Originally the Allies aimed to take the French city of Caen, one of the largest cities in Normandy on D-Day. Caen was a vital objective for several reasons. First, it lay astride the Orne River and Caen Canal; these two water obstacles could strengthen a German defensive position if not crossed. Second, Caen was a road hub; in German hands it would enable the enemy to shift forces rapidly. Third, the area around Caen was relatively open, especially compared to the bocage country in the west of Normandy. This area was valued for airfield construction.
On D-Day, Caen was an objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division and remained the focal point for a series of battles throughout June, July and into August.
The old city of Caen, with many buildings dating back to the Middle Ages, was largely destroyed by Allied bombing and the fighting. The reconstruction of Caen lasted until 1962. Today, little of the pre-war city remains.
On 6 June 1944, Allied forces invaded France by launching Operation Neptune, the beach landing operation of Operation Overlord. A force of several thousand ships assaulted the beaches in Normandy, supported by approximately 3,000 aircraft. The D-Day landings were generally successful, but the Allied forces were unable to take Caen as planned.
In addition to seaborne landings, the Allies also employed Airborne forces. The U.S. 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions, as well as the British 6th Airborne Division (with an attached Canadian airborne battalion), were inserted behind the enemy lines. The British and Canadian paratroopers behind Sword Beach were tasked with reaching and occupying the strategically important bridges such as Horsa and Pegasus, as well as to take the artillery battery at Merville in order to hinder the forward progress of the German forces. They managed to establish a bridgehead north of Caen, on the east bank of the Orne, that the Allied troops could use to their advantage in the battle for Caen.
The first operation intended to capture Caen was the initial landings on Sword Beach by the 3rd Infantry Division on June 6. Despite being able to penetrate the Atlantic Wall and push south the division was unable to reach the city, their final objectives according to the plan, and in fact fell short by 6 kilometres. The 21st Panzer Division launched several counterattacks during the afternoon which effectively blocked the road to Caen.
Operation Perch was the second attempt to capture Caen after the direct attack from Sword Beach on June 6 failed. 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division was ordered to strike south capture Bayeux, then Tilly-sur-Seulles following which the 7th Armoured Division would capture Villers-Bocage and Evrecy.
Once these two thrusts were complete Operation Wild Oats would be given the green light and the 1st Airborne Division would be landed between the two divisions to close the gap and thus encircle the city.
However the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division attack bogged down in front of Tilly-sur-Seulles which resulted in heavy fighting with the Panzer Lehr Division raging around the village from 8 June to 19 June 1944, when it finally fell and the German commander, Major General Fritz Bayerlein, ordered a retreat. This is known as the Battle of Tilly-sur-Seulles.
During the fighting 76 civilians from the village were killed, a tenth of the population of Tilly-sur-Seulles. The Panzer Lehr Division had 190 tanks at the start of the battle, of which 66 remained after the battle. In addition to the lost tanks, the Germans lost 5,500 men . Today there is a British military cemetery in Tilly-sur-Seulles, as well as a museum that gives information about the battle. Nearby is the "Jerusalem War Cemetery," the smallest military cemetery in Normandy.
While the fighting at Tilly-sur-Seulles was raging, the American U.S. 1st Infantry Division opened up a 12km gap on the flank on the Panzer Lehr Division's flank. This vulnerability in the German lines opened up an opportunity for the Allies to thrust forward with armoured units and turn the flank of the German defensive position. Lieutenant-General Dempsey ordered the 7th Armoured Division to capture Villers-Bocage and the high ground outside of the town with the intention that the appearance of British armour in the rear of the Panzer Lehr Division along with the high ground occupied would compel them to withdraw.
This resulted in the Battle of Villers-Bocage, which took place on June 13. In fierce, close-range fighting the Germans succeeded in holding onto the town and securing their front.
The Allies, after they had consolidated their forces and after a delay because of bad weather between 19 June and 22 June, began Operation Epsom on 26 June. Three attacks were carried out by British and Canadian units of VIII Corps. The mission was to bring Caen and the surrounding countryside under Allied control. Dempsey had 60,000 soldiers, over 700 pieces of artillery and about 600 tanks under his command, although most of the troops had seen very little combat to that point.
The Allied attack was hampered by bad weather and bad preparation. The Allied artillery supported the advance with a creeping barrage. On 26 June the Allied bomber fleet in England was prevented from supporting the attack because of bad weather. The Allied attacks were stopped by Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht units. Most of the gains made by the Allies could not be held. After heavy fighting the Allies had secured and held on to only one location, Hill 112.
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division's commander, Major General Rod Keller, was severely criticized for not sending two brigades into Operation Windsor, and for delegating detailed planning to Brigadier Blackader of the 8th Brigade. The poor performance of the 3rd Division was seen as additional evidence that Keller was unfit for his command.
The Allies planned to use heavy bombers in order to scare the German defenders as well as destroy their defensive positions. It was also hoped that the bombardments would raise the morale of the British troops.
Meanwhile the following instruction was issued on 7 July from the German armed forces operations staff
The British Second Army and First Canadian Army, with approximately 115,000 men, struck out at villages held by German forces north of Caen. The Allies had planned to conduct a bombing run on the villages but cancelled them because of the proximity of their own troops. The bombardment area continued to shift towards Caen. On the evening of 7 July, 467 airplanes flew in clear weather and dropped 2,276 bombs. The bombings did little to harm the German forces, but the northern suburbs were mostly destroyed in the attacks. French civilians also bore the brunt with about 3,000 being killed. The German air defence was able to shoot down one airplane, and three others fell over Allied air space. The air bombardment was supported by naval gunfire from offshore ships.
Alexander McKee said about the bombardment on 7 July: "The 2,500 tons of bombs made no distinction between friend and foe. If the British commanders believed that they would intimidate the Germans by killing the French, then they were sorely mistaken.".
The shock effect was non-existent, since the attack did not take place immediately after the bombardment, when the defenders were still diverted and scared. Instead the main attack began the next morning, 8 July, around 04:30. The employment of tanks was made more difficult because of the bombings. Later, when the city was finally taken, it was determined that no German cannon, tanks or soldiers were killed in the targeted areas.
At the end of 8 July the Allied had only advanced one kilometre towards the city of Caen. After the German troops withdrew on 9 July from the city centre to the north and west of the city, the Allied troops engaged in the north but were kept from further advances by German snipers. At 18:00 on 9 July, the first units reached the Orne River in Caen. On the evening of 9 July and on 10 July, the Allied reached the city centre. Engineers were tasked with repairing bridges over the Orne and moving the rubble out of the city. Arthur Wilkes described the situation after the action: "Mountains of rubble, [approximately] 20 or 30 feet [≈ 6 or 9 meter] high [...] the dead lay everywhere.". In the daily war journal of the 1st Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers there is an entry on 9 July: "In the house that were still standing there slowly came life, as the French civilians realized that we had taken the city. They came running out of their houses with glasses and bottles of wine.".
Operation Charnwood was a minor tactical success for the Allies, because the city was still not entirely in Allied hands. The northwest portion of Caen had been taken but the eastern suburbs, where the steel factory at Colombelles (with its high observation posts) was located, was still under German control. Strategically the operation contributed towards the German belief that the Allied breakout would be in the British sector, where it in fact was not.
Lieutenant-General O’Connor tried again to develop the bridgehead with Caen. The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division was to retake Hill 112 on 10 July during Operation Jupiter. In the first phase the Allied forces were to take Hill 112, Fontaine and Eterville and in the second phase use Hill 112 as a defensive position and move towards Maltot. A bombardment of mortars and over 100 field artillery pieces preceded the Allied attack.
The Germans had five infantry battalions, two Tiger heavy tank battalions, as well as two Sturmgeschütz companies and Nebelwerfer drawn mostly from the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, with elements of the 9th SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions in reserve.
The operation failed because of strong resistance from the Germans which had dug themselves in and were well prepared for the attack. The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division lost over 2,000 men during the operation.
At a meeting with General Montgmery on 10 July, the commander of the Second Army, Lieutenant-General Dempsey suggested the plan for Operation Goodwood on the same day Montgomery had approved Operation Cobra. The Canadian part of Operation Goodwood was given the codename Operation Atlantic.
Since the middle of July, 2,250 medium and 400 light tanks in three armoured divisions and several independent armoured brigades had been brought to Normandy under the control of the Second Army, which was now in a position where they could afford to lose tanks, but not men, in order to break through the German positions on the eastern side of the Orne and in the north of Caen. Operation Goodwood was to begin on 18 July, two days before the beginning of the U.S. Operation Cobra. Cobra however, did not begin until 25 July.
Although heavy losses were expected in the operation, Dempsey believed his men had a good chance to break through. The armoured divisions of VIII Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General O’Connor were to make the main effort. Approximately 700 guns shooting about 250,000 rounds were to support the attack. Furthermore, the RAF was to bombard three targets: Colombelles-Mondeville, Toufreville Emiéville and Cagny.
The goal was to capture all of Bras, Hubert-Folie, Verrières, Fontenay, Garcelles-Secqueville, Cagny and Vimont. A further goal was to push the Germans back from the Bourguebus Ridge. The Canadian forces had the task of securing the western flank, and the British infantry were to secure the eastern.
On 18 July, 942 Allied bombers and fighters attacked five villages on the eastern end of Caen in order to facilitate Operation Goodwood. The attacks took place at dawn and were helped by good weather. Four of the targets were marked by pathfinders; for the fifth target the bombardiers had to find another way to find their mark. Supported by American bombers and fighters, the British dropped approximately 6,800 tons of bombs on the villages and surrounding area. Two German units, the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and the 21st Panzer Division were hit hard by the bombing. German air defences and ground troops were able to shoot down six aircraft.
The three Allied armoured divisions had to overcome water obstacles and a minefield in order to reach their line of departure. The Orne River and the Caen Canal was an obstacle for the British troops during their advance. Six small bridges were available for the 8,000 vehicles including the tanks, the artillery, the motorised infantry, the engineers and the supply vehicles to cross the river. It was obvious that there would be a large traffic problem. Dempsey's solution was nearly fatal; he directed his Corps commander O'Connor to leave the infantry, engineers, and artillery on the other side until all of the tanks got across. This broke up the British combined-arms team before the Germans were even engaged.
After the tanks got over the bridges, the British had to cross a minefield of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines laid only a few days before by the 51st Highland Division. This obstacle would have taken a massive effort from the engineers to be cleared before the battle. There was a concern that, since the Germans had their own minefield at the steel plant in the German occupied suburb of Colombelles and could observe the mine clearing effort, they would have been forewarned of the attack. However, tactical surprise had already been lost. The engineers of the 51st Highland Division had taken the two nights before the battle to clear 17 corridors through the minefield.
VIII Corps gave up the element of surprise as the tanks were slowed by the bridges and minefields. Through Allied broadcasts, the Germans had known about the attack since 15 July and had plenty of time to prepare their defences. Thus the effort to clear additional lanes through the minefields should have been undertaken.
Additionally, fire support was not effective; the artillery regiments stayed west of the Orne as per Dempsey's orders, so that the main German defence at Bourguebus Ridge was not in range. Additionally, coordination between the field artillery and the tanks was lacking .
It became clear that the area that had been selected was strategically poor. There were many small villages, and in each one there was a small German garrison, each connected by tunnels as well as many observation posts that could be used to watch the progress of the Allies.
The German artillery on the Bourguebus Ridge at Cagny and Emieville was not weakened by either prior air or artillery attacks. From these positions the German guns as well as the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division dug in on the ridge had free fields of fire. Behind the ridge, were the remnants of the 21st Panzer Division with 78 88 mm guns and 40 tanks .
The Seconds Army over-tasked the 11th Armoured Division. Although it was the unit that led the attack, it also was tasked with cleaning out the small villages along the front lines, namely Cuverville and Demouville. These were to be secured by units following the initial effort, but instead the armoured brigades attacked Bourguebus Ridge while the Motorised Infantry brigades took care of the villages. This slowed the attacks down and prevented meaningful cooperation.
For the most part, VIII Corps pressed forward very slowly. The 29th Armoured brigade of the 11th Armoured Division made the biggest gains, capturing almost 7 miles (11 km) of ground lateral to the British front.
When the railroad at “Caen Vimont” was reached at 09:30, the German troops had recovered from the bombardment. Twelve British tanks were destroyed by one 88 mm gun that fired on them several times. The British advanced slowly and crossed the rail line in order to approach the Bourguebus Ridge held by the 21st Panzer Division, the 1st SS Panzer Division and numerous artillery pieces.
For most of the day, the 29th Armoured Brigade, 11th Armoured Division, was without artillery support. The 159th Infantry Brigade was busy clearing out two villages behind the 29th Armoured Brigade. The remaining two armoured divisions were also busy crossing the bridges or passing through the minefields. At dawn on the 18th, only one tank battalion of the 7th Armoured division was involved in combat while most of the remaining armour units had to wait from 10:00 to midday on 18 July to cross the Orne.
Individual tank battalions fought without support and behind one another instead of fighting together which was what was planned at the outset of the operation. Most of the ground gained came on the morning of 18 July. By 20 July most of the city of Caen was under Allied control.
The Germans began a counterattack after midday on 18 July that lasted until 20 July. General Montgomery brought the operation to a close on 20 July after having lost 4,000 soldiers and approximately 400 tanks.
The operation did not go as planned for the Allies. They lost roughly 400 tanks and about 5,500 British and Canadian soldiers. The Germans held their most important positions while losing 109 tanks, a figure that was high for them as opposed to the Allies, in that they could not replace their tanks as quickly. While tactically the operation went poorly for the Second Army, strategically it was partly successful in that the Germans remained convinced that the main attack would still come in the Second Army sector.
At a conference on 22 July it was decided that Operation Spring would begin on 25 July under the command of Lieutenant-General Simonds. The goal of the operation was for II Canadian Corps to capture, among others, the high ground near Cramesni and La Bruyers, approximately three miles (5 km) south of Bourguebus.
Two Canadian infantry divisions were to attack, after which two armoured divisions would pass through the infantry to exploit the breach they created.
The three-phase operation would first attack the May-sur-Orne—Verrières—Tilly-la-Campagne line; second was the line Fontanay-le-Marmion—Roquancourt, with the final objective being the plateau ov Verrières Ridge itself.
The Germans attempted to reinforce the Caen-Falaise area during the planning of Spring; on 20 June the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht announced that the advance of their forces was finished. The Germans had five armoured divisions and various other infantry units in the area. Since these units had been available on the first day of the operation the chance of an Allied break through was small.
After the air and artillery bombardment that had preceded the attack, the Canadians could have reached their goal on 25 July, but because of the strong German resistance, they were forced to withdraw entirely or at least pull back to their previous defensive positions. On 26 July and 27 July, a German counterattack in the area around Verrières, which the Canadians had taken the day before, was pushed back by Allied artillery.
The operation did not reach its intended goals but did ensure that Verrières remained in Allied hands, ensuring good observation of several lower lying areas. The advantages afforded by the high ground was also gained at Tilly-la-Campagne, also taken from the Germans. The operation was the Canadians' most costly in the war, as they lost approximately 1,500 men , many of whom are buried in the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery.
Kurt Meyer reported that he was allegedly given a notebook which contained orders on how to handle German prisoners of war by the Canadian troops:
Canadian company commander Major Jacques D. Dextraze recalled "I used to tell my men, "Your job is to kill the enemy, that's your principal job. But the minute an enemy comes out with his hands up in the air, you must respect him, and you must protect him, and you must ensure that this man is as protected as your own men."
Yet, he also explains that sometimes it was clear that not all POW's were treated so well:
''"We crossed the river - the bridge had been blown up...Eighty five prisoners we take. I select an officer, "take them back to the P.W. cage". He goes back, making them run, to the bridge that we had... These guys had been running for a couple of miles. They came to the bridge (bad cut) No no, you don't take the bridge, you swim. Now these guys fell...went into that water you know. Most of them drowned. Imagine having run you know, they had been fighting before, running you know for a couple of miles, and then the water you know. Now, they were picked up by the engineers rebuilding the bridge. I could have been accused of not having protected them. I'm responsible for these prisoners you see. I felt very bad when I saw them all piled up beside the bridge..."
Twenty Canadians were executed near Villons-les-Buissons, northeast of Caen in the Ardenne Abbey. The abbey was made up of buildings from the middle-ages and a gothic church. The commander of the 25th Panzer Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Kurt Meyer, had his headquarters in the area and probably was involved in the execution.
On 7 June Canadian troops fighting at Authie were taken prisoner. The abbey was fast filling up with prisoners. Ten were selected and executed outside the abbey. The rest of the prisoners were brought to Bretteville sur Odon. In the evening on the same day eleven prisoners were shot in the garden of one of the Chateaus.
On the evening of 8 June another seven prisoners that had fought at Authie and Buron were brought to the abbey. There they were questioned and then afterwards executed. The seven were brought into the garden and ten minutes later all seven were dead, shot in the back of the head. Jan Jesionek, a Polish soldier serving with the 12th SS Panzer Division, later reported the events and that the German units commander Meyer supposedly had said: "'What should we do with these prisoners? They only eat up our rations. In future no more prisoners are to be taken." The last corpses of the Canadians that were killed were found in the fall of 1945.
A small chapel at the abbey was set up in memory of the Canadian soldiers. The chapel consists of a wooden cross, over which is a niche with a statue of Mary. On the cross is a Canadian steel helmet. Every year the children of Authie place flowers at the chapel. In 1984 a bronze plaque was erected at the abbey, it reads:
"On the night of June 7/8, 1944, 18 Canadian soldiers were murdered in this garden while being held here as prisoners of war. Two more prisoners died here or nearby on June 17. They are dead but not forgotten."
Operation Overlord and the battles in Normandy successfully gave the Allies a foothold in France, which led to the liberation of the rest of Western Europe. On 25 August the Allies were able to retake the French capital Paris.
Caen and many of the surrounding towns and villages were mostly destroyed; the cathedral in Caen and the University of Caen (founded in 1432) were both razed to the ground. The buildings were eventually rebuilt after the war and even expanded. For this reason the symbol of the University of Caen is the Phoenix. Approximately 35,000 citizens of Caen were rendered homeless after the fighting .
After the war ended, the West German government had to pay reparations as compensation to any civilians in Caen killed, starved, or left homeless by the war .
There are many monuments to the Battle for Caen and Operation Overlord. For example on the road to Odon-bridge at Tourmauville, there is a memorial for the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division; or the monument on hill 112 for the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division, as well as one for the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division. Near hill 112, a forest was planted in memory of those that fought there.
The landings at Normandy, the Battle for Caen and the Second World War are remembered today with many memorials, in Caen there is the Mémorial with a "peace museum" (Musée de la paix). The museum was built by the city of Caen on top of where the bunker of General Wilhelm Richter, the commander of the 716th Infantry Division was located. On 6 June 1988 the museum was opened by the French president at the time, François Mitterrand as well as twelve ambassadors from countries that took part in the fighting in Normandy. The museum is dedicated to pacifism and borders the Parc international pour la Libération de l'Europe, a garden in remembrance of the Allied participants in the invasion.
The fallen are buried in the Brouay War Cemetery, the Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery (2,170 graves), the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery (2,049 graves), the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery (2,957 graves), La Cambe German war cemetery (21,222 graves) as well as many more.