Operation Charnwood, the July 8-9, 1944, attack on Caen, Normandy, by I British Corps, was a multi-phase advance. The first part, intended to collapse the city’s outer defensive perimeter, required Canada’s 9th (Highland) Infantry Brigade to capture Buron, Gruchy, and Authie, three villages that the 12th SS had fortified during the month-long pause in the Caen sector.
On July 8th, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders waited in the Buron anti-tank ditch for the order to seize Authie, the village where many of their comrades were murdered by the 12th SS on June 7. This time the field and medium artillery regiments targeted every possible enemy position, and when the North Novas left the ditch they followed a lifting barrage into the largely abandoned village. The panzer grenadiers had withdrawn to the Abbaye d’Ardenne and the village Cussy.
The 7th (Western) Canadian Inf. Bde. was tasked to capture these positions and then advance through the northern suburbs of Caen which had been bombed the previous night. Lieutenant-Colonel F.N. Cabeldu’s Canadian Scottish Regiment spent the morning of July 8 on the grounds of the Chateau at Cairon before heading to its forming-up position near Gruchy which was still under fire. Once in position, the unit dug in as quickly as possible, and while waiting, rounded up 32 of the more than 50 Hitler Youth taken prisoner by the Canscots that day. R.H. Roy, author of Ready For The Fray, the Canscot’s history, relates that
“First a very young SS soldier had surrendered who told a German-speaking Canadian Scottish private that there were more around and ‘did we want them?’ Assured we did, the German gave a piercing whistle and up out of their trenches came the remainder.”
The battalion was to use the Buron-Authie road as its start line with two field regiments providing a barrage and a medium regiment striking the village. Cabeldu ordered his lead companies to reach the start line as the barrage began “and proceed straight through towards their objective without a stop to avoid casualties.” H-hour was set for 5:40 p.m. and the Canscots, half-running, began their attack on time.
Roy described the situation.
“On the left of the village, C Company had stormed into the cauldron in Cussy closely supported by two sections of the 3-inch mortar platoon. Dashing across the open fields in front of Bitot, two mortars were set up in the fields and rained mortar bombs on the enemy ahead until their ammunition was down to a 20-bomb reserve against counter-attacks, whereupon Sgt. Kent and his crew fought with rifles and Bren guns until more ammunition was brought up. Two carriers were hit, several men were killed and wounded from enemy shellfire, and a running battle with enemy machine gunners was kept up until the platoon commander, racing back and forth over this fire-swept area, managed to get some of the mortars firing again near the Cussy crossroad…. Halfway to its objective the company came under terrific crossfire from Bitot on the left and the abbey on its right front. Machine gun fire from Cussy was thickened by enemy tank fire, one on the company right flank and another from an old burnt-out tank the enemy was using as a machine gun post near Bitot. This caused about 20 casualties even before the company hit its objective. ‘On arrival on our objective,’ wrote Major D.G. Crofton, ‘Our men went in with the bayonet and let out blood-curdling yells which put to flight at least 75 Germans who were manning two 88-mm [and] two Howitzer guns, an anti-aircraft gun and other defensive positions.’”
Cabeldu described the action to a Historical Officer shortly after the battle, paying tribute to “the close spirit of co-operation” with the First Hussars and the Camerons of Ottawa. “Only one unforeseen eventuality arose. Both flanks were open. On the left, 59th British Division had not taken Bitot, and Ardenne on the right had not yet fallen to the Regina Rifles. For a time, Cussy was a hell of fire…. Enemy tanks sat hull down in the strongpoint beyond Cussy and in Bitot… a fierce tank battle erupted.” Cabeldu and his artillery representative had to decide what to do about Bitot, a hamlet between St. Contest and Cussy in the British zone. There was no sign of Allied troops and no indication that corps headquarters was co-ordinating the actions of brigades from separate divisions. The decision to shell Bitot was made and it proved possible to observe and correct the fire suppressing the enemy guns.
Cabeldu was enormously pleased with the performance of his battalion. “Splendid use was made of the PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank gun),” he recalled, “which accounted for seven tanks…. The most remarkable incident was a tank-stalking carried out by a non-commissioned officer armed with a PIAT against a Panther tank which he chased along a hedge to kill.” The Panther crew “seemed dazed and anxious to escape” and was destroyed by a self-propelled anti-tank gun from 3rd Anti-Tank Regt. which had come forward to protect the left flank.
Despite individual heroics it proved difficult to clear and hold Bitot while the enemy held both flanks. Two companies of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were brought forward to help out and the reserve armoured squadron was committed, but much depended on the Regina Rifles advancing towards the Abbaye d’Ardenne. The Reginas were allotted a squadron of tanks from the First Hussars, a section of 6 Field Company Royal Canadian Engineers and the guns of 12th Field Regt. The plan assumed that the battalion could cross a mile of open ground between Authie and the Abbaye in broad daylight.
The Reginas, known affectionately as the Farmer Johns, had been in combat or contact with the enemy continuously since D-Day. Like the Canscots, they were high on their success after repeated enemy encounters. Lieutenant-Colonel Foster “Black Matt” Matheson and his aggressive company commanders were nevertheless cautious in their plan to secure the Abbaye. Matheson and his company commanders had surveyed the battlefield from the church tower in Rots, located roughly five kilometres northwest of the Abbaye, and they did not like what they saw.
The artillery could not possibly suppress all of the machine-gun and mortar positions in and around the walled fortress, and the fields of fire for anti-tank guns made it unlikely that the Hussars, in their flimsy Sherman tanks, could provide close support. Another obvious problem was the uncertainty about enemy positions on the Regina flank. If Franqueville remained in enemy hands the Regina companies would face fire on their right flank as well as the Abbaye.
Matheson devised a plan which he hoped would minimize the risks. Major Eric Syme’s B Company was briefed to make maximum use of the preliminary barrage in order to seize an abandoned anti-aircraft gun position halfway to the objective behind a mound of rubble. The Hussars were asked to ensure the enemy in Franqueville was destroyed. Once the gun position (code-named Potatoes) was secure, both C and D companies were to move forward and use Potatoes as a base for the final 700-yard push to the walls of the Abbaye.
B Company reached Authie shortly after 5 p.m. to find that the North Novas were still clearing parts of the village. As soon as they crossed the start line they came under intense mortar and Nebelwerfer fire. It took too much time to reach the mound and the barrage had long since lifted towards the Abbaye. The company mopped up the gun position and dug in under heavy fire. Syme was wounded and one third of his men became casualties.
As C and D companies moved forward, the situation looked bleak. The Canscots had reached Cussy but were under intense fire from their flank in Bitot as well as the Abbaye. When C Company of the Reginas tried to reach the Abbaye they were forced to the ground in the face of continuous, aimed fire. Major Stu Tubb was wounded and most of his officers and men became casualties.
Gordon Brown’s D Company circled to the left of the Abbaye and with the aid of artillery concentrations broke into the walled enclosure. Just before midnight, brigade was informed that the Regina Rifles had captured its objective and were digging in to meet the expected counterattack, which never came. The 12th SS had received permission to withdraw what was left of its battered battalions to the south side of the River Orne, abandoning Caen.
The next morning 7 Recce Regt. sent a squadron of armoured cars into Caen with orders to seize the bridges over the Orne. “By bypassing all known centres of resistance and with the aid of French civilians, the patrols worked their way through Caen to the bridges and found that only one was intact, covered by strong enemy posts on the far bank.” A battle group formed by the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (SD&Gs) with armour, mortars and artillery forward observation officers (FOOs) began a systematic advance into the city, overcoming minefields, rearguards and 88-mm guns firing across the Orne. They relieved 7 Recce Regt. and prepared to defend the river line.
The battle for Caen was a very costly victory with casualties exceeding those suffered by British and Canadian forces on D-Day. The Reginas alone lost more than 200 men killed or wounded out of a combat strength of less than 500.
The bombing of Caen may have influenced Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s decision to retreat instead of counterattacking, but it had no direct effect on the defences in Cussy and the Abbaye d’Ardenne. The elaborate program of pre-arranged naval and artillery fire also failed to stop the enemy. The Sherman tanks of the British and Canadian armoured regiments failed to meet expectations, and the squadron assigned to support the Reginas lost most of its tanks to long-range fire before the battle began. Elsewhere on the front there were scores of Shermans “brewed up” after taking direct hits. The skill and bravery of the crews could not compensate for the fact that their tanks could not survive a single hit from an enemy anti-tank gun. The battles for Carpiquet and Caen reminded observers of the Western Front in the First World War. Enormous quantities of high explosives were employed to try and crush or break the will of the enemy, but the infantry still had to close and destroy the enemy.
Charnwood’s most valuable lesson was the need for decentralized artillery control. D Company’s successful assault on the Abbaye was greatly assisted by the guns of 12th Field Regt. and the heavy mortars of the Camerons of Ottawa. The Reginas had learned to rely on the FOOs in the defence of Bretteville, but they now knew that timely and flexible fire support was equally essential when attacking.
Today, Caen and the Charnwood battlefield have been transformed by reconstruction and growth. The fields around Buron and Cussy are filled with new subdivisions, although it is still possible to examine the approach to the Abbaye d’Ardenne from Authie. Visitors should be sure to pay their respects in the Abbaye’s walled garden to the Canadians executed and buried here by the 12th SS (Along Quiet Roads, January/February).
The impressive Le Memorial museum is nearby as is the memorial garden designed by students from Carleton University and the Universitié de Montréal on behalf of the Canadian Battlefields Foundation. The site consists of a reflecting pool in which the words (in Latin) “No day shall erase you from our memory” are inscribed. The names of all the villages in Normandy liberated by Canadians are carved into the surrounding stone wall, and a winding path leads to a terrace where the names of the Canadian regiments and other units that fought for Normandy’s liberation are inscribed.
Visitors might also wish to follow the Rue D’Authie into Caen, noting the plaque marking the advance of the SD&Gs into the city. Turn left onto Rue de Bayeaux and just before the famous Abbaye des Hommes which sheltered the citizens during the bombing, there is a memorial in Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie. Every year Canadian university students participating in the Canadian Battlefields Foundation study tour join the people of Caen to commemorate the moment when soldiers and civilians met and embraced here.
In 1944, Canadian military engineers and civil affairs officers worked to restore water, power and sanitary facilities in the ruined city. Much of the population had fled south hoping to get away from the violence, but those who remained welcomed the Canadians as liberators, accepting the necessity of the bombing that destroyed large parts of the city. The SD&Gs reported that people emerged from the ruins offering the men flowers and wine. The memory of war is fading in Normandy, but the connection with Canada is kept alive by groups like the Canadian Battlefields Foundation and the Juno Beach Centre.
- Banner photo: Infantrymen of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders cross the Orne River in July 1944. Credit: Ken Bell, Library and Archives Canada.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on August 17, 2011.