Operation Charnwood (8-9 July 1944) saw the British and Canadians finally capture the northern half of Caen, a month after the city was originally expected to have fallen on D-Day.
The city of Caen had been one of the D-Day objectives, but it turned out to be rather more strongly defended than expected. In addition it was the starting point for the only significant German counterattack of the day, when 21st Panzer Division pushed north and briefly reached the coast. As a result the city remained in German hands when the front lines began to stabilize. This didn’t worry Montgomery too much – his overall plan for Overlord was to draw the Germans in on the left flank, to allow the Americans to break out on the right flank, and the exact location of those battles wasn’t as significant as the end result. However it did worry the RAF, who had expected to construct airfields around Caen soon after D-Day, and began to worry Eisenhower. The first attempt to take Caen after D-Day, Operation Perch (9-14 June 1944), ran into fierce resistance on either side of the city. A chance to outflank the defenders also ended in failure, partly because of the famous tank battle at Villers-Bocage (13 June). There was then a brief pause before the start of Operation Epsom (26-27 June 1944), an attempt to break through the German lines west of the city and capture high ground to the south, outflanking the defenders. This attack did capture a bridgehead over the river Odon, to the west of Caen, and forced the Germans to commit the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps into an unsuccessful counterattack, but the overall breakthrough wasn’t achieved.
Montgomery’s method of attack around Caen was to carry out a series of carefully prepared attacks, with a significant gap between to allow his units to recover from the previous one or for fresh troops to arrive in France. As a result the next major attack after Epsom, Operation Charnwood, didn’t take place until the second week of July. This doesn’t mean that there was no fighting between the major offensives. In the week before Charnwood the Canadians attacked Carpiquet airfield, capturing the nearby village and the northern end of the airfield (Operation Windsor, 4-5 July 1944).
Although the capture of Caen was one stated objective of the operation, it’s main purpose was to pin the Germans down around the city so that they couldn’t move troops west into the American sector, where the Allies actually intended to break out from the Normandy beachhead. The attack was to be carried out by three divisions from General Crocker’s I Corps. The 3rd Canadian was to attack from the north-west, 59th (Staffordshire) Division from the north and the 3rd Division from the north-east. Each division was to advance along the main roads leading into the centre of Caen.
The attack was preceded by a bombing raid carried out by 467 Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers. Air Chief Marshal ‘Bomber’ Harris set strict limits on the bombing raid. First he insisted that the bomb line should be 6,000 yards in front of the British and Canadian positions, to avoid any ‘friendly fire’ incidents. The army wanted a dawn attack on 8 July, immediately before the attack, but the weather forecast was poor for the 8th, so the raid took place at 10.30pm on 7 July. The raid killed around 400 people and wounded thousands, but sadly mostly French civilians. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the raid was that it didn’t target the fortified villages outside Caen that were at the heart of the German defences. The rubble it created slowed the Allied advance, but the massive attack also stunned many of the German defenders. It also cut some of the bridges across the Orne, restricting the ability of the Germans to resupply their troops in the north.
The Germans had been aware for several days that a massive attack on Caen was about to begin. On 29 June they began to withdraw their administrative troops and staff, and on 1-2 July the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division replaced the 21st Panzer Division in the eastern part of Caen and the nearby villages along the Orne. The Germans also planned to replace the 12st SS Panzer Division with the 271st Infantry Division, but this didn’t arrive in time, so the western part of Caen was still defended by the SS. On 7 July the 12th SS had 24 Panthers and 37 Panzer IVs.
The attack was supported by a massive artillery bombardment, involving every gun in the Second British Army, and many naval guns from the massive fleet off shore (including the battleship HMS Rodney, the monitor HMS Roberts and the cruisers HMS Belfast and HMS Emerald. The bombardment began at 2300 hours on 7 July, and continued until 0420 on 8 July, when the first phase of the ground attack began.
The first phase of the battle involved attacks by the 3rd and 59th Divisions. On the left the 3rd Division faced less stiff resistance, as their part of the front was defended by the inexperienced Luftwaffe division. The 3rd Division attack was led by the 185th Infantry Brigade. In the centre the 59th Division attacked with the 2nd/ 6th South Staffords on the right and the 6th North Staffords on the left. Both attacks began at 4.20am, and by dawn both divisions had captured their objectives.
Just after dawn British fighter-bombers from 2nd Tactical Air Force attacked, followed by 250 American medium bombers. The second phase of the attack, which involved fresh brigades from both British divisions, and the start of the Canadian attack began at 0730. The 3rd Division was able to take Hill 64 (a key road junction just outside Caen) and the 59th Division reached Saint-Contest on their right, but were stopped short of Epron, on their left, after running into troops from the 12th SS Panzers.
On the Allied right the 3rd Canadian Division was to attack some of the same villages they had attacked on or soon after D-Day, including Buron and Authie, where the 12th SS Panzer Division had murdered many Canadian POWs. The Canadians were also to attack Cussy, and the 12th SS Panzer’s HQ at the Abbey of Ardenne. On this front the SS held out all day (although the Canadians took Authie during the afternoon and Cussy by the evening), and for most of the night of 8-9 July, but they were forced to retreat when the German line crumbled further to the east.
By the end of 8 July the former Luftwaffe division was crumbling. General Eberbach, commander of Panzer Group West, made two attempts to send them help. The first failed because General Meyer of the 12th SS Panzers refused to obey his orders, the second because the Allied bombing made it impossible for the 21st Panzer Division to send troops across the Orne.
Overnight the Germans withdrew their heavy weapons from the northern half of the city. Early on 9 July the Allies fought their way into the city, with the Canadians pushing down the Orne and the 3rd Division up the river. By the end of the day the British and Canadians had captured the city north of the Orne, reaching the line of the river by around 1800. However the broken bridges, rubble and German defence stopped the advance at the river. so the southern part of Caen remained in German hands.
Over the three days of the battle I Corps suffered 3,817 casualties, with 1,194 in the 3rd Canadian Division. Amongst the hardest hit units were the Highland Light Infantry of Canada, which lost 262 men including 62 dead, and the 2nd/ 6th South Staffords who lost 215 men. The Canadians suffered more casualties during Charnwood than on D-Day – a total of 330 dead and 864 wounded. On the German side the casualties are harder to estimate, but did include eleven Panthers and seven Panzer IVs from the 12th SS.
Although the fall of northern Caen was significant, the Germans still controlled the industrial suburbs across the Orne, including the towers of the Colombelles factory, a major observation point. They were also seen to be moving troops west towards Saint-Lo, so Montgomery decided to launch a massive attack east of Caen, Operation Goodwood. Once again there would be a gap before the new attack, in this just over a week. Two minor attacks were carried out west of Caen (Operation Greenline, 15-17 July 1944 and Operation Pomegranate, 16-17 July 1944), but it was impossible to hide the large scale preparations for an attack somewhere around Caen, so the Germans were able to construct strong in-depth defences. However although this would prevent Goodwood from achieving a breakout, it did aid the overall Allied plan by forcing the Germans to commit more troops around Caen.