Dad’s War D-Day to Breakout

D-Day Operation “Overload”

D-Day was the planned day for the assault on the German forces in Normandy. The American Eisenhower was Supreme Commander whilst Montgomery would command all land forces as part of a 21st Army Group. The conditions needed to be right for the beach landings. They were an essential part of the sub operation “Neptune “. A window of opportunity arose and D-Day was set as the 6th of June 1944. Troops were aboard their ships as they put to sea on the 5th of June where the plans were revealed and put in motion.

Airborne Attacks

Starting before the beach landings and with drops from just after midnight and throughout the day airbourne troops both parachuted and glider landed at strategic locations on the assault area. The British 6th Airborne division landed about 8,500 in the area around Caen, whilst the American 82nd and 101st divisions landed about 17,000 men on the Cotentin peninsula, also known as Cherbourg Peninsula, to the west.

British objectives were to secure two Bridges, one over the Caen Canal known as Pegasus Bridge and one over the river Orne. They were to seize and destroy several other bridges that the enemy might use in a counter attack. A further objective was the German Melville Battery overlooking the Sword Beach area.

The specific missions of the two U.S. airborne divisions were to block approaches into the vicinity of the amphibious landing at Utah Beach, to capture causeway exits off the beaches, and to establish crossings over the Douve River at Carentan to assist U.S.troops in the merging of the two U.S. beachheads.

First to land were 6 British gliders towed by 6 Halifax Bombers carrying the airborne troops intent on securing the two bridges. After that pathfinder parachutists were dropped to radio mark three drop sites. The rest of the regiment followed in about air transporters including many towed gliders. Not all drops were as planned, which meant some troops did not rejoin their units until late in the day. In terms of the objectives set the drops were generally successful, with the bridges speedily captured and subsequently held. However the mission to take the Melville Battery failed as the attacking troops were hit by friendly fire.

Some 13,000 American paratroopers landed in the early hours of D-Day followed by nearly 4,000 daylight gliders. The parachute landings were not as well concentrated as the British landings. Because of the scattering, it was not until three days later that the German routes to the Utah Beach area were secured. Fortunately the scattered drops caused confusion and the Germans failed to exploit the situation. Over the following week the Germans in this area were defeated.

These advance drops were not the only air activities on D-Day. It is reported that over 11,500 aircraft flew over the Normandy beaches on D-Day, 3500 Gliders, 5000 fighters and 3000 Bombers.

The Sea Assault of Normandy Gets Underway

On board the ships sealed packages were broken open and it became clear to the British that Poland was Caen and Portugal was the Caen Canal.

At sea, flotillas of ships were moving via the area termed “Piccadilly Circus” to the south-east of the Isle of Wight. Some 6,939 vessels took part in the Normandy Landings, of which 1,213 were naval combat ships and 4,126 landing ships or craft. Also used were 736 ancillary craft and 864 merchant vessels. Playing an important role throughout June and July were the mine sweepers that cleared the routes so that few vessels suffered mine damage. The unnerving heave and rock of a high sea was causing many to doubt the effectiveness of the sea sickness tablets they had been given.

The D-Day Landings

U.S Troops
Utah Beach: U.S. 1st Army – 7th Corps from Dartmouth Area that included their 4th Infantry Division. The landings were in four waves of landing craft tanks (LCT’s) starting at 06.30 a.m : 23,250 troops landed 2,499 casualties, 338 killed.
Omaha Beach: U.S. 1st Army – 5th Corps from Portland and Falmouth that included the U.S 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions. Most problems were experienced here, both off shore and then on shore where defences were more than expected and pre invasion shelling had been ineffective. : 34,250 troops landed with between 2000 and 5000 casualties.

British/Canadian Troops
Gold Beach: British 2nd Army – athe 50th infantry division and an armoured division of British 30th Corps from Southampton area along with a Commando special unit and a specialist armoured division for mine clearing, recovery and other tasks in the British and Canadian sectors. Their landing area was between Courseulles and Arromanche: 25,000 troops landed about 1000 casualties.
Juno Beach: British 2nd Army – Canadian Forces as part of British 1 Corps from Portsmouth, comprising 3rd Canadian Infantry and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade. They landed between St. Aubin-sur-Mer and Courseulles–sur-mer along with a British Commando Unit: 21,400 troops landed less than 1000 casualties.
Sword Beach: British 2nd Army – British 1st Corps from Newhaven. The Corps landed between Ouistreham and Lion St. Mer with their 3rd Infantry Division and their 27th armoured Brigade. Either side of them landing on Sword and Commando special service units: 29,000 troops landed less than 1000 casualties

On D-Day the capture of Caen had been an objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division landed on the Sword beach. Although the beach was quickly under control the move inland had been met by the 21st Panzer Division who launched several counter attacks in the afternoon that effectively blocked the road to Caen. It was the only armoured resistance encountered that day. The failure to take Caen gave the Germans time to bring in more tanks and infantry.

The map shows the end of D-Day position and it is clear that the British were in command of areas over and to the east of the Caen Canal and Orne river.

Landing of 4AGRA‘s Regiments:

On the 4th June 53rd, 65th and 79th Medium regiments had embarked onto an LST (a Landing Ship Tank). This was a vessel similar to current RoRo Ferries where the Bow consists of two huge doors that open to reveal a ramp. On board this vessel, and on the 5th June came news that the invasion was to begin and real maps were issued. At 19:30 on the5th of June the LST weighed anchor.

The 53rd Medium, 65th Medium and 79th Medium regiments had been due to assemble on D Day on the left flank of the 5 mile Sword beach. However, at about 11:00 on that day they had encountered problems offloading 4AGRA’s Regiments and equipments to the ” Rhino” barges that would take them to the beach.

The photograph shows a U.S built LST (Landing Ship Tank) off loading British tanks and trucks to a “Rhino” barge. Often nicknamed a “Large Slow Target” although suffering very few losses, an LST, in suitable conditions, could open its bow doors on to a beach. Probably because it was an easy target on D Day many of them towed “Rhino” Barges whilst others carried on their deck the smaller Landing Craft Tank (LCT) which had a flat bottom and a “lower down” front.

The smaller Landing Craft Tanks were capable of carrying 18 tanks and 160 men and had their own engines. Some of the barges had their own outboard motors, others had to be towed by Rhino Tugs. Where an LCT or Rhino was used the equipment and men were offloaded to these barges or LCTs some miles out at sea.

The 53rd Medium, 65th Medium and 79th Medium regiments of 4AGRAs landed on the morning of 7th of June and were now able to support the assault divisions of the British 1 Corps and play an important part in repelling those early expected German counter attacks favoured by Rommel as it was he who commanded the German Forces opposing the Normandy invasion. On D-day the 6th of June he had been driving to a meeting with Hitler.

4AGRA arrivals were completed on Thursday June 8th 1944 when HQ 4 AGRA arrived and shortly after that on the same day the 68th Medium Royal Artillery landed on Juno Beach, Mike Sector. I believe the 150th Field Regiment and the 51st heavy also part of 4AGRA would land this day. It may well be they were landed by Landing Craft Tanks onto what would now be a quiter beach but with some overhead fire from naval forces and with many planes flying overhead to targets.

4AGRA were now there in full and able to support the British 2nd Army and specifically the infantry and armoured divisions of its 1 Corps.

Lack of Progress At Caen

The end of Day 1 position being as on the above map. The following operations followed.
Operation Perch started on 9/6/1944. It was to be a Pincer movement on Caen. Elements of British 1 Corps would be on the left over the Orne, British 30 Corps to the right and with the Americans on their right. There were some gains followed by some withdrawals until on the 19th of June, the combination of strong defences and bad weather brought to a halt further offensives
The Battle of Le Mesnil-Patry: This battle started on the 9th June. It was an operation by the Canadian 3rd and in particular their associated tank regiment the 1st Hussars. It is of note because by 12/6 it was a total failure. The Canadian party had been advancing with the Hussars leading and men of D company Queens Own Rifles riding on the tanks. An ambush, made possible by radio messages from the Hussars tanks resulted in the loss of 51 of its 53 Sherman tanks. All Hussar Officers were lost and all but two of its non commisioned officers similarly so. It was described as a modern charge of the light brigade.
Beach Supply problems:  Mulberry A had been in use for less than 10 days when, on June 19, it was severely damaged by the worst storms for 40 years. It was never used again and was scavenged to repair damage to Mulberry B. The Americans quickly reverted to the traditional methods of unloading from landing craft and DUKWs directly onto the beaches. Such was their success that on occasions they exceeded the impressive performance achieved at Mulberry B. However supply was still a problem and a harbour was needed. The American “lightning” Joe Collins attacked and took Cherbourg 22nd to 29th of June. The Germans, however, had done their best to wreck and mine the port and it only became available for limited use late July/ August.
Operation Epsom was proceeded by the one day Operation Martlet. It commenced on the 26th of June with the intent to capture high ground south of Caen. The operation would be supported by 736 artillery pieces, the Royal Navy and close air support. A planned preliminary bombardment by 250 bombers of the Royal Air Force did not happen because of bad weather. The attacks would involve elements of the newly arrived British 8 Corps supported by elements of 1 and 30 Corps. 8 Corps was able to advance nearly 6 miles but the Germans, throwing in their last available reserves, were able to achieve a defensive success, containing the British offensive. German counter attacks were repulsed and further advances by British forces were halted.
Operation Windsor was mounted in early July. The objective was to take the Village and Airfield at Carpiquet, both of which had been D-Day targets. The Operation was handed to the 3rd Canadian Division who took the village on the 5/7/1944. The airfield was not captured until 3 days later. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division’s commander, Major General Rod Keller was severely criticised for not sending two brigades into Operation Windsor, and for delegating detailed planning. The poor performance of the 3rd Division was seen as additional evidence that Keller was unfit for his command.

Operation Charnwood: Montgomery now decided to capture Caen with a full frontal assault. Although Caen had now not the strategic importance it had on D-Day, it was the plan to drive the Germans south over the Orne river and possibly to secure and get over a bridgehead so as to lead to the higher grounds of the Verrières and Bourguébus ridges, paving the way for the British 2nd Army to advance toward Falaise. Three infantry division, including the newly arrived 59th and three armoured brigades of 1 Corps, were given the objective. Several waves of bombers would be used to facilitate the Anglo-Canadian advance and prevent German reinforcements from reaching the battle or retreating. Close support aircraft, the Royal Navy and 656 artillery guns would support the operation.

By noon on the 9th of July the Allied infantry had reached the Orne’s northern bank, virtually destroying the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division in the process. By late afternoon the northern half of Caen was firmly under Allied control. Some bridges were still intact, but these were either blocked by rubble or defended by German troops on the south side of the river. The debris that choked the streets made it almost impossible for British armour to manoeuvre, effectively preventing 1 Corps’, 2nd Army from exploiting the Corps success. Without possession of the terrain flanking the south of the city, no further gains could be made within Caen. A British troop note following the battle said “In the houses that were still standing there slowly came life, the French civilians realizing that we had taken the city came running out of their houses with glasses and bottles of wine.”
Operation Jupiter followed on the 10th July. It was an attempt by an infantry division to secure a bridge head in Caen. It failed due to extremely stiff resistance.

Accounts of 4AGRA Involvements

The following account is specific to the 53rd medium regiment but because they were, like Dad’s regiment, part of 4AGRA and in support of the assault troops of 1 Corps and specifically the 3rd Division Canadian forces it is worth including here.

“Early on the 7th, the Regiment began to reach the shore, with no casualties. The guns were immediately deployed between Hermanville and Colleville, and at 22.10 the guns fired blind, in support of the Norfolks of 185 Brigade, who had run into heavy opposition in Lebisey Wood.” (a few miles north of Caen)”
“Reverting to the command of 4th AGRA. the guns fired busily in support of 3rd Division, 6th Airborne across the Orne, and later the 51st Highland Division also across the Orne River.”

The report goes on to describe how the regiment took its first casualties with separate hits on an observation post officer, lance bombardier and gunner and woundings of a lietenant and driver. It then describes a move west of about 4000 yards and the firing of some 300 rounds in support of a successful bomber supported attack on high ground at Lebisey Wood. Another report of the time says.

“With guns deployed in a vast arc covering from Carpiquet aerodrome to the mouth of the Orne, 4 AGRA flung its whole weight into the slow slogging match which was to break the tightly packed elite of the German Army grouped around Caen. The Gunners sweated and toiled on a swift succession of counter-battery bombards, set-piece fire plans, harassing fire tasks, ‘Y targets’, air O.P. shoots and concentrations at call, as the infantry fought their slow way forward through the orchards of Normandy into a ruined factory at Colombelles and the splintered woods at Lebisey, down to the rubble of Caen.”

Operations Goodwood, Atlantic and Cobra

On July 10th Montgomery met with his Army Leaders, the American 1st Army leader Omar Bradley and the British 2nd Army leader Miles Dempsey. They drew up a plan that would require two main operations, Goodwood by the British / Canadians and Cobra by the Americans.

Goodwood would involve the British and Canadians circling round Caen from the North and attacking to the East of it. The British would head for and capture the Bourgébus Ridge, a heavily defended and strategic area. In the process it would draw the German armoured defences into the open where they could be weakened and held occupied and therefore unable to assist against an American attack that was to follow, to the west of Caen, as Operation Cobra .
The British 3rd and Canadian 3rd would need to pass over the Orne river, that passed through Caen on its way to the coast. There was also a canal to cross. There were three bridgeheads over which the troops and armoured brigades could pass. Artillery would be last crossing so they would only be able to give limited support from the British side of the river, in the attacks early stages. The inadequate artillery support would be made up for by massive air bombing.

Atlantic was the main Canadians part in this was operation It was to take the Eastern parts of Caen that had as yet not been liberated including a large steel works. Having done this they were to have another go at the heavily defended and strategically important Verrières Ridge, a few miles south of Caen.
Between 18th July and 20th July 1944 Goodwood and Atlantic took place. Argument still rages today as to whether it was a success or failure. The argument was fuelled in earlier years by those who were Monty’s supporters and by the many in high places who hated him. Goodwood achieved no breakout though Monty always insisted breakout was not part of the plan. The Bourgébus ridge was only partly taken and the attempt at the Verrières ridge resulted in over 2000 Canadian casualties. However Caen was taken and the Germans were drawn to the British and away from the Americans.

Cobra required the American armies to push South down the Cherbourg peninsula taking some coastal Ports; This they did with much success before moving east. The Germans had moved much of their heavy armour to defend against operation Goodwood and Bradley’s 2,251 tanks, 60% of which could, unlike the German Tanks, uproot hedges and therefore operate in open Country, faced only about 190 German Tank and bedded in Tank Busters. The Tank Busters were effective in resisting but when it was realised that they were located in “hot spots” and could be bypassed progress was good and German counter attacks were annihilated. The Americans had reached and liberated Avranches in the south by July 30th and by the 4th of August had reached Mortain and along with the British, Vire.

The combined army position as at 4th August was now as shown on the following map.

4AGRA became part of a New Canadian 1st Army

In July of 1944 the Canadian 1st Army Headquarters arrived with the intention of creating and introducing a Canadian 1st Army to the campaign. A Canadian Harry Crerar was to be its commander. Its Number 1 Corps were not available; they were fighting the Italians alongside the British and so a 2nd Corps would be created and become active.
This 2nd Core took an already active Canadian 3rd Infantry Division and Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade and added a newly arrived Canadian 2nd Infantry Division and a 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade. Also arrived and supporting 2 Corps were 2AGRCA (2nd Army Group Royal Canadian Artillery) with its 3 Medium Regiments, 1 Heavy Regiment, 1 Field Regiment, a Rocket Battery and a Radar Battery. The 1st Polish Armoured was added to complete this Corps. Commander of the Canadian 1st Army 2nd Corps was a Guy Simmondshad.

By way of completing this Canadian 1st Army the British 1 Corps was transferred from the British 2nd Army and put under its control. 1 Corps comprised the 6th Airborne parachute regiment, the 51st Highland Infantry Division and the 49th West Riding Infantry Division. Its commander was a Joe Crocker and it had in support the artillery power of 4AGRA. Belgium and Dutch Troops were also for a while part of this army.
During its time in NW Europe the strength of this Canadian 1st Army would range from 200,000 to over 450,000 men of which between 105,000 and 175,000 were Canadian soldiers.
This new Canadian 1st Army became active 1/8/44 and as the 4th Army Group Royal Artillery was still in support of British 1 Corps, transferred to it we will continue to look at the general events of this campaign but with a specific interest in the activities of the Canadian 1st Army and particularly of its British 1 Corps.

Operations Totalise and Tractable

Operation Totalise: This operation followed failed late July attempts to capture the Verrières ridge. It was a night operation on August the 7/8th. It involved the 3rd Canadian Division and 33 Armoured Brigade, supported by heavy bombing of the flanks and by a barrage of Medium Artillery moving forward. It succeeded in moving nine miles forward, capturing the Verrières ridge but came to a halt on 11th August on approach to Fallaise. It was also in some ways a disaster with Canadian air support bombing and killing their own troops in conditions of poor visibility.

Operation Tractable followed between Aug 14th and 21st. The plan was that after some bombing of the enemy, the 4th Canadian Armoured division and the 1st Polish Armoured division would advance on the west whilst the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Division would advance on the East. The objective was to Link up with the American 3rd Army at Chambois.

The armoured divisions took Fallaise on the 16th and Trun on the 18th. Meanwhile the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions kept grinding away at the northern extremes of the Fallaise Pocket. On the 19th August the Fallaise gap was closed and the Canadian 4th Armoured drove into Chambois. American soldiers were already there.

By the end of August 21st, most German troops in the Falaise Pocket had surrendered. The area occupied by the Germans on 15th August had been 40 miles by 11 miles. On the 19th it was 7 miles by 6 miles andnow on the 21st the Germans were in flight, captured or killed. The fighting in and around Falaise had cost the Germans 70% of its military vehicles, 94% of its tanks and nearly all its artillery. Some Germans had escaped, mainly men from the 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions but they had left behind nearly all of their vehicles. As a result of the chaos of war, no one is quite sure how many Germans were actually in the Falaise Pocket/Gap but a conservative figure has been put at 50,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner with nearly all equipment destroyed or captured. However, figures as high as 200,000 have been put forward.

4AGRA Involvements

Two accounts; the first specific to the 53rd regiment, the second of a more general nature describe the events of this time, as applying to 4AGRA.
“On 17 July 1944 the Regiment found itself in Periers-sur-le-Dan in support of 3rd Division, who were taking part in operation Goodwood – the heavy armoured attack on Caen, designed to enlarge the beach- head southwestwards.
On the 19th the Regiment was able to move forward to Escoville, described by the Regimental history as a mosquito-ridden, flat, dusty plain, — It is from here that they fired hard in support of the final stages of Goodwood — in support of the Highland Division, who were pushing into Tilly-la-Campagne and Secqueville.
On 9th August the guns moved to Hubertfoile situated in the middle of the Caen Plain again described as a fly-ridden dust trap. The guns remained in action here for a total of six days moving on the 15th in drill order style and ending up at Estrees-la-Campagne which offered a dramatic view of the Polish tanks moving southwards towards the Falaise Gap. “

The other account reads
“Not till the first week in August did the Group deploy in the open country beyond Caen, but after that events, and the formation, moved quickly. First it supported a Canadian thrust on Falaise and then, swinging north-east, it leap-frogged its regiments forward in support of the advance through Lisieux and up to the crossings of the Seine. By this time 4 AGRA considered itself a complete master of the art of fire and movement”.

August 22nd 1944 and Break Out

At this stage German losses totalled 500,000 men, 1500 tanks, 3,500 guns and 20,000 vehicles. The allies had lost 209,672 men, two thirds of them British and Canadian.
Now the British and Canadians could join the Americans and French who had skirting the Falaise Pocket and were heading North to the Seine or into Southerm France. By the time British and Canadian forces were done at Fallaise, Patton and a French army were at the Seine North West of Paris and U. S. Forces had taken many places South East and North East of Paris.

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