Table of Contents
- "Ready, Aye Ready" Again
- The Long Wait Begins
- Baptism of Fire - Dieppe
- The Italian Campaign
- Invasion Plans and Preparations
- The Opponent
- The Germans Counterattack
- Carpiquet and Caen
- The Battle of Attrition Continues
- The Disaster of July 25
- The Breakout Begins
- The Road to Falaise
- Closing the Gap
- Canada and Normandy
A half century is a long time in a world that moves quickly from one fad to the next. Living in their greatly favoured land, Canadians often seem all too ready to forget the great events that let them develop and prosper in freedom. Many even fail to remember that young Canadian men and women played a major role in the greatest seaborne invasion of all time, the Allied assault on Normandy on June 6, 1944, and in the long, wearying struggle that followed in the Norman countryside.
Over a brutal ten-week period in the stifling heat of that terrible summer, the inexperienced soldiers of the First Canadian Army fought against a powerful enemy, suffering and inflicting heavy casualties. By the third week in August, when the campaign in Normandy at last came to its end, the armies of the Nazi regime had suffered a resounding defeat, one in which Canadian regiments played a major role. In the process, Canada's troops had been forged into a highly effective army. This is their story.
"Ready, Aye Ready" Again
By the time of the Normandy invasion, Canada had been at war for almost five years. On the first day of September 1939, Germany, in an unprovoked act of aggression, invaded Poland. Britain and France had pledged to protect Polish sovereignty and, after the demand for a German withdrawal went unanswered, declared war on Germany on September 3.
A depression-wracked country, Canada neither sought nor secured any influence on the diplomatic events of the 1930's that led Europe down the road to war. The country wanted peace and endorsed British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's attempts to appease the Nazi Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler. In the end, however, it was to be war. Canadians abhorred the prospect of another conflict. Barely a generation had passed since the four-year long clash in the fields of France and Flanders where 66,000 of their young men and women died.
However, as had been the case during the First World War, ancestral ties proved strong. This, combined with a growing realization of the grave threat which Nazism posed to freedom and democracy, led the Canadian Parliament to declare war on Germany on September 10.
The Long Wait Begins
The Canadian Government decided to wage a war of "limited liability" befitting its status as a junior partner on the Allied side. The Dominion intended to provide economic assistance in the form of foodstuffs, raw materials, and industrial production. In addition, Canada would act as the aerodrome of democracy by putting the country's vast open spaces to use as a training ground for pilots under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.
In this way Ottawa hoped to avert a repetition of the horrible casualties inflicted during the Great War and another crisis over conscription like that in 1917 which had torn the country apart. With their sizable armed forces, Britain and France would furnish the bulk of the soldiers for the impending land battles, although Canada did send the 1st Canadian Infantry Division to Britain in December 1939. If nothing else, Canada needed time to rebuild its fighting forces.
This policy of limited involvement was quickly abandoned following Germany's lightning conquest of Western Europe in the spring and summer of 1940. In just two months, Norway, Denmark, and the Low Countries were overrun, and France was defeated. Thousands of British and French troops narrowly evaded capture thanks to a motley flotilla of naval vessels and pleasure craft that succeeded in evacuating them to England from the port of Dunkirk. They lived to fight another day, but most of their armour, vehicles, and artillery were left behind.
As a result, the best equipped force facing Hitler's triumphant legions was the 1st Canadian Infantry Division then training in Britain. In fact, following the surrender of France in June 1940, Canada, its forces composed entirely of volunteers, was Britain's ranking ally. This situation would not change until the Soviet Union entered the conflict a full year later following Hitler's attack on the USSR. The great Allied coalition was complete after the surprise Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and Germany's declaration of war against the United States a few days later.
In the meantime, Britain, and the Commonwealth were all that stood between Nazi Germany and total victory. A small number of Canadians were among the intrepid group of pilots who, in their Spitfires and Hurricanes, held off the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940, thereby thwarting Hitler's plans to invade the British Isles. Soon after, Canadian bomber crews began the nightly ritual of braving enemy anti-aircraft fire and increasingly skilled night fighters to bomb German industrial sites. Meanwhile, Canadian sailors escorted the merchant navy convoys that kept open the supply line to Britain across the North Atlantic.
The status of the Canadian Army was radically different. Well into 1942 its role in the war was largely passive. To that point, the only major action experienced by Canadian soldiers had been the heroic but futile defence of Hong Kong. The defence included a brigade headquarters and two infantry battalions against a superior Japanese force in December 1941. In this gruesome engagement, and afterward in the prisoner of war camps, the Canadian contingent of nearly 2,000 suffered 40 percent casualties. More than 550 never returned home.
Viewed by its commander as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin," the Canadian Army in Britain had, for three long years, endured an endless regimen of training, garrison duty, and coastal defence. The soldiers waited anxiously and impatiently to make some meaningful contribution to the war effort. Their inactivity was about to come to an abrupt and tragic end.
Baptism of Fire - Dieppe
Allied operations on the sea and in the air were making major contributions to winning the war. However, once the Allied leaders had made the decision to concentrate on defeating Hitler's forces before turning their full attention to those of Japan, it was clear that ultimate victory could only be achieved on land by driving the Nazi forces from the countries they occupied and finally invading Germany itself. That meant an invasion of Western Europe, but it would take time to amass the necessary manpower and material. Moreover, the plans and equipment for amphibious operations had to be tested and German defences probed, to determine the chances of success. The need to relieve the pressure on the beleaguered Soviet Union demanded action as well. Finally, Canadian generals, politicians, and public were insisting that their bored and frustrated troops see action.
For all these reasons, Combined Operations Headquarters decided to launch a raid-in-force on the French port of Dieppe on August 19, 1942, with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division providing most of the assaulting troops. It turned out to be a massacre. Surprise was only partly achieved and only a minimal preliminary bombardment preceded the attack. German positions remained intact, the defenders uninjured and ready.
What followed were "ten hours of unadulterated hell." Entire battalions suffered virtual annihilation. Those Canadians who managed to escape their landing craft and scramble to shore were swept by incessant fire from unassailable enemy positions on the adjacent cliffs. If their tanks did not sink in the water, they found it almost impossible to manoeuvre on the baseball-sized pebbles that littered the beaches. Poor communications led to additional troops being dispatched unnecessarily. It was a tribute to the spirit and fortitude of the Canadian soldiers that some of them managed to get off the beaches and into the town.
Their losses were catastrophic. Of the almost 5,000 Canadians who formed the assault force, 3,367 became casualties including 907 killed in action and 1,946 made prisoners of war. Hitler's Fortress Europe seemed impregnable. However, the sacrifice was not wholly in vain. D-Day's success two years later was in some measure purchased by the lives of those Canadians who died at Dieppe.
The Italian Campaign
After the debacle at Dieppe, the tide of the war slowly began to turn in the Allies' favour. The Battle of Stalingrad saw the defeat of the entire German Sixth Army. In November 1942, the British routed General Rommel's Afrika Korps at the battle of El Alamein; an Anglo-American force landed in Algeria and Morocco; and by May 1943 the Germans had been expelled from North Africa. This was another crushing defeat for Hitler. The Allies then decided to strike at the supposed "soft underbelly" of the Axis powers in southern Europe.
Canadian soldiers took an active and important part in the Italian Campaign. Following Dieppe, the now quarter-million strong First Canadian Army had resumed its training in England. The British accepted the Canadian Government's request that the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and a tank brigade participate in the invasion of Sicily.
The Canadians landed there on July 10, 1943. They acquitted themselves well in a four-week battle over rugged mountainous terrain. The cost was heavy, but the Canadians had proven themselves in battle.
Then followed a grueling campaign on the Italian peninsula. Italy surrendered unconditionally in September 1943 but the Germans immediately took control of the country. There would be no easy victory against the seasoned Wehrmacht. Throughout the final months of 1943 and the first half of 1944, infantry and tanks of the 1st Canadian Corps (the 5th Canadian Armoured Division came to Italy from Britain at the end of 1943) joined other Allied troops in what amounted to a painstaking crawl up the Italian boot. Geography favoured the defenders, and the Germans were well-trained and skillful in carrying out rearguard action.
Usually opposed by elite enemy units who fought tenaciously, the Canadians suffered heavy losses, most notably at Ortona in December 1943, in a battle which the press called "Little Stalingrad." Being fierce fighters themselves, the Canadian divisions earned the respect of their adversary and helped clear the way for the Liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944. In all 93,000 Canadians served in the Italian campaign. More than 25% of them became casualties and tragically, more than 5,900 died. However, the campaign had tied up twenty German divisions. This was of great significance as, the long-awaited liberation of Western Europe got underway.
Invasion Plans and Preparations
Planning for the Second Front had been ongoing since 1942. By the spring of 1944, everything was finally in place for Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, and its assault phase, Operation Neptune. The Supreme Allied Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his staff had decided that the attack should fall on the Cotentin Caen area of the Normandy coast. It would be a longer and more hazardous journey for the invasion fleet and its air umbrella than taking the shorter route from Dover to the Pas de Calais where the Germans anticipated an Allied landing. The Normandy beaches were suitable, the enemy defences lighter, and the possibility of surprise greater.
As the experience of Dieppe had confirmed, and subsequent German improvements to their defences emphasized, a landing at a fortified port was likely to fail. Therefore, until a port fell to the Allies, essential supplies would be transferred ashore through artificial "Mulberry" harbours, put together from sunken ships and huge concrete caissons. Since complete air and naval superiority had to be attained, a massive sea and air bombardment would precede the invasion. An effective ship-to-shore communications network was put in place. Moreover, large numbers of landing craft of various kinds had been produced to ferry infantry and tanks to the beaches. The utmost secrecy and security were maintained, to the point of establishing a fake army in that part of England considered ideal as a launching point for the Pas de Calais. Finally, earlier amphibious operations in North Africa and Sicily had helped perfect new tactics, weapons and equipment, notably ingenious devices like the DUKW (a supply and personnel carrier that could travel directly from sea to shore), and DD (duplex drive) Sherman tanks which could "swim" in the water and then travel on land.
The invasion plan called for five infantry divisions to wade ashore on a 50 mile (80 kilometre) stretch of the French coast. The British Second Army including units of General H.D.G. Crerar's First Canadian Army was to form the left side of this front, the First U.S. Army the right. Three airborne divisions, one on the British flank incorporating the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and two on the American, would precede them to delay enemy movements and facilitate expansion of the bridgehead.
The invasion commanders designated the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major-General R.F.L. Keller, along with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, to take part in the seaborne assault. Two of the 3rd Division's three brigades were to land in the first wave at Juno Beach. The Regina Rifle Regiment and The Royal Winnipeg Rifles of the 7th Infantry Brigade, as well as an attached company of The Canadian Scottish Regiment, led in "Mike" sector, with the rest of The Canadian Scottish in reserve. "Nan" sector was to be tackled by the 8th Brigade's Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, backed up by Le Régiment de la Chaudière.
The tanks of the 1st Hussars and The Fort Garry Horse would land ahead of the infantry to soften up the defences and provide covering fire. Guns of the Royal Canadian Artillery were to be quickly put ashore to lend additional support. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps would treat the wounded. All the while, the sappers of the Royal Canadian Engineers would blast a path through enemy obstacles and the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals would ensure smooth communications. Later, the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps would see to it that all were adequately supplied with food, fuel, ammunition, and the other necessities of warfare.
The Allied plan called for these Canadian units to establish a beachhead, capture the three small seaside towns which lay directly behind it, and then proceed ten miles (sixteen kilometres) inland to occupy the high ground west of the city of Caen by the end of D-Day. Then, in anticipation of the German counter-attack, they were to be reinforced by the 9th Infantry Brigade (The Highland Light Infantry of Canada; The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders; and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders) and the tanks of The Sherbrooke Fusiliers. Altogether, an estimated 15,000 Canadians would participate in the landing force. The remaining elements of the First Canadian Army—its headquarters under General Crerar, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division—would then gradually establish themselves in Normandy over the next few weeks.
The invasion date was set for dawn on June 5, 1944, the hour and day when the tides should be most favourable. An impressive array of personnel, materials, and machines had been assembled. But it was still a risky undertaking, particularly for the many Canadian soldiers who, though ready, willing, and well-trained, had still never met the enemy in action.
That enemy, though weakened, was still very dangerous. Five years of harsh fighting on several fronts especially in the Soviet Union had battered the Nazi forces. Nonetheless, the battle-hardened and expertly-led Wehrmacht remained the best fighting force in the world.
As the likelihood of an invasion increased, German defences in France were strengthened. Previously enemy troops used the Normandy region for training, resting and refitting. Under the direction of the famous "Desert Fox", Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, huge steel- and concrete-reinforced pillboxes, barbed wire, mines, artillery, machine gun nests, mortar pits, and beach obstacles had been constructed to form the Atlantic Wall. New units moved into position, including first-rate Panzer divisions and SS troops whose morale and determination had become legendary. These German forces also boasted superior weaponry, such as Panther and Tiger tanks and the deadly 88mm dual purpose antitank/antiaircraft gun.
All this guaranteed a hostile reception for the Allies. If the enemy's static formations on the Normandy shore could hold out long enough for their armoured and motorized reserves to reach the coast, it could also be a fatal one.
Stormy weather on June 5 forced a postponement of the invasion with many units already embarked and at sea. Conditions did not promise to improve substantially, but Allied meteorologists predicted a small window of opportunity on the June 6. Aware that the moon and the tides would not be favourable again for some time,General Eisenhower gave the go ahead. There could be no turning back.
Canadian airmen and sailors were among the first into action. The Royal Canadian Air Force had already been involved for several months in bombing key enemy targets in the invasion area: roads, bridges, railways, airfields, and command and communications centres. Now they flew as part of the 171 Allied squadrons that attacked on D-Day. As H-Hour approached, RCAF Lancasters of No. 6 Bomber Group dropped thousands of tons of explosives on German coastal defences. Canadian fighter pilots fought the Luftwaffe in overcast skies, contributing in large measure to the achievement of Allied air supremacy. As well, they protected the soldiers on the beach, and attacked German formations on the ground. The first Allied planes to operate from French soil since 1940, RCAF squadrons No. 441, 442, and 443 continued to ravage enemy columns and support offensives throughout the campaign, helping to tilt the tactical balance in the Allies' favour.
The Royal Canadian Navy provided 109 vessels, and 10,000 sailors as its contribution to the massive armada of 7,000 Allied vessels which went to sea on D-Day. Battling choppy waters and rain, they kept the German fleet bottled up in its ports. Canadian minesweepers assisted in the tricky but crucial job of clearing a safe path across the English Channel for the invasion fleet. The guns of Canadian destroyers like HMCS Algonquin and HMCS Sioux silenced enemy shore batteries and continued to fire in support of ground attacks in the days to come. The armed merchant cruisers HMCS Prince Henry and Prince David carried Canadian troops and the landing craft in which they made their run to the beaches; they later returned to England with Canadian wounded. RCN flotillas of landing craft transported infantry and tanks to shore and provided additional fire support for them.
While it was still dark in the early hours of June 6, Allied paratroopers, including 450 Canadians, jumped from aircraft or landed in gliders behind the German coastal defences. Separated by gusty winds, outnumbered, and only lightly armed, they nevertheless captured a German headquarters, destroyed a key bridge, and seized an important crossroads, all the while sowing confusion and disorder within enemy ranks.
Meanwhile, the Canadian soldiers scheduled to land at Juno Beach warily approached the coastline in their landing craft. Wet, cold, and seasick, they were also confident. On "Mike" sector, most of the 1st Hussars' tanks managed to get ashore in good order to provide covering fire as the Regina Rifles touched down just after 8:00 a.m. That was fortunate since the preliminary bombardment had failed to knock out many German defensive positions. The near invulnerable pill-boxes could be destroyed only by direct hits through their observation slits but, working in tandem, the tanks and infantry succeeded in fighting their way off the beach and into the nearby town of Courseulles-sur-Mer where they became engaged in house-to-house combat. They were moving inland by late afternoon. Other Reginas never reached the beaches—a reserve company suffered terrible losses when its landing craft struck mines hidden by high tide.
The company of Victoria's Canadian Scottish and most of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles at "Mike" made it ashore without much trouble, the beneficiaries of accurate naval gunfire which neutralized the German battery that dominated their area of the beach. The Winnipeg company at the western edge of Courseulles was not so lucky. There the bombardment had missed its targets, and the landing craft came under brisk gunfire while they were still far offshore. Although forced to "storm their positions cold [they] did so without hesitation," the unit's war diary noted. Many men died the instant they waded into the chest-high water. Nonetheless, the survivors advanced past the beach defences, cleared the minefields, and occupied the adjoining coastal villages. The victory did not come cheaply. In a few hours, the company lost almost three-quarters of its men.
But none of the "Little Black Devils", as the regiment was nicknamed, "had flinched from his task, no matter how tough it was [or] failed to display courage and energy and a degree of gallantry." They had not been alone. The Winnipegs' commanding officer later paid tribute to The 1st Hussars' "gallantry, skill and cool daring" in coming to the assistance of his battalion "time and again throughout D-Day, without thought of their own safety or state of fatigue..."
At "Nan" sector on Juno Beach, The North Shore Regiment and The Queen's Own Rifles also encountered enemy gun emplacements that had survived the preliminary bombardment. One concrete bunker and its defenders inflicted heavy casualties on the North Shores and destroyed several Sherman tanks of The Fort Garry Horse before being silenced. The North Shore's other companies made it ashore without incident, but needed six hours and armoured support to take the town of Tailleville.
Toronto's Queen's Own Rifles received the worst battering of any Canadian unit on D-Day. The initial bombardment on their sector of "Nan" had barely dented the enemy's fortifications. The DD tanks, supposed to "swim" in ahead of the infantry to diminish German resistance, had been forced by high waves to land after them, "within a few hundred yards of the muzzles of the beach defence guns," one tank commander recalled afterward. Only a few made it into action.
A half-hour late, the landing craft carrying the Queen's Own hit the beach more or less intact. Then the bloodbath began, the men making a mad dash from the shoreline to a seawall 183 metres away with no cover in between. A hidden German 88 opened up on the lead platoon of one company, decimating two-thirds of it before being silenced. Only a handful survived to get off the beach.
A second Queen's Own company landed directly in front of an untouched enemy strongpoint and very quickly lost half of its men, until three riflemen eliminated it with hand grenades and small arms fire. The price had been high, but the Queen's Own moved off the beach. The war diary of this, one of the oldest regiments in the Canadian Army, reflected the unit's unflagging spirit under onerous conditions.
The reserve units of the Canadian Scottish and the Chaudières arrived on the heels of the initial assault. The Scottish suffered the lightest casualties of any Canadian battalion on D-Day. But, coming in on the rising tide, many of Le Régiment de la Chaudière's landing craft struck concealed mines, and their occupants had no option but to throw off their equipment and swim to shore. Soon, both regiments were surging forward. By noon, the 9th Infantry Brigade was on its way to the beaches to exploit the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division's hard-won gains.
Although only one Canadian unit reached its D-Day objective, the first line of German defences had been completely smashed. By evening, Canadian troops had progressed further inland than any of their Allies. It was a remarkable achievement but, despite casualties being less than expected, it was an expensive one, too. "The German dead were littered over the dunes, by the gun positions," a Canadian journalist reported. "By them, lay Canadians in bloodstained battledress, in the sand and in the grass, on the wire and by the concrete forts. . . . They had lived a few minutes of the victory they had made. That was all." To ensure that D-Day would succeed, 340 Canadians had given their lives. Another 574 had been wounded and 47 taken prisoner.
And a resounding success it was. The British and Americans had also come ashore and pushed inland; the Allied beachheads soon formed a continuous front. By the end of D-Day, the Allies had landed as many as 155,000 troops in France by sea and air, 6,000 vehicles including 900 tanks, 600 guns and about 4,000 tons of supplies and, astonishingly, had achieved complete surprise in doing it. The Atlantic Wall had been breached. But the battle had just begun. The bridgehead had to be secured and expanded to prevent the Wehrmacht from driving the Allies back into the sea.
That attempt was not long in coming, and the Canadians were to feel its fury. On June 7, Canadian troops renewed their advance. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles and The Regina Rifles reached their originalD-Day objectives with comparative ease. It was a different story for The North Nova Scotia Highlanders and The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment (27th Armored) ordered to occupy two villages on the outskirts of Caen. At Buron, the Canadians grappled with ready and waiting German Panzer troops. Intense house-to-house fighting ensued before the Germans were driven out of the town.
That was only the beginning, as the bulk of the Canadian force bypassed Buron and moved on Authie. There they ran into the elite 12th SS Panzer Division which consisted of fanatical Hitler Jugend. These inexperienced 18 year olds proved willing to die for their Fuehrer. Moreover, they were led by tough officers, all veterans of the savage fighting on the Eastern Front. These ruthless troops gave no quarter, and the Canadians facing them had never before seen their like.
The Germans fell upon the Canadians with devastating results. One company of North Novas was obliterated. The shells of the Sherbrookes' tanks simply bounced off the armour of the German Mark IVs, whose longer-range guns soon reduced many of the highly flammable Shermans into burning hulks. The losses were high on both sides as ferocious hand-to-hand fighting broke out. The Canadians inflicted considerable casualties, but on this day they were outmatched and overwhelmed. Driven out of Authie and Buron, the North Novas and Sherbrooke Fusiliers barely survived.
There was more punishment to come. The next day the SS troops attacked The Regina Rifle Regiment and The Royal Winnipeg Rifles. The outcome was just as calamitous. Surrounded and running short of ammunition, the Winnipegs at Putoten Bessin had to retreat under incessant fire. That night, The Canadian Scottish and tanks of The 1st Hussars succeeded in recapturing the town at heavy cost. "Never a wounded man whimpered," the Canadian Scottish war diary claimed; "the opposite in fact was the case and time and again badly wounded men had to be ordered back."
The Reginas had a much closer call. SS tanks and infantry overran the infantry battalion's front line and infiltrated its headquarters area. A wild nightlong mêlée took place. The regiment's war diary recorded, "The whole sky was lit up by blazing roofs and burning tanks . . . . " Only some inspired work with PIATs (the infantry's anti-tank weapon) and the propitious arrival of The Sherbrooke Fusiliers' Shermans salvaged a desperate situation. "Everyone fought magnificently and although the picture looked black, there was no sign of wavering anywhere." The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) and 12th Field Regiment along with an unidentified Anti-tank unit were also involved in this action. A Military Cross was earned by Captain Hal Gonder from the Cameron Highlanders.
All in all, it had been a grim indoctrination for Canada's citizen soldiers. In two days, the North Novas, Sherbrookes, Winnipegs, and Scottish suffered almost 600 casualties. But, while it bent, the Canadian line did not break. The contest between the two armies had ended in a draw. And though the Canadians had painfully learned to dread the cold efficiency of their adversaries, they also realized that they could hold their own. The 12th SS had momentarily stopped the Canadian advance, but it had paid dearly for the privilege.
The Canadians struck back on June 11, but the gains were limited. Elements of Le Régiment de la Chaudière and the Fort Garry Horse joined British units in a hotly contested, but ultimately successful, attack on the SS in the town of Rots. However, an assault on the village of Le Mesnil Patry by the Queen's Own Rifles and the 1st Hussars ended in tragedy. Riding aboard the fast-moving tanks, the Canadians came under lethal fire from well-sited enemy armour and artillery. Some of the attackers penetrated the village on sheer daring alone, but it was all for naught. "I have never witnessed a battle of this intensity, before or since," recalled one officer of the Queen's Own. Nineteen Shermans from the lead squadron of the Hussars were destroyed only two escaped the fire of the terrible Nazi 88s. In all, the two regiments had 114 killed and 65 wounded.
After six debilitating days of continuous fighting, the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade totaled up their losses. Just over 1,000 Canadians had died, nearly 2,000 had been wounded, and more suffered from battle exhaustion. But the Canadians had secured their portion of the Allied bridgehead. By the beginning of July they were again trying to enlarge it, against an enemy well-schooled in defensive techniques and forbidden by Hitler to relinquish any ground.
Carpiquet and Caen
The Allies now profited from the disorganized state of the German high command. Hitler continued to believe that the Normandy landings were a diversion and that the major Allied thrust would still fall on the Pas de Calais. Rommel consequently found it impossible to pry away precious reserve forces located there to buttress his rapidly thinning defences in Normandy.
Even so, the Nazis proved resourceful, stubborn, and deadly. The Allies had carved out a foothold on the French mainland but had yet to achieve a decisive breakthrough. The plan devised by the commander of all Allied land forces on the continent, British General Bernard Montgomery, envisaged the Canadians and British principally tying down the main German armour and infantry units in the east by threatening and then taking the strategic city of Caen. This constant pressure aimed to free the Americans to break out from their positions. It also meant that the Canadians continued to confront the best of the enemy's troops.
Once returned to the front in early July, the 3rd Canadian Division's role in this scheme was to capture the airport at Carpiquet, a small town outside of Caen. Defended by the fearsome 12th SS, the Canadians knew only too well what awaited them. General Keller's staff decided to muster as much firepower as possible for the attack: four battalions of infantry backed up by an armoured regiment and every available piece of artillery.
All this would not be enough on that July 4th. The Canadians had barely started their advance through the chest-high wheat fields when the Germans began to lob shell after shell on top of them. Soon, one padre recalled, "everywhere you could see the pale upturned faces of the dead." The survivors of The North Shore Regiment and occupied Carpiquet village after merciless fighting at close quarters. "Carpiquet has become a true inferno," the Chaudières' war diary observed.
The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were also ravaged. As they crossed open runways to attack the airport, continuous fire from enemy bunkers and pill-boxes raked their lines. The Winnipegs pressed forward twice, only to be ordered to withdraw that night. During the night, the Germans rained mortar and artillery fire onto the Canadian positions, and mounted several violent counter-attacks against them. Some of the Chaudières were trapped and taken prisoner. Yet, the rest of the Canadians held their hard-earned ground.
The price of this partial victory had once more been high. The Winnipegs had 40 fatalities out of a total of 132 casualties; the North Shores reported 46 killed and 86 wounded. Carpiquet is still remembered as the graveyard of the North Shores because these were the heaviest losses it suffered during the entire campaign. "I am sure that at some time during the attack every man felt he could not go on," one of the North Shores recalled. "Men were being killed or wounded on all sides and the advance seemed pointless as well as hopeless. I never realized . . . how far discipline, pride of unit, and above all, pride in oneself and family, can carry a man, even when each step forward meant possible death." It had been another hard lesson for Canadian soldiers who were quickly becoming accustomed to such horrors.
And the biggest prize, Caen, remained firmly in Nazi possession. The city had to be captured if Montgomery's strategy was to succeed. The final Anglo-Canadian attack was scheduled to begin late in the evening of July 7 with a mammoth air bombardment designed to crush the German defences. The spectacular sight of hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of explosives on the enemy raised the spirits of Canadian assault troops. As they moved to their startline the next morning, many felt that their task was already half done.
They were wrong. The Germans had been shaken by the weight of the onslaught but hardly erased as an effective fighting force. Most of them were well dug-in on the outskirts of Caen in areas which had not been targeted. Tragically, innocent French civilians made up the majority of the dead and wounded. In fact, the bombardment backfired since the tangled ruins it produced only enhanced the enemy's defensive capabilities.
In an agonizing process the Canadians found all of this out for themselves. In revisiting the sites of recent disasters, they ran headlong into their old nemesis, the 12th SS. Thrown into action for the first time, The Highland Light Infantry of Canada received a cruel initiation at Buron. The fighting raged all day and one observer noted that "night fell on a quiet, smoking village which had witnessed one of the fiercest battles ever fought in the history of war." The regiment had lost more than 250 men and its commanding officer. But The North Nova Scotia Highlanders managed to take Authie, and the 9th Brigade captured an SS headquarters after a harsh struggle that continued well after dark, the flames and explosions illuminating the night sky.
The following day, July 9, the Canadians carefully cleared Caen of its snipers, mines, and booby traps. Among the mounds of debris, that too would be a baneful affair. Altogether, more Canadians were killed and wounded liberating the city than on D-Day itself. It had taken a month longer than planned but, thanks in large part to the persistent efforts of the 3rd Canadian Division, Caen was at last in Allied hands. Most of the Germans, however, had escaped to safety over the Orne River. The Canadians had not yet seen the last of them.
The Battle of Attrition Continues
The war in Normandy had become a slugging match. The Canadian and British holding action in the east steadily drained German resources, but progress was slow and bloody. Meanwhile, to the west, the Americans had bogged down among the almost impenetrable hedgerows that dotted the landscape and afforded the enemy excellent protection from which to inflict severe casualties. Montgomery stuck to his original plan, however. Again the Anglo-Canadian forces at Caen were to attack the Germans in order to give the Americans the time and opportunity to break out.
The Canadians received much needed reinforcements for this operation. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major General Charles Foulkes, arrived in France at the beginning of July. It joined the units already in Normandy to form the 2nd Canadian Corps under the command of Lieutenant General Guy G. Simonds. The Canadians' orders were to cross the Orne River into the southeastern suburbs of Caen, force the enemy out of his entrenched positions there, and then forge southward into open country.
On the first day of the attack, July 18, the battle weary veterans of the 3rd Infantry Division bore the brunt of the fighting. There was frenzied hand-to-hand combat against dogged resistance in the twisted rubble of industrial areas and there were grave losses. However, by the 19th, the division had crossed the Orne and reached the outlying suburbs of Caen.
The 2nd Division had an easier time in reaching its objectives beyond the Orne River. Its luck, however, would not hold. It was the 2nd Division which had been decimated at Dieppe two years earlier. Now retribution did not come easily.
On July 20, the division set out to capture Verrières Ridge, an 88 metre-high kidney-shaped hill that overlooked the main road running south from Caen. It was defended by the 1st Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, yet another zealous formation of SS veterans which just 48 hours before had destroyed one of the best units in the British army. Against these select troops, the novice 2nd Division stood little chance.
The attack began well enough, with the Canadians on the right and left flanks slowly but surely pushing the enemy back. But in the middle, chaos reigned. As The South Saskatchewan Regiment moved forward, a torrential cloudburst grounded its air cover. From their commanding heights, the enemy tanks were free to reap the advantages of their superiority. They did so with precision. Soon over 200 South Sasks were dead, wounded, or captured. The survivors were in full retreat, colliding with The Essex Scottish Regiment, two companies of which then also fell back. But the remnants of the Essex stood fast and stopped the German counterattack in its tracks.
It was but a temporary reprieve. The next morning, with inclement weather still grounding Allied air sorties, the Germans struck The Essex Scottish again, creating a salient between them and the neighbouring Les Fusiliers Mont Royal. Disaster loomed until The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, aided by a heavy artillery bombardment and the support of two armoured regiments, recaptured the lost ground and stabilized the brigade's front. The Canadians had demonstrated uncommon valour but to little avail. The Germans retained their tight grip on Verrières Ridge, and the South Sasks and Essex Scottish had suffered more than 450 casualties in trying to wrest it from them. The 2nd Canadian Corps had lost almost 2,000 men over four days of fighting.
The Disaster of July 25
At great cost, Canadian and British troops continued to carry out their part of the Allied plan by keeping the bulk of German forces concentrated around Caen. But bad weather conditions forced the Americans to delay their offensive. Another attack was considered necessary in the east, and Montgomery ordered the 2nd Canadian Corps to lead it with Verrières Ridge once more one of the operation's objectives. Choice enemy troops again made up the opposition.
The attack took place in the early hours of July 25. Trouble ensued almost immediately. As the Canadians moved into position, they found themselves subjected to enemy fire from all sides. Mining tunnels and ventilation shafts allowed the Germans to move inside, behind, and along the sides of their advance. Worse still Simonds' plan to guide the assault troops by beaming searchlights off the clouds to produce "artificial moonlight" served only to silhouette the soldiers and make them even more vulnerable to Nazi machine-guns. The 3rd Division's North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 2nd Armoured Brigade's Fort Garry Horse paid the price. Ordered to withdraw, only about 100 men and just four tanks made it back to their lines.
The worst was yet to come. The 2nd Division's Royal Hamilton Light Infantry took the town of Verrières, but when the lead company of The Royal Regiment of Canada tried to push onward it succumbed to the combined fire of 30 enemy tanks. Meanwhile, approximately 300 members of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada ascended Verrières Ridge, riddled by enemy fire all the way. With extraordinary resolution, 60 members of this old Montréal regiment reached the crest of the slope. But there, the well-entrenched and well-camouflaged Germans had prepared a trap. Only 15 of the Black Watch lived to tell about it. The exhausted Canadians' terrible ordeal this day was still not over. Just before nightfall, a furious German counterattack engulfed The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. Several enemy tanks broke through, but after a frantic struggle the regiment held its position. By the time it was called off, the operation as a whole had produced huge losses: more than 1,500 casualties of whom about 450 had perished. Except for Dieppe, it was the bloodiest day of the war for Canada.
The Breakout Begins
The British and Canadians had done their job by pinning down the German formations opposing them and weakening the enemy defences facing the Americans. The same day that Canadian troops were being hammered by the Germans, the Americans finally launched their offensive. After a brief setback, US forces pierced the enemy lines and quickly fanned out across the countryside. The stalemate had at last been broken.
The German army was now in a precarious situation. Circumstances ought to have dictated a withdrawal into new defensive positions behind the River Seine before it was too late. Hitler would not hear of it. The one man who might have stood up to him, Rommel, had been seriously wounded in an air attack a week earlier. Soon, the Field Marshal was forced to commit suicide for his complicity in a plot to kill the Fuehrer.
Unopposed and inflexible, Hitler decreed a major attack against the American front which he believed would crumble under the strain. The plan was doomed to fail the Germans no longer possessed adequate manpower and materiel to see it through. The Canadians and the British had seen to that. Moreover, the Allies had long since deciphered the German codes and knew what was coming.
A prime opportunity thus presented itself to lure the Germans into a vulnerable position, blunt their thrust, and then defeat them in a pincer movement. The potential existed to destroy the whole German Army in Normandy in a narrow, exposed pocket. For the scheme to work, the Canadians and British had to close the German escape route by driving south from Caen to the town of Falaise, and there to link up with the Americans who were racing from the other direction.
The First Canadian Army was to attempt this bold manoeuvre. Fully operational by the end of July, it constituted the largest battlefield force ever commanded by a Canadian. The bruised and bloodied 3rd Canadian Division was finally pulled out of the front line after fighting almost without interruption since D-Day. Its replacement was the eager but untested 4th Canadian Armoured Division, commanded by Major General George Kitching. Another newly arrived formation, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, consisting of men who had fled their Nazi occupied homeland, as well as the 1st British Corps, rounded out the multi-national First Canadian Army. It now prepared to enter the final stage of the Normandy campaign.
The Road to Falaise
Lieutenant General Guy Simonds developed an innovative plan to break through to the critical road junction at Falaise. Using radio beams, searchlights, and tracer fire to steer them, the Canadians would attack at night in conjunction with an immense air bombardment. To help nullify the German antitank defences, Simonds instructed his men to convert some of their self-propelled artillery into armoured personnel carriers the first of their kind. With the infantry riding in relative safety inside what were soon dubbed "Kangaroos," with the enemy blasted from above by American bombers, and using darkness as a screen, Simonds intended to puncture the enemy line.
But not long after the attack had begun the plan started to go awry. Canadian units lost their way in the dark. The haze of dust and smoke manufactured by the bombing and hundreds of vehicles made it almost impossible for the troops to get their bearings. Many casualties resulted, but most of the Canadians reached their objective villages in which their comrades had previously fallen, as well as the infamous Verrières Ridge by the middle of the day. They then repulsed the inevitable German counterattacks.
The operation reaped some initial rewards, but the prolonged confusion on the congested and murky battlefield, combined with obstinate enemy resistance, soon robbed it of momentum. In his plan, Simonds expected air support would break the logjam. Unfortunately, American Flying Fortresses accidentally dropped some of their bombs on Canadian and Polish troops, killing or wounding 300 of them.
To prevent the attack from petering out completely, Simonds ordered infantry from The Algonquin Regiment, piggybacked on tanks of The British Columbia Regiment, to occupy the high ground near Quesnay Wood that rose above the main road from Caen to Falaise. Once again, however, the units got lost trying to advance in the black of night and on August 9 stumbled into the midst of the depleted but relentless 12th SS. Cut off in an open field with nowhere to hide and no chance to dig in, the Canadians fought gallantly but were systematically demolished. Over the course of the day, they lost 240 men killed, wounded, or captured, and 47 tanks.
On August 10, The Queen's Own Rifles and The North Shore Regiment attempted to clear the enemy from Quesnay Wood. On one side of the woods, the Hitler Youth waited until the last minute and then attacked the Queen's Own. On the other side, the North Shores suffered equally. The Canadians had not flinched but altogether they sustained 165 casualties including 44 killed. Simonds' attack had stalled.
In the interim, the doomed German offensive against the American front had failed miserably and, Hitler's orders notwithstanding, enemy forces had instinctively begun to flee eastward. Their pocket was gradually contracting, and unremitting Allied air attacks made life for the Germans caught inside this "Cauldron" unbearable. But every day that the inferno's exit point at Falaise remained open allowed more of them to escape. It was imperative that the Canadians take the town.
Simonds therefore launched his second major attack, Operation Tractable. This time the plan called for a daylight assault under a smokescreen with two armoured groups in the lead, accompanied by infantry in their Kangaroos. Considerable air and artillery support were to assist them. Speed and secrecy were of the essence.
Bad luck again dogged the Canadians. Just as the attack got underway on August 14, Allied aircraft once again mistakenly bombed Canadian and Polish soldiers causing almost 400 casualties. As the armoured phalanx zoomed ahead, struggling to maintain direction through yet another dense shroud of smoke and dirt, German guns pelted its tightly packed columns. Almost oblivious to the mayhem around them, the Canadian tanks lumbered onward until they reached the Laison River. The armour became mired on the banks and bed of the stream, but in a gritty display of initiative and improvisation the Canadians forded the river.
For once, enemy resistance melted before them. These surrendering German soldiers had only recently arrived from Norway to be tossed pell-mell into battle. The next day, however, suicidal remnants of the 12th SS reminded the Canadians that the battle in Normandy was not yet won. "All ranks of [The Canadian Scottish Regiment] now stepped into a molten fire bath of battle," the unit's war diary observed. "Few prisoners were taken; the enemy preferred to die rather than give in." The Canadian Scottish suffered its worst losses since D-Day.
Meanwhile, the Americans reached the prearranged boundary line between their army and the Canadians'. There they halted so as not to collide with their ally. That still left a 30-kilometre gap between the two of them, and now the Canadians had to plug it to complete the encirclement of the substantial German units inside the shrinking Falaise pocket. As had been so often the case in the preceding two months, the Canadians were at the centre of events at a pivotal moment. Every second counted now that Hitler had grudgingly given permission for his weakened and weary troops to try to squeeze through the gap to safety. The Canadians were as determined to block their way as the Germans were to keep it open. The climax to a bloody campaign ensued.
Closing the Gap
On August 16, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division set out to take Falaise. The following day, its ruins finally fell. Meanwhile, the 4th Canadian and the 1st Polish Armoured Divisions hurried to block the German line of retreat just east of the town. As American and Free French forces sped from the south toward Chambois, the 4th Canadian Armoured occupied Trun from the north on August 18. While the division prepared a line of defence along the Falaise Trun Chambois highway to bar the Germans from breaking out of the pocket, most of the 1st Polish Armoured took up position further east to head off the imminent enemy attempt to break in and extricate their comrades. The rest of it drove on to Chambois and there joined forces with American troops on August 19.
The Falaise Gap was closed at last, but a few small and dispersed openings remained to be plugged by the Canadians and Poles. And for that task they were on their own, trying to fend off two converging enemy forces bent on their destruction. The bulk of the 1st Polish Armoured Division to the east of the Canadian line occupied a wooded hill which its General named "Maczuga," or "mace." It was here that the Poles intended to force the Nazis into submission. But there would be a battle of epic proportions. Throughout August 20, German units able to slip past the Canadians, together with SS troops on the other side of the gap, stormed the Polish position ceaselessly. Surrounded, and running low on food, fuel, and ammunition, the Poles held fast until relieved the next day by The Canadian Grenadier Guards. In all, they lost 2,300 men. But in a stunning display of valour, the unwavering Polish soldiers had sealed the fate of the German forces in Normandy.
By then, the Canadians to the west had ended the enemy hopes of retreat. Exceptional heroism and sacrifice had been in abundance here as well. On August 18, armoured cars of The South Alberta Regiment and infantry from The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada left Trun for the village of St. Lambert Sur Dives, just north of Chambois. Through it ran the last road out of the pocket.
Over the next two days, outnumbered and isolated Canadians waged war against a desperate enemy. It was David Currie, the thirty-two year old commander of the South Alberta Regiment, who made the difference. With all his officers either killed or wounded, Currie popped up all along the Canadian line, shouting encouragement to his thinning ranks and directing the fire of his few remaining guns. He even single-handedly knocked out one of the giant German Tiger tanks. "We knew at one stage that it was going to be a fight to the finish," one of Currie's men later recalled, "but he was so cool about it, it was impossible for us to get excited."
When it was all over, Currie and his tiny band of soldiers had destroyed seven enemy tanks, 12 of the fearsome 88's, 40 vehicles, and had killed, wounded, or captured almost 2,000 Germans. For his "courage and complete disregard for personal safety . . . his conspicuous bravery and extreme devotion to duty", Major David Currie was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration in the British Commonwealth.
The battle of Normandy had ended but the war continued for almost another year. The First Canadian Army now had to subdue the isolated German garrisons defending several fortified French ports which the Allies had bypassed. At the beginning of September, the 2nd Division returned in triumph to Dieppe. Boulogne and Calais fell soon after.
The Canadians were then ordered to clear the approaches to the strategically important port of Antwerp, Belgium. The resulting battle for the Scheldt estuary took place in appalling conditions of mud and water against skilled enemy units. It took over a month, and more than 6,000 casualties, but after what Montgomery called "a fine performance, and one that could have been carried out only by first-class troops," the Canadians opened the water route to Antwerp, thus ensuring that the final Allied assault on Germany itself would be sufficiently supplied.
After three months of small actions, the Canadians were again in the thick of action by February 1945. General Crerar's First Canadian Army played a key part in operations in the Rhineland which were intended to break through key German defensive lines. Late in March, fighting through heavily forested areas against Nazi soldiers protecting their homeland, the Canadians crossed the Rhine River the last natural barrier to the heart of Germany.
By that time, the 1st Canadian Corps, having driven the Germans in Italy north of Rimini, joined their compatriots in northwest Europe. The Canadian troops fighting on the continent had finally been reunited. Under one command for the first time, the Canadians rapidly pushed north and helped liberate the Netherlands in April. Squeezed between the British, Canadians and Americans to the west, and the Russians to the east, Nazi Germany's defeat was now only a matter of time. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30. German forces in Italy surrendered on May 2. Those in northwest Europe capitulated five days later. Almost six years after it had begun, the war in Europe was finally over.
Canada and Normandy
Canadians had figured prominently in the defeat of Hitlerism. In Normandy they had been in the vanguard of the Allied victory. The Nazi losses there were horrific—300,000 men. Moreover, most of the enemy's equipment had been destroyed, including more than 2,000 tanks. The backbone of the German Army in the west was broken in Normandy, and the Canadians had played a monumental role.
Allied casualties during the battle had also been heavy, including 18,444 Canadians, of whom 5,021 would never see their homes again. Of all the divisions which formed part of Montgomery's 21 Army Group, none suffered more casualties than the 3rd and 2nd Canadian.
Like their British and American allies, the Canadians made mistakes in command and in training and their inexperience often came back to haunt them. But their high casualty rate also reflected the specific tasks of the Canadian Army during the campaign and the fact that it continually faced the best troops the enemy had to offer. It was a bloody process, but once they learned the harsh lessons of battle, Canada's amateur soldiers proved to be a match for the professional forces they faced. Often in the forefront of the Allied advance against determined opposition, the Canadians took on tasks out of all proportion to their real power. And they accomplished them sometimes amidst hesitation and confusion,—and always courageously.
The accomplishments of the Canadians who landed in Normandy and of the Canadians who fought through Buron and Authie, Verrières Ridge and the Falaise Gap deserve to be remembered by their country. In the words of two historians writing on the 40th anniversary of D-Day "they were not all saints, they were not all heroes. But there were saints and heroes among them, as they fought in the dust and heat of Normandy in that summer of 1944. Remember them and remember their achievements."
© Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1994. Catalogue No. V32-59/1994 ISBN 0-662-61144-6
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