The Battle for the Village of Varaville
By John A. Willes
Excerpts from Out of the Clouds, The History of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, 1995, p. 78-81. Reproduced with the author’s permission.
‘C’ Company [had been given] the task of clearing out the enemy garrison at Varaville, the gun emplacement at the road near the Chateau just east of Varaville, the destruction of the bridge over the Divette River, and the radio transmitter station near Varaville as well. Given the size of the force represented by ‘C’ Company, the undertaking was formidable. At the Chateau de Varaville, a 75 mm anti-tank gun and fortifications, which included bunkers and trenches, had been established to control the road intersection. This was manned by a much larger force than had been anticipated, as was the estimated number of enemy troops in Varaville itself. The scattered drop of ‘C’ Company only served to exacerbate the problems facing the small group that landed in the immediate area. Only 30 all ranks landed on the Drop Zone, the remainder being distributed as far away as 10 miles.
Lieut. S. (Sam) McGowan of ‘C’ Company was dropped some distance from the Drop Zone, but managed to gather together a number of men from his platoon and move towards Varaville. As they approached the village, they encountered two German infantry sections, and opened fire on them. A battle ensued that denied the enemy entry to the village, and resulted in the eventual surrender of a number of the German infantry force.
McGowan set up a temporary company headquarters in a churchyard, and used the church tower as an observation post. It was not long until the observer reported an enemy section advancing through a bomb crater, and a fire party was detailed to pin down the group before they reached the churchyard. The enemy section was eventually driven off, leaving behind three of their dead in the bomb crater.
Heavy enemy mortar, and artillery fire on the ‘C’ Company position followed, and the small group was subject to much sniping from the woods and buildings in the area. The French civilians at this time were of great assistance to McGowan’s platoon, the women dressing wounds, and the men offering to help drive out the enemy. One Frenchman who had been given a maroon beret and a rifle, killed three enemy snipers. In spite of the heavy fire, McGowan maintained his position in the village until eventually relieved in the afternoon of June 6th by the 6th British Commando cycle troops. He then proceeded to the Le Mesnil cross-roads Battalion area.
Major H.M. (Murray) MacLeod of ‘C’ Company had jumped as number one from aircraft number ten, and landed near the northerly end of the Drop Zone. His runner, Pte. P.I. Bismutka had landed nearby, and as both moved to the Rendezvous area, the Lancasters directed to bomb the Merville Battery swept through the area, some emptying their bomb loads over the Drop Zone. The bombing raid, which was totally unexpected on the Drop Zone, left MacLeod and many others in a badly shocked condition. When the barrage finally ended, MacLeod and Bismutka continued on to the rendezvous point, and arrived there at approximately 0030 hrs.
Lieut. H.M. Walker, Sgt. G. Davies, Cpl. W.E. Oikle, and Pte. G. ‘Mousie’ Thompson arrived at almost the same instant, to find Sgts. M.C. MacPhee and R.O. MacLean, Cpl. A.M. Saunders, and Ptes. W.S. Ducker, B. Swim, R. Mokelki and A.J. McNally already there. Things were clearly not going according to plan. By 0030 hrs., over 100 men were expected to be at the rendezvous, but instead, MacLeod had only 15. The plans called for heavily armed troops with machine gun crews, heavy mortars, and Bangalore torpedoes, but the little band had only one PIAT gun, three Sten guns, eight rifles, and MacLeod’s pistol; hardly the right kind of armament to attack a strongly defended enemy position. The plan had to be changed.
With his pathetically small force. Major MacLeod nevertheless set out to take on the defenders. As they moved in the dark in the general direction of Varaville, they met Private F. Rudko leading a group of 5 badly shocked riflemen from 9 Platoon. The group had suffered severely from the bombing, but all had survived and had their equipment with them.
The massive drop on the Drop Zone was expected to begin in about twenty-five minutes, and MacLeod decided to engage the defensive position to prevent it from interfering with the jump of the rest of the Brigade. The close proximity of the bombing to Varaville had driven the Germans from their barracks to their defensive positions, but from their actions, it appeared that they were unaware of the airborne invasion.
MacLeod and his men made their way through the village without detection to the gate house of the Chateau. The gate house was an impressive yellow brick building some distance from the Chateau, and overlooked the German defensive position, which consisted of a long trench protected by earth and concrete, with machine gun bays at fixed intervals. At each end of the trench, a bunker was located, and unknown to MacLeod at the time, a short distance behind the trench was a 75 mm gun.
Part of the small band entered the building and searched it in pairs. They discovered that the gate house had been used as a barracks, with six double-deck bunks to each of the eight rooms. The building was empty, but the state of the beds indicated that they had been recently slept in, and the occupants had left in haste, probably when the bombing started. MacLeod translated 96 bunks into 96 men, and moved his men into position around the gate house.
Lieut. Walker positioned 12 men in a shallow ditch where the ‘covering fire’ group would have set up their machine guns had things gone according to plan. He placed the rest of the men around the building.
Major MacLeod and Thompson went up to the second floor of the gate house to observe the enemy position, leaving Swim and Rudko to guard the doors. Minutes later, a thunderous crash sprayed Rudko and Swim with bits of flying brick and plaster, and filled the lower part of the building with choking plaster dust. The two men stumbled to the door and into the yard for air. At this point, MacLeod realized that he was up against a heavy gun, as well as a heavily entrenched force.
Their only hope of dealing with the gun was to score a hit with a PIAT bomb. MacLeod summoned Cpl. Oikle with his PIAT to the second floor, and asked him to try for the gun. Oikle took careful aim and fired, but the shell landed a few feet short of the gun, exploding ineffectively in front of the concrete gun emplacement. Oikle reloaded for a second shot, but before he could fire, the heavy gun answered his first round. A high explosive shell tore through the wall of the building, exploding Oikle’s PIAT bombs. Cpl. Oikle and Lieut. Walker were instantly killed by the explosion, and McLeod mortally wounded.
Bismutka, who had just entered the room to report that he had brought in another fifteen men and a machine gun, was also fatally injured. Thompson, the fifth occupant of the room, was left standing with a broken rifle in his arms, but the part of his hand that had been wrapped around the stock was missing.
Hanson arrived with two more men, just as the explosion took place, bringing the total Canadian force to about 30. Pte. W.D. Ducker, the medical aide, could do nothing for Major McLeod, and he died in Captain Hanson’s lap a few minutes later. Thompson and Bismutka were taken to the medical aid station at the Chateau by Pte. Ducker, where Bismutka soon died.
At this point, Hanson assessed his position. He had 30 men, including four Sergeants, four Corporals, about twenty Privates, and himself. On the equipment side he was little better off. He had lost the PIAT gun, but instead, now had a machine gun. Other than that, he had four sub-machine guns, twenty rifles, and an assortment of grenades and gammon bombs. The officers each had a pistol. Hansen sent off two men to Le Mesnil to report on their progress, and to ask for the 17-pounder field gun that he hoped had arrived. In the meantime, there was little more that he could do, other than use his snipers to keep the Germans down in their bunkers.
A short time later, Cpl. D. Hartigan and Pte. W.C. Mallon came through the village of Varaville, and approached the gate house defences, believing the fight to be over. By some miracle, they were able to reach the edge of the ditch, where, at the urging of Sgt. D.F. Wright, they dove for cover just as the enemy machine guns raked the roadway with fire. Cpl. Hartigan’s 2-inch mortar augmented the meagre fire power of the Canadians, but it was inadequate in the face of the Germans’ heavy gun. For the next few hours the stalemate continued.
At 0830 hrs., the Germans raised a white flag and sent out an emissary to talk to Captain Hanson. They wanted to send out their wounded, as they did not have medical personnel in their bunker, and with Hanson’s permission, returned to bring out their wounded. Two soldiers pushing a cart containing three wounded and accompanied by three walking wounded soon appeared and proceeded down the roadway to the Chateau. When the five German soldiers reached the point in the road where Hartigan and Mallon had made their headlong dive into the ditch, a German machine gun crew opened fire on their own men, riddling the cart and the wounded with bullets. The two soldiers pushing the cart were uninjured by the fusillade, and after collecting their wits, raced down the roadway to the Chateau aid station.
About this time, a terrific explosion was heard to the southeast, and all knew that the bridge at Varaville had been blown. A cheer went up from the paratroopers, as they realized that one of their objectives had been accomplished by Sgt. Davies and his men. Many also gave a sigh of relief, as they now knew that enemy tanks could not reach the village without encountering some difficulty.
Shortly after 1000 hrs., Cpl. Hartigan gathered up some 2″ mortar bombs and his mortar, and moved out along a shallow drainage ditch which ran at right angles from the depression in which the main body of paratroopers were concealed. The shallow ditch brought him within the distance at which he could fire his mortar on a relatively flat trajectory into the gun emplacements. Holding the mortar in an almost horizontal position against the base of a small tree, he fired four mortar bombs in quick succession into the German positions, then followed with several smoke bombs.
He quickly crawled back to the deeper ditch, expecting at any moment to be at the attention of much gun fire, but none came. A few minutes later, a white flag was again raised at the bunker, and Corporal Hall, the only remaining medical man at the site, accepted the surrender of the 43 German troops remaining in the defensive position. Cpl. John Ross, the radio operator, shortly after 1000 hrs. radioed the code word ‘Blood’ (which stood for ‘success’ at Varaville) to headquarters. The battle for the village of Varaville was over.
The surrender of the enemy fortifications at Varaville also represented the release from captivity of a detachment commander of the Mortar Platoon that had landed on the enemy pillbox, and of Cpls. MacKenzie and Mowat of the 224 Field Ambulance that had landed inside the barbed wire fortification.
The paratroopers occupied the German position in the event of a counter-attack by enemy forces in the area, confident in the belief that with the plentiful supply of captured weapons and ammunition they could give a good account of themselves. The attack, however, never materialized, and by mid-afternoon, the British Commando relief force arrived from the beach area and occupied the Village of Varaville. The time had come for ‘C’ Company to move out. The small contingent of paratroopers rounded up their prisoners, and prepared for the move to the cross-roads at Le Mesnil. It was at this point that they discovered that a German patrol had entered the Chateau at some time during the battle and had taken as prisoners all of the Canadian wounded.
For the troops from Varaville, the march to Le Mesnil was anti-climatic, yet it was along the way that they encountered their first harassing fire from concealed positions. The three mile route which skirted the western edge of the Bois de Bavent was a paved highway through the villages of Petiville, St. Laurent and Laroucheville. Several times enroute the small force came under fire, and each time two sections were detached to deal with the nuisance. Eight more prisoners were added to the bag, and by 1800 hrs. on D-Day, Captain Hanson and his tired band moved into the Battalion position at Le Mesnil.