Murder In Normandy: Army, Part 91

November 28, 2010 by Terry Copp
A Canadian tank rumbles through Authie, June 1944. [PHOTO:  LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

A Canadian tank rumbles through Authie, June 1944.
PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES

All those involved in the planning for D-Day knew there were two quite separate problems in securing a beachhead. The first task, breaking through the crust of defences known as the Atlantic Wall was rightly seen as the major challenge, but preparation and rigorous training was also required to carry out the advance inland to widen and deepen the bridgehead. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade, known as the Highland Brigade, had been selected to lead the Canadian advance, so Brigadier D.G. “Ben” Cunningham and his battalion commanders prepared detailed plans.

The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Petch, and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, led by Lt.-Col. Mel Gordon, trained together in England where they broke down the barriers to effective infantry-tank co-operation. Their battle group, which included mortars and machine-guns of the Camerons of Ottawa, M10 self-propelled anti-tank guns and Forward Observation Officers from the 14th Field Regiment, would lead the way. A young naval lieutenant was attached to provide a link with His Majesty’s Ship Belfast, the cruiser assigned to the Juno sector. Missing from this all-arms battle group was a link with the tactical air force, which would not be established for several days.

The original plans called for the brigade to move south to Carpiquet village and the airport on D-Day. Enemy resistance, traffic jams, and the counterattack by tanks of the 21st Panzer Division created a dangerous, enemy-occupied gap between Sword and Juno. The situation forced the army commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey, to order the troops to dig in at their intermediate objective.

The 3rd Canadian and 3rd British divisions were part of Lt.-Gen. Sir John Crocker’s I British Corps, which was also responsible for the bridgehead seized by 6th British Airborne Div. On the evening of June 6, Crocker faced a complex situation. The lightly-equipped paratroopers and glider-borne troops needed reinforcement, the gap between Sword and Juno had to be closed, and the push inland resumed. Since 21st Panzer Div. was heavily committed to blocking the direct route to Caen, Crocker counted on the Canadians and 3rd British Division’s 9th Bde. to outflank the enemy, securing the western approaches to the city.

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Major J.D. Learment of the North Novas participated in defining the role of the vanguard he would soon command. A mixed force of some 300 men, including his own company mounted in Bren gun carriers, a medium machine-gun platoon, a troop of M10s, and the recce squadron of the Sherbrookes, were to move rapidly to the high ground overlooking Carpiquet and make contact with the lead battalions of the British and Canadian brigades on their flanks. They would be the forward tip of a diamond-shaped formation that employed squadrons of Sherbrooke medium tanks with a third squadron in reserve. The flanking squadrons would carry two other North Nova companies, with the remaining company and squadron in reserve.

Surviving elements of Germany’s 716th Div., with attached units from 21st Panzer, held well-camouflaged positions along the road to Buron. This forced the Canadians into a series of time-consuming engagements. Buron itself was defended, and the approaches were under enemy mortar fire from the higher ground around St. Contest. Petch and Gordon reacted promptly: B Squadron broke to the left of the centre line while A Sqdn. went right. The reserve squadron sent one troop and then another forward to the village of Buron to assist the vanguard.

The Sherbrooke tanks moved quickly, suppressing both machine-gun and mortar fire. Buron was cleared of enemy, and the advance pressed beyond the village of Authie. This aggressive attempt to push through to Carpiquet was based on the belief that the enemy only consisted of elements of the 716th and 21st Panzer divisions. There was no indication from air reconnaissance that an entire Panzer Grenadier regiment, with a battalion of Mark IV tanks and artillery, had arrived and were assembling on the reverse slope south of the Caen-Bayeux road. At 1 p.m., Learment signalled the capture of Authie and an advance to Franqueville, but he also reported sighting “enemy armour 800 yards east of Authie.”

The commander of 25th Panzer Grenadier Regt., Standarten-fuhrer (Colonel) Kurt Meyer, had watched the approach of the Canadians from the tower of the church at the Abbaye d’Ardenne. Corps headquarters had ordered 12th SS Panzer and 21st Panzer divisions to start a joint attack at 5 p.m., but the arrival of the Canadians removed all possibility of surprise and threatened to outflank Meyer’s regiment. The Canadians could not be permitted to reach Carpiquet and dig in. Meyer decided to attack immediately, employing two of his three infantry battalions as well as three Panzer companies of roughly 50 Mk. IV tanks.

Meyer deployed his forces across the extended Canadian flank and struck with overwhelming force. A squadron of the Sherbrookes was engaged by German tanks, and the two forward troops on the west side of Authie were forced to withdraw after losing three of their six Shermans. To the east of the village, B Sqdn., with 11 Shermans, fought a close-range battle, destroying several German Mk. IVs before artillery fire and a ‘tank trap’ forced a withdrawal. About a hundred North Novas were cut off and forced to defend Authie, relying on the one remaining Sherbrooke tank, a Firefly, to fend off the German armour. Able Company, north of Authie, was still digging in when the Germans attacked. Without artillery or armoured support, they were quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. The battle for Authie then began with a heavy barrage from the 12th SS artillery followed by an infantry-tank attack. The defenders held on for more than an hour and beat back several enemy thrusts, inflicting more than 100 casualties, but outnumbered and without artillery support, they were soon overcome.

The battle for Buron lasted longer and resulted in further heavy casualties to the attackers, as contact was re-established with the navy. The 14th Field artillery was also in range. Buron was lost, recaptured, and then abandoned to the enemy when Cunningham decided to withdraw what was left of the battle group to a “brigade fortress” in Villons-les-Buissons. Canadian losses of 110 killed, 64 wounded, and 128 taken prisoner were higher than any British or Canadian unit suffered on D-Day.

Kurt Meyer (centre) on trial, December 1945. [PHOTO:  BARNEY J. GLOSTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141890]

Kurt Meyer (centre) on trial, December 1945.
PHOTO: BARNEY J. GLOSTER, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141890

The violence of this June 7th encounter did not end when the fighting stopped. In Authie, “wildly excited” Hitler Youth began murdering Canadian prisoners while the battle still raged, and continued killing prisoners after the fighting ceased. Today’s visitor to Authie is shown the Rue des Canadians, where the bodies of two murdered soldiers were placed in the street so that a tank could repeatedly run over them.

Other murders were committed in Buron and during the German withdrawal from the village, bringing the total to at least 37 men. After the war, SS Lieutenant-Colonel Karl-Heinz Milius, the battalion commanding officer, was indicted for war crimes, but never brought to justice.

Reports of the killing of soldiers taken prisoner during or immediately after episodes of intense close combat are common, but some of the deaths in the streets of Authie and Buron crossed the line into premeditated murder. When the killing stopped there were still 91 Canadians in German hands.

Learment, his headquarters group and the vulnerable carriers had withdrawn to Buron as Authie was overrun. They dug in and tried to beat back the enemy, but “the field was literally alive with camouflaged Germans” and a number of enemy tanks had reached the north edge of Buron, preventing a withdrawal. Surrender was the only option after ammunition ran out.

The North Nova prisoners were lined up against a wall to be executed “when a German non-commissioned officer intervened and gave the order that we were to be searched.” Learment, who was to survive the day’s brutality, imprisonment, escape, service with the resistance and the North Nova battles of 1945, recalled what followed: “Everything of value was taken from us, including our field dressings and morphine, for which we were to have a great need later. During the search one of the Germans noticed a grenade hanging on the belt of the man next to me, Private Jack Metcalfe. The German raised his Schmeisser and as Metcalfe turned towards me he was shot three or four times in the back and fell screaming at my feet.”

During the march to the Abbaye d’Ardenne, “Private Jeffrey Hargraves was wounded in the legs and could not continue. We were not allowed to help him and he was shot as he lay on the ground.” This group of 50 surviving Canadians reached the Abbaye where they were soon ordered to continue towards Caen. This left a smaller group of 11 prisoners in the Abbaye’s courtyard. It was these men who were beaten, executed and buried in the garden. The next day a further seven Canadians were interrogated and then shot.

The larger group assumed the worst. A German truck deliberately swerved into the column, killing two men and injuring others. The next day, joined by other prisoners of war, including many from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Canadians were force-marched for five days to Rennes in Brittany; a distance of 135 miles. Tragically, 14 men were killed when strafed by Allied aircraft.

The Canadian prisoners, along with British and American captives, were loaded into “French boxcars with the familiar 40 Hommes, 8 Cheveaux lettered on the sides.” Learment and an American pilot, Lieutenant W.R. Fredenberg, managed to cut a hole in the boxcar and escaped. Protected by local farmers, they joined a Free French resistance group and fought with them until Paris was liberated.

The murders at the Abbaye d’Ardenne were to form the core of the charges against Kurt Meyer at his war crimes trial in December 1945. The evidence of Meyer’s involvement in the executions was persuasive and the military officers serving as judges imposed a death sentence, which was subsequently commuted to “life imprisonment.” No other SS officer was prosecuted for the Abbaye murders or the systematic executions that occurred at the Chateau d’Audrieu.

The Canadian public was initially outraged by the decision to reprieve Meyer, but the issues and the 154 Canadians murdered by the Hitler Youth were soon forgotten. Some influential Canadians supported a well-organized campaign to prove Meyer innocent and when he was released from prison in 1954 he received a hero’s welcome in Germany.

Some historians as well as a filmmaker have echoed this revisionist view of the events of 1944, outraging veterans and prompting new research into the murders. Ian Campbell, who together with Jacques Vico had built a monument to the soldiers executed in the Abbaye garden, published Murder at the Abbaye in 1996, an account which insisted on Meyer’s guilt and told the story of the victims. Two years later, Howard Margolian, who had served as an investigator for the War Crimes Section of Canada’s Department of Justice, released a detailed account of the killings. Titled Conduct Unbecoming: The Story of the Murder of Canadian Prisoners of War in Normandy, it used the best available forensic and eye-witness testimony. Margolian and legal scholar Patrick Brode, in his book Casual Slaughters and Accidental Judgements, effectively demolished the revisionist argument.

The Canadian Battlefields Foundation has made the executions at the Abbaye d’Ardenne a central focus of its annual university student study tour since 1996. Working in co-operation with Le Memorial in Caen, where a Canadian Memorial Garden was constructed, and the local community, the foundation has organized a widely-attended commemorative ceremony that underscores the phrase on the memorial: “They are dead but not forgotten.”

A visitor to Normandy who seeks to understand the events of June 7th would do well to begin the quest at the Canadian Military Cemetery near Reviers. Looking back towards the sea, the open country traversed on D-Day is evident, though no gunfire or long lines of army vehicles will be in sight. From there, travel south through Beny-sur-Mer, liberated by the Chaudieres on D-Day, and follow the road to Villons-les-Buissons. Here you will find a monument evoking the experience of the men of the 9th Bde. who held this area they named Hell’s Corners. Emerging from the village, the countryside is suddenly wide open, rising slightly towards St. Contest to the east of Buron.

Continuing south, it is not difficult to understand the challenge that faced the Canadian battle group when it became apparent that German forces held the ground overlooking the road to Carpiquet. Moving towards Authie and Franqueville, you can see the Abbaye d’Ardenne on your left, and you will get a full picture of the ground over which the attack came.

You may well wish to know what other options were available to Cunningham once it became evident that the British brigade, which was supposed to para­llel the Canadian advance, had started late and then encountered strong enemy resistance. When asked this question, Cunningham, a tall, impressive Kingston lawyer and Queen’s Counsel, replied that his orders were both clear and correct. If everyone waited until they were sure their flanks were secure, nothing would ever be achieved. No one, he insisted, could have imagined the aftermath.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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