The Caen Area
The Battle of Caen
... The area that we had, that was most valuable to him, was Caen; very foot of ground he lost at Caen was like losing ten miles anywhere else ... I hope some of you people have gone down through the Falaise Gap ... Every piece of dust there was worth more than a diamond to him.
GENERAL EISENHOWER, 31 AUGUST 1944.
When the Allies had established their first bridgehead in Normandy and made it moderately secure, two immediate necessities confronted them. One was the capture of Cherbourg. The other was building up their forces on the continent to the point where they could take the offensive at an early date with the object of destroying the German armies and liberating the whole of Western Europe.
The taking of Cherbourg was the business of the Americans, and they set about it in a very workmanlike manner. By 18 June, they had fought their way clear across the Cherbourg peninsula, isolating the great port from the rest of France. The troops advancing directly towards Cherbourg had some very bitter fighting, particularly around Montebourg, which changed hands several times and was not securely in American possession until 19 June. Thereafter, progress was comparatively rapid, and after overcoming strong resistance at various points in the outskirts, the took Cherbourg on 26 June. The whole upper part of the peninsula was completely cleared
by 1 July. In the meantime, the American forces further south had also moved forward and were within striking distance of St. Lô.
These triumphs owed much to hard fighting by the British Second Army. Although progress had been halted for the moment in the region immediately about Caen, the lodgement area was somewhat extended as the result of the determined efforts of General Dempsey's men south and south-east of Bayeux. Here in the last week of June a bridgehead established across the River Odon, a tributary of the Orne, seemed to offer the hope of "pinching out" Caen by an enveloping movement. Against this threat the enemy concentrated a tremendous mass of his very best formations. Four additional S.S. Panzer divisions, constituting Field Marshal Rommel's main reserve, appeared in succession: the 2nd (Das Reich), the 1st (Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler), the 9th (Hohenstaufen) and the 10th (Frundsberg). The last two had been hastily brought from the Russian front. Never before had so many S.S. formations been seen in so small an area. Add the 2nd Panzer and the Panzer Lehr Divisions, and remembering the 12th S.S. and the 21st, it will be seen that the enemy had no fewer than eight armoured divisions on the Anglo-Canadian front between Caumont and Caen. On 30 June, in a directive to his British and American Army Commandeers, General Montgomery wrote: "My broad policy, once we had secured a firm lodgement area, has always been to draw the main enemy forces in to the battle on our eastern flank, and to fight them there, so that our affairs on the western flank could proceed the
The Infantry Go Forward
Men of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade advance across the trampled grainfields north-west of Caen, 9 July 1944
easier".1 The policy succeeded; but it meant some very hard sledding for the British and Canadians.
Building Up the Invasion
The Allied "build-up" had made fair progress. By 29 June the bridgehead contained a total of twelve British and Canadian divisions (plus several independent brigades) and thirteen American divisions. The two British corps involved in the assault had been reinforced by two more (the 8th and the 12th).
The tremendous cross-Channel movement of men and supplies had not, however, proceeded wholly smoothly. The enemy, in the face of the constant vigilance and great superiority of our naval and air forces, had been abler to offer little in the way of effective opposition by air or sea; but nature had taken a hand in a manner that might have proved disastrous. The first blockships were scuttled off the Normandy beaches on D plus one; and within a day or two, the great concrete caissons which were to form the breakwaters for the artificial harbours began to cross the Channel from England. By 19 June, the construction of the two harbours was well advanced, and large tonnages of supplies were already being discharged through them. On that date, however, the weather, which had exercised a baneful influence on our enterprise from the beginning, and had frequently hampered air support, took a further turn for the worse. The most violent June gale in forty years blew up very suddenly; unloading virtually ceased for three and a half days; the
Canadian Convoy In Caen
2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade R.C.A.S.C. bringing up supplies, July, 1944.
(From a watercolour by Major W.A. Ogilvie)
"Although William the Conqueror's Two Great Abbeys Still Stood Up Proud and Austere,
Whole Quarters of the Place Had Been Reduced to Rubble"
Caen after its capture.
British MULBERRY was considerably damaged, and the American one so hard hit that no attempt was made to complete it. The "build-up" received a severe setback. This was the moment, if any, when an all-out attack against the bridgehead with all the forces the enemy could muster might have produced most serious effects. But no such attack took place. The Germans had in fact been outwitted on the highest strategic level. They were casting apprehensive glances over their shoulders towards the Pas de Calais; and in consequence of the haunting fear of a further landing there, they retained in that area many divisions which would have been of the greatest value to them in Normandy. By the evening of 22 June, the gale had blown itself out; the tonnages of stores unloaded soon equalled and shortly far surpassed the figures attained before 19 June; the British MULBERRY was completed, and early in July it was discharging 6,000 tons daily.
The violent resistance encountered around Caen, and the cramped state of the bridgehead in this area, combined with the fact that the general progress of operations had been somewhat slower than had been expected, resulted in the movement of Canadian formations to France being considerably set back. General Crerar himself crossed to Normandy in H.M.C.S. Algonquin on 18 June. His small Tactical Headquarters was set up in Amblie, a characteristic little Norman village of grey stone, east of Creully. It was to remain there, as things turned out, for more than two months. Although Main and Rear Headquarters were to open at Amblie at midnight on the night of 19-20 June, and theoretically did so open, the gale and still more the situation in France postponed the move, and that part of Army Headquarters which had
Lieutenant-General G.G. Simonds, C.B., C.B.E., D.S.O.,
G.O.C. 2nd Canadian Corps
(From as watercolour portrait by Major C.F. Comfort)
been sitting in its marshalling area waiting to embark for Normandy retraced its steps and opened again on "the old stand" at Headley Court near Leatherhead. Not until 24 July did the first "shift" of Main Headquarters actually reach Amblie. During the intervening period, General Crerar was temporarily, in effect, a General without an Army. In the painfully crowded area north and north-west of Caen the dusty roads were already incredibly congested, and there was simply no room for another body of Army Troops. Towards the end of June,l however, it wsA decided to bring over the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the Headquarters of the 2nd Canadian Corps; and Main and Rear Corps Headquarters set up at Camilly, south of Amblie, on 6 July. On 7 July, the main body of the 2nd Canadian Division, commanded by Major-General (now Lieutenant-General) C. Foulkes, likewise crossed the Channel.
The greater part of the Canadian field force was thus in England long enough to see something of the enemy's flying-bomb campaign which began in mid-June. The units waiting in the southern and south-eastern counties saw more of it than they cared for. The Lincoln and Welland Regiment of the 4th Division had nine fatal casualties when a bomb fell in its lines at Crowborough, Sussex, on 5 July; the 4th Medium Regiment, R.C.A., lost four men at Caterham, Surrey, on 28 June; and various other units had men injured. Many of the missiles came down in the vicinity of Leatherhead, which was squarely on one of the "bomb highways"; and the men of Army Headquarters dug slit trenches with novel alacrity. The
Bastille Day in Caen, 1944
Canadian soldiers join the people of the city in celebrating their newly-restord liberty.
(From a watercolour by Capt. O.N. Fisher)
Tanks of the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment)
Cross the Orne Near Caen by Ferry, 19 July 1944
(From a watercolour by Major W.A. Ogilvie)
units in the toe of Kent saw hundreds of bombs passing overhead, though comparatively few fell in this area; and when they started for their marshalling areas on the north side of the Thames estuary--a move which entailed passing through London at the very height of this phase of the capital's ordeal--they had further experience with the new weapon. The men in one lorry belonging to Headquarters 2nd Corps, for example, had "a bit of excitement" on Dominion Day when a bomb dived into the street seventy-fie yards behind them as they stood waiting in a traffic jam near the Blackwall Tunnel.
Since the Canadian anti-aircraft artillery units had waterproofed their vehicles and were standing by for
embarkation orders, they were able to take little part in the defence of England against the bombs. Only one unit, indeed, the 8th Canadian Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which was allowed to de-waterproof a few of its guns for the purpose, fired on the things with its own weapons. It was credited with participation in two "kills" in Sussex on 9 and 11 July. The Canadian Army's one overseas Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment (numbered the 2nd) lent several hundred men to assist overworked British units in the Dover area and in this way shared in a considerable number of successes.
Back to the Offensive
The front of the 1st British Corps, under which the 3rd Canadian Division was still service, was relatively quiet during the latter part of June. Various offensive operations were planned, but postponed because the presence of powerful enemy reserve forces in the sector seemed to threaten heavy attacks. Not until 4 July were the Canadians against launched in the direction of Caen.
The immediate object of this new operation, known by the code name WINDSOR, was the capture of Carpiquet. The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, plus the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, was charged with carrying it out. The Brigade was supported by the tanks of the Fort Garry's, by "Flail" tanks (for detonating minefields), by "Crocodiles" (flamethrower tanks) and by A.Vs.R.E.2 A tremendous weight of artillery, including the 16-inch guns of H.M.S. Rodney, prepared the way for the attack.
Men of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders Mopping Up Snipers
In Faubourg de Vaucelles, the Southern Suburb of Caen, July, 1944
(From a watercolour by Capt. O.N. Fisher)
The enemy, mainly drawn from units of the 12th S.S. Panzer Division, fought with the fanatical zeal expected of that very unpleasant formation; but he could not keep the Canadians out of Carpiquet. By seven in the morning, the Chaudière and the North Shore Regiment had broken through his positions and were consolidated in the village. The Winnipegs reached the hangars at the south side of the Carpiquet airfield, but were driven out of them when troops on their right could not hold the village of Verson. The airfield as a whole, in consequence, remained in enemy hands for five more days; and the 8th Brigade, in its exposed and all-but-isolated position on the high ground at Carpiquet, was subjected to heavy artillery fire and frequent counter-attacks by infantry and tanks.
The first stage in the offensive against Caen had achieved a respectable measure of success in the face of bitter opposition. It was now practicable to assail Caen itself.
At four-thirty on the morning of 8 July, the 1st British Corps launched Operation CHARNWOOD with three divisions (the 3rd Canadian, the 3rd British and the 59th) and three armoured brigades, of which the 2nd Canadian was one. As a prelude to the attack, the R.A.F. Bomber Command intervened in the battle, delivering a shattering attack against troops, armour, and strongpoints in and about the city of Caen. The enterprise was further supported by massed land artillery and by the guns of the fleet, whose constant assistance throughout the bridgehead campaign had been of incalculable value. The 3rd Canadian Division was on the right wing, and in the first phase the 9th Brigade had the satisfaction of driving the stubborn enemy from the villages of Buron and Authie where it had sustained such a stiff reverse a month before. Thereafter, the 7th Brigade took over the advance and drove in to clear the country between Authie and Caen. By evening the Canadians were on the western outskirts of the city, and a squadron of the 7th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York's Royal Canadian Hussars) penetrated into the middle of it in the hope--which proved illusory--of seizing one of the Orne bridges intact. On the 9th, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders advanced into Caen, encountering comparatively little resistance; and in the course of the following day the whole of the city north of the Orne was securely in our hands. To the west, the 8th Brigade had in the meantime secured the remainder of its objectives at Carpiquet.
Tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars)
Passing Under a Wrecked Railway Bridge in Faubourg de Vaucelles, July, 1944
(From a watercolour by Capt. O.N. Fisher)
There was now a brief pause, while the British forces regrouped for the leap across the Orne and the further extension of the bridgehead. During this interval, on 11 July, Lieutenant-General G.G. Simonds' 2nd Canadian Corps took over a section of the front and with it the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.3 The 2nd Canadian Division it had already had under command. This formation, which had not been in action since Dieppe, entered the line west of Caen on the night of 11-12 July.
Caen, when our troops entered it, was a tragic city. This community of 54,000 people had suffered terribly from the air bombardment; although the destruction had not been quite universal, and William the Conqueror's two great abbeys still stood up proud and austere, whole quarters of the place had been reduced to rubble and twisted wreckage by the R.A.F. "blockbusters." Yet the spirit of its people was unbroken, and they nursed no grievance against the British forces for these wounds inflicted in the process of liberation. Here for the first time our troops met Frenchmen who welcomed them warmly and unquestioningly; here for the first time too we made definite contact with the gallant spirits of the Resistance. The S.D. and G. Highlands testified that as they fought their way through the streets in the face of enemy snipers, every lull in the firing brought Frenchmen out of the cellars with smiles and roses and wine. "The roses were gratefully accepted, but the drinking of win during the action had been strictly forbidden, and no soldier broke that rule."
The First Break-out from Caen
While the Canadian Corps prepared to break out from Caen across the Orne, British forces further west, above the city, were developing heavy attacks in the direction fo Evrecy, which had the very useful effect of attracting German reserves to this area. Then the main attack (Operation GOODWOOD, the Canadian part in which was known as ATLANTIC) went in on the morning of 18 July, following the greatest air bombardment yet attempted in the theatre; British and American aircraft dropped over 7,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets in the eastern sector of the Caen area. The 8th British Corps,
Tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade
Attacking Through the Wheat South of Caen, August, 1944
(From a watercolour by Major W.A. Ogilvie)
Composed of three armoured divisions, had crossed the Orne low down, where, thanks to the airborne troops, both its banks had been in our hands from the beginning. The armour now lunged southward, hoping for a break-through. In the first instance things went well; but on the edge of the higher ground about Bourguebus, some four miles south-east of Caen, and on the plain to the east, a formidable screen of anti-tank guns put an abrupt period to the advance.
On the same day, the 8th and 9th Brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division had also crossed the Orne below Caen and attacked southward. Bitter resistance around the
chateau at Colombelles imposed temporary delay but was overcome. In the meantime, the 7th Brigade had broken across the Orne from Caen itself, captured the southern suburb called Faubourg de Vaucelles and held it; and later on 18 July the 2nd Canadian Division, which had been held in readiness for exploitation, moved through Vaucelles and advanced south. In the course of the day's operations the commander of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, Brigadier Sherwood Lett, who had been seriously wounded at Dieppe, had the ill-fortune to be wounded again and had to relinquish the command. During the next two days, the Division continued to push on in the face of stiffening resistance. A foothold was gained on the high ground, but lost again; and it became clear that the enemy had succeeded in checking the momentum of our offensive and again stabilizing the situation. Much had been gained nevertheless; whereas on 4 July the enemy had held Caen securely, with the town covered by a semi-circle of territory in his hands to the north and west, the circumstances were now reversed. Caen was ours, and with it a semi-circle of country covering it to a distance of four miles or sou [to] the south and east. Strong enemy positions still contained our bridgehead in this all-important area; but it had been very materially extended by the operations of the past fortnight, and there was now elbow room sufficient to permit of bringing in from England the additional armoured divisions and other troops required for the full-scale break-out.
The period of had slogging in the Caen area was not yet over. For weeks past, the Anglo-Canadian forces had been delivering, in effect, a great, continuous and costly "holding attack" designed to draw to their front every possible German division and thus facilitate the
Canadian Medium Artillery Supporting Canadian Infantry
In Operation SPRING, South of Caen, 25 July 1944
operations of the Americans on the other flank. Those operations had now reached the point where it was possible to launch the offensive contemplated in the Allied plan from an early date--the break-through in the west that was designed to lead to the encirclement and destruction of the whole enemy field army in Normandy. This was the more practicable in that Operation GOODWOOD had led the Germans hastily to withdraw two armoured divisions from their central sector eastward across the Orne. There were now no less than five of them east of the river. On 21 July, General Montgomery ordered the First United States Army to strike its great blow. The same directive ordered the Second British
Army to operate intensively with a view to inducing the enemy to build up his main strength east of the Orne "so that our affairs on the western flank can proceed with greater speed". And it fell to the 2nd Canadian Corps to deliver the final phase of the long British holding attack--the phase coinciding with the great American blow in the west.
The Canadian attack (Operation SPRING) was directed southwards along Route Nationale No. 158--that highway, running straight as a rifle-barrel across the country between Caen and Falaise, which will ever be famous in the history of Canadian arms. The plan involved the use of two Canadian infantry division--the 2nd on the right and the 3rd on the left. A great force of artillery was provided and heavy harassing fire was directed against enemy positions from the evening of 23 July onwards; and medium bombers also took part in the preparation.
At three-thirty in the morning of 25 July, the infantry moved forward against the commanding enemy positions in and about the little villages on the rising ground on either side of the road to Falaise. The 3rd Division, east of the road, assailed Tilly-la-Campagne and its vicinity; the 2nd moved against May-sur-Orne and the neighbouring hamlets west of the road. An innovation, ":artificial moonlight" from searchlights directed at a low angle, was used to light the way for our troops and, it was hoped, to blind the enemy. On both flanks there was some progress in the first instance. By nine o'clock the North Nova Scotia Highlanders were in Tilly-la-Campagne. The Germans, however, were determined not to loose their hold on the area; their infantry and tanks, supported by artillery and mortars, put in a succession of
Infantry Mounting Tanks for an Attack
Men of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division near Bretteville-le-Rabet, August, 1944.
(From a watercolour by Major W.A. Ogilvie)
violent counter-attacks; the Highlanders were thrown back on to the defensive, and by the 26th had been obliged to give up their foothold in the village.
On the front of the 2nd Division, whose units had had less than a fortnight's experience of operations, the result had been similar. Here the Germans held particularly strong ground, and old mineshafts and tunnels gave special advantages to the defence. Enemy guns and mortars, powerfully seconded by tanks dug in on commanding positions from which the enemy had perfect observation, cut the attacking battalions to pieces. "The
enemy used his weapons cunningly. 88-mms. had the roads taped, dropped concentrations on orchards and fields and then at intervals searched all areas systematically. His fire was so carefully planned that every position we were likely to move to, or to wait in had fire raining down on it." The wheat-fields gave excellent cover to the enemy's machine-guns and snipers; and all his weapons were extraordinarily difficult to locate.
The 4th Canadian Brigade, attacking on the left, got the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry into Verrières, and kept them there; but the Royal Regiment of Canada, trying to drive on to Roquancourt, met with failure. On the right the 5th Brigade had still worse luck. The Calgary Highlanders, in the first phase, got a foothold in May-sur-Orne but were pushed out again; and in the second phase, the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, attacking most gallantly across the ridge east of May in an attempt to capture Fontenay-le-Marmion, came under a hurricane of converging fire. Only a very few men out of the three hundred or so who comprised the four rifle companies committed to this attack succeeded in returning to our lines.
When the operation ended, we had lost much of the ground gained in the beginning, and many infantry units were sadly depleted. Yet the sacrifices made had purchased important advantages. We still held Verrières; and this village was a tactical position of great consequence. It stands on the north end of the same ridge the Black Watch had assailed, the highest point in the enemy's old forward line, which had given him almost unlimited command of and observation over the low ground to the north on which we had had to prepare our attacks. We had not greatly reduced the Germans'
observation and materially improved our own; and we had a foothold in the outworks of their line which would go far to facilitate future operations. This was not all. The Canadian attacks had pinned to their ground south of Caen a great concentration of Field Marshal von Kluge's4 best divisions at a time when they were urgently needed elsewhere. On the far western end of the front, out beyond St.Lô, the Americans, on the same 25th of July, had launched the attack initiating the immense concerted operation that was to issue in one of the greatest victories of modern times.
The Canadian Army Takes Over
By this period, General Crerar's Canadian Army Headquarters had already taken over a section of the front. It was indicative of the manner in which the resources of the 21st Army Group were to be shared out between its two Army Headquarters that the first fighting formations to serve under him in the field should be not Canadian, but British. The bridgehead was now large enough to afford room for the Canadian Army Troops; arrangement were made accordingly, and at noon on 23 July, Headquarters First Canadian Army took over the 1st British Corps from General Dempsey, and became responsible for a front of roughly a dozen miles running inward from the coast. The Canadian Army Commander thus assumed control of the extreme leftward sector of the Allied line--which he never afterwards relinquished.
In this sector, the British forces were in the main committed to a holding role. General Montgomery, however, desired that this left flank should now push forward with a view to facilitating the use by the Allies of the inland port of Caen. Planning for this limited operation was actively carried on, but finally it was shelved in favour of a much greater enterprise. The first battle of the First Canadian Army was to be no minor affair, but an undertaking that would leave its mark on the history of the world. The assumption of a very active role by General Crerar's Army was foreshadowed by an extension of its front on 31 July. At noon on that day, the 2nd Canadian Corps in the Caen sector passed under its command, and the Army Commander was now responsible for a 20-miles front extending from the banks of the River Orne four miles south of Caen round to the Channel coast east of the mouth of that river.
From D Day until 11 July, the 3rd Canadian Division had fought under the command of a British Corps. From the time when it arrived in France until 31 July, the 2nd Canadian Corps had been under the Second British Army. Now, for the first time, the Canadian formations in the theatre were concentrated under their own higher command--which was itself, of course, subject to the superior authority of the 21st Army Group and of Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force. A word must be said of the remarkably smooth and effective cooperation which had existed between the staffs of the Canadian formations and the various British headquarters with which and under which they fought. The point is familiar to everyone who has first-hand knowledge of the situation. For those who have not, it is perhaps enough to quote a
comment found in the War Diary of the General Staff of Headquarters, 2nde Canadian Corps:
While there is satisfaction in becoming part of First Cdn Army, there will be genuine regret in H.Q. 2 Cdn Corps at leaving Second Brit Army. 2 Cdn Corps' relations with Second Brit Army and other corps of that formation have been excellent, and while we learned much from them we found our ideas and methods of working already fitted theirs surprisingly well. Three somewhat complicated plans were made and carried out with a minimum of fuss and no serious hitches.
The Army Commander now had the satisfaction of at last having under his command in France virtually the whole of the Canadian field army, apart from the formations engaged in Italy. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division, commanded by Major-General G. Kitching, had arrived from England late in July. At the end of the month, it took over the 3rd Canadian Division's sector of the front, and that much-tried and gallant formation was withdrawn from the line, along with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, for its first real rest since D Day. For these and all the other Canadian formations, great enterprises now lay immediately ahead.
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