Operation Goodwood (18-20 July 1944) was one of the more controversial battles of the Overlord campaign, and involved a massive British armoured attack to the east of Caen that forced the Germans to move reinforcements to area and finally completed the liberation of Caen, but that failed to achieve the dramatic breakthrough that some had been expecting.
After Operation Charnwood the front line around Caen largely followed the line of the rivers Odon and Orne, starting from an Allied bridgehead over the Odon south-west of the city and running north-east down the rivers, through the centre of Caen, with the main part of the city on the north bank in Allied hands, and the suburb of the Faubourge de Vaucelles on the south bank in German hands. The line then ran north out of Caen, leaving the Colombelles industrial area, east of the city, in German hands. Just to the north of Colombelles was the Orne bridgehead, an area east of the river captured by the airborne forces on D-Day. This area was only a few miles wide, making it very difficult to fit all of the troops allocated to Goodwood into it, and forcing Montgomery to leave much of his heavier artillery west of the Orne.
There was some evidence that they were moving troops west towards Saint Lo, which was the main American target. Montgomery decided to launch a major armoured attack east of Caen, with two main objectives. The most important was to draw the Germans away from the American front, by appearing to be aiming to break out from the eastern end of the beachhead towards Paris, to help clear the way for the planned breakout in the west. The second was to ‘write down’ the German armour so that it would be ‘of no further value’. A breakthrough would have been a nice result, but it wasn’t the aim of the battle. Unfortunately for Montgomery’s reputation he failed to make this clear at SHAEF, where some came to belief that he had promised a breakthrough.
Montgomery’s plan was to move his three armoured divisions (11th Armoured, Guards Armoured and 7th Armoured, all formed in VIII Corps under General Richard O’Conner) into the small airborne bridgehead east of the Orne (north-east of Caen), which had fallen to the Allies soon after D-Day. After a massive artillery, air and naval bombardment, the armour would push south onto the plain to the south-east of Caen, then capture the Bourguebus Ridge. This was a low, flat topped area of slightly higher ground, running generally east to west, with the village of Bourguebus just to its north. The same ridge was known as Verrieres ridge to the Canadians, after a village in a similar position just to the west. This would allow them to break out into the Falaise plain, which the RAF desperately wanted for its airfields. The main attack would involve 750 tanks, while another 350 tanks would support infantry divisions as they advanced along the flanks of the attack. On the right flank of the armour the II Canadian Corps would launch their own attack down the Orne, with one division attacking the Colombelles area from the north and another attacking from the centre and south of Caen. This part of the attack would be named Operation Atlantic. On the left I Corps (6th Airborne Division, 3rd Infantry Division, 51st Highland Division and 27th Armoured Brigade) would carry out supporting attacks, aimed at clearing the villages to the east of the main attack.
The plan wasn’t entirely satisfactory. It was very hard to keep such a vast movement of armour secret, and the Germans were aware that something was up a few days before the attack. The commander of the 11th Armoured Division, Major General Roberts, believed that his division had been given too much to do. Their infantry brigade had to take Cuverville and Demouville, just in front of their start line. The division then had to take Cagny on their left and Bras, Hubert-Folie and Fontenay on their right, probably without the aid of their infantry brigade as it would still be caught up in the original villages. Roberts complained to his corps commander, General O’Connor, but the only concession was that the division would only have to screen Cagny and not take it.
The detailed plans were issued on 13 July.
On the left the 3rd Infantry Division and 152nd (Highland) Brigade were to capture the area from Touffreville south to Emieville, including Troarn.
On the right the II Canadian Corps was to clear the east bank of the Orne from Colombelles to Giberville, on the right flank of the main attack, get bridges across the Orne at the Vaucelles suburb then push south along both banks of the Orne.
In the centre the 11th Armoured Division would lead the attack. They were to attacks south, push south-west over the Bourguebus Ridge and aim for Bretteville-sur-Laize, to the west of the Falaise road, about five miles south of Bourguebus. They would have to attack through a narrow gap between Cuberville and Demouville to the west and Touffreville and Sannerville to the east.
The Guards Armoured Division would attack next, heading for Vimont and Argences, on the left flank of the armoured attack.
Finally the 7th Armoured Division would join the attack, in theory coming through the gap between the 11th and Guards Armoured to advance towards Falaise. This would have been a much longer advance than any of the other units, and has to be taken as a general direction of travel rather than as an actual target.
The German Defences
Rommel took advantage of the advance warning to put in place some impressive defences. By the time the attack began the Germans had five interconnected defensive lines, which stretched back for ten miles from the front line. The German defences were thus much deeper than the Allies had expected, and many of the German troops were thus outside the area that was attacked by the Allied air forces. Rommel planned to use the Bourguebus ridge as the main line of defence. However he wouldn’t be present to take command of the battle. On the afternoon of 17 July he was returning from a visit to the defences when his car was attacked by Allied fighter bombers. His car overturned and both Rommel and his driver were badly wounded. Rommel eventually recovered from his injuries, but the ever present fighter bombers had taken him out of the battle of Normandy.
The direction of the main Allied attack meant that after breaking through the northern flank of the German defences, the armour would be heading south, past the German defenders of the Orne, who would thus be on their left flank.
The German front line was held by the LXXXVI Corps, with the inexperienced 16th Luftwaffe Division and the 356th Infantry Division in the front, and the weakened 21st Panzer Division just behind as their reserve. The Bourguebus ridge was defended by a mix of anti-tank, field and medium guns, Nebelwerfers and 88mm guns (the exact numbers aren’t entirely clear, but probably amounted to 36 anti-tank guns, 48 field and medium guns and about 50 Nebelwerfers). The I SS Panzer Corps was also based to the south of Caen.
At full strength the I SS Panzer Corps would have been a very dangerous opponent, but by this point it was a rather weakened force. It still contained two panzer divisions – the 1st SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte and 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, but both had suffered heavy losses in the fighting so far.
The 12th SS division was so badly damaged that it had been withdrawn into the OKW reserve. It was now split into two parts. The largest was Battlegroup Wunsche, which contained the I/12th SS Panzers, I and III/26th Panzergrenadiers and a battery from the I/12th SS Panzer Artillery, but this group was at Lisieux, 25 miles to the east of Caen. The weaker part of the division, Battlegroup Waldmuller, contained the II/12th SS Panzers and 25th SS Panzergrenadiers. Originally it was also going to move to Lisieux, but when German intelligence warned of a possible British attack east of Caen the order was cancelled, and the group remained a few miles north of Falaise.
The 1st SS division was now in the local reserve, with most of the division posted on the German left, between the village of Ifs (three miles south of Caen) and the east bank of the Orne. The division also moved a battlegroup made up of the II/1st Panzers, III/1st SS Panzergrenadiers, 1st SS Assault Gun battalion and I/1st SS Panzer artillery to the west of the Orne to act as I SS Panzer Corps’ reserves.
The 1st SS’s place in the front line was taken by the I and II/980th Grenadiers from the 272nd Infantry Division, given the task of defending the Faubourg de Vaucelles, the southern suburb of Caen on the south bank of the Orne.
The corps’ HQ was at Urville, about half way between Caen and Falaise. The 101st Heavy SS Panzer Battalion, with six operational Tigers and the heavy guns from the 101st SS Artillery Battalion and Nebelwerfers from the 7th Werfer Brigade were near the HQ.
LXXXVI Corps was on the German right, and would face the initial attack. This corps had two infantry divisions in the front line (the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and 346th Infantry Division) with the 21st Panzer Division in reserve.
The 346th Infantry Division was on the right. Part of the division was on the far right of the front, stretching north to the sea and facing the 6th Airborne Division. This was a quiet front. More directly involved would be the 857th Grenadiers who were posted at Touffreville, six miles east of Caen, right in the path of the 3rd British Infantry Division attack. The 858th Grenadiers were posted a little further south.
On their left was the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division, an inexperienced unit that had already performed badly during Operation Charnwood. This unit had the I/32nd Luftwaffe Rifles on its left, posted north of Colombelles with its left flank on the Orne. This unit would face the 3rd Canadian Division. On the right was the II/32nd Luftwaffe Riffles and I/46th Luftwaffe Rifles, in the gap between Colombelles and Touffreville. These units would face the 11th Armoured Division attack. Their local reserves were made up of the II/46th Luftwaffe Rifles, with support from the 1/16th Luftwaffe artillery and some guns from the 1054th Anti-Tank Battalion.
The corps was supported by extra heavy artillery from the 55th Artillery Battalion, 1151st Artillery Battalion, 763rd Artillery Battalion, 1193rd Artillery Battalion and 725th Railway Artillery, posted to the east and south-east of the front line. The corps rear zone ran from Troarn (just to the east of Touffrevill), south to Vimont then west across the Bourguebus ridge.
The corps reserve was formed by the 21st Panzer Division, now down to around 50 Panzer IVs, the 200th Assault Gun Battalion, with a mix of 75mm self propelled guns, 105mm howitzers and 88mm anti-tank guns, and the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, which began the battle with 27 Tigers and 12 Tiger IIs. The division also included the 125th and 192nd Panzer Grenadiers, who manned a second line of defence. On their left the I/192nd was in Colombelles. The II/192 was spread out in a series of villages to the south – Soliers, Hubert-Folie and Ifs, spread out just to the north of the Bourguebus ridge. On the right was Battlegroup von Luck, which included the 125th Panzergrenadiers and the self propelled guns from the 200th Assault Gun Battalion.
The division’s tanks (from the 22nd Panzer Regiment) were moved forward and further east in response to the intelligence of an upcoming British attack to the south-east. I/22nd was moved to Sannerville, just behind Touffreville where the 346th Division’s left wing was posted. The 2/503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion was about a mile and a half further east. The 3/502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion were in woods at Manneville stud, one mile south of Sannerville. The HQs of both the 22nd Panzer Regiment and 503th Heavy Panzers, along with four 122mm guns, were at Emieville, just under two miles to the south of Sannerville.
The 220th Panzer Engineer Battalion and part of II/192nd Panzergrenadiers were further to the south-west, at Soliers and Bouguebus, acting as the divisional reserve.
Finally the 21st Panzer Division HQ was at Conteville, further to the south-east.
A big part in the story of Goodwood is taken by the German guns on Bourguebus ridge. These guns were neither a numerous you might expect, or particularly concentrated on the ridge. In total there were probably 36 anti-tank guns, 48 field and medium guns and about 50 Nebelwerfers on the ridge.
To the north the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Assault Regiment from III Flak Corps had one battery of 88mm Flak guns at Cagny and two further south at Bourguebus, but the rest of the regiment was behind the ridge, defending the Falaise road against air attack.
To the west of Cagny the 1053rd Anti-Tank Battalion had its 75mm PaK guns in Grentheville, possibly with a battery of 88mm Flak guns further west in Cormelles.
Just to the south-east of Cagny part of the 1053rd Anti-Tank battalion was posted in front of Frenouville, facing north-west into the gap between Cagny and Grentheville.
Next in line were 105mm and 155mm guns from II and III/155th Panzer Artillery and 18 guns (122 or 155mm) from 1255th Coastal Artillery, which were posted between Frenouville and Soliers, putting then less than a mile south of the line from Cagny to Grentheville.
On the northern slopes of the ridge two batteries from the 305th Flank Battalion of the 21st Panzer Divisions with at least eight 88mm guns were posted on either side of La Hoque (just to the east of Bouguebus), with 18 field guns of the 16th Luftwaffe artillery down the gentle slope to their north.
To the west of Bourguebus, around Bras and Hubert-Folie were the 2/155th Panzer Artillery with four 122mm guns and some 88mm guns from the 200th Panzer Anti-Tank battalion
The attack was supported by a massive aerial attack, with 2,600 British and American bombers. A total of over 7,500 tons were dropped across a front only 7,000 yards wide. Some targets were missed, but the impact on the defenders was still fairly massive. The first part of the air attack, carried out by 1,056 Lancasters and Halifaxes from Bomber Command, began at 0545. These bombers dropped 4,800 tons of bombs, hitting Colombelles, Cagny and the 21st Panzer Division positions to the south of Touffreville. Although the impact of the heavy bombers in Normandy is often downplayed, that wasn’t the case here. The 22nd Panzer Regiment and 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion were both temporarily knocked out of action, with at least 20 tanks later discovered abandoned in bomb craters, and many of the rest temporarily disabled.
The three armoured divisions moved into place just to the west of the Orne on 16 July. On 17 July they began to cross to the east bank of the river, and move into their attack positions. The bridgehead wasn’t large enough to contain all of the troops involved. The 11th Armoured Division began to cross into it after dark on 16 July, followed by the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade, then by the Guards Armoured Division and 7th Armoured Division, but massive traffic jams would soon develop, and the 7th Armoured hardly played any part in the first day of the battle.
At 4.30am on 18 June the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment of the 11th Armoured Division began to move south through cleared gaps in the German minefield, followed by the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry.
The artillery from three full corps and the powerful naval guns joined the bombardment at 0640. The corridor that the British tanks were to advance along was attacked with fragmentation bombs, to avoid creating craters that would stop the tanks. The attack knocked out four Tigers from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion (two were totally destroyed and two so badly damaged they couldn’t be used). Soon afterwards 318 B-26 Marauders from the Ninth Air Force attacked, hitting the positions held by the 16th Luftwaffe Division. The infantry suffered heavily as did the 200th Assault Gun Battalion. Next came 570 B-24 Liberators from the Eighth Air Force, which attacked Troarn and the Germans guns from Bourguebus to Frenouville.
At 0745 the advance began, supported by a rolling barrage by the 25-pounders. The tanks from the 11th Armoured Division moved south behind a rolling barrage, and soon reached the first of two railway lines that then crossed the plains (the single track Caen to Troarn line, which has since been removed). At this point the 3rd Royal Tanks had to pause to allow the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry to catch up, and the rolling barrage had to be called back but apart from that the advance appeared to be going according to plan. The Germans appeared to be stunned, with many surrendering as the tanks passed. However some problems were already developing, in particular the failure of the supporting infantry to keep up with the tanks.
The 5th Armoured Brigade (Guards Armoured Division) began to cross its bridges at 0834, and the last vehicles were still crossing over an hour later. By 0945 the leading tanks from the brigade had caught up with the 29th Armoured Brigade from the 11th Armoured Division.
The 22nd Armoured Brigade (7th Armoured Division) began to cross its bridges on time at 0847, but then got delayed by the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade which was moving south as part of Operation Atlantic, then again behind the rear elements of the first two armoured divisions. By noon the only full unit from the 7th Armoured Division to be across in full was the 5th Royal Tank Regiment.
By 0930 the leading tanks from the 29th Armoured Brigade had passed Cagny, and were about to cross the second railway (the double track Caen to Vimont line), which still exists, running south-east from Caen, but by now the German defenders were beginning to recover. A battery of 88s that had been left intact north of Cagny opened fire, destroying 12 tanks from the Fire and Forfar. Just to the north-east a force of Tigers from the I Panzer Corps reserve were advancing towards the eastern flank of the corridor, having survived the bombing. However their gun sights had been damaged by the bombing, so their fire wasn’t as accurate as normal. To the south Panther tanks from 1st SS Panzer were starting to appear on the Bourguebus Ridge.
At this point the British attack came to a halt. The British armour was concentrated in a corridor two miles wide and six long on the open plains, while the infantry was some way behind mopping up and the artillery was still on the far side of the Orne. The leading elements of the 3rd Royal Tank and 2nd Fife and Forfar had reached the foot of the ridge, with the 3rd Royal Tank regiment heading west towards Cormelles then south towards Bras and Hubert-Folie, while the 2nd Fire and Forfars reached Soliers and Four in the centre of the German line.
At some point the 23rd Hussars came under fire from a small force of Tigers from the 3/503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, which had reached Manneville stud farm, on the south-eastern flank of the armoured thrust. The Tigers advanced towards le Prieure, then pulled back after two tanks were knocked out.
The appearance of the Tigers at Manneville pushed the Guards Armoured to the west, off its original route, thus creating an even bigger traffic jam.
The Guards Armoured advance got stuck at Cagny and Frenouville. The 2nd (Armoured) Grenadier Guards stopped north of Cagny after finding the village was defended.
The 1st (Armoured) Coldstream Guards were attacked by Tiger IIs from the 1/503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion near Manneville, although the Germans were soon forced to retreat by heavy British fire. The Coldstream Guards were then meant to push on past Frenouville on the second railway line, south-east to Vimont, but were stopped by a reinforced line of German anti-tank guns and armour. At 12.30 they were ordered to pull back behind the Grenadier Guards, circle around Cagny to the north and west and then resume their advance. All this really did was further add to the traffic problems, as the Coldstream Guards attempted to move west while the tanks behind them were still pushing south.
By the middle of the afternoon 29th Armoured Brigade attack had come to a halt. The survivors of the 2nd Fire and Forfar had pulled back behind the 23rd Hussars and were regrouping north of the Caen-Vimont railway. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment was reinforced by the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, but both units continued to come under fire from Bras and Hubert-Folie. In the evening the 23rd Hussars attempted to advance down the Caen-Vimont railway around Grenthville and le Poirier, but they ran into a counterattack led by Panther tanks from I/ 1st SS Panzer. Although the Hussars suffered heavy losses, the Germans also suffered and had to cancel their counterattack. By 1945 the 29th Armoured Brigade had been ordered to pull back and hunker down for the night. The Germans may have planned to launch another attack from Soliers, but this was crushed by a heavy artillery concentration at 2030.
The Guards continued to battle for Cagny. At 1350 the 32nd Guards Brigade of lorried infantry was ordered to move from Demouville to attack the village. About an hour later the Coldstream Guards had finally completed their move around the village, and pushed south-east along the second railway line, finally taking le Poirier at 1630. The combined infantry and armour attack on Cagny finally began at 1800, and the village was secured by 1930. By then the Welsh Guards and Irish Guards had secured most of the Manneville stud farm area, but the Guards were unable to push any further to the east or south east.
At 1340 the 7th Armoured Division was ordered to push the individual battalions from the 22nd Armoured Brigade south to support the 29th Armoured Brigade, a change from the original plan for a brigade strength advance. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment crossed the Caen-Troarn railway at 1545, and by 1700 was engaged in long range fire with German armour at Four, but they were the only unit from the 7th Armoured Division to actually enter the battle.
The Germans responded by committing the 1st SS Panzer Division ‘Leibstandarte’ to the battle. They were meant to take part in a two pronged counterattack, with the 21st Panzer Division coming from the east. The Germans still believed that the main British thrust would be to the south-east, and this attack was meant to hit it at its base and cut off the leading tanks. However the 21st Panzer Division was too badly damaged to take part, and the Leibstandarte’s tanks arrived in small groups, found themselves facing the main thrust of the British attack, and lacked the strength to counterattack. As a result the battle turned into something of a stalemate. The Germans did attempt to launch one large scale counterattack with Panzer IVs and Panthers, but this wasn’t noticed at the time by the British!
Although the British had failed to achieve their breakthrough, the Germans were alarmed by the events of the day – the British had pushed a long way into one of the strongest parts of their line, and had almost cleared Caen, but the key part of the line was still intact. Many of the German units involved had suffered heavy losses – the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, with its Tigers and Tiger IIs, only had nine tanks operational at the end of the day.
The Flank Attack
On the left flank of the main armoured attack the British infantry also attacked. The 3rd Infantry Division, with the 27th Armoured Brigade and 152nd (Highland) Brigade attacked at 0745. The 8th Infantry Brigade was to attack to the south-east, covered by the 152nd (Highland) Brigade on its left. The 9th Infantry Brigade would then pass through to capture Troarn, while on the right the 185th Infantry Brigade was to push south to Guillerville and Emieville.
Some troops from the 8th Infantry Brigade soon got bogged down in a battle against German defenders of some woodland. The 2nd East Yorkshires (8th Brigade) reached Touffreville by 1100, but the German defenders held out for most of the day before the village was secured. In the south the 1st Suffolks (8th Brigade) took Sannerville and Banneville-la-Campagne.
At 1600 the 9th Infantry Brigade passed through the 8th Brigade at Sannerville and attacked towards Troarn, but they were stopped over a mile to the west of the village.
On the left the 152nd (Highland) Brigade was supported by Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks, but after defeating part of the 46th Luftwaffe Rifles got caught up in a day-long battle for a chateau.
On the right the 185th Infantry Brigade made easier progress. Their leading troops, from the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry with armoured support from the Staffordshire Yeomanry, was at Lirose, west of Sannerville and north of the Caen-Troarn railway by 1430. However they were they stopped by the Tigers at Manneville, a short distance to the south. During the afternoon they continued to push south and after 2100 captured Guillerville, east of Manneville.
At the end of the first day the British now held a line from Touffreville south to Guillerville then south-west to Cagny, then generally west to Caen’s southern suburb of Vaucelles and the Orne.
19 July saw the last German troops forced out of Caen by the Canadians. The German troops to the east of the corridor, on the Troarn heights, were also pushed back by the 3rd Infantry Division attack, so the attack did finally push the Germans away from the city. In the centre the three armoured divisions were in no state to carry out any large scale attacks, but they did organise a series of attacks on the villages that had held out on the previous day. The attacks were to begin around 1600, and this time would be properly supported by infantry and the VIII Corps artillery which had now been able to cross the river.
Early in the day the Germans launched their own counterattack. In most places this was easily repulsed, but they did manage to recapture le Poirier. On the British side the 22nd Armoured Brigade cleared Soliers during the morning
When the main attack began in the afternoon the Guards Armoured Division recaptured Le Poirier but was stopped before it could reach Frenouville, while the 7th Armoured Division captured Four and almost surrounded Bourguebus. The 11th Armoured Division took Bras and Hubert-Folie.
On the German side the 1st SS Panzer-grenadiers and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend were fed into the line on the night of 18-19 July and part of the 711th Infantry Division was moved to Troarn.
On 20 July the Canadians captured Colombelles and Vaucelles (part of Operation Atlantic). On the British front Bourguebus and Frenouville were captured. This effectively ended the offensive. The Germans counterattacked on 21 July but without success.
In two days the front line was pushed a considerable way south – at the start of the fighting it had run along the Odon and Orne, passing through the middle of Caen, before turning east just north of the city. At the end of the battle the Germans had been pushed back at least three miles from Caen in every direction.
Goodwood was a controversial battle. Eisenhower considered the attack to have failed, while Montgomery felt it has succeeded in its main aim, pinning the German armour down on the eastern flank of the bridgehead. The 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions had been forced back into the front line after an attempt to give them a rest, and the 21st Panzer Division suffered heavy losses. At the end of the first day the Germans were still expecting the attack to head south-east, so that night they committed the 116th Panzer Division, their last armoured reserve, to the Caen front.
On the German side General Eberbach considered Goodwood to have been a major defeat, and that a breakthrough was only stopped with the greatest effort. For von Kluge it indicated that the battle of Normandy was now lost, and on 21 July he wrote to Hitler stating that the German front ‘already so heavily strained, will break’.
Within a week of the end of Goodwood the Americans were able to launch Operation Cobra (25-31 July 1944), finally ended the stalemate. At least part of their success was due to Goodwood, which had forced the Germans to pull back three divisions which had been moving west towards Bradley’s front and thrown them into the fighting at Caen. After the battle eight of the ten Panzer divisions available to the Germans were facing the Second Army, with five east of the Orne, on the far right of the German front line. When Cobra began the Germans had just under 200 tanks facing the Americans and nearly 650 facing the British and Canadians. Just as important was the need to re-equip the surviving units facing Caen, which meant that many of the units on the American front were short of fuel and ammo when Cobra began.
British tank losses during Goodwood are somewhat unclear, with a range of totals give. The higher figures tend to include all tanks that were knocked out of action during the battle, the lower figures only those that couldn’t be repaired. Even so the attack was very costly. VIII Corps had around 314 tanks knocked out during the battle, of which 140 were destroyed and another 80 couldn’t be immediately repaired.