Courtesy of Pen and Sword, over the next few days I will be bringing you reviews of the first three books in their innovative new series ‘Over the Battlefield’. Here is my taken on the first instalment, which focuses on Operation Epsom.
Operation Epson was the first of three set-piece battles fought by Montgomery in Normandy. Before Epsom the front still remained fluid, and there were hopes that the allies might be able to extend the beachead further. There was even talk of dropping the 1st Airborne Division west of Caen in support.
But at the same time, there was also a risk that the Germans might also launch a decisive counter-attack against the allied build-up. Although Epsom was blunted, it also prevented a planned German operation and ensured that from then on the strategic initiative remained with the allies.
Epsom saw largely well-trained but inexperienced British Divisions fighting against some of the Third Reich’s most battle-hardened units. Thanks to ULTRA intelligence Montgomery was aware that Rommel was planning an offensive towards Bayeux – by launching Epsom Rommel was frorced to cancel his thrust for Bayeux.
This book tells the story of Epsom in wonderful detail. I am very impressed with the use of aerial recconaisance photographs, and combined with period maps and location photographs, the combination of sources means that you can almost locate yourself in the action and ‘smell the battlefield’. These books are almost the military historians equivalent of Google Earth – they would make a fantastic addition to your luggage if you’re planning on walking the Battlefields of Normandy. Daglish has plotted the movements of units down to Company level, which is refreshing considering that most books on Normandy concentrate on Armies, Corps and Divisions.
Here Ian Daglish introduces new unseen evidence to analyse Epsom. The battle is routinely cited alongside Goodwood as evidence of ‘Monty’s failure’ in Normandy. Whilst neither battle went exactly to plan, what military plan ever does? Particularly with Epsom, the situation was very fluid indeed. Although the outcome of the battle itself was indecisive, this was acceptable for the allies, who could carry on ther build-up, whilst the Germans, under pressure to throw the Allies back into the sea, were ground down more and more. That it made a German counter-offensive less likely seems to be forgotten. Outflanking Caen would have been great, but to call Epsom a disaster, as some do, is ridiculous. In particular historians such as Carlo D’Este and Max Hastings are critical, yet D’Este’s opinions are partisan and Hasting’s are part of a wider intention to denigate Montgomery.
But Ian Daglish focuses on the men who fought the battle, and I think this approach adds much more to our understanding of the battle for Normandy than any tired ‘tit-for-tat’ arguments about Montgomery.
My research has identified several Portsmouth men who were killed during Epsom: Sergeant Leslie Scott, 25 and from Eastney, was killed serving with the 23rd Hussars on 27 June 1944. He was most likely killed in the tank fighting south of Cheux, and may have met a grisly end as he has no known grave and is remembered on the Bayeux Memorial. And Captain George Hendry, 27 and from Southsea, was killed serving with the 7th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders on 29 June 1944. Daglish tells us that Hendry was last seen stalking Tanks with a PIAT when the Germans made a strong counter-attack aiming to cut off the allied advance near Cheux. He is buried in St Manvieu War Cemetery.
Next:Now that the Allied Bridgehead was left with a salient pointing out to the west of Caen, the next logical step was to attempt to outflank Caen to the east from the Orne bridgehead.