The Bloody Battles Around Caen: Army, Part 96

September 21, 2011 by Terry Copp
Canadian soldiers during their advance into the industrial area near Caen, July 18, 1944. [PHOTO: GORDON H. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA129128]

Canadian soldiers during their advance into the industrial area near Caen, July 18, 1944.
PHOTO: GORDON H. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA129128

On the afternoon of July 11, 1944, Canadian Corps Headquarters once again became operational on the soil of France. Lieutenant-General Guy Granville Simonds assumed responsibility for 7,280 metres of front in the Caen sector of Normandy. There was little time or inclination to mark this event or link it with the memory of the vaunted Canadian Corps of First World War fame because there was too much to be done.

Third Division, weary from 35 days of battle, was to be withdrawn for an all-too-brief period of rest and for some rehearsing for its next operation. Elements of the newly arrived 2nd Div. would take over part of the line and acquire some badly needed experience. Plans for the corps’ role in Operation Goodwood had to be elaborated while Simonds met with his divisional and brigade commanders.

Simonds would emerge from the Second World War with a reputation as a brilliant, innovative commander. His Chief of Staff, Brigadier N.E. Roger, wrote: “Never have I worked for anyone with such a precise and clear and farseeing mind—he (Simonds) was always working on a plan with a clear-cut objective which he took care to let all of us know in simple and direct terms…. He reduced problems in a flash to basic facts and variables, picked out those that mattered, ignored those that were side issues and made up his mind and got on with it. No temporizing or bad decisions either.”

Not every soldier who served with or under Simonds would share this enthusiasm. The general’s cool, detached analytical mind was accompanied by an overwhelming self-confidence and a degree of arrogance that could make life very difficult for those, who in Simonds’ view, failed to live up to his standards. Simonds did not attempt to lead, he sought only to command.

An army of volunteer citizen-soldiers, with an officer corps of widely varying experience and ability certainly needed solid professionalism at the top. But it also needed something more—a type of leadership that could raise it above a collection of fiercely independent and proud regiments. The soldiers of 3rd Div. had done well in the first phase of the Normandy Campaign and some of the battalions were superbly led. But by mid-July the constant stress of combat had worn the division down beyond a point where a three-day ‘rest’ could revitalize it. The divisional commander, General R.F.L. Keller, was not bearing up well and should have been replaced. More than a few battalion and company commanders were burned out and had turned inward, suspicious and hostile towards the various levels of higher authority which always seemed to have yet another bloody task for the boys at the sharp end.

Meanwhile, the inexperienced 2nd Div. was to join 3rd Div. in preparation of the long-awaited offensive drive down the Caen-Falaise road. Second Div. had been in France on that fateful August day in 1942 when the Dieppe Raid had virtually destroyed two brigades. Its subsequent training in Britain was extensive, but like all ‘green’ Allied formations, the division was not properly prepared for the warfare confronting the Allies in Normandy. Every combat lesson turned in by officers of 3rd Div. stressed the need for the closest possible co-ordination of all arms if an attack was to be successful. Third Div. had pretty well integrated the squadrons of 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade into its units by July and had worked out problems of artillery close support. Second Div., which had spent the pre-invasion period training for an assault crossing of a river, did not have an armoured brigade to train with. Instead, the tired regiments of 2nd Cdn. Armd. Bde. were to offer support to both infantry divisions. Now on the eve of its first battle, there was simply no time for the infantry to familiarize themselves with the men or the tactics of the armoured regiments.

A wounded soldier is treated on the battlefield near Caen, July 15, 1944. [PHOTO: GORDON H. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA133244]

A wounded soldier is treated on the battlefield near Caen, July 15, 1944.
PHOTO: GORDON H. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA133244

To make matters worse, veterans of the Fort Garry Horse, Sherbrooke Fusiliers and 1st Hussars were less than enthusiastic about fighting alongside the newcomers. The war diaries and reports of the armoured regiments are full of comments on the “jumpy,” “nervous,” “green” soldiers and this attitude, however understandable, did not help bolster anyone’s confidence.

This needs to be explained because the first battles fought by II Canadian Corps included some of the most costly and tragic moments in Canadian military history. The basic cause of the difficulties of July and August was the skill and tenacity of the German army. It is worth remembering General Bedell Smith’s story of how a group of senior American officers debating the reasons for the slowness of their advance were silenced when the general’s driver commented laconically, “Sir, I reckon it’s the Germans.” That is no doubt true, but the Canadian commanders were far from blameless in the summer of 1944.

Their problems were accentuated by the deeply flawed plan for Operation Goodwood. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, the British Army’s most experienced armoured general, was in command of the operation, but the idea of using vulnerable Allied tanks to lead an advance out of the narrow Orne River bridgehead south towards Falaise came from staff officers willing to risk tank losses on a large scale. “We are short of men, but have lots of tanks,” they reasoned, and so Goodwood was to begin July 18.

The critics who pointed out that the open fields and ridges south of Caen provided ideal tank-killing ground were ignored or reminded that 2,000 heavy bombers would be employed to crack the crust of the defences.

The Canadian role in Goodwood—Operation Atlantic—contained none of the potential glory of an armoured breakthrough. The attack by II Canadian Corps was designed to support the right wing of the British advance, capturing the villages of Colombelles, Faubourg de Vaucelles and the village of Giberville. The corps was then to exploit southwards to the ridge the British called Bourguébus, and the Canadians, Verrières.

Three areas in the Canadian sector had been selected as heavy bomber targets: Giberville, the “factory area,” and the southeast suburbs of Caen. These places were to be destroyed and “cratering was accepted.” The Queen’s Own Rifles and Le Régiment de la Chaudiere led off 45 minutes after O’Connor’s armoured attack began. Four field regiments (96 guns) were to fire a rolling barrage and two medium regiments were to put down concentrations of fire on a timed program. The allotment of ammunition was 500 rounds per field gun and 300 per medium gun. The application of this enormous weight of high explosives on a narrow “corridor” 1,820 metres wide through a built-up area was bound to block roads and make rapid movement difficult, but this was accepted on the grounds that the bombardment would destroy the enemy’s will to resist.

The heavy bombers struck a number of targets with exceptional accuracy, demoralizing the German infantry and destroying armoured battle groups. At Cuillverville, two companies of the 21st Panzer Div. were hit by 1,126 tons of high explosive, destroying tanks, assault guns and a 57-ton Tiger tank which was flipped on its back. Elsewhere, craters and damaged buildings blocked roads, provided the Germans with defensive positions and slowed the Allied advance.

The Queen’s Own, moving out quickly on the left flank, found at first that the stunned conscripts of the Luftwaffe’s 16th Div. surrendered without much resistance. But, as the field artillery barrage moved off on its path towards Giberville, the battalion was stopped by machine-gun fire from the factory building on the high ground to the right. With the help of a troop of 1st Hussar tanks this position was temporarily put out of action and the QOR’s struggled across the open wheat fields to the outskirts of Giberville.

Lieutenant J.A.C. Auld, who commanded the QOR’s 13th Platoon, later described the battle for the village to the divisional historical officer: “In the town, house clearing was begun and rifleman G. Cummings soon brought another 20 PoW (prisoners of war) from the basement…tanks fired first into a building and the infantry brought forth another batch of prisoners…. The remaining section of 13th Platoon under Sgt. Wilson…was fired upon…the source was not evident and Cpl. C. Harris stood in the road returning shot for shot until Sgt. Wilson was able to locate the fire in the orchard…. Cpl. Stiff, with a section, then outflanked the enemy position, though they had dangerously little munitions left, and proceeded to clear the whole overhead, taking about 25 prisoners.”

Auld commented that the afternoon’s work, which yielded several hundred prisoners, was a colossal bluff. The radio had failed, the company was short of ammunition and had been forced to dispatch men to guard the prisoners, but the Luftwaffe conscripts were more than ready to surrender at any show of force.

On the right flank, the other battalions of 8th Bde. were unable to move beyond the chateau at Colombelles. Le Régiment de la Chaudiere was stopped cold by heavy fire and was not able to bypass the position. The reserve battalion, the North Shore (N.B.) Regiment, attempted to move through by climbing down the steep river bank. However, it was quickly pinned down. Nineth Bde., which was supposed to push through and capture Vaucelles, was now strung out in a long column which the war diary of the lead battalion, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, described as “a lovely target should Jerry decide to attack.”

. [ILLUSTRATION: ALLIE GASSER]

.
ILLUSTRATION: ALLIE GASSER

By midday all semblance of order was gone; three battalions from two brigades were trying to break through the same bottleneck with two more battalions at their heels. The Chaudieres were ordered to withdraw to a safe distance while the divisional artillery blasted the chateau. At 2:40  p.m. the barrage began. Unfortunately, notification of a targeted area did not reach the SD&Gs in time and one of their companies was caught in the open, suffering 13 casualties from their own guns. It was late afternoon before the Chaudieres secured the chateau and the advance was reorganized. With the North Shores committed to a night-long battle for the steelworks east of Caen, 9th Bde. groped its way into Vaucelles. “Some of the enemy had been dazed by the bombing and showed little fight, but others resisted fiercely, concealing themselves in craters and rubble and had either to be killed or wounded.”

Simonds had long since ordered 7th Bde. to cross the Orne from the centre of Caen directly into Vaucelles where opposition was slight. The Regina Rifles were firmly installed astride the main road by midnight.

During the next day, 9th Bde. cleared Vaucelles of mines and booby traps, and then moved cautiously south to Cormelles which had been reported clear of enemy. The Highland Light Infantry (HLI) soon discovered that reconnaissance reports were quite wrong; Cormelles was strongly held, and it took an attack by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and Canadian Scottish Regt. to clear it and relieve the HLI. It was not until nightfall that all resistance ceased.

The armoured divisions, which had lost more than 200 tanks with hundreds of casualties on the first day, resumed their offensive the next day. Eleventh Armd. Div. lost a further 65 tanks but secured the villages of Bras and Hubert Folie, further expanding the bridgehead. The veteran 7th Armd. Div., the Desert Rats, took over the advance attempting to secure the ridge and destroy the enemy anti-tank guns. German armour, Tigers and Panthers, blocked the way and it was not until day three—July 20—that an attempt to cross the ridge crest was made. The division’s motorized rifle battalion led the attack, reaching Verrières village but any attempt to move further was met with heavy, concentrated fire.

The Bourguébus-Verrières ridge could not be secured by an armoured division. A set-piece attack by a full strength infantry division was required and Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds proposed using 2nd Cdn. Div. to accomplish the task. The consequences of that decision will be examined in the next issue.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

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