Operation Spring (25-27 July 1944) was one of the most costly Canadian operations of the Second World War, but although it failed to capture any of its targets, it did achieve its main purpose of pinning German troops down on the Caen front.
In the weeks after D-Day the Allies appeared to be making little progress. In the east the British and Canadians were slowly advancing around Caen, which had been one of the more ambitious targets for D-Day itself. In the west the Americans were making very slow progress towards St. Lo, heading through the bocage country. However things were still going to Montgomery’s overall plan. The fighting around Caen forced the Germans to commit most of their tanks on that front, and prevented them from mounting the strong counterattack they had been relying on to defeat the invasion. The Americans were thus able to slowly push forward without having to face too many of the Panzer divisions, and were steadily advancing towards the start point for the planned breakout.
By the middle of July the Americans had almost captured St. Lo, and the initial target date for the breakout (Operation Cobra) was set to 20 July. In order to pin down the Germans Montgomery launched a massive armoured assault east of Caen (Operation Goodwood, 18-20 July 1944), while the Canadians were used to clear the Germans out of the suburbs of Caen on the east bank of the Orne (Operation Atlantic, 18-21 July 1944).
By this point the Canadians had been able to activate their 2nd Corps, made up of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions, the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade and the Canadian 2nd Army Group Royal Artillery. The division was commanded by General Simonds, widely regarded as the most able Canadian general of the war. However the 3rd Division had suffered heavy losses on D-Day and immediately afterwards, and the 2nd Division was new to battle.
The first two days of Operation Atlantic went well, and the Canadians cleared the Germans out of the southern part of Caen, including the key Colombelles area. However the last two days, which saw them attack the Bourguebus or Verrieres ridge, ended in failure, and the Germans were even able to launch an effective counterattack. Despite the limited progress on the ground, the attack did achieve one key aim, forcing the Germans to commit much of their armoured reserves east of the Orne. The key to the position was a low lying ridge to the south of Caen, named Verrieres ridge by the Canadians after a village just to the north of the ridge on their front, and Bourguebus ridge by the British, after a village in a similar position further to the east. This ridge was high enough to be of military significance, but hardly shows at all on photographs of the area.
The original overall plan had been for the American offensive, Operation Cobra, to begin on 20 July. However poor weather delayed the start of the attack, from 20 July to 24 July and finally to 25 July. This delay was potentially very dangerous, as it might allow the Germans to move some of their armour from Caen to the American front. Operation Spring was thus mounted in a hurry, in order to pin down the Germans. Planning began on 21 July, and was completed in an impressive three days. In the end the operation actually began on the same day as Cobra, 25 July, but when the planners got to work it wasn’t clear when the American attack would begin.
Simonds developed an ambitious plan for the operation, but he was well aware that the real purpose of the attack was to pin the Germans, and it was unlikely to achieve its main aims. However he didn’t pass this onto his divisional commanders, to avoid demoralising them.
The overall plan was to seize some higher ground around Point 122 on the Cramesnil Spur, near the Caen to Falaise road, exploit any breakthrough to expand the gap, and then exploit to the east, and to the south to take Cintheaux on the Falaise road.
The detailed plan had one preliminary stage and three phases, and was to involve the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions.
The preliminary stage was required because the existing front line had a kink close to the Orne – the right wing of the new attack. The 2nd Division would thus have to start by capturing Saint-Andre-sur-Orne,
Phase one involved an advance to the line May-sur-Orne/ Verriers/ Tilly-la-Campagne (from west to east). The 2nd Division on the right was to take May-sur-Orne and Verriers, and the 3rd Division Tilley-la-Campagne.
Phase two was the capture of the line running through Fontenay-le-Marmion and Rocquancourt, on the southern side of Verriers Ridge, by the 2nd Division, and the area around Garcelles-Secqueville, just to the south of Tilley, by the 3rd Division. The British 7th Armoured Division would then attack in the centre to take the Cramesnil spur (south-east of Rocquancourt and south of Tilly-la-Campagne).
Phase three would be the exploitation of any breakthrough by the 7th Armoured Division and Guards Armoured Division.
Phase one was to begin at 0330 hours on 25 July, using artificial moonlight provided by shining a mass of searchlights onto the clouds.
The attack was to be supported by the artillery of the Canadian 2nd and British 3rd and 8th Groups of the Royal, all of the field artillery regiments in both Canadian divisions and the 25th Field Regiment, RA and 19th Army Field Regiment, RCA. The heavy bombers were already committed to Cobra, but a strong force of medium bombers was available and was to attack German concentration areas on the evening of 24 July and early on 25 July.
The area facing the Canadians was held by strong German forces. On their left, facing the 2nd Division, was the 292nd Infantry Division and parts of the 2nd, 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, with the rest of the 2nd Panzer and 9th SS Panzer close by. On the German right the 3rd Division faced the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), with the 116th Panzer Division in reserve. The Germans thus had about four and a half panzer or panzer grenadier divisions facing the attack. The Germans also had another advantage – unknown to the Canadians, a series of mine tunnels ran underground from the areas still in German hands into areas the Allies thought they had cleared, so the Canadians kept being attacked from unexpected angles.
The battle was meant to start with an air attack on the evening of 24 July, but this wasn’t very effective. The incoming aircraft ran into heavy flak, and only 15 out of 60 aircraft reached their target.
2nd Division Front - Preliminary Attack
The main preliminary attacks had to come on the 2nd Division’s front. Their starting point for the main attack was the road from St. Andre-sur-Orne and St. Martin-De-Fontenay to Troteval, close to the Falaise Road (the modern route D89). Unfortunately this road wasn’t actually in Allied hands, so would have to be captured before the main attack could do ahead.
The overall plan for the 2nd Division was for the 6th Infantry Brigade to clear the starting line before midnight at the end of 24 July. The 4th and 5th Brigades were then to attack side by side. The 4th Brigade was on the left, and was to advance from Troteval Farm towards Verrieres and then Rocquancourt. The 5th Brigade, on the right (close to the Orne) was to attack south from St. Andre-sur-Orne and St. Martin-de-Fontenay and take May-sur-Orne and Fontenay-le-Marmion.
This was the area where the mine tunnels were most significant. The Germans had control of two iron mines, one of which linked May-sur-Orne to Rocquancourt and Fontenay-le-Marmion. The Germans were thus able to freely move troops between the three villages. Another tunnel linked Rocquancourt to St. Andre and St. Martin.
The preliminary attack saw Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal attack Troteval and the Cameron Highlanders attack St. Andre and St. Martin, in both cases supported by tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. By midnight Les Fusiliers reported that they had cleared Troteval, and by 3.30am on 25 July the Camerons reported that they had cleared the villages. In both cases this would prove to be over optimistic, and German troops would keep popping up with the villages.
2nd Division Front – Main Attack – 4th Brigade
The 4th Brigade attack was led by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, commanded by Lt Colonel John Rockingham. When they arrived at Torteval Farm they found that there were still Germans in the area, but Rockingham was able to use his reserve battalion to clear the area. The searchlights and artillery opened up at 3.30am as planned, despite Rockingham had requested a delay. The attack towards Verrieres began at 4am, without the planned artillery support. The flank companies got bogged down, but the companies in the centre managed to reach the village, and the battle to clear it began at about dawn.
After dawn a force of Panthers was reported on the left flank. Four were destroyed by a troop of 17-pounder anti-tank guns, and the rest withdrew. An artillery concentration then cleared the flanks, allowing the entire battalion to clear the village. Reinforcements were sent forward, including six 6-pounder anti-tank guns. These helped defeat a counterattack by nine Panthers (although four of the guns were lost). By 0750 the village was reported to be secure, although the Germans shelled it all day, and launched a series of counter attacks. At one point they even used their small robot tanks, although only one of the vulnerable weapons actually reached the battalion area. Towards dusk a troop of tanks from the 7th Armoured Division arrived, as did some forward artillery officers. Verrieres remained in Canadian hands, although at the cost of 48 dead and 153 wounded amongst the Hamiltons.
With Verrieres secured, phase two of the attack could begin. This involved infantry from the Royal Regiment of Canada supported by some tanks from the 7th Armoured Division, attacking south from Verriers to Rocquancourt. They reached the crest of Verrieres Ridge without any problems, but the Germans had 30 hull down tanks on the southern side of the ridge, and the first three British tanks were knocked out as they came across the top. The wheat field they were crossing was set alight, and no more progress was possible. C Company managed to push on a little further, but was almost wiped, with only 18 men returning to Allied lines.
By the end of the day the Royals and Hamiltons were dug in on the ridge, with the Germans only 200 yards to their south. A night attack was planned, but not carried out, and instead the night was spent repelling German attacks on Verrieres. These all failed, and the capture of Verrieres was the only concrete success of the operation.
2nd Division Front – Main Attack – 5th Brigade
The 5th Brigade Attack was led by the Calgary Highlanders. Their task was to attack May-sur-Orne, starting from St. Andre and St. Martin, but they were badly disrupted by the repeated German presence in those two villages. Even so the attack began on time, with the Calgaries attacking on a three company wide front.
The left company was able to keep up with the barrage and reached May just before 0600. However they were then forced back and had to dig in near St. Martin.
The centre company was quickly pinned down near St. Martin.
The right company stayed near the front line until nearly dawn, coming under heavy fire. It then managed to reach St Martin, and mopped up some of the Germans in that village. By mid-morning the company had reached the northern fringes of May, but then pulled back to allow some tanks to try and clear the area. However while they were absent, the Germans used the mine workings to move back into the north of May, and the Calgaries were unable to return to their previous positions. However they did manage to hold onto a foot hold in the north of the village until mid-afternoon, when they were finally able to pull back into St. Andre-sur-Orne.
By far the worst hit Canadian unit during the battle was the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment of Canada). They were allocated to the second phase of the battle, with the task of attacking Fontenay-le-Marmion from May-sur-Orne. Even though May had not been taken, the Black Watch still carried out their attack. Their commanding officer, Lt-Colonel Steven Cantlie, was mortally wounded early in the day during a reconnaissance mission, and replaced by Major F.P. Griffin. A patrol was sent to May, but was ignored by the Germans. As a result Griffin believed that the village was only lightly held, and sent seven men to clear it. The main force advanced in a straight line from St. Andre towards Fontenay. The attack was postponed from 0500 to 0930, and even then the tank support was missing.
Four companies, containing around 300 men, began the attack. They came under heavy fire from May and from the Verrieres ridge, but despite that around 60 of them managed to reach the flat top of the ridge. They found themselves surrounded by German Panthers and Tigers, and were almost wiped out. A brief distraction caused by some Shermans allowed some men to reach temporary shelter in a quarry, but 16 officers and 308 men were lost –killed or captured – and only 15 managed to return to friendly lines. Griffin was amongst the dead.
One of the problems faced by the Black Watch was that their tanks had been diverted to support another attack on May-sur-Orne, this time carried out by Le Regiment de Maissonneuves. They advanced south from St. Andre, but the Germans had more reinforcements into the village, and this attack also failed.
3rd Division Front
The 3rd Division attack was even less successful. The plan was for a battalion from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders to clear Tilly-la-Campagne. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada would then attack through the gap towards Garcelles Secqueville. The North Novas began their attack on time, but the searchlights lit up a few minutes late, so instead of illuminating their way, they outlined the Canadians, who came under heavy machine gun fire. On the right one company managed to keep up with the creeping barrage, and got close to the northern edge of Tilly, but the other companies were soon forced to ground by the 1st SS (Liebstandarte).
Soon after dawn a squadron of tanks from the 10th Armoured Regiment (Fort Garry Tanks) was thrown into the battle, but 11 of their 15 tanks were soon taken out by Panthers and anti-tank guns. The infantry slowly managed to get into the edge of the village, where they were able to dig in. However it was soon clear that they could make no more progress, so they were ordered to withdraw at nightfall. During the day they lost 61 dead, 46 wounded and 32 captured.
At first the bad news from the front didn’t reach Simonds, and he began to plan fresh attacks for 26 July. However it soon became clear that the attack had been a disaster, and Operation Spring was called off after a single day. That single day was probably the second most costly for Canada during the entire war (second only to Dieppe), with around 450 dead and 1,100 wounded or prisoners. The Black Watch lost 307 men, including 123 dead and 83 prisoners. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry lost 200 men, including 53 dead. Although the attack had failed to take all but one of its objectives on the ground, it had achieved its main purpose, to pin down the German troops opposite it and prevent them being moved west to deal with the crisis that was about to destroye the German army in France – the breakout of Operation Cobra. The Canadian attack also attracted the attention of Field Marshal Kluge, who spent 25 July on the Caen front, just as the western end of his front line was starting to crumble.
The next attack on the British and Canadian front, Operation Bluecoat (28 July-7 August 1944) was launched further to the west, away from the Caen front. The next major Canadian attack didn’t come until 8 August and the start of Operation Totalize, the first attempt to break through to Falaise and close the quickly forming Falaise Gap.