Wednesday, 31 August 2016

France 2016 - Vernon & Rommel's HQ

A platoon of the 4th Wilts. heads out across the Seine into battle under a covering smoke screen at Vernon - 25th August 1944
This week JJ's Wargames has relocated to France as I look forward to celebrating my birthday this Wednesday with Carolyn and Will who has joined us on his return journey back from Thailand where he has spent the last few weeks having fun with his brother before returning to university next month.

We have rented a pretty little house near to Versailles and as well as taking in the palace and the great restaurants of Paris are checking out some of the other interesting places to visit on this side of Paris.

On Monday we drove out to Giverny on the River Seine ostensibly to visit Claude Monet's gardens where the famous Lilly on the pond pictures were inspired and it was while planning that trip that I realised the village was close to not only Vernon but also La Roche Guyon.

So I managed to get permission from the CEO of JJ's Wargames to include the other two venues into the day's agenda.

For those not so familiar with the significance of these two places, Vernon is the scene of Operation Neptune, the assault crossing of the River Seine carried out by the men of the 43rd Wessex Division in August 1944 and the Château at La Roche Guyon is the former headquarters of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and German Army Group B during the build up to the invasion of France in 1944.

The map shows the close proximity of Vernon and La Roche Guyon handily positioned either side of Giverny 
I first became familiar with Operation Neptune when I read Ken Ford's excellent book about it back in the late eighties and I still have the first edition from 1988 on the book shelf. There is a link below that gives a review of its content using accounts from veterans still alive at the time of publication.

I think assault river crossings are some of the most difficult and interesting military operations to study from Hannibal making his way through the Alps, to Wellesley's attack on Marshal Soult at Oporto in 1809, covered in some detail on this blog with the game of the battle. Perhaps one of the most audacious river assaults was led by Major Julian Cook of the US 3/504th PIR in their daring boat crossing across the River Waal to help capture the Nijmegan bridge made famous in the film "A Bridge too Far".

By the 22nd August 1944 the fighting in the Falaise pocket and the Battle of Normandy was over with the surviving German units in head-long retreat to the opposite bank of the River Seine and with the allies in hot pursuit,

The US 79th Division were already up to the Seine and advancing on Paris and the British XXX Corps were moving up towards Vernon with the XII Corps to their left.

The Divisional insignia of the "Fighting Wessex Wyverns" of 43rd Division

General Brian Horrocks commanding XXX Corps had already determined to lead his drive over the Seine with two armoured divisions, Guards and 11th supported by 50th Division, whilst detailing the 43rd Division under Major General Ivor Thomas, to facilitate their progress with an assault on the crossing point at Vernon, to establish a bridgehead to allow the advance to continue.

Our Lady Collegiate Church, Vernon. Seventy-two years after the battle as seen below. The vehicle have changed a bit.
The assault was planned for the 25th August 1944 with the initial attack to be made by the three battalions (4th Somerset, 4th and 5th Wiltshire Regiments) of 129 Brigade, reinforced by a battalion (1st Worcestershire Regiment) from 214 Brigade using storm boats as seen in the header picture and DUKW amphibious trucks.

The opposition facing the British assault troops was an ad-hoc kampfegruppe from the 148th Grenadier Regiment with about 250 men positioned in the hamlet of Vernonnet on the opposite bank  and another 250 men further along the bank at Giverny.

The German defenders were well dug in and ensconced in the buildings that dotted the opposite bank armed principally with light machine-guns, mortars and 20mm auto-cannon positioned on the high-ground that oversees the river at this point.

The view of the German positions with the road leading along the opposite bank to the right of picture towards Giverny
The first boats carrying the first two battalions (4th Somersets and 5th Wilts) set out at 19.00 on the evening of the 25th August. Their attack was preceded by an artillery barrage at 18.45 on the heights and support fire from machine guns and tanks with 4.2" mortars laying smoke to cover the run in.

Many of the first wave boats and DUKWs were caught up in the shallows and grounded with their occupants caught in whithering machine-gun fire and it took the follow up waves taking advantage of gathering darkness and access to and via the partially destroyed bridge to get on to the opposite bank and clear the buildings in Vernonnet.

The view to the left of the German held back with less oversight from high ground behind but with a small island separating the two banks that obstructed an easy landing for the British troops
As soon as the battle commenced on the opposite bank, the Royal Engineers were attempting to move materials into position to start the construction of the pontoon crossing, however their first ambitious attempts were driven back by a hail of well directed mortar and auto-cannon fire.

The memorial to the British troops involved in the assault, on the position of the Engineer laid pontoon bridge seen below with 'Monty' crossing in the wake of his army.
The battle to consolidate and expand the bridgehead would continue through the 26th and 27th of August with the men of the 43rd Division having to resist several counterattacks supported by Tiger tanks and the order "last man, last round" issued to emphasise the need to resist the enemy at all cost.

Monty crossing the Seine at Vernon on the 1st September 1944, the bridge being anchored to the tree in the background
As the battle raged on the opposite bank the Royal Engineers worked tirelessly under sniper fire to erect the first light bridge and on the 26th August one of three bridges was up soon followed by a heavier model on the 27th and a second added by the 29th, with some vehicles ferried across in between to support the battle ashore.

In honoured remembrance of all our comrades and of the townsfolk of Vernon, who gave their lives in the
Battle for Liberation of the Town, August 1944. They died that we might live."
"On the 25th August 1944, the 43rd Wessex Division liberated Vernon and crossed the River Seine under the fire of German units dug in on the prominent hills of the eastern bank. The infantry supported by four armoured regiments fought during three days to repulse the enemy. The crossing was achieved by the use of floating bridges built by the Royal Engineers.
From this initial bridgehead the 30th Corps led the advance towards Belgium. The British troops suffered 550 casualties in this operation."

The modern day buildings below the white cliff mark the position of a rather troublesome machine gun bunker that caused the assault infantry a lot of difficulty 

The 17th century mill building on the remains of the old bridge leading out to the small island
The Chateau des Tourelles was a fortress designed to guard the access to the old medieval bridge
The 28th of August was the end of the battle as the defenders awoke to another hot sunny day, but the din of battle replaced by an eerie silence announcing the German defenders had pulled out leaving behind the odd sniper or two who were quickly neutralised by midday and the pursuit phase by XXX Corps could commence.

The building was badly damaged in 1944 and the extent of the which can be seen by the new build masonry that repaired the damage
More than 700 allied tanks would use the bridges at Vernon and on the 3rd and 4th of September British troops having crossed there liberated Brussels in Belgium, and my old Dad was one of them, just turned twenty on the 17th of August, having made the crossing at Vernon and taken part in the "Swan" or drive up to the Belgian capital with Guards Armoured Division, rounding up surrendering German troops as they went. On the 18th September he was in Eindhoven on the road to Arnhem as pictured in my post below.

The small arms damage on the original stonework suggests that the Château was a point of resistance during the battle in 1944
I have obviously summarised the battle for the Vernon bridgehead, but if you would like to know more about the planning and detail of Operation Neptune I can highly recommend Ken Ford's book which is a really good read and I have also posted some really good links below that also give great background to this battle.

I would like to have a go at re-fighting parts of this battle that raged over three days and I think a good set of company level rules like IABSM would be excellent to use for it - ah yet another project to think about! There is nothing quite like walking the ground to inspire thoughts of future games.

The next part of our trip up the Seine was to stop for lunch at La Roche Guyon and visit the former headquarters building of Army Group B and its very famous commander Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

The Château of La Roche was first established in the 12th century as a castle tower atop the chalk cliffs with accommodation and other galleries tunnelled out in the chalk below. The building was further developed overtime into a fortified manor perfectly positioned to guard the crossing over the Seine.

The Château went through a further period of development from a medieval fortified house into an 18th century Château with a wing attached to the older structure and a corridor constructed through the extremely thick walls, which can be seen as you step through from the original building to the later creation.

Whilst walking through the large salon rooms now devoid of their period furniture it was not hard to imagine the babble of conversation as Rommel and Spiedel tried to win round Von Rundsteadt to the idea of fighting the allies on the beaches rather than run the gauntlet of allied air power to bring up the Panzer reserves.

Rommel and von Rundstedt at La Roche Guyon
The Château was always modestly arranged during Rommel's stay, with no garish red banner swastika flags draped about, so beloved in war movies.

Rommel set up his headquarters here in February 1944 and it was here that a certain British Commando referred to as Lieutenant George Lane, although I think that might be a false name, was brought in May of 1944 after being captured taking samples off the beaches being looked at as potential landing areas for D Day.

The bore samples were all part of the learning that had developed as the allies developed their amphibious landing capabilities and became aware of understanding how suitable the beaches would be to taking tanks and allowing them to traverse the sand without risk of bogging.

It was on one of these reconnaissance missions that Lane had been captured and driven in the back of a truck, not knowing his fate, as Hitler had ordered that all British commandos should be shot when captured.

Perhaps it was in the room above that Lane was taken to meet with the Field Marshal who he described as most courteous and friendly, rising to greet the British officer with a handshake as he entered the room.

Spiedel, Rommel's Chief of Staff (centre left), Rommel and von Rundstedt discuss business.
The wall tapestries can still be seen in this room but sadly I discovered this picture after my visit
and I didn't photograph this room!
The two men chatted over tea with the aid of an interpreter with Rommel soon realising that he would get no useful information from the prisoner and bringing the meeting to a close, but assuring Lane that no harm would come to him while a prisoner.

By the time Lane managed to get information about the location of Rommel's HQ to the allied command via French Resistance contacts, it was mid July and Rommel was on his way back to Germany following his wounding in an allied air attack.

The Field Marshall would soon be dead at his own hand to secure the safety of his family and staff and thus avoiding an embarrassing trial by the Nazi state, following his involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler that month.

The view out across the Seine valley from the top of the Château
There is much debate about Rommel's relationship with Hitler and the Nazi's and a feeling that over time he came to understand the corrupting and vicious nature of the regime he served.

What ever his political leanings, I think he was very much admired and respected by the British soldiers who faced him in North Africa, Italy and North East Europe and perhaps it should be left to Churchill to have the last word.

"We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general"


  1. Lovely pictures and post.
    May I ask; the first picture is that a platoon or a section crossing in the little boat?
    Did platoons change in size according to need or was it a fixed number of men such as three sections? Thanks for any help.

    1. Thank you, glad you enjoyed the read.
      It's hard to be precise on numbers of men and unit size for combat units at any given time as casualties would be replaced as and when. So that storm boat could be carrying what's left of a platoon of nominally 30 men, or you might be looking at one half of the thirty men split between two boats of 15.

  2. Hi, another very good piece of history here, and the pictures really add to it. Though the river is about 220 yards wide, way wider and deeper than it is in Paris, which does not show on the pictures. It must have been a daring crossing, fortunately there were 'few' Germans on the other side, and some French resistants to help.

    I grew up in Vernon in the 80's, a city with sadly little left of its lovely pre-war town centre.

    After the war a rocket engine R&D centre was built in Vernon - 150 German engineers from the V2 program were sent there. It lead to the European rocket program.

    Enjoy your breakaway!

    1. Hi Blancard, thank you. We really enjoyed the day visiting this part of France. The views from the chateau out over the Seine valley were stunning.
      The river, as you point out, is a fomidable obstacle at Vernon and several men were lost in the waters during the first crossing.
      I didn't know about the V2 work in Vernon. Very interesting and thanks for sharing. The old buildings close to the church suggest that Vernon must have looked lovely before the destruction caused by the bombing. Sadly Exeter suffered a similar fate in 1941 and we only have a few of the old Tudor buildings left to remind everyone of its former glory.
      Thanks for your comment

  3. Great read. Thanks for sharing. Happy birthday!