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15 October 2014
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The Road to the Cross

by davidhardie

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Contributed by 
davidhardie
People in story: 
John Hardie (1920-1985)
Location of story: 
Normandy 1944
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A9004961
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

Fusilier Piper John Hardie (1920-85), Corps. Commander's Parade, Landesbergen, Germany, September 1946.

The Road to Calvary

At 0415 on the morning of the 25th of June 1944, the British 49th Infantry Division launched OPERATION MARTLET. The first objective was the village of Fontenay-le-Pesnel. Leading the attack into the village from Le Parc-de-Boislande was the 11th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers (RSF). Company bagpiper, Private John Hardie, my father, was one of them.

The RSF followed the creeping artillery barrage from over a thousand guns, in deep morning mist with a visibility of no more than ten yards. Defending the sector were grenadier units of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Jungen) supported by elements of the Panzer Lehr Division and from the east, the 21st Panzer Division. The SS retaliated with mortar bombs and Spandau machine-guns. Some of the ambushing German fire actually came from behind the advancing RSF, who in the mist and smoke, went blindly past the SS machine-gun nests. At least one company of the RSF went too far west and blundered into the Hallams, another friendly unit from the 49th Division.

Just after 0500, a leading group of over forty men of the RSF found themselves pinned down at the outskirts of the village were there was a monument to Christ On The Cross, or Calvary. Here the SS rained mortar shells and sprayed the area with Spandau fire from the buildings and fields to the north and east. The RSF replied with rifles and bren guns. Such was the intensity of the German fire, that my father and his comrades could only just stick out their rifles and fire blindly in the general direction of the enemy, hoping for the best. While the base of the monument was pitted with bullet and shell holes, my father recalled that the figure at the top seemed immune to the gun fire and remained undamaged throughout the entire battle. It remains intact today peppered with numerous bullet holes at the base, echoing the struggle for the village on that day.

The fanatical teenagers of the SS made many counter attacks on the Calvary as the mist finally began to clear. Several were repulsed after savage hand-to-hand fighting with grenades, sub-machine guns and bayonets. These attacks lasted throughout the afternoon with heavy casualties on both sides. Three tanks from the Sherwood Ranger Yeomanry came south along the Cristot road, termed “Hell’s Highway” (there were many “Hell’s Highways” in Normandy) in support of the RSF. However, one tank broke down while another was knocked out. The remaining tank had to transport the other tank crews back behind British lines. German Panther tanks from Panzer Lehr attacked from the west of the village, but were driven away by anti-tank fire from the Hallams.

By mid afternoon, other units had made significant inroads into the western parts of Fontenay. Assisted by other Sherwood Ranger tanks, some of the RSF managed to get into the nearby buildings a few yards from the Calvary after viscous fighting to clear the SS out. By 2030, fighting around the Calvary ceased, but the struggle for the south of the village continued well into the night. Special tanks, AVRE’s with building demolition charges and Crocodile flame-throwers were employed to destroy the German strong-points with advanced British infantry finally digging in at the southern outskirts of the village towards Rauray. “When we saw the Jerry fortifications we couldn’t believe how we managed to drive them out”, an old Hallams veteran told me.

The following morning (the 26th of June) OPERATION EPSOM, 21st Army Group’s first major attempt to liberate Caen began. The 12th SS continued to attack Fontenay all that day. Throughout the end of June and early July, the RSF along with the Hallams and others fought around Rauray. This was to defend the flank of the 15th Scottish Infantry Division (“the Scottish Corridor”) attempting to encircle Caen from the west via the infamous Hill 112. The entire German 1st SS Panzer Corps, including the 2nd SS Panzer Division, notorious for the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre, attacked Rauray over the first three days of July in an attempt to cut-off the “Scottish Corridor”. During the defence of Rauray, over three thousand were killed or wounded.

Many of the dead from the EPSOM operation, including the RSF Battalion Commander, were initially interned around the Calvary at Fontenay-le-Pesnel. As company piper, my father had to assist in the many burial ceremonies playing “Flowers o’ the Forest”, the Scottish lament for the dead. “We lost a hell of a lot of laddies”, he told me. On the 25th of June, OPERATION MARTLET, the liberation of Fontenay-le-Pesnel cost the RSF 201 casualties out of some 400 men that took part in the action. There were countless other such actions before the Normandy fields finally fell silent.

David Hardie, Dorchester, England.

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