THE ATTACK ON LE HAVRE
Extract from "HISTORY OF THE 7TH ARGYLLS" by Ian C Cameron
After a short stay in St. Valery orders were received for the Division to be directed on Le Havre, and our brigade was ordered to concentrate in the area of Criquetot, a few miles east of the town. On the 4th of September, therefore, we set off for our concentration area, and on arrival the battalions were located on either side of the road leading from Criquetot to St. Martin du Bec. The following day the 1st Black Watch were moved to St. Barthelemy, and the 7th Argylls to Marfauville, as until now our area had been overcrowded.
On the 5th and 6th of September the R.A.F. pounded away at Le Havre with heavy bombers, but the weather was most unfavourable, and on several occasions the bombers had to return to England without dropping their loads.
On the 7th of September the weather broke down completely, and the bombing programme had to be cancelled. On the evening of the 7th of September the plan for the attack on Le Havre was announced. The 51st Highland Division were to break through the enemy defences north of Le Havre and capture the port. The 49th Division were to attack on the left. The 51st Divisional plan was divided into three phases.
Infantry moving forward. A Flail minefield clearer is seen in the background (1st LHB B Squadron). Assault team forming up for Phase II attack by 152 Infantry Brigade. Sgt Collins 10th September 1944
Imperial War Museum - BU 859
The first phase, which was to commence at midnight on the 10th of September, gave the 152nd Brigade the task of securing lodgement areas and clearing three routes through the minefields and across an anti-tank ditch.
In the second phase the 153rd Brigade were to neutralize the enemy gun areas, clear the divisional axis as far forward as possible, and exploit south-westwards towards the enemy command area on the high ground in the north-east part of the town.
Our brigade had the third and last phase, which was to be prepared to exploit and support the other two brigades as required. For this phase the following plan was to be carried out. The 7th Black Watch, along with C Squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, were organized into a mobile exploitation force, and A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, and two composite squadrons of the 2nd Derby Yeomanry were made the mopping-up force and this was called "Grayforce" after its commander.
Although the 1st Black Watch and the 7th Argylls had no immediate role, their task was probably to help one of the other brigades. The 1st Black Watch were made readily available for a mobile role along with B Squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, and the 7th Argylls were to be kept in reserve for a more deliberate attack. The 7th Black Watch were then ordered to move forward to an assembly area at St. Martin du Bee, and the 7th Argylls moved to an area east of St. Barthelemy.
The Argylls' area was fairly quiet, and although the battalion carried out a diversionary programme, there was little retaliation. A certain amount of shelling of the area took place, however, during which Lieut. Ian Buchanan was seriously wounded.
In order to distract enemy attention from the main attack, the following deceptive plan was carried out. The 1st Black Watch on the day before the attack started laid a picqueted start-line. The 61st Anti-tank Regiment sited guns in the area of St. Sulpice and astride the coast road north of Ecqueville, and in addition were to open fire on Octeville, thus making the enemy think that the attack was coming in along the coast. The 7th Argylls were to provide infantry protection for these gun areas, and were also to fire mortar bombs and lay smoke concentrations on the enemy defences in this area, and the 1st Black Watch were to fire mortar smoke on Doudeville.
The attack was to be preceded by a colossal air bombardment, and promptly at 4.15 in the afternoon the first of the heavy bombers arrived and dropped their loads on the enemy defences to the north of the town. The bombing lasted until 7 o'clock in the evening, and was extremely accurate, as was later seen when the attack .was over. Approximately 5,000 tons of bombs were dropped in the Le Havre area, and the devastation was simply appalling.
The attack went well at first, and the only real difficulty was that the ground was very sodden with the heavy rainfall of some days before. An elaborate system of minefields had to be crossed, which kept the sappers very busy.
Considering the large number of enemy troops in the Le Havre area, approximately 10,000, the enemy resistance was very half-hearted. This low morale was probably due to the terrific pounding which the enemy had suffered at the hands of the R.A.F. Prisoners soon began to come rolling in. The 7th Black Watch during their attack met only minor opposition from mortaring and spandau fire.
Photograph showing men advancing towards Le Havre. 10th - 12th September 1944.
Queens Own Highlanders Museum
On the evening of the 11th of September the 7th Black Watch reached their objective with the loss to them of only 6 killed and 14 wounded. The morning of the 12th of September was spent mostly in mopping-up the area, and large numbers of enemy surrendered at intervals after only a short fight. The total bag of prisoners captured by the 7th Black Watch was approximately 700, and "Grayforce", who were also mopping-up, captured another 200, and so Le Havre fell in less than 36 hours and a German force of 10,000 was liquidated.
The total casualties for the Division was approximately 100, and the number of prisoners captured was in the region of 4,900, including 120 officers. The battalion took no part in the actual attack, apart from their diversionary programme. When we entered the town, however, we joined in the search for German equipment, of which there was plenty lying littered about all over the town.
A large amount of equipment and stores of all kinds were captured in Le Havre, and the Germans certainly did not lack food while they occupied the town. We were left in the Le Havre area for approximately ten days, each battalion garrisoning the town in turn, and brigade headquarters was established in Montivilliers, a suburb of Le Havre. The usual cleaning up took place and mobile baths were organized.
Le Havre itself was in many places completely devastated by the terrific bombing it had received, and during the time we were there, the civilians could be seen digging in the ruins and debris of their homes, and it is regretted that the civilian death-rate in the town was very high.
A war memorial service was held in the town on the 21st of September at which our pipers and buglers played "The Last Post". Later in the day a Retreat programme by the massed pipes and drums of the brigade was played in the Boulevard de Strasbourg, at which many enthusiastic French people showed their appreciation of the pipes.