Operation Totalize, 8-11 August 1944

Operation Totalize (8-11 August 1944) was the first Canadian attempt to break through to Falaise to close the Falaise Gap, and began with an over complex night attack that still made good progress, before coming to a stop after moving halfway to Falaise. The next attack, Operation Tractable, would finally see the gap closed.

Background

Totalize would be the first major operation carried out under the authority of the First Canadian Army. In earlier battles Simonds’ II Canadian Corps had been part of General Dempsey’s Second Army, but on 23 July Lt-General Crerar’s First Canadian Army was finally activated. Crerar was given responsibility for the left flank of the beachhead, and command of Lt-General Crocker’s I British Corps and the II Canadian Corps. His armour included the Canadian 4th Armoured Division (which replaced the experienced but battered 3rd Infantry Division) and the 1st Polish Armoured Division.

On 25 July the Americans finally launched Operation Cobra, the attack that led to the great breakout from Normandy. After a slow start the German lines began to crumble, and the Americans broke out south towards Brittany, and then turned east, getting behind the German lines. At first everyone expected the Germans to react sensibly, and carry out a fighting retreat back towards Paris and the Seine, but Hitler had other plans. On 6 August the Germans attacked west (Operation Luttich or the battle of Mortain) in a futile attempt to cut off the advancing American troops. It soon became clear to Eisenhower and Montgomery that this gave them the chance to trap the Germans in Normandy, and destroy them. This would require two main attacks. The most dramatic advance was in the south, where the Americans were dashing east through the German rear areas, rarely meeting any serious resistance. The second attack would have to come from the British front. Both were aiming at Falaise, which would give its name to the entire battle – the battle of the Falaise Gap. Operation Totalize would be the first of a series of Canadian attacks designed to push forward to Falaise. 

Purely by coincidence Operation Totalize began on the day after the Germans had launched their own counterattack, Operation Luttich or the battle of Mortain. After the initial German attack had bogged down early on 7 August, they began to plan for a second, larger attack. However the impact of Totalize totally disrupted those plans, forcing the Germans to split their efforts, and the second attack never took place.

The Plan

The new attack was to be led by General Simonds’ II Canadian Corps. He was reinforced by the 51st Highland Division, the Polish armoured division and a British armoured brigade.

General Simonds decided to try and carry out a night attack without a major preliminary bombardment, in an attempt to surprise the Germans. The advance was to be supported by the use of radio beams, searchlights and machine guns firing tracer bullets to make sure his troops stayed on the right lines, but in the darkness too many of his men got lost, reducing the impact of the initial attack. In an attempt to protect the advancing infantry against German fire, Simonds’ engineers worked hard to convert seventy six self-propelled ‘Priest’ guns into ‘Kangaroo’ armoured personnel carriers. The guns were removed, and the gun compartments covered with steel taken from the many beached landing craft still on the beaches.

The attack would be preceded by a major bombing attack using the heavy bombers of Bomber Command. Harris was initially worried about attempting a night attack on German positions so close to the Allied front, but his liaison officers convinced him that the plan to used coloured smoke to mark the correct targets would be effective.

The initial attack would be carried out by the 2nd Canadian and 51st Highland Divisions, split into eight regimental columns, attacking on either side of the road from Caen to Falaise. Each would be support by tanks, the specialist assault armour, engineers and anti-tank guns, and would include a force of infantry in the new Kangaroos. These columns would be guided onto the correct target by the radio beams, searchlights and trace fire from Bofors guns along their flanks. These armoured colours would thrust forward three or four miles to their initial objectives. Behind them less mobile infantry would mop up the remaining Germans, who hopefully would still be stunned by the bombers.

Once the German lines had been broken, the 3rd Canadian Infantry, 4th Canadian Armoured and Polish Armoured Divisions would push on through the gap to open the road to Falaise, which would be the target for the third and final phase of the attack. Unsurprisingly most of the more ambitious objectives would not be achieved.

Although the plan was very ambitious, there were some signs of hope. The 1st SS Panzer Division was removed from the Caen front to take part in Operation Luttich, and was replaced with the less dangerous 89th Division. At the same time the rapid advance of the Americans put pressure on Montgomery to mount an equally effective offensive from Caen. However this tended to ignore the fact that Patton’s men were advancing through undefended areas of France, while the Canadians still faced an intact defensive line. When the attack began the Germans had three divisions – the 272nd and 89th Infantry and 12th SS Panzer – defending two strong defensive lines. They were supported by fifty 88m guns in the anti-tank role, and about sixty tanks and self propelled guns.

The Battle

On the night of 7-8 August a force of 1,000 Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers from Bomber Command carried out a bombardment along the flanks of the planned advance, dropping around 5,000 tons of bombs. This attack worked well, helping to protect the flanks of the British and Canadian troops, although it stopped after about two thirds of the bombs had been dropped as smoke began to obscure the marker shells.

The attack was supported by 720 artillery guns. These were used both to bombard the German lines, and to fire flares to provide artificial light for the attack.

After the initial air attack the ground attack began. The Allies advanced in eight columns of tanks, each four tanks wide, followed by infantry carried in the new armoured personnel carriers. The attack came just after Kluge had been forced to order three panzer divisions to move from the Falaise front to support the failed attack at Mortain. When the bombing began one division had already begun to move, but the other two were ordered to remain in place.

By dawn on 8 August the Canadians had advanced three miles. All four of the Canadian columns got lost in the dark, but even so they made good progress. By the end of the first push the Canadians had rushed past Rocquancourt and finally reached Cintheaux, one of their earlier targets. On the left the 51st Highland Division got past Tilly-la-Campagne and reached St. Aignan-de-Crasmesnil. The Germans still held some of the villages in their original front line, but for once the planned breakthrough had actually happened.

While the armoured columns dashed south, the 6th Brigade was given the job of ‘mopping up’. Rocquancourt was captured fairly easily, having been hit by the heavy bombers. On the right May-sur-Orne had fallen just on the edge of the bombing, and it took two attempts for Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal to take May-sur-Orne, while the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders lost two commanding officers before they captured Fontenay. Despite the cost phase one of the battle had been a success. The Kangaroos had also proved their worth – the 4th Brigade, moving in its new APCs, lost 7 dead and 56 wounded, while the 6th Brigade, fighting on foot, lost 68 dead and 192 wounded.

This allowed phase two, the exploitation by the Polish Armoured Division, and 4th Canadian Armoured Division, to get under way. The two divisions were soon slowed down by a mix of German resistance and traffic jams, and Simonds decided to ask for help from the USAAF. At just after 1pm 678 US bombers, including around 500 B-17s attacked.

The bombers ran into heavy flak, and the formations broke up. Many aircraft dropped their bombs on the advancing Canadians and Poles. One incident was caused by the group bombing practises of the Americans – one aircraft jettisoned its bombs after being badly damaged, and the aircraft behind it took that as instruction to bomb. The ground troops set off yellow smoke grenades to mark their positions. Inexplicably this information clearly hadn’t been passed onto the Americans, who had chosen yellow for the colour of their target marking flares. Around 315 Allied troops were killed in the incident. Inexcusably the same thing happed a few days later during Operation Tractable.

Phase two of the attack also ran into fresh German troops. The 12th SS Panzer Division had been one of the three divisions withdrawn to take part in Operation Luttich, but they turned back after the start of Totalize. Their arrival slowed down, and then stopped the two armoured columns. Overnight parts of the 4th Division went into ‘harbour’, as they had been trained to do during exercises in Britain, but those who did advance were probably worse off. The tanks of the British Columbia Regiment and their accompanying infantry from the Algonquin Regiment, were sent to take high ground near Quesney Wood, but swing too far to the east, and ended up four miles away from their intended position, right in front of the most effective part of the 12th SS. During 9 August this isolated force came under heavy attack, and because it’s location was unknown, had to fight without the normal air or artillery force. The two units lost 95 dead, both commanding officers and 47 tanks.

On the night of 9-10 August the final attack of Totalize was launched. This time the Argyll and Sutherlands captured the high ground near Quesney Wood, allowing the 3rd Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade to launch an attack into the woods. The attack was carried out by the 8th Brigade, but the woods were held by troops from the 12th SS, who held their fire until the Canadians had almost reached the trees, then opened fire. In a brief battle the attackers lost 44 dead and 121 wounded. Early on 11 August General Simonds ended Totalize and began to prepare for a fresh offensive, Operation Tractable.

Although the attack hadn’t lived up to expectations, Operation Totalize had seen the Canadians finally take the line of villages that had stopped them during Operation Spring, and were now half way to Falaise. It has also disrupted German attempts to renew the attack towards Avranches at the western end of the line. Finally it gave the Canadians and Poles a good starting point for Operation Tractable, which would finally see them take Falaise and close the Falaise Gap.

Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, Ben Kite. Looks in detail at the role of each element in the British and Canadian military machine during the Normandy Campaign, including each aspect of the ground forces from the infantry to the armour, intelligence, reconnaissance and medical services, as well as the air support and the fire power provided by the massive Allied fleets off the Normandy coast. A very useful companion to narrative accounts of the campaign, helping to explain how the British and Canadians managed to overcome the determined German resistance on their front [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 October 2020), Operation Totalize, 8-11 August 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_totalize.html

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