General Bernard Montgomery’s armoured blitzkrieg–Operation Goodwood–ended July 20, 1944, in a storm of rain and recriminations. Before the battle, Montgomery had talked confidently of a “real showdown on the eastern flank” with his armour reaching as far as Falaise. When the operation ended the industrial suburbs of Caen had been cleared and some 40 square miles added to the Orne bridgehead. Falaise, however, was a distant dream.Montgomery’s critics at Allied headquarters were scathing in their comments, arguing that Montgomery had again failed to press home his attack. Others, especially front-line soldiers, thought the operation had been far too costly. The 493 tanks that were lost could easily be replaced, but the scores of experienced tank, troop and squadron commanders and hundreds of infantry junior leaders killed and wounded were another matter. It was felt that if the British and Canadian armies continued to take casualties at such a rate, the long anticipated reinforcement crisis would occur while the Normandy battle was still in the “dogfight” stage.
Montgomery ignored both sets of critics and got on with the job of destroying the German armies in France. News of the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20, rumours that Rommel had been killed or severely wounded, and information that the Germans had ordered 116 Panzer Division–their last uncommitted armoured division–to move to the battlefront, convinced Monty that if the Allies stayed the course the Germans would soon collapse.
Montgomery did not intend to rely on Operation Cobra–the American offensive–to end the Normandy stalemate. He planned a new series of battles on the Caen front. In a letter to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Monty wrote that he would continue “to try to bring about a major enemy withdrawal in front of General Omar Bradley…by a series of left-right-left blows east and west of the Orne to keep the enemy guessing, followed by a heavy blow towards Falaise.” The letter concluded with the words: “It may well be that we shall achieve our object on the western flank by a victory on the eastern flank.”
The first of Monty’s left-right-left blows was Operation Spring. It was scheduled for July 25. Both 7th Armoured Div. and the Guards Armd. Div. were to join in the attack once the Canadian infantry had broken through the German defences on Verrières Ridge. Operation Spring is one of the most controversial military operations in all of Canadian history. It was the principal topic of the Normandy episode in the television mini-series The Valour And The Horror. The operation has continued to attract armchair generals determined to prove that Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds and his commanders were careless of Canadian lives, incompetent or both. Operation Spring, therefore, is worth careful study.
As the historian David O’Keefe has pointed out, intelligence reports, including information from Ultra, provided fairly complete evidence of the enemy order of battle. The 272nd Infantry Div., reduced by casualties in Operation Goodwood, held Verrières Ridge with four battalions estimated at 600 men each. Battle groups of 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Div. were known to be in support. East of the Caen-Falaise highway, 1st SS Panzer Div. held Tilly-la-Campagne. 10th SS Panzer Div. was in reserve and 116th Panzer Div. on its way to the battlefront from north of the Seine.
Attacking this formidable array of guns, tanks and dug-in infantry with the limited forces available to Simonds does not seem to make a good deal of sense and the first question to ask about Operation Spring is why did it take place? The answer is surely quite simple. Montgomery could not permit the British and Canadian armies to ease the pressure at the precise moment the Americans were launching their major offensive. We do not need to resolve the debate about whether Spring was a holding attack to keep the Panzer division in the Caen sector while the Americans broke out, or an attempted breakthrough that failed, because it was surely both.
From Simonds’ perspective none of this mattered anyway. He was ordered to attack on a specific date with the forces allotted to him. How did he respond to the challenge? Simonds first heard of Operation Spring on July 21 and immediately began to draw up plans. Before D-Day he had issued a directive outlining his version of the artillery-based battle doctrine the Allied armies had been developing. “When the Germans decided to stand and fight”, he wrote, “only a carefully organized attack with full artillery support on a narrow frontage will succeed.” But Simonds was no longer confident that artillery, even when supplemented by massive air power, could dominate the battlefield. Throughout June and July 1944, the Allies had employed enormous quantities of shells and bombs and had apparently failed to shake German morale, never mind achieve a breakthrough.
Simonds was determined to stage Operation Spring as the first major night attack of the campaign. He believed that if the infantry could get onto their objectives in the darkness, clear out the enemy’s forward positions and then dig in, casualties would be minimized and counter-attacks dealt with from prepared positions. Follow-up battalions attacking at first light with armoured, artillery and air support would occupy a second line of villages. The 7th Armd. was also supposed to be involved in phase two, advancing south along with the Canadians. Guards Armd. Div. was to exploit a breakthrough.
Simonds has been criticized for employing just three battalions in the initial attack, but it is evident that he believed the three villages were only practical objectives in a night advance and that command and control could best be exercised within a battalion. Was he wrong? A more serious criticism was made by Brigadier W.J. Megill who commanded 5th Brigade. He thought the plan for Operation Spring was drawn up from maps by someone who had never seen the ground. To attack uphill into a strong enemy position was bad enough, but it seemed suicidal when every step forward exposed your flank to enemy mortar and artillery from the west bank of the Orne.
Simonds had seen the ground and that is why he proposed to attack at night. The problem was timing. H-hour was set for 0330 hours on July 25 with just two hours allotted for capturing the villages. The second phase battalions were to move into position to advance at first light at 0530. Limited visibility in the early morning mist of the Orne Valley would offer some protection from observation. Was there a better plan?
The first phase of Operation Spring appeared to go very well. On the left flank the North Nova Scotia Regiment (Highlanders) advanced steadily to the outskirts of Tilly-la-Campagne. Their lead companies fired a flare at 0430 hours, signalling success in reaching their objective. At 0525 hours, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Petch ordered his reserve companies into the village to mop up and reported “Hamlet”–the code word for “on the objective”–to division and corps.
In the centre, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry overcame initial opposition and seized Verrières village by 0530 hours. At 0750, Lt.-Col. John Rockingham reported that his battalion was firm on the objective. Phase two could begin. On the right, the Calgary Highlanders discovered that their start line was still under enemy fire with the enemy dug in at the factory area south of the village. Elements of two companies bypassed these positions and reached the edge of May-sur-Orne. They managed to report this before radio contact was lost. Both companies suffered heavy losses and were widely scattered. They withdrew from May but could not make contact with battalion headquarters.
As dawn broke less than three hours after the battle began, divisional commander Major-General Charles Foulkes and Simonds believed that all three assault battalions were on their objectives.
What should Simonds and his subordinate commanders have done? What would you have done? Megill described the problem this way: “You never know if your decision is the right one. Where is the line between caution and cowardice? If in doubt do you order your men to dig in? Do you refuse to carry out orders if you don’t agree with them? If there are easy answers to these questions, I haven’t heard them.” Neither had Simonds or the others involved, each of whom tried to respond to a confused situation as their training and common sense dictated.
On the left flank, the Black Watch was scheduled to begin the attack on Fontenay-le-Marmion shortly after 0545. It left their assembly area on time and was at the edge of Saint-Martin at 0500 hours when the commanding officer, Lt.-Col. S.S.T. Cantlie was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire. The same burst of gunfire wounded Cantlie’s senior company commander. Command of the battalion passed to a 24-year-old, Major Phil Griffin.
Described as a “brilliant officer” by his peers, Griffin took control quickly. Since there was no way the battalion could reach its intended start line of May-sur-Orne on time, he deployed the battalion in a more secure position and organized a new attack for 0930. Griffin knew little about the actual position of the Calgaries, but a Black Watch patrol sent into May-sur-Orne reported that it had reached the main crossroads when a single machine-gun had opened up. Griffin assigned the task of taking out the machine-gun to a fighting patrol and informed his company commanders that the Black Watch would advance directly over the ridge to Fontenay-le-Marmion. The tanks of the First Hussars, which were originally intended to advance on the open left flank, were switched to the right to assist the Calgaries in May-sur-Orne.
Both brigade and battalion headquarters had received a series of messages from division demanding action, but it is clear that neither Griffin nor Megill needed any urging. When Megill, who heard of Griffin’s revised plans through the artillery net, came forward to talk to the young Black Watch officer, the battlefield appeared to be deserted and the enemy guns were strangely quiet. The two men stood on the verandah of a house looking towards the ridge as Griffin calmly explained his intentions. Megill recalled suggesting that it might be better to stick to the original plan and move first to May-sur-Orne, but Griffin insisted that “they had patrols into May.” Once the Black Watch attack went in, he argued, the Calgaries “would fill in behind.”
Should Megill have overruled Griffin and ordered the Black Watch to first secure May-sur-Orne? The answer is surely yes and Megill regretted his failure to intervene to the day he died. But is this just hindsight? At the time, Megill admitted, it seemed better to allow Griffin to go ahead rather than force changes that would require a new fire plan and a new orders group. Order, counter-order, confusion is one of the oldest military maxims and Megill decided not to interfere. Ironically, Charlie Company of the Calgary Highlanders was working its way into the village as the Black Watch formed up for the attack. When the artillery barrage began, it forced the Calgaries to go to ground while their sister battalion was systematically destroyed. The enemy held May and the ridge in strength. It had simply been exercising good fire control, ignoring patrols and waiting until the main attack began. Griffin and 122 others were killed in the attack, 101 were wounded and 83 taken prisoner.
In the centre, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had functioned brilliantly, seizing the village and deploying their anti-tank guns to fend off counter-attacks. Verrières village is on a reverse slope, the crest is 200 yards further south. When a 9th SS Panzer battle group tried to attack the Rileys, the fire from six-inch and 17-pounder anti-tank guns was so deadly the Germans reported “whoever crosses the ridge is a dead man” and turned away. Unfortunately, the same was true for the Royal Regiment of Canada which advanced less than 300 yards beyond the crest before its lead company was annihilated. The 1st Royal Tank Regt., borrowed from 7th Armrd Div., lost 30 tanks in not many more minutes. There would be no further advance in the centre.
The situation of the left was far more uncertain. By 0700 hours, Petch knew his battalion was in trouble and he asked Brig. Ben Cunningham for an armoured squadron to help break enemy resistance. The Fort Garries were supposed to be in reserve for phase two but Cunningham sent them forward. The lead tanks were quickly knocked out and the rest of the squadron moved around the village seeking hull-down positions. By noon, the Garries had lost 11 tanks and were withdrawn. The North Novas dug in and did what they could to survive.
Back at 9th Bde. headquarters an unusual drama was unfolding. Throughout the morning, Cunningham had listened to messages from division and corps, demanding that he begin phase two, but this was not his first battle and he trusted his own judgment. When the Garries reported their situation, Cunningham met with Lt.-Col. Frank Griffiths the veteran commanding officer of the Highland Light Infantry. Griffiths maintained that there was no point in sacrificing his battalion to a plan that had failed and made it clear he would refuse an order to try to bypass Tilly and make for Garcelles. Lt.-Col. G.H. Christiansen, the commanding officer of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, was equally adamant when his battalion was put on notice to assist the North Novas in Tilly. He, too, would refuse such an order.
Cunningham agreed with his subordinates and when Major-General Rod Keller arrived to relay demands to get moving, the brigadier stood firm. The highlanders would not be sacrificed in a hopeless cause. Keller insisted that this decision would cost the brigadier his job and within the week, Cunningham, Christiansen and Griffiths were replaced.
What lessons ought we to draw from the events described in this essay? The first thing to note is that while there were lots of heroes there were no obvious villains. Any offensive in the Caen sector was bound to meet violent opposition from an enemy that could not afford to give up the hinge of his defences. With the bulk of 2nd British Army committed east of the Orne, the Canadians were the obvious choice to attempt a break-in on Verrières Ridge. Simonds, perhaps the most innovative corps commander in the Allied armies, developed a plan that was intended to overcome the problems encountered in daylight attacks. The plan did not allow for the normal friction of war, never mind the complications of night operations, but the Canadians almost pulled it off. If the Black Watch had joined the Calgaries and cleared May-sur-Orne, the western end of the ridge could have been held.
The enemy, which suffered heavily in trying to overwhelm the Rileys, would have come under equally devastating fire approaching May-sur-Orne. There was no similar prospect of success at Tilly-la-Campagne where the 1st SS Panzer Div. was dug in, but two out of three villages would have been a victory. Even one objective out of three was pretty good going against the formidable odds facing the Canadians on July 25. And the battle was not in vain! Whatever Simonds intentions, the facts are that no Panzer divisions from the Caen front were transferred in time to deal with the American breakthrough at Saint-Lô or to prevent Patton’s breakout into the heart of France.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on May 1st 1999.