Bocage, Hill 226 and St Charles de Percy
When reading & talking about the post D-Day fighting one word crops up time and again: “Bocage”. So what was “Bocage” or “The Hedgerow Country” as Americans called it?
A dictionary definition is: “the wooded countryside characteristic of northern France, with small irregular-shaped fields and many hedges and copses”… and whilst that projects a gentle image, to work your way through it is far more difficult… even more so if you’re being shot at! The roads between the bocage hedges are narrow, usually sunken due to use; the hedges are thick & around 6 feet high themselves sometimes on top of earthen banks 6-12 feet above the roadside with the fields also raised above the road.
These photographs give some ideas & bearing in mind that huge tracts of the bocage were removed after WW2 to allow for increased farming in larger fields
Onto Hill 226
Hill 226 was one of the main objectives of the 3rd battalion, Scots Guards (one of the three Battalions of 6th Guards Tank Brigade) as part of their role on the left flank of Operation BLUECOAT. To get to it, the Churchill tanks of the battalion had to work through several miles of bocage, terrain so difficult that they left their accompanying infantry to 15th Scottish Division behind.
Arriving on their objective, at 18:30hours, they were subjected to mortar and artillery fire from the German lines and, from their left rear flank came three German JagdPanther tank destroyers who, within less than 5 minutes, had destroyed 11 of the Guards’ tanks causing many casualties, including 24 killed.
This is a battle of great interest to me… not only because I’ve wargamed it & read a lot about it and visited the site, as well as given talks about it, but particularly because I’m proud to know one of the veterans that fought there – Colour Sergeant Peter Muir Findlay (regular readers of this blog will recall the photographs from last year where we met up at the evening event in Montchamps). We’ll meet Peter again on this trip…
In the past, I’d visited the hill, but wasn’t always sure where things were… but this year would be different… I’d done lots more research, read a lot more books, checked aerial photographs and even had my compass ready… so, in the blazing sunshine, Glyn and I set off up the hill… we took lots of photographs working out where everything was – each element of the Battalion… who was where and where they were looking, etc… lots of great photographs…
… and then we went back down the hill, started to drive off and realised that there was a second track heading up the hill opposite the entrance to the farm of Le Fumichon…
Yup, you’ve guessed it! All of that planning out of the window as we realised that we’d just spent an hour in very hot sun taking lots of photos of the wrong part of the hill. Oh bother! (Or words to that effect!!)
Unfortunately, time was now against us as we needed to head off to Tilly sur Seulles where we were meeting Peter and his son, Eain, as the curator of the museum at Tilly – Stéphane Jacquet was interested in meeting Peter as he’d written an article for a magazine about the Battalion.
Of course, this does mean that we need to return next year (as if we need an excuse)!!
At Tilly sur Seulles Museum
Normally the museum wouldn’t have been open, however, given that it was 6th June and Stéphane was interested in meeting Peter, he’d decided that it made sense to do so. It’s a really nice museum, quite small (it’s in an old 12th Century chapel just behind the main street, but not only is it full of interesting artifacts and information, the curator Stéphane is really interested in the period and has written a number of books – in lots of ways, it’s almost a “brother” of the museum at St Martin when David Mabbutt used to be the curator – very similar in many ways, but at the same time different… visit them both and you’ll understand what I mean.
Anyway, we arrived first and Stéphane gave me his last copy of the magazine that contained the article that he’d written about the Scots Guards… then Peter and Eain arrived and, following the introductions, I showed Peter the article in the magazine… which he immediately thought was for him! I’d had it in my hands but for a few minutes and then gone! However, I couldn’t begrudge a veteran of the battle that Stéphane had written about having the copy.
So, after a good chat (or “blether” as Eain calls it), Peter and Eain set off for the Commonwealth Cemetery at Hottot les Bagues where many of Peter’s comrades from their first battle on Hill 226 now lie in peace and Glyn & I set off to see our friends Barrie and Stuart at “The Shed”. We would then all meet later at the Commonwealth Cemetery at St Charles de Percy.
St Charles de Percy
It’s now become a tradition for us to attend the 6th June Commemoration and Remembrance service organised locally but with visitors from afar. There were less veterans there this year than in the past which may reflect the effects of the passing years, or that they are saving strength and money ready for next year’s 70th Anniversary of D Day and the Normandy Battles, but none the less, it was still an enjoyable ceremony.
We did (or rather I did) panic a little when we arrived & pulled up into the field that’s used as a car park… all week, the car had been making a screeching noise from the rear wheels… touching the brakes stopped it, briefly, but then driving over 50mph would bring it back… part of me wasn’t unduly worried as I had the AA behind me, but when we pulled to a stop on the field & I applied the park brake, there was such a screeching & grinding noise that even the people in the next car looked worried! Anyway, there was little that we could do then, so we went and enjoyed the service.
This year, there wasn’t the evening event as there had been in the past (again, saving up for next year), so we decided to join Peter and Eain for a drink in the local bar in Montchamps, so returning to the car, there were additional grinding noises from the brakes accompanied by flashing lights and warnings on the dashboard! Ah, well, with beer at stake, we decided to head off to the bar. Upon arrival, I explained to Eain what had happened & he had two simple questions… “Do your brakes still work?” and “Are you in the AA?” with the answer to both being “Yes” it was “fine, let’s have a beer!”… good attitude!
So, thirsts slaked and farewells said, it was back to Tony and Jill’s for Glyn and I to another superb meal, wine and chat… albeit a less taxing one than the previous night!