D-Day, 6th June 1944 – Part Seven The British 50th (Northumbrian) Division and No 47 Royal Marine Commando at GOLD Beach

This post is dedicated to the memory of those who died on Tuesday 6 June 1944 in pursuit of freedom. It is through their sacrifice that we enjoy the freedoms we have today.

In this the seventh part of the story of D-Day, 6 June 1944 we concentrate on the actions of the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division and No 47 Royal Marine Commando at GOLD Beach. This is their story…

Introduction

GOLD Beach was the codename of the centre of the Allied landing beaches on D-Day, 6 June 1944. It was more than 5 miles long and included the coastal towns of La Rivière and Le Hamel. At the western end of the beach was the small port of Arromanches, and slightly west of that port was the town of Longues-sur-Mer. It was the most westerly beach of the British sector and was the responsibility of the British XXX Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Gerard Bucknall which would assault one Division up, with the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division leading.

The defending German forces consisted of elements of the German 716th Static Division and at least part of the 1st Battalion of the German 352nd Infantry Division who were at Le Hamel. Many of the Germans were set up in houses along the coast, with the greatest concentrations located at Le Hamel and La Rivière. These fighting positions were vulnerable to naval gunfire and aerial bombardment and could easily be set on fire, but the Germans counted on a counterattack capability with Kampfgruppe Meyer, a mechanized unit of the 352nd Division based at the nearby town of Bayeux. This unit had practiced rapid manoeuvre to the beach to meet possible invasion attempts.

In addition to the German seafront defences, a formidable fortified artillery observation bunker had been constructed on top of the steep cliffs on the outskirts of Longues-sur-Mer that directed the fire of a German Coastal Artillery Battery located about half a mile inland from the beach. The four 155 mm guns of the Battery were heavily protected with one-metre-thick concrete and were considered to be a significant threat to the seaborne invasion troops who were to land in the area.

The assault sectors at GOLD Beach were designated (from west to east) Item, Jig (comprising sections Green and Red), and King (also consisting of two sections named Green and Red). The assault was to be carried out by the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, which included Battalions from the Devonshire, Hampshire, Dorsetshire, and East Yorkshire Regiments. The beach was wide enough for two brigades to be landed side-by-side, so the 231st Brigade was assigned to Le Hamel in Jig sector and the 69th Brigade to La Rivière in King sector. No 47 Royal Marine Commando, attached to the 50th Division for the landing, was assigned to Item sector.

The main objectives of the British 50th Division were to seize the town of Bayeux, cut the Caen-Bayeux highway, capture the small port of Arromanches, link up with the Americans from Omaha Beach to the west at Port-en-Bessin and link up with the Canadians from Juno Beach to the east. The 50th Division was also to take the Longues-sur-Mer Battery from the rear.

H-Hour was set for 07.25 hours, 50 minutes later than in the American sector to allow for the difference in the tide, which meant that high water was later in the British sector. On the morning of D-Day however the wind came directly from the northwest and piled up the water rapidly. The outer beach obstacles that the Germans had installed to damage and destroy invading landing craft were therefore under water before British demolition teams could get to them. When the demolition teams arrived they came under direct fire from the German seafront defences and were prevented from effectively clearing the obstacles.

Due to the heavy seas it was decided not to launch the Sherman DD Tanks from their LCTs several miles out at sea but to run them straight up to the beach. The first wave to land came in under heavy fire from the German defenders and suffered heavy casualties. The 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment lost its Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command within minutes of landing. Following up behind the 1st Hampshires were the Commandos of the 4th Special Service Brigade. They too suffered badly during the run in and only one of their allotted landing craft actually reached the shore. The decision to land the tanks directly on to the beach however proved to be the saving grace as there was no German armour in the area. Once ashore the tanks provided close support to the infantry and most of the initial German resistance was quickly overcome. Many of the German strong points had been neutralised by the naval bombardment earlier in the morning and it was only the main fortified areas of resistance that held out, but by 10.00 hrs La Rivière was captured and Le Hamel was in British hands by mid-afternoon.

No 47 (RM) Commando, which was the last British Commando unit to land, also came ashore on GOLD Beach east of Le Hamel on Item sector. Their task was to immediately push inland, then turn right (west) and cross 10 miles of enemy held territory in order to seize and hold the coastal harbour of Port-en-Bessin. This small port was significant as it was to be the prime early harbour for supplies to be brought in including fuel by underwater pipe from tankers moored offshore. After landing, No 47 (RM) Commando passed south of Arromanches and pushed west to within a mile of Port-en-Bessin where they were halted just to the south of the Longues-sur-Mer Battery. Here they dug in on ‘Hill 72’ and Port-en-Bessin did not fall into British hands until 8 June 1944 after some very heavy fighting.

Although heavily bombed prior to the invasion the guns at the Longues-sur-Mer Battery were still capable of firing on D-Day. At 05.30 hrs they had opened fire against the British fleet which continued until the afternoon when they were put out of action in a furious duel with the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Ajax and the Free French Navy cruiser Georges Leygues. The 184 artillerymen at the battery surrendered to the British the following day.

By the evening of D-Day the British 50th Division had landed 25,000 men, penetrated 6 miles inland, hooked up with the Canadians from Juno Beach on the left, and reached the heights above Port-en-Bessin. Whilst it had not seized Bayeux, cut the Caen-Bayeux highway or linked up with the Americans from Omaha Beach, it had made an impressive start. The British sustained around 400 casualties while securing the GOLD Beachhead.

Ian R Gumm
at Willowmead

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