On July 30, 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds summoned the senior officers of 2nd Canadian Corps to his main headquarters at the chateau in Cairon, northwest of Caen. There was complete silence as Simonds described the deeds that had won the Victoria Cross for Major J.K. Mahoney of the Westminster Regiment (Motor) in Italy just a couple of weeks before. Mahoney’s company, with a troop of light recce tanks from the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), had seized a bridgehead across the Melfa River and held it against repeated counterattacks.
There was an edge to Simonds’ voice as he spelled out “the points in this episode” that he wanted “all officers to read and think about,” and to discuss with their troops. The Westminsters, Simonds noted, were in their first major offensive action but fought like well-tried veterans. “There was no question of giving in because they had lost touch with the rest of their battalion or were cut off or under heavy fire. Under the leadership of Maj. Mahoney they fought, confident that if they did their part the fight would swing in their favour and the rest of the unit would get through to assist them.”
The officers assembled at the chateau were unsure how they should react to this lesson. Was Simonds implying that 2 Cdn. Corps units had failed to meet the standard set by the Westminsters in Italy? Did he really believe the units overwhelmed by massive German firepower in operation Spring had simply given in? No one dared ask, and the room remained silent as the general began a review of the progress of the Normandy Campaign to date. Simonds described Spring as successful despite the loss of ground and heavy casualties because the primary aim, holding German panzer divisions in the Caen sector, had been met. “It should be stressed to the troops that their contribution made the American success possible.” However, the time had come to prepare for a major operation to deliver a “knockout blow.” Simonds warned, “No division will stop until every reserve is employed.”
Simonds was expressing the general belief that the American breakthrough at Avranches had transformed the Battle of Normandy, ending the stalemate and creating opportunities for mobile warfare. But much depended on the German reaction. The Allied high command, including Eisenhower and Montgomery, assumed the Germans would pivot on a series of hinge positions–Verrières Ridge, Hill 112, Mont Pinçon–and conduct a fighting retreat to the River Seine. This battle picture led Montgomery to shift most of his British divisions to the west where they could add their weight to the American offensive and drive the enemy out of Normandy. The image was of pushing against a swinging door while avoiding the hinges around Caen, which were too tough to break.
Operation Bluecoat began on the same day Simonds gave his pep talk in Cairon. It began well enough, but the arrival of German reinforcements and the hilly terrain of the Suisse Normande soon checked the British advance. With three panzer divisions committed against the British and four moving into position to carry out Hitler’s counterattack at Mortain, only 12th SS was left in the Caen sector to support the troops defending Verrières Ridge. Montgomery therefore ordered 2 Cdn. Corps, reinforced by 51st Highland and 1st Polish Armoured divisions, to “advance in the direction of Falaise” and force a withdrawal of enemy units blocking the British advance. No one was yet planning to encircle the German armies in Normandy, though the rapid advance of Patton’s 3rd Army toward Le Mans was forcing a reconsideration of the overall strategy of the campaign.
Despite the move of panzer divisions to the west, the defences in the Caen sector were still very strong. Hitler had finally concluded that there would be no second landing in the Pas de Calais and ordered the transfer of all 15th Army mobile divisions to Normandy. The 89th Infantry Division arrived on Aug. 4 and took over the defences of Verrières Ridge the next night. Most accounts of the Canadian battles of August 1944 ignored the role played by the 89th, and scarcely mention the 85th which reached the battlefield on Aug. 10. Our historians have been mesmerized by the self-serving accounts of Hitler Youth commander Kurt Meyer, who claimed that his under-strength battle groups outfought the Canadians virtually without assistance. The reality is that 89th Div. was at full strength when it took over the defences south of Caen. With 12,000 men and its own artillery and anti-tank guns to add to the formidable array of 88s controlled by the flak corps, plus scores of heavy mortars and Nebelwerfers, the division presented a serious obstacle to the Canadian advance.
Simonds understood the hard realities confronting his corps when he planned Operation Totalize. He told his hesitant commanders that while the ground was “ideally suited to full exploitation by the enemy” because of the long range of his anti-tank guns and mortars, there were ways of overcoming these advantages. The corps would attack at night without any preliminary artillery program. Instead, Bomber Command would lead the way to the first objectives, striking villages on the flanks while the advance got under way. The artillery would begin its fire tasks after the armoured columns crossed the start line. Once begun, the barrage would reach a new level of intensity: 360 field and medium guns were to fire 60,000 shells in the first hour! Artificial moonlight and Bofors guns firing orange tracer would help the formation keep direction.
Simonds was also ready to deal with a problem that had plagued all major operations in Normandy. Without close infantry support Allied armour could not deal with German anti-tank defences, so somehow the infantry had to accompany the tanks forward “in bullet- and splinter-proof vehicles.” Other commanders understood the problem; Simonds provided a solution. Artillery field regiments were turning in their self-propelled Priest 105-mm guns for the more familiar 25-pounders. Seventy-six of these vehicles were quickly converted into “unfrocked priests” or “kangaroos” by removing the gun and adding scrounged armour plating. These would carry the assault companies forward with the tanks.
Operation Totalize was one of the most innovative breakthrough operations of the war. The Canadian, Scottish and Polish troops advanced eight miles in the direction of Falaise, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy at a cost of 560 fatal casualties and 1,600 wounded. Canadian historians have long preferred a different version of Totalize that emphasizes the failure to reach Falaise, but before we consider what went wrong let us be un-Canadian and note all the things that went right.
The 51st Highland Div., harshly criticized for its alleged failures in July, captured Tilly-la-Campagne while advancing quickly to its first phase objectives. The 2nd Cdn. Infantry Div., which had suffered so heavily in the attritional battles of July that it was still short 1,500 infantrymen, turned in an extraordinary performance reaching all of its objectives and capturing hundreds of prisoners. Individual battalions demonstrated remarkable resiliency. The South Saskatchewan Regt., which had borne the brunt of the enemy counterattack on July 20 and lost 13 officers and 209 men over several hours, were able to “lean into the barrage” and seize Rocquancourt in a textbook operation. Lieutenant-colonel F.A. Clift maintained control throughout the day and provided two companies to assist 1st Hussars (6th Armd., Regt.) in an armoured attack on Fontenay-le-Marmion. Fontenay and May-sur-Oriie held out until late Aug. 8, but the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) and the Fusiliers Mont-Royal gained control of the two ruined villages–which had been so crucial to the German defence of Verrières Ridge–by nightfall.
The 4th Cdn. Armd. Brigade, mounted in the improvised armoured personnel carriers, reached all its objectives by early morning and the battalions dug in to meet the expected counterattacks. Meanwhile, 5th Bde., waiting in reserve, was able to reach Bretteville-sur-Laize, penetrating the enemy’s artillery and Nebelwerfer positions. The German defensive position south of Caen had been shattered. Was it possible to turn a breakthrough into a breakout?
The original plan for Totalize had called for a step-by-step approach, but the withdrawal of three panzer divisions from the Caen sector led Simonds to order his two armoured divisions, 4th Cdn. and 1st Polish, to maintain momentum by launching the second phase at 1:45 p.m. on the 8th. To assist them, the United States Army Air Force was to employ its B-17 Flying Fortresses in a daylight precision attack. Unfortunately, two 12-plane groups bombed short, inflicting more than 300 casualties on the 1st Polish and several hundred more on other units. The North Shore (N.B.) Regt., well behind the lines in the suburbs of Caen, lost almost 100 men and the 3rd Cdn. Infantry Div. commander, Major-General Rod Keller, was wounded.
This friendly fire and the continued resistance of 89th Div. would have been sufficient to delay the advance without the intervention of the 12th SS, but the arrival of battlegroups that included Tigers of 101st Heavy Tank Battalion guaranteed that any advance would be sharply contested. By late afternoon, German armour and long range anti-tank guns had regained control of the battlefield in the wide-open country so ideally suited “to full exploitation by the enemy’s weapons.”
At this point Simonds ought to have paused and regrouped for another set-piece attack with a carefully coordinated fire plan, the kind of operation his divisions were trained for. But like all Allied commanders he desperately wanted to escape the limitations imposed by the vulnerability of his armour and his tank-mounted guns. He ordered 4th Armd. Div. to form two battle groups to press the attack “while we still have surprise.” Halpenny Force, composed of the Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regt., was to attack Bretteville-le-Rabet; Lieut.-Col. Don Worthington and the British Columbia Regt. were to bypass enemy resistance and reach the Point 195 part of the ridge that guarded the Laison River valley.
The BCRs, with three companies of the Algonquin Regt. riding on the tanks, set off at 2 a.m. on Aug. 9. Enemy fire seems to have forced them to veer to the east, and when dawn broke they headed for the high ground they hoped was Point 195. They were, in fact, some four miles east of their objective and within 1,000 yards of a 12th SS battle group equipped with Tigers and Panthers. A German lieutenant captured by the BCRs provided this graphic description of what it was like to be in the Canadian position: “Tigers and Panthers advanced in order to encircle the positions on the hill. One Canadian tank after another was knocked out and ended up in smoke and flame. Some crews…tried to reach a small woods close by. They took me along. Soon after the wood came under sustained attack from fighter bombers.”
Historians have emphasized the faulty navigation of the BCRs without exploring more fundamental problems. By late July the Americans, aware of the difficulties in coordinating ground-air operations, had revised their air doctrine to create Armoured Column Cover. This provided for direct VHF radio contact between an air force officer with the armoured unit and the aircraft overhead. This system was one of the crucial methods used by the Americans in exploiting their breakthrough after July 25. If such an arrangement had existed with the Royal Air Force on Aug. 9, Worthington would have been in constant touch with the fighterbombers, avoiding friendly fire and directing Typhoons onto the enemy. The BCR-Algonquin force had breached a position the enemy was trying desperately to hold until the newly arrived 85th Div. could be deployed in depth. If reinforcements had arrived from the 1st Polish–which was less than a mile away–a very different situation would have developed. As it was, Worthington and many of his force were killed or captured.
This spring, the two regiments rebuilt and rededicated the memorial situated above the Laison Valley. The Canadian flag, which can be seen at a great distance in this open, rolling country, flies proudly, marking an extraordinary moment in our history. Everyone who visits Normandy should go there.
The story of Worthington Force is one of great tragedy, but there are more stories of great triumph to tell. When Simonds learned that Point 195 was still in enemy hands he demanded that a new effort be made. Lt.-Col. Dave Stewart’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were told to take the hill. Stewart was one of a number of absolutely outstanding battalion commanders with which the Canadian Army was blessed in the war. Jack Harper, then a captain, remembers the almost-instant rapport Stewart established with officers and men: “He commanded by earning respect.” Stewart received his orders late on the afternoon of the 10th, and led the scout platoon to recce the route he had chosen from a map. “On the way back,” he recalled, in a reminiscence published in the magnificent new Argylls history Black Yesterdays, “I left members of the scout platoon at strategic points to guide the battalion.” That night the Argylls, with perfect confidence in their leadership, moved single file through enemy lines towards the high ground. Stewart was up front because “you can’t win battles from behind,” and supervised placement. When a battery of 17-pounder anti-tank guns arrived, he sited them to control the approaches from the west and settled in to wait for the inevitable counterattack. The Lincoln and Welland Regt. had moved on a parallel course to secure the right flank, so the 12th SS was faced with a real dilemma. German doctrine required immediate counterattacks but the Argylls met each one with devastating fire.
Totalize ended that day in a costly attempt to capture Quesnay Wood, the focal point of German resistance north of Falaise. Simonds decided to reorganize and mount another large-scale deliberate attack. The decision to regroup came just as Montgomery was awakening to the possibility of encircling the German armies in what would soon become known as the Falaise Pocket. On Aug. 11, he ordered both First Canadian and Second British Army to capture Falaise, “then operate. with strong armoured and mobile forces to secure Argentan.” The Canadians responded by ordering 2nd Div. to make a wide right hook around the main German defences, approaching Falaise from the west.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on September 1st 1999.