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Battle of Verrières Ridge
Part of Operations Atlantic and Spring
Verrieres-under-fire.jpg
Canadian soldiers under fire near Fleury-sur-Orne in the early hours of July 25, 1944
Date July 19, 1944 – July 25, 1944
Location Verrières Ridge, 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) south of Caen, Normandy, France
Result German defensive victory. Canadian forces fail to seize ridge, taking heavy casualties. German counterattacks make minor gains.[1]
Belligerents
 Canada  Germany
Commanders
Flag of Canada 1921.svg Guy Simonds
Flag of Canada 1921.svg Charles Foulkes
Flag of Germany 1933.svg Günther von Kluge
Flag of Germany 1933.svg Sepp Dietrich
Flag of Germany 1933.svg Kurt Meyer
Flag of Germany 1933.svg Wilhelm Bittrich
Strength
2 Infantry Divisions,
1 Armoured Brigade
3 Panzer Divisions,
1 Infantry Division[2]
Casualties and losses
800 killed[a]
2,000 wounded or captured
Unknown[a]
[a] Discussed in detail in Casualties.

The Battle of Verrières Ridge was a series of engagements fought as part of the Battle of Normandy, in western France, during the Second World War. The main combatants were two Canadian infantry divisions, with additional support from the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, against elements of three German SS Panzer divisions. The battle was part of the British and Canadian attempts to break out of Caen, and took place from July 19 – July 25, 1944, being part of both Operation Atlantic (July 18 – July 21) and Operation Spring (July 25 – July 27).

The immediate Allied objective was Verrières Ridge, a belt of high ground which dominates the route from Caen to Falaise. The ridge was invested by battle-hardened German veterans, who had fallen back from Caen and entrenched to form a strong defensive position. Over the course of six days, substantial Canadian and British forces made repeated attempts to capture the ridge. Strict German adherence to defensive doctrine, as well as strong and effective counterattacks by Panzer formations, resulted in heavy Allied casualties for little strategic gain.[3]

From the perspective of the First Canadian Army, the battle is remembered for its tactical and strategic miscalculations—the most notable being a highly controversial attack by the Royal Highland Regiment (Black Watch) of Canada on July 25. This attack, the costliest single day for a Canadian battalion since the 1942 Dieppe Raid, has become one of the most contentious and critically analysed events in Canadian military history.[4][5][6]

Contents

Background

The geography of Verrières Ridge and the surrounding area

Verrières Ridge lies 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) south of the city of Caen, overlooking broad plains and dominating the countryside between Caen and Falaise. Although a major D-Day objective for Commonwealth forces,[7] the Allied push inland was halted short of Caen and positional warfare ensued until the first week of July. On July 11, Operation Charnwood succeeded in taking the northern half of the city, but the I SS Panzer Corps under Sepp Dietrich thwarted British ambitions.[8] A week later, Operation Goodwood renewed the British offensive, and Caen finally fell on July 19, although by this time the city had been largely devastated.[9] The next Anglo-Canadian goal was the town of Falaise, but Verrières Ridge—now strongly defended by the I SS Panzer Corps—stood in their path.[1] Elements of the British Second Army secured part of the adjacent Bourguébus Ridge and managed to gain a foothold on Verrières Ridge but were unable to dislodge its German defenders.[10]

Forces involved

The II Canadian Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, initially assigned two infantry divisions and one armoured brigade to the assault on the German positions around Verrières. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, having taken heavy casualties during the first six weeks of the Normandy campaign, was given a supporting role.[11] The onus of the task therefore fell on the fresh, though relatively inexperienced, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division,[12] along with the tanks of the 2nd Canadian (Armoured) Brigade.[13] Additional forces were later made available in the shape of three divisions from the British I Corps: the 51st (Highland) Division, the Guards Armoured Division, and the British 7th Armoured Division.[14] Despite having significantly more combat experience than their Canadian counterparts, the British units played only a very minor part in the battle.[10][15][16]

While British forces had been battling for Caen, elements of Sepp Dietrich's I SS Panzer Corps (part of Field Marshal Günther von Kluge's Army Group B) had turned Verrières Ridge into their main defensive position along the Anglo-Canadian front.[4][17] Although not particularly high, the ridge's topography meant that advancing forces would be exposed to fire from German positions across the River Orne, from the ridge itself, and from the nearby German-held industrial hamlet of St Martin.[18] Two powerful formations—the 12th SS Panzer Division and 1st SS Panzer Division—now held the ridge supported by artillery, dug-in Tiger tanks and mortar emplacements.[19] A third, the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen, was held in reserve.[19] Further support was available from the 272nd Grenadier Infantry Division (a force composed mainly of Russian and Polish combatants that had been raised in 1943[3]), the 116th Panzer Division, and a battalion of Tiger tanks.[14]

Attack of Calgary Highlanders

In a follow-up to Operation Goodwood on July 19, the Calgary Highlanders attempted to take the northern spur of Verrières Ridge, but effective German mortar fire limited their progress.[20] Tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers were sent to support the battalion, and eliminated several machine-gun positions on either side of Point 67.[6] The Highlanders eventually managed to dig in, despite accurate return fire.[6] Over the next few hours, they strengthened their position, and the 5th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades made repeated attempts to exploit the gains made.[6] However, facing a tenacious German defense, and minor infantry and tank counterattacks, the Canadians were broadly repulsed with heavy casualties.[6] Simonds rapidly prepared a new offensive for the following day, with the goals of capturing both the eastern side of the Orne and the main slopes of Verrières Ridge.[6][17]

Operation Atlantic

General Guy Simonds, the senior Canadian commander for the battle, during an inspection tour before D-Day. PAC Photo.

The next assault took place on July 20, under the aegis of Operation Atlantic. It was led by the South Saskatchewan Regiment, with supporting units from the Cameron Highlanders.[6] In the early hours of July 20, the Highlanders secured a position in St André-sur-Orne, but were quickly pinned down by an effective German infantry and armoured response.[6][21] At the same time, the South Saskatchewan Regiment moved directly up the slopes of Verrières Ridge,[6] supported by tanks and Hawker Typhoon ground attack aircraft. However, the Canadian attack faltered in torrential rain, which rendered air support useless and turned the ground into mud.[4] Heavy German counterattacks by two Panzer divisions threw the South Saskatchewans back past their support lines,[22] and their supporting battalion, the Essex Scottish, themselves came under attack. The Essex Scottish lost over 300 men as it tried to hold back the advance of the 12th SS Panzer Division,[4][23] while to the west the remainder of I SS Panzer Corps engaged British forces in the largest armoured battle of the campaign.[24] By the end of the day, the South Saskatchewans had taken 282 casualties, and the ridge was still in enemy hands.[6]

Despite these setbacks, Simonds was adamant that Verrières Ridge should be taken, and sent in the Black Watch and the Calgary Highlanders to stabilise the precarious Allied position.[18] Minor counterattacks by both regiments on July 21 managed to contain Dietrich's armoured formations,[22] and by the time the operation was called off, Canadian forces held several footholds on the ridge,[25] including a now secure position on Point 67.[26] However, four German divisions still held the ridge itself. In all, the actions around Verrières Ridge during Operation Atlantic accounted for over 1,100 Allied casualties.[22]

Operation Spring

The starting lines of Operation Spring, showing layout of divisional and battalion forces for both sides

With the capture of Caen on July 19, an Anglo-Canadian breakout had become strategically feasible.[18][25] In the American sector, General Omar Bradley, commander of the US forces, had been planning his own breakout—Operation Cobra[25]—and Simonds too began preparing a new offensive, codenamed Operation Spring. Spring was originally conceived by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as a "holding attack", designed to tie down German forces while Cobra was underway.[3] On July 22, however, with Operation Atlantic having failed to achieve its aims, Simonds changed the objective of Operation Spring to a breakout offensive.[27] If Verrières Ridge could be taken, Simonds could launch armour and artillery attacks from its southern flank to push the Germans further back.[5] This would clear the Caen–Falaise road, and his two British armoured divisions could then advance south to Falaise.[27]

Operation Spring was scheduled in four tightly timed phases. The Calgary Highlanders would attack Bourguébus Ridge and May-sur-Orne to secure the flanks of the main thrust, which was to be a move on Verrières Ridge by the Black Watch, along with armoured support from the British 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Canadian (Armoured) Division.[5][19] The original plan called for the offensive to start on July 23, but poor weather postponed the operation for forty-eight hours.[26] Taking advantage of this respite, I SS Panzer Corps reinforced the ridge with an additional four battalions, 480 tanks, and 500 guns.[2][14] Allied Intelligence learned of this reinforcement through Ultra signals intercepts, and advised Simonds's headquarters.[2][18]

Attack of the Black Watch

On July 25, two days later than originally planned, Operation Spring was launched. The Black Watch were scheduled to begin their attack at about 05:30 from an assembly area at St Martin, 6 km south of Caen.[18] However, the Canadians ran into heavy German resistance on the St Martin road, and did not arrive at their assembly area until close to 08:00. By that time, the Black Watch's two highest ranking officers had been killed, and command fell to 24-year-old Major Phil Griffin.[2] At 08:30 he met with 5th Brigade's commander, Brigadier General W.J. Megilland.[28] Despite the non-arrival of most of their promised armoured support, the decision was taken for the attack to proceed.

At 09:30, as the Canadian infantry regiments advanced up the ridge, they were easy targets for the well-entrenched German machine gun nests and mortar pits, supported by tanks, 88 mm anti-tank guns, and Nebelwerfer rocket artillery.[2][18] To make matters worse, the Black Watch's communications were knocked out within minutes of the start of their assault.[5] Very few members of the Black Watch Regiment managed to make it to the crest of the ridge,[29] and those who did were subjected to an even heavier bombardment as they ran into the counterattacking forces of the 272nd Infantry Division and the 9th SS's Battle Group Sterz.[30] Of the 325 men that left the assembly area, 315 of them were either killed, wounded, or captured.[5][29] The Black Watch lost all its senior commanders, including Major Phil Griffin, with two entire companies virtually annihilated.[5] July 25 marked the costliest single day for a Canadian battalion since the Dieppe Raid of 1942.[29][31]

Aftermath

German counterattacks in the aftermath of Operation Spring, July 25–26, 1944

All of the gains made by the Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders were lost to German counterattacks, which inflicted heavy losses on the Highlanders and the previously unscathed Black Watch support company.[32] The Black Watch had to be reformed after Verrières Ridge, having sustained more casualties than any Canadian infantry battalion since the disastrous raid on Dieppe.[33][34]

The central area of the ridge, near Verrières Village, was eventually taken and held by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.[2][35] The east side was also taken, but subsequently lost, although two British armoured brigades were able to secure significant footholds near the positions of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.[36]

The failure to capture the ridge had little effect on the overall Allied position, as the success of Operation Cobra was so overwhelming that the Germans diverted significant resources, including two Panzer Divisions, from the ridge in their attempt to keep Bradley's forces boxed in.[33][37] With its defences weakened, subsequent Commonwealth attacks on the ridge were successful; Operation Totalize finally managed to wrest the position from its SS defenders on August 8.[38][39]

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Casualties

Specific Allied casualty figures for the battle as a whole were never produced, but can be arrived at by examining its two constituent operations. The accepted toll for Operation Atlantic is 1,349,[6] with about 300 fatalities.[12] Operation Spring's losses were about 500 killed with a further 1,000 captured or wounded.[5][18] Working from these figures, historians estimate around 800 Canadian dead, and 2,000 wounded or captured.[40] The Canadian dead are buried in Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, between Caen and Falaise.[18]

Both the official Canadian Second World War historian Charles Stacey, and military historian Michael Reynolds, note that German casualty figures for individual operations are difficult to determine; Stacey attributes this to the gradual degradation of the German logistics chain leaving incomplete records, and Reynolds adds that units sometimes over-reported their losses in the hopes of receiving more reinforcements.[41][42] However, the German losses for the battle were significantly less that those suffered by the Canadians. According to Reynolds, between 16 July and 1 August the 1st SS Panzer Division lost 1,092 men killed, wounded or captured, along with 11 Panzer IV tanks and 10 Sturmgeschütz III assault guns, in fighting across all its fronts including at Verrières. Over a similar period he estimates the 12th SS Panzer Division, also across all sectors, suffered only 134 casualties.[42] Many of the German fallen are buried at La Cambe German war cemetery.

Historiography and controversy

The action of the Black Watch was most gallant but was tactically unsound in its detailed execution.
—General Guy Simonds, official Operation Spring report, January 1946[43]
General Sir Bernard Montgomery (eighth from left) talking with Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds (ninth from left) at 2nd Canadian Corps Headquarters in Normandy, France, 20 July1944. Photo by Lt. Donald I. Grant.

The Battle of Verrières Ridge, although given no particular prominence in German military history, has earned the distinction of being one of the First Canadian Army's most scrutinised actions.[1] Simonds's official report on Operation Spring, released after the war, blamed its failure on "11th hour reinforcement" of German lines and "strategically unsound execution on the part of Major Phillip Griffin and the Black Watch".[44] However, recently declassified wartime documents show that Simonds, along with several others in the Allied high command, had likely been notified on July 23 of a massive German buildup on the ridge.[45] Some historians, including David O'Keefe and David Bercuson, consequently accuse Simonds of being too careless with the lives of his men.[18][33] In contrast, others such as Terry Copp and John A. English argue that, given the amount of pressure that all Allied commanders were under to break out from Normandy, Simonds probably had little choice in the decision he made.[39][46]

Operation Spring did succeed in its later-defined objective of a "holding attack",[47] and aided the overwhelming success of Operation Cobra by tying down powerful German formations that might otherwise have been in the American sector, thus precluding any immediate inquiry into its failure. The German commander of the Normandy Sector, Günther von Kluge, was at the Canadian front on July 25 instead of the American front where the eventual breakout occurred.[38][48] However, the Battle of Verrières Ridge had little overall effect on British attempts to break out of Caen, as significant resources were transferred to the American Front in the aftermath of Cobra to exploit Bradley's success, and the ridge eventually fell to the general Allied advance.[37][39]

Footnotes

  1. ^ a b c Jarymowycz (1993), p. 75.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Copp (1999b).
  3. ^ a b c Jarymowycz (1993), p. 76.
  4. ^ a b c d Bercuson, p. 223.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Zuehlke, p. 168.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Copp (1999a).
  7. ^ Zuehlke, p. 163.
  8. ^ Van Der Vat, p. 155.
  9. ^ Van Der Vat, p. 157.
  10. ^ a b Copp (1992), p. 45.
  11. ^ Bercuson, p. 220.
  12. ^ a b Bercuson, p. 222.
  13. ^ D'Este, p. 205.
  14. ^ a b c Jarymowycz (1993), p. 78.
  15. ^ Bercuson, p. 221.
  16. ^ Jarymowycz (2001), p. 128.
  17. ^ a b Jarymowycz (2001), p. 132.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i O'Keefe
  19. ^ a b c Jarymowycz (1993), p. 77.
  20. ^ Calgary Highlanders Official Battle Honours, Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum
  21. ^ Bercuson, Pg. 220
  22. ^ a b c Zuehlke, p. 166.
  23. ^ BBC: People's War
  24. ^ Van Der Vat, p. 159.
  25. ^ a b c Bercuson, p. 224.
  26. ^ a b Copp (1992), p. 47.
  27. ^ a b Copp (1992), p. 46.
  28. ^ Copp (1992), p. 55.
  29. ^ a b c Bercuson, p. 225.
  30. ^ Jarymowycz (1993), p. 83; Jarymowycz (2001), p. 134.
  31. ^ Stacey (1960), p. 192.
  32. ^ Jarymowycz (1993), p. 82.
  33. ^ a b c Bercuson, p. 226.
  34. ^ The Essex Scottish Regiment would suffer heavier losses over the course of the entire war, although many of these were taken in the Dieppe Raid, in which Black Watch participation was minimal.
  35. ^ Jarymowycz (1993), p. 79.
  36. ^ Jarymowycz (2001), p. 135.
  37. ^ a b Jarymowycz (1993), p. 84.
  38. ^ a b Jarymowycz (1993), p. 87.
  39. ^ a b c Bercuson, pp. 228–229.
  40. ^ Jarymowycz (1993), p. 81.
  41. ^ Stacey (1960), pp. 270–271
  42. ^ a b Reynolds, p. 198.
  43. ^ Simonds, p. 68.
  44. ^ Simonds, pp. 67–68.
  45. ^ Copp (1992), p. 50.
  46. ^ Copp (1992), p. 61.
  47. ^ Simonds, p. 65.
  48. ^ Bercuson, p. 227.

References

Further reading

  • Granatstein, J. L. (2004). The Last Good War. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre. ISBN 1-55054-913-8

External links

Coordinates: 49°06′37″N 0°19′56″W / 49.11038°N 0.33236°W / 49.11038; -0.33236


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