Battle of Caen, 6 June- 6 August 1944

The battle of Caen (6 June-6 August 1944) was one of the key battles during Operation Overlord, and although the British and Canadians achieved their main aims, the failure to capture Caen quickly caused a great deal of controversy.

Montgomery’s plan for the battle of Normandy had always been to force the Germans to commit their strongest forces in the east, at what would appear to be the logical point for the Allied breakout towards Paris and the German frontier, allowing the Americans to break through further to the west and sweep into Brittany and behind the German armies fighting in Normandy. However the expectation had been that Caen would fall on D-Day or soon afterwards, giving the Allies control of the flat areas around the city, which were suitable for the construction of airfields.

The geography of Caen causes some confusion with directions. The River Orne generally flows from south to north, passes through Caen and on into the sea. Caen is split by the river, with the old town on the left bank of the river and a series of suburbs and industrial areas on the right bank. However in the city itself the river runs through an ‘S’ bend, so the old town is north of the river, and some of the suburbs south of the river. The left bank is thus sometimes referred to as the west bank or the north back, while the right bank is the east or south bank. A second river, the Odon, flows generally north-east, and flows into the Orne just to the south of Caen.

D-Day and Operation Perch

On D-Day itself the British and Canadians succesfully landed on their beaches, but the 21st Panzer Division mounted a counterattack into the gap between Juno and Sword beaches, and this combined with slower than expected progress just inland meant that Caen remained in German hands at the end of the day.

British 2nd Army on D-Day
British 2nd Army
on D-Day

British Bren Gunner in Douet
British Bren Gunner in Douet

On the evening of D-Day a force of tanks from the Staffordshire Yeomanry, supported by the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry reached Lebisey Wood, only three miles to the north of the city. However the woods were held by a battlegroup from the 21st Panzer Division, and the British were unable to make any more progress.

Over the next couple of days the Germans had a brief chance to push the Allies back, as they moved three panzer divisions to Caen. However Rommel’s fears about Allied air power proved correct. Panzer Lehr had to move from Le Mans, and although most of its tanks survived, many essential support vehicles were lost and the division wasn’t fit to take part in an offensive when it reached Caen. The 12th SS Panzer Division suffered from a lack of fuel, and was then engaged by the Canadians at the Carpiquet airfield.  21st Panzer was split in half by the Orne, and was thus unable to carry out a coordinated counterattack. By 9 June Rommel had decided that the chance of pushing the Allies back into the sea had gone, and ordered his men to go onto the defensive while they prepared for a full scale counterattack. 

Once it was clear that Caen wouldn’t fall on D-Day, the Allied plans had to be altered. Operation Perch, which had originally been a plan for an advance to the south-east of Caen to convince the Germans the main Allied thrust would come in that area, was turned into a two-pronged assault on the city. This began on 10 June, but made little progress. Heavy fighting developed around Tilly-sur-Seulles, which changed hands several times over the next few days. The British were then informed that a gap had developed to the west of Caen, where the Americans had inflicted heavy damage on a German infantry division. In an attempt to take advantage of this Caumont Gap, the 7th Armoured Division was ordered to advance around the western end of the Panzer Lehr front at Tilly. By the morning of 13 June they had reached Villers-Bocage, but they were then ambushed by the famous tank ace Michael Wittmann, who destroyed three tanks in the centre of the village, and helped ambush a larger force to the east. A fierce battle developed around the town, but by the end of the day the British decided to withdraw. The last chance of taking Caen without a major battle had gone, although at this point the Germans were still capable of forming new lines, so the potential benefits of holding on to Villers-Bocage might well have been exaggerated since.

Operation Epsom, 26-27 June 1944

Montgomery decided to launch his next major attack on Caen to the west of the city. The objective of Operation Epsom was to breach the German lines west of the city, cross the Odon River, which flows north-east into the Orne at Caen, then cross the Orne and secure the high ground south-west of the city. The attack was to be carried out by the VIII Corps from Dempsey’s British Second Army, while the XXX Corps would carry out a preliminary attack to capture Rauray Ridge, which overlooked the battlefield from the west. The original plan had called for air support from the UK, but that had to be scaled back because of bad weather. Bad weather, in particular the Great Storm of 19-21 June, slowed down the Allied build-up, so Epsom had to be postponed from mid June to later in the month.

4.5in Gun near Caen
4.5in Gun near Caen

The preliminary attack, Operation Martlet, began on 25 June. The aim was to carry high ground around Rauray, from where German artillery observers could call down fire onto the Epsom battlefield. The attack was carried out by the 49th Division, and failed to achieve its main objective. The division made good progress on its right, but stalled on the more important left flank. As a result the high ground around Rauray was still in German hands when Epsom began on 26 June. Martlet continued over the next few days, and Raurey finally fell on 27 June and the attack continued on the following day. However it soon became clear that the Germans were planning a counterattack, so the troops began to prepare to defend what they had captured.

Operation Epsom began with a three hour long artillery bombardment, which did a great deal of damage to the front line, but missed the second line. The 44th Highland and 46th Lowland Brigades then began to advance, and soon got past the first line. The German second line, just north of the Odon, held out for longer, but the Scots were able to capture Cheux, from where two roads ran down to the Odon. The British ended the day disappointed, but the Germans ended it worried. General Dietrich, commander of the I SS Panzer Corps, called for reinforcements to stop a breakthrough. Rommel eventually agreed to send four panzer divisions to the area, including the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions from the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps.

On 27 June the British finally crossed the Odon, and began to push south to Hill 112, from where they would have had a view into Caen. That night the German reinforcements began to arrive, and General Dollman insisted that they should launch an immediate counterattack on 28 June. This failed to achieve anything, and late in the day Dollman died, either of a heart attack or by committing suicide. On the British side the bridge over the Odon at Gavrus was captured intact, and tanks from the 11th Armoured Division reached the crest of Hill 112. However aerial reconnaissance and other sources of intelligence made it clear that a major German counterattack was likely. General Dempsey decided to cancel any attempt to advance towards the Orne, as that would just have made the narrow British beachhead even longer and even more vulnerable. The most advanced British troops were withdrawn, and a strong defensive position set up around the Odon.

German Odon Counterattack

On 1 July the Germans launched a major counterattack against the Epsom bridgehead. The main part of this attack came in the west, where the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps attacked the right flank of the new bridgehead. On the left they attacked with Kampfgruppe Weidinger from the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’. Next in line was the 9th SS Panzer Division ‘Hohenstaufen’, with the 10th SS Panzer Division ‘Frundsburg’ on the right of this attack.

British Troops between Tilly and Caen
British Troops between Tilly and Caen

On the British side the attack hit the 1st Tyneside Scottish at Rauray, coming from the Martlet force, and the Epsom forces further south. Their biggest advantage was that Ultra had provided warning of the upcoming attack. In order to avoid having any troops cut off, the most advanced forces were withdrawn.

The Germans had planned to attack at 3am, but the British launched a pre-emptive artillery bombardment. The Germans began to move at 6am, attacking from the west. On the left they got close to Rauray, but the British were able to move their support forces into action, and a series of attacks during the day were all defeated. In the centre the 9th SS Panzer Division attempted to take La Valtru, but without success. On the right the 10th SS Panzer Division briefly took Baron-sur-Odon, but were unable to hold onto it, while an attack from Hill 112 was broken up by British artillery. By the end of the day the British were back in their original position.

Although Epsom hadn’t achieved all of its objectives, the British had captured a bridgehead over the Odon, and more importantly had forced the Germans to commit the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corp to the fighting at Caen, instead of being able to use it for a counterattack towards Bayeux. This set a pattern for the rest of the battle – whenever the Germans were able to create an armoured reserve, the British and Canadians would attack at Caen and they would be forced to commit the Panzers to the defensive battle.

Operation Charnwood, 8-9 July

Caen under Siege, 1944
Caen under Siege, 1944

After another pause, Montgomery decided to launch a major attack on the northern part of Caen. A few days before the main attack the Canadians attempted to capture Carpiquet Airfield, to the west of the city (Operation Windsor, 4-5 July 1944). They were able to take the village itself, just to the north-east of the airfield, and the northern part of the airfield, but the Germans held on to the southern end.

Charnwood itself would be carried out by three divisions from General Crocker’s I Corps – the 3rd Canadian on the right, the 59th (Staffordshire) Division in the centre and the 3rd Division on the left. It would be preceded by a massive bombing raid carried out by 467 Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers, which was expected to achieve great things (especially by Harris). However the immediate impact of the raid was disappointing. The airmen insisted on carrying it out late on 7 July instead of on the morning of 8 July as planned, because the weather forecast suited them better on the 7th. As a result the Germans were able to recover from the shock before the attack hit. Second, Harris had insisted on a bomb line 6,000 yards ahead of the British and Canadian positions, and focused on Caen rather than the outlying villages, so the raid failed to hit many of the German defences, in the villages outside Caen.

The attack was launched by the 3rd and 59th Divisions. The 3rd Division made the quickest progress, and soon began to overwhelm the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division, which had just taken over in the northern part of Caen. Further west the 12st SS Panzer Division held on all day, but the German position was collapsing on its right.  Overnight the Germans withdrew from all of Caen north of the Orne, and escaped across the river. At this point the Allied bombing held up their troops, and the Germans were able to form a new line along the river.

Charnwood was followed by Operation Jupiter (10-11 July 1944), an attempt to recapture Hill 112 on the Odon front. The British managed to gain a foothold on the hill, but were unable to entirely clear it. The attack ended after a day, with the British bridgehead slightly enlarged. 

Operation Goodwood and Operation Atlantic, 18 July-

Artillery and Transport positions outside Caen
Artillery and Transport positions outside Caen

Although the northern part of Caen had fallen, the Germans still held the industrial south and east, including the towers of the Colombelles factories, an excellent observation position. They also appeared to be about to move troops west towards St. Lo and the key American sector. Montgomery decided to launch another large attack at Caen, this time in the area east of the city.

The key target for Operation Goodwood was a low, flat topped ridge just to the south of Caen. This was known as Bourguebus ridge to the British and Verrieres ridge to the Canadians, after villages on the eastern and western parts of the northern slopes of the ridge. This ridge is barely perceptible in photographs of the area, but it was just high enough to block views, to hide tanks and artillery or to give whoever controlled the higher ground a commanding view of the otherwise generally very flat area. While the armour carried out the main attack to the south, British infantry would clear the areas to the east of Caen, while the Canadians would clear the Germans out of the southern suburbs of the city, on the right bank of the Orne (Operation Atlantic). Goodwood would become one of the most controversial battles of the Normandy campaign, mainly because of differing expectations as to its objectives. To Montgomery the main aim of the battle was to pin down the German armour around Caen and prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements west to oppose the upcoming breakout (Operation Cobra). However in order to gain full support for his plans, and in particular to convince the RAF to carry out the massive bombardment he wanted, Montgomery appears to have overplayed the changes of a breakout towards Falaise. Eisenhower certainly appears to have expected something similar, as did the RAF high command.

In an attempt to distract the Germans, two attacks were launched west of Caen. Operation Greenline began on 15 July and saw the XII Corps attack towards Evrecy, which was captured during the battle, Operation Pomegrante began on 16 July and was carried out by XXX Corps. The two attacks helped convince the Germans to move the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen to the west bank of the Orne.

Operation Goodwood was an ambitious attack. The biggest problem was that the British only held a small bridgehead east of the Orne and north of Caen, largely the area captured on D-Day. This wasn’t large enough to take all three armoured divisions, so the leading troops would have to begin the attack while the second and third divisions were still crossing the Orne. As a result only part of the massive armoured force would actually get into action. 11th Armoured Division, which led the attack, would be fully engaged. The Guards Armoured Division would also be able to commit significant forces to the fighting. The 7th Armoured Division would hardly be involved at all. On the eastern flank the 3rd Infantry Division and 152nd (Highland) Brigade were to protect the left flank of the armoured assault.

The attackers also faced very strong defences, with five interconnected defensive lines running back for ten miles from the front. However they lost Rommel, who was badly injured in an air attack on 17 July and never returned to the front. The German line east of Caen was held by the LXXXVI Corps, with the remains of the 16th Luftwaffe Division and the 356th Infantry Division in the front line and the 21st Panzer Division in reserve. The I SS Panzer Corps was further to the south, and both of its panzer divisions had been withdrawn from the front line – the 12th SS Panzer Division to regroup and recover and the 1st SS Panzer Division as the local reserve. The Germans also had a fairly significant number of guns on the Bourgeubus ridge.  

Douglas Boston IIIA, July 1944
Douglas Boston IIIA, July 1944

The battle began with another massive air attack, this time with 2,600 British and American bombers, dropping 7,500 tons of bombs onto carefully selected targets around the attack area. The artillery opened fire at 0640, and the advance began at 0745. At first the British tanks made very good progress, and they were soon approaching Bourguebus ridge. However they then ran into intact German defences, and had got too far ahead of their supporting infantry. The Guards Armoured Division joined the fighting, but instead of the much anticipated tank breakthrough, the battle turned into a series of small scale fights for individual villages. On the German side the ease with which the British had advanced as far as they did caused a great deal of concern. The 1st SS Panzer Division was ordered to launch a counterattack, but this wasn’t actually noticed by the British at the time! On the left flank the British infantry also made decent progress, capturing a series of villages and pushing the Germans away from the eastern edge of Caen. 19 July saw a German counterattack that was repulsed along most of the line, while the British cleared up those villages that hadn’t fallen on the previous day.

On the Allied right the Canadians carried out Operation Atlantic, with the aim of protecting the right flank of Goodwood and clearing the Germans out of the last bits of Caen. It was carried out by General Guy Simonds’ newly activated Canadian 2nd Corps. The Canadian 3rd Division was to attack from the Orne bridgehead in the north and from the city centre, while the Canadian 2nd Division attacked from the west of Caen. Atlantic also began on 18 July. On their left the 3rd Division captured Colombelles village and steelworks, the chateau de Colombelles and Giberville, although in some cases only after day long battles. The 9th Brigade, coming from the north, advanced down the right bank of the river and attacked the suburb of Vaucelles, south of the city centre. The German defenders withdrew to avoid being cut off. In the west the 2nd Division attack began in the evening. On their right the division was held up at Louvigny, but in the centre and left they were able to bridge the Orne and cross into Vaucelles.

On 19 July the Canadians successfully cleared the remaining Germans out of southern Caen. However this ended the successful part of the operation. On 20 July they pushed south onto the Bourgeubus Ridge, and ran into intact German defences. Poor weather limited the amount of air support available, and the Germans were even able to launch successful counterattacks. The same was repeated on 21 July and 22 July, before the operation ended. Atlantic had achieved its main aim of clearing Caen, but the ridges south of the city remained in German hands. Once again this was only achieved by moving armour east of the Orne, making it unavailable to deal with Operation Cobra.

Although Goodwood is now mainly remembered as a failed breakthrough, it actually achieved Montgomery’s main aim of pinning the German armour down around Caen. It also greatly worried the Germans – General Eberbach considered it to have been a great defeat, and coming very close to achieving a breakthrough, while for von Kluge it indicated that the battle of Normandy was lost. On 21 July he reported to Hitler that the German line ‘already so heavily strained, will break. 

After Goodwood

Although Goodwood and Atlantic left Caen securely in Allied hands, the official dates for the battle of Caen take it up to 8 August, and the start of Operation Totalize, the first major Canadian attack towards Falaise. Fighting did continue around Caen, although it was soon overshadowed by Operation Cobra, the start of the American breakthrough, which began on 25 July. The general aim around Caen was to push the Germans further away from the city. On 22 July 1944 British troops attacked to the south of Caen (Operation Express), and captured the village of Maltot, just west of the Orne and less than five miles from the city centre.

The biggest of these attacks was Operation Spring (25-26 July 1944), a Canadian attack on the Verrieres ridge. The attack was to be carried out by the newly activated Canadian 2nd Corps, under General Simonds. The corps contained the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions, of which the 3rd had suffered heavy casualties on D-Day and the 2nd was new to battle, the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade and 2nd Army Group Royal Artillery.

Planning for this attack began on 21 July, in response to a delay in the start of Operation Cobra from 20 July. The aim was to push the Germans off the slightly higher ground south of the city, and pin them down in the east. However this area was strongly defended, and the Germans had access to a series of mine tunnels that linked several of the villages. When the Canadians attacked, the Germans were thus able to pop up in areas that were meant to have been cleared, preventing the attack from gaining any momentum. The Canadian attacks on 25 July were defeated at heavy cost, making it the second most costly day for Canada during the entire war, second only to Dieppe. The attack only took one of its objectives, and had to be called off early on 26 July when the bad news reached General Simonds. However the attack did achieve its main aim, pinning the Germans down south of Caen. It also attracted the attention of Field Marshal Kluge, who spent 25 July on the Caen front, just as the western end of the German front was crumbling. Kluge didn’t leave the Caen area until the afternoon of 27 July, by which time the breakthrough had begun.  

The main focus on the British front then moved west, to Operation Bluecoat, which began on 28 July. This saw two British corps attack from the Caumont area, half way between Caen and Saint Lo, with the aim of supporting the American advance.

Over the next few days the Americans broke right through the German lines and began to fan out into Brittany to the west and towards Le Mans in the east. It soon became clear that there was now a chance to trap a large part of the German army in Normandy, if the Canadians could push south from Caen and the Americans push north from around Le Mans and Alencon. The new target would be Falaise. The official end date of the battle of Caen is thus the same day as the start of the first Canadian attempt to break through to Falaise, Operation Totalize (8-11 August 1944).

The battle of Caen was key to the overall Allied victory in Normandy, but it wasn’t as glamorous and its successes less obvious than Operation Cobra. Repeated British and Canadian attacks made slow but steady progress, rarely reaching their more optimistic targets. Montgomery often failed to fully explain his overall plan, and on occasion even Eisenhower began to worry. However on the German side each of the famous offensives caused a great deal of alarm. Every time they managed to release their panzer divisions from the front, there would be another attack, and they would have to be committed to desperate defensive battles. The same happened to fresh divisions as they reached Normandy. Perhaps the most important example of this was the decision to commit the two freshly committed Panzer divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps to the fight against Operation Epsom, a move that forced Rommel to abandon his own plans for an attack towards Bayeux. Goodwood was seen as a disaster on the German side, and a sign that the front was about to crack. Even Operation Spring, a costly failure for the Canadians, distracted Field Marshal Kluge at the moment when he was needed on the American front. The long bitter battle for Caen may have been controversial, but it drew in most of the German panzers, and helped pave the way for the spectacular American breakthrough then breakout at the other end of the line. 

Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, Ben Kite. Looks in detail at the role of each element in the British and Canadian military machine during the Normandy Campaign, including each aspect of the ground forces from the infantry to the armour, intelligence, reconnaissance and medical services, as well as the air support and the fire power provided by the massive Allied fleets off the Normandy coast. A very useful companion to narrative accounts of the campaign, helping to explain how the British and Canadians managed to overcome the determined German resistance on their front [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 June 2020), Battle of Caen, 6 June- 6 August 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_caen.html

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