The American military historian Stephen Ambrose has a new bestseller in the bookstores. It’s called Citizen Soldiers and in it he describes the United States Army from the Normandy landings to the surrender of Germany. Ambrose is one of a small, but growing group of American historians who argue that the Allied armies fought with skill and determination in defeating their enemies on the battlefield. He believes that “free men fight better than slaves” and that “the sons of democracy proved to be better soldiers than the sons of Nazi Germany.”I think Ambrose overstates his case, but a re-examination of the conventional wisdom on the campaigns of WW II is badly needed.

Such a re-examination began in Canada in the early 1980s with the publication of the five-volume Maple Leaf Route series. In it, the late Robert Vogel and I rejected the negative view of the Canadian Army’s performance and noted that Canadians had won a series of important tactical and operational victories in 1944—45. However, our argument had little impact on the country’s military historians not to mention those who portrayed our history on television.

This reaction may be explained by the particular role played by historian C.P. Stacey who wrote the official history of the Canadian Army in WW II. His book, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe 1944—1945, remains the outstanding single volume account of operations in Northwest Europe. Its author was too good an historian to ignore some of the obvious achievements of the Canadians, but he attributed our success to “numerical and material superiority”, “the paralysing effects of Allied air power” and the superior generalship of the Allies, especially that of Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Stacey selected the delayed closing of the Falaise Gap “as his major example of failure”. Running a close second, in his view, was the battle for Verrières Ridge.

British and American historians as well as a generation of Canadians accepted Stacey’s view as definitive until John A. English wrote his penetrating study of the Canadian Army’s development and its performance in Normandy. Published in 1991, his book is entitled The Canadians in Normandy: A Study of Failure in High Command.

English accepted Stacey’s judgment that the key question was how to explain the failure of the Canadian Army, especially at Verrières Ridge and in the Falaise Gap, but he insisted that the causes were to be found in the shortcomings of the Canadian high command that “seriously impaired Canadian fighting performance” by failing to develop appropriate leadership, training or doctrine. And so English’s book quickly became the new standard interpretation of the Canadian Army’s experience in WW II.

However, the evidence from the battlefield demonstrates that offensive operations in Normandy, whether carried out by the Allies or their opponents, invariably failed in the sense that combat units were unable to secure the objectives called for in the operational plans. The Battle of Normandy was a battle of attrition and there are no reasonable grounds for believing it could have been otherwise. Historians must develop a reasoned case for counter-factual scenarios if they’re going to suggest that there were alternate operational and tactical methods of winning the battle, more decisively, more quickly and at lesser cost. It is not enough to simply claim that the actions taken were wrong.

On June 6, 1944, the Allies launched one of the most hazardous operations in the history of war. In the planning phase of Operation Overlord, memories of Gallipoli and Dieppe guaranteed that every conceivable precaution was taken to improve the odds of victory. However, any serious study of D-Day will echo what the Canadian artillery officer who served with 21 Army Group’s Operational Research section wrote in June 1944. Major John Fairlie noted that none of the elaborate methods of bombardment of the defences destroyed any significant part of the Atlantic Wall. The defences in the Canadian sector, wrote Fairlie, were overcome by “D.D. (Duplex Drive) tank, engineer and infantry assault.”

Indeed, there was little indication that the massive fire power directed at the Juno beach area had any significant neutralizing effect. “The defences,” Fairlie concluded, “were substantially intact when the infantry touched down and the enemy was able to deliver lethal fire in great quantity against our troops.” The evidence from the British and American beaches leads to a similar conclusion.

At the sharp end there was no “numerical and material superiority” and Allied air power had little impact on the battlefield. Apart from air superiority, which had been won long before D-Day, the contribution of the tactical air forces on D-Day was at best marginal. Interdiction produced only minor delays in the movement of German divisions to the beachhead and this allowed the enemy to stage several successful counter-attacks. The 12th SS Panzer Division caught the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade as it advanced along a single axis on D-Day Plus One, and savaged the Canadian vanguard. The next day another Canadian battalion, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, was overwhelmed on the right flank. In both cases the Canadian units were placed in a precarious position because the British brigades that were tasked to advance on their flanks were unable to overcome stronger resistance and keep pace.

These tactical victories on June 7-8 encouraged 12th SS to launch both its Panzer Grenadier regiments and a good deal of its armor against the positions held by the 7th Cdn. Inf. Bde. astride the Caen-Bayeux railroad and highway. The terrain, natural and man-made, favored the defenders and the Germans added to their difficulties by underestimating their opponent.

The battle that raged for the next 48 hours was one of the great neglected moments in the history of the Canadian Army. Seventh Bde., the divisional artillery, anti-tank guns and the armor of the 1st Hussars met and defeated attack after attack. Twelfth SS staff officer and historian Hubert Meyers recalled that “our opponents were especially strong on the defensive and they did not allow themselves to be surprised. They fought ferociously and bravely.”

The frustration and failure experienced by the 12th SS led to the murder of at least 106 Canadian prisoners of war.

The German army’s failure to drive a wedge into the bridgehead meant that it had little choice except to dig in. Naturally, the officers selected high ground with good fields of fire and worked hard to ensure their men used camouflage and dug alternate machine-gun and mortar positions.

Between June and August, the Allies initiated a series of engagements designed to close with and destroy the enemy, break through his defence in depth and, if possible, obtain the ability to manoeuvre. The Canadians participated in five of these, beginning July 8 with Operation Charnwood, the attack on Caen and its outer defensive perimeter.

It’s important to note that the Allies had arrived in Normandy equipped with weapons that were distinctly inferior to those used by the enemy. Attacks on fortified villages, such as those around Caen, ought to have been carried out by battle groups built around tanks or self-propelled assault guns. Unfortunately, the Allies did not possess such armor and what’s more the Allied battle doctrine reflected that reality.

When an investigation of Allied and German tank casualties in Normandy was carried out it confirmed the most pessimistic views about Allied armor. The statistics showed 60 per cent of Allied tank losses were due to a single round from a 75- or 88-mm gun. The stats also showed that 2/3 of all tanks brewed up when hit.

German armor-piercing shells almost always penetrated and disabled a tank. In fact, the armor on our tanks offered such little protection that the only way to survive was to avoid being targeted. The contrast with German tank casualties was especially striking. Only 38 per cent of hits from the Sherman 75-mm or six-pounder-anti-tank gun penetrated German armor. What’s more, German Panther and Tiger tanks often survived one or two hits. The sloping frontal armor of the Panther and the German self-propelled guns prevented penetration of 3/4 of all direct hits.

No one present on the battlefield in July 1944 would have considered using a regiment of Shermans as a manoeuvre force in attacking well-prepared defensive positions that controlled open approaches. Such a force would simply have been destroyed without effecting the battle.

Operation Charnwood was fought on a three-division front with, from left to right, 3rd British, 59th Staffordshire and 3rd Cdn. divisions. Heavy bombers were to open the operation but given the problems of both target identification and the wide dispersal of bombs around the point of impact, the area designated for the bombers was well behind the enemy positions. The operation was based in part on an elaborate fire plan that maximized the Allies‘ artillery advantage. Many people thought Charnwood would break the defenders without too much difficulty. Instead, the operation cost Canada more casualties than it had on D-Day.

To understand what happened on July 8, 1944, it’s necessary to examine the events closely and to make an effort to understand exactly what it was that artillery could and could not do.

The fire plan called for the navy and the medium guns to concentrate on counter-battery work and the destruction of targets well beyond the defensive perimeter. A great deal of attention was paid to rear areas to prevent reinforcements from arriving. The field artillery, which had been employing self-propelled 105-mm guns, was to help the infantry get to its objectives by firing a timed barrage. It would then respond to requests from forward observation officers or FOOs.

The capacity to neutralize hostile gun batteries, anti-tank positions, mortar and other sites depended on intelligence that was based almost entirely on photo reconnaissance, and the accuracy of artillery fire. Good photo reconnaissance could locate most of the larger enemy installations though it was seldom possible to distinguish between dummy positions and ones that were unoccupied. The small mortar pits and machine-gun posts, the low-profile anti-tank guns camouflaged in hedges and other infantry positions were another matter, although in the case of Charnwood, patrolling and observation of fire helped.

Once the known positions were plotted, a fire plan was drawn up. Unfortunately, accuracy depended on a host of variables that meant that unobserved and therefore uncorrected fire was frequently plus or minus 100 to 300 yards for both range and line. Therefore, the only way to ensure success under such conditions was to fire many shells from a large number of guns.

Operation Charnwood was the first set-piece battle of the campaign and it’s clear the gunners had a great deal to learn as they went along. The attack by the Highland Light Inf. on the village of Buron was the single most costly engagement on July 8. It is well documented and it’s possible to learn a good deal about what took place.

The Germans had dug a long V-shaped anti-tank ditch in front of Buron and were intent on channeling the Allied armor into a carefully constructed killing zone. The barrage got the infantry to the obstacle easily enough but it quickly became evident that few of the German positions had been destroyed. Neutralization depended on continuous fire on the edge of the village and this depended on the forward observation officer.

The HLI got into Buron and began to clean out the defensive positions. The armor, which had circled west to try to provide support from the flank, suffered losses after it ran into a minefield. It was then out of action during the advance on the village.

As enemy shelling and mortar fire took its toll, the 12th SS attempted to recapture the village by employing a battle group of infantry and tanks. This counter-attack was quickly dealt with by a British self-propelled battery of the Corps Anti-tank Regt. that destroyed eight German tanks at the cost of three of its own self-propelled guns. With the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders in firm control of Gruchy and the British in St. Contest, the fighting for the outer defences was over by late afternoon.

The North Nova Scotia Regt. captured the next objective and set the stage for 7th Bde’s assault on Cussy and the Abbaye d’Ardennes.

Operation Charnwood ended when the German order to withdraw across the Orne River was issued at 3:30 a.m. on July 9. That same day, British and Canadian patrols entered the city of Caen.

What might military historians learn from Charnwood? The operation was a battle fought and won by British and Canadian infantry battalions that used personal and close-support weapons in accordance with their training. The heavy casualties reflected the difficulty of the task they were asked to carry out and the profound limitations of the weapon systems available to them. The German decision to retreat across the Orne rather than mount counter-attacks was a product of Field-Marshal Erwin Rommel’s growing pessimism and the difficulty of movement in the area north of Caen that had been bombed and was subject to continuous shelling by naval guns. The British and Canadian troops had won an important operational victory.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on September 1st 1998.