Overlord'S Blog: Pushback
The right hand column was not doing as well. Initially its battle had gone much the same as the other column. Although it was late to the start line, it had rolled directly into the attack, starting at the correct time. It had just skipped brief liaison meetings with the infantry. Nevertheless the column destroyed a number of transports, captured about 100 Germans and the village of Duisans. The next village was Warlus, which is where things began to go wrong. The enemy was reported in strength with some tanks.
About 1600 as the column attempted to get around Warlus tanks were spotted to the east. The anti-tank battery was in position and watching them. The tanks carried no markings. These mystery tanks then turned in towards the anti-tank guns obviously having spotted them. The anti-tank guns held their fire, after all there were French tanks in the area. Then the mystery tanks opened fire destroying one of the guns and killing two men. The remaining two pounder replied firing five shots in rapid succession and destroyed four of the tanks. It was at this point the tanks had closed and spotted that they were British, the hatches flew open and French crews emerged. The commander later apologised for his mistake.
Its interesting to note the lack of markings was a common problem with French tanks. In an earlier situation a battery of French 75mm guns had taken a French tank under fire, but luckily realised its mistake before it was too late. Despite all this Warlus was cleared.
By now the advance had penetrated fifteen miles but was running out of steam. So all the columns were ordered to retreat to two locations and dig in, Beaurains for the left hand column, and Warlus for the right hand column. Overhead a German plane droned in the sky.
This German spotter noted the gathering of the forces moving into the strong points, and with that information the Germans began to plan their next move. They gathered over 100 planes and with total air superiority launched a twenty minute dive bombing attack on the two strong-points starting about 1815.
At Beaurains the infantry were forced to abandon their position and at about 2100 the infantry were holding a line with the tanks behind them. The officers of both forces were having an orders meeting to decide what to do next when tanks were heard approaching. The Adjutant of the tank forces declared they were British, perhaps the missing A12 Matilda Seniors? So he walked about 300 yards out to guide them in. In the failing darkness he saw five of the missing twenty ton tanks, and began to flag them down. Shocked by his sudden appearance the lead tank skidded to a halt, just short of the Adjutant. He confidently strode over to the tank and banged on the driver's vision port with his map case, which he just happened to be holding. The driver's head popped out of the hatch, and it was at that moment the British officer realised the uniform was German. The German yelled in surprise and closed up and the Adjutant ran for it with the Germans firing enthusiastically down the road behind him from their Panzer IV's.
When the Adjutant reached friendly lines he found his tanks alerted by the German firing and they had moved up to cover the infantry. A blistering fire-fight developed between the A11's and the Panzer IV's, however neither side was able to hurt the other. This exchange of fire lasted for about ten minutes, which was ended by one of the A11's firing its smoke grenades. The smoke obscured both sides from the other for a short while then the fighting began anew. By now the Matilda's were running low on ammunition and it was getting dark. Luckily about this point the German tanks broke contact and left. Knowing more tanks would be coming, and without a defensible position the left hand column began its retreat. When the tanks returned to their starting point one tank commander was startled to find his tank had taken 26 direct hits from German guns with no penetrations.
On the right flank after the air attacks the enemy armour advanced. At Warlus there were a few French tanks stationed, the crews had bailed out and were hiding under their tanks after the Stuka attack. With the appearance of the German armour a British officer went around and shook the French crews from their cover and back into their tanks. They immediately took the German armour under fire knocking out one enemy tank. The rest of the Germans fled. Then the French tank commander informed the British he had to leave, and led his handful of tanks away, claiming he would return.
Here they found several 2 pounder guns waiting for them. In short order they had lost well over twenty tanks. Elsewhere the German armour was stopped by British anti-tank guns, which reaped a considerable toll in destroyed German vehicles.
However pressure further along the line of advance had cut off Warlus, after many hours the order to withdraw came down, as the British forces were outnumbered and being attacked from the flank. At Warlus the British infantry managed to load their entire force on vehicles, and were preparing for a dash down the road to friendly lines when they heard tanks approaching. Luckily it was the French officer and three S-35's. Placing one of his tanks in the lead and one in the rear the motorised column managed to breakout of the German counter attack, and back to friendly lines.