Gunner fire an HE round into the woods using the mechanical firing mechanism. Quickly another 24 Germans emerged with their hands up. Investigating the copse, he found four 88mm and four 75mm anti-tank guns all facing the Regiments route of advance. Suddenly Germans began appearing from all directions and all seemed quite happy to surrender. Gariepy had them line up in four ranks and march in front of his tank as the headed back towards the river. All the way back towards the river small groups of Germans came forward to surrender. Just short of the river the with the column numbering over 200 prisoners they came under machine gun fire. Gariepy had the prisoners go to ground and placed one of his non-operational machine guns on a tripod to cover them. Making it clear that if anyone moved his men would open fire on all the prisoners, he proceeded some 400 yards to the front and destroyed the enemy position with two 75mm rounds. Finally meeting up with some infantry just on the south side of the river he directed them to the copse to secure the German guns and proceeded to cross the river at Rouvres by which time he had travelled almost 6 miles and his bag of prisoners had risen to 352. For his actions that day Sergeant Gariepy received the French Croix de Guerre avec Etoile d’ Bronze.

Many Germans were prepared to surrender



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