Operation Atlantic, 18-21 July 1944

Operation Atlantic (18-21 July 1944) was the Canadian counterpart to Operation Goodwood, and saw the newly activated Canadian II Corps attack on the right flank of the main Goodwood attack, finally clearing the south part of Caen and completing the liberation of the city.  

Caen had been one of the more ambitious targets for D-Day, but the German defences of the city were far stronger than expected, and the city had not been captured. Since then it had been right on the front line, and the main part of the city, north of the Orne, had fallen to the Allies during Operation Charnwood (8-9 July 1944).

By mid-July the Americans were making good progress towards Saint-Lo, having learnt how to attack in the Bocage country, and were beginning to prepare for Operation Cobra, the long-awaited breakout. In order to prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements west to the American front, Montgomery decided to launch a massive armoured assault in the area east of Caen starting from the small bridgehead east of the Orne that had been captured by the airborne forces on D-Day (Operation Goodwood). The main armoured assault would be supported by infantry attacks on either flank.

The Plan

Operation Atlantic was to be the Canadian contribution. Its aim was to finally clear the Germans out of the south of Caen, and to advance to the western part of the Bourguebus or Verrieres Ridge, to the south of the city. This ridge was an area of slightly higher ground, with gentle slopes and a flat top (and that is almost imperceptible on photographs), but it was high enough to hide armour or artillery on the other side, and to give whoever controlled the top a commanding view across the flat countryside around it. The Canadians generally called it Verrieres Ridge, after a village just to the north of the slope, while the British called it Bourguebus, after a village in a similar position a little further to the east.

The attack was to be carried out by the newly activated Canadian 2nd Corps, under General Guy Simonds. This contained the Canadian 3rd Division, which had taken part in the original D-Day landings, and the newly arrived Canadian 2nd Division, under Major-General Charles Foulkes. The 3rd Division was to attack from the small bridgehead east of the Orne and the centre of the city, the 2nd Division from the area to the west of Caen.

The Attack

3rd Division attacked early on 18 July. On the left Blackader’s 8th Brigade attacked from the bridgehead east of the Orne into the industrial area of Colombelles, east of Caen. Much of the fighting here took place in the ruins of a large steelworks, and was a purely infantry battle. The village itself fell fairly early, but the battle in the steelworks lasted longer, and the last German defenders didn’t withdraw until nightfall. The Germans had also fortified the large chateau de Colombelles, which was only taken after about four hours. To the east the Queen’s Own Rifles captured Giberville, and then held it against German counterattacks

Ruins of Vaucelles, Caen, 1944
Ruins of Vaucelles, Caen, 1944

The 9th Brigade passed through Colombelles before the area was really cleared, and attacked south-west into the Faubourg de Vaucelles, the suburb of Caen facing the city centre across the Orne. The German defenders of Vaucelles, the II./980th Grenadiers, withdrew to avoid being cut off.

The 7th Brigade started the day in Caen itself, north of the Orne. The brigade’s attack was postponed due to limited progress further east, but eventually Simonds ordered the brigade to send a patrol across the river. By 7.30pm the entire Regina Rifles battalion had crossed.

On the Canadian right the 2nd Division didn’t attack until the evening of 18 July. When it did advance the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade was held up at Louvigny, on the west bank of the Orne south-west of the city. Elsewhere the division was already in position on the north and at the end of the day the 5th Brigade began to cross from the city towards the suburb of Vaucelles. During the night the division’s engineers built more bridges across the river into Vaucelles.

On 19 July the 7th and 9th Brigades both advanced into the suburb of Cormelles, to the south of the suburb of Vaucelles. The Germans resisted briefly, before the Canadians secured the area by around 1600. On the right the 4th Brigade cleared Louvigny just after 1100. In the centre the 5th Brigade attacked south along the east bank of the Orne and captured Fleury-sur-Orne by 1430. Ifs, just to the east, was captured by the Black Watch of Canada late in the day but not secured until 20 July.

So far Operation Atlantic had gone well, but the third and fourth days of the operation would be less successful. The 3rd Canadian Division was withdrawn from the front to replace the 11th Armoured Division, which had suffered heavy losses in Goodwood. The 2nd Canadian Division and the 7th Armoured Division (coming from the Goodwood battle), would continue to push south from Caen to take Verrieres and Bourguebus Ridge.

The Bourguebus Ridge is the sort of geographic feature that is almost invisible in peacetime – an examination of photographs of the area suggests that it is actually almost flat – but that becomes significant in wartime, where even a slight rise can offer great advantage to the defenders, allowing their troops to be positioned out of site on the rear of the ‘ridge’.

The 7th Armoured Division made the first attempt to capture the ridge, on 19 July, but was repulsed. The village of Fours was captured, and Bourgeubus almost surrounded, but they were on the northern side of the ridge. On 20 July the division attacked west, and managed to cross the Caen-Falaise road, but the tanks withdrew east of the road at 1340.

On 20 July the Canadian 6th Brigade, part of the 2nd Division, crossed the Orne to attack. On their right the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders captured St. Andre-sur-Orne, right on the banks of the river, and held it against German counterattacks. To their left Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal attacked Beauvoir and Troteval farms, close to the main road south to Falaise. This attack failed, and by the end of the day the Les Fusiliers had been forced to retreat north. The Germans counterattacked overnight, overrunning two companies.

Also on the left the South Saskatchewan Regiment had the task of capturing the small hamlet of Verrieres, to the south of Troteval. As they advanced heavy rain began to fall, so they had to operate without the fighter-bombers. They were then attacked by the 1st SS Panzer Division, and pushed back. The survivors fell back to the Essex Scottish battalion, waiting in reserve, followed by the Germans. The new line held, but only just.

On 21 July the rain and the German counter attacks continued. This time the Essex Scottish and Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal were both forced to retreat. Troteval Farm was lost, and only the arrival of the Black Watch prevented a more serious defeat. On 22 July the Essex Scottish attacked again, and had a hard fight in tall crops. The Black Watch attacked at 1800, and helped secure the centre of the line, then helped break up a German counterattack.

This marked the end of Operation Atlantic. In four days the Canadians had lost 441 dead, from a total of 1,965 men. The attack had captured its first objectives, clearing Caen, but failed to capture the ridges south of the city. However it had forced the Germans to move tanks east across the Orne, preventing them from interfering with the American breakout.  The same was generally true of Goodwood – the more ambitious objectives hadn’t been met, but the Germans had been forced to reinforce the line east of Caen, reducing their ability to respond to Operation Cobra.

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 (24 August 2020), Operation Atlantic, 18-21 July 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_atlantic.html

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