Operation Stack

The Raid on Colombelles - 11 July 1944

I went over to C Company and found a satisfied commander. He had secured the row of houses north of the steel factory until the village of Colombelles. He was only concerned about the fire from the direction of the village itself. He thought the 1st Gordons were shooting at him. We didn't know at the time that the 1st Gordons hadn't gained their objectives- Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Thomson, commander of the 5th Black Watch, commenting on the first hours of operation Stack.

What preceded operation Stack

Caen and the airfield of Carpiquet were important targets on D- Day. The troops that landed on Juno Beach and Sword Beach were tasked with capturing these vital objects. The British and Canadian troops didn't get that far on D- Day. Carpiquet would finally be conquered on 8 July during operation Windsor and Caen only fell during operation Charnwood. Charnwood however only resulted in the capture of the north west of Caen. The rest of the city would fall during operation Goodwood. Charnwood ended on 9 July. Goodwood started on 18 July.

Colombelles is an industrial town north east of Caen, east of Hérouville and the Orne river. The entire area was dominated by the chimneys of the giant steel factory at Colombelles. They were the ideal observation posts over the battlefield for the Germans. General Bernard Law Montgomery decided on an operation to take these posts out. The operation was aptly called operation Stack.

In the meantime the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 or heavy tank battalion 503 was equipped with new Tiger tanks in Ohrdruf and was transported by rail to the front in Normandy at the end of June. After many detours due to allied bombing the eight trains managed to reach the area of Dreux on 2 July. This was 80 kms west of Paris. From here the Abteilung proceeded to the front during the night. The batallion would finally advance further to the front at 9 July, directly behind the main line of defence in the vicinity of the hamlet of Émiéville.

On the same 9 July a so called "fighting patrol" of the 1st Gordons was sent to reconnoiter the defences of Colombelles and probe for possible weak spots in the German line. This concept is known as "reconnaissance by fire". The patrol followed the tow path along the Orne river from Longueval, a small village between Ranville and Colombelles. The patrol got in a true wasp's nest of the German defence and was peppered by heavy mortars on its quick way back. The 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, as the unit was called fully, was a unit from 153rd Infantry Brigade and as such part of the British 51st Highland Division.

The British attack

Brigadier Horatius Murray, commanding officer of 153rd Brigade, received the order to capture the steel works and blow up the smokestacks. He would attack from the north. 1st Battalion, The Gordon Highlanders was to attack the village of Colombelles on the right flank. 5th Battalion, The Black Watch, was to capture the crossroads (between the current D226 and D513) and the north eastern area of the steel works compound. 153rd Brigade was reinforced with 7th Battalion, The Black Watch, from 154th Brigade. They would advance through the Gordons in order to capture the rest of the steel works. The engineers consequently would blow up the stacks.

Arthur Berry was a forward observation post gunner/signaller in the 127th Highland Field Artillery Regiment and was attached to the 5th Black Watch. He was despatched with an artillery officer to maintain the connection between the attacking infantry and the supporting artillery. He heard that Caen had already fallen and that Colombelles would be easy. This turned out differently. The attack was to take place in the night of 10 on 11 July at 01:00 hours.

The attack started well for the 5th Black Watch. A- company ( from now on coy) managed to capture a German anti tank gun. B coy could advance through the lines of A coy to the crossroads and took it. C coy advanced further to gain the first objectives.

The Gordons advanced to the western part of Colombelles. B coy managed to take some houses, but the commander and his replacement both were wounded. At 03:45 it was decided to regroup at the cemetery. A coy managed to take its objectives but D coy got stuck just as B coy. The decision was made to send C coy over the tow path in order to reinforce the posion of A coy. In the mean time B and D coys were pulled back to Longueval. At 08:10, after the commanding officer of the Gordons was wounded and evacuated, A and C coys were pulled back on Longueval and later Ranville.

5th Black Watch got isolated at the crossroads by this manoeuver, although the batallion had received support by ten Sherman tanks from the 148th Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps. The ground was too hard to dig foxholes which rendered the batallion vulnerable in case of an enemy counter attack. Around 05:00 the first attacks by infantry started, and around 06:00 five Tiger tanks were spotted. At 07:00 the Tigers had approached to 275 meters and had taken out a number of Shermans. This made it impossible for the 7th Black Watch to advance further in order to take the compound.

The German counter attack

The German defence east of Caen was in the hands of the 21. Panzer Division. The 21. was responsible for the front of Hérouvillette through Cuverville and Colombelles and further to the south of Caen. Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 had just arrived at the front a few days before and was attached to 21. Panzer Division. The heavy tank battalion consisted of three companies. The first company was equipped with the PzKpfw. VIb Köningstiger or mark VI Royal Tiger and the second and third companies with the elder but still formidable PzKpfw VI Tigers. The front before Colombelles was held by units of Jägerregiment 32 of the 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division. This division had been so badly mauled during operation Charnwood that it had been submitted to 21. Panzer Division.

The German counter attack was performed by the 3. Kompanie of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503, commanded by Leutnant Richard Freiherr Von Rosen. He was informed about the situation at bataillon head quarters and wrote: "The enemy had managed to pierce the front line at Colombelles with the aid of infantry and tanks. A large number of tanks was spotted. I received the following orders: 3. Kompanie is to destroy the enemy in an immediate counter attack, restore the frontline and hold the position until new orders arrive." Soon hereafter the Tigers advanced and were soon fired upon. The distance was however so great that not much damage was being done to them. The Tigers managed to reach a farm after which the resistance was over. Von Rosen claimed he found 12 burnt out Shermans and four destroyed anti-tank guns. Between the buildings he found two additional intact Shermans. When they were turning under fire the two tanks had crashed into each other and the crews had fled. One of these two Shermans was a Command-Sherman. In this vehicle Von Rosen discovered maps, radio codes and orders. All this information he brought to head quarters where he was instructed to return and salvage both Shermans. With the aid of a maintenance section and under cover of a Tiger Von Rosen got the tanks running and brought them behind German lines. In the meantime the infantry had manned their former positions.

Von Rosen claimed 14 tanks destroyed. The War Diary of the 148th RAC mentions a loss of nine out of ten involved Shermans, among them one Firefly. One of the two salvaged Shermans served the Germans as salvage tank towing damaged vehicles and tanks to repair workshops.

In the meantime on the British side Charles Thomson, commanding officer of the 5th Black Watch, was informed by the commander of his D company at 07:45 that almost all Shermans had been destroyed. The anti-tank guns never opened fire and were already retreating. The position at the crossroads was untenable. Thomson relayed this to Brigadier Horatius Murray from 153rd Infantry Brigade. At 08:00 Murray ordered a retreat to Sainte Honorine, north east of Colombelles. The retreat, covered by smoke, was completed at 09:30.

Arthur Berry got the signal to retreat and ended up in one foxhole with Captain Wager of his unit.This foxhole turned out to be occupied by two Germans with a machine gun. They turned out to be Poles who were happy to surrender. This however was cut short by the appearance of more Germans and Berry and Wager were taken prisoner.

The casualties for the 5th Black Watch during the attack were five officers killed and 66 other ranks. Three officers and 54 others were wounded. With the 148th RAC one officer and two other ranks were killed, seven went missing in action and nine were wounded.

Change of command

Major-General Charles Bullen-Smith, commanding officer of the 51st Highland Division, supported the order to retreat from Colombelles. This was against the will of Lieutenant-General John Crocker and it resulted in a remark from Montgomery that the division wasn't able to fight the Germans. Monty: "The division does not persevere in her attacks and has failed in every operation until now. It can not combat the Germans succesfully. I consider this to be the fault of the divisional commander and I relieve him from his command.Bullen-Smith has many good qualities but has failed to lead the Highland Division properly. I can not recommend him to command another division." Because of this and because of other disappointments during the previous month, Bullen-Smith was fired on 26 July and was replaced by Major-General Tom Rennie. Major Henry Cumming-Bruce, the new commander of the 1st Gordons implied that the attack at Colombelles primarily had failed because German resistance was much greater than expected and because the troops lacked an offensive spirit because of fatigue and the regular deployment of the division.

Rennie had been the commanding officer of the British 3rd Infantry Division during the landings on Sword Beach. On 13 June he drove in a jeep on a mine that had been laid there by own troops. He was wounded in his arm and had to be sent back to England to recover. In the same telegram in which Montgomery fired Bullen-Smith he asked to send Rennie as the replacement. Rennie was an officer of the Black Watch and therefore very suited to get 51st Highland Division in shape again. Bullen- Smith would become eventually Deputy Director of Military Training in the War Office until his retirement in 1946.

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Thomson wrote on 23 July in his report that operation Stack was a senseless enterprise because the Germans had hundreds of other observation possibilities with as much sight over the battlefield as from the smoke stacks. The right flank had been undefended and after the ten supporting Shermans were knocked out so quickly the Tigers reigned supreme on the battlefield. On 26 July Thomson was transferred to the 10th Black Watch in England and was replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Bradford.

The strange thing in this chain of events is that Brigadier Horatius Murray, commanding officer of 153rd Infantry Brigade and therefore the direct commander of Thomson as well as being subordinated to Bullen-Smith, didn't suffer any consequences. On 16 July he had written a letter to Thomson in which he wrote about the failure of operation Stack: "It is my fault that I agreed to an operation which was fundamentally flawed. [...]Nothing happened during the operation that discredited the battalion or the regiment. The only thing I am sorry for is that the operation ever was deemed necessary." At the end of August Murray was transferred to Italy to take over command of the 6th Armoured Division.

Further course of the battle

After operation Charnwood operation Goodwood would be the next major offensive in the area around Caen. Goodwood would start at 18 July and operation Stack was a supporting and preparing attack. Two other operations would be conducted before the start of Goodwood. Operation Greenline was started by XII Corps south west of Caen. Its target was the capture of hills 113 and 112 and by attacking pinning down the 9. and 10. SS Panzer Divisions Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg. Greenline started at 15 July. Hill 113 was taken but had to be abandoned two days later because of fierce German counter attacks.

The third operation in preparation of Goodwood ,after Stack and Greenline, was operation Pomegranate, also conducted to the south west of Caen. The operation would start at 16 July and would be conducted by XXX Corps in the direction of the villages Noyers-Bocage and Vendes. The aim was here too the pinning down of German troops on the other side of Caen . On 18 July Goodwood would start, with a massive aerial bombardment as preparation. During the bombing a large part of the Colombelles steel works was destroyed. Some stacks however remained standing. Eventually the factory would be closed in 1993. Nowadays the only thing left on the compound is a cooling tower.

A lot of controversy arose during and after the war on Goodwood. Was it intended to finally break through the German lines or was it only meant to secure Caen? Was Montgomery waging a war of attrition on Germany's armour so that the Americans would have an easier job during operation Cobra? Montgomery raised the impression in the press as well as with his superiors that Goodwood's aim was to be the great breakthrough including the capture of Falaise. To his subordinates however he said that Falaise was the target and that they had to advance as far as possible in that direction. Goodwood would grind down and get stuck on the deep consecutive German defensive lines on the Bourgébus Ridge and would be stopped on 20 July.

Parallel with Goodwood the Canadian II Corps was to conduct operation Atlantic. Its intended target was to liberate the rest of Caen including the village of Colombelles and to advance towards Verrières Ridge. The rest of Caen and Colombelles were finally liberated on 18 July but the operation got stuck in the face of determined German resistance and counter attacks on Verrières Ridge. This ridge which had cost the Canadians dearly would eventually fall on 8 August during operation Totalize.

Afbeeldingen


The steel works and german soldiers in front.
(Source: Wikipedia)


War Diary of the 5th Black Watch about the start of the operation.
(Source: WO 171/1266)


First-aid place near Colombelle
(Source: Wikipedia)


Air view of the steel Works after the air raid of 18 juli.
(Source: Wikipedia)


Map showing territory gained in Operations Atlantic and Goodwood
(Source: wikipedia)

Informatie

Translated by:
Peter ter Haar
Article by:
Jeroen Koppes
Published on:
18-04-2015
Last edit on:
11-10-2016
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