As Canada’s chief army historian between 1945-59, Colonel C.P. Stacey rarely employed emotional language in his writing about WW II, but when it came to describing the July 1944 battles for Verrières Ridge, he included the following: “Three miles or so south of Caen the present-day tourist, driving down the arrow-straight road that leads to Falaise, sees immediately to his right a rounded hill crowned by farm buildings. If the traveller be Canadian, he would do well to stay the wheels at this point and cast his mind back to the events of 1944; for this apparently insignificant eminence is Verrières Ridge. 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 upon them.”In the first of two articles on the battles for Verrières Ridge, I want to focus on the battle experience of the newly arrived 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Second Div. arrived in France during the worst days of the battle of Normandy.
The Allies had expected heavy losses on the D-Day beaches and then, once through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, lighter casualties in a war of rapid movement. The opposite had happened. The coastal defences had been quickly breached, but then there was only slow movement and horrendous casualties. In June, more than 37,000 American troops were killed, wounded or missing, while almost 25,000 British and Canadian troops shared the same fate. The Allied air forces enjoyed total air superiority over the battlefield, but in June alone the cost was 6,200 aircrew. Soldiers on both sides were beginning to say that it was WW I all over again–a static battle of attrition–gains measured in yards and thousands of dead.
Generals in their memoirs and historians in their books on Normandy have usually focused their attention on the controversies over Allied strategy, especially the debate between General Bernard Montgomery and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower. However, the real problem was at the operational, not at the strategic level. It is an axiom of military science that the attacker needs a 3:1 margin over the defender to have a reasonable chance of success. If the defence is well dug in, even better odds are required. The Allies had landed in Normandy prepared for a war of mobility in which the tactical air forces and the armoured regiments would dominate the battlefield. Instead, they were confronted with a German army that was capable of maintaining a continuous defence in-depth.
Neither British nor Canadian infantry divisions had been able to break through these defences. So, in mid-July, Montgomery agreed to employ the three British armoured divisions in a blitzkrieg-like attack from the Orne River bridgehead. The plan was very ambitious and experienced armoured commanders–conscious of the vulnerability of their Sherman tanks–argued for a stage- by-stage approach. Montgomery rejected this advice. His operational method was “to concentrate great strength at some selected place and hit the Germans a colossal crack.”
The difficulty was that the enemy commanders would do anything necessary to prevent a breakout in the open country south of Caen, even if it meant committing their armoured divisions to an attritional battle. Since the Germans had massed more than 380 tanks and self-propelled assault guns as well as scores of 88-mm guns in the area, the odds were against a British breakthrough. Operation Goodwood began with a “colossal crack” supplied by heavy bombers. On the first day, the advance stunned the enemy. 12th SS Panzer Div., which had been pulled out of the line after its heavy losses in the battle for Caen, was rushed forward to thicken the defences.
The British armoured divisions made little progress on the second day, but over on the right flank along the Orne, 2nd Cdn. Inf. Div. began its first battle since Dieppe with some promising local victories.
The division had been held in reserve during the first phase of Operation Goodwood, but it had orders to be ready to exploit southwards after 3rd. Cdn. Inf. Div. had captured the Caen suburbs south of the Orne.
Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, directing his first battle as a corps commander, decided not to wait. He ordered 4th Bde. to capture the village of Louvigny and cross the Orne in the hope of bypassing the German defences. Brigadier Sherwood Lett, who was wounded before the day was done, assigned the Royal Regiment of Canada and a squadron of Fort Garry Horse tanks to the first phase of this attack. The enemy–elements of 271 Infantry Div.–held Louvigny as an outpost of Hill 112, the key to their defences west of the Orne. The Royals and Garries overcame them, but only after a costly hand-to-hand struggle to gain control of the chateau on the edge of the village.
Simonds was unwilling to wait. He ordered 5th Bde. to cross the Orne at Caen, striking south along the east side of the river. The Black Watch took the lead, crossing the river in assault boats in the face of intense machine-gun and mortar fire. The attack on Fleury-sur-Orne got off to a bad start when Le Régiment de Maisonneuve’s two lead companies formed up on the opening line for their support barrage instead of on their assigned start-line. Both companies were hit by friendly fire.
Historians have frequently drawn attention to this incident, but at the time it seemed to be just another example of the chaos that enveloped all battlefields. War, when described by generals and historians, takes on an organized, coherent pattern that is not at all evident to the men who are asked to carry out the grand design. Lines marked hastily on a map at an orders group may be difficult to relate to on ground that has been bombed and is still under shelling. What was significant on July 19 was the speed with which the Maisonneuves recovered and pressed on to their objectives. The battalion’s command structure remained intact. Morale was shaken, but it was not destroyed.
While the Maisonneuves were consolidating, the Calgary Highlanders were preparing to move over the northern spur of Verrières Ridge. This was not an inviting prospect. If you stand at the southern edge of Fleury-sur-Orne today you can see Hill 112 on the west side of the Orne. This position was still occupied by the Germans on July 19. The route south is overlooked by this high ground all the way to May-sur-Orne. The low ridge marked Point 67 on the battlefield map seems to be of little consequence, unless you are a foot soldier who has to walk up and capture it in broad daylight. At 5:15 p.m. on July 19, the pipes began to play and the Calgary Highlanders moved carefully forward, two companies up. They were slowed by terrific mortar fire that was so accurate that the headquarters group turned off its radio set fearing that the enemy was honing in on it.
The Sherbrooke Fusiliers, in support of the brigade, sent a troop of tanks forward on each side of the road. They were able to deal with several machine-gun posts and a number of snipers. One enemy strongpoint was not so readily overcome and a quick plan was made to fire on the position from the flank in support of a platoon frontal attack. As the tanks manoeuvred into position two were hit by long-range guns, although the crews escaped. The others provided enough suppressing fire to get the Calgary Highlanders onto the strongpoint without casualties. By 6:30 p.m., the Calgaries were digging in at Point 67 under a hail of mortar bombs.
The German defences south of Caen were manned by elements of the 272 Inf. Div., a low-category unit formed in 1943. The division included large numbers of Russians who had chosen service with the Wehrmacht over near-certain death in PoW camps. On D-Day it was located in the south of France at Port Vendes. Ordered north on July 3, the division reached the front eight days later. By July 16, it had relieved units of 1st SS Panzer Corps in the section west of the Caen-Falaise road. A battle group of tanks from 1st SS Panzer Div. was provided to stiffen the division’s resolve. It was this battle group that staged a classic German counterattack on the evening of July 19.
The Panthers and Panzer grenadiers surged forward and, just as Simonds had predicted, they attacked individual infantry positions with close-in, aimed fire from armoured vehicles. Fortunately, the Calgaries had been warned by a fighting patrol that had probed further south. As a result of that warning, they had dug themselves in.
For the next hour, the Calgaries held on. The SS, meanwhile, was unable to commit enough infantry to take the battalion position. When darkness fell, the mortaring did not stop. However, it was possible to evacuate the wounded. There were surprisingly few fatal casualties, but 92 men were evacuated with wounds, and a number of others were sent to the rear areas as battle exhaustion casualties.
The Calgaries were not left on their own. At 7 p.m. the Royal Highland Regt. of Canada–better known as the Black Watch–moved forward to secure the left flank occupying the village of Ifs. It was supported by two troops of tanks. Probing attacks by small groups of enemy troops looking for a way around the Calgary position were beaten off and Ifs quickly became a target for German artillery and mortars. During the night, mortaring set the regimental aid post on fire. Sergeant W.F. Clements, the senior non-commissioned officer at the regimental aid post, organized the evacuation of the wounded in a demonstration of tireless resolve under fire. He was awarded the Military Medal for his action that night.
Second Div.’s first day in battle had been relatively successful. There had been plenty of mistakes, as is inevitable when “green” troops, commanded by equally inexperienced officers, are committed to action for the first time. The errors had not led to undue confusion or collapse of unit morale. Infantry/tank co-operation had worked well and the field regiments had demonstrated their professionalism both with pre-arranged attacks and in rapid and accurate response to requests from the forward observation officers.
Simonds’ plan for the next day called for 6 Cdn. Inf. Bde. to pass through 5th Bde. and establish itself on the “Verrières feature”. This order conflicted with the ones issued to 7th Armd. Div. to advance along the ridge from its position at Hubert Folie. The Desert Rats began to attack during the morning. It used a company of motorized infantry and a squadron of tanks. Troteval Farm, located north of Verrières, was the initial objective. However, “opposition was too strong” and 7th Armd. was only too happy to agree to leave the battlefield to the Canadians. Simonds believed that a fresh, reinforced infantry brigade could accomplish the task, and the evidence of growing German resistance did not dissuade him.
The attack by 6th Bde. turned into a bloody nightmare. Torrential rain that ended air sorties and artillery observation was coupled with a major German counterattack. On the right flank the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were able to secure a hold on part of the village of Saint-André, but in the open grain fields along the ridge German tanks roamed at will, machine-gunning the South Saskatchewans and knocking out the handful of Shermans that had ventured forward. The reserve battalion, the Essex Scottish, was also hit hard and parts of the battalion broke under pressure.
By the evening of July 20, some degree of order had been restored. However, during the next day, while the rain continued, the finger-hold on the ridge began to slip.
The Black Watch was ordered to try to restore the situation. The barrage began at 6 p.m. and the Black Watch leaned into it, moving up the hill in a “text-book operation.” Tanks remained at the crossroads until the battalions’ anti-tank guns were in position. The Canadians held a line that stretched along the road from Saint-André-sur-Orne to the Caen-Falaise highway, but they were still on the lower slope and Verrières Ridge loomed ahead.
Casualties had been very heavy. Second Div. lost 1,349 men, including 249 killed and 200 evacuated for battle exhaustion. The scale of the losses was not fully understood at the time and many men who fought fierce engagements and bested the enemy believed that the division had done very well in its first battle.
We who are so used to employing hindsight find it hard to enter into the minds of the men who had to endure combat, absorb replacements and get ready for the next battle. However, it is clear that 2nd Div. recovered quickly from its ordeal. After the war, Gen. Charles Foulkes, who commanded the division in Normandy, claimed that “when we bumped into battle-experienced German troops we were no match for them.” Foulkes, however, did not explain why some battalions were highly effective in their first battles. The evidence suggests that with the exception of a brief period on July 20, when weather and a well-timed counterattack devastated the South Saskatchewans and Essex Scottish, the battalions and armoured regiments at the sharp end of the battle held their own in the face of a determined and powerful enemy.
The performance of the Black Watch certainly requires special comment. This proud regiment experienced two of the worst single-day disasters of WW II on July 25 and Oct. 13, 1944. These events have been allowed to overshadow its history, but it should be noted that on July 19 both the brigade and divisional commander regarded the Black Watch as a well-trained, well-led unit that could be counted on in a vanguard role. The regiment’s reputation was confirmed in its success in the assault crossing of the Orne and in the two attacks during Operation Atlantic. Success on the battlefield requires good leadership and high morale, but there are circumstances where these ingredients are not enough. The timing of events, not to mention plain old good luck, also has a great deal to do with success.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on March 1st 1999.