M4 Shermans of the 23rd Hussars advance through Deurne, 26 September 1944. Note the “Charging Bull” on the first tank’s front hull (third marking from the left), the 11th Armoured Division’s emblem.
Major-General Roberts, commanding 11th Armoured Division, in his White scout car, 15 August 1944.
Interest in the Normandy campaign of 1944 continued in the post-war years. First to visit were the combatants revisiting their battlefields and the relatives of the fallen. Then came the old soldiers lecturing Staff College students. And at length Normandy came under serious scrutiny from military theorists seeking a model for the defence of Cold War Europe against the threat from the east.
GOODWOOD AND THE COLD WAR
In fact, it was not so much the Normandy campaign as a whole that excited the military, but specifically Operation GOODWOOD. NATO generals charged with maintaining the Central Front as a bulwark of the free world faced a complex problem. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, it was considered possible that the Soviet Union might decide to attain its political objectives in Western Europe by military might. The armoured forces of the Warsaw Pact massively outnumbered the two-dozen divisions which could be mustered by NATO. The NATO force was a coalition of six national armies, with ‘no uniform binding operational concept’. Their flexibility in defence would be severely restricted by the reluctance of the (then) West German government to allow withdrawal. Voluntarily abandoning swathes of the homeland to the invader was altogether too bitter to contemplate. And the terrain over which the envisaged battle would be fought presented its own challenges. Never before had mechanized forces fought over such heavily urbanized areas, well provided with good quality roads, the intervening open country dotted with substantial villages rarely more than three kilometres apart.
In the words of the British General Scotter, ‘We searched the history of modern armoured warfare for a parallel… We finally arrived at a classic operation in Normandy in 1944 in which a weak German regimental group held the assault of three British armoured divisions concentrated on an eight mile front… We know the operation as Goodwood.’ The German conduct of GOODWOOD was a very attractive model for NATO to consider. Here was a small but well coordinated force, surviving massive aerial and artillery bombardment prior to stopping a charge of massed armour. More attractive still, much of the impact of the Allied assault appeared to have been absorbed by lightly armoured antitank assets protected by small numbers of ‘leg’ infantry (i.e., unarmoured and unmechanized). This had appeal to governments keen to economize on defence expenditure.
The argument attracted critics. By the mid-1980s, the Warsaw Pact armoured divisions had much higher proportions of infantry (and mechanized, armoured infantry at that) than 11th Armoured Division enjoyed in July, 1944. One commentator accused Scotter of forcing the facts to fit his argument, asserting that his ‘diligent scouring of the pages of history has discovered the all-but-unique example of primarily infantry formations checking an armoured assault enjoying total air superiority in open country.’ In spite of the critics, necessity remained the mother of invention, and with the infantry arm being keen to retain its pre-eminent battlefield role, the idea took hold.
LESSONS LEARNED AND HALF-LEARNED
During GOODWOOD, the British tank forces began to realise that open country was not of itself necessarily ‘good tank country’. But after the battle, criticism of the British tactical plan tended to focus not so much on the risks of open ground covered by antitank assets, as on the role of the villages and hamlets interspersed across the GOODWOOD battleground. These provided a chequerboard of defensive strongpoints with potentially overlapping fields of fire. It was argued that if mobile infantry had accompanied the leading tank squadrons, such bastions of the defence as le Mesnil Frémentel, Grentheville, and Cagny might have been speedily secured, leaving the tanks to forge on ahead untroubled. That argument has strengths and weaknesses.
On the positive side, thinking became more focused on what modern infantry required in order to remain ‘mobile’. After GOODWOOD Pip Roberts freely confessed that, even though his infantry brigade was left far behind on 18 July, ‘I do not think you could have had them trundling along in three-ton lorries in this very open country.’ An immediate consequence of the GOODWOOD experience was the Canadian General Simonds’ request that he be equipped for Operation TOTALIZE with armoured infantry vehicles. Between 3 and 6 August, an ad hoc Advanced Workshop Detachment plated-over the gun embrasures of seventy six American ‘Priest’ self-propelled guns to convert them into infantry-carrying ‘Kangaroos’. Consequently, though the idea of armoured ‘battle taxis’ for transporting infantry through fire zones goes back to the British Mark IX tank of 1917, August 1944 is often seen as the inception of the ‘Armoured Personnel Carrier’, leading in turn to the modern ‘Infantry Fighting Vehicle’.
On the other hand, over-concern for the GOODWOOD villages blinded critics to some of the facts. In the early stages of the battle, the villages on the flanks of the battlefield were largely neutralized. Had a battery of guns truly been emplaced in the centre of Cagny before the battle, it would have been destroyed in the aerial bombardment. Though limited, the infantry assets of 29th Armoured Brigade proved adequate to clear le Mesnil Frémentel, and would without doubt have achieved the same in Cagny had Pip Roberts allowed Alec Scott’s planned attack to go in. Neither the performance nor the equipment of the Rifle Brigade companies accompanying the leading tank squadrons should be disparaged.
GOODWOOD attempted to reverse the accepted wisdom of the day that infantry (with artillery support) opened gaps in defences and armour exploited them. On 18 July it was the armoured brigades that were thrust forward to break the enemy lines, each with only its one motor infantry battalion. Tanks alone were far too vulnerable to enter woods or villages unaccompanied. The motor battalions with their high proportion of specialists (drivers, gunners, etc.) were mobile but always suffered from insufficient rifles on the ground. Yet together, using the right tactics, the tank regiments and motor companies of 11th Armoured Division proved that they could take Grentheville, Bras, and Hubert-Folie. (Admittedly, taking was one thing; holding was a matter for the infantry brigades; nevertheless this was eventually achieved.) 7th Armoured similarly – eventually – took Soliers. The fight for Bourguébus was an armour battle of attrition, raging rather more around the village than within it, through 18 and 19 July; when the place was abandoned by the Germans on 20 July it was the motor infantry who first took possession.
Even long after the battle it was not realised in many quarters how vital had been the contribution of German antitank units operating around the fixed defences of the GOODWOOD villages. In the early stages of the battle, lightly armoured yet powerfully armed mobile batteries proved highly effective. These conducted a mobile defence, falling back in controlled stages, using carefully prepared and camouflaged firing positions which were invariably sited outside the villages. Even von Luck, who set so much store in his tale of the Cagny ‘88s’, confessed in interview that, on his return to his headquarters after supposedly giving his orders to the young Luftwaffe officer, he believed the line between Colombelles and Cagny to have burst open and that, ‘From this moment on, the sp [i.e., self propelled] battalion of Major Becker was the only unit with antitank to help us.’ When opposing commanders met after the war, Pip Roberts noted that he had been aware of the lack of deep minefields in the German defences. He clearly did not believe the Germans’ assertions that this lack was intentional, referring with some justification to the Germans’ logistical inability to ship enough mines north from the huge stores at Verdun. Nevertheless, von Luck and von Rosen continued to argue that the absence of mines was a vital part of their plan – a plan highly dependent on mobile defences. And lastly in this context, for all the achievements of the village outposts of Kampfgruppe Luck, the timely arrival of an élite SS-Panzerdivision in the form of the Leibstandarte had a material impact on the outcome.
A final comment on mobility: in the later stages of 18 and 19 July, it was a hastily assembled ‘stop line’ of specialist German antitank guns in fields north of Cagny that prevented the collapse of the eastern sector. These were Pak 43, at the time among the best (towed antitank guns) in the world. But their great range was negated by the closer country north of Cagny and Frénouville. Lacking armour and dependent on heavy tractors for mobility, they were unsuitable for being inserted into an essentially mobile engagement. Their awesome killing power took a toll of Guards Armoured Division tanks, but their lack of mobility left them unable rapidly to redeploy, condemning many to being overwhelmed and overrun.
THE WAR THE ALLIES WON
Fortunately, the Warsaw Pact divisions never ventured into West Germany and the theories arising from these studies were never put to the test. But the British Army in particular developed a fascination with Operation GOODWOOD, generations of post-war officers being encouraged to study the German conduct of the battle. This left a mark. The German army of the Second World War continued to be upheld as providing examples of supreme military skill, an attitude typified by post-war British soldiers whose writings continue to liken the fighting prowess of the best of the German army (and the Waffen SS in particular) to Caesar’s finest legions, Napoleon’s Garde Impériale, and Robert E Lee’s lean greycoats.
It is ironic that so much attention was paid to the German conduct of GOODWOOD to the detriment of the Allies’ performance, particularly that of the British armour. Whatever may be argued about Montgomery’s true objectives, GOODWOOD was an essential step on the road to Falaise, and for the Germans a severe if not unexpected blow which shattered their generals’ confidence and took them a step closer to eventual defeat in Normandy.
GOODWOOD was a key step in the forging, by Britain’s youngest general, of one of the most effective British units of the Second World War. 11th Armoured Division crossed the Orne River on 17 July confident in having performed creditably in its first battle a fortnight before. Returning across those bridges after GOODWOOD, through mud and drenching rain, the division had taken a severe battering. Many were resentful. Some were mutinous. It was easy to think in terms of comrades lost and objectives not achieved. But this was not all the story. In the short period of rest before the division was committed to the BLUECOAT offensive, morale strengthened and confidence remained high; lessons learned from GOODWOOD were absorbed and tactics perfected. The divisional commander was later to record his feelings, ‘It was not until our third battle in Normandy that we got it right.’
Let it never be forgotten that late on the second day of GOODWOOD a tired and heavily depleted combined-arms force in battalion strength advanced over open ground against prepared positions and within a half hour defeated an entire battalion of the 1.SS-Panzerdivision, Hitler’s ‘lifeguards’. In short order, three hundred Panzergrenadiere of the Leibstandarte were taken prisoner and the village of Bras was secured. By taking Bras, and later Hubert-Folie, 11th Armoured Division established a grip on the Bourguébus ridgeline, an essential anchor for securing the gains of GOODWOOD, and a potential springboard from which Canadian forces might further extend the bridgehead south of Caen preparatory to further advances along the Falaise road.
In his first battle, Operation EPSOM, and in both the planning and the first day of GOODWOOD, Pip Roberts did not enjoy full control over his division. On both occasions the infantry brigade under his command was prevented from acting in co-ordination with the tanks. On 19 July that co-ordination was permitted, the result was a striking tactical victory, and the lesson learned was quickly implemented.
On 24 July, 1944, a post-battle conference was held within 11th Armoured Division and its attached units. After considering and recording all the factors which prevented greater success on 18 July, the conference turned to the lessons learned in assaulting a strongpoint. The conclusions formed a blueprint for future actions. Their relevance went beyond the specific instance, introducing a whole new philosophy of co-operation between armour, and infantry, and artillery. The closing days of July would see this cooperation rewarded in the tremendous successes enjoyed by 11th Armoured in its third major battle, Operation BLUECOAT. And the confidence arising from this success would carry the division onward to the Baltic.