The troops landing on Sword Beach on 6 June had the most important task on D-Day – to protect the eastern flank of the entire landing area against the possibility of a major German armoured counterattack from the east, while at the same time taking part in the attack on Caen.
The Germans had two major armoured formations – the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Group Lehr – in the area between Normandy and Paris. The Allies had to assume that both units would move west once they landed in Normandy and attempt to attack the left flank of the Allied beachhead while it was still vulnerable. To counter this danger the British 6th Airborne Division was given two tasks – to capture the bridges over the Orne River and canal intact and to destroy the bridges over the Dives River. They were then to take up a defensive position on the ridge between the two rivers and prepare to repel any German counterattack and wait for reinforcements to arrive from the west.
If the Germans did mount a major armoured counterattack then the lightly armed airborne troops would have been overwhelmed, and so 4th Commando and a spearhead of British armour were given the task of rushing from Sword Beach to join the paratroops. They would then be followed by 8th Brigade. This part of the Allied plan was carried out successfully, if somewhat behind schedule, but the Allied fears were unfounded. Their left flank was actually protected by the command structure that Hitler had put in place in France, which ensured that the two Panzer formations east of Normandy were unable to move until the end of the day.
The second task, the advance towards Caen, was to be made by 185th Brigade and the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, together with the 9th Canadian Brigade from Juno Beach.
The landing was to be carried out by the British 3rd Infantry Division, 27th Armoured Brigade, 4th Commando and a force of marines, all part of General Crocker's British I Corps. The beach itself was defended by Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter's 716th Infantry Division, which was under-strength and contained too many troops conscripted in Eastern Europe. The Allies knew that the 21st Panzer Division was also in the area, but didn't know that it was posted around Caen.
Sword Beach was five miles to the east of the Canadian landing zone on Juno Beach. The beach sloped gently up to a seawall. Next came a paved promenade and then a series of holiday homes and tourist establishments. The beach had the normal scattering of obstacles and gun emplacements, and there was a second line of defences on Périers Ridge.
The Germans believed that Sword Beach was adequately protected by two major gun batteries – the 75mm guns of Merville and the massive 155mm guns at Le Havre. Neither gun battery played a major part on D-Day. The Merville guns were knocked out in a daring assault by troops from 6th Airborne. An allied smoke screen prevented the gunners at Le Havre from seeing the invasion beaches, and they wasted the morning in a futile artillery duel with HMS Warspite, in which they scored no hits.
Sword Beach saw the most successful use of the DD tanks in their intended role. Force S for Swords (the 13/18th Hussars) put its tanks into the water three miles from the shore. Two were sunk when a tank landing craft cut across their bows, swamping the fragile skirts, but some impressive driving (or sailing) meant that 33 of the 40 tanks reached the beach safely. Even then they arrived just behind the flail tanks, which landed dry almost exactly on time at H-5 (7.25am). The DD tanks followed a few minutes later, and the British armour helped their infantry get across the dangerous beach zone with relatively low casualties.
The battle for the beach lasted for about an hour. On the right the 1st Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment, quickly cleared the beach and began to reduce German strong-points behind the sea wall. On the left the 2nd Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, took longer to reach the top of the beach, taking fire from enemy mortars, from the 88mm guns on Périers Ridge, and from the German's divisional artillery which was aiming at the barrage balloons over the Allied fleet.
By 9.30 the armour of the 22nd Dragoons, the Westminster Dragoons and two squadrons from the 5th Assault Regiment of the Royal Engineers had cleared seven exit lanes from the beach. Once they were off the beach the tanks split into three – some went west to support the attack on Lion-sur-Mer, where the Germans held out through the day, others to attack Ouistreham Locks and the rest to form the spearhead for the attack on Caen, but the Staffordshire Yeomanry, who were meant to provide most of the tanks for that thrust, were held up in the massive traffic jam that formed on the beach.
The first delay came at Périers Ridge, where the South Lancashire Regiment was held up by a combination of 88mm guns and infantry from the 716th Division. The British dug in at Hermanville and waited for reinforcements. By 11.00 the 185th Brigade had three infantry battalions at Hermanville, but they didn't move as quickly as the situation demanded. Instead they made a set-piece attack on Strongpoint 'Hillman' (on the ridge).
This forced the Shropshire Regiment to attempt to reach Caen alone. They began their advance at 1.00pm, and by 4.00pm they had reached Bieville, three miles from Caen, but they then ran into the 21st Panzer Division (see below), and their advance came to a halt. Once the Panzers had been defeated the Shropshires continued their advance, but soon ran into another line of German defences, on a ridge that ran through Lebisey Wood, and the advance finally ended. Late in the day they were joined by the Norfolks, who helped secure their position, while the Suffolks finally defeated the last resistance at 'Hillman' at 8.15pm.
At 16.00 the Germans made their only armoured counterattack of the day. The 21st Panzer Division had wasted most of the day moving towards the British airborne troops on the Orne and back to Caen. They were joined by the 192nd Panzer Grenadier regiment, and ordered to attack into the gap between the British on Sword Beach and the Canadians on Juno. The Grenadiers managed to reach the coast, but their advance alerted the Allies to the threat, and the Germans lost five tanks in a clash with the Shropshire Regiment. Six more were tanks were destroyed by British guns on Périers Ridge, but one small force did reach the coast at Luc-sur-Mer, joining the 192nd. The rest of the column prepared to make a dash for the coast, but just before 9.00pm the British airborne forces intervened. The largest glider-borne force ever seen – 250 tugs and 250 gliders escorted by a horde of fighters – passed over the coast on their way to the Orne – passed over the heads of the 21st Panzer, and believing that the gap between the Allied beachheads was about to close the German armour was withdrawn.
By the end of the day the British had landed 29,000 troops on Sword Beach at a cost of 630 casualties. They had secured their left flank, and were only a few miles short of Caen. Realistically there had never been much chance of the city falling on D-Day, and the fight to capture Caen dominated the fighting on the British front for the next month, shaping the entire campaign.