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The Battalion lost 154 on D-Day+1

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Representatives of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment Re-enactment Group, the town council and the veterans’ association at the memorial to be inaugurated on June 7, 2022 (Photo: Jason Woods)

Over the last couple of months, we introduced you to some sites and museums in Normandy to show you how they strive to survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Even in these challenging times, there are enthusiastic and committed groups of people also who spare no effort to bring new initiatives to fruition in order to ensure that all generations coming to France are aware of the sacrifices made for the liberation for Normandy during World War II. Recently, we have been approached by the Royal Warwickshire Regiment Re-enactment Group and were informed about their successful crowdfunding campaign to erect a commemorative plaque for the men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the outskirts of Caen in Normandy. The group is dedicated to re-enacting the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (specifically its 2nd Battalion and its involvement in the Normandy landings in June 1944) and paying respect to the memory of the men who served, some making the ultimate sacrifice. In Normandy, the men of the Regiment were amongst the first waves of soldiers who came ashore on D-Day. This is part of an already rich military career of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, spanning three centuries dating back to 1685. During the First World War, in addition to the Western Front, the Regiment saw action at Gallipoli in 1915-1916, in Mesopotamia in 1916-1917 and Persia in 1916-1919 and in Italy in 1917-1918.

The regimental badge of the Royal Warwicks representing their mascot “Bobby”, a blackbuck antelope (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)
The regimental badge of the Royal Warwicks representing their mascot “Bobby”, a blackbuck antelope (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)

During the Second World War, the 2nd Battalion was part of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. On May 27, 1940, near the town of Wormhoudt, the SS had overrun their positions. About 70 of the 2nd Warwicks prisoners were herded into a barn. The SS threw in grenades and opened fire with machine guns. The 15 survivors of the massacre were taken prisoner later by the regular German army. The culprits were never brought to trial and their victims are buried in Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery around 12 miles / 20 km south of Dunkirk. The Battalion continued to serve in France before being given the task of keeping open the main supply route to Dunkirk prior to their own evacuation from the continent (Read our earlier article – The “Miracle of Dunkirk”). Back in the UK, the Battalion was reorganized, re-equipped and transferred to 185th Infantry Brigade as part of the British 3rd Infantry Division. From then until June 1944, the unit underwent heavy training and recruitment to get ready to return to France for Operation Overlord.
 
On D-Day, the 2nd Battalion landed on the easternmost landing beach, namely Sword Beach, in the Queen-White sub-sector. One of main objectives for the troops landing on Sword Beach was to take the strategic city of Caen. The Re-enactment Group’s objective was to remember the 154 killed and wounded suffered by the Battalion in one of their fiercest engagements during the ultimately unsuccessful attack on the town and wood of Lebisey on June 7, 1944. Lebisey was located on the northeastern outskirts of Caen. German infantry and tanks had moved into position in depth overnight. With radio communication problems, no heavy artillery support and with the armored carriers and anti-tank guns already knocked out, these brave men fought on at close range, after coming under intense fire as they crossed a corn field in open order. That night they had to withdraw. The loses inflicted on June 7 and the subsequent days thereafter would see the Battalion reduced heavily. Many soldiers that were killed that day have no known grave and are memorialized at the Bayeux Memorial lying next to the Commonwealth Bayeux War Cemetery. The Memorial bears the names of more than 1,800 men of the Commonwealth land forces who died in the early stages of the campaign and have no known grave. In November 2020, the Re-enactment Group was given the permission by the French authorities to put up a memorial on the edge of the old Lebisey wood. The location is just off the D60 road on Avenue de la 3ème Division d'Infanterie Britannique (“Avenue of the 3rd British Infantry Division”) which is where the Royal Warwickshire Bren Carrier armored personnel carriers got caught on during the assault and adjacent to the original advance the soldiers took through the corn fields back on June 7. The memorial will be unveiled officially on June 7, 2022 on the 78th anniversary of the first battle for Lebisey.

The location of the memorial on the map (Photo: Google)
The location of the memorial on the map (Photo: Google)

The English version of the bilingual text on the plaque reads as follows:
 

Dedicated to the 154 soldiers of the 2nd B. Royal Warwickshire Regiment, killed and & wounded in the first battle for Lebisey 7th June 1944. Remembering the 2nd & 1/7th Bns. Royal Warwickshire Regiment & all those lost fighting for the liberation of Normandy.
“The lesson of the war is simple one: forgive yes, forget never.”
Brigadier H C Illing MC and Bar Royal Warwickshire Regiment
”Now keep glory”
Presented by members of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment re-enactment group

Close-up of the memorial plaque (Photo: Jason Woods)
Close-up of the memorial plaque (Photo: Jason Woods)

Let’s see a bit more in detail what happened on June 6-7. As mentioned above, the 2nd Battalion landed on Sword Beach in Queen-White sub-sector and took part in the fighting around Caen. The Warwicks approached their appointed sector at 9.55 a.m., with the sound of naval gunfire and land-based small arms fire rolling out across the water to greet them. Once upon French soil, the troops were confronted with the sound of gunfire seeming to come from every direction, plumes of acrid smoke billowing from burning vehicles and houses, and the flotsam of the assault that had preceded them with discarded or knocked out equipment laying everywhere. To compound the problem, their assembly area, in and around a walled cemetery on the southern outskirts of Lion Sur Mer, began to receive increasing amounts of sniper and machine gun fire, making movement from position to position almost impossible and casualties began to be taken. Warwickshire snipers were sent out into the cornfields to try and dispatch their German counterparts and silence the enemy machine guns. Orders came through for the Warwicks to attack the town of Benouville and link up with elements of the 6th British Airborne Division holding the canal and river bridges, including the famous Pegasus Bridge, on the D-Day landings’ eastern flank. Sadly, during the landing of some of the gliders, one of them crushed and killed two Warwick radiomen who were using their radios and could not hear the shouted warnings of their fellow soldiers.
 
It is worth noting that on D-Day itself, elements of the 2nd Battalion were able to push into Lebisey in the late evening against strong enemy resistance. Despite this success, they were ordered to withdraw from the area as there was a concern that a strong enemy counterattack could push them from their positions. This proved to be a valid concern as elements of the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 22nd Panzer Regiment, part of the 21st Panzer Division, moved in overnight and fortified their positions that the Warwicks were ordered to attack the next day.
 
Early in the morning of D-Day+1, the Battalion was called into action to clear the remaining suburbs of Benouville before attacking south, capturing Lebisey wood and the accompanying village which sat on a hill overlooking the city of Caen. The option of tank support had been ruled out due to an anti-tank ditch, thus when the infantry attacked, they would do so without armor. On top of that, the decision was taken to delay the main attack on Lebisey by an hour to allow the start line to be secured prior to the advance, with the aim of rescheduling the artillery and naval support to match the attack. Whilst this was communicated across A company, commanders of B & C companies could not be reached on Battalion radios, meaning the delay order was never received.

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion advancing through a wheat field during Operation Charnwood (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)
Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion advancing through a wheat field during Operation Charnwood (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)
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Due to this, B and C companies started their attack at the pre-agreed time, with C company in the middle and B company on their left flank moving up the hill towards Lebisey wood through waist high corn. Seeing the other companies move off, A company was then forced to commit to the advance despite having called off almost all fire support. The morning was bright as roughly 340 men pressed forwards. The Germans could clearly see the men advancing towards them and held their fire. At roughly 9.00 a.m., at a range of 200 yards / 180 meters, the entrenched Germans opened fire. Small arms, emplaced machine guns, mortars and anti-tank guns rained accurate and deadly fire upon the Warwicks who went to ground and returned fire where they could whilst still trying to push forward. There were several gallant acts during this period, for example, when B company was losing men to a German machine-gunner firing from close range. Corporal W.J. Millard crawled toward the enemy machine gun with his Bren gun, then got up and rushed it, firing from the hip. He killed two of the enemy, only to be mortally wounded himself. One platoon managed to enter the northeasterly corner of the wood but, outnumbered and outgunned by an entrenched opponent, the entire platoon (roughly 37 men) got within 10 yards / 9 meters of the enemy before being killed or wounded.
 
Around 4 p.m., Brigadier K.P. Smith approached the senior officer of the support company, Captain Bannerman. The Brigadier ordered Bannerman's unit south, with the incorrect status report that Lebisey had been captured and the Warwick infantry companies were consolidating their position. With these orders, up to 36 Bren Carriers carrying the unit’s 6-pounder / 57mm anti-tank guns, 3-inch / 76mm mortars and a forward Royal Naval artillery observer, advanced down the main road to Lebisey with military motorcyclists riding alongside.

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A 6-pounder anti-tank gun and universal carriers of the 2nd Battalion near Lebisey (Photo: IWM)

During their approach to the woods, German mortar and small arms began to close in on the convoy, causing one of the motorcyclists to lose control of his bike and crash, shortly before the convoy reached the wood. The severity of his injuries caused the carriers behind to stop with the narrow road blocked. This split in the convoy saw the Anti-Tank Platoon and Company HQ, at the front of the convoy, become separated from the rest of the carriers. Either unaware of the situation, or unwilling to stop the advance to wait for the accident to be cleared, the front carriers continued their advance as fast as possible, coming straight into Lebisey wood and town via the main road. Captain Bannerman recalls:
 
“We had gone for about half a mile when all hell let loose. The noise was fantastic, cracking and humming past us. Luckily the banks were high and I suppose we were too low for them. Somehow we weren't hit (in his own carrier, though all the five following him were knocked out) and we pressed on up the hill. We couldn't turn round and anyhow I felt to stop was fatal so we accelerated madly and fired our Bren and our Stens at either side of the road as we passed. Suddenly appeared a low bridge and a mass of rubble and broken houses that was Lebisey. Worse still was the sigh of scurrying Germans…darting behind the houses as we careered forlornly into the middle of them…We passed a Mark 4 tank whose crew seemed almost as surprised to see us as we were to see them...At last we were out of the village and on a road between wide wheat fields. It was the main road to Caen...So we stopped and bailed out in a wild frenzy and I gave the order I had always felt certain of never giving: 'Action rear'. To fire backwards! Our gun drill wasn't bad, though I think the language was far from the drill book. The gun was soon firing, and joy, we hit and holed the tank which had poked out from behind a house...We got off about 8 rounds ..., while a German machine gun sprayed the wheat around us and ricocheted off the road. I remember the loader...quite imperturbable- and another Birmingham lad firing the gun with a gleaming smile and a flood of obscenity. Suddenly an 88 got our range and up went our carrier with all our ammunition, knocking us all sideways...”
 
The men of the company bailed out of their vehicles as the carriers were hit. Many were killed as they bailed out or were caught in their carriers as they exploded. Others were able to scramble into the high corn fields on either side of the road where the men hid for the rest of the day as the firefight continued around them. Many were captured, whilst other were able to sneak through enemy positions during the coming night and rejoin the Battalion. Likewise, few vehicles managed to return to friendly lines but all of 2nd Battalion’s anti-tank guns and mortars were lost in the engagement.
 
By 4.00 p.m., the embattled companies of the Warwicks were reported surrounded and, by 5.00 p.m., reports came in stating that they were under increasingly powerful attacks from German armor and that ammunition supplies were dwindling. Although surrounded may not have been correct, the urgency and danger of the Battalion's plight was correct. After a full day under fire, with many men killed or wounded or missing, the decision was made to withdraw the Warwicks from the firefight as dusk began to fall. The decision to withdraw proved to be a fortunate one as, just after the withdrawal had been completed as darkness fell, a very heavy German artillery bombardment hit the area vacated by the infantry. The men of the Warwicks captured by the enemy during the day had to share slit trenches with their captors as the 16-inch / 400mm guns of the battleship HMS Warspite delivered heavy ordnance on the southernmost area of Lebisey, aiming to break up any potential armored counterattack.

Taking a wounded soldier to an aid station near Caen (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)
Taking a wounded soldier to an aid station near Caen (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)

Thus ended June 7 for the Warwicks, and the roster of dead, wounded and missing was tallied. The Battalion lost 154 fighting men, officers and other ranks. The irony here would be to say that the casualty reports, although grim reading, were not as bad as Brigade staff first thought. However, to put it into context, killed, wounded and captured, the British lost over a company’s worth of infantry, for no geographical advance. The 2nd Battalion would spend the next month re-building and re-organizing before being pushed onwards towards Caen. The city of Caen, Montgomery's D-Day objective, was only fully liberated more than a month later, on July 19.

Warwicks are laid to rest in a number of cemeteries in Normandy (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)
Warwicks are laid to rest in a number of cemeteries in Normandy (Photo: royalwarwicks.com)

The Warwicks would continue frontline duties for another 11 months, which would see them through France, Holland and, finally, Germany, ending the European Theatre of Operations near Bremen. Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery said of them "No better soldiers". They had kept the high traditions of the Regiment gained over the centuries, upholding their motto "Seek Glory".

2nd Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment memorial will be inaugurated on June 7, 2022 (Photo: Jason Woods)
2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment memorial will be inaugurated on June 7, 2022 (Photo: Jason Woods)
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Beaches of Normandy Tours review
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