Short, Bloody Steps: Army, Part 98

Canadian sappers construct a bridge over the Orne, July 1944. [PHOTO: HAROLD G. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA190095]

Canadian sappers construct a bridge over the Orne, July 1944.
PHOTO: HAROLD G. AIKMAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA190095

Operation Atlantic was called off on the evening of July 20, 1944, but no one told the enemy, who continued to press counterattacks designed to regain St. André-sur-Orne, Point 67 and Bourguebus in Normandy. Since the Canadians and British were dug in with good artillery observation positions and well-camouflaged anti-tank guns, the German battle groups began to take heavy losses, including precious Panther tanks.

During operations Goodwood and Atlantic, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge essentially restated German operational policy, which called for immediate counterattacks, when he ordered “concentric attacks” to throw General Montgomery’s soldiers “back across their start line.” By the end of the battle, he admitted that this was no longer possible: “The moment was fast approaching when our overtaxed line is bound to break.” He ordered his armies in Normandy to pull back and prepare to meet the next onslaught. If nothing changed, he declared, “then we must die an honourable death on the battlefield.”

Field marshals rarely die on battlefields, but front-line soldiers do. Letters from German soldiers written during the battle lamented the incessant Allied artillery fire and the lack of replacements. An SS veteran of the Eastern Front, writing on July 21, told his family, “I don’t know what will happen if we are not relieved soon. So far we have 20 killed and 60 wounded in this company. There is a great difference between Tommy and the Russians. Here one must have good nerves to stand being shelled for hours on end, and whoever manages to get out alive is pretty lucky….”

Unfortunately, the Allied commanders failed to understand the situation they had created. Eisenhower was especially out of touch, complaining that Montgomery had failed to press his offensive. The Anglo-Canadian army, he told Montgomery, “should follow the example of 1st U.S. Army and bring the whole front into action to pin down local reserves.” This was precisely what Montgomery, despite his original intentions to forge a breakout, had accomplished in Goodwood and Atlantic. German reserves, badly needed in the American sector, had been drawn onto the British and Canadian front just as the U.S. Army was preparing to launch Operation Cobra, a major offensive employing six U.S. divisions on a narrow front.

While Eisenhower and Montgomery turned their attention to new schemes for breaking through the German defensive perimeter, 2 Canadian Corps reorganized. For 2nd Division, the major problem was bringing reinforcements forward to rebuild the units shattered in Atlantic. Losses in the division’s South Saskatchewan Regiment and Essex Scottish alone required hundreds of replacements, which would strain the reinforcement pool. The battalions still in line had other work to do. When Goodwood was planned, it was assumed that 12 British Corps, to the west of the River Orne, would successfully clear Hill 112 and the high ground overlooking Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay and St. André. Operation Greenline began on the night of July 15–16, but the Allies were unable to capture the initial objective, Evrecy, and the attack stalled. The village of Maltôt, in the shadow of Hill 112, remained in enemy hands, as did Etavaux, a village on the east bank of the Orne.

Etavaux was the tip of a very large thorn in 2nd Div.’s side. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, defending the ruins of St. André, had to repeatedly deal with troops infiltrating from Maltôt on “a wooden bridge slung across the river at night.” The Calgaries, at Point 67, had tried to protect their position by masking Etavaux. Major John Campbell’s A Company became involved in some long-range firefights, but Brigadier W. J. Megill refused to allow the Calgaries to become embroiled in a battle for a village the enemy would have to evacuate as soon as 43rd British Div. cleared Maltôt.

Major Jacques Ostiguy, October 1944. [PHOTO: MICHAEL M. DEAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA131250]

Major Jacques Ostiguy, October 1944.
PHOTO: MICHAEL M. DEAN, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA131250

Unfortunately, the British were having a difficult time breaking the German hold on the west bank. Hill 112 was one of the most notorious killing grounds in Normandy. There, the British and German armies had fought each other to a standstill in a number of bloody encounters. On July 22, the 4th Battalion, Wiltshire Regt., was told to clear Maltôt to assist the Canadians, and the Régiment de Maisonneuve ordered to stage a raid on Etavaux to help out the Wilts.

The Maisonneuves used two companies to attack astride the railway. Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Nighswander, the commanding officer of 5th Field Regt., arranged a fire plan to allow his men to walk into the village. A troop of tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers took up position on high ground overlooking the line of approach. D Co., on the left, ran into heavy fire, and the company commander, Maj. Gérard Vallières, was killed. To the right, Maj. Jacques Ostiguy’s C Co. moved forward hesitantly. The barrage had failed to destroy a large number of machine-gun posts, and the Sherbrookes were unable to provide aimed fire from their perch.

There is an old adage that battles are won by the handful of determined men who instinctively attack while their comrades equally instinctively hit the ground. One such determined fellow was Sergeant Benoit Lacourse. He inspired four of his men to follow him in a mad run at the enemy, who were sweeping the approaches to Etavaux with machine-gun fire. Lacourse destroyed three machine-gun posts. The advance was again brought to a halt by “very heavy machine-gun fire from several cunningly sited posts in a hedge running across rising ground.” Ostiguy grabbed some grenades and dashed forward. He used the grenades to destroy four enemy posts and a rifle to finish off a fifth. C Co. then advanced into Etavaux, maintaining pressure until the British barrage on Maltôt began and the order came to pull out. Across the river, the battle lasted until late that night. When 43rd Div. reported that the Maltôt show was over, A and B companies returned to Etavaux and occupied it, gathering close to 100 prisoners from 272 Div. Lacourse was awarded a Military Medal and Ostiguy 2nd Division’s first Distinguished Service Order in Normandy.

Maisonneuve casualties on July 23 were 10 killed, 48 wounded and 50 moved back due to exhaustion. The Maisonneuves had now lost more than 200 riflemen and, since French-speaking reinforcements were in short supply, could not be brought back up to strength. In the next operation, 5th Brigade went into action with just two battalions.

The Canadian Battlefields Foundation installed a plaque at Point 67 explaining the Battle of Etavaux, and the local community renamed the main road into the village “Chemin Jacques Ostiguy.” The battlefield itself has changed little, and on the ground it is easy to see how the enemy could infiltrate across the Orne and threaten the Canadian position.

While the Maisonneuves cleared Etavaux and the generals planned a new attack, the Fusiliers Mont Royal (FMRs) were told to try to secure Troteval Farm, a stone-walled complex with orchards, gardens, barns and a farmhouse. During Atlantic, the FMRs had captured Beauvoir Farm, a similar establishment along the same east-west road, but had been forced out of Troteval Farm by determined counterattacks.

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, still under British command, had been ordered to begin a new operation, codenamed Spring, on July 25. Simonds wanted to use the road as an easily identifiable start line for a night attack. The FMRs had suffered heavy casualties in Atlantic and were still dug in around Beauvoir Farm and the nearby fields. Lt.-Col. J. G. Gauvreau selected his most aggressive company commander, Maj. Jacques Dextraze, to lead the charge, telling him to hand-pick 75 men to carry out the attack.

Dextraze was given a troop of tanks, the 4.2-inch mortars of the Toronto Scottish, 6th Field Regt., and a medium artillery regiment. His plan called for a quick 1,000-metre advance at last light, with the tanks and a troop of self-propelled anti-tank guns protecting the flanks. The artillery would target the farm and then seek to isolate the area to prevent reinforcement.

.[ILLUSTRATION: MICHAEL BECHTHOLD]

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ILLUSTRATION: MICHAEL BECHTHOLD

Dextraze described the action to the divisional historical officer: “My men took only their weapons, skeleton web and a ground sheet in which was rolled a tin of bully-beef and some hard tack.” Everyone was organized into one of 18 Bren light machine-gun groups. The No. 2 man carried a rifle, two 36 grenades and half of the 15 Bren magazines. The section leader took a Sten gun and the rest of the spare magazines. Each platoon had one three-man PIAT (Projector, Infantry Anti-Tank) section, since a tank-led counterattack was a near certainty.

Dextraze got his men to carry their Brens “with a sling, held firmly against the hip.” Body armour, which had been issued on a trial basis, was discarded as too heavy and awkward for an advance through waist-high wheat at 75 metres a minute.

Supporting arms played a crucial role in the attack. The Torscot’s heavy mortars provided screening fire southeast of the objective, while the FMRs and the South Saskatchewan’s three-inch mortars interdicted movement from the south and west.

The barrage was accurate, and the FMRs moved close behind it. No one was hit by short rounds, and the three platoons reached their positions around the objective before the enemy could react. The farm was cleared in 15 minutes, but German tanks attacked quickly, firing as they came. The FMRs, occupying the slit trenches abandoned by the enemy, used PIATs and grenades to fend off the tanks.

By 2 a.m. on July 24, it was evident that the enemy was not willing to give up Troteval Farm, and the FMRs were ordered to withdraw in preparation for a medium artillery stonk. Dextraze believed his men were well protected in their slits and could stay in place, but he pulled everyone out at 3 a.m., returning when the artillery shoot was finished.

Dextraze, who later served as Chief of the Defence Staff (1972–77), offered valuable lessons in leadership after the battle. “Always tell your men exactly where you the company commander will be at various phases of the battle…. When they know where you are and feel that you are confident they themselves will be confident and aggressive.” The commander must, however, stay back “at a point where he can view all the forces or at least know what they are doing….”

Much of what happens in battle, Dextraze argued, depends on training. “Men never forget. An officer’s influence on his men in times of action varies with the consideration he has shown them in training. If they respect him during training they will respond to his control under fire.”

There were also tactical lessons to be learned. “When advancing, go slowly and thoroughly. Burn every haystack. Clear a few houses thoroughly and not many haphazardly. Take chances with the artillery barrage; being close to it is essential…. Defensive Fire tasks must be laid down all around the objective beforehand. There is neither time nor opportunity in action to indicate targets.”

A memorial plaque was placed at Troteval Farm to commemorate the sacrifice of the FMRs in the battles for Verrières Ridge. Unfortunately, its text fails to mention the attack of July 23.

The apparent success of the FMRs encouraged Simonds to complete his planning for Operation Spring. He allowed himself to believe that two things would somehow create a secure start line: a small number of men holding Troteval Farm and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, securing their end of the road in St. André-sur-Orne.

Operation Spring was to be the first major attack to be carried out at night in the battle of Normandy. Three battalions were to move to the start line in full darkness. Searchlights aimed at the clouds were to provide partial illumination, but no one had experience with artificial moonlight and only limited, long-forgotten training in night moves.

The battle on July 25, 1944, was one of the bloodiest actions fought by our soldiers in the war. We shall examine what happened and why in the next articles in this series.

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.