An Australian in Normandy 1944
In the Norman countryside raged a tank battle. The air was filled with noise, explosions, screeching tracks, collapsing buildings and the smell of cordite. Captain Leslie George Coleman had been in a building on the first floor directing radio traffic between the battalion and brigade HQs. Later moving from his position, a projectile hit the wall above Coleman and in the ensuing maelstrom he was wounded in his shoulder. He was at the tip of the Allied advance in Normandy with the 4th County of London Yeomanry (4CLY), the date 13 June 1944, the location, Villers-Bocage.
Coleman was born in Melbourne in 1916 and graduated from Duntroon in 1938. In 1942 he was attached to the Australian 1st Armoured Division. After serving in Australia he was one of a handful of Australian officers selected for attachment to the British army to observe the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. These officers would bring back their experience of the operation to assist the impending landings in the Pacific theatre. Coleman was attached to the British 7th Armoured Division (the famed Desert Rats). As it happened he was in the same division as the author’s Grandfather, Sapper James Poole (British army). He served in the 621st Field Squadron, Royal Engineers and was a veteran of the offensive at El Alamein in October 1942 and Italy from September 1943. By January 1944, Poole with the rest of the 7th Armoured Division was in Norfolk, England preparing for the invasion of North West Europe.
The photo to the left is Gold Beach, looking west from Ver-sur-Mer, where the British 7th Armoured Division came ashore. In the distance can be seen the “Mulberry” harbour at Arromanches. The photo to the right is a German 88mm gun position sighted along Gold Beach at Ver-sur-Mer, which was silenced by an immobilised Sherman Crab tank 6 June 1944.
It’s not clear when Coleman was attached to or landed with the 4CLY, but elements of the unit landed on the evening of 6 June 1944 and started to push inland to its concentration area just to the north east of Bayeux. The 4CLY from 8 June began to reconnoitre in advance of the British 7th Armoured and 50th Infantry Divisions to the south of Bayeux. The intensity of the fighting began to increase in the following days as the 4CLY advanced towards Tilly-Sur-Seulles and the casualties started to mount.
After strong resistance around Tilly-Sur-Seulles the 4CLY was ordered to outflank the Germans to the west on the afternoon of the 12 June. A gap was found in the German line between Caumont and Villers-Bocage to the south west of Caen. This is bocage country, the Norman landscape that has thick tall hedgerows on top of sunken roads and across the fields. In an interview taken in 1993 Coleman describes the problems faced by the armoured division in the bocage. The hedges restricted the tanks movement cross county and restrained them to the roads. Without adequate infantry support, the tanks were exposed to enemy infantry attack. Having driven in this area it is hard to comprehend how an armoured division could move down these roads. They are narrow confined spaces which are ideal for defence. For Coleman and other men of the 4CLY it must have been a nerve racking experience. Advancing in an enclosed vehicle, where behind any corner or hedgerow could be a German with a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon.
The 4CLY and Coleman cleared the Germans from the hamlet of Livery and leaguered for the night. At first light on 13 June, the regiment, along with men from the Rifle Brigade, moved towards Villers-Bocage with intelligence that the village was clear of German forces. The leading elements went through the village towards the high ground just to the east, Point 213. Having stood on this hill one can quickly see why both the Allies and the Germans wanted the position. It dominates this area and the important route towards Caen to the north east. It was on Point 213 the British column was spotted by troops of the German 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, which included the famous tank commander First Lieutenant Michael Whittmann. The Germans did not hesitate to attack the 4CLY and Rifles Brigade and inflicted devastating loses of over thirty vehicles of all types in fifteen minutes. So much for the intelligence!
These pictures show the view from atop of Point 213. To the left, the view towards Caen and the right down towards Villers-Bocage. On 13 June this section was littered with destroyed British vehicles.
The British on Point 213 were cut off, others were forced back towards Villers-Bocage and the battle ebbed and flowed throughout the day. During the battle, Coleman was on a first floor building to spot the German armour. He relayed information by radio between the 4CLY and the 22nd Armoured Brigade and was wounded by a projectile that came into the room he was working.
The view of the main street of Villers-Bocage probably on 13 June 1944 as it was bombed on the 14 June and 30 June and the view in June 2014.
In his interview Coleman points out that the urban battlefield was not one the British 7th Armoured had trained for and as a result its men had to improvise and learn during the battle. The British Cromwell tanks were quicker than the German MK 6 Tiger 1 but under armed and armoured. After suffering from the initial shock of the German attack the British crews in their Cromwells used their speed to manoeuvre and fire at the vulnerable rear of the Tigers. By doing this they accounted for three Tigers and a MK 4. By 1600 the village was reported still to be British hands but an attack by the 1/7 Queens Regiment failed to clear the Germans and the British forces were ordered to withdraw around 1800.
A Cromwell tank in Villers-Bocage looking back towards Point 213, June 1944 and in June 2014.
Sapper Poole meanwhile did not disembark until the evening of 11 June having endured seven days on a transport ship and choppy seas which caused many solders seasickness. His unit was moved quickly from its concentration point near the coast towards the small village of La Butte by 1630 on 13 June and was put straight into the defence of the village. La Butte is centred on a crossroads between Bayeux in the north, Villers-Bocage in the south and Tilly-sur-Seulles in the east. One can assume that the Allies feared a German armoured counter attack north from Villers-Bocage and that La Butte was one possible route towards Bayeux.
Over the night of 13-14 June, the 22nd Armoured Brigade along with the 4CLY formed up for all round defence. It was attacked by the German Panzer Lehr Division and resisted its attacks but the brigade was recalled as the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division did not come up in time. Poole and his unit of engineers were stood down of the defence of La Butte late on 14 June. In the next few days his unit then started to work on building and maintaining roads in the line of advance, clearing unexploded ordinance and assisting advancing units with engineering problems. Poole went through the war with the British 7th Armoured Division and was discharged in 1946. He returned to his job as a turner and lived a happy life in Manchester with his wife and two children.
Sapper James Poole.
Coleman survived the battle and served with other British units until they crossed the Rhine into Germany in March 1945. He when then posted back to Australia and landed on Balikpapan in July 1945. After the war he resigned from the regular army and then reenlisted in the Citizen Military Force in 1960 and retired at the honorary rank of Colonel.
Having returned from Normandy recently and followed the route that both these men forged with their units, it makes one wonder what they went through, the hardships and horrors they saw. Poole never talked of his experiences to his family leaving a gap that has never really been filled. Following his and Coleman’s footsteps starts a personal process of discovery regarding those who embarked upon the great crusade.