Chapter 8: The Breakout Begins, 24–31 July 1944
(See Sketches 12 and 13)
Montgomery’s Orders for the Breakout
On 21 July, after his interview with Eisenhower (above, page 177), General Montgomery issued a new directive to his four Army Commanders: Bradley, Dempsey, Patton (whose Third US Army was preparing to go into action when the forthcoming operation had prepared the way) and Crerar (whose First Canadian Army was now at last to assume an operational role).1
Montgomery began by pointing out that the general position on the eastern flank had greatly improved since Second Army’s attack on 18 July. With a firm bridgehead beyond the Orne at Caen, the Allies had the ability to operate strongly in that sector, when desired, in an easterly, south-easterly or southerly direction. The enemy had lost heavily in men and equipment. Operations were now to be “continued intensively” on the eastern flank until the British forces were on the general line of the River Dives from the sea southwards to Bures, thence along the River Muance to St. Sylvain, and thence across country to Evrecy and Noyers to Caumont. The directive proceeded:–
4. It is now vital that the western flank should swing southwards and eastwards, and that we should gain possession of the whole of Cherbourg and Brittany peninsulas. The whole weight of the Army Group will therefore be directed to this task; we require the Brittany ports so that we can develop the full resources of the Allies in western Europe, and we must get them soon.
And while carrying out this task we must improve, and retain firmly, our present good position on the eastern flank, and be ready to take quick action on that flank. ...
Within this framework, the First Canadian Army was to take over from the Second Army, at noon on 23 July, the sector held by the 1st British Corps. The boundary between the two armies would be the railway from Caen to Mezidon. All troops under the 1st Corps would pass under the command of the First Canadian Army, the British divisions to be transferred being the 3rd, 49th, 51st and 6th Airborne, the last-named having under it the 1st and 4th Special Service Brigades. General Crerar’s task was thus defined:
9. The immediate task of First Canadian Army will be to advance its left flank eastwards so that Ouistreham will cease to be under close enemy observation and fire, and that use can then be made of the port of Caen. To achieve this it will be necessary to push the enemy back to the east side of the R. Dives, and to occupy such positions as will ensure that all territory to the west of the river is dominated by our troops.
For the Second British Army Montgomery prescribed the following programme:
13. The army will operate intensively so as to secure the general line defined in para 2,* within the army boundaries, and to hold it firmly. Having gained this line, that part of the army front to the east of the R. Orne will be kept as active as is possible with the resources available; the enemy must be led to believe that we contemplate a major advance towards Falaise and Argentan, and he must be induced to build up his main strength to the east of the R. Orne so that our affairs on the western flank can proceed with greater speed.
14. The army will keep in reserve a Corps, containing at least two armoured divisions, which will be held ready to operate east of the R. Orne towards Falaise and Argentan when ordered by me.
The Second Army was to take over the First US Army’s left divisional Sector in the Caumont area, completing this relief by the early morning of 24 July.
The Americans’ tasks were much as defined in earlier directives (above, pages 151 and 166). With respect to the First US Army, Montgomery wrote:
16. The immediate task of this army is to secure the whole of the Cherbourg peninsula, up to the base of the peninsula in the Avranches area.
17. To achieve this task, the army will pivot on its left, and will swing its right flank southwards and eastwards on to the general line Vire-Mortain-Fougeres.
18. On reaching the base of the peninsula in the Avranches area, the right hand Corps (8 Corps) will be turned westwards into Brittany and directed on Rennes and St. Malo.
19. As regards the remainder of the army.
Plans will be made to direct a strong right wing in a wide sweep, south of the bocage country, towards successive objectives as follows:
b. Le Mans–Alençon.
The Third US Army was to be prepared to “take direction and control of the operations on the extreme western flank when so ordered”. Its task was still to clear the whole of the Brittany peninsula.
Future command relations as they affected the American forces were thus described:
12 Army Group
23. Under orders issued by General Eisenhower, this Army Group will be formed to take command of the American Armies in France. 12 Army Group is to be commanded by Lt-Gen. Bradley, and its operations will for the present be under the general direction and control of 21 Army Group.
24. Lt-Gen. Bradley will decide when the moment has come to form the Army Group, which will consist initially of First and Third US Armies.
25. General Eisenhower has commanded that, until the Army Group is formed, all operations in the American sector will be under the direction and control of Lt-Gen. Bradley.
26. The fact that the Third US Army, commanded by General Patton, is to form part of 12 Army Group for operations in Brittany is to be kept Top Secret and will not be disclosed below Army Commanders in the British and Canadian Armies.
* The line from St. Sylvain to Caumont.
Montgomery stated that the Air Commander-in-Chief had been asked to “direct the weight of the available air power to further the operations on the western flank of the Army Group”, as outlined in the passages already noted. Finally he wrote: “The policy on which we will now work, and to which all our efforts must be directed, is as laid down in para. 4.”
On 22 July General Montgomery sent a copy of this directive to General Eisenhower, asking him to inform him if they did not now see eye to eye on operations. “The Supreme Commander replied that they were apparently in complete agreement that a vigorous and persistent offensive should be sustained by both First and Second Armies.” He mentioned that his letter to Montgomery (above, page 177) had been written before he received the new directive.2
Montgomery’s intentions are given in rather more detail in a letter3 which he wrote the Supreme Commander on 24 July. This explained that his conception of the Second Army operations was, first, an attack by the 2nd Canadian Corps at dawn on 25 July to capture the area Fontenay le Marmion-Point 122 (a feature on the Falaise road also called the “Cramesnil spur”)-Garcelles-Secqueville; secondly, an attack on 28 July by the 12th Corps west of the Orne to capture the area Evrecy-Amaye; thirdly, an operation by the 8th Corps east of the Orne and through the Canadian Corps down the Falaise road, to cover the capture by the Canadian Corps of a large wooded area east of Garcelles. Finally, all these operations were in Montgomery’s mind “preliminary to a very large scale operation, by possibly three or four armoured divisions”, which he proposed to launch towards Falaise. This was evidently to be another GOODWOOD; and again the Army Group Commander emphasized, as he had before that operation, that its results could not be foretold. If the operation did not go well, it would, he said, be possible to withdraw into the firm base formed by the Canadian Corps and repeat it a few days later. He hoped that this large armoured thrust could go in about 3 or 4 August.
While telling Eisenhower that General Bradley’s offensive had been postponed on 24 July because of the weather, and might have to be postponed again for the same reason, Montgomery added that he was not going to “hold back or wait” on the eastern flank. He had ordered General Dempsey to go ahead on 25 July “anyhow”, and the 2nd Canadian Corps was attacking at 3:30 a.m. In the event, both the American COBRA and the more limited Canadian operation (SPRING) went in on the morning of 25 July.
It is important to establish the enemy situation on the eve of these attacks on 25 July. It is clear from the Germans’ records that they were expecting a further heavy attack on the Caen front. On 22 July the 47th Panzer Corps was ordered to dispatch the 2nd Panzer Division with the utmost speed to the area about Tournebu, north-west of Falaise, to be ready to deal with this.* The 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were to be assembled in the triangle between the Rivers Laize and Orne (but the 10th evidently could not be spared from the line in the
* Strong elements of the 2nd Panzer had already been in action east of the Orne (above, page 178). On the other hand, it appears that the last substantial elements of the division (including divisional HQ and the 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) were relieved and sent east only on 24 July, and that they did not in fact reach the new divisional area until the night of the 25th-26th.4
area just west of the Orne, and did not move). On the eve of SPRING and COBRA, then, there were seven German armoured divisions facing the Second British Army: the 2nd, 21st and 116th Panzer Divisions, and the 1st, 9th, 10th and 12th SS Panzer Divisions. And of these all but the 10th SS and some parts of the 2nd Panzer and 9th SS were east of the Orne (see Sketch 12). On the American front there were two armoured divisions: the 2nd SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr.5
The 2nd Canadian Corps was confronted by a most formidable array. Under the 1st SS Panzer Corps, the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler) held the line from the vicinity of Cagny to Verrières. Thence to the Orne the 272nd Infantry Division was in the front positions, powerfully reinforced with a tank battalion and a panzer grenadier battalion each from the 2nd Panzer Division and the 9th SS Panzer Division, plus the reconnaissance battalion of the 10th SS Panzer Division. In close reserve north-west of Bretteville-sur-Laize was the balance of the 9th SS, and more distant, north-west of Tournebu, the main body of the the 2nd Panzer. On the opposite flank of the 1st SS Panzer Corps the 116th Panzer Division was waiting in reserve east of St. Sylvain.6 We did not know the full strength of these dispositions before the operation, and in particular did not know the 2nd Panzer had moved east from Caumont;7 but it was clear, and is still clearer today, that SPRING was a very difficult proposition. The Germans were now for the first time, many weeks too late for their own good, beginning to assume that a second Allied landing, in the Pas de Calais area, was no longer probable. The weekly report of Army Group B, issued on 24 July for the week ending the previous day, remarked that the Allies now had at least 40 divisions in the bridgehead, and that there were still in Great Britain 52 “large formations”, of which 42 could be moved to the Continent. These figures were, as always, greatly exaggerated; there were actually 31 divisions (14 British and Canadian, 17 US) on the order of battle of the 21st Army Group on 25 July.8 The report, which was signed by General Speidel, the Army Group’s Chief of Staff, proceeded:
The intentions of Army Group Montgomery seem to remain unchanged.
The 2nd British Army will try to obtain a breakthrough in the general direction of Falaise in order to create the conditions required for the thrust on Paris.
The 1st American Army will strive to attain its first operational goal: broadening the lodgement area as far as the line Domfront-Avranches.
There are no indications on hand regarding the date and target of the 1st American Army Group’s attack.* In view of the continuing movement of forces to the Normandy front [from England] a far distant landing operation is becoming less probable, but the 15th Army’s Somme–Seine sector is still in special danger.
The more and faster Montgomery gains ground from the bridgehead towards the south, the less probable becomes a landing at a new point by the forces still in England. ...
* This has no connection with the plan for activating the 12th Army Group (above, page 182). There had been a 1st US Army Group in England; its designation was changed to 12th when its headquarters moved to France, but a fictitious 1st Army Group was kept in England as part of the cover plan, to encourage the Germans to believe that it was being held back to command a new landing operation.9
Operation SPRING: The Action of Verrières Ridge–Tilly-la-Campagne
The planning of Operation SPRING began on 21 July, when it had become apparent that if further progress was to be made in the direction of Falaise a deliberate attack would have to be mounted. On the morning of that day General Simonds held a preliminary orders group for the operation. On 23 July he briefed all commanders down to and including those of brigades; and at noon on the 24th he held a final conference which was attended by the commanders of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions and the 7th and Guards Armoured Divisions. These two latter divisions had been under the 2nd Canadian Corps since 20 July.10
The Corps operation instruction for SPRING was issued after this conference, and simultaneously D Day was confirmed as 25 July and H Hour as 3:30 a.m.11 It is fair to assume (though it is not recorded) that by this time Montgomery’s order had reached Simonds through Dempsey. The instruction defined the intention as the capture of the high ground around Point 122 (above, page 183); exploitation to widen the gap and clear the eastern flank by capturing the woods east of Garcelles; and further exploitation southwards to seize the high ground about Cintheaux on the Falaise road. This was to be carried out in three phases, the first being the capture of the line May-sur-Orne–Verrières–Tilly la Campagne. The second would consist of the capture of the line Fontenay le Marmion-Rocquancourt (that is, the ground immediately south of the Verrières Ridge) followed by that of Point 122. The third phase would be “exploitation as ordered by Commander 2 Cdn Corps”.
This was generally in accord with General Montgomery’s plan as described to the Supreme Commander (above, page 183). However, General Simonds has stated that in fact the attainment of these objectives was not considered likely. The opposing forces were known to be very formidable, and his understanding was that this was in fact to be simply a “holding attack” designed to occupy the enemy while the main assault was made on the American front.12 But such conceptions could be given no currency, and however well understood this interpretation of the forthcoming operation may have been on higher levels, it was not confided to the divisional commanders.13
The first phase, on the right, would be the business of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, which was to attack May-sur-Orne and Verrières, while on the left the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division would capture Tilly-la-Campagne. The armour would come in during the second phase; as the 2nd Division pressed on to take Fontenay-le-Marmion and Rocquancourt, the 7th Armoured Division would thrust through the centre to seize the Cramesnil spur. Thereafter the 3rd Division would take Garcelles-Secqueville. The two armoured divisions would be available for further exploitation, the intended task of the Guards Armoured Division being to capture the woods east of Garcelles. The attack, as already noted, was timed for 3:30 a.m. A degree of visibility over the battlefield was to be obtained by “artificial moonlight” provided by searchlight beams reflected on the low clouds.
The 3rd Canadian Division’s attack was the responsibility of the 9th Infantry
Brigade, strongly supported by medium machine-guns, heavy mortars, anti-tank guns, artillery and armour. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, advancing from Bourguébus covered by the divisional artillery, would assault Tilly-la-Campagne. Assuming the success of this thrust, and of the 7th Armoured Division’s to the Cramesnil spur, The Highland Light Infantry of Canada were to go through and take Garcelles-Secqueville. The 7th Infantry Brigade was available for exploitation, and the 8th was in reserve. The division’s objective in the exploitation phase was the village of La Hogue. The left flank was to be secured by the 27th Armoured Brigade of the 1st British Corps, which was to be placed behind the 3rd Canadian Division.14
The 2nd Canadian Division attack was somewhat more complicated. The road from St. André-sur-Orne to Hubert-Folie was to be the start line, but it still remained to be cleared. This task was allocated to the 6th Infantry Brigade, to be completed by midnight 24-25 July. To carry out this intention, Brigadier Young ordered the Camerons of Canada to expel the enemy from St. André and St. Martinde-Foutenay, and Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal to take Troteval Farm. The division’s main attack was to be made on a two-brigade front, the 5th Infantry Brigade being on the right with the Camerons of Canada under command, and the 4th Infantry Brigade on the left with Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal under command. On the right The Calgary Highlanders were to advance from St. André to capture May-sur-Orne. Simultaneously The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry of the 4th Brigade would pass through Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal to take Verrières. The units of all three brigades not involved in the main attack (The South Saskatchewan Regiment, The Essex Scottish Regiment and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve) were to be in reserve under the 6th Brigade. The 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division would move up from Ifs to guard against any armoured counter-attack while the 2nd Division was attacking Fontenay-le-Marmion and Rocquancourt, and to be in readiness to go forward against the Cramesnil spur. The second phase of the 2nd Division attack was to begin at 5:30 a.m., with the Canadian Black Watch, with a tank squadron from the 6th Armoured Regiment, attacking Fontenay on the Orne flank and The Royal Regiment of Canada pushing through Verrières to take Rocquancourt.15
Artillery support took the form of a very large programme of harassing fire by the 2nd Canadian and 3rd and 8th British Army Groups Royal Artillery, in addition to concentrations by the field regiments of both Canadian divisions plus the 25th Field Regiment RA and the 19th Army Field Regiment RCA16 Since the operation was to go in whatever the state of the weather, air support was to be considered a “bonus”. The heavy bombers were being employed on the American front to clear the way for COBRA. The medium bombers available for SPRING were to be shown their targets by red smoke shells fired by our artillery. They were to attack the woods east of Garcelles about 9:20 p.m. on 24 July (partly with delayed-action bombs set to detonate at 6:30 the following morning) and again at 7:30 a.m. on the 25th. The RAF also undertook “armed reconnaissance” over the battle area from first light on the 25th; it was to be ready to attack enemy forces approaching the area or leaving the woods that were to be bombed.17
The preliminary air attack delivered on the evening of 24 July was largely ineffective because of heavy anti-aircraft fire; only 15 out of 60 aircraft sent out succeeded in bombing the target.18 The same evening the 6th Brigade began the business of clearing the 2nd Division’s start-line. On the left section of the front a company of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, assisted by Sherbrooke Fusiliers tanks and supported by artillery and heavy mortars, attacked and took Troteval Farm.19
On the western side of the 2nd Division front, the Cameron Highlanders of Canada, also supported by Sherbrooke tanks, had greater difficulty. Bitter and confused fighting went on in the dark among the buildings of St. André-sur-Orne and St. Martin-de-Fontenay. In this area there was a special problem. Its defensive strength was increased by the presence of iron mines and quarries, and it was subsequently found that a mine-shaft in a group of buildings usually called “the Factory” directly south of St. André was connected with extensive underground workings. These and other tunnels (including one leading from Rocquancourt to May-sur-Orne), along with air-shafts connecting with the surface, gave the enemy means of moving troops under cover from one section of his front to another, and of re-occupying positions after we had cleared them.20 Furthermore, although British troops had now taken the village of Maltot, the enemy still held Hill 112 and other lofty positions west of the Orne which enabled him to fire on our troops attacking the villages on the east bank from the flank and even from the rear.21 In these circumstances the Camerons found it very hard to clear the start-line, and although the “partial capture” of St. Martin was reported shortly after midnight and the line is said to have been secure by 3:30 a.m., there was still resistance thereafter.22
Operation SPRING: The 3rd Division Front
The medium bomber attack scheduled for the morning of 25 July was duly delivered against the woods near La Hogue between 6:12 and 8:30 a.m. by 46 Mitchells and 28 Bostons. Smoke, fires and an explosion suggested that damage had been done to the enemy forces believed to be sheltering there.23 But this did little good to our ground attack, which was already held up.
It may be best to deal first with events on the front of the 3rd Canadian Division. Here The North Nova Scotia Highlanders attacked Tilly-la-Campagne with three companies forward, B and D advancing east of the track leading from Bourguébus to Tilly, and C to the west of it. The searchlights are reported not to have come on at H Hour, but they did come on during the advance; the Commanding Officer complains that they merely silhouetted the attacking troops and brought down intense machine-gun fire. (Reports from the 2nd Division’s brigades were much more favourable to the artificial moonlight.) However, C Company reached a position just north of Tilly without suffering many casualties. B and D, on the contrary, became fiercely engaged with enemy infantry whom our barrage had not subdued and who “shot and shouted and threw grenades like wild men”.24 Although the companies got a foothold in an orchard at the north-east comer of the village and in the village itself, they could not clear the place. A Company, the reserve, was now sent forward to reinforce C and attack the village from the western flank. The attempt, however, caused heavy casualties and this company itself was pinned down. Contact with the battalion command post near the start-line was almost entirely lost and effective control within the assaulting companies was virtually impossible.
For a time the CO believed that B and D Companies were on their objectives, and at 5:25 he reported this. As the situation became clearer, at 6:14 he asked brigade headquarters for help from the tank squadron of the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Fort Garry Horse) which was waiting to support The Highland Light Infantry of Canada in the next phase. This was granted. In the meantime, Bren carriers and several self-propelled anti-tank guns were sent forward. They suffered heavy losses without improving the situation; and when B Squadron of the 10th Armoured Regiment moved up it met Panther tanks and anti-tank guns. It deployed to the west of the village and attempted to shoot the infantry into it. The squadron itself, however, was shortly cut to pieces, losing 11 tanks. In the afternoon the remnant was given permission to retire to Bourguébus, whence it continued to give what supporting fire it could.
The Highlanders’ Commanding Officer had wireless contact with only one of his forward companies (C). By this means he ordered his men to dig in and hold on where they were. This order can actually have reached few of the soldiers scattered in the fire-swept fields in and around the outskirts of the village, but most of them acted independently along the same line. In the afternoon the CO passed the word for the men remaining in the Tilly area to make their way back to Bourguébus when darkness fell. Approximately 100 all ranks got back in this manner. In the early morning of the 26th the Officer Commanding A Company returned with
nine men. He reported that he thought small groups were still holding out in various parts of the village, but that the enemy had moved at least ten tanks and two infantry companies into the area, and that “it was very unlikely that any of the others would get out alive”.25
Thus the 3rd Division attack had failed. In the course of the morning, apparently after consultation between the divisional and brigade commanders, The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders had been given a warning order to prepare to move up to support the North Nova Scotias,26 but they were never sent in, presumably because it was felt that they would accomplish little.* In this unsuccessful operation The North Nova Scotia Highlanders suffered 139 casualties: 61 killed, 46 wounded and 32 taken prisoner.27 The Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler had fought with genuinely fanatical determination and much skill; well dug in and well supported by armour, it had made Tilly too hard a nut for the attacking battalion to crack. Dissatisfaction of the Canadian higher command with the result was reflected in changes in the command of the 9th Brigade, The North Nova Scotia Highlanders and The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders.
Operation SPRING: The 2nd Division Front
We have mentioned (above, page 188) the difficulties encountered in clearing the start-line on the right sector of the 2nd Division front, where the built-up areas of St. Andre and St. Martin, and the labyrinth of mine tunnels, complicated the situation. As was to be expected in these circumstances, the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s attack on the left went better than the 5th Brigade’s on the right.
There was some temporary difficulty at the outset when enemy tanks were reported on the west end of the start-line (though it had earlier been reported secure) ; at the request of the Commanding Officer of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Lt.-Col. J. M. Rockingham) the assault was postponed for half an hour while he mounted an attack with his reserve company to drive the tanks away. At 4:10 a.m. the battalion crossed the start-line, the delay having lost it the benefit of the timed barrage. The forward companies moving up the slope towards Verrières came under heavy machine-gun fire, some of which later proved to have come from tanks. Four of these were destroyed by a 17-pounder detachment of the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment RCA firing from Troteval Farm, and this, along with the aid of field and medium artillery concentrations, enabled the flank companies to get forward and support the centre company which had already broken into the village. A counter-attack by enemy tanks was driven off, mainly with the PIAT, after a fierce encounter; and at 7:50 a.m. the battalion reported that it was firmly in possession of Verrières.28
The Royal Regiment of Canada and the leading tanks of the 7th Armoured Division now carried the attack onward towards Rocquancourt. By about 9:30 a.m. the Royals had got some 400 yards south of Verrières, but they were checked at
* A comment in the unit diary shows the effects of the 3rd Division’s long period in the line: “We are ordered to be on notice to move to assist the NNS. This is indeed a mental blow and is felt by all ranks. We need a rest and refit, having been in the line since D day. ... The men and officers are looking worn out. ...”
this point by exceptionally fierce fire. The same fate met the British armour (1st Royal Tank Regiment), advancing on the Royals’ right; it was stopped by anti-tank guns firing from north of Rocquancourt. C Company of the Canadian battalion, attempting to push on, was almost annihilated. The 7th Armoured Division reported that there were some 30 enemy tanks hull-down on the ridge between Fontenay and Rocquancourt and north-east of the latter place.29
The useful initial progress made on the left of the 2nd Division front had little parallel on the right. The Calgary Highlanders, attacking at H Hour in the hope of capturing May but finding the start-line not clear, had trouble from the beginning. It seems evident that elements of the battalion did fight their way into the northern outskirts of May twice during the morning, but were both times pushed out, retiring to the vicinity of St. André. The unit suffered heavily. Bad wireless communication prevented the Commanding Officer (Lt.-Col. D. G. MacLauchlan) from getting a clear picture of the positions of his companies or exercising effective control.30 The failure to clear May, and the continued presence of enemy elements in and about St. André and St. Martin and beyond the Orne, meant that the right flank of the subsequent Black Watch attack against Fontenay would be badly exposed, while the left would be under fire from the ridge.
At 3:30 a.m. the Black Watch moved into a forward assembly area in St. Martin. They found that there were still enemy in the village, and time was lost in clearing it in the darkness. During this process the Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. S. S. T. Cantlie, was mortally wounded by machine-gun fire. The same burst wounded the senior company commander, and the command devolved upon Major F. P. Griffin. It was now too late to carry out the attack according to the original time-table, which called for artillery support at fixed times. Pending the making of a new plan coordinated with the artillery and tanks Major Griffin moved the battalion into St. André. He also sent a patrol to reconnoitre May. It entered the place and got the impression that it was not strongly held by the Germans. It appears, however, that the latter were merely reserving their fire for a better target.
Since it was considered essential to push the attack, Headquarters 5th Infantry Brigade at 6:47 a.m. ordered the Black Watch to do so. Major Griffin held an “orders group” to issue instructions for the attack, and arranged for assistance from the artillery and from the tank squadron of the 6th Armoured Regiment* which was supporting the battalion. In accordance with the plan thus made, the Black Watch advanced at 9:30 from the so-called “Factory” south of St. Martin across the open fields and the west end of the ridge directly against Fontenay. It had already had a good many casualties and it is reported that one company was now commanded by a sergeant.
From the moment of crossing the start-line the battalion came under intense and accurate fire from the ridge, from May, and from the positions beyond the Orne; and men fell fast. The Black Watch nevertheless advanced with unwavering determination. Surviving officers believe that about 60 all ranks, led by Major Griffin, reached the flat top of the ridge. It appears that on or just beyond the
* The squadron commander, Major W. E. Harris, MP, was wounded in the course of the morning and Capt. J. W. Powell succeeded him.
crest they ran into a well-camouflaged enemy position strengthened with dug-in tanks. What remained of the battalion was now “pinned down” by intense close-range fire. Further advance being out of the question, Griffin ordered his men to make their way back individually as best they could; but very few succeeded in doing so. Officers of the battalion estimate that the four rifle companies committed to this attack numbered perhaps 300 officers and men, and that not more than 15 of them got back to our lines. The last survivors were probably overwhelmed early in the afternoon. When we later reoccupied the position, Major Griffin’s body was found lying among those of his men.31
From the moment when the attack went in there had been no communication with the battalion. The one wireless set known to have been with Major Griffin was in a jeep which was later found knocked out not far from the start-line; and the intensity of the fire made contact by runner virtually impossible. Brigadier Megill accordingly remained uncertain as to the unit’s fate; artillery tasks, including the laying of smoke, were fired in the hope of assisting it to withdraw; and about seven o’clock in the evening Le Régiment de Maisonneuve delivered a further attack against May-sur-Orne. This also failed; the battalion reported coming under fire from machine-gunners in its rear who may have infiltrated through the mine workings.32
Although Black Watch survivors had the impression that the tank and artillery support planned for their attack did not actually materialize, they seem to have been mistaken. The squadron of the 6th Armoured Regiment planned to enter May and support the infantry thence by fire from the flank. Two troops, and subsequently a third, did advance into May, and the acting squadron commander believes that they were in the village before the Black Watch reached the ridge. They were at once heavily engaged by anti-tank guns and Panther tanks. All three troop-leaders’ tanks, and possibly another, were lost, and since nothing could be seen of any Canadian troops the surviving tanks in due course withdrew. During the day’s operations every officer of the squadron but one became a casualty.33 As for the planned artillery support, one of the regiments (the 5th Field Regiment RCA) reported to brigade headquarters at 9:15 a.m. on the tasks which it intended to fire to assist the attack at 9:30; these consisted of concentrations on probable enemy positions, on the ridge east of May. The brigade commander was certain that the fire plan was carried out as arranged, but believed that the Black Watch advance was slowed by the enemy fire to the point where the battalion was unable to take full advantage of our own bombardment.34
The Operation Is Suspended
The Corps Commander’s control of the action was hampered by inadequate and inaccurate information. According to the headquarters war diary of the 22nd British Armoured Brigade, about 1:00 p.m. General Simonds visited the brigade and decided that Tilly and May-sur-Orne were to be held, “then armour passed through”. But neither May nor Tilly was effectively occupied by our troops during the day, though as late as 4:25 p.m. Corps believed that they were holding the latter village against counter-attacks.35 About the same time the 3rd Division
recorded that the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment and a squadron of the 7th Armoured Division were to move to support the 9th Brigade, and particularly The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, forthwith: “NNS in NE half of Tilly to firm up there and reinforce tonight incl adequate A tk guns”; the 2nd Division was attacking May-sur-Orne and Rocquancourt that night.36 At 5:30 p.m. the details of the Corps intention were notified: at 6:30 p.m. the 2nd Division was to attack Rocquancourt with the support of the whole Corps artillery; at 9:00 p.m. the attack was to go in on May, and at first light on 26 July Fontenay-le-Marmion would be assaulted in its turn. The 9th Brigade was to make Tilly-la-Campagne “firm” during the night.37
This programme was interfered with by a formidable counter-attack delivered against Verrières by German armour about 6:00 p.m. Eight tanks penetrated the RHLI’s right forward positions.38 There was a desperate struggle. The fighting Canadian infantry were backed by a squadron of the 1st Royal Tanks which had come up to their support, and by rocket-firing RAF Typhoons.*39 The combined effort saved the position. At last light The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the only unit in the Corps to seize and hold its objective that day, retained its firm tenure of Verrières. But it had paid a tragic price-including the next three days’ lesser defensive fighting, exactly 200 casualties, of which 53 were fatal. The battalion recorded, “Not one of our men is in enemy hands and none are known to be missing.” This proud declaration is confirmed by post-war study of its records.40 The RHLI may well remember Verrières.
At 6:00 p.m. General Foulkes was considering with his brigadiers the orders for that night and the next day. Brigadier Young (6th Brigade), after studying at. his own headquarters the attack on Fontenay planned for the morning of the 26th, returned to Division and reported that in his opinion further operations on that front would not be successful until the enemy had been cleared from the positions west of the Orne from which he could bring down such heavy artillery and mortar fire. “The GOC said he agreed with Brigadier Young and that he would make arrangements to meet the Corps Commander immediately.”41 He went to Corps, only to find that General Simonds had anticipated him. He had gone to see General Dempsey and represented to him that there was nothing to be gained by seeking to press the attack further; all that could usefully be done was to consolidate such ground as had been gained, without committing further forces. The Army Commander accepted this advice, and the continuation of the attack previously planned for the morning of 26 July was cancelled.42
The 25th had been a bloody day. It is impossible to give a precise total for the Canadian battle casualties of Operation SPRING. The official record for the date, for all Canadian Army units in North-West Europe, shows 1202, of which 362 were fatal. It is clear, however, that in this instance reporting channels became
* What were probably the largest and most effective of the Typhoon attacks were delivered between 6:40 and 7:40 p.m. by 12 aircraft of Nos. 181 and 182 Squadrons RAF, which fired 96 rockets at tanks a few hundred yards south-east of Verrières and believed they hit three. Our artillery fired red smoke to indicate targets to the aircraft. At one stage, through some mistake, a round of red smoke fell on Lt.-Col. Rockingham’s headquarters and led to a brief rocket attack being made upon it. Luckily, no casualties resulted.
clogged and many casualties actually suffered on 25 July were reported as of later dates. The most extreme case is that of the Canadian Black Watch, which suffered more heavily than any other unit. Its casualties recorded under 25 July numbered 167 (83 being fatal). Yet although the battalion was not in action on 26, 27 or 28 July, 140 additional casualties are recorded for it on those days. It thus seems evident that the Black Watch actually had 307 casualties on 25 July. Five officers and 118 other ranks were killed or died of wounds. Of the 83 all ranks who became prisoners, 21 were wounded. Except for the Dieppe operation, there is no other instance in the Second World War where a Canadian battalion had so many casualties in a single day.
For the infantry battalions of the 2nd Division, and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, a total of 432 casualties are recorded for 26, 27 and 28 July, 113 being fatal. There were no major operations on these days, although there was some fighting (particularly in the Verrières sector) and a good deal of mortaring and shelling. Most of these casualties were certainly actually suffered on the 25th. We should not be far wrong if we estimated the total battle casualties of Operation SPRING at about 1500, and the fatal casualties at about 450.43 Again excepting Dieppe, it was the Canadian Army’s costliest day of operations in the Second World War. The 2nd Canadian Corps attack had struck a stone wall. The result is not surprising, in view of the strength of the German positions and the powerful force of high-category troops which was holding them.
As with GOODWOOD, so in the case of SPRING the most important matter, in evaluating the operation, is its effect upon the enemy. It was particularly vital, as we have seen, to prevent him from observing that the American attack launched west of St. Lô on this same day was in fact the main Allied effort. It appears that in this respect the operation was useful, although from the beginning the Germans recognized it as a limited attack. At 8:45 a.m. on 25 July the following entry was made in the war diary of Panzer Group West:
Field-Marshal von Kluge has the Chief of Staff orient him on the situation. Panzer Group takes the view that the attack begun this morning against the 1st SS Panzer Corps is not the anticipated major attack, as apart from other considerations the enemy air force has not yet appeared in considerable strength. C-in-C West shares this view.
In a second conversation, Field-Marshal von Kluge directs attention to ensuring the reserves’ readiness for an immediate counter-attack as an absolute sine qua non. ...
The fierce enemy counter-attack early in the evening, which failed to recover Verrières (the German reports, incidentally, do not admit the final loss of the village until the following day) was evidently delivered by elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division. As we have seen, this area was on the extreme left of that formidable division’s line. German reports also refer to an evening advance by elements of the 9th SS Panzer Division astride the road Bretteville-sur-Laize–Fontenay-le-Marmion, which encountered a formidable anti-tank defence (Pakfront); whether these elements were the parts of the division that had been directly supporting the 272nd Infantry Division, or (as seems rather more likely) those from the reserve group farther south (above, page 185), seems impossible
to say. There is reference also to an earlier counter-attack by the 272nd in the Orne sector.44 A 2nd Panzer Division tank was knocked out and examined during the day near St. Martin-de-Fontenay.45 It is quite probable that it was tanks of this formation that the Black Watch ran into on the Verrières Ridge.
In the evening von Kluge concurred in the recommendation that the 272nd Division, which had suffered very heavily, be withdrawn from the St. André sector and replaced by the 9th SS Panzer Division (the 272nd subsequently relieved the 21st Panzer Division on the quieter section of the front east of Caen). The reserve group of the 2nd Panzer moved up into the close-reserve position vacated by the 9th SS west of Bretteville-sur-Laize. Here it came under the 1st SS Panzer Corps and was in readiness for counterattack.46 The Germans believed that there were still large British armoured forces east of Caen, uncommitted and ready for action;47 and so far there was no proposal to move German divisions from the British to the American front.
Thanks in part no doubt to the continued heavy fighting in the Caen sector, the German command was slow to appreciate the fundamental significance of the American attack in the west. Montgomery’s fear48 that the “false start” of Operation COBRA on 24 July, when bad weather caused action to be suspended after bombing had begun, would give his plan away, proved groundless; the Germans were infatuated enough to believe that the Americans had in fact attempted a major advance, and that their resistance had stopped it in its tracks.49 When the 7th US Corps launched the real attack, after a great blow by heavy bombers, on 25 July, a whole day passed before its seriousness began to be fully understood. Then, on the afternoon of the 26th, von Kluge asked urgently for an armoured division from Armeegruppe G in the south of France*50 to help him stem the tide. Simultaneously he resolved to bring down additional infantry divisions from the Fifteenth Army, north of the Seine.51 But both these areas were too distant to provide immediate aid; and only on the morning of the 27th did von Kluge authorize a movement of troops from the adjacent front of the Second British Army. He then directed that the 2nd Panzer Division, and the headquarters of the 47th Panzer Corps, should move to the area south of St. Lô with all speed. Later in the day the 116th Panzer Division was also ordered west.52 But it was then too late to prevent an American break-through. On this same day “the decisive actions of the operation took place”. That evening the 1st US Infantry Division was on the outskirts of Coutances.53
This vital delay of forty-eight hours the blood shed in Operation SPRING had helped to purchase; though that operation certainly did no more than reinforce the already powerful effect of Operations GOODWOOD and ATLANTIC. SPRING was merely the last and not the least costly incident of the long “holding attack” which the British and Canadian forces had conducted, in accordance with Montgomery’s plan, to create the opportunity for a decisive blow on the opposite flank of the bridgehead. There had been an urgent strategical need for it; and the
* The war diary of the Commander-in-Chief West refers to this as a repetition of an earlier request, which however does not seem to have been recorded. On 27 July von Kluge heard that Hitler had agreed to move the 9th Panzer Division in accordance with his request.
urgency was strongly underlined in the Supreme Commander’s communications to Montgomery. The opportunity had now been amply created, and the American columns, rolling southward from St. Lô, were grasping it to the full. But the heavy fighting on the Caen front was not yet over.
First Canadian Army in the Line
As we have already seen, at noon on 23 July Headquarters First Canadian Army became operational, though as yet it had no Canadian divisions under its command. It took over at that moment the front held by Lieut.-General J. T. Crocker’s 1st British Corps, between the Caen–Mezidon railway and the Channel. Its task had been defined in General Montgomery’s directive of 21 July (above, page 182). In accordance with this directive, General Crerar on 22 July sent General Crocker a letter of instruction54 covering these operations. It ran in part as follows:
3. The immediate task of First Cdn Army... is to advance its left flank Eastwards so that Ouistreham will cease to be under close enemy observation and fire, and so that use can then be made of the Port of Caen. This operation will be carried out by 1 Corps. ...
5. A firm hold on the high ground within the triangle Bures–Troarn–Touffreville is a preliminary essential to any operations further North or NE. If Troarn itself can be seized without undue casualties, this should be done. In any event, it is essential to obtain and retain domination of the immediate approaches to Troarn and to deny their general use to the enemy.
6. I consider that, in order to secure the line of the R Dives, between Bures and the sea, it is necessary to go further, and to secure the high ground immediately East of that river. The resources now at disposal do not permit any such large scale operation, and in any event, the immediate task-to clear Ouistreham of close range observation and fire-does not call for this to be done.
7. This immediate task ... will require 1 Corps to gain possession of the general line of the road which runs from Breville ... through Le Marais ... to the road junction Le Petit Homme ... [map references omitted]. Consideration should be given to the assistance which may be rendered by Naval fire support, including use of LCT(R), as well as to the air requirements.
Mention has been made in the first volume of this history* of the inherent difficulty of General Crerar’s position at this time. Although he had seen much active service in the First World War, his battle experience in the Second, at the time when he took command of the Army, had been limited to a few weeks commanding the 1st Canadian Corps in Italy on a front which at that moment was quiet. Crocker, on the other hand, while he had not had very lengthy experience of high command in action, had commanded an armoured brigade in France in 1940 and the 9th Corps during a good part of the Tunisian campaign of 1942-43. These circumstances may have contributed to producing the incident which now took place.
On the morning of 24 July General Crerar, accompanied by his Chief of Staff (Brigadier C. C. Mann), visited the Headquarters of the 1st British Corps to discuss the forthcoming limited enterprise. To Crerar’s considerable astonishment,
* Six Years of War, 416.
Crocker began by saying that, so far as he was concerned, the operation was “not on”. He did not consider that relieving the Caen Canal from close observation and fire would accomplish anything, since most of the enemy’s observation was from the high ground east of the Dives. A limited advance would be useless, and (as Crerar had remarked) no resources were available for a large-scale operation. Crocker said that the attack he had been instructed to make would cause 500 or 600 casualties and achieve nothing of value. He did not propose to undertake any active operations beyond clearing up the situation around Troarn. He went on to describe the condition of his divisions, and said that apart from other factors he had no troops fit or available for the task he had been given. To state the matter succinctly, he declined to carry out the orders he had received. General Crerar asked him to put his views in writing so that they could be accurately represented to the Army Group Commander. Since there seemed to be no object in discussing the matter further, Crerar then ended the conversation.55
Later in the day the Army Commander duly received from Crocker the letter he had requested, and immediately sent a copy of it to General Montgomery, along with a memorandum of the morning’s discussion. Crocker, he said, had given him the impression “that he resented being placed under my command and receiving any directive from me”. Crerar proceeded, “I do not know whether this attitude is personal, or because of the fact that I am a Canadian—but it certainly showed itself.” Convinced that Crocker would never “play up” as one of his subordinates, he asked Montgomery to transfer him to the 12th or the 30th British Corps and put one of the commanders of those corps (Generals Ritchie and Bucknall) in his place. Crerar knew both these officers and was certain that either would work well with him.56
The following day Montgomery invited Crerar to visit him and discuss the problem. He was “very friendly and helpful”, but suggested that the situation had been caused by the manner in which Crerar had handled an operational requirement with “a somewhat difficult subordinate” who had just come under his command. Crocker was “the type of man who required to be induced to see your plan rather than ordered to carry it out”. He felt that it was impossible to accede to Crerar’s request to transfer Crocker, because not only would this mean in effect that two corps staffs would have to be interchanged at a difficult moment, but it was also probable that at some future time Crocker’s corps would in any case have to be put under the First Canadian Army. Crerar said that, while still convinced that Crocker’s temperament and outlook made him unsuitable to be one of his corps commanders, he was prepared to “go more than half way in order to make the present organization a going concern”.
Montgomery then suggested that Crerar send for Crocker and go over the problem again. Crerar replied that while he did not intend to maintain his personal views to the extent of interfering with operations, “it was no use me talking to General Crocker unless he was prepared to accept me wholeheartedly, without any restriction, as his operational Army Commander”. He asked Montgomery to see Crocker, straighten out the relationship in his mind, and confirm to him that what was wanted was the clearance of Ouistreham and the Caen Canal from
close observation and fire as stated in Montgomery’s directive and in Crerar’s based upon it. General Montgomery then said that he would have General Crocker report to him the following day at 9:00 a.m. and would make the situation clear to him. He suggested that Crerar and Crocker could get together later that day “with the air cleared and good prospects of mutual understanding”.57
On these lines the matter was settled. General Crocker duly visited General Crerar at his headquarters the following evening and the proposed operations were discussed, evidently in a more amicable manner than before.58 On 27 July Crocker’s headquarters produced an outline59 of the proposed operation. It was intended “to enlarge our present bridgehead East of the Orne sufficiently to enable some use to be made of the Canal Ouistreham–Caen and of the port of Ouistreham”, and at the same time to achieve an economy in the number of troops required to secure the eastern flank of the Army. The operation, though essentially one, was in two parts described by separate code names: RAWLINSON, to be carried out by the 3rd British Division south of the Bois de Bavent, and BYNG, to be carried out by the 49th British Infantry Division (which was just arriving) north of the wood.* The proposed target date was 8 August. The 1st Corps suggested, a trifle ambitiously perhaps, that the enterprise would require air support “on the GOODWOOD scale”, Bomber Command being asked to “blot out the coastal strip” from Franceville to Cabourg. On the basis of this document planning proceeded during the few days before developments elsewhere put an end to the project60 (below, page 201).
The relationship with General Crocker and his headquarters which seemed to have begun so badly developed in a much more satisfactory manner than might have been expected, and the 1st British Corps operated under the First Canadian Army through the weeks and months that followed without any serious friction and with, apparently, steadily increasing mutual regard. When the 1st Corps finally left First Canadian Army in March 1945 there was a warmly friendly exchange of letters between General Crocker and the Army Commander.
Strategic Policy in the Last Days of July
It seems evident that the failure of the 2nd Canadian Corps to make more progress in Operation SPRING led General Montgomery to modify the strategic policy for the British front which he had defined in his letter to General Eisenhower on 24 July (above, page 183). On 27 July he issued a new directive.61 By that date the American operation in the west was becoming the break-through which his plans required. The directive, in these circumstances, contained no important change in the plans for the American front; but it altered those for the eastern flank considerably. On 24 July he had, as we have seen, looked forward to another GOODWOOD launched towards Falaise, which would have been the main blow
* The 3rd Division was commanded by Major-General L. G. Whistler, the 49th by Major-General E. H. Barker.
on the British front. This was now abandoned in favour of an offensive west of the Orne. The opening portion of the directive should be quoted:
The General Situation.
1. As a result of our having got the bottleneck of Caen behind us and having gained a good bridgehead beyond it, the enemy has brought a very powerful force across to the east of the Orne to oppose our further advance southwards in the direction of Falaise. He is so strong there now that any large scale operations by us in that area are definitely unlikely to succeed; if we attempt them we would merely play into the enemy’s hands, and we would not be helping on our operations on the western flank.
2. On the western flank the First US Army has delivered the main blow of the whole Allied plan, and it is making excellent progress. Anything we do elsewhere must have the underlying object of furthering the operations of the American forces to the west of St. Lô, and thus speeding up the capture of the whole of the Cherbourg and Brittany peninsulas; it is ports that we require, and quickly.
3. By our operations on the eastern flank we have pulled the main enemy strength on that side in to the area east of the Orne and astride the Falaise road. The enemy has tried hard to relieve his armoured divisions with infantry divisions, and to hold his armour in reserve for the counter-attack. But he has failed in this; on the front of the Second British Army we now find that he has six Pz. and SS divisions holding the line, and all these are to the east of Noyers. We will now take advantage of this situation.
There are no Pz or SS formations to the west of Noyers, and therefore the situation is favourable for a very heavy blow to be delivered by the right wing of the Second British Army in the Caumont area.
While this blow is being organised and prepared, it will be necessary for the Second Army to do everything possible to keep the enemy forces pinned down in the general area to the east of Noyers, and especially in the area east of the Orne.
4. Along the whole front now held by the First Canadian and Second British Armies it is essential that the enemy be attacked to the greatest degree possible with the resources available. He must be worried, and shot up, and attacked, and raided, whenever and wherever possible; the object of such activity will be to improve our own positions, to gain ground, to keep the enemy from transferring forces across to the western flank to oppose the American advance. and generally to “write off” German personnel and equipment. The main blow on the eastern flank will be delivered in great strength by the right wing of the Second British Army.
Proceeding to detail, Montgomery observed with respect to the First Canadian Army, “It is realized that resources are limited, and this may prevent the full implementation of paras 9 and 10 of M 512 [above, page 1821 at the present time.” This amounted to accepting postponement of the proposed operations east of the Caen Canal. He went on to note that the Belgian and Dutch contingents
* Montgomery says in his Memoirs that he was disturbed by reports reaching him that in London on 26 and 27 July Eisenhower complained, in effect, to Mr. Churchill and others that the Second Army was not doing its fair share of the fighting. Montgomery felt that the moment when the breakout attack contemplated in his plan had just been launched was an unfortunate time for these complaints. The 1500 Canadian casualties of 25 July did not make them any more timely; but doubtless the Supreme Commander did not have full information concerning that day’s events on the 2nd Canadian Corps front.
would shortly arrive from the United Kingdom and would be placed under the Canadian Army.
The Second British Army (under which at this moment the 2nd Canadian Corps was still serving) was now to regroup and deliver from the general area about Caumont a strong offensive with not less than six divisions. Montgomery wrote, “The sooner this offensive can be launched the better. The latest date, consistent with good weather, will be 2nd August.” At the same time the Second Army was required to conduct operations on the left wing “so as to hold in the Caen sector the strong enemy forces now there”. The directive closed with the following general statement:
18. The present period is a critical and important time. The summer is drawing on and we have not many more months of good campaigning weather; there is still much to be done; we must secure the Brittany ports before the winter is on us.
19. The armies have been fighting “for position” during the past weeks. We have come through that period successfully and have gained the positions we wanted. The main blow of the whole Allied plan has now been struck on the western flank; that blow is the foundation of all our operations, and it has been well and truly struck.
The armies on the eastern flank must now keep up the pressure in the Caen area; and Second British Army must hurl itself into the fight in the Caumont area so as to make easier the task of the American armies fighting hard on the western flank.
On 28 July the Supreme Commander, who must have been reading with the greatest delight the reports from the west, signalled to Montgomery his comments on this directive, “with which”, he wrote, “I entirely agree as being calculated to exploit the situation before the enemy can reinforce which he is trying desperately to do”. Following the line of his earlier communications, however, he urged that the British and Canadian attacks be pushed: “I particularly agree your para 4 and beg of you to insist that the Canadians and Second British Army carry out their assignments with vigor and determination so that Bradley may bring your plan to full fruition. Moreover their efforts may well produce unforeseen opportunities. In addition I suggest to you the advisability of speeding up the main blow of Second Army in Caumont area. ... The attack should be in just as quickly as Dempsey’s assault units can be hurried into line. I feel very strongly that a three-division attack now on Second Army’s right flank will be worth more than a six-division attack in five days time. ... Never was time more vital to us and we should not repeat not wait on weather or on perfections in detail of preparation. ...”62
Montgomery acted on the line indicated in this signal, though it is not entirely certain that he had received it before issuing his orders.* On the evening of the 28th he told the War Office that the attack near Caumont would now go in on Sunday 30 July: “Gave orders to Dempsey this morning that attack is to be pressed with utmost vigour and all caution thrown to the winds and any casualties accepted
* The available timing of the messages concerned makes this doubtful. See, however, Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand’s Operation Victory (London, 1947), 398, where Montgomery’s Chief of Staff recalls how, on an otherwise unidentified occasion “in July”, Eisenhower, in de Guingand’s office at Portsmouth, expressed the desire that an attack by Second Army should be speeded up. He later signalled to this effect. De Guingand telephoned Montgomery, who promised to try to speed the attack. This may or or may not be the occasion referred to.
and that he must step on gas for Vire. Americans are going great guns and with 2nd Army drive south from Caumont I think results may be good.” A similar signal went to Eisenhower.63 General Dempsey’s Caumont operation (BLUECOAT), prepared in the greatest haste, was duly launched early on 30 July.64
Arrangements were now going forward for the First Canadian Army to take under its command General Simonds’ 2nd Canadian Corps and with it the front south of Caen. This finally happened at noon on 31 July.65 By then work had already begun on plans for the Corps’ first operations under the Canadian Army. On 29 July General Crerar visited General Montgomery and was briefed on BLUECOAT. The Army Group Commander emphasized the importance of holding in place, as far as possible, the strong enemy forces facing the First Canadian Army. “No large scale effort was immediately required”, but short of this everything possible should be done to prevent the enemy from reinforcing opposite the Second Army or the First US Army.66 The same day Crerar issued to the 1st British Corps and (anticipating its coming under his command) the 2nd Canadian Corps, a directive67 covering this point. It also required General Simonds “to draw up plans for an actual attack, axis Caen-Falaise, objective Falaise”, to be carried out in great strength and with maximum air support. This attack would probably be required in the event of Second Army reaching the line Flers-Condé sur Noireau, or if the enemy in the Caen area showed signs of withdrawal. The 1st British Corps was also to plan a limited advance directed on Vimont, to protect the Canadian corps’ left flank if the attack towards Falaise were made. If these larger operations took place, RAWLINSON and BYNG would be superseded.
On 30 July Montgomery asked Crerar whether he could hold the 1st British Corps front with the 6th Airborne Division and one other, and thus get two British infantry divisions into reserve in readiness either to reinforce Dempsey or to start an important attack on his own front. Crerar assented and acted accordingly.68 On the evening of the 31st Montgomery telephoned him and said that the situation on the BLUECOAT front was “good and promising better”. He now required that the 1st British Corps should send the 3rd British Infantry Division and the 4th British Armoured Brigade (less one regiment) to the Second Army, to come under its command from 7:00 a.m. on 1 August. In reply to an inquiry from Crerar, he said he did not anticipate initiating any major operation on the Canadian Army front for at least a week.69
These developments of course put a stop to all action concerning Operations RAWLINSON and BYNG, for the 49th Division had to take over the 3rd’s sector and the best that General Crocker could be expected to do with his attenuated corps was to hold the line.70 The month of July thus ended without any operation of importance having transpired on the First Canadian Army’s front. The theme of the situation reports during the Army’s first eight days in the line was uniformly “Nothing to report”.
At this period, indeed, the Army was not yet in proper condition to undertake major operations. Many units of Army Troops were still in England or in transit; and those that had arrived were chiefly operating under the 2nd Canadian Corps in
Second Army. For instance, the headquarters and units of the 2nd Canadian Army Group Royal Artillery arrived in Normandy during the period 9-12 July and immediately went into action under the 2nd Corps, which they supported thereafter.71 One essential unit, First Canadian Army Signals, General Crerar had had in France since June; pending the Army’s becoming operational, its sub-units performed a variety of tasks for other formations.72
At least equally important, the Army’s allotted air support was not available; Headquarters No. 84 Group RAF (above, page 41) was still in the United Kingdom. While its arrival was awaited, its Group Captain Operations and Wing Commander Operations acted as Liaison Officers for General Crerar at HQ No. 83 Group; but this was only a stop-gap arrangement, and on 29 July the GOC-in-C. pointed out to General Montgomery its unsatisfactory aspects. Montgomery said that bringing in No. 84 Group completely was technically complicated, but he thought that its headquarters should now be brought forward, and promised to speak to SHAEF about it without delay. An advanced headquarters was on the Continent by 6 August, but the Group was not fully operational until the 12th.73
The whole of the available Canadian force was now in Normandy. Major-General Kitching’s 4th Armoured Division, the last Canadian division from England to reach the theatre, entered the line under the 2nd Canadian Corps at the end of July. It relieved the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, which after 55 days in the face of the enemy now withdrew to the vicinity of Colomby-sur-Thaon for a short period of rest. The relief was completed at 4:30 a.m. on 31 July.74 Lt.-Col. J. M. Rockingham was shortly promoted to command the 9th Infantry Brigade.
The 4th Division now confronted the enemy immediately east of the great road to Falaise, in the area Four-Bourguébus. Between the road and the Orne the 2nd Division held the line. Great events were impending on this front. By the end of the month the Americans had driven forward through Avranches, and troops of their First Army had already “rounded the comer” into Brittany. Dempsey was driving towards Vire in the face of heavy opposition. The Germans, trying desperately to cope with both these threats, had at last moved much of their armour away from the Caen front, and an opportunity for a further major advance was beginning to appear there.