From the beginning of August, the tide was turning in Normandy as the ability of the German forces to oppose an enemy having almost complete control of the air and such an overwhelming superiority in equipment was nearing its end. Cracks started to appear in the German defences which ultimately opened up to the extent that the entire German 7th Army and the 5th Panzer Army (albeit much depleted in strength) became encircled by British, Canadian and U.S. forces and were annihilated in the infamous ‘Falaise Pocket’. However, at the beginning of the month this dramatic demise of the German forces in France was three weeks off and the 59th were faced with many more days of hard fighting yet.
In that first week of August, all the regiments of South Staffordshire were moved forward towards the Orne River in what were to be the final series of actions in which they fought as part of the 59 Division.
The prominent role in the advance to the western banks of the Orne and the subsequent formation and defence of the bridgehead was taken up by the 7th South Staffordshire Regiment of 176 Brigade. Orders were received late on the evening of 3rd August that the 7th were to launch an attack towards the Villers Bocage. In doing so the decision was taken to advance across country towards the village as the road was known to be heavily mined. In order to advance in this manner, specialised tanks were brought up which were capable of launching 40 lb T.N.T. charges that cleared the high hedges and banks of the bocage whilst armoured bulldozers cleared the debris to create passages through which the infantry could pass.
The infantry companies began the advance in the early morning of 4th August. From gathered intelligence it was anticipated that resistance would be very light as the enemy had withdrawn from the area, but in doing so had made good use of mines and booby traps laid and set with the intention of impeding the British progress as much as possible.
In the shattered village of Villers Bocage the only inhabitants encountered by the advancing units were discovered to be German wounded and the nursing staff that were tending to them.
By 4 pm the main road from Tilly had been cleared of mines, but the forward movement resulted in gridlock for the mass of transport attempting to move through the area. With the enemy nowhere in sight, orders were passed down to the forward companies of 7th Battalion to advance towards and to occupy a series of prominent positions approximately 10 miles distant from the River Orne.
The fact that contact with the enemy had been lost was a cause for concern within the British command. In order to confirm the enemy’s withdrawal, the divisional ‘Recce’ units headed out in the pre-dawn of 5th August in the direction of the river. Their intelligence reports did indeed confirm that nothing of the enemy was in evidence to the west of the river, other than signs of a hasty retreat, and that the Germans had crossed over the Orne.
By 4 pm that day the forward formations reached the high ground that overlooked the Orne valley and they were able to establish that the stone bridge at La Bas, the only crossing point, had been blown up by the Germans once they had crossed over.
Along roads that ran parallel to those taken by 7th Battalion, but shifted approximately three miles to the south, the formations of 177 Brigade approached and reached the river. By 7 pm the Brigade had concentrated. From the concentration area, the battalions of 177 had gained a good vantage point from which they were able to observe the hurried preparation of new German defensive positions.
The topography of the River Orne was a critical consideration to the Division as they 176 planned the crossing, The river itself runs its course in this area through a deep and narrow valley, the western banks of which are very steep and thickly covered with undergrowth. The river is approximately 50 feet wide and fordable in several places. In contrast the eastern slopes are shallower and the land that runs up from the banks of the river to the dense Grimbosq Forest features orchards, small farms and villages. The forest was approximately two miles wide and one mile deep. The existence of this wooded land directly opposite the planned bridgehead would later offer cover for enemy troop concentrations from which attacks on the bridgehead positions could be launched.
Prior to the crossing, night patrols had identified a couple of crossing points for the troops. The 'War Story' account described how one of them was established, 'in one area the height of the banks was measured by lowering a six-foot officer by his heels from the edge of the bank until he touched water below'. 176 Brigade now had a place to cross where the men would be able to wade across to the opposite bank which a ‘recce’ by Lieutenant Ball, accompanied by a Canadian officer, had established was only lightly defended. However, this would be without supporting armour which due to the steep banks could only cross in the area of La Bas and with the bridge destroyed it would be for the Royal Engineers to position and secure a Bailey bridge next to the blown stone bridge as quickly as possible.
With the South Staffordshire forces congregated across the western banks of the Orne the infantry units dug in whilst small and medium calibre guns were moved up with all possible speed in order to support the soldiers as they made the crossing.
With the 7th Battalion in position on the west bank of the river, the sister Battalions of the regiment, the 1/6th, 2/6th and the 5th) moved forward on the 3rd August and concentrated around St Agneau le Malherbe some 8 miles to the west of the Orne.