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The Old Mill in Vernon
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Monet's house and garden at Giverny
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The XIIth c. castle keep in Vernon
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The water lily pond at Giverny
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Tourelles castle in Vernon
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August 1944, Operation Neptune: the British forces cross the Seine 


"VERNON, FRANCE: The assault crossing of the River Seine at Vernon by the British 43rd (Wessex) Division in August 1944 remains one of the most important of the entire Second World War. Operation Neptune pits one British Division against one German Division. On one side, a fully equipped, battle hardened unit made up of soldiers from the ancient kingdom of Wessex, backed by some of the best artillery in the world and supported by tanks. On the other side, a much depleted, second rate, static division of men of various nationalities, conscripted to fight a war for Germany that was already lost. On paper the British were assured of success, but between the two opposing armies lay that great river, the Seine, overlooked at the proposed crossing point by steep hills, which were riddled with defensive strong points. The Germans were waiting, and were as ready as they ever would be." [1]

This is the introduction to a wargame entitled "Operation Neptune", the scenario of which is based upon the actual Operation Neptune. But for the men engaged in action and especially for the hundreds of casualties on the British and the thousands on the other, this was not a game…

 

The historic background

After 6 June 1944, intense German resistance and the nature of the terrain delayed Allied progress into the French interior until 8 August when the Canadian 1st Army launched Operation Totalize, which led to the capture of Falaise on 17 August and the fall of the Falaise Pocket, with enormous losses in men and equipment for the German forces. One of their possible next lines of defence was the Seine valley.

Now, American and British headquarters had decided to share the work: Americans were to sweep eastward and north-eastward towards southern and central Germany, and British troops were to head up north towards northern France, Belgium, Holland and northern Germany. This implied the crossing of the river Seine, but all the bridges had been destroyed. Moreover the enemy was hastily trying to organise a new line of defence there.


[1] Approximate expected positions on August 25

 

The destruction of the bridges

Long before D-day, a strategy has been adopted concerning Allied bombings: it was decided to bomb German oil production, believing that a radical reduction in oil supplies was the optimum way to reduce the fighting capability of the German ground and air forces. It had also been decided to concentrate on attacks of railway marshalling yards, although this alone would not forbid, but only reduce German military supplies and reinforcement.
The last step would be to isolate the Normandy battlefield by destroying the bridges across the Loire and the Seine valleys. American air force and General Bradley's and General Montgomery's ground force headquarters were behind the bridge concept. However a technical problem arose: how many tons of bombs are required to make a bridge impassable? Some argued that up to 1,200 tons per bridge i.e. 600-1,200 sorties would be necessary. Others thought less than one-third that tonnage would be enough.
After long discussions at the highest level (even Prime Minister Winston Churchill took part in them) it was decided that only fifty P-47 fighter-bombers each carrying two 1,000 pound bombs would launch an experimental attack on May 7 on six Seine bridges. Nothing in prior experience indicated whether they would cause at least one bridge any harm.



[2] Thunderbolt P-47


And yet, was it a matter of luck or the result of the pilots' intense training, three bridges were hit and damaged, and the one in Vernon (a railway bridge) was dropped into the Seine by six P-47s with an accuracy that would not be seen again until the war in the Persian Gulf.


[3] The railway bridge after the attack - Click to enlarge


The post-attack photograph of the submerged Vernon bridge was on every general officer's desk the next morning and it was decided to 'encage' Normandy by destroying the Seine-Loire bridges. By D-Day, all the bridges were impassable and since German reinforcement troops had to be ferried across the Seine, their moves were significantly impeded and delayed so that the forces were fed into the battle piecemeal and often too late…


The geographic setting

General Horrocks, commanding the 30th British Corps, decided to force a crossing of the Seine in Vernon. From there, a main road runs up to Beauvais and northern France and this was likely to be the reason for choosing Vernon.
The river there is about 200-metre wide; across it, on the right (or north/north-east) bank, lies the suburb of Vernonnet, and immediately behind a steep 100-metre chalk cliff.

One road from Vernonnet ran parallel to the river (eastward towards Giverny and westward towards Pressagny l'Orgueilleux and Les Andelys) and two other roads passed through the cliff, the main one going northwest to Gisors and a small one northeast towards Gasny and Bois Jérôme. In addition a thick forest lay behind the cliff, providing convenient cover for German reinforcement coming in from the north.

In the river, a series of islands, sand shoals and shallow water hiding half submerged islands -some of them unknown to intelligence reports - were likely to cause the attackers difficulties.
Additionally, the Vernon bank ( left or South bank) was so steep that boats would have to be launched into the river over man-made ramps - to be built under enemy fire !

Finally, aerial reconnaissance had shown that both the railway bridge (west from the city centre) and the road bridge (in the city centre) had been destroyed. However, the Germans had hastily repaired the latter so that British infantry moving in single file could pass it , but would be directly exposed to the enemy while doing so.

The hills on the Vernonnet bank (right bank) as seen from the city centre: almost vertical cliffs with the Seine at the bottom (not visible on the photo). [4]
Click to enlarge both photos


View from the top of the hills of Vernonnet towards the city centre. This is exactly where ( left and central part of the photo) the floating bridges were to be built , and one clearly realises how exposed the troops were to enemy fire. [5]


The forces in presence

A Kampfgruppe numbering about 250 men from the 148th Grenadier Regiment was deployed in and around Vernonnet, on the right (or North) bank of the river and another group, equally 250 strong was in Giverny, 4 kilometres away on the same bank. They had only light weapons and 20mm Flak guns, few mortars and 88s, and were deprived of any tank support -at least at the beginning! On the whole, a static force, apparently no match for the British. However the cliffs were dug with caves and the thick forest behind provided excellent observation posts and shelters to pour accurate fire on the assault troops.

This is exactly what the assailants like Bernard Cracroft ( Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry) told later : "The east bank (Note: it is better called the north or north-east bank than the east one) consisted of an almost vertical cliff honeycombed with enemy machine gun posts." [1]

Last but not least, these troops were the first elements of General Macholz's 49th Infanterie Division that was coming down from Boulogne sur Mer to the Seine valley, complete with artillery and tanks but piecemeal, depending on what means of transportation they could find.

The mission of forcing the Seine as fast as possible had been assigned to the 4th Wiltshire, 5th Wiltshire , 5th Cornwall, 1st Worcestershire and 4th Somerset of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, which had trained for two years in England practising such operations.
The 15/ 19th Hussars was to provide tank support as well as the 179th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery positioned on the left bank between Blaru and La Heunière. Other artillery and tank regiments also took part in the batlle, some 25,000 men altogether.

The assault would be launched from the left bank of the river, where lies the largest part of Vernon, already in the hands of the French for a week.

The orders were "to force a crossing of the Seine on or about 25 August. To cover the construction of a Class 9, a Class 40 and Class 70 bridges. To form a bridgehead of sufficient depth to allow passage through of the remainder of 30th Corps."
Assault was to be launched from two areas : between the two destroyed bridges and to the right of the road bridge ( in the very city centre) using storm boats and DUKWs. (The DUKW, popularly called the Duck, is a six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicle for transporting goods and troops over land and water and for use in amphibious attacks.)

[6]

Organising such an operation theoretically requires over two weeks, and it was a feat to design and carry it out successfully in six days (three days for getting ready and moving to Vernon). Moreover "an essential feature of this operation was engaging the Royal Engineers on unusual scale: if crossing the Seine remains in the annals of military history it is as a perfect example of such activity, of the building of floating bridges on a large scale and under enemy fire in the first line." [3]

Getting ready

On August 23rd, the troops were ordered to leave the Falaise Pocket and move to Vernon as fast as possible : there was no question of driving slowly and carefully, the orders were ' foot flat on the pedal': it was a matter of making the Seine crossing before the enemy could organise his defence.
There were delays because the British had to cross the American communication lines on their way to Vernon, but they arrived there on August 26 towards midday.

In the afternoon. Miss Pierrette Greffier, a member of the local Resistance was summoned to meet a British officer : she spent more than an hour with him in a room above a café & hotel that overlooked  the Seine onto the hills across, giving him what information she had about the Germans forces. She knew he was a high-ranking officer because everyone, included colonels, showed him extreme respect. And much to her surprise, she realised three or four days later that this man was General Montgomery - the commander in chief of the British forces- who had personally been supervising the whole operation, which shows how important it was at the time. Later, this young woman could humorously say that she, when a young lady, had spent a couple of hours with Montgomery, alone in a hotel room !

In the meantime, there was feverish activity in Vernon as battalions unloaded their storm boats while French civilians excitedly offered advice and information.

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