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Battle of Caen

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Royal Engineers clearing Mines, Caen 1944

Royal engineers clearing mines and traps in the ruined city, Caen 1944

The Battle of Caen was a battle that was fought between Great Britain, Canada, and Germany. The battle was a strategically important step for the Allies advance into France from the Normandy beachhead. The battle took place from June 6, 1944 to July 11, 1944, ending nearly a month after D-Day.[1]

D-Day Edit

Landing during the night of June 6, the airborne forces captured key bridges and artillery positions east of Caen. These efforts effectively blocked the German defenders's ability to mount a counterattack against the beaches from the east. Storming ashore on Sword Beach around 7:30 AM, the 3rd Infantry Division pushed inland. Their advance was soon met by fierce resistance from the 21st Panzer Division. Blocking the road to Caen, the Germans were able to halt Allied forces and Caen remained in their hands as night fell. As a result, the Allied ground commander, General Bernard Montgomery, chose to meet with the commanders of the US 1stt Army and British 2nd Army, Lieutenant Generals Omar Bradley and Miles Dempsey, to develop a new plan to take the city.

Operation Perch Edit

Originally conceived as a plan for breaking out of the beachhead to the southeast of Caen, Operation Perch was quickly altered into a pincer attack for taking the city. This called for I Corps' 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade to cross the Orne River in the east and attack towards Cagny. In the west, XXX Corps would cross the Odon River, then swing east towards Evrecy. This offensive was set in motion on June 9 as elements of XXX Corps began battling for Tilly-sur-Seulles. Due to delays, I Corps did not begin their advance until June 12. Meeting heavy resistance from the 21st Panzer Division, these efforts were checked the next day.

As I Corps rolled forward, the situation in the west changed when German forces, having been under heavy attack from the US 1st Infantry Division commenced retreating. Seeing an opportunity, Dempsey directed the 7th Armoured Division to exploit the situation and advance to Villers-Bocage before turning east to assault the left flank of the Panzer Lehr Division. Reaching the village on July 13, British forces were halted in heavy fighting. Feeling that the division was becoming overextended, Dempsey pulled it back with the aim of reinforcing it and renewing the offensive. This plan was completely frustrated when a severe storm hit the area and damaged supply operations on the beaches.

Operations Epsom and Windsor Edit

In an effort to regain the initiative, Dempsey commenced Operation Epsom on June 26. Using Lieutenant General Sir Richard O'Connor's newly-arrived VIII Corps, the plan called for a push over the Odon River to capture high ground south of Caen near Bretteville-sur-Laize. Assisted by supporting operations at other points along the line, the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, aided by armor, spearheaded the Epsom attack. Making good progress, it crossed the river and began expanding its position. Joined by the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, the 15th became engaged in heavy fighting and repulsed several major German counterattacks. The determined German attacks forced Dempsey to pull his troops back across the Odon by June 30.

Though a tactical failure for the Allies, Epsom altered the balance of forces in the fighting zone in their favor. While Dempsey and Montgomery were able to maintain a force of reserves, their opponent, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was compelled to utilize his entire force to hold the front lines. Following Epsom, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division mounted Operation Windsor on July 4. This called for an attack on Carpiquet and its adjacent airfield which were located west of Caen. Moving forward, the Canadians, aided by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, succeeded in capturing the village but were unable to secure the airfield. The next day, they defeated German efforts to recapture Carpiquet.

Operations Charnwood and Jupiter Edit

Increasingly frustrated with the stalemate around Caen, Montgomery directed that a major offensive be mounted to frontally assault the city. Though Caen's strategic significance had lessened, he particularl desired to secure Verrières and Bourguébus ridges to the south. Dubbed Operation Charnwood, the attack moved forward on July 8 and was heavily supported by bombers and naval gunfire. Led by I Corps, three infantry divisions, supported by armor, pushed forward. To the west, the Canadians renewed their efforts against Carpiquet airfield. Battling forward, British forces reached the outskirts of Caen that evening. Concerned about the situation, the Germans began withdrawing their forces across the Orne and prepared to defend the river crossings in the city.

The next morning, British and Canadian patrols began penetrating the city proper while other forces finally occupied Carpiquet airfield. As the day progressed British and Canadian troops united and drove the Germans from the northern part of Caen. Occupying the riverbank, Allied troops halted as they lacked the strength to contest the river crossings. In addition, it was deemed inadvisable to continue as the Germans held the ground flanking the southern part of the city. As Charnwood concluded, O'Connor launched Operation Jupiter on July 10. Striking south, he sought to capture the key heights of Hill 112. Though this objective was not gained after two days of fighting, his men secured several villages in the area and prevented the 9th SS Panzer Division from being withdrawn as a reserve force..

Operations Goodwood and Atlantic Edit

As Operation Jupiter was moving forward, Montgomery again met with Bradley and Dempsey to assess the overall situation. At this meeting, Bradley proposed the plan for Operation Cobra which called for a major breakout from the American sector on July 18. Montgomery approved this plan and Dempsey was tasked with mounting an operation to pin down German forces around Caen and possibly achieve a breakout in the east. Dubbed Operation Goodwood, this called for a major offensive by British forces east of the city. Goodwood was to be supported by the Canadian-led Operation Atlantic which was designed to capture the southern part of Caen. With planning completed, Montgomery hoped to begin Goodwood on July 18 and Cobra two days later.

Spearheaded by O'Connor's 7th Corps, Goodwood commenced following heavy Allied air bombing. Slowed somewhat by natural obstacles and German minefields, O'Connor was tasked with capturing Bourguébus Ridge as well as the area between Bretteville-sur-Laize and Vimont. Pushing forward, British forces, with heavy armoured support, were able to advance seven miles but failed to caputure the ridge. The fighting saw frequent clashes between British and German tanks. Advancing to the east, Canadian forces succeeded in securing the remainder of Caen, however subsequent attacks against Verrières Ridge were defeated.

AftermathEdit

It took the Allied forces around seven weeks to capture the city. Due to the ferocity of the fighting, much of Caen was destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war.

ReferencesEdit

  1. http://www.canadaatwar.ca/page21.html

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