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The exceptional Second World War Normandy Battle for Villers Bocage counter-attack at Lingevres 14th June 1944 casualty and Panther tanks destroyer ‘immediate’ Military Medal, and Sicily 1943 Battle of Primosole Brigade casualty group awarded to S...

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The exceptional Second World War Normandy Battle for Villers Bocage counter-attack at Lingevres 14th June 1944 casualty and Panther tanks destroyer ‘immediate’ Military Medal, and Sicily 1943 Battle of Primosole Bridge casualty group awarded to Sergeant H. Burton, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, who was originally wounded in his battalion’s epic action in Sicily in the Battle of Primosole Bridge on 16th July 1943. After recovering from his wound, he went on to land with the 9th Battalion in Normandy on D-Day, and shortly afterwards in the attempt to relieve pressure on the 7th Armoured Division bogged down during the advance on Villers-Bocage, whilst manning a 6 pounder anti-tank gun in the defence of the village of Lingevres from an enemy counter-attack by Panther tanks on 14th June 1944, went on to be wounded for a second time in the process of winning an ‘immediate’ Military Medal. When his gun’s position on the main road leading into the village, the focal point for a German armoured attack by Panther tanks of the Panzer-Lehr Division, was approached by two Panther tanks, in conjunction with the Sherman Firefly tanks of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, he repelled the attack, having engaged and knocked out the leading tank. Immediately afterwards his gun received a direct hit blowing up the gun and the ammunition, and he then withdrew his detachment, and although wounded, continued to visit and help other anti-tank guns in the area.

Group of 7: Military Medal, GVI 1st type bust; (4453489 SJT. H. BURTON. DURH.L.I.); 1939-1945 Star; Africa Star with 8th Army Clasp, Italy Star; France and Germany Star; Defence Medal; War Medal.

Condition: Good Very Fine.

Harry Burton came from Thornaby-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, and prior to the war, was an apprentice plater in nearby Stockton-on-Tees, working at the Stockton Forge. Some six months prior to the outbreak off the Second World War he enlisted as a Private (No.4453489) into the Durham Light Infantry, and then found himself posted to the 9th Battalion.

According to the Stockton and Tees Heral of 9th September 1944, Burton saw service in North Africa with the 8th Army when his battalion engaged at Zt el Mrassas, Point 174, El Alamein, and in the actions on the Mareth Line. Burton then took part in the invasion of Sicily where his battalion landed on 10th July 1943 as part of the 15th Durham Infantry Brigade, and it was whilst in action at Primosole Bridge on 16th July 1943, that Burton was wounded in action for the first time.

During the run up to this incident, on the night of the 13th July 1943 part of the 1st British Parachute Brigade was dropped in the area of the Primosole Bridge which stretches across the River Lentini in Sicily. It removed the demolition charges placed there, however, many of the troops had been dropped wide of the target and consequently only a small force was available to hold the bridge against repeated German attempts to recapture it. It was, therefore, essential for troops of the 50th Division to reach the Bridge sometime during the 14th or at latest by nightfall As the 69th Brigade had so far borne the brunt of such fighting as there had been during the advance, 151st Durham Infantry Brigade now took over from them.

The three Battalions set out on a forced march of some 25 miles, the 9th Battalion leading, followed by the 8th and then the 6th. By afternoon the 9th Battalion was well over half way and by dusk, together with 4 Armoured Brigade, it was within a mile of the bridge. The paratroopers had bad news to relate. All day they had fought back repeated counter-attacks with success, but at about 7.30 pm, just two hours before the arrival of the 9th Battalion, lack of ammunition had forced their sadly depleted force to withdraw in the face of another counter-attack. With demolition charges removed, of course, the bridge could not be blown and the paratroopers were near enough to prevent the enemy planting any more. But the Battalions of the 151 Brigade were too tired after their forced march to fight a battle that night and the Brigadier decided to postpone any such attack until the following morning. It was not the Italians with whom they would have to deal but Germans of the 3rd Parachute Regiment, most of whom were veterans of the Crete and Russian campaigns and all of whom had been flown from the Italian mainland only a short while before.

The country round about the Primosole Bridge is flat and open. The road running north from Lentini runs along the ridge and from about 1,000 yards south of the bridge a good view is obtainable not only of the bridge itself but also of the country beyond it. The bridge was four hundred feet long with a superstructure of iron girders about eight feet above a sluggish reed-bordered river. North of the bridge were two small farms, one each side of the road, each consisting or two or three buildings and a barn. The road beyond the bridge could be seen running absolutely straight, between two lines of poplars, towards Catania. North of the river are thick vineyards, dotted with olive groves, to a depth of some four hundred yards; beyond them lies open country. Nothing, however, could be seen of the enemy positions nor of a sunken road some few hundred yards north of the river; indeed such cover as there was lay all on the enemy side of the bridge for the British side was completely flat and open.

Both the 8th and 9th Battalions tried to snatch a few hours rest during the night. The 6th Battalion was still some way behind, after clearing un at Solarino, and did not arrive until later on the 15th. But at 4 a.m. the 9th was attacked by some Italian Armoured cars which penetrated as far as Battalion Headquarters before being halted. The Battalion antirank gunners quickly came into action and soon put an end to this desperate Italian bid from which there were few enemy survivors. Sharp at 7.30 a.m. the 9th Battalion attacked as planned, supported by the fire of two Field Regiments. But the companies advancing over open ground were heavily machine-gunned before they reached the river bank and lost a number of men. Only a few platoons were able to cross the river and where they did so, ran into heavy resistance from Germans concealed in the vineyards and lining the sunken road which hitherto no one knew existed. Many were drowned in the river as they crossed. After fierce hand-to-hand fighting the Battalion's precarious hold north of the river was finally broken and those men who had gone across were driven back, leaving their dead and wounded behind them. After this first encounter it was clear to the Brigadier that the bridge was a tougher nut to crack than had been hoped.

Although a further attack by the 6th Battalion was planned for later in the day news had been received from Corps Headquarters that there was no immediate urgency for the capture of the bridge provided that a proper footing was secured on the far side by the 16 July. Another daylight attack would be suicidal; so the 8th Battalion's attack was postponed and timed to take place by the light of the moon at two o'clock the next morning. The Battalion was fortunate in having the help of Lieutenant-Colonel Alastair Pearson - CO of the Parachute Regiment - in the operation. The information he provided was invaluable, and he offered to lead the attacking companies over the river at a crossing place he knew of, some hundred yards upstream from the bridge. Two companies were to cross here, then move back towards the bridge and when once they had captured it, the rest of the Battalion was to cross over it.

For an hour and twenty minutes before Colonel Pearson guided A and D Companies across the river the guns put down concentrations upstream of the bridge and a squadron of tanks and a platoon of machine-guns joined in the overture. For the last ten minutes every gun was concentrated on the area of the bridge. Then at 2.10 a.m. the two companies waded the river at two points fifty yards apart. Once across, the thickly planted vineyards made movement difficult - it would have been difficult enough by daylight - and platoons had to shout their numbers to maintain contact. However, the unexpected form of attack took the Germans by surprise and when the companies reached the bridge only a few of them were encountered. So far so good, wrote David Rissik in his book 'The DLI at War . Both companies established themselves across the Catania road, though A Company had to run the gauntlet of Spandau machine-gun fire to get there; and once in position visibility was limited to only a few yards due to the thickness of the vines, shrubs and tall grass for it was the middle of the growing season. Constant vigilance was needed to keep the Germans at bay. Now it was the turn of the rest of the Battalion to cross the bridge.

Colonel Lidwill, who was with the leading companies, had arranged a number of alternative signals for bringing up the Battalion; but when he got back to the bridge every one of them broke down. The mortar flares had got separated from the mortars; the wireless sets had got drowned during the crossing, and an R .E. Carrier with a wireless received a direct hit as it reached the bridge. Just at the critical moment, however, a War Office observer turned up at the bridge riding a bicycle. It was rather like a fairy tale but the C.O. dispatched him back to the Battalion to tell it to come forward at once. Night fell and the Brigade prepared to deliver the coup de grace. Ibis was the task of the 6th and 9th Battalions who, shortly after l.30 am, forded the river upstream from the bridge area where the 8th had crossed the night before. They had little difficulty in crossing; but once on the far bank they encountered savage resistance from the German paratrooper who stood and fought it out until they either shot down their assailants or were shot down themselves. Movement was not easy through the vineyards and companies got split up in the thick undergrowth. As they fought their way forward in the moonlight they cleared up opposition in their path but inevitably left pockets of resistance on their flanks. B Company of the 6th Battalion, under Captain Reggie Atkinson, had just such an experience. Once in the vineyards it met intense automatic fire from the Germans in the sunken road and cleared tie Germans from it. Then they struggled on, using bayonets and grenades, to a position beyond it on the left of the Catania road. There, approximately one platoon strong and entrenched in a shallow ditch and a large shell crater, Reggie Atkinson and the remnants of his company were able to engage any Germans tying to advance up the road to reinforce the bridgehead and, what is more, to prevent any in the bridgehead from withdrawing from it. At dawn the Germans managed to infiltrate back into the sunken road and for a time they made things difficult for the Company; but for three and a half hours the enemy were kept at bay and finally driven back. This gallant action very materially influenced the course of the battle.

“A” Company of the 9th Battalion was less fortunate. It started out only two platoons strong and almost at once came under heavy fire. The advance was not made any easier by loose telephone and barbed wire lying among the vines; but the Company pushed on towards the main road and captured a machine-gun post and took three prisoners; by which time the Company Commander, Captain Hudson, found he had only fifteen men left. Heavy fire was then opened on this small party from their rear. So they began to withdraw towards the main road. As it got lighter, fire was opened on them from the road itself, but Hudson, recognising the Commander of another Company advancing on the far side of the road, managed to attract his attention and signal to him to attack the post on the road. This they both did but were halted by very heavy fire. Hudson then found himself both short of ammunition and with only seven unwounded men left so he ordered them to make their way back to the Battalion as best they could. He himself was wounded and was soon afterwards taken prisoner.

At about 6 a.m. the Germans counter-attacked with tanks, but the attack was broken up by shell-fire; and shortly afterwards both the 6th and 9th Battalions reported they were well beyond the bridge, At 7 a.m. some Sherman tanks crossed into the bridgehead and broke through the grapevines shooting at everything in sight. The effect of this added support was felt at once. The sunken road was quieter than for 24 hours and gradually white handkerchiefs began to appear in increasing numbers along the length of it. The Germans had had enough. By mid-day all resistance had ceased; over 150 Germans had surrendered; and their dead on the ground numbered over three hundred. The area around the bridge was a regular hell's kitchen; it was littered with smashed rifles and automatics, torn pieces of equipment, bloodstained clothing, overturned ammunition boxes and the bodies of British and German dead. It was a scene of terrible destruction and telling evidence of a bitter struggle in which neither side had asked or given quarter. There can have been few better German troops in Sicily than those who held the bridge. They were Nazi zealots to a man, but they fought superbly well and as their Battalion Commander was led away to captivity, Colonel Clarke of the 9th Battalion quietly shook him by the hand.

Having recovered from his wound he rejoined in time to take part in the Normandy campaign, where his battalion formed part of the 151st Durham Brigade in the 50th Northumbrian Division, and landed on D-Day, 6th June 1944.

Soon afterwards, Burton distinguished himself in action during the fighting near to Villers Bocage when in action in the assault on Lingevres on 14th June 1944. At the time Burton was manning a 6-pdr anti-tank gun, and engaged with men of two battles of the 902nd Panzer Grenadiers with supporting Panther tanks of the elite Panzer-Lehr Division.

This action occurred owing to the British assault on Villers-Bocage having become bogged down on the 13th June owing to troops of the 7th Armoured Division having encountered severe resistance from the newly encountered German armoured division, the Panzer-Lehr Division, whose Tiger’s roughly handled the attack troops and stalled the advance.

In an attempt to extricate the 7th Armoured Division, the 50th Division whose original follow-up instructions were modified to suit the atmosphere of misplaced optimism revealed in the aftermath of the encounter with Tiger tanks, then required the 151st Durham Brigade to attack in the direction of Tilly-sur-Seuilles, a period of operations which lasted from 14th to 19th June.

The 151st Brigade began its attack at 10.20 am, and the 6th Battalion initially made some progress, but was then held up at Verrieres for some time before it eventually entered it. The 9th Battalion with Burton experienced fierce resistance at Lingevres, where two battalions of the 902nd Panzer Grenadiers of Panzer-Lehr fought stubbornly to hold it. None the less the Battalions fought its way in and by 11.30 had entered. Casualties had been unduly heavy, with the 9th Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Woods being killed in action, along with all the officers of ‘A’ Company from Major C.M. D’Arcy Irvine downwards.

With the death of the commanding officer, Major John Mogg assumed command, and a recorded interview given by Mogg is housed in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

That morning the 151st Durham Infantry Brigade and the tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards advanced towards Lingevres and Verrieres, and the German defenders held their fire until the British were less than 150 yards distant. The battle would last for five hours, until the 6th Battalion with a huge amount of artillery support, captured the German positions. The 9th Battalion was caught in the German machine-gun fire, and needed their reserve companies to break through the German front line. It was at this time that the CO was killed. At about 13.30 the battalion captures Lingevres and moved anti-tank guns into the village, although most of these were put out of action by the first German counter-attack which began at 16.30. It was at this stage that Burton won his award.

The counter-attack occurred when German infantry supported by tanks attacked from the south-east, and soon the forward troops were nearly surrounded. A call for air-support was answered by Typhoons, who eased a situation which had been critical for two hours. Before he drew off the enemy had suffered 50 percent casualties, and besides much equipment, left a hundred prisoners of the Panzer-Lehr in the 9th’s hands. The 151st Brigade’s total casualties were about 100.

During the enemy counter-attack, two Panther tanks were spotted approaching Lingevres by Sergeant Wilfred Harris, commander of a Sherman Firefly of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards, who engaged then at a range of 400 yards and destroyed the first and disabled the second. While Harris moved position, a tank-hunting party led by Major John Mogg, finished off the damaged Panther, and other tank-hunting parties drove off another Panther, though a British M4 Sherman was destroyed, before a third Panther was knocked out by a Sherman. In all six Panther’s were knocked out, and Burton, then a Sergeant, was in command of one of the 6 pounder anti-tank guns, his being sited on the open road which led through the centre of the village, the focal point of the German armoured attack. Burton was specifically engaged with what can be referred to as the sixth Panther, as per a published account of the action, which included a map of the positions of the attacking tanks. A well known photograph taken in the aftermath of the action shows two knocked out Panther’s on the approach to the village, the one closest being that knocked out by Burton, and which was also apparently claimed by Sergeant Harris of the Dragoon Guards. Burton’s actions led him to be recommended for and to receive an ‘immediate’ award of the Military Medal.

The recommendation reads as follows: ‘At Lingevres on 14th June 1944, after immediate consolidation of the captured village Sergeant Burton’s anti-tank gun was sited on an open road. As two enemy tanks approached down the road he engaged them and knocked out the leading tank. Almost immediately his gun received a direct hit blowing up the gun and ammunition. Sergeant Burton then withdrew his detachment and although wounded continued to visit and help other anti-tank guns in the area showing complete disregards for his own safety and setting a fine example to his platoon.’

Burton’s ‘immediate’ award of the Military Medal was published in the London Gazette for 31st August 1944. As confirmed he was also wounded in action on 14th June 1944 in the process of winning his award.