Operation Aubrey (7-8 June 1944) saw a small force of Royal Marine Commandos capture Port-en-Bessin, a key port between the British and American sectors in Normandy.
A key element of the Overlord plan was the quick capture of Cherbourg, at the northern end of the Cotentin peninsula. In order to achieve this the Americans were to land on Utah beach, at the south-eastern corner of the peninsula. However this beach was separated from the British and Canadian beaches by a long stretch of coastline with no really suitable places for another landing. Omaha beach, where the Americans ran into the strongest opposition on D-Day, was the best of a bad choice. This left a ten mile gap between Omaha Beach, and the westernmost British beach, Gold Beach at Arromanches.
Port-en-Bessin is six miles to the west of Arromanches, at the western end of Gold Beach, and four miles to the east of the eastern end of Omaha Beach. The task of capturing the port was given to No.47 (Royal Marines) Commando, a unit that at full strength was 450 strong and that embarked for Normandy with 431 men.
The Commandos decided to land on Jig Green beach, which would place them just to the east of le Hamel (a coastal village that is now part of Asnelles). Jig beach was the middle of three landing zones on Gold Beach, and Jig Green was at its western end. The area was to be assaulted by 231 Brigade of the 50th Division. The Commandos would land behind them, then meet up in le Hamel, advance inland, turn west and attack the port from the south.
The plan almost immediately went wrong. Le Hamel was still in German hands as the Commandos approached the beach, and hardly any British troops could be seen on Jig Green. The fourteen LCAs carrying the commandos then came under fire from a German gun battery above Le Hamel. The small fleet had to turn east to try and find somewhere safer to land. At least one ran into a mine and only two of the fourteen LCAs survived to return to their mother ships. Once the Commando had formed up, it was discovered that five officers including the CO, and 73 other ranks were missing, along with most of the Bangalore torpedoes and 3-in mortar bombs. Two of the commando’s five troops were intact and had most of their own equipment. One was complete but without most weapons. Two had each lost one landing craft. One Vickers gun and one 3-in mortar had survived, only a quarter of the original amount.
The second in commander, Major Paddy Donnell, made contact with the commander of 231 Brigade, and discovered that the infantry was still attempting to capture le Hamel. He suggested that the commandos should move inland, head around the southern side of le Hamel then push west. As the unit passed south of Le Hamel the CO rejoined them, and by the end of D-Day they were on Point 72, on high ground two miles south of Port-en-Bessin. Those men who had lost their own guns were now carrying captured German weapons.
A key part of the plan had been for the Commandos to make contact with the Americans at Omaha Beach, so they could use American artillery to support the attack on Port-en-Bessin. However the hard fighting at Omaha Beach meant that the Americans weren’t where they were expected, and no contact was made. Eventually the commandoes made contact with 231 Brigade, and with the ships off shore, and gained naval gun support (including from HMS Emerald), air support and artillery fire from a field battery of 231 Brigade.
The difficulties getting proper support meant that the attack couldn’t begin until 16.00. The Germans put up stiff resistance in the town, but were slowly pushed back. One of the three hills overlooking the town was captured fairly quickly, but the hill to the east of the port second needed two attacks. The first had to be abandoned after German Flak ships in the harbour opened fire on the troops climbing the hill, causing severe casualties. It finally fell at around midnight, but Captain Cousins, commander of the troop involved in the attack, was killed in the battle. After the fall of the eastern hill, the remaining Germans on the western hill surrendered. Soon afterwards the remaining defenders of the town also surrendered.
When No.47 Command was relieved on 8 June only 276 of the original 431 men were still with the unit, although that does include the casualties sustained during the landing. However they had achieved their objective, and helped establish a secure link between the British sector and Omaha Beach. In addition they had taken around 300 prisoners – more than their total strength at the end of the battle.