The Odon Counterattack (29-June-1 July 1944) saw the Germans attack both flanks of the British bridgehead created during Operation Epsom, in an attempt to cut it off at its base. The attacks failed, and forced the Germans to commit the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps to the Caen front, ending any chance of a major counterattack towards the coast, thus helping to secure the Overlord beachhead..
Operation Epsom, which began on 25 June, was launched with the aim of crossing the Odon, west of Caen and then the Orne, south of the city, heading for Bretteville-sur-Laize, to the south of Caen. These ambitious plans were probably never realistic, but some progress was made, and by 27 the Allies had captured Hill 112, on the south side of the Odon.
The Germans realised that this advance posed a threat to Caen, and gathered a force made up of elements from seven Panzer divisions. The counterattack began on 29 June, and the British were soon forced to withdraw from their exposed position. However Epsom had achieved its overall aim, which was to force the Germans to keep their armour in the east, allowing the Americans to prepare for the eventual breakout in the west.
As seemed so often to be the case, Rommel was away from the front at a key moment. On 29 June he and von Rundstedt were at Berchtesgaden meeting with Hitler. They returned to Normandy on 30 June.
When Epson began 12th SS Panzer, 21st Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions were around Caen. After Operation Epsom began General Dietrich demanded urgent reinforcements, and Rommel agreed to send the 1st, 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and part of the 2nd SS Panzer Division to the Caen front. The 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions were part of the II SS Panzer Corps, which had just been transferred from the Eastern Front. The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte had been posted north of the Seine to guard against a possible second Allied landing, and the first elements didn’t reach Normandy until 27-28 June. The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich had been posted in the south of France, and made an infamous journey north, carrying out the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane on the way, and had then been committed to the US front.
At the start of 29th June the British controlled a narrow corridor that ran south from Cheux (north of the Odon) to Gavrus and Tormauville (south of the Odon, but close to the river), ending at Hill 112. However this narrow ‘Scottish Corridor’ was surrounded by elements from seven panzer divisions. The British had tanks from the 11th Armoured Division on Hill 112, the Wessex regiment in Tormauville and the 2nd Argylls in Gavrus.
The German plan had been to attack at 7 am on 29 June. However the Allies were forewarned by ULTRA intelligence, and were able to prepare a counter to the attack. The key German message was intercepted, decoded and passed to the key commanders in Normandy within four hours, allowing the Allies to prepare a powerful counter-attack against the German counter-attack! The Germans were attacked by the fighter bombers of the 2nd Tactical Air Force and hit by naval gunfire from the powerful fleet in the Channel. In addition the British pulled their tanks back from Hill 112 and posted them on the flanks of the bridgehead, to defend against the upcoming counterattack.
The attack didn’t get going until 2.30pm, but when it did the British defenders came under heavy, sustained fire. In the west the Germans attacked on both sides of the Odon. The 9th SS Panzer Division attacked on the north bank (although reportedly with only 20 tanks and 200 infantry), with Battle Group Weidinger (from the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’) to its left. On the south bank the 10th SS Panzer Division attacked, supported by Battle Group Frey coming from the east. The aim was to cut the base of the British corridor, isolating the troops furthest to the south.
At the southern tip of the corridor the motor battalion from 11th Armoured was forced to retreat from the southern slopes of Hill 112. The entire force of the corps artillery was dedicated to keeping control of the hill. Over 1,000 air sorties were also flown to support the fighting.
At Gavrus the Argylls were attacked by the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, coming from Bougy. They were outflanked on their right and their left was only saved when a PIAT gunner destroyed a Panther that was in the village.
Further to the north tanks from 9th SS Panzer Hohenstaufen took Grainville-sur-Odon, threatened Le Valtru, half way between the river and Cheux, and even broke into Cheux. However they then ran into the British 4th Armoured Brigade and the attack was fought to a stop.
In the east a battle group from the SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte attacked west, but they were hit by a British armoured regiment, and instead of advancing was eventually forced to pull back to the east, surrendering two villages to the British 43rd Division.
Although the British had held most of their positions during the day, General O’Connor was expected a more powerful counterattack from the newly arrived II-SS Armoured Corps, and was unaware just how much disruption Allied air power had caused. As a result he stayed on the defensive.
On 30 June the British finally withdrew from some of their most advanced positions. Hill 112 and Gavrus were both abandoned, and a new defensive perimeter set up at Tormauville. Intelligence reports had indicated that a major counterattack was about to be launched, and neither Montgomery nor Dempsey wanted to risk having the most advanced troops cut off. What they didn’t realise was that the attack on 29 June had actually been that major counterattack, but Allied air power had so badly disrupted it that it hadn’t as powerful as the Allies had expected. Dempsey’s view after the battle was that the key thing was to draw in the German armour, which had now been achieved, and then to defeat it. On the German side Hausser was forced to tell Rommel that the II SS Panzer Corps attack had been suspended because of ‘tenacious enemy resistance’
The Germans attacked the new defensive position on the morning of 1 July, but made very little progress. Once again at least part of the attack was to have begun at 3am, but the Allied bombardments and general confusion forced a delay until dawn. The 9th SS Panzer Division repeated its attacks around La Valtru, but without success. By the end of the day what limited progress they had made had been lost. On their right the 10th SS Panzer Division had briefly taken Baron-sur-Odon, but had soon lost it again, and an attack from Hill 112 had been broken up by British artillery.
Further back the 49th Division finally secured the Rauray Spur, after spending most of 1 July fighting off a powerful counterattack using tanks from the 9th SS Panzer Division and infantry from the 2nd SS Panzer’s Kampfgruppe Weidinger.
ULTRA intelligence had paid a significant role in the battle, and it also allowed the Allies to judge the impact it had on the Germans. The Allies thus knew that by the end of 1 July the 1st SS Panzer Division had 54 Panzer IVs, 26 Panthers and thirty-one assault guns, the 12th SS Panzer Division 25 Panzer IVs and twenty-six Panthers and that 25 of the 28 Tigers in Heavy SS Pz Abt 101 had ended the day in the repair shop!
By 2 July the remaining elements of the ‘Scottish Corridor’ were securely in Allied command, giving them a secure foothold across the Odon. The German counterattack had prevented the British from establishing a bigger bridgehead over the river, but it had also forced Rommel to commit his armoured reserves, so any chance of launching his cherished counterattack was gone. Rommel had been planning to use many of these troops in a large scale counterattack towards Bayeux in an attempt to split the Allied beachhead in half, but that plan now had to be postponed, and in the event Rommel would never be free to carry it out. He would also struggle to pull the Panzer divisions back out of the line, after having to commit them to stop Epsom, and whenever he did manage it, another British or Canadian attack would force them back.