From Normandy to the Netherlands

Canadian troops manning Bren gun, Caen, Normandy, July 1944.

Canadian troops manning Bren gun, Caen, Normandy, July 1944.

The savage fighting in Normandy continued throughout June and July of 1944. While the Americans fought to clear the enemy from the Cotentin peninsula and capture Cherbourg, the British and Canadians experienced some of the hardest fighting imaginable against the powerful Panzer divisions in the struggle to capture the city of Caen. In the face of fierce resistance and consequent heavy losses, progress was slower than expected. More than a month elapsed before Carpiquet airfield was captured as a preliminary to the seizure of Caen. Caen was taken on July 10.

At this time the Headquarters of the 2nd Canadian Corps arrived, and in the fighting south of Caen the troops of all Canadian formations in France took part. The first task given to the Corps was to break out of Caen across the Orne River with the double objective of enlarging the bridgehead and holding down German troops to assist the American breakout in the west. The fighting, especially in the vicinity of Verrières Ridge, was tough and bloody, resulting in heavy losses for only slight territorial advances. However, the strategic gains were great. With some of Germany's best armoured formations thus engaged on the Anglo-Canadian front, the Americans were able to break out of Cherbourg and begin the encircling movement around the German forces. In the final phase of the holding strategy, the Canadians, on July 25, attacked on either side of the Caen-Falaise Road. The casualties were heavy as the powerful German forces held their ground. However, on the same day the First United States Army broke through the enemy positions near St. Lô, and the Germans began to move their armour away from the Caen sector to meet this American threat.

Meanwhile, on July 23, the Headquarters of the First Canadian Army became operational. Under the command of General Crerar, this First Canadian Army would become international in character. In addition to its Canadian divisions (the 2nd and 3rd Infantry and the 4th Armoured divisions), it had a Polish division, British corps and at various times American, Belgian and Dutch troops.

As the Americans swept round from the south enveloping the German troops in a huge pocket, General Crerar's First Canadian Army was ordered to Falaise along the line of the pocket's opening. Lieut.-General G.G. Simonds, in command of the 2nd Canadian Corps, planned the operation to take place at night using armoured personnel carriers to transport the infantry, and tanks to both spearhead and follow the assault. The attack began just before midnight August 7, preceded by heavy air bombardment, directed by red and green flares fired by the artillery. The attack achieved initial success, as the first defensive lines were overrun including the ridge at Verrières where Canadians had died in the July campaign. Then, in the face of stiff German resistance and errors in Allied bombing which inflicted casualties on their own troops, the momentum could not be maintained.

It was vital that Falaise be captured without delay to unite with the American forces moving up from the south. General Simonds ordered a second assault. Similar tactics were employed except that this time the attack took place in daylight with smoke screens replacing the cover darkness had given in the earlier phase. There was again an error in Allied bombing, but this time the assault succeeded. Falaise was taken on August 16.

Large German forces were not caught in the steadily shrinking pocket from which the only exit was the narrow gap between Falaise and Argentan. The task of closing the gap fell, in particular, to the First Canadian Army.

Fighting desperately to get out of the trap, the Germans provided Allied aircraft with easy daylight targets. Many were killed. By August 19 the gap was loosely closed, but the encircled Germans continued to counter-attack. While their losses were heavy, substantial numbers did manage to escape before the pocket was firmly sealed.

After the Allied victory in Normandy, Germany could no longer hold France. On August 25, Paris was liberated by French and American troops. The German armies weakened, but not destroyed, had retreated to their own frontiers. Behind their West Wall defences, they prepared for a last desperate stand.

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