The Allied commanders planned the battle of Normandy as the first phase of a long deliberate campaign to liberate France. On D-Day plus 90–Sept. 6, 1944–they hoped to control an area bounded by the rivers Seine and Loire and then pause long enough to build up resources for a series of operations that would bring them to the borders of Germany.
Hitler and his generals, meanwhile, poured all their resources into the defence of Normandy and so when the Allies broke through, the enemy could not muster enough troops to hold Paris or stop an Allied advance. The situation was so fluid that anything seemed possible, even a quick thrust to Berlin to end the war in 1944.
General Bernard Montgomery became obsessed with this idea. On Aug. 17, when the battles around Falaise were still raging, he flew to Gen. Omar Bradley’s headquarters and proposed a plan for “a solid mass of 40 divisions” to advance rapidly to Belgium and the Ruhr. Neither Bradley nor Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was attracted to a plan that seemed to ignore the existence of the United States 7th Army moving rapidly from the south of France, but there were more immediate problems that made Monty’s “narrow front” impossible.
Much of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army was closing in on Paris, which was liberated on Aug. 25, and moving east toward Germany, while Monty’s own troops, Canadian and British, were still committed to the Falaise pocket and could not begin to move north for some time. Eisenhower would not consider stopping Patton to allow Montgomery time to bring his army forward to the Seine.
To make matters more difficult, Eisenhower was due to replace Montgomery as ground commander on Sept. 1, an event that Monty saw as a demotion. The news of Montgomery’s promotion to the rank of field marshal did little to soothe the British commander’s wounded ego. This “war between the generals” would have even more serious consequences for the Canadians in October, but for the moment it simply meant there was little rest for the weary. Second Canadian Corps was told to immediately develop a strong thrust to Rouen, cross the Seine, and capture the ports of Le Havre and Dieppe.
On Aug. 20, 2nd Cdn. Infantry Division handed over the ruins of Falaise to the British and began the pursuit. The Royal Cdn. Army Service Corps provided enough trucks and drivers to lift the whole division and by Aug. 22, 6th Brigade reached Orbec just 50 miles from Rouen. Here for the first, but not the last time in the pursuit, the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment–the 14th Cdn. Hussars–proved its worth. The divisional recce regiments had been used in a variety of combat roles in Normandy, but there had been little opportunity to test their mobility and striking power in far ranging probes behind enemy lines. The corps armoured car regiment, the Manitoba Dragoons, had won praise for its exploits in August, now the 8th Recce Regt. had its chance.
The Germans were dug in at Orbec and held the northern bank of the River Touques. The Camerons of Canada, confronted with a wide valley under observed fire, were overjoyed to learn the Hussars had crossed the river to the west of the town and had circled back and taken out the enemy blocking position. That swift action broke German resistance at Orbec. However, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal discovered that St-Germain, a village a few kilometres to the north, was held by a determined battle group that had to be overcome in a difficult night action. There were many such small battles in the division’s march to the Seine, but the memory of most of them is lost in the shadow of the tragedy that overwhelmed the “blue patch” division in the Forêt de la Londe.
Canadians who follow the Maple Leaf Up route to the Seine today have to look hard for evidence of these struggles, but if you drive north on the N138 and slow down in the forest near Bosqueaud de Marcouville you will find a striking memorial to the Canadians who were ambushed at dawn on Aug. 25. Soldiers of the RCASC who joined their Black Watch comrades in beating off the attack are commemorated here with words of thanks for the liberation of the area.
After the enemy withdrew, the troop-carrying convoy continued north to Bourgtheroulde where the Germans were preparing strong defensive positions. Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Mitchell decided to push through the gauntlet of fire to the far end of the village and then attack the German position from the north. Mitchell later explained that this bold move, which left his battalion isolated and cut off by strong German forces, was justified by the surprise achieved. If he was cut off so were the enemy who could not retreat north when the Black Watch’s sister battalion, Régiment de Maisonneuve, mounted a set-piece attack on the village that evening.
Back at the Trun-Chambois battlefield, 4th Cdn. Armd. Div. had less than 36 hours to reorganize before starting north. The British Columbia Regt., rebuilt to full strength after its ordeal at Pt. 145, led off on the Green centre line toward Bernay. A scratch force of German infantry and tanks allowed the armoured cars of the Manitoba Dragoons to pass. It then knocked out the leading tanks.
Frantic orders to press on were obeyed, but nine more tanks were hit in the attempts to bypass the position. The Lake Superior Regt.’s motorized company began to clear the woods, but heavy rain and darkness impeded operations. By morning, the Germans were gone, leaving a wrecked Tiger tank and two anti-tank guns.
Major-General Harry Foster, an infantry officer who had commanded the 7th Western Bde., had just taken over command of the division and, prompted by his new armoured brigade commander Robert Moncel, decided to reorganize the division into the kind of combat commands long favoured by the Americans. The vanguard known as Keane Force, which was named after the commanding officer of the Lake Supes, was composed of two armoured regiments, the motor battalion and an infantry battalion as well as engineers and self-propelled artillery. This well- balanced force moved quickly north reaching Bernay the next day. The men of the division had never before seen an undamaged town in France.
Unit war diaries recorded the emotions felt by liberators and by the liberated. “Will Bernay ever be forgotten? Bernay where the people stood from morning to night. Bernay where they never tired of waving, of throwing flowers or fruit, of giving their best wines and spirits. Bernay where the local school mistress had her children lined along the street singing in unison and in English: “Thank you for liberating us.”
The cynic might say the people of Bernay were effusive because they had been spared the ravages of war. But the town had not been spared occupation, nor the presence of the Gestapo. Bernay had its share of martyrs before the Canadians arrived to restore freedom.
Keane Force moved east to allow 3rd Div. room on the road network. Their progress was slowed in traffic jams created by the withdrawal of American units that had tried to trap the retreating enemy at the River Seine. Montgomery was now trying to line up his armies for the race north, leaving the task of stopping the Germans at the Seine to the tactical air force that attacked and destroyed hundreds of the vehicles that had escaped encirclement at Chambois.
The traffic congestion hampered all movement and 4th Div. arrived at the Seine widely dispersed in small battle groups. The Lincoln and Welland Regt., known as the Lincs and Winks, together with troops of 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Regt., a platoon of New Brunswick Rangers and a squadron of South Alberta tanks reached the river at Criquebeuf-sur-Seine. The villagers, who have since named their main street Rue des Canadiens, welcomed their liberators, but Lt.-Col. Bill Cromb had been ordered to bounce the Seine. Boats, borrowed from the village, were used to cross the 80-metre-wide river and the Lincs’ scout platoon reported that there was no opposition.
Cromb sent D Company across the river to establish a bridgehead which the Lincs, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the Algonquin Regt. expanded the next morning. There followed a costly struggle for two rounded hills known as Pt. 88 and Pt. 95. This two-day battle, the last fought by the division in Normandy, reminded everyone of the advance to Falaise. When the heights were occupied it was evident the enemy had enjoyed an unobstructed view of the river crossing and the bare slopes of the hillsides. There was no cover for the attackers except for smoke which was of little help against artillery and mortar concentrations. 10th Bde. suffered more than 100 casualties in this forgotten encounter.
3rd Div., which reached the Seine at Elbeuf, found little resistance and 16th Field Co., Royal Cdn. Engineers, immediately began construction of a Bailey Bridge. 2nd Div., on the left flank of the Canadian advance, left Bourgtheroulde and entered a hilly forested area known as the Forêt de la Londe which lay astride the direct route to Rouen. Thus began one of the most unfortunate and tragic events in the entire campaign.
In writing these articles, I have tried to remember that the historian should attempt to explain what happened by determining what was known or what could reasonably be inferred from what was known at the time a decision was made. In the case of the Forêt de la Londe, it is necessary to note that the planning was based on the assumption that there would be no significant resistance. In his orders of Aug. 26, Gen. Harry Crerar noted that “the enemy no longer has the troops to hold any strong points–or to hold any positions for any length of time–if he is aggressively attacked. Speed of action and forcible tactics are therefore urgently required from commanders at any level.”
Corps commander Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds and Major-General Charles Foulkes, the divisional commanding officer, seem to have shared this view which was avidly prompted by army, corps and divisional intelligence officers carried away with the euphoria of impending victory. The result of this optimism was that the tired under-strength battalions were told that this would “probably be a non-tactical move and no, or very few enemy would be encountered.”
4th Bde. was rushed forward on the night of Aug. 26 to provide flank protection for the engineers building bridges at Elbeuf. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was in the lead and the troops came under fire as their trucks entered Port du Gravier, a small riverside village at the narrowest point of land between the meandering loops of the Seine.
As dawn broke on Aug. 27, the brigade had its first look at the forest. The heavily wooded neck of the meander was some 4,000 yards wide. Two railway lines, 100 yards apart, ran across the neck, one of them branching north through a tunnel built under a steep chalk hill. Close to the river, directly in front of 4th Bde., a second hill, soon to be known by its code-name Masie, controlled two of the three roads to Rouen.
Over on the west side of the forest, 6th Bde. had come under fire from the high ground and Brigadier Fred Clift sent a company of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal on a right flanking mission. The Royals met up with the FMRs and took them under command waiting for a rendezvous with the Essex Scottish who were to support the attack on Masie. Before the two battalions could link up, they came under devastating fire from German mortar and artillery posted on the ridge the Royals called Chalk Pits Hill.
To the men on the ground, the volume of fire indicated the enemy held the ridge in considerable strength, but division and corps were impatient and the Royals were told to mount an all-out attack. Doubt about the exact position of 6th Bde.’s leading units led to limits on the use of artillery and the attack failed.
At 1600 hours on Aug. 28, Foulkes called the three battalion commanders to brigade headquarters and outlined an ambitious night attack. The Royals war diary records the reaction, though you have to read between the lines to capture the full flavour: “The COs of both the RHLI and the R Regt. C were strongly of the opinion that this task was beyond the powers of a battalion composed largely of reinforcement personnel with little training. It was suggested that the enemy was actually stronger than intelligence reports had indicated, and that the ground was immensely favourable for the defence….”
This sensible analysis of the real situation fell on deaf ears. Foulkes ordered RHLI to prepare to move as soon as possible and to be in position to attack Masie at first light. The operation proved impossible to carry out though the Rileys suffered badly trying.
Foulkes had also ordered 6th Bde. to capture the high ground. The South Sasks lead company, total strength 35, crossed the railway and came under fire. The scout platoon was ambushed when it tried to outflank the enemy and the 13 remaining men, no officers were left, withdrew. A second attack employing an artillery barrage was no more successful and the Camerons were brought forward despite continuous mortar fire to join the assault. At first light on the 29th the enemy counterattacked and all semblance of control was lost. What was left of the two battalions pulled back. That night, the Germans withdrew to Rouen because 9th Bde., with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders in the lead, were closing on the city from the east. For the Germans it was now or never and they retreated to the Somme.
The Calgary Highlanders had not taken any direct part in the fighting, their task was to hold a firm base, but Calgary War diarist Lieutenant Stuart Moore described Aug. 29 as one of the worst days in the battalion’s history. “Today has been a nightmare,” he wrote, “we were subjected to constant fire and had little protection.” The Calgaries lost 46 men without firing a single round or seeing a German soldier.
Two brigades had been decimated during the three-day battle in the Forêt de la Londe. The South Sasks with 185 casualties and the Royals with 118 topped the list of over 600 killed and wounded. The Canadians had come up against a well-organized blocking force which was under orders to buy time for units retreating across the Seine. The soldiers of 2 SS Panzer Div., with paratroops and infantry from the 85th Div., had fulfilled their mission.
But what of the Canadians? What was their mission? With both 3rd and 4th divisions across the river on the 27th the decision to order further costly infantry attacks in the dense forest made little military sense. Given the shortages of manpower which plagued the Canadian army the orders are even harder to understand. Canadian generals had to respond to pressure from Montgomery to speed-up the advance, but at Forêt de la Londe they seemed to forget they also had a duty to the men who served under them.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on March 1st 2000.