Operation Martlet (25-27 June 1944) was a preliminary to Operation Epsom, the second in a series of major attacks around Caen. The city had originally been a D-Day target, but proved to be rather too heavily defended. The first attempt to capture it after D-Day was Operation Perch (7-14 June), a two-pronged assault which also failed. Montgomery then decided to carry out Operation Epsom, a major assault on the German lines west of the city, aiming for the Odon River, which runs from west to east and reaches the Orne just to the south of the city centre of Caen. There was thus a wedge of ground between the two rivers to the south-west of Caen and this was the objective of the main attack,
Operation Martlet would be carried out first, with the aim of capturing high ground at Rauray, on the right flank of the Epsom battlefield. This area became known as the Raurey Spur, and was the north-eastern end of a ridge of high ground to the north of the Odon. The main attack during Operation Epsom was to pass to the east of this ridge, cross the river and aim for Hill 112, a key high point on the southern side of the Odon. Hill 112 was some way to the east of the Raurey Spur, as the high ground south of the river continued further east than on the north bank.
The attack on the spur had two aims – the first was to capture the high ground, which dominated the area that the 15th Scottish Division was to attack across during Operation Epsom. The second was to draw the German reserves from the Epsom area to aid the main attack.
The attack had originally been timetabled for mid June, but the great storm of 19-21 June delayed all of the Allied plans. In this case it slowed down the arrival of VIII Corps, which was to conduct Operation Epsom.
The Martlet attack was carried out by 49th Division from XXX Corps. Three phases were planned. Phase one was to capture the ‘Barracuda’ line, along the road between Juvigny-sur-Seulles and Fontenay-le-Pesnel. Phase two was the ‘Walrus’ line – Tessel Wood and a farm at St. Nicholas. Phase three was the ‘Albacore’ line – Rauray and the nearby high ground.
Phase one was to be carried out by the 4th Lincolns near St. Pierre in the west, the Hallamshires in the centre and the 11th Scots Fusiliers near le Parc de Boislande in the east. Nine field and four medium artillery regiments would provide a creeping barrage, supported by two companies of 4.2in mortars.
When the attack began the area was defended by parts of the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’. After the attack began elements from the 21st Panzer Division were sent from Caen, and part of the Panzer Lehr Division, which was defending Vendes, just to the south-west of the main Martlet attack
When the attack began on 25 June the troops on the right and centre made better progress than those in the centre. The 4th Lincolns battled through mist and confusion to reach their Barracuda target and dig in. In the centre the Hallamshires reached the Fontenay to Juvigny road, repelled a counterattack, and began to spread out along the road.
On the left the 11th Royal Scots Fusiliers attacked towards Fontenay-le-Pesnel. They suffered heavy losses during the advance, then became involved in costly house-to-house fighting in the village itself. They were only able to capture the northern edge of the village, and even thus success came at a heavy cost, as they were exposed to flanking fire from le Parc de Boislonde, a wooded area just to the north of the village that remained in German hands. After attacking for most of the day the Scots were reinforced by the 7th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, which managed to capture most of the western part of Fontenay.
To the west of Fontenay the attack moved onto the second, ‘Walrus’, phase. The 1/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry replaced the Lincolns on the right and attacked south towards Tessel Wood. They were hit by Nebelwerfer mortar fire, but managed to advance about a mile to the edge of the woods, where they dug in and repelled a counterattack by the 12th SS Panzers.
By the end of first day the British had made some progress, but had failed to achieve their main objectives. They had reached the first Barracuda line along most of its length, but had yet to secure the eastern end of the line. On the right they had reached the second ‘Walrus’ line. However the main aim of the attack was to secure Rauray and the high ground around it, which was on the left flank, where the least progress had been made.
The attack did achieve one of its objectives. On the evening of 25 June the Germans moved their last armoured reserves, part of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division, to support the defenders of the Raurey Spur. The division’s commander Kurt Meyer objected to this move, pointing out that strong Allied armoured forces had been detected in what was to become the Epsom area, but he was overruled.
The fighting on the high ground at Rauray continued on 26 June. This time the 1st Tyneside Scottish was committed to the battle, attacking south-east towards Rauray from a starting point to the south-west of Fontenay. Their first target was la Grande Ferme, south of Fontenay and east of Tessel Wood. Once the attack had moved south of the woods the right flank would be protected by armoured cars from the 12th King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who would then attack Tessel Bretteville with the 24th Lancers. Further to the left the 7th Duke of Wellington’s would attack towards St Nicolas. Once this was secured the tanks of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry would advance towards Rauray. However this attack would lack the normal artillery support, as most of the divisional artillery had been committed to Operation Epsom, which began on the same day.
Very little progress was made on the right. Despite their best efforts the Tyneside Scottish and King’s Royal Rifle Corps only made limited progress, and had to withdraw towards their starting positions at the end of the day. On the left the first attacks failed, but a 20 minute artillery barrage was then arranged, and the Duke of Wellington’s managed to capture St. Nicholas and advance several hundred yards further south. The tanks from the Sherwood Rangers then managed to push south to a crossroads north of Rauray. They were joined by infantry from the 11th Durham Light Infantry, and were able to hold onto the position.
Operation Epsom itself began on 26 June, and saw the British make limited progress after running into heavy opposition, although they did force the Germans to move reinforcements to the area.
The main focus for Martlet on 27 June was the capture of Rauray. Early in the day the 11th Durham Light Infantry and the Sherwood Rangers attempted to attack together, but the German defence was too strong. The tanks had to be withdrawn, and the job was left to the Durhams. Their attack began at around 11am, and once again they ran into strong resistance from the Hitlerjugend. However by 4pm the village had been secured, and a key part of the Martlet objectives finally achieved, although two days later than hoped.
The main attack on 28 June was to be made by the 1st Tyneside Scottish, whose new target was Brettevillette, to the south-west of Rauray. Their attack was supported by a short artillery bombardment, and began at 7am. For once progress was fairly rapid and within forty minutes the attackers had reached Tessel-Bretteville, half way to their main target. By 2.30 the battalion had reached Brettevillette, but the Germans then launched a determined counterattack. This was made by Kampfgruppe Weidinger, a battlegroup formed from the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’, which had now been committed to the battle. The Tyneside Scottish were eventually forced to pull back leaving one company 400 yards north of Brettevillette while the main part of the battalion regrouped around Tessel-Bretteville.
29 June saw something of a stalemate. The Tyneside Scottish were pinned down north of Brettevillette, while the Durham Light Infantry came under heavy fire in the area south of Raurey. A planned attack on Brettevillette by the Durhams was cancelled when it became clear that the Germans were planning to counterattack towards the Epsom salient from the same direction.
30 June was largely spent preparing to defend Rauray. The Durham Light Infantry was withdrawn for a rest, and were replaced by the 1st Tyneside Scottish.
German Odon Counterattack
At the start 1 July the British front line ran east/ south-east from Tessel-Bretteville, passing to the south of Rauray. On the right the area around Tessel-Bretteville was held by the 4th Lincolns from the 146th Brigade. In the centre the areas south of Rauray was held by the 1st Tyneside Scottish from the 70th Brigade. To their left was the boundary with VIII Corps, and the line was held by troops from the 15th (Scottish) Division.
The Germans still held Brettevillette, with Kampfgruppe Weidinger from the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’. To the east was a force from the 9th SS Panzer Division ‘Hohenstaufen’.
The attack on 1 July was part of the wider Odon Counterattack, a determined German attempt to cut the base of the British salient created during Operation Epsom. The main part of the attack came to the south of the Martlet area, and was carried out by II SS Panzer Corps, with the 9th SS Panzer Division ‘Hohenstaufen’ on the left and the 10th SS Panzer Division ‘Frundsburg’ on the right. However the 1st Tyneside Scottish, around Rauray, would also be hit, as Kampfgruppe Weidinger attacked to protect the left flank of the main attack.
The counterattack on Rauray was carried out by some of the armour from the 9th SS Panzer Division and the panzer-grenadiers from Kampfgruppe Weidinger. The Germans had a mix of Panthers and Panzer IVs, but almost certainly didn’t have any Tigers, as none of the units involved in the attack were equipped with them. As was so often the case, some of the Allied troops reported facing Tigers despite actually being attacked by other tanks, simply because they had the most impressive reputation.
A plan for an attack at 3am was cancelled, in part because of the confusion caused by a heavy Allied artillery bombardment aimed at their assembly areas. The attack was postponed to 6am, with the artillery barrage starting at about 0530. The German columns began to move at 6, and the first reports of battle from the Tyneside Scottish came at 6.40am. The British infantry came under heavy pressure, but the Germans were unable to break through. This gave the Allied support forces time to get into action, and the anti-tank guns were soon firing. The Germans had split their armour up into groups of five tanks, each supported by infantry, and at least one of these groups was now completely destroyed. During the day the Tyneside Scottish’s anti-tank guns probably destroyed ten German tanks. Between 8 and 9 the Germans were able to infiltrate into the British lines, getting close to Rauray. The Germans launched a second attack at around 11.15, a third at around 12.30, a fourth at around 14.10 and a fifth at around 16.00, but although the British infantry often came under heavy pressure, they were able to just about hold their lines. The German got close to Rauray, but although the Tyneside Scottish and the Durham Light Infantry were pushed back in places, they were able to prevent any breakthrough. By the end of the day the British had recaptured all of their original positions.
Although Operation Martlet eventually achieved its geographical objectives, the slow progress of the attack meant that it didn’t achieve its main purpose, to clear the German artillery from the right flank of the Epsom attack. However the troops involved in Martlet helped defeat the German Odon Counterattack, and thus did help in the overall objective of keeping the Germans pinned down around Caen.