After D-Day, allied forces seeking to outflank the German-held city of Caen ran into a wall of steel at Hill 112.
Crossing the narrow Odon was the first crucial objective in Operation Epsom, Allied ground commander Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery’s attempt to swing westward and outflank the German-held city of Caen, and to achieve the major breakthrough the Allies had been seeking since D-Day. The Argylls advanced at the point of a triangular salient that Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps had punched into the German front line then held by two crack divisions: the 12th SS Panzer Hitlerjugend and the Wehrmacht’s Panzer Lehr. In that salient 60,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers and 600 tanks were advancing through a 3-mile-wide gap between Carpiquet airfield and the Rauray hills. This push was aimed at crossing the Odon and taking the Caen-Falaise road, thus cutting off the Germans in Caen.
Unfortunately for the advancing British, dominating the Odon valley and western approaches to Caen was what the Allies designated as Hill 112, high ground that German Seventh Army commander SS Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser called the “key to the back door of Caen.” An otherwise unremarkable hill, it would in the coming days change hands many times and be the site of relentless and costly fighting.
Rising from the wheat fields just south of the village of Baron- sur-Odon, Hill 112 dominated the eastern end of a low ridge. The summit offered a commanding view over a pastoral countryside of stone cottages, hedges, fields and woodlands, with Caen and the Carpiquet airfield to the northeast and the sprawling Bourguébus ridge to the east.
In the weeks since the June 6 Allied landings SS Standartenführer Kurt Meyer’s Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) had shouldered the brunt of the German defense of Caen. Thirty-three-year-old Meyer’s reckless daring, ruthlessness and unwavering patriotism embodied the spirit of his young soldiers, who nicknamed him “Panzermeyer.” Since its June 7 baptism by fire the division had fought well, despite the Allies’ air supremacy and devastating artillery and naval bombardments. Though Hitlerjugend had suffered serious casualties, it had a lot of fight left in it, and help was on the way: One after another, several of the Reich’s elite armored units were drawn into the battle to hold Caen.
Meyer’s Allied counterpart was 37- year-old Maj. Gen. George “Pip” Roberts, widely considered Britain’s finest armor commander. Roberts had funneled his 11th “Black Bull” Armored Division— part of VIII Corps—through the Tourmauville bridgehead as soon as it was secured, and on June 28 two squadrons of his 23rd Hussars and a motorized company of his 8th Rifle Brigade secured the crest of Hill 112. At 0930 the Hussar battle group repulsed a counterattack by a dozen Panzerkampfwagen IV medium tanks, but at noon it came under long-range fire from panzers holed up in Fontaine-Étoupefour to the northeast.
With casualties mounting and ammunition running low, the Hussars withdrew to Baron-sur-Odon. Taking their place on the hill were elements of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) accompanied by the rest of the 8th Rifle Brigade. The tanks and infantry fought off another counterattack by Hitlerjugend armor, and the northern slopes of Hill 112 remained in British hands at nightfall.
Defending the tiny bridgehead south of the Odon were more than 150 11th Armored Division tanks and four infantry battalions. The following day the 44th RTR of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division entered the battle in the vicinity of nearby Hill 113. Supported by infantrymen of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the 44th’s tanks advanced toward Évrecy to face the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg of the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps.
Frundsberg and its sister 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen were relatively new formations. Their young soldiers and veteran Waffen-SS officers had been resting and refitting after heavy combat in Poland when the crisis around Caen demanded their immediate return to the fight. Joining them was a battle group from the elite 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, en route from Toulouse. Appointed to command the II SS Panzer Corps only the day before, Knight’s Cross holder and SS Gruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich launched a major counterattack on the afternoon of June 29. While Frundsberg blunted the British advance on Hill 113, Hohenstaufen and the Das Reich battle group attacked the western flank of the British I and VIII Corps’ salient south of Cheux.
Six Tiger I tanks of the I SS Panzer Corps’ 101st Heavy Panzer Battalion fended off the 3rd RTR’s attack from the northwest toward Esquay-Notre-Dame, between Hill 112 and Hill 113. However, to the east of Hill 112’s summit the 8th Rifle Brigade occupied a wood vacated by Hitlerjugend grenadiers. German Nebelwerfer rocket launchers (see P. 27) in turn plastered the wood with retaliatory rounds. Coming up in support, M4 Shermans of the British 2nd Battalion, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, exchanged fire with Panthers of Hitlerjugend’s 12th SS Panzer Regiment holding Éterville.
Convinced an even larger German counterattack was yet to occur, Second Army commander Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey and O’Connor called a halt to the offensive and pulled their armor back north across the Odon—abandoning the hard-won crest of Hill 112 and effectively stalling the momentum of Operation Epsom.
When Epsom ended on June 30, the British still held the flanks of the salient north of the Odon and small bridgeheads south of the river, but they had gotten no closer to the Orne, and the operation had cost the British VIII Corps 4,020 casualties, more than half of them inflicted on the 15th (Scottish) Division. Moreover, American reaction to Operation Epsom was decidedly unenthusiastic. As Bill Thompson of the 9th RTR later put it, “The Americans thought that the British and Canadians were not moving fast enough, but the fact was on our front we had against us seven and a half panzer divisions, and the Americans were only facing one and a half.” German casualties during the Epsom battles were heavy as well, the Hitlerjugend alone losing 1,244 men.
Taking advantage of the British withdrawal, Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps resumed its counterattacks the morning of July 1. But overwhelming British artillery fire, Allied fighter-bombers and massed tank assaults shattered its advance. In the narrow confines of “Death Valley” the British held on, despite withering SS small arms and mortar fire from the nearby heights.
Renewing their breakout efforts just days after Epsom, the British mounted offensives more directly toward Caen, with Operations Windsor (July 4–5) and Charnwood (July 7–9). By the end of both British heavy bombing had reduced Caen to rubble. The British and Canadian forces succeeded in taking the Carpiquet airfield and northern Caen but suffered twice as many casualties as the defending Germans. South of the Orne the German defenses held, as the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler arrived to support the Hitlerjugend.
Before Charnwood ended, Second Army commander Dempsey unleashed another offensive, Operation Jupiter, ordering O’Connor’s VIII Corps to retake Hill 112, capture the villages of Éterville and Maltot to the east, and then break through to Saint–André-sur-Orne. O’Connor gave the unenviable task of assaulting Hill 112 to Maj. Gen. G. Ivor Thomas, newly in command of the strongly reinforced 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division. The British struggle with Frundsberg would be the climax of the battle for the “key to the back door of Caen.”
The two-day Operation Jupiter opened on the morning of July 10 with a mass barrage by the artillery of all three of O’Connor’s divisions. Then the 43rd’s 129th Infantry Brigade advanced on the right toward Hill 112, with its sister 130th Infantry Brigade on the left advancing toward Éterville and Maltot; they succeeded in taking Éterville but ran into very heavy opposition before Maltot. Tiger tanks helped Leibstandarte and Frundsberg grenadiers secure Maltot by the afternoon of the 10th.
The 4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, led the 129th’s assault up through the open fields on the northern slope, taking casualties from German Nebelwerfer rockets. The Somersets reached the crest, but heavy mortar and machinegun fire forced them to dig in.
Late on the night of the 10th the Tigers of the 102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion moved to support a major counterattack on Hill 112 by Frundsberg and Hohenstaufen. They deployed in a 14-strong wedge. Down in the valley the British armor destroyed earlier burned bright, while heavy shelling illuminated the night, churning up the hill and pinning down the supporting German grenadiers in their trenches. The Tigers took up concealed firing positions in a forested area. Standartenjunker Will Fey, senior squad leader and commander of Tiger 134, “waited impatiently for a chance to test our strength against theirs.”
British opposition soon appeared. The 5th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, pushed through to the dug-in Somersets, supported by 14 Churchill Mk IV heavy tanks of the 7th RTR and joined at first light by a squadron of Shermans from the Royal Scots Greys. Determined to relaunch the attack and capture the entire Hill 112 plateau, Thomas committed his last infantry reserves. The Cornwalls’ attack “reached just over the brow of the hill to a small wood, where they were cut to pieces by murderous machine-gun and mortar fire,” noted Corporal D. Proctor of the Somersets.
Fey’s Tigers waited, concealed in the very forest the Cornwalls were assaulting (which afterward would be known as “Cornwall Wood”). When British artillery fire erupted anew, several of the 102nd Tigers left cover to scout ahead and draw out the enemy. A half-dozen British tank silhouettes appeared on the horizon. Several of the Churchills opened fire on the lead Tiger, their exploding rounds showering the German tank with earth as its turret rotated slowly toward them. Then came the metallic crash of the Tiger’s 88mm gun and the resulting boom of exploding Churchills. White flames soon spurted from three shattered British tanks. An officer from the Royal Scots Greys recalled the scene: “The skyline was dominated by Churchill tanks ‘brewing up.’ They had gone too far over the ridge and had been knocked out by the enemy, who were in extremely good positions. …Tank crews who had managed to escape from their flaming vehicles were crawling back…their bodies burnt, black all over from smoke, oil and cordite fumes.”
The Cornwalls who had reached the wood broke in disorder, fleeing back through the British trenches and digging in behind the Somersets. Eventually, after Allied artillery further pummeled the hillsides, the German armor withdrew, and the Cornwalls were able to reoccupy the wood.
At dawn on July 11 the Tigers renewed their assault atop Hill 112. After quickly knocking out a few Churchills, the Germans turned their 88s on the crews of British antitank guns frantically trying to position their weapons in Cornwall Wood. Tiger crewman Heinz Trautmann later recalled: “The [British] guns were literally dismantled, shields flying through the air, wheels hurled across the field. The Tommies screamed, throwing their arms in the air as they died, or somersaulted, horribly mutilated.”
More smoke shells exploded, enveloping the Tigers and blocking their crews’ vision. Several shots ricocheted off Fey’s Tiger as he pushed through the fog at full speed. As the German tank broke into the clear, its crewmen saw two Churchills covering the withdrawing British infantrymen. The Churchills turned their turrets toward the Tiger but were quickly set ablaze. The German guns then tore into the retreating British even as British artillery pinned down the Frundsberg grenadiers trying to reach the Tigers. Bereft of close combat support, the German armor pulled back.
As the Tigers withdrew, the Royal Scots Greys Sherman squadron arrived to support the Cornwalls. But just as the British shelling had made it impossible for the Frundsberg grenadiers to advance, German salvos forced the Cornwalls to pull back. Without their infantry support, the remaining British armor in turn withdrew. The summit of Hill 112 was left a no-man’s-land.
Operation Jupiter had failed: Maltot remained in German hands, as did half of Hill 112. The assault had cost the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division more than 2,000 casualties in 36 hours. Companies from Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg also suffered horribly, in some cases being reduced to a half-dozen men, though German morale remained high.
Day after day, the reciprocating drama of fire, steel and death replayed itself on Hill 112. The British infantry reoccupied the summit on the night of July 11–12. On the 13th the Tigers made another victorious return to the growing graveyard of wrecked British guns and burnt vehicles. Again a maelstrom of British artillery fire forced the accompanying grenadiers to retreat. On the night of July 14–15 the Tigers sat alone on the hill in a blasted landscape of bomb craters and ghostly silhouettes of fire-blackened tree trunks. The next morning the Frundsberg grenadiers rejoined the panzers and reoccupied their old positions.
From July 15 through early August the weight of the British offensives swung away from Hill 112. Even so, it and the villages to the north and east were under constant shelling and secondary attacks, including those preceding the next major British offensive, Operation Goodwood (July 18–21). This time Montgomery attempted to outflank Caen from the east. The assault opened with a massive aerial bombardment that failed to significantly disrupt the German defenses, and the British armored divisions sacrificed a quarter of their tanks for only minimal gains.
On July 25 the British and Canadians launched Operation Spring concurrent with the U.S. First Army’s Operation Cobra, the massive American attempt to break out of Normandy’s hedgerow country. The next day the 102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion’s Tigers were again diverted from Hill 112 to Maltot and Saint-André. Their efforts to stem the Canadian southward advance from Caen were the last battles German armor fought in the vicinity of Hill 112. The Tigers and Frundsberg grenadiers still held Hill 112 on August 1, when the 102nd was ordered southwest to aid Hohenstaufen in the fighting around Vire, where the British 11th Armored Division was trying to cut through the rear of German units attempting to contain the American breakout.
By then it was clear that Operation Cobra was a success and that the stalemate in Normandy was broken up. The German defense in the west, weakened by the commitment of the panzer divisions and supplies to the successive and costly Caen battles, could not hold back the American onslaught. Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps fought hard to prevent the inexorable American encirclement of the German forces in the west. Hitlerjugend remained behind and fought to near annihilation, trying to slow the continued British advance south of Caen. Outflanked to the west and east, the 102nd Tigers and Frundsberg grenadiers abandoned Hill 112, and on the night of August 3–4 a patrol from the 53rd (Welsh) Division found the German positions empty. Peace had finally descended upon the ravaged slopes of Hill 112.
For further reading Ludwig Dyck recommends Caen: Anvil of Victory, by Alexander McKee and Steel Inferno: I SS Panzer Corps in Normandy, by Michael Reynolds.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.