Operation Epsom (26-30 June 1944) was the second major British attack on Caen, and the first major British offensive after D-Day, and was an attempt to reach the high ground south of the city and threaten the Caen-Falaise Road. The attack failed to meet those early Overlord objectives, but did force the Germans to move reinforcements to the Caen area.
Caen had been one of the British targets on D-Day, but the city turned out to be more heavily defended than expected, with elements from the 21st Panzer Division in the area. One attempt was made to capture the city before the Germans could move reinforcements to the area – Operation Perch – but this attack also failed. The attack east of Caen made very little progress, while a potentially promising advance to the west was stopped by a small force of German Tiger tanks at Villers-Bocage. After the failure of this attack Montgomery realised that the chance to capture the city quickly had gone, and he would need to prepare for a large scale, deliberate attack.
The new plan was to use VIII Corps to attack west of Caen, with the XXX Corps its right. The aim was to get across the Odon, which flows from west to east into Caen, where it joins the Orne just south of the city centre. The original plan was to attack on 18 June, but it took longer than expected for O’Conner’s divisions to reach France and only one of them was in place by that date. The Great Storm that began on 19 June delayed the attack even further, and gave the Germans the time they needed to reinforce the line west of Caen.
A preliminary attack, Operation Martlet, would take place on the right flank of the attack, using troops from XXX corps. Its aim was to capture the high ground around Rauray and Noyers-Bocage (the Rauray Spur), which was just to the west of the area that the Epsom attackers would need to advance across to reach the river. The main attack was to begin on 23 June. The aim was to cross the Odon, and possible the Orne, and if all went well to reach the high ground to the north-east of Bretteville-Sur-Laize, to the east of the Orne. A key target was Hill 112, a key high point on the south bank of the Odon. This would allow the British to threaten the Caen to Falaise road. The great storm of 19 June slowed down the Allied build-up, delaying the arrival of VIII Corps in France. As a result Martlet was pushed back to 25 June and Epsom to 26 June.
At the start of the battle General O’Connor, commander of VIII Corps, had 60,000 men, 600 tanks and 700 guns at his disposal. The corps included the 15th (Scottish) Division, 43rd (Wessex) Division, 11th Armoured Division, 4th Armoured Brigade and 31st Tank Brigade. Most of these troops were inexperienced, had landed after D-Day, and Epsom would be their first battle.
Operation Martlet began on 25 June. The attack by 49th Division began in thick mist, and ran into strong German defences, and they were only able to capture part of the high ground. However it did convince the Germans to move their last armoured reserves from the Epsom front to the spur.
The main Epsom attack was led by the 15th Scottish Division, supported by the 43rd Wessex Division and the 11th Armoured Division. The attack was to begin from Bretteville l’Orgeuilleuse, seven miles to the west/ north-west of the centre of Caen, just to the north of the Caen to Carentan railway. The 15th Scottish Division was to attack across the Odon and take the high ground between the Odon and the Orne. The 43rd Wessex Division was to support this attack. The 11th Armoured Division was then to advance south-east across the Orne, and cut the Caen to Falaise road.
The area was known to be defended by the 12th SS Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr, with elements of four other divisions believed to be in the area. The initial attack hit the area defended by the 1st SS ‘Hitler Youth’ Panzer Division.
The battle was to have begun with a powerful air attack, but heavy rain on the night of 25-26 June meant this had to be cancelled. Early on 26 June 500 guns began a three hour long artillery barrage, supported by naval guns from the fleet. This did a great deal of damage to the German front line, but their positions were several miles thick by this point, so their second line remained relatively intact.
The attack began with an advance by the Highlanders of the 46th Brigade and the Lowlanders of the 44th Brigade, supported by a rolling barrage. The initial advance went well, and the first German line was quickly overrun. However their second line, which was based around a series of villages on the northern side of the Odon, held out for longer. The Scots captured the village of Cheux at about noon. This was a key position, as two roads ran south to Gavrus and Tourmauville, on the south bank of the Odon. The British presence here greatly concerned General Dietrich, command of the I SS Panzer Corps, who demanded that reinforcements be sent urgently to prevent a breakthrough.
This wouldn’t have been clear to the troops fighting around Cheux, who found themselves unable to make any progress. The 29th Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance through the village to attack the bridges over the Odon but failed to make any progress. The 227th Brigade from the 15th Division had the same problem at around 1800.
Although the British hadn’t made as much progress as they had wanted, the attack did achieve one of its main objectives. Dietrich’s urgent call for reinforcements eventually convinced Rommel to move the 1st, 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and part of the 2nd SS Panzer Division to reinforce the defenders of Caen. Some of these troops were newly arrived and others came from the St. Lo area, but in either case they delayed Rommel’s planned counterattack towards Bayeux, which was to have begun on or soon after 5 July.
The most significant of these changes was the commitment of the newly arrived II SS Panzer Corps under General Hausser (9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions), which had been moved west from the Eastern Front. Rommel was planning to use the new corps to launch his long-desired counterattack, which was to hit the join between the British and Americans around Bayeux, in an attempt to split the beachhead in two. This attack was to have begun on or soon after 5 July, but Epsom meant that it had to be cancelled. General Dollman, commander of the Seventh Army, had ordered the corps to move to Caen twice on 26 June, but cancelled the order on both occasions. Finally, towards the end of the day Rommel ordered Hausser to move his troops to the threatened area. However the order was once again cancelled early on 27 June.
On the night of 26-27 June the 43rd (Wessex) Division began to relieve the 15th (Scottish) Division.
On 27 June the British were finally able to push towards the river, using the 227th Brigade and 29th Armoured Brigade. The 2nd Argyll and Sutherlands were able to push down the eastern road from Cheux to Tourmauville, where they captured an intact bridge across the river. By 1900 the battalion was across the river, as were the leading tanks of the 11th Armoured Division. The next stage was to advance south to capture Hill 112, to the south-west of Caen. From here the British would have had a view across the Carpiquet airfield, and into Caen. By the end of the day the leading tanks from the 11th Armoured Division had reached Baron, on the lower slopes of the hill.
The German reinforcements finally began to arrive on the night of 27-28 June. General Hauser’s II Corps had finally been committed, and he wanted to postpone the attack for 48 hours to allow all of the troops to arrive, but Dollman insisted on an early attack. Task grounds from the 1st and 2nd SS Corps launched attacks on either side of the British corridor on 28 June, but failed to break through.
On 28 June the British concentrated on securing their narrow corridor from Cheux to Hill 112. The 2nd Argylls moved west from Tormauville and found Gavrus unprotected and its bridge intact. During the day tanks from the 11th Armoured reached the crest of Hill 112, but then came under very heavy fire. The Germans focused on moving their troops into position for the counterattack, which was to begin on 29 June.
On the German side 28 June saw a great deal of confusion amongst their high command. Von Rundstedt had finally plucked up the courage to demand that Hitler give him the authority to make major adjustments to the front line if they were required – in effect to abandon territory to create a shorter or stronger line. Hitler responded by summoning von Rundstedt and Rommel to Berchtesgaden, and by the morning of 28 June both men were on their way east, not to return until 30 June. This left Dollman in command in Normandy, and with Allied tanks across the Odon he once again ordered Hausser to throw his tanks into the battle. Hausser wanted to fight a containing battle over the next two days to give his corps a chance to assemble properly, but Dollman ordered him not to delay, and then shortly after that died, either of a stress-induced heart attack or by committing suicide. He had already been replaced by SS General Paul Hausser, the first time an SS officer had been given such a high command within the regular Army, but the news hadn’t reached Normandy by the time Dollmann died.
Although the attack wasn’t making as much progress as hoped for, it did force the Germans to focus their efforts around Caen. During 28 June Allied reconnaissance aircraft reported sighting large German motorised columns travelling in daylight, a most unusual sight since D-Day, and General Dempsey, O'Connor's immediate commander, realised that a major counterattack was likely. At this point the British bridgehead over the Odon was very vulnerable. Although a second bridge had been captured by troops on the far side of the river it was still not open to traffic, and the only road from the main bridgehead through the corridor to the Odon was under constant artillery fire. Dempsey decided not to risk any advance towards the Orne, a move that would have almost certainly failed as the attacking troops ran into 2nd SS Corps, and O'Connor was ordered to consolidate his position north of the Odon and prepare to resist a major armoured counterattack. O'Connor correctly realised that the main attack would come from the west, taking advantage of the ridge that ran from Rauray to Cheux, and posted his strongest anti-tank defences on that flank.
This effectively ended Operation Epsom. The British now focused on defeating the upcoming German Odon Counterattack, which was duly defeated with the aid of artillery and air power. The British did pull back from the lower slopes of Hill 112, which was retained by the Germans until late July, but they had held on to the key river crossings and defeated a major German counterattack.
By the end of Epsom and the Odon counterattack the Germans had lost over 100 tanks, but more importantly Rommel had been forced to commit his armoured reserves to the defensive battle around Caen. He was thus unable to launch his planned counterattack toward Bayeux. The Allies now held a narrow bridgehead over the Odon, which became known as the ‘Scottish Corridor’. On the German side the battle was seen as a serious setback. Their line was becoming increasingly brittle, and the commanders in Normandy were increasingly convinced that the battle there could no longer be won. An attack by two SS Panzer Corps had failed to make any significant progress, a great blow to German morale.
The battle was very costly for the attacking Allies. The 15th Scottish Division, which fought throughout the campaign in north-western Europe, suffered 25% of their total casualties in the five days of Epsom and the remaining 75% in the other 320 days they were in action!