The Campaign in North-West Europe:
The Plan and the Invasion of Normandy, June 1944
Eastern Flank of the Normandy Bridgehead, June-July 1944
Throughout the years of waiting in England, the Canadian Army had looked forward to an assault on the German-held shores of the Continent as the fulfilment of its destiny. In their own eyes, and to a certain extent in the eyes of the British people among whom they had lived so long, the Canadians had more and more become par excellence the men of the Second Front.
The OVERLORD Plan
We have seen General McNaughton and General Eisenhower in Washington in 1942 looking forward to an offensive "launched from the United Kingdom across the narrow seas." This offensive was long deferred--and in retrospect the deferment appears to have been very sound policy; but on 6 June 1944 the attack was finally delivered. Soon after that day the whole Canadian field force was in action, though its effort was not concentrated in one theatre but divided between France and Italy.1
There is space here for only a brief outline of the development of the Allied plan for the invasion of North-West Europe. A complete history of this project would necessarily begin shortly after Dunkirk; and the vast extension of the war during 1941, when both Russia and the United States were drawn in, meant that the return of Allied forces to the Continent was likely to become practicable in the not too distant future. We have seen that in April of 1942 the British and American Governments agreed that a cross-Channel invasion should be the principal Allied effort int he defeat of Germany. In June of that year, General Eisenhower arrived in England to begin the preparations for the United States participation in this enterprise. As already noted, however, a decision was soon taken that major operations in Western Europe were out of the question in 1942. The available Allied resources were in great part diverted to the Mediterranean theatre, and Eisenhower became Supreme Allied Commander there. Before his forces invaded French North Africa, the Dieppe raid had underlined the perils of the cross-Channel attack and convinced any who might have been in doubt
that the invasion of France could be undertaken only on an immense scale and after most intensive preparation.
During 1943 the Mediterranean campaign proceeded, and one success followed another. In May the Germans were finally cleared out of Africa, suffering one of the greatest defeats on the war; in July we successfully invaded Sicily; in September we assailed the mainland of Italy; and at the end of the year the whole southern part of the peninsula, as we have seen, was in Allied hands. While these events went forward, planning was in progress on the still greater project of the invasion of North-West Europe. In April of 9143 Lieutenant-General F.E. Morgan began work in London on detailed plans for the operation, under a directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, as Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC), The Supreme Allied Commander himself has not yet been appointed. The Combined Chiefs fixed the "target date" for Operation OVERLORD, as it was now known, at 1 May 1944. It is of interest that the senior naval and air officers concerned with the planning which now began at COSSAC were respectively the naval and air commanders for the Dieppe raid--Commodore Hughes-Hallett and Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory.
By July, General Morgan and his staff had completed an outline plan. It recommended assaulting on a three-division front on the shores of the Bay of the Seine north of Caen, maintaining the invading force in the beginning by stores landed over beaches with the aid of artificial harbours towed across the Channel in parts and assembled on the French coast. This plan was approved by the political and military leaders of the United Nations during the QUADRANT conference at Quebec in August. The appointment of a Supreme Allied Command was long delayed; only on Christmas Eve of 1943 was it announced that General Eisenhower was to come back from the mediterranean to undertake this greater responsibility. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder was designated as his Deputy. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the organizer of the Dunkirk evacuation, became Allied Naval Commander, Expeditionary Force, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory became Air Commander-in-Chief, Allied Expeditionary Air Force. General Montgomery was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 21st Group of Armies, the British component of the ground forces; it was arranged, however, that the ground forces of all nations taking part should be subordinated to the command of this Army Group in the assault phase, during which accordingly General Montgomery would function as General Eisenhower's military commander-in-chief.
Eisenhower and Montgomery both reached England during January 1944. The COSSAC plan was now considerably revised under their direction. The front of assault was widened to either flank, so as to
include both the Ouistreham area on the east and the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula on the west; and the actual force assaulting was increased from three seaborne divisions to five. This meant that more assault craft would be required, and mainly to make another month's production of these available, the target date was, by permission of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, postponed to 31 May.
The assault was to be shared by British and American forces, Lieutenant-General Omar N. Bradley's First United States Army attacking on the right or western half of the front and the Second British Army under Lieutenant-General M.C. Dempsey on the eastern sector. Two American airborne divisions were to land on the far right flank, and one British airborne division on the left. The seaborne landings were to be preceded by the most tremendous bombardment by sea and air which the allied air and naval forces could deliver.
As the OVERLORD plan gradually developed, decisions became possible on the parts which the Canadians would play. The Headquarters of the First Canadian Army had, as we have seen, existed since April 1942, and that of the 2nd Canadian Corps had come into existence in January 1943. In the following March, Exercise SPARTAN had taken place; and in this exercise, as already described, the Canadian Army had the role of breaking out from an established bridgehead. This, General McNaughton advised Ottawa on 2 January 1943, was the part which it was then anticipated the Canadian Army would play in the forthcoming invasion. late,r however, there was some discussion of the possibility of the Canadian Army Headquarters taking part in the assault, with its own assault divisions under command. Only in January 1944, after the return of General Montgomery from Italy, was it finally confirmed that "The Canadian Army would be used as a follow-up army" as originally planned. The Second Army would have the responsibility for the initial phase; the First Canadian Army would play its part when the time came to break out from the bridgehead.
The Canadian Role in the Invasion
This, however, did not mean that Canada would not be strongly represented in the first landing. As early as July 1943, it had been decided that at least one Canadian division should take part in it, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General R.F.L. Keller, was selected for training with this in view. The early stages of this training were directed by the 1st Canadian Crops, whose commander, General Crerar, had initiated, on General McNaughton's instructions, a special programme of study and experimentation in the technique of combined operations. Had this Corps remained in England, it might well have particpated in the assault with the 3rd Canadian
Division under command; but its departure for Italy in the autumn of 1943 made this impossible, As from 1 December, 1943, therefore, the Division passed, for operational direction and training connected with OVERLORD, under the 1st British Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General J.T. Crocker. Under that Corps it landed on D Day and served through the opening phase of the campaign.
During the period of preliminary planning through 1943, the Canadian Army was closely in touch with developments. By arrangement with General Morgan, General McNaughton stationed at COSSAC, as his personal liaison officer, Major-General G.R. Turner, formerly his chief administrative staff officer. The Canadian Army Commander was thus kept fully informed of the growth of the OVERLORD project, and was able to fit his own policy to it.
The training of the 3rd Canadian Division began with preliminary work in combined operations at the Division's stations in Southern England, followed by advanced training at Combined Training Centres in Scotland. In the autumn of 1943, the Division returned to the Channel coast for large-scale exercises with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. It now became associated with the naval assault force known as Force "J", which was to put it ashore on D Day. This was the prototype of many assault forces formed later and the embodiment of the Dieppe lesson of the desirability of maintaining such forces on a permanent basis; it was, indeed, the Dieppe (JUBILEE) force, which had been kept in existence and was still commanded at this time by Commodore Hughes-Hallett. Through months of training the Canadians came to know the ships and crews of Force "J" in a very intimate way. Thus was achieved an understanding which was to make a great contribution to the success of the D Day landing. Before D Day, Hughes-Hallett left to take an appointment in the Home Fleet, and Force "J" was commanded in the assault by Commodore G.N. Oliver, R.N., who had been commander of one of the naval attack forces at Salerno.2
There is no space for a full description of the training programme. Some mention must, however, be made of Exercise PIRATE, which took place in October 1943 at Studland Bay on the Dorset coast. In this exercise, the three Services tested a "combined fire plan" which foreshadowed, on a much smaller scale, the tremendous bombardment of D Day. Although weather compelled the cancellation of the RAF bombing, cannon-fighters attacked the beach defences; the Navy supplied not merely orthodox gun bombardment (provided by destroyers, representing the much heavier vessels that would be
available for an actual operation) but also rocket fire. Moreover, the Army itself contributed powerfully to the fire plan, for self-propelled field artillery fired on the beaches from tank landing craft during the approach. Analysing the results of the exercise, those responsible concluded that this fire plan had show itself practicable and provided a sound basis for planning. A foundation had in fact been laid for the tactical scheme put into practice on the Normandy beaches eight months late.r During the intervening period, many details were worked out; but it is fair to say that in these early exercises the 3rd Canadian Division established the technique of the OVERLORD assault, and that they founded it upon the experience so dearly bought by the 2nd Canadian Division at Dieppe.
The months preceding D Day witnessed preliminary operations of the deepest significance. The Allied Air Force were at work over the continent. Chief among their many targets were the rail network of North-West Europe and especially France, airfields in the vicinity of the intended assault area, and strategic objective sin Germany, particularly centres of aircraft production. The bridges across the Seine by which enemy reinforcements from the north could reach the battlefield received very special attention.3 By D Day, the German aircraft industry and other strategic industries had suffered severely; "74 bridges and tunnels leading to the battle area were impassable:" and, perhaps most important of all, the enemy's fighter force had been greatly reduced, particularly by the execution wrought upon it by the United States Army Air Forces, who destroyed vast numbers of fighters in daylight air battles brought on by the American bombing raids. As the British Air Minister said in Parliament in march 1945, the Luftwaffe was "outfought in the air, hammered on its airfields, and smashed in its factories". To these reverses must be attributed its almost total failure to interfere with our invasion concentrations in Southern England, or to offer opposition to our actual assault. "Our D Day experience", wrote General Eisenhower in his report, "was to convince us that the carefully laid plans of the German High Command to oppose OVERLORD with an efficient air force in great strength were completely frustrated by the strategic bombing operations. Without the overwhelming mastery of the air which we attained by that time our assault against the Continent would have been a most hazardous, if not impossible undertaking."
The Final Stage of Preparation
During these months, the enemy was working feverishly on "secret
weapons"--flying bombs and long-range rockets--for use against England. His preparations were visible to us, and the Allied Air Forces bombed the launching-sites often and heavily; but it was difficult to estimate with certainty exactly how serious the menace might be. In February of 1944, in consequence, special precautionary plans were made in establishments in the London area. At Canadian Military Headquarters, arrangements were made to carry on essential work, if the worst came to the worst, with skeleton staffs operating in the air-raid shelters; the remainder of the staff would have been evacuated from London altogether in the event of really heavy bombardment. The scale of the flying-bomb attack, when it finally materialized after D Day, was fortunately not such as to necessitate bringing these plans into effect.
Although, as we have remarked, OVERLORD was in its broad aspects an extremely well advertised operation, special precautions were taken to prevent the really important facts from reaching the enemy. On 13 March, all travel was suspended between Great Britain or Northern Ireland and neutral Eire. On 17 April, a still more drastic measure was taken, diplomatic missions being forbidden until further notice to use of cipher telegrams or uncensored diplomatic bags, while travel out of Britain by individuals, including those enjoying diplomatic immunity, was likewise prohibited. All this served in fact to announce that the great operation could not be far off, and speculation and excitement grew accordingly. "In these parts", wrote an officer in London in May, "the war of nerves and the air war go on together. Doubtless much history will be made before snow flies."
It was most important to mislead the enemy as to the direction of our intended thrust: to prevent him, before D Day, from anticipating that we would strike the Normandy coast, and--scarcely less important--after D Day to keep him in painful uncertainty as to whether we did not intend to strike elsewhere as well. Among the steps taken with this in view was the movement of important formations into the toe of Kent, to build up in the eyes of the enemy a threat to the Pas de Calais. In spite of the attractive shortness of the sea passage across the Straits of Dover, we had no intention of assaulting this area, where his defences were at their strongest; but it was very desirable that he should believe that we intended to do so. Accordingly, in April the Headquarters of the 2nd Canadian Corps, and a great part of the Corps Troops, moved from Sussex into the Dover area, while the 2nd Canadian Division made a similar move and set up its Headquarters in Dover itself.
These final months of preparation saw many changes in Canadian command. The accent was on youth and, so far as possible, on experience of battle. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was taken over by Major-General G. Kitching, lately a brigade commander in Italy. When
General Burns went to Italy to succeed General Simonds as G.O.C. 5th Canadian Armoured Division, he was replaced in the command of the 2nd Division by Major-General C. Foulkes, formerly Brigadier, General STaff, at Army Headquarters. Many officers who had proved themselves in the Italian fighting came back to give the benefit of their battle wisdom to the unblooded formations in England. To give only a few examples, Brigadier A.B. Matthews, who had been General Simonds' artillery commander in the 1st Division, now assumed the parallel appointment in the 2nd Corps; Brigadier G. Walsh, who had been Commanding Royal Engineer of the 1st Division, became Chief Engineer of the Corps; Brigadier R.A. Wyman, who had commanded the 1st Armoured Brigade in Sicily and Italy, now took over the 2nd for the Normandy assault; Lt.-Col. E.L. Booth, whose regiment had so distinguished itself at Termoli and elsewhere, became a Brigadier and took command of the 4th Division's armoured brigade (also numbered the 4th); while its infantry brigade (the 10th) went to Brigadier J.C. Jefferson, who had commanded the Edmontons at Ortona.
During the weeks before the attack, many Allied leaders inspected the formations that were to fight the battle. His Majesty the King was one of the visitors, the Prime Minister of Canada another. Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery made it their business to have close contact with the divisions. On 8 March, General Stuart cabled the minister of National Defence describing a five-day tour of Canadian formations which he had just completed with Montgomery, during which the latter had spoken to more than 100,000 troops. He wrote:
Frankly I have never seen such a splendid body of men in my life and as Montgomery said to me, you would not see such a body of men in any other Army in the world. Their turnout was excellent but what impressed me most was the very fine type of men we now have throughout the Army . . . My impression from the close contacts made on this and other recent visits to formations and establishments and the many conversations I have had with all ranks, is that the morale and spirit of the Army as a whole is almost at its peak . . .
On 29 May, on the very eve of the operation, Brigadier N.E. Ridger, Chief of Staff of the 2nd Canadian Corps, wrote in his diary an account of the Supreme Commander's visit to Canadian divisions that day:
It was a "current commentary" on the state of affairs to which we have fortunately come that we had a 5000-man parade at midday in an open field within sight of the channel off Dover, and without any special A.A. protection! Wonder if Rommel or Kesselring could do likewise across the way? Eisenhower spoke well to the troops--making the same basic points (Allied team, air cover and "May the Lord be on your shoulder--till we meet again on the Rhine") but leading up to them in a different way at each place. The troops very much took to him . . .
These ceremonial observances shared the units' time with final exercises, while commanders and their staffs were engaged in putting
the last touches to plans on their various levels. On 7 April, there was an historic meeting at General Montgomery's headquarters at St. Paul's School, London, attended by the Secretary of State for War and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, as well as by Eisenhower, Tedder, Montgomery, Ramsay, Leigh-Mallory, and the British, Canadian and American Army, Corps and Division Commanders. Brigadier Rodger wrote:
[We] found our places . . . by 0900 hours at which time Gen. Montgomery clapped his hands to call us to order . . .
Gen. Montgomery spoke for an hour on the general Army picture and was followed by Admiral Ramsay and Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory to give us the sea and air picture.
After lunch Lt.-Gen. Bradley and his two Corps Commanders gave the details of their part of the initial assault, and then Lt.-Gens. Dempsey and Bucknall and Crocker did the same.
The "pièce de résistance" which Monty had save for us and before which he released the "No Smoking" ban, was a visit from Winston Churchill who came in with cigar . . . He talked to us for about ten minutes expressing his confidence in the complete success of the forthcoming operations and wishing us "good luck". His last few sentences were spoken apparently with considerable emotion and all present seemed to realize that it was a moment which would be marked in the history of this war at least.
In the course of May, Supreme Headquarters fixed 5 June as D Day. This was the date indicated by conditions of light, moon and tide as most suitable for the operation, although it was considered possible to postpone it to 6 or 7 June if this seemed desirable. As the day approached, the camps of the assault troops near the South Coast were "sealed", and communication with the outside world ceased. On 30 May, the move to the "marhsalling areas" began, and by 3 June the majority of the men of the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2dn Canadian Armoured Brigade were embarked in their various landing ships and craft in the waters about the Isle of Wight.
There is no need to dwell here on the terrible responsibility which now fell upon General Eisenhower, of deciding whether or not to launch the assault under the dubious conditions which obtained on 4 and 5 June. As is well know, an unfavourable weather forecast forced him to postpone D Day for 24 hours, to the morning of 6 June. Subsequently he decided that the further prospect, through far from ideal, was sufficiently encouraging to justify launching the operation. It went in accordingly on the morning of the 6th. We now know that the very circumstances which made the Supreme Commander's decision so painfully difficult proved, in fact, a great advantage to our enterprise, for the German weather forecasters, less skilful than ours, had not observed the probability of at least temporary improvement which encouraged him to order the assault. They had told their generals that a landing was unlikely if not impossible on the fateful Tuesday. Thus did our good fortune of Sicily repeat itself.
The front to be attacked by the Second Army lay roughly between
Bayeux and the mouth of the River Orne. The 30th British Corps directed the right sector, with one division, the 50th (Northumbrian), assaulting; the 1st British Corps had the left, with two divisions assaulting--the 3rd Canadian Division to the west and the 3rd British Division to the east. The Canadian were thus in the centre of the British front. Their role was to push forward through the gap between Bayeux and Caen, while the British divisions on their flanks took these two towns. It was hoped that by the evening of D Day both would be in our hands, and that the Canadians would be "positioned" astride the main road and railway connecting them.
The defences which our troops had to master were formidable. They had been in preparation for years past, but had been considerably strengthened since Field-Marshal Rommel took command of Army Group "B" in February 1944. As we have seen, the "lessons" of DIeppe had done much to shape them. The enemy, assuming that our first object would be the capture of one or more major ports, had directed his efforts primarily to making all such port impregnable. (It had not occurred to him that we too had learned by Dieppe and subsequent experience and might bring our ports with us.) Yet he had not neglected the intermediate beaches. Although the sands themselves were not mined, there were heavy minefields imediatley behind them; and since February they had been encumbered below highwater-mark with obstacles of many types, most of which did carry mines or other explosive charges. The actual defences consisted chiefly of a series of strongpoints comprising heavy concrete gun-emplacements (and some open positions) mounting 50-millimetre, 75-0millimetre or 88-millimetre guns sited to fire along the beaches in enfilade, supported by mortar and machine-gun positions and with the whole protected by mines and barbed wire. There were four such main strongpoints on the comparatively narrow frontage--between four and five miles--which the Canadians were to assail: on either side of the mouth of the River Seulles at Courseulles-sur-Mer, at Bernières-sur-Mer, and at St. Aubin-sur-Mer. Some distance in rear of these beach defences were heavier batteries varying widely in type, designed for "counter-bombardment" against Allied ships or for fire against landing craft, or troops after landing.
The Canadians were to attack with two brigades forward, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier H.W. Foster, assaulting on the right sector astride the mouth of the Suelles, while the 8th, under Brigadier K.G. Blackader, would land on the left sector, including Berni&egrace;res and St. Aubin. Each assault brigade was supported by an armoured regiment of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade; two squadrons of each of these regiments were equipped with amphibious "D.D." tanks, capable of leaving landing craft some distance from the shore and "swimming" in. These were to form the first actual wave of
attack, timed to touch down five minutes before the leading craft.
The great preliminary aerial bombardment began at 11:31 p.m. on the night of 5-6 June. Until daylight, the RAF Bomber Command pounded the ten main coastal batteries in the assault area. Then the British bombers handed over to the United States Army Air Forces, and during the half-hour immediately preceding the ground assault, over 1000 American aircraft went for the beach defences. Clouds obliged them to bomb by instruments without direct observation. To avoid the possibility of hitting our landing craft as they closed in, extra precautions were taken, which at many points resulted in the bombs falling some distance inland and the enemy positions along the shore escaping their effects.
Battle on the Beaches
Soon after the British bombers had left the scene, the naval bombardment began in its turn. Five battleships, two monitors, 19 cruisers, 77 destroyers (60 plus 17 in reserve) and two gunboats fired on the coastal batteries and the beach defences. Then, as the assault flotillas neared the shore and the range shortened, the Army's own artillery added its weight to the storm. On the Canadian front, there were four self-propelled regiments, equipped with 105-millimetre "Priests" (for the 3rd Division had been given an extra regiment for the assault); each fired at one of the main strongpoints. And just before the first waves touched down, the Navy's rocket craft let go their terrible salvoes against the same targets. This close support bombardment was "thickened up" by the fire of destroyers, gun landing craft and support craft; these smaller vessels were responsible for most of the actual damage done by shellfire to the beach defences.
Even this enormous effort by air and sea did not destroy many of the enemy's concrete works. The Royal navy calculated that, at most, 14 per cent of the positions fired at were put out of action by its guns. There are on record many complaints from soldiers who hoped to find these defences in ruins and instead found them in action. Nevertheless, there is not the slightest doubt that it was this great bombardment which enabled us to breach the enemy's Atlantic Wall at a cost in casualties far below that which had been generally expected. Some positions were knocked out; others which were left intact were not defended; the majority were defended with less tenacity than would have been the case had it not been for the moral and physical effect upon the German garrisons of the terrific pounding to which their areas had been subjected before the assault.
H Hour (the moment at which the first landing craft were to touch down) varied from west to east along the front of attack according to the
tide. It was calculated at 7:35 a.m. for the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade and 7:45 for the 8th.f As a result of the roughness of the sea, the two Naval Group Commanders concerned decided to defer H Hour for ten minutes in each case. Even so, the first infantry craft were apparently a little late, but they touched down within a few minutes of eight o'clock. The fact that the assault was made in daylight enabled the Navy to put the units ashore precisely at the points desired; and it increased the accuracy of the naval bombardment.
The state of the sea also interfered with the employment of the D.D. tanks. On the 8th Brigade front, indeed, no attempt was made to swim them in, and they landed from their tank landing craft behind the leading infantry. On the 7thg Brigade front, however, the Naval Commander decided at the last moment to launch the tanks offshore. The unit concerned here was the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars); it lost eight Shermans before the shore was reached, but of the rest, some at least came up the beach ahead of the infantry, and, by engaging the defences, undoubtedly prevented many infantry casualties. The assaulting battalions warmly acknowledged that the tanks' work had been invaluable.
The beach battle was somewhat fiercer on the 7th Brigade's front than on the 8th Brigade's. The enemy had more artillery in his defences on the 7th's beaches, and to make matters worse, the craft carrying the armoured vehicles of the assault engineers, whose business it was to clear the beach obstacles, and who should have touched down five minutes before the infantry, were delayed. Both the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, on the right around Graye-sur-Mer, and the Regina Rifle Regiment, on the left at Courseulles, lost many men. The Winnipegs were one of the few units to come under really heavy fire before landing (in most cases the enemy seems not to have recovered from the stunning effect of the bombardment until our leading infantry were ashore). "B" Company of this battalion had the task of clearing the westernmost of the four strongpoints. in due course it joined the main body, its mission completed--"the Company Commander and twenty-six other ranks having survived the assault on the three casemates and twelve machine-gun emplacements'. The stubborn resistance of the beach positions did not prevent the beginning of inland advance, and within an hour and a half of the first touch-down, the Brigade's reserve battalion (the Canadian Scottish Regiment) had landed.4
The 8th Brigade had rather less trouble, although here too the enemy's concrete had bene relatively little affected by the bombardment and the Infantry had to capture the beach strongpoints by a costly
process of infiltration and assault. On this sector, the right assault battalion was the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, the left on the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment. Le Régiment de la Chaudière was in reserve, and the tank support was provided by the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse). Some of the Germans in the St. Aubin strongpoint did not surrender until evening, but the attacking units nevertheless got off the beaches rapidly, and it was only in villages some distance inland that they met serious delay.
As we have seen, the objective prescribed for D Day were ambitious. The plan required the Canadians, and the divisions on either flank, to get about ten miles inland by nightfall. It was intended that the 7th Brigade should drive straight on to the final objectives around Putot-en-Bessin and Brettevile-l'Orgueilleuse; but the 8th, closer to Caen, was to halt on an intermediate objective some five miles north of the city, leaving it to the reserve Brigade (Brigadier D.G. Cunningham's 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade) to pass through and occupy the left half of the final divisional objective, on high ground just west of Caen.
As it turned out, none of the final objectives was actually made good on D Day, in the Canadian sector or any other. (Two troops of tanks of the 1st Hussars did however reach the objective at Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse, and withdrew after inflicting casualties on enemy infantry.) The time-table was slightly behind from the very beginning. Although the 7tgh Brigade made good progress, it did not get beyond its intermediate objectives, and consolidated for the night east and south-east of Creully. The story in the left sector was similar. The 9th Brigade duly landed about Bernières (where General Keller with his small tactical headquarters also went ashore at 11:45 in the morning); but as a result of the trouble encountered by the 8th in the inland villages, it was late in the afternoon before Brigadier Cunningham's advanced guard, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment), could pass through and begin moving southward. It too was delayed by stubborn enemy machine-gun positions, and halted for the night concentrated some four miles north of Caen, with the balance of the Brigade further in rear.
Our losses on D Day, in this great assault undertaken with so many doubts and fears, were inevitably considerable; and yet, in all the circumstances, it must be said that they were gratifyingly few. The plan had provided for landing that day some 14,500 Canadian soldiers; the number actually landed may have been slightly smaller. Of htis force, as closely as we can calculate, 946 officers and men became casualties on 6 June. Of these, 335 were killed in action or died of wounds.5
Casualties actually suffered on the beaches cannot be distinguished form those sustained during the subsequent advance inland. there was a remarkable contrast with the Dieppe operation, where a force of just under 5000 Canadians sustained more than 3300 casualties, over 900 of them fatal; it must be remembered, however, that a large proportion of the Dieppe casualties were suffered during the withdrawal, and indeed the majority were men who became prisoners as a result of the impossibility of evacuation. Even so, the difference is notable, and we have suggested that the price of the success of 1944 was paid, in part, by the men of 1942.
Let no one think, however, that the Normandy landing was a cheap or easy victory. It was an extraordinary military performance. The legendary fortified line upon which a most ingenious and painstaking enemy had lavished so much art during the years of his occupation of France was broken and reduced to nullity in the short hours of a summer morning. This triumph--a triumph so complete that many observers, laymen and soldiers alike, found it for a moment scarcely believable--was the fruit of superlatively skilful and thorough strategic and tactical planning; of the mobilization of organized power by land, sea and air on a scale that still staggers the imagination; and, not least, of inspiring fortitude and determination on the part of the thousands of ordinary Allied soldiers who stormed the beaches. It is well to remember the mental as well as the material hazards which these men faced. Every one of them knew the story of Dieppe, and every one knew that the enemy had greatly strengthened his defences since 1942. Our own engines of publicity had effectively advertised the Atlantic Wall, building it up into a most formidable bogey in the eyes of the public, and inevitably, of our troops; making it, indeed, more formidable in prospect than it proved to be in reality. The long months during which the coming perilous operation was the subject of such constant speculation and discussion had their due effect; and there can have been no man in the assault forces who did not have to face and vanquish terrible unspoken fears within himself. This, perhaps, was an even harder victory than the one later gained against human antagonists on the beaches. To the men who won them both, the free world owes a debt too vast for calculation.
The Canadian soldiers who gave their lives in this great enterprise and in the further bloody fighting to which it was the prelude, take their rest today north of Beny-sur-Mer. Their place is high, and from beside the Cross of Sacrifice that guards it, one looks down over the pleasant green fields and woods of the Bessin to the sea they traversed and the
little seaside towns where they waged what was, for many, their first battle and their last. Courseulles, Bernières and St. Aubin--there they lie, marked by their church-spires rising above the trees. Nothing could be more peaceful now, or more unlike that wild June day when devastation rained from the skies and the Allied armies stormed ashore; and the visitor may think, perhaps, of other peaceful little towns, far away, from which these lads came of their own will to fight and die for the freedom of man on the beaches of Calvados.
On the morning of 7 June, the Canadian brigades pushed on southwards. On the right, the 7th Brigade met only scattered and ineffective resistance, and was able to go straight through to the final objectives astride the road and railway between Caen and Bayeux. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the Regina Rifle Regiment vied with each other to be first to reach the goal. It was a close finish--so close that the historian, on the basis of the units' own records, finds it impossible to say with certainty which actually won. But one point is clear. A couple of days later, General Dempsey wrote to General Keller: "A battalion of 3 Cdn Division was the first unit in the Second Army to reach the final objective. That is something which you will always remember with pride."
The Advance to the Final Objectives and the First German Counter-Attacks
In the Canadian left sector, the story was different. At this point we must note the nature of the German dispositions. These have been described by Viscount Montgomery in his Dispatch:
Rommel and von Rundstedt were not in agreement on the manner in which invading forces should be dealt with. Rommel, who was no strategist, favoured a plan for the total repulse of an invader on the beaches; his theory was to aim at halting the hostile forces in the immediate beach area by concentrating a great volume of fire on the beaches themselves and to seaward of them; he advocated thickening up the beach defences, and the positioning of all available reserves near the coast. Von Rundstedt, on the other hand, favoured the "crust-cushion-hammer" plan; this implied a "crust" of infantry manning the coast line, with a "cushion" of infantry divisions in tactical reserve in close in rear, and a "hammer" of armoured forces in strategic reserve further inland. The cushion was designed to contain enemy forces which penetrated the crust, and the hammer was available for lauchning decisive counter attacks as required. These differing theories led to a compromise; the armoured reserves were generally kept well back, but the majority of the infantry divisions was committed to strengthening the crust. The result was that, in the event, the Panzer divisions were forced to engage us prematurely and were unable to concentrate to deliver a coordinated blow: until it was too late.6
The coastal defences were held by infantry divisions,k usually static formations with limited transport. The whole British front of assault was garrisoned by the 716th Infantry Division. There were two of the armoured divisions at hand here: the 21st Panzer Division and the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend). The latter, a formation of fanatical young Nazis which was soon to establish a reputation for barbarity by the murder of Canadian prisoners, was in reserve south of Rouen; the former, embodying in itself the unhappy results for the Germans of the compromise above referred to, wsa divided. Part of its infantry was close to the coast on either side of Caen, but the armour was well to the south near Falaise. it was virtually impossible, in these circumstances, for the Division to deliver a coordinated counter-attack. It did, in fact, get its tanks, or some of them, into action on the evening of 6 June against the 3rd British Division, and its commander, Lt.-Gen. Feuchtinger, claims that they actually reached the sea at Lion-sur-Mer; but counter-attacks and the excellence of the British anti-tank defence forced them to retire at once.
To make matters worse for the Germans, the actions of Rundstedt as Commander-in-Chief West were severely hobbled by still higher authority. Several armoured divisions were directly under the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces and could not be committed to action without Hitler's approval. Although details of the Allied operations were slow in reaching his Headquarters, Rundstedt asked permission of Berlin to put in these reserves as soon as it seemed clear that an important effort was being made in the Caen area. This request was sent, he says, at four in the morning of 6 June, shortly after the paratroop landings and long before the seaborne assault. But not until four that afternoon was authority received to move the divisions. The consequence was that the immediate armoured counter-attack against the Canadians could not be delivered until the following morning.
It was the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade that received the weight of it. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Armoured Regiment pushed on again early on the 7th to seize the Brigade's final objectives. They met considerable resistance, but before noon they had occupied Buron and drive on to Authie, which stands on the high ground marking the objectives. The village was captured by the leading troops after a skirmish, but it was not held for long. The formidable units of the 12th SS Panzer Division, which had begun to move even before authority arrived from the Supreme Command, had marched all night
and were now coming into action.
As opposition had stiffened and the advanced guard was now both dispersed and dangerously isolated, it was decided to withdraw the Canadian platoons who had entered AUthie and concentrate somewhat to the north. Before this could be done, the counter-attack struck. A tank battalion and a battalion of Panzer Grenadiers came at Authie from the east. The village was overrun and most of the mend in it killed or captured, and a company of the North Nova Scotias in position between Authie and BUron was likewise shot to pieces. In the early evening, Buron itself was violently attacked and the single company of Highlanders holding it lost very heavily before the survivors were brought off by a tank attack supported by artillery. Buron could not be held; and what was left of the advanced guard fell back and dug in with the other battalions of the Brigade around Les Buissons, about two miles north of Authie and about three-and-a-half from the edge of Caen.
The impetuous German attack, catching our advanced guard off balance, had inflicted very heavy casualties; the war diary of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders recorded that the regiment had lost 245 all ranks, killed, wounded or missing in the day's fighting; and a decided check had been administered to our operations. Yet this local counter-attack, in itself, represented no menace to our bridgehead, and the enemy failed to follow it up. The rapid development of our penetration had in fact forced him to throw it in on a limited scale instead of mounting a larger and better coordinated operation a little later. He had himself suffered heavy losses in the day's fighting, and according to the evidence of some of his commanders, his armoured units were short of petrol. The Germans had instantly recognized the Caen area as the pivot of their defence against our invasion. By vigorous local efforts, they had succeeded in keeping us out of it, but in the absence of infantry divisions (th 716th had a been virtually destroyed in the assault), they were compelled to use their armoured formations simply to hold the line. By 8 June, there were three armoured divisions opposite the British and Canadians from Tilly-sur-Seulles to north of Caen. Had these been available in reserve, they could have been utilized for a most formidable stroke against us; as it was, they were committed to the mere holding of ground and to local counterattacks. But they were able to prevent further progress by our forces on this flank. Caen, which had been one of our D Day objectives, did not fall into British hands for more than a month.
A local armoured attack, quite as fierce as that which had hit the 9th Brigade on D plus one, fell upon the 7th on D plus two. In the course of the morning, determined infiltration by enemy tanks and infantry encircled and largely cut to pieces the three forward companies of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in and around Putot-en-Bessin. Brigadier Foster
proceeded to organize a counter-stroke. That evening, a most gallant, through costly, attack by the Canadian Scottish completed restored the situation and recovered Putot, which the Scottish held thereafter.
The Regina Rifle Regiment had heavy fighting later this same day in its positions around Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse and Norrey-en-Bessin. There was a desperate night-long battle in the former village against Panther tanks,7 of which twenty-two are said to have been circling about in the vicinity of the Battalion Headquarters. It was a wild night; but the Panthers paid for their temerity, the enemy's infantry failed to gain a foothold, and when dawn came, Brettevile and Norrey with still in Canadian keeping.
During 7 June, the 8th Brigade was engaged in clearing out bypassed snipers who were still troublesome in the rear areas, and in making an unsuccessful attack against the fortified radar station west of Douvres-la-Dèlivrande, a formidable position which actually held out until 17 June. On the 11th, an attack was put in the right sector with a view to seizing commanding ground near Cheux, south of Norrey. The Queen's Own Rifles attacked through the 7th Brigade positions with strong armoured support. The attack penetrated as far as Le Mesnil-Patry, but was then stopped in its tracks by very heavy opposition. The 1st Hussars and the Queen's Own both had many casualties. The same day, the other units of the 8th Brigade assisted the 46th Royal Marine Commando in clearing the nearby valley of the little River Mue.
By 11 June, the first phase of Operation OVERLORD was at an end. The bridgehead was secure, although in the eastern sector, the failure to take Caen meant that it was much more contracted than had been intended. All along the Allied line the assault had been successful. The airborne troops, who began to drop soon after midnight on the night of 5-6 June, had made a most important contribution; on the British flank, the fact that they secured bridges over the Orne intact was subsequently of great significance. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion,
although dropped in error over much too wide an area, gave a good account of itself and effectively repulsed a heavy counter-attack on the morning of 7 June.
The bloodiest beach fighting had taken place on the part of the First United States Army front known as OMAHA, north-east of Isigny, where a good German field division had been on the coast. There was a desperate struggle here during the first two days, but the Americans' foothold gradually deepened and on 9 June they were able to take the offensive effectively. By that time, the various bridgeheads were linked up all along the front of assault, except for a gap between the two American sectors near Carentan, and contact was made across this the next day.
The performance of the Canadian troops had given the deepest satisfaction to their commanders. On the evening of 9 June, General keller had sent to General Crerar a cheerful progress report:
Last two days spent repelling violent counter-attacks. Enemy armour, self-propelled guns and infantry attacks forced my left back slightly but right has held and necessary adjustments made despite all-out ferocity of enemy and treacherous snipers' attacks. Losses approximately 1400-1500 all ranks. 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade particularly stubborn and despite heavy casualties counter-attacked and restored situation in heroic manner. All of us still fighting like mad. Am very proud of them . . .
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (10) * Next Chapter (12)