Operation Perch (9-14 June 1944) was a British attempt to capture Caen with a pincers attack, launched after the city remained in German hands on D-Day. The battle included heavy fighting at Tilly-sur-Seulles and the famous tank battle at Villers-Bocage, and although the British failed to capture Caen, the operation did help pull the German armoured forces to the eastern end of the bridgehead.
There is some disagreement about the exact period covered by Operation Perch. The MOD’s own Drive on Caen¸ published as part of the 60th anniversary commemorations (and partly based on the British Official History) has it running from 9-14 June 1944. Other authors have included everything from 7 June onwards, or limit it to the offensive that began on 10 June.
The battle involved an advance east of Caen by I Corps and an advance west of Caen by XXX Corps, starting on 10 June. East of the city the attack would be led by the 51st Highland Division, while west of the city the 7th Armoured Division would take the lead. In the original plan the 1st Airborne Division would drop into the gap between the two once they were close enough together to make this worthwhile, but that part of the plan was soon abandoned.
Both ran into heavy resistance. East of Caen the I Corps attack was held up by part of the German 86th Corps. There were also some doubts about the performance of the 51st Highland Division.
West of the city XXX Corps ran into elements of Panzer Lehr and the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend). They were soon dragged into heavy fighting around Tilly-sur-Seulles, twelve miles to the west of the centre of Caen. The British captured the village on 10 June, but were then forced out by a German counterattack. The fighting around Tilly continued on 11 June. However the attack on 10 June did force the Germans to abandon plans for a counterattack north of Caen, which was to have been carried out by parts of the 12th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions on the afternoon on 10 June.
The Allies were then presented with a rare chance for a comparatively easy breakthrough, when the Germans left a weakly defended gap in their lines at Caumont, ten miles to the south-west of Tilly. Intelligence about this gap reached Lt-General Bucknall, commander of XXX Corps, on 12 June. He ordered the 7th Armoured Divisions (the Desert Rats) to advance around the western flank of the German line at Tilly, then capture the high ground at Villers-Bocage. If all went well this attack would have outflanked the 12th SS and Panzer Lehr’s defensive positions.
On their right the American 1st Division was also going to push south into the gap, to support the British advance. The Americans reached the outskirts of Caumont late on 12 June, and cleared the town on 13 June.
The British were able to advance through this gap. On the night of 12-13 June the 7th Armoured pushed forward five miles to Livry. Early on 13 June the advance resumed, and a mixed force pushed on to Villers-Bocage. The 22nd Armoured Brigade occupied the village, but they were then attacked by a detachment of German tanks under the famous tank ace Michael Wittmann. Wittmann carried out a famous reconnaissance into Villers-Bocage in which he destroyed three of the four tanks from the HQ company of the leading British unit. His role in the rest of the battle is less clear, but Germans did destroy a sizable armoured column east of the town. However most of Wittmann’s Tigers were also knocked out, a loss that the Germans could barely afford. 13 June also saw the infantry from 2nd Panzer Division counterattack between Cahagnes in the west and Villers-Bocage in the east, almost reaching the Caumont to Villers-Bocage road.
The British attempted to push the 50th Division up to support the armour, but when this move failed, the tanks moved back from their most advanced positions around Villers-Bocage, and ended the day on high ground two miles to the north-west, with its right flank linking up with the Americans at Caumont. The decision to retreat was one of the more controversial of the campaign, and is sometimes given as a reason Caen didn’t fall earlier.
On 14 June the Germans attacked again, and the British armour had to retreat five miles to the area of Parfouru and L’Ecline (about a mile and a half to the north of Livry. However the 2nd Panzer Division attacks were then stopped by artillery fire, some of it directed from the high ground captured around Caumont. At the end of the fighting the British had pushed forward to a point just over six miles to the west/ south-west of Tilly, but the chance of turning the German lines had been lost. Caen, one of the initial Overlord objectives, would remain in German hands well into July.
The failure of Operation Perch forced Montgomery to take a different approach to the attack on Caen. The next major attack would be Operation Epsom, an attempt to outflank Caen to the west, preceded by Operation Martlet, an attack on the Rauray Spur, a ridge that dominated the Epsom battlefield. It also began to raise doubts about the ‘Desert divisions’, which had returned to Britain with an impressive reputation. Some observers began to suggest that the veterans were actually too careful. On their side some of the desert veterans understandably thought that it was other people’s turn to do some of the fighting.