Flawed From The Start: Army, Part 97

December 5, 2011 by Terry Copp
Canadian infantry in Normandy, July 18, 1944. [PHOTO: HAROLD G. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA162447]

Canadian infantry in Normandy, July 18, 1944.
PHOTO: HAROLD G. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA162447

The Canadian part of Operation Goodwood/Atlantic began well. The veteran 3rd Canadian Division fought into Caen’s industrial zone south of the River Orne while 4th Brigade from 2nd Cdn. Div. won a difficult battle for the village of Louvigny. The 3rd British Div. on the left flank of the bridgehead also gained its initial objectives, but the two leading British armoured divisions lost close to 200 tanks without reaching the vital high ground south of the city.

The next morning, July 19, the war diary of the German Army’s Panzer Group West reported that “the enemy remained remarkably quiet. Due to bad weather there has also been no aerial activity.” Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey had, in fact, allowed the British armoured divisions time to reorganize while replacement tanks were brought forward. He ordered 7th and 11th British armoured divisions to renew their advance at 2 p.m. while 2nd Cdn. Div. attacked south from their new Orne bridgehead.

Known to the British as Bourguébus and to the Canadians as Verrières, the ridge south of Caen presents a different profile from east to west. In the British sector, it is barely discernible, rising gently from Bourguébus to Tilly-la-Campagne. The ground is ideal for the enemy’s long-range anti-tank weapons.

West of the highway, in the Canadian sector, the ridge rises to 88 metres and looms over the villages of St. André-sur-Orne and St. Martin de Fontenay. A spur of the ridge, known by its height in metres as Point 67, bars a direct approach and would have to be secured before an assault on the main position could begin. To complicate matters, the ground west of the Orne, including the notorious Hill 112, was still held by the enemy providing perfect observation of the Canadian sector.

Today, a ring road around Caen and a new bypass cut through parts of the battlefield, but visitors can study the actual ground from the memorial park on Point 67. The site was a refuse dump until the Toronto Scottish Regiment, marking their 100th anniversary and the 100th birthday of their honorary colonel, the Queen Mother, created a memorial in partnership with the Canadian Battlefields Foundation and the village of St. Martin de Fontenay.

The village has transformed the site into an attractive park that preserves the Toronto Scottish memorial and other regimental plaques. A large map based on the 1944 topographical sheet used by the soldiers allows easy comparison of the battle space to the postwar human imprint on the ground.

The basic features of the battlefield are readily evident. On the afternoon of July 19, the Régiment de Maisonneuve led off the advance to Point 67, securing Fleury-sur-Orne. The Calgary Highlanders took the next bound, seizing the hill and fending off the first counterattacks and the Black Watch moved forward on the left in front of the village of Ifs. The stage was ready for a set-piece attack on the main ridge.

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds proposed to advance on a three-battalion front with all available field and medium artillery in support. Originally, this action was to be co-ordinated with the capture of the eastern end of the ridge by 7th British Armd. Div. However, when this attack stalled, Simonds told the army commander that the infantry could do it alone.

This decision, which was to result in one of the costliest and frustrating actions fought by the Canadians in 1944, was influenced by Simonds’ belief that the ridge was held by what Allied intelligence classified as a low-category, inexperienced German infantry division. The 272nd Div., a standard 1944 seven-battalion, 12,000-man formation, had been stationed in the south of France. The division arrived in Normandy with its artillery and anti-tank guns to relieve 1st SS Panzer Div. south of the Orne. It took the brunt of the Canadian attack in the first days off Operation Atlantic and had failed to hold Point 67, confirming estimates of its relative weakness.

Simonds did not know that the German response to the Anglo-Canadian advance of July 18-19 verged on panic. The loss of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, wounded when his car was attacked by a fighter-bomber on the eve of Goodwood, gave weight to his warnings that, without replacements, the “unequal struggle” against the Allies was reaching a climax. On July 18, Hitler agreed to allow 116th Panzer Div. and other forces from 15th Army to move south of the River Seine to form new reserves for the Normandy battle. With this insurance, German Field Marshal Von Kluge ordered 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Corps to commit their armoured battalions to new counterattacks.

On the morning of July 20, as the plot to assassinate Hitler unfolded at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia, Simonds held an O (Order) Group to finalizing plans for the attack. The 6th Bde., with the Essex Scottish under command, was to seize the ridge. Their objective, described simply as the “Verrières feature,” required the Fusiliers Mont Royal (FMRs) to take and hold Verrières village. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were to clear St. André and St. Martin before securing the western end of the ridge at May-Sur-Orne. The South Saskatchewan Regt. drew the task of digging in on the reverse slope between these two objectives.

British self-propelled guns support Canadian action near Ifs, France, July 1944. [PHOTO: DONALD I. GRANT, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA162412]

British self-propelled guns support Canadian action near Ifs, France, July 1944.
PHOTO: DONALD I. GRANT, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA162412

Simonds had repeatedly stressed the need to plan ways of defeating the inevitable German counterattacks and Major-General Charles Foulkes, the divisional commander, assigned 2nd Anti-Tank Regt. to the South Saskatchewans and a squadron of Sherbrooke Fusilier tanks to both flanking battalions. Their role was to assist the infantry during a counterattack, not during the advance. The threat from the open right flank across the Orne was left to the medium artillery and 83 Group 2nd Tactical Air Force. Typhoons were also employed against targets of opportunity south of the ridge. However, there was no provision for close support based on ground-to-air communication.

The enemy defences included forward outposts manned by the 272nd Infantry Div. On the reverse slope, tanks of 1st SS Panzer Div., as well as armoured assault guns, waited to lead the infantry in counterattacks.

H-hour was 3 p.m., and 6th Bde. moved out in loose formations, two companies of each battalion up. The Camerons found that artillery fire and the machine-guns of the Toronto Scottish, providing indirect fire, kept the enemy’s heads down. This allowed the Manitobans to clear the scattered houses and orchards of St. Andre-sur-Orne. On the far left, the FMRs reached Beauvoir Farm and the east-west road in record time, and the two reserve companies moved up to tackle Verrières village. In the centre, the South Saskatchewans “did the first thousand yards in very fast time,” overcoming enemy machine-gun positions at the crossroads.

Little has changed in the landscape and it is still possible to walk beside the same fields planted in the same crops. In 1944, the wheat and oats were waist-high, waving in a light breeze that did little to cool a hot, muggy summer’s day. Back then, two storms struck 6th Bde. Torrential rain, which ended air support and artillery observation, was coupled with a series of German counterattacks which came from all directions. The FMRs were hit with a terrific concentration of mortar and machine-gun fire…on the whole battalion front. C Squadron of the Sherbrookes sent seven tanks forward to meet the German armour, but four were lost before the survivors withdrew. With help from a Toronto Scottish machine-gun platoon, one FMR company tried to hold Troteval Farm, but was cut off and overrun.

The South Saskatchewan Regt. was digging in on the reverse slope of the ridge when the rain and enemy struck. Major George Matthews, who had taken over the battalion when Lieutenant-Colonel Fred Clift assumed temporary command of 4th Bde., ordered the battalion six-pounders, mortars, carrier and pioneers platoon to help prepare a battalion “fortress.” Meanwhile, a troop of the 2nd Anti-Tank Regt. began to move to positions on the flank.

But before these moves could be completed, enemy infantry and tanks advanced over the crest, “shooting all hell out of everything in their path.” The thinly armoured anti-tank guns, caught on the move, were destroyed and the forward rifle companies overrun. Armoured battle groups from 1SS and 2nd Panzer divisions roamed at will, forcing a withdrawal that quickly became a rout.

The “firm base” supposedly established at the foot of the ridge also collapsed as enemy tanks approached. The Essex Scottish commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel B.F. Macdonald, tried to exercise control by ordering the forward companies to retire behind the reserve position, but the retreat turned into a chaotic race for safety. Fortunately, the two Essex reserve companies held their ground, maintaining a more or less continuous front.

The Camerons, who had begun to clear St. Martin de Fontenay, were hit by yet another Panzer battle group, and its commanding officer, without consulting brigade or division, decided to concentrate his companies and hold on to St. André. This left much of St. Martin and the so-called factory area south of the village in enemy hands.

A Sqdn. of the Sherbrookes, commanded by Major Radley-Walters, played a key role in the village’s defence. Under fire from the longer range guns of a Panther tank company, “Rad” withdrew his tanks to an orchard where secure hull-down positions were obtained. When two aggressive Panthers were killed by fire from a 17-pounder Firefly, the enemy armour moved back, allowing the Camerons and the Toronto Scottish machine-guns to deal with the German infantry. Holding St. André was the one solid achievement of the day.

The battle fought by the British and Canadians, July 18-21, cost 6,168 killed, wounded or missing. It also produced hundreds of battle exhaustion casualties, adding to the manpower drain that was steadily weakening Montgomery’s Army Group. It was the human cost of Goodwood/Atlantic—not tank losses or the failure to gain objectives—that mattered most. In addition to the personal tragedies, the attritional battle weakened the combat power of the Anglo-Canadian armies at a crucial moment in the Normandy Campaign.

.[ILLUSTRATION: MICHAEL BECHTHOLD]

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ILLUSTRATION: MICHAEL BECHTHOLD

It was a crucial moment because the enemy continued to regard the Caen front as the most dangerous sector. The German high command continued to commit scarce resources there while the American buildup in the west threatened the very survival of 7th German Army.

Canadian casualties included 1,149 suffered by 2nd Div., most of them on the last day of Atlantic. Some of these losses were due to inexperience, but the major culprit was their flawed plan. The soldiers of 6th Bde. were ordered into action after a hurried crossing of the Orne. There was no time for proper reconnaissance and only a last-minute postponement of H-hour allowed enough time for the troops to be fed.

Simonds knew that 7th Armd. Div., which had captured Bourguébus village in the morning, had met strong resistance on the ridge and had been forced to withdraw. He also knew that the army commander was—for the time being—willing to settle for what was already gained. So why did Simonds press ahead? Was he anxious to prove he and his corps were worthy successors to Arthur Currie and the Canadians who had captured Vimy Ridge in 1917 and led the Allied advance in the Hundred Days of 1918? Was it simply his confidence in the sledgehammer blow of a strongly supported infantry brigade?

Whatever the reasons it is evident that the corps, which had shown considerable skill and determination in the tactical victories won on the 18th and 19th, tasted the bitter fruits of defeat on July 20. Recriminations and the search for scapegoats began immediately. Matthews of the South Saskatchewan Regt. was killed in action, but Macdonald, the commanding officer of the Essex Scottish, was relieved of command for failing to exercise full control over his battalion. Macdonald prepared a detailed defence of his conduct that was especially critical of the brigade commander. His protest was in vain, but shortly afterwards Brigadier H.A. Young was promoted to major-general and reassigned to a staff position in Ottawa.

A serious challenge was the lack of experienced brigade and divisional commanders. At the sharp end, battalion and company commanders who did not measure up could be readily identified, but at more senior levels it was difficult to evaluate success or failures.

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