Sword Beach on D-Day

The easternmost part of the British and Canadian sector was Sword. Unlike Gold and Juno, the assault on Sword focused on only a single beach sector, codenamed Queen. Two narrow beaches at La Breche had been selected for the assault of 3rd Division: Queen White and Queen Red. The Division had been given an extremely demanding objective for D-Day - the capture of Caen itself.

Order of Battle

3rd Division comprised three brigades - 8th, 9th and 185th - each of three infantry battalions. Since only two beaches were available for the assault, the division would attack on a single brigade front, two battalions at a time. 3rd Division had been allocated 27th Armoured Brigade to provide tank support, and five commando units from 1st and 4th Special Service Brigades would also land in its sector.

  Queen White Queen Red
8 Brigade Group
Commandos 41 Commando Royal Marines 3, 4 and 6 Commandos
45 Commando Royal Marines
Self-propelled Artillery 33 and 76 Field Regiments
Reserve Battalion 1st Battalion The Suffolk Regiment
Beach Group 5th Beach Group (5th Battalion The Kings Regiment)
Sherman Crab Flail Tanks A Squadron of 22nd Dragoons
AVRE's 77th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment
Royal Engineers
79th Squadron, 5th Assault Regiment
Royal Engineers
Close Support Centaur Tanks 5th Independent Royal Marine Armoured Support Battery
Assault Battalions 1st Battalion The South Lancashire Regiment 2nd Battalion The East Yorkshire Regiment
Duplex Drive Sherman Tanks 13th/18th Hussars

Rear Admiral Talbot commanded the landing ships and craft of Force S assigned to Sword Beach. (The letter designating the Force corresponded to first letter of the Beach). His amphibious headquarters ship was HMS Largs, with 18 flotillas of Royal Navy and Royal Marine landing craft under his command.

Naval gunfire support fell to Rear-Admiral Patterson's Force D: the battleships Warspite and Ramillies, the monitor Roberts, four Royal Navy cruisers and a Polish cruiser, and fourteen destroyers, one of which was Polish and two Norwegian. The battleships and Roberts would use their heavy guns to suppress coastal batteries east of the Orne, while most of the other ships targeted positions west of the Orne immediately overlooking the Queen beaches.

Gliders and tugs pass over Force D
The follow-up gliders of 6th Airborne pass over Force D off Ouistreham,
including the battleships Ramillies and Warspite

The Initial Assault

The flights of small Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) began leaving their parent Landing Ships Infantry at 0600, laden with the assault battalions. Two and a half miles from shore, 34 Duplex Drive amphibious tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars drove down the ramps of tank landing craft and began their dangerous swim to shore. Two sank when waves swamped them, but the remainder arrived safe on shore at the same time as the first LCAs reached the beaches. LCT(R)s, carrying 1,000 rockets apiece rather than tanks, fired their mass salvoes as the first wave neared the shore, while guns aboard other landing craft engaged known German positions. In particular, the Royal Marines Centaur IV tanks and the Sexton self-propelled guns of the Royal Artillery Field Regiments were mounted in their landing craft so as to allow them to fire from on board during the run-in.

The landing craft arrived at the beaches on time at 0725. The main German strongpoint on the seafront at La Breche was WN-20, codenamed Cod by the British. (Coastal strongpoints bore fish codenames, while inland positions were named after car manufacturers.) Cod straddled the junction between Queen White and Queen Red, and boasted one heavy and three medium anti-tank guns, three mortars and six machine guns. Both battalions in the first wave - 2nd East Yorks and 1st South Lancs - suffered from its fire as they landed, and several Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineers and Crab flail tanks were knocked out as they attempted to clear obstacles and minefields. Only one beach exit was established at first, on Queen White. Some of the later waves of landing craft carrying the 1st South Lancs came ashore directly under the guns of Cod, and the commanding officer, a company commander and his second in command all fell victim. However, continual attacks by men from both battalions, supported by the tanks, slowly eliminated each of the positions within Cod. It finally fell at around 1000. 1st Suffolks, the reserve battalion, meanwhile turned to the task of clearing Colleville to the east of La Breche.

Queen beach seen from the air at low tide
Queen beach seen from the air at low tide

The area behind the beaches had been flooded, so the advance was largely funnelled east and west along the coastal road. The commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade began coming ashore at 0820 on Queen Red. No4 Commando had attached to it two troops of Free French commandos from No10 Commando, under Commandant Philippe Kieffer. They fought their way inland until they reached a railway line running parallel to the shore, and advanced east along this towards the port of Ouistreham, together with troops from 2nd East Yorks. While 4 Commando and Kieffer's men dealt with strongpoints in Ouistreham and Riva Bella, the other three units of 1st SS Brigade under Lord Lovat were to push on as quickly as possible to Benouville to join up with 6th Airborne Division at Pegasus Bridge, six miles away.

Off to the west, 41 Commando Royal Marines landed somewhat off-target on Queen Red in front of Cod while parts were still active, and suffered accordingly. Their task was to head west into Lion-sur-Mer. Here, the main strongpoint was Trout. The Royal Marines advance was stopped by this and although three AVREs came to their assistance, all three were knocked out by Trout's anti-tank gun.

Queen Red beach, in front of the Cod strongpoint.
Queen Red beach, in front of the Cod strongpoint. Royal Marines of 41 Commando can be seen coming ashore,
while the two soldiers in the foreground are from the Beach Group, as denoted by the white band on their helmets


Queen Red beach, in front of the Cod strongpoint. Royal Marines of 41 Commando can be seen coming ashore,
while the two soldiers in the foreground are from the Beach Group, as denoted by the white band on their helmets

4 Commando was experiencing similar difficulties with the bunker at the casino in Riva Bella. The first attack by Kieffer's Frenchmen was driven back with heavy casualties. However, Kieffer sought the assistance of a 13th/18th Hussars Sherman. With its assistance, his men were finally able to break into the position. The rest of 4 Commando attacked a major gun position in Ouistreham. Again, the concrete defences proved formidable. However, it was then realised that the gun positions were empty and posed no threat to the beaches. The commandos therefore turned away to head for the Benouville bridges and join the rest of 1st SS Brigade on the east bank of the Orne.

Consolidation

185th Brigade, the second of 3rd Division's three brigades, began landing at about 1000. The brigade was supposed to be supported by the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, but these were held up on the beach. Despite the best efforts of the Beach Organisation, the narrow beaches were becoming very congested. The situation was compounded by the strong onshore wind which pushed the waters further up the beach than expected - at high tide the depth of useable beach available was down to just ten yards. The Brigade had to press on inland without the tanks. Ahead of them, 1st Suffolks had encountered Hillman.

Having cleared Colleville, 1st Suffolks' next objectives were the strongpoints codenamed Morris and Hillman inland to the south. The gun battery at Morris surrendered without a fight, but Hillman proved a much more formidable position, containing a German regimental headquarters and extensive concrete defences. The first assault, by A Company, broke through the barbed wire, but was pinned down by machine-gun fire. A troop of Shermans from 13th/18th Hussars came up to assist, but their shells proved ineffective against the bunkers.

At this point, one of 185th Brigade's battalions - 1st Norfolks - attempted to bypass Hillman en route to its own objective of Rover at Bellevue farm. They passed too close to Hillman and suffered heavy casualties from its machine-guns. Another of the 185th's battalions, 2nd Battalion King's Shropshire Light Infantry, faced an armoured counter-attack from the 100th/22nd Panzer Regiment from 21st Panzer Division. Fortunately they were supported not just by anti-tank guns but also by B and C Squadrons of the Staffordshire Yeomanry which had finally been able to exit from the beaches. The German tanks were driven back with the loss of 14, and another fifty damaged.

A second force of Panzer Grenadiers from 21st Panzer Division did rather better and was able to advance in the gap between Sword and Juno to reach the defenders holding out in Lion-sur-Mer at Trout. 9th Brigade, the last of 3rd Division's brigades, had landed from late morning and two of its battalions, 2nd Lincs and 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles, took up positions south of Lion-sur-Mer to hold the flank against any further German advances. The third battalion, 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers, moved east to secure the route to Pegasus Bridge and 6th Airborne.

A second attack was mounted against Hillman in the late afternoon after sappers had blown a route through the minefields. The tanks of 13th/18th Hussars led the way in, and 1st Suffolks gradually eliminated each position in turn. After four hours, the position was largely secure by about 2000, with the last defenders surrendering the following morning. However, the prolonged resistance at Hillman had contributed to the inability of 3rd Division to reach Caen on D-Day.

Last Updated: 22 Jun 04