Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

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Tom from Cornwall
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Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 13 Mar 2020 18:58

Hi,

Max Hastings (Overlord, pp.169-170) quotes excerpts from an interview (conducted in July '83) with 'Major Charles Richardson of 6th KSOB [who] came out of EPSOM , his first battle, overcome with horror and disgust' about the Bn's experience during Op EPSOM and which includes (on p.170) the remark that:
After the battle [Richardson recalled that the KOSBs] talked about 'the spectacle of the Royal Scots Fusiliers cresting a hill to find the Germans dug in on the reverse slope, "something we had never envisaged".'
This was later used [and page referenced by Russell A. Hart in his hatchet-job on the British Army in Normandy (chapter 8 of Clash of Arms, p.313) in the following terms:
'EPSOM clearly demonstrated the inexperience of British troops and the weakness of their training as poor coordination and a failure to comprehend German defensive tactics marred the operation. Soldiers of the Scottish Division, in particular, suffered heavily when the enemy surprised and ambushed them from a classic reverse-slope position. […]'
However, there is nothing in either the KOSB war diary/regimental history that reports on this "event" and although the war diary of 6 RSF describes their difficult fight for ST MAUVIEU on 26 Jun 44, it doesn't match up at all with the "reverse-slope" reference.

In addition, in Ian Daglish's book Over the Battlefield: Operation Epsom he records the following comments (on p.252) from a 2nd Argylls infantry officer which shows that the British Army was attempting to change its tactics before Normandy to deal with German reverse-slope defensive positions:
27 March 1944: Coy/Squadron [Scots Guards] training - a most valuable day. The technique of a combined infantry - tank attack has altered since our last tank training - owing to the implications of reverse slope defence and it was necessary to go over it again.


Has anyone seen other references in contemporary documents (British or American) to the changes in infantry and tank/infantry tactics made to try to counter reverse-slope defences? Or other criticisms based on what appears to have been a relatively casual remark then taken out of context and to reinforce a somewhat mendacious viewpoint?

Regards

Tom

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dgfred
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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by dgfred » 13 Mar 2020 19:12

I would think that sort of defense was prevalent... trying to avoid direct fire and arty/air attacks.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Michael Kenny » 13 Mar 2020 19:17

Tom from Cornwall wrote:
13 Mar 2020 18:58
Hi,

Max Hastings.....................
Thats it. Need no more information. Everything is explained.

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Max hastings

Post by rcocean » 19 Mar 2020 15:42

Yes. I have no idea why this arrogant journalist who fills his books with absurd "beer and skittles" opinions and shoddy research has suddenly become the No. 1 Military Historian about WW 2, and now WW 1. Weirdly, his absurd prejudice against Anglo-American soldiers and their Generals seems to make him more popular with the English Speaking public - not less.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 20 Mar 2020 11:44

Journalism requires a lower standard of evidence than history, largely because it is under greater time pressure.

Journalists often write well and to deadline and this leads to them being popular with publishers and they often gain an unusually high profile in the public eye as a result.

They tend to rely on others to have done the heavy lifting in the archives and then plunder the results. I don't know if this applies to Max Hastings, but it certainly did to Rupert Butler, for one.

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sheldrake » 20 Mar 2020 18:09

Tom from Cornwall wrote:
13 Mar 2020 18:58
27 March 1944: Coy/Squadron [Scots Guards] training - a most valuable day. The technique of a combined infantry - tank attack has altered since our last tank training - owing to the implications of reverse slope defence and it was necessary to go over it again.


Has anyone seen other references in contemporary documents (British or American) to the changes in infantry and tank/infantry tactics made to try to counter reverse-slope defences? Or other criticisms based on what appears to have been a relatively casual remark then taken out of context and to reinforce a somewhat mendacious viewpoint?
The key to defeating reverse slope positions was to ensure that the infantry arrived just behind the creeping barrage. This should be followed by systematic mopping up of bypassed localities. Kurt Meyer mentions the ferocity of the barrage.
Phase 1, supporting 15 Div, consisted of a barrage with a frontage of 4000 yards fired to a depth of 4400 yards by ten field and five medium regiments. There were five lanes, the two right hand lanes in front of 46 Bde’s attack on Cheux and Le Haut de Bosq fired to the full depth of 4400 yards, Lines a to ss, the centre, second left and left lanes in front of 44 Bde’s attack on St Mauvieu and la Gaule were 3700 yards, Lines a to ll, 3000 yards, Lines a to ee and 2700 yards, Lines a to bb respectively. The barrage started on Line a for 10 minutes, H to H+9 rate very slow, H+9 to H+10 intense, and then advanced at 100 yards every three minutes at rate slow: two rounds per gun per minute from the field guns and one round per gun per minute from the mediums. The barrage was to dwell for fifteen minutes on Line v at 2100 yards from H+70 to H+85, roughly the line of the Caen-Fontenay road, and a further fifteen minutes on the final line for each lane, the left hand lanes finishing at H+166, 1016 hrs. Five field regiments fired on the nearest line, five fired 200 yards and the mediums 400 yards in front. The units were, left to right:

Med Regts Line e 7 64 84 77 68
Fd Regts Line c 191 6 185 143 147
Fd Regts Line a 25 4 RHA 14 Cdn 190 151

Superimposed on the barrage were a series of concentrations on known or likely enemy locations including Cheux, St Mauvieu, La Gaule and La Byude, to be fired by the close support regiments of 44 and 46 Bdes – 131 and 181 Fd Regts on Cheux – and those of 3 Cdn Div – 12 and 13 Fd Regts RCA – allocated in their support, and 13 RHA.

For counter-battery fire and concentrations on the flanks 69 Fd Regt, 121 Med Regt and 52 Hy Regt were available under the control of CCRA XXX Corps on the right flank, the 7.2-inch batteries of 52 Hy Regt firing at Cheux from H to H+50. 7, 33 and 76 Fd Regts of 3 Div and 19 Fd Regt RCA and 53 and 79 Med and 51 Hy Regts of 4 AGRA and the Roberts and the three cruisers were available under the control of CCRA I Corps on the left flank, 51 Hy, 53 Med, the Roberts and two cruisers firing concentrations around Carpiquet airfield and Marcelet from H+15 to H+145 and again from 1230 to 1330 hrs, the controlling FOBs provided by 3 Cdn Div.

Finally, there was a series of ten DFs in three groups with the codewords DECOY, covering the approaches from Marcelet and Carpiquet, DELIGHT covering the south east approaches from Marcelet, La Byude and La Gaule and DESPATCH covering Colleville, Mouen and Grainville, which were to be fired by the regiments of 15, 43 and 3 Cdn Div Artys.

The barrage was effective. Mopping up less so. 25 Field Regiment found themselves deploying in front of a German company position launching an attack as infantry, with the support of tank troops that stopped to help. They tookm around 50 PW from 12 SS.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Duncan_M » 20 Mar 2020 19:58

I'm not trying to start a pissing match but I did read that British didn't use combined arms tank-infantry below the division level until Normandy. Is there truth to this? Did British infantry sections work with individual tanks they were teamed with?

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 20 Mar 2020 20:11

Sheldrake wrote:
20 Mar 2020 18:09
The key to defeating reverse slope positions was to ensure that the infantry arrived just behind the creeping barrage.
Do you know if there was a specific RA policy developed to deal with "reverse slope" positions during a barrage? A dwell just over the crest perhaps to protect friendly infantry and tanks at their most vulnerable point?
Sheldrake wrote:
20 Mar 2020 18:09
The barrage was effective. Mopping up less so.
I think the infantry dropped behind the barrage in certain areas. I'll take another look. Most of the infantry battalions do concede that their initial waves missed many defensive positions. I guess, though, that was due to a combination of the good German camouflage, the close country and the expectation that overrun troops would normally surrender. And, of course, for most of 15 (S) Div, it was their first battle.

Regards

Tom

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 20 Mar 2020 20:15

Duncan_M wrote:
20 Mar 2020 19:58
I'm not trying to start a pissing match but I did read that British didn't use combined arms tank-infantry below the division level until Normandy. Is there truth to this? Did British infantry sections work with individual tanks they were teamed with?
Hi Duncan,

No truth at all. There was a considerable amount of pre-Normandy tank-infantry training between, for example, 15 (S) Division and the Guards Tank Brigade. Unfortunately, through no fault of their own these formations did not fight together until Op BLUECOAT at end of Jul. Prior to Op EPSOM infantry and tank commanders did get together, but time was limited due to late arrival in Normandy due to the Storm.

The history of the 2nd Argylls has much to say about their relationship with 3rd Scots Guards, for example, the former an inf bn, the latter an infantry tank regiment equipped with Churchills.

Regards

Tom

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sheldrake » 20 Mar 2020 21:30

Duncan_M wrote:
20 Mar 2020 19:58
I'm not trying to start a pissing match but I did read that British didn't use combined arms tank-infantry below the division level until Normandy. Is there truth to this? Did British infantry sections work with individual tanks they were teamed with?
You are correct to think that combined arms was not much practiced in North Africa until El Alamein. Afterwards there was a lot more emphasis, in particular once operations started in thew close country of Sicily and Italy.

The level of combined arms interaction depended on the formation. The infantry in the armoured divisions - motor battalions and the infantry brigade spent a lot of time working with armour. There were regular cross attachments between the companies of the Motor battalion and the armoured regiments of the armoured brigade.

Each army corps had a tank brigade that worked with its two or three infantry divisions. It was rare for infantry sections to work with a specific tank, platoons with tank troops or even at company level because there was no guarantee that the grouping was going to be repeated. D Day was a big exception and the assault units did train together. That is equally true of US tank battalions. This was the same for the US Armored Divisions and the tank battalions supporting infantry divisions. The close terrain in Normandy needed small combined arms teams, which were improvised in the US and British forces.
There is a case study about the 29th US Infantry Division learning in the bocage. The British learned too. Op Bluecoat at the end of July had the formations of the British VIII corps extensively regrouping at one point resulting in 15th Scottish infantry division and 11th Armoured both with onr armoured and two infantry brigades under command and the Guards and 11th Armoured Division forming battlegroups each of one infantry battalion and one armoured regiment commanded by committee. (A truly British innovation)

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sheldrake » 20 Mar 2020 21:50

Tom from Cornwall wrote:
20 Mar 2020 20:11
Do you know if there was a specific RA policy developed to deal with "reverse slope" positions during a barrage? A dwell just over the crest perhaps to protect friendly infantry and tanks at their most vulnerable point?
There are several implications of attacking an enemy on a reverse slope.

1. It is obviously harder to locate enemy positions, because they are invisible from ground OPs. However, allied air superiority meant that Air OPs and aerial photographs help to identify enemy locations. A detailed knowledge of exact enemy localities isn't necessary as a creeping barrage will target everywhere in the barrage lanes. However the infantry would still greatly prefer to know where they expect to find the enemy.

2. A reverse slope is a forward slope to enemy direct fire weapons in depth. Identified positions will need to be engaged by concentrations, as will any previously unidentified. The Direct Support regiments of 44 and 46 brigades were assigned the task of firing concentrations, as their liaison elements would provide the fastest response for any nasty surprises.

I am not sure you want to dwell on a crest line as it implies the infantry potentially dwelling there as well. The dwell on the Caen-Fontenoy-L-P road was probably to allow for re-organisation. .

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 12 Dec 2020 18:34

I found a reference to reverse slopes in the war diary of 2/4 KOYLI (46 British Infantry Division) at Salerno (WO169/10245) in the orders given out by the CO on 22 September 1943 for an advance in the early hours of the next morning:
Summary of verbal orders issued by the Commanding Officer, Lieut –
Colonel S. Enerby, M.C.

[...]

“C” and “D” Coys will establish themselves as follows:-

“C” Coy – in houses area S. PIETRO (NW of “S” in S. PIETRO) looking up
reverse slopes of feature running NORTH.
“D” Coy - Will move to area red tracks just behind and in centre of objective.

Success signals - “A” Coy. 1 GREEN 2” Mortar Flare.
“B” Coy. 2 GREEN 2” Mortar Flares.

On reaching their objectives Coys will occupy positions on the reverse slopes and maintain strong O.Ps on the tops of the features.
Interesting use by British of mortar flares to announce success as well.

Regards

Tom

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Pips » 13 Dec 2020 09:59

Very informative comments. Did the British make use of reverse slope defensive positions during the campaign in France in 1940?

If so was the Germans tactic of attack similar to that used by the British in '44? As in did the Germans already have such tactics in there bag of tricks in 1940? Or did they perhaps develop them in Russia?

Regarding Combined Arms, did the Germans already have such tactics practised and in use at the start of WWII? If so was their allocation of tank/infantry units a mishmach like that of the British. Or more a dedicated tank unit allocated to a division on a permanent basis?

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Sid Guttridge » 13 Dec 2020 15:16

Hi Guys,

The British certainly had a long tradition of using reverse slopes themselves. It was a feature of Wellington's tactics as it kept his infantry out of direct line of sight of French artillery and allowed them to surprise French infantry ("Up Guards, and at'em!").

"Wellington had a tendency to pick battlefields where he did not need to reveal the full strength of his forces to his enemy. He did this by using sites with slight reverse slopes, the French could never be quite sure how many men he had in reserve on the reverse slope of the battlefield and out of sight. The reverse slope also worked as a shield for his men from artillery fire. The reverse slope tactic was also used repeatedly to defeat the French attacking columns. By placing the ridge between his own army and his opponent's, and having his troops lie down, Wellington was able to surprise the enemy by having his troops leap up at the last moment and deliver volleys of musketry at point-blank range. So often were the enemy beaten in this manner that it came to be said that "they came on in the old style and were driven off in the old style."

Cheers,

Sid.

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Re: Criticism of British Infantry during Op Epsom

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 13 Dec 2020 17:23

There is a considerable section on the benefit of employing reverse slope defence when re-organising after a successful attack in this War Office training document:
CURRENT REPORTS
FROM OVERSEAS
No. 15

Not to be distributed below Brigade Headquarters

THE WAR OFFICE,
11th September, 1943.

SECTION 3. – BATTLE INSTRUCTIONS

This section contains extracts from the operational instructions issued by a division as a result of experience in battle in NORTH AFRICA.

[...]

Usually most of the positions to be dug should be on a reserve slope, as this will often prevent enemy mortar fire being observed and accurate. An exception to this rule will be when strong enemy positions are captured. These will usually be on their reverse slope – which on capture becomes a forward slope. Even though these are on a forward slope, it is probably better to occupy them if they are still good enough to give shelter from mortar fire. But even then, positions on the reverse slope should be dug by reserve platoons and companies, so that forward troops can be thinned out into them.
It would be interesting to know which division produced those instructions and to see whether there is any evidence in UK-based infantry formations of it having an impact on training of the Normandy-bound forces.

Edited to add: Doh, perhaps most likely to have been generated by 46 Division and then reflected in those verbal orders from CO of 2/4 KOYLI. :idea:

Regards

Tom

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