Published: 12/05/2011 11:00 - Updated: 12/05/2011 13:10

Highland Division faces a bloodbath in Normandy

Infantry and bren carriers in Normandy.
Infantry and bren carriers in Normandy.

AFTER the hard-earned battle honours of El Alamein, Mareth and Wadi Akarit the Highland Division went to Paradise — at least by comparison.

Its troops spent a month in Algeria having travelled via squalid Kafrouan, Kasserine Pass and Tebessa to Djidjelli and Phare Alia. with a rest camp in Constantine.

It was a curious mixture of sea-bathing, hill climbing, amphibious training, beach landings, landing craft loading tables and even sightseeing expeditions. Distinguished visitors included King George VI, Generals Alanbrooke and Alexander, the Balmorals Divisional Concert Party, ENSA parties, and Will Fyffe, the famous Scottish comedian.

"One pint (of coarse, tangy red wine) and Africa was wonderful, two pints and Africa ceased to exist," Captain Alastair Borthwick, 5th Seaforths, wrote.

A pipe tune contest was won by Lance-Corporal Macdonald, a Seaforth, with his tune "The Wadi Akarit". Lieutenant-Colonel Sorel-Cameron took command of 5th Camerons and Brigadier Gordon MacMillan now commanded the 152nd Highland Brigade.

On 24th June, 1943 the Algerian holiday was over and the trek eastwards to Sousse and Sfax began for embarkation for Operation Husky, the capture of Sicily. Major General Wimberley sent a message to the Division: "We go forward into battle and must never forget that helped by our English comrades, we are the proud bearers of that ancient motto — Scotland for ever — and in bearing it we carry with us Scotland’s renown, Scotland’s fair name and Scotland’s prayers."

Sicily’s coastal regions were known to be defended by two German panzer divisions, including the Hermann Goering, and six to eight Italian divisions, including the Napole. The initial Allied landing at Cape Passero on 10th July 1943 was successful, but three days later at Francofonte the German 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, flown in from France, ambushed 2nd and 5th Seaforth and for 36 hours it was hide and seek, kill or be killed among the olive groves.

In close quarter fighting 5th Seaforth had eight officer casualties with four killed and 79 other rank casualties. 5th Camerons attacked the village from the west and eventually 2nd Seaforth took it. The Camerons led the Allies into Scordia and the Highland Division POW cage contained 1000 occupants, mainly Italian. But the Hermann Goering infantry with tank support counter-attacked time and time again in the battle of the Sferro hills and the defence lines of the rivers Dittaino and Simeto.

Eventually the 39-day Operation Husky came to an end and Messina fell on 16th July. Highland Division had lost 1312 battle casualties (2nd Seaforth 194, 5th Seaforth 132 and 5th Camerons 85). It also lost "Tartan Tam" Wimberley who, after nearly three years of command, was posted with honour back to the UK to be commandant of the staff college at Camberley.

He was replaced by Major General Bullen Smith, General Officer Commanding of the 15th Scottish Division in the UK.

General Montgomery wanted the Highland Division for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, and 152nd Highland Brigade sailed on the USS Edmund B. Alexander to Liverpool where they arrived on 25th November.

For six months there was leave, training, exercises, route marches, night attacks and street fighting practice.

They were visited by Queen Elizabeth, whose favourite tune was "Scotland the Brave", and by General Eisenhower, Monty and Wimberley. The Division was stationed in the area north of London from Slough to Hertford and then in April 1944 moved to East Anglia for Operation Fabius, the final invasion exercise.

On 28th May Lieutenant-Colonel Walford briefed the officers of 5th Seaforth.

"We went into a big black hut," Captain Borthwick recounted.

"The entire wall facing the door was covered by a gigantic map. It was the same old story. Our marshalling area across the Channel was called ‘Edinburgh’ or ‘Chicago’ and we would land on ‘Nan’ beach. All the vital questions of ‘whom’ and ‘where’ were still unanswered." 5th Camerons set sail for France aboard the ships Cheshire and Lancastrian and landed on 7th June, D-Day plus One.

Borthwick described the land which greeted them as: "Fat farming country, neat and peaceful like the coast of Devon before the war. The whole sea crawled. This monstrous regatta, this mass of 500 vessels was spread over only seven miles of a bridgehead already more than 50 miles long."

The countryside of Normandy was new to the British army.

Sunken lanes, small fields, apple orchards and very thick high hedgerows on banks meant difficult tank country, but excellent defensive battlefield.

The innocent fields of cowslips and buttercups were so peaceful in the sun yet every ditch, hedge and copse might conceal a sniper, spandau or minnewerfer team.

Highland Division was tasked with the capture of Biéville and Ste Honorine east of Caen and the German 21st Panzer Division resisted strongly. General Montgomery expected his triumphant desert legions — the Highland Division, the Desert Rats and 50th Tyne-Tees — to continue their successes in Normandy against the cream of Hitler’s army.

Montgomery wrote to the Chief of the General Staff, Field Marshal Alanbrooke: "Regret to report it is considered opinion, Crocker, Dempsey and myself that 51st Division is at present not — NOT — battleworthy.

"It does not fight with determination and has failed in every operation it has been given to do. It cannot fight the Germans successfully. I consider the divisional commander is to blame and I am removing him from command. Bullen Smith has many fine qualities but he has failed to lead Highland Division and I cannot, repeat, cannot therefore recommend him to command any other division."

Montgomery wanted Major General T. G. Rennie to take his place. It was the nadir of Highland Division in World War II and when Lieutenant-Colonel D. B. Lang took command of 5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders at the end of July 1944, he was their fifth commanding officer in seven weeks. In the first three weeks of Operation Overlord that magnificent fighting battalion had lost 17 officers and 204 other ranks as battle casualties.

In Normandy on average every day there were 7000 casualties — Germans, British, Americans and Canadians. It was a bloodbath, but things got better in August.

Patrick Delaforce, a veteran soldier of NW Europe, is the author of "Monty’s Highlanders" published by Pen & Sword. His latest book are "Operation Eclipse" and "The Rhine Endeavour" from Amberley Publishing. Both about £19.99, available from book shops, Amazon or the publisher’s websites.
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