We examined the action involving British and Commonwealth forces on Sword Beach during D-Day.
The Normandy Invasion of 1944 smashed open the door of Hitler’s ‘fortress Europe’ and was a major turning point in World War Two. It created a second front, splitting the Wehrmacht between the Eastern Front war with the Soviets and the battles to the west. Daring, but costly in lives and materials, it paved the way to Berlin and defeat for Germany.
Sword was the most easterly of the five landing sites used on June 6, 1944. It was divided into four areas; ‘Oboe’, ‘Peter’, ‘Queen’, and ‘Roger’. Assaulted by elements of British I Corps, it would be the last invasion beach to be stormed and, unhelpfully, offered the narrowest landing site.
The assault force was formed from 3rd Division’s 8th Brigade, and 27th Armoured Brigade’s 13/18th Hussars and its Sherman DD tanks. Major-General Rennie’s division was also supported by elements of 79th Armoured Division, Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade (including 176 Free French Commandos led by Commandant Philippe Kieffer), and No.5/No.6 Beach Groups – an assortment of logistics, engineer, medical, and signals staff supported by ‘R’ Commando and an infantry battalion. Additionally, 4th Special Service Brigade were to come ashore between Sword and the Canadian landing beaches on Juno.
As I Corps would assault both Sword and Juno, General John Crocker’s task was greater than any other Allied corps commander that day. On Sword, the amphibious armour was scheduled to hit the beach at 7.25am, just before the leading battalions and the commandos, to support the attack toward Caen – nine miles from the beach – and Carpiquet airfield. The rest of 27th Brigade and 3rd Division would land throughout the day.
Sword was protected by 20 strongpoints, littered with mines, obstacles, and covered by trenches and machine guns. Wire lined the beach and the exits were blocked. Snipers and yet more machine guns overlooked the shore, which was also guarded by eight 50mm and four 75mm anti-tank guns, and an 88mm gun. Six artillery batteries could fire on the beach and the four 100mm guns of the Merville Battery, east of the River Orne, threatened Sword and the landing fleet. In addition to the 90 or so large guns, more than 50 mortars also protected the beach. Four companies of the 716th Infantry Division held Sword, approximately 20 more were in position to, or close enough to, defend the beach. Further back the 21st Panzer Division situated on both sides of the Orne. Elements of this force – two panzergrenadier battalions and an anti-tank battalion – were transferred to the 716th, and part of this formation held Périers Ridge, three miles south of Sword.
Hit the Beach
The opening salvos were thrown at 3am, with the Royal Navy’s Sword Bombardment Group (including the battleships Warspite and Ramillies and the monitor Roberts) and aircraft hitting German positions. At 7.25am the DD tanks were launched. The seas were heavy, so Brigadier Prior-Palmer opted to float the Hussar’s tanks closer to shore. ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons launched 34 of their 40 DDs just 5,000 yards (4,572m) from shore (the last six landed conventionally). One sank, two more were rammed by landing craft ferrying the first wave – infantry and 25 specialist tanks known as ‘funnies’ – as they overtook the struggling Shermans. Ten DDs were lost as Sword was taken, leaving 27 to support the advance.
Resistance was heavy, and the British initially struggled against the defences and rising tide to move off the beach, but casualties were light; the anti-tank wall and dunes providing welcome cover. While being bombarded from Périers Ridge, work began to clear Sword’s exits and by 9.30am the routes off were mostly open. While it was a few hours before reinforcements reliably flowed inland, the leading elements advanced earlier with armour in support. The tanks were divided: ‘A’ Squadron helping the attack on the stronghold known as ‘Hillman’, ‘B’ went to Ouistreham with the commandos. ‘C’ Squadron came ashore last but took time to move off the beach. The DDs of the East Yorkshire Yeomanry were also landed and formed an armoured reserve.
British and French commandos met fierce resistance in the seaside town of Ouistreham, but cleared it quickly. Lovat’s troops linked up with the elements of 6th Airborne, some of which had disabled the Merville Battery, and moved inland. The 4th Special Service Brigade advanced to secure Lion-sur-Mer, to link up with Canadian forces, but after several hours of fighting the brigade remained pinned.
“British and French commandos met fierce resistance in the seaside town of Ouistreham, but cleared it quickly”
The spearhead of 3rd Division’s main thrust was 185th Brigade, supported by the Staffordshire Yeomanry – the only one of 27th Brigade’s conventional tank units to land on 6 June. They carried 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry as they moved forward. As more British troops came ashore, congestion slowed the advance, nevertheless, by 10am British troops held Mermanville-sur-Mer and were advancing on Périers Ridge. With 3rd Division unable to achieve the day one link up with the Canadians it was too exposed to push on Caen, but leading British elements reached as far as Biéville-Beuville, although traffic and mines meant much heavy equipment was left behind.
By 4pm, one element of the Staffs Yeomanry was moving toward Caen, accompanying infantry and the M10 Achilles tank destroyers of 20th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. Another occupied Point 61, and a third was still at ‘Hillman’. With German armour sighted, the Yeomanry was partially redeployed and engaged the 21st Panzer Division at 5pm. In three separate counter-attacks toward Périers Ridge, the Germans were seen off. Thirteen panzers were claimed for the loss of one Achilles.
A battalion-sized force from 21st Panzer was sent to dislodge 6th Airborne from its pocket on the Orne at midday. This force, led by Colonel Hans von Luck, attempted to push the glider troops of ‘D’ Company Ox and Bucks Light Infantry – reinforced by 7th Parachute Battalion – from the Ravnille and Bénouville (‘Pegasus’) Bridges, which they had taken overnight and, in their holding action, had already knocked out 14 tanks. However, Luck’s force was hammered for two hours by artillery and aircraft and sustained heavy casualties. At 1.30pm, the defenders at Pegasus Bridge heard the sound of bagpipes, and Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade arrived having fought the five miles from Sword. That evening elements of the 185th Brigade relieved the airborne forces there, the Royal Warwickshires taking post.
Parts of 192nd Panzergrenadier and 100th Panzer Regiments (both from 21st Panzer Division) – reached Lion-sur-Mer at 8pm, but their position was untenable and their losses high. Under constant fire from 27th Brigade’s tanks and air attack, they withdrew. The 21st Panzer Division’s commander reported 54 tanks destroyed (of 124) on D-Day.
By evening, Crocker’s I Corps had landed 28,845 men on Sword and advanced inland, with casualties amounting to 683 killed or wounded. However, while their precarious foothold had been established and the German counter-attack blunted, the Germans held the ground between the British and Caen. Taking the city had been the ambitious objective on D-Day itself, however the Battle for Caen would become a protracted campaign in which the attention and attrition of the panzer divisions instead became the main goal.