WR2000: The Battle for Normandy 1944
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On Goodwood Day, we will be examining two distinct parts of the Normandy campaign. Firstly, we analyse the second major attempt by the British to break out from their sector, by striking to the east of Caen into the broader open plains of the Orne valley. This was to be a mass tank assault (codename Operation Goodwood), supported by minimum levels of infantry which had been suffering unduly heavy losses in the close bocage style fighting in the previous weeks. We will begin by driving through the area of the opening stages of the battle and on considering the terrain and the impact of the heavy preliminary bombing. We will stop on the Bourgebus ridge and study the tactical problems facing the Allied forces.
After lunch we will move on in the campaign to the closing stages, the battle for the Falaise Pocket. Once the Americans had succeeded in breaking out of the lodgement area with Operation Cobra, which was closely followed Goodwood, and was supported by Operation Bluecoat which we examined yesterday, the Germans, prompted by Hitler attempted a suicidal counter-offensive directed at Mortain (codename Operation Luttich). This was rapidly defeated but led to many German units being exposed to potential capture by US forces driving east from below and Commonwealth forces pushing south and east from the north. Hence the creation of the Falaise pocket. The attempt by the Allies to close the pocket and destroy the fleeing German units was not entirely successful but the carnage inflicted was heavy. Allied air supremacy and overwhelming artillery support caused huge casualties among the German forces and the worst of it occurred in the so-called Corridor of Death in the Trun-Chambois area. We will travel to the Mount Ormel museum which examines the Falaise pocket battle in some detail, after which we will move on the Corridor of Death area itself.
Operation Goodwood July 18th-20th 1944
Montgomery always claimed that Goodwood had two aims one to breakout, the other to wreck German armoured reserves and draw them away from the western sector where the US forces were preparing for Cobra. Dempseys first and main aim was to achieve the breakout. The plan began with a massive aerial bombardment, using the strategic air forces four-engined heavies to spearhead the attack. Lt-General Richard OConnors VIII Corps comprising three whole armoured divisions 11th, 7th and Guards - and spearheaded by Major-General Pip Robertss 11th would then rush forward, overwhelm the stunned German defenders and create the breakout the Allies so desperately required. To cover the flanks the Canadians would fight their way along the eastern suburbs of Caen, while the British 3rd Infantry and 51st Highland Divisions would cover the left flank, further to the east.
11th Armoured would aim for Bras, Hubert-Folie, Verrieres and Fontenay; 7th Armoured for Four and Garcelles-Secqueville; and Guards for Cagny and Vimont. Confronting 11th was 1st SS Panzer Division.
There were many flaws with the Goodwood plan. Firstly, there would be little infantry support to avoid increasing the pressure on the already ailing Commonwealth personnel pool. As Roberts argued, with so many small fortified German held villages, infantry support would be crucial to the success of the plan. Secondly, there would be little if any element of surprise as the Germans had the jumping off points for the attack under constant observation. You can still see to the right of the area we will be driving through the chimneys of Colombelles from where the British armoured build up was noted. In an attempt to limit this, Dempseys plan called for the armoured divisions to remain on the west side of the River Ornes until the last possible minute, and only then move rapidly across to the east to launch the attack. This created a third problem. There were insufficient bridges across the Orne and the Canal de Caen to allow an easy, rapid and fluid build up for Goodwood. Indeed, chaos ensued in the eraly hours of July 18th as the build up began. Fourthly, artillery support would only be significant until the British reached the Caen-Liseux railway line; beyond that they would only have the smaller divisional artillery for support. Fifthly, the width of the attack was very narrow and constricted, preventing the Allied tanks from using their mobility effectively. The plan also called for 11th to bypass Cagny (a target for Guards, who were following on behind). Roberts was concerned about allowing his flank to be exposed in such a manner. Sixthly, the open, rolling country which was described by Dempsey and Montgomery as "good tank country", was in fact better for the Germans as they could now use their advantages in long-range gunnery to good effect.
The aerial bombardment was effective in many ways. It was the first time the heavy bombers had\been called on to play a tactical role. The German defenders were stunned. Captain Freimark von Rosen, then 19 years of age, recorded:
"My own tanks [12 Tigers of 503 Heavy Battalion] were combat ready, well placed, camouflaged and dispersed in the park of Manneville [3.5 miles east of Caen] We were located in the very middle of this bombardment [which lasted for over two hours] which was like HELL and I am still astonished to have survived it [a] tank 30 metres away received a direct hit which set it on fire instantly. [Another] tank was turned upside down by the air pressure, a Tiger at the weight of 58 tons All tanks were completely covered with earth. The engines were full of sand. Fifty men of my company were dead, two soldiers committed suicide. Another soldier went insane. When we withdrew in the early afternoon to the Cagny area the entire battalion had only six to eight tanks left [out of 42]"
The German opposition, it was considered by British Intelligence, would be knocked out by the bombardment and the armour would encounter little significant opposition. However, the key features of Allied supremacy during the Normandy campaign (air power and artillery) would evaporate as the morning of the 18th July went on. Artillery faded and close tactical air support which would have been critical in maintaining the suppression caused by the heavy overnight aerial bombardment was hindered by the loss of the only Forward Air Controller early in the morning.
At first however, all went well for the British, despite near pandemonium crossing the Orne and Canal bridges. Captain Lemon of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment noted:
"rather enjoyed the first few minutes. There was little opposition and one had a wonderful feeling of superiority as many Germans, shaken by the preliminary bombing and shelling, gave themselves up."
It did not last. The infantry support for 3rd RTR, 8th Rifle Brigade, began to fall behind the rapidly advancing tanks. Geoffrey Bishop of the 79th Armoured Division, offering support to the Corps attack noted:
"The whole regiment (23rd Hussars) was spread out on a fairly open plain our objective a high ridge of land in front of us and to the right about five miles away. We had advanced about four miles without much trouble, and reached the line of the main railway But now we had no air support and the artillery barrage had ceased."
By now the Germans had begun to gather themselves together. Trooper John Brown of 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (11th Armoured) recorded:
"It was not long after the earlier euphoria that we realised what was in store for us thirteen tanks, one of our squadrons knocked out, some burning and what remained of their crews either walking or crawling back from the front. Our tanks reached the Caen-Vimont railway [the second main obstacle] close beside a level crossing in the Cagny area. From our position we knocked out two, probably three German tanks, but it was difficult to recognise this in the carnage."
Captain Lemon was now less confident:
"We did not hit the crust of the enemy, the 21st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions it was just as the leading tanks were level with Hubert-Folie when the fun began. I saw Sherman after Sherman go up in flames and it got to such a pitch that I thought that in another few minutes there would be nothing left of the Regiment!
John Thorpe, 2nd Fife and Forfar Yemonary:
"I see palls of smoke and tanks brewing up with flames belching forth from their turrets. I see men climbing out on fire likes torches, rolling on the ground to try and douse the flames but we are in ripe corn and the straw takes fire."
3rd RTR attacked the western area between Bras and Hubert Folie, but were stopped in the early afternoon by enemy units in and around the Bourgebus Ridge. 23rd Hussars and 2nd F&F were repulsed further to the east around Soliers and Four.By the evening, the 11th Armoured had suffered heavy equipment losses, almost 50%, but had reached a line overlooking Bras, Hubert-Folie and Soliers. The following day July 19th, at 0430 the attack began again. Heavy fire from the Bourgebus ridge between Bras and Hubert-Folie inflicted more casualties.
Bill Close:"We were completely unable to advance. The whole brigade was pinned down."
The fighting continued for the Bourgebus ridge and Hubert-Folie was eventually taken late on the 19th, but the Goodwood operation was effectively over as a means of achieving a breakthrough. Resistance was increasing still further. German losses had been heavy also and almost all of their reserves had been drawn to the east of Caen to stop the British armoured advance. At the very least the scene was now set for the US breakout attempt, Operation Cobra.