Normandy Tour: Roads To The River Seine

March 26, 2014 by Terry Copp

Most of the Canadian soldiers who served in the Battle of Normandy were not involved in the D-Day landings or the bridgehead battles.

The 2nd Canadian Division did not arrive in France until after the capture of Caen on July 9 and 4th Armoured Div. reached Normandy later in the month, in time to take part in the August battles. Thus, for many veterans and their families, the area south of Caen and the roads to the River Seine are the important places of pilgrimage.

The 3rd Canadian Division advances south  of Bretteville-le-Rabet, France, Aug. 14, 1944. [PHOTOS: DONALD I. GRANT, DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116536]

The 3rd Canadian Division advances south of Bretteville-le-Rabet, France, Aug. 14, 1944.
PHOTOS: DONALD I. GRANT, DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA116536

To visit these sites of war and memory, begin at the memorial park on the edge of St. Martin-de-Fontenay. Located on Point 67, the northern spur of Verrières Ridge, the park was established in 2001 by the Canadian Battlefields Foundation and the Toronto Scottish Regiment. The project was adopted by the citizens of St. Martin-de-Fontenay and transformed into a regional park dedicated to the Canadians. The site overlooks the ridge and the Caen-Falaise highway, offering views north towards Caen, west to the River Orne and Hill 112 and south to the ground which Canadians fought for in a series of costly operations. A map board, oriented to the south, allows the visitor to understand the scope of Operations Atlantic, Spring, and Totalize which have been described in this series. Separate plaques commemorate the Toronto Scottish, the Black Watch, and the Régiment de Maisonneuve.

The official historian, C.P. Stacey, rarely allowed any emotion to colour his account but on viewing Verrières Ridge he wrote: “Well may the wheat and sugar beet grow green and lush upon its gentle slopes, for in that now half-forgotten summer the best blood of Canada was freely poured out among them.”

Further insight into the battles of July and August 1944 can be gained by continuing south to Highway D89 in the centre of St. Martin. To the west is St. André-sur-Orne which was captured by the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders from Winnipeg and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers in Operation Atlantic. If you cross the Orne River and continue part way up the hill you can see what the German artillery and mortar observers saw throughout July when they held this ground dominating the Canadian flank. You may wish to pause for an espresso or café crème at the café just east of the bridge, a favourite stop on our student tours.

Poppies blow along a fenceline in Normandy. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE]

Poppies blow along a fenceline in Normandy.
PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE

Travelling east on the D89 you soon reach Beauvoir and Troteval farms, the locations of fierce encounters with a determined enemy. Turn south at Troteval Farm on the road marked “Hameau de Verrières,” and drive slowly towards the village. This is the centre line of the brilliantly successful advance by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) on the night of July 25. Lieutenant-Colonel John “Rocky” Rockingham and his men seized the village and held it against repeated counterattacks by SS troops.

A plaque located beside a small village chapel commemorates the achievement. Walk up the adjacent farmer’s road to the crest  of the hill. Look east to Tilly-la-Campagne, the objective of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and west towards May-sur-Orne. The RHLI or “Rileys” were fortunate that their village objective was on a reverse slope, not in the open fields that the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Black Watch were ordered to cross in full daylight.

If you are pressed for time when leaving Verrières village, go directly to the Caen-Falaise highway, the N158, and take the exit for Cintheaux and the Canadian cemetery. If your main interest is in the experience of the regiments serving in 2nd Div., return to the D562. As you drive south to May-sur-Orne, the ridge and the route followed by the Calgary Highlanders and Black Watch on July 25 can be seen. Turn towards Fontenay-le-Marmion on the D418. Look for Rue Verrières on your left and follow it to the end to view the battlefield as the enemy saw it. The villages of Fontenay and Rocquancourt on the D41 were finally captured on Aug. 8-9. The South Saskatchewan Regiment’s success “leaning into the barrage” to take Rocquancourt is commemorated in the village square. Continue east to join the Caen-Falaise highway and exit at the sign for Cintheaux and the Canadian cemetery.

The Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of 2,793 Canadian soldiers. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE]

The Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery contains the graves of 2,793 Canadian soldiers.
PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE

Pause on the overpass, traffic permitting, and look south. The village of Gaumesnil on the right and the woods in front of Robertmesnil together with the stone-walled village of Cintheaux were the key German blocking positions that slowed the Canadian advance. The fields on the east side of the highway were once littered with the remains of Captain Michael Wittmann’s troop of Tiger tanks destroyed by a Sherman, 17-pounder “Firefly” tank on the morning of Aug. 8. Wittmann, who died that day, was the famous commander of the 101st S.S. Heavy Tank Battalion.

The cemetery, known officially as Bretteville-sur-Laize, contains the graves of 2,793 Canadian soldiers and 79 Royal Canadian Air Force crew. The nearby villagers have added a memorial to Private Gérard Doré, a sixteen-year-old member of the Fusiliers Mont Royal, thought to be the youngest Canadian killed in action during the Second World War.

Your next stop should be the Polish Armoured Div. cemetery; the exit off the N158 is clearly marked. There are 696 Polish soldiers who fought as part of 2nd Canadian Corps in August buried here. The gates of the cemetery contain oversize replicas of the regimental badges.

Continue south to Grainville-Langannerie, turning east on the D131 through Estrees-la-Campagne. The drive will take you across the route followed by 4th Armoured Division’s “Worthington Force” on the night of Aug. 8-9. The battle group, composed of the tanks of the British Columbia Regt. and infantry from the Algonquin Regt., lost direction during the night and ended up well to the east of their objective. Isolated and without artillery support, the Canadians were outgunned by Panther tanks of the 12th S.S. The Hitler Youth were determined to hold the high ground until it could be handed over to a fresh infantry division arriving from the north to reinforce the shoulder of the Falaise Pocket. The striking memorial to “Worthington Force” is on the D131, four kilometers east of Estrees.

The memorial is close to the start line for Operation Tractable, the second attempt to break through to Falaise. This attack, launched on Aug. 14, used smoke and the dust churned up by the tanks to prevent the enemy from targeting the vulnerable Canadian armour. Both 3rd and 4th Canadian divisions along with 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were committed to the action and they quickly broke through the German defences. Unfortunately the Laizon River, a modest creek by Canadian standards, proved to be an effective anti-tank barrier. Crossings were improvised and by  Aug. 16, with 2nd Canadian Div. approaching Falaise from the west, 4th Armoured Div. and the Poles began the process of closing off the enemy escape routes between Trun and Chambois.

To follow 4th Armoured Division’s advance, take the unmarked but paved road east of the memorial to the D91A, then turn left to the D91 and right to Rouvres. The Canadian Battlefields Foundation is planning to place a memorial plaque in the small park on the south side of the Laizon; the exact spot where a photograph was taken in 1944.

[PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE]

PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE
The memorial (top) with plaque (above) for Private Gérard Doré, killed in action at age 16. [PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE]

The memorial (top) with plaque (above) for Private Gérard Doré, killed in action at age 16.
PHOTO: SHARON ADAMS, LEGION MAGAZINE

The D91 is known locally as the Route de Falaise. The route numbers change, so follow the signs to Falaise. The castle of William the Conquerer has been restored and transformed into a museum but the nearby “August 1944” exhibit is now closed. The main square has pleasant cafés or benches to relax and eat a picnic lunch. Walk towards the chateau grounds and the statue of William the Conquerer but take time to visit the church which was heavily damaged in the fighting. A poster on the wall lists the civilians killed in the prolonged struggled for the city.

Leave Falaise on the D63 which, in the charming French fashion, becomes the D13. Simply follow the signs to Trun. The battle for Trun, which controlled the best escape route for the Germans fleeing the Falaise Pocket, ended on Aug. 18 when the Lincoln and Welland Regt. entered the burning town.

After the capture of Trun, there were three bridges still available to enemy vehicles fleeing the pocket. These were at Magny, St. Lambert, and Chambois. At St. Lambert-sur-Dives the Canadian Battlefields Foundation, with the financial support of John and Pattie Cleghorn, created a belvedere that overlooks the ground where the last phase of the Battle of Normandy was fought. A map oriented to the east to conform to the view of the battlefield locates the Canadian, Polish, American, and French forces that converged in the triangle between St. Lambert, Chambois, and Mont Ormel. An historical marker at the edge of St. Lambert-sur-Dives pays tribute to Major David Currie who earned the Victoria Cross while commanding a squadron of theSouth Alberta Regt. with infantry from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the Lincoln and Welland Regt.

At Chambois head north on the D16 to the Polish Armoured Division’s “Mémorial de Coudehard-Montormel.” This excellent museum presents exhibits on the end of the Battle of Normandy with particular attention to the Poles who held Mont Ormel, Point 262 North. The view from the grounds of the memorial alone is worth the drive.

Visitors heading northeast to Vimoutiers will find a Tiger tank sitting beside the road. Most people are invariably impressed by the size of the Tiger and its 88-mm gun. It is located on the D979 east of town.

To follow the Maple Leaf Route to Rouen I suggest taking the D12 to the new section of the A28 autoroute.You will see exits for Orbec, Bernay, Brionne and Bourgtheroulde—towns liberated by Canadians on their drive north to Rouen and the Seine River.

Few Canadians take the time to visit the Fôret de la Londe, site of one of the most difficult battles fought by 2nd Canadian Div. or Criquebeuf-sur-Seine, where 4th Armoured Div. crossed the river encountering fierce enemy resistance.

For previous articles on the Battle of Normandy, visit www.legionmagazine.com and www.canadianmilitary-history.ca. The Canadian Battlefields in Northern France Guidebook is another excellent source.

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