Canadians Towards Caen



On the morning of 7 June the situation in the Caen sector was so uncertain that higher command could play no role in the day’s events. 1st SS Panzer Corps headquarters commanded by Sepp Dietrich ordered 12th SS and 21st Panzer to launch a simultaneous counterattack to break through to the beaches, but only one SS Panzer Grenadier regiment with some tanks and artillery had reached the area west of Caen. 5 As for 21st Panzer, it could be placed under Dietrich’s command but it could not be disengaged from its battle with 3rd British Division. There would be no major counterattack on 7 June. The best that could be hoped for was a coordinated advance by two regiments, one from each panzer division.

The Allied troops in the Caen sector spent their first night ashore collapsed in sleep interrupted by brief firefights as German stragglers blundered into their positions. Brigades held orders group before dawn so that battalion commanders could brief their men in time for an advance at first light. There was no need for a new plan – everyone knew what had to be done. The 185th Brigade would try to overcome the enemy defences at Lebisey woods and drive through to Caen; 9th Canadian Brigade would resume its march to Carpiquet. Neither could afford to wait for 9th British Brigade to catch up, but if all went well it would fill the gap, advancing from Periers to Cambes, St-Contest, and St-Germain. On the right, 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade was responsible for a much larger area and would continue to move two battalions up. When Montgomery met his army commanders early in the morning of 7 June, he reiterated the need to reach the D-Day objectives. Both Dempsey and Bradley assured him that operations to fulfil his orders were already underway.

The advance began at first light, but 185th Brigade could not penetrate the defences on the wooded ridge at Lebisey. The guns of three field regiments and a cruiser were employed, but 21st Panzer Division committed all available resources to holding this vital ground. The 9th British Brigade also met sharp resistance and was unable to reach Cambes until mid-afternoon. 7 As a result, 9th Canadian Brigade advanced toward Carpiquet with an open left flank. Both the divisional commander Rod Keller and the brigade commander Ben Cunningham understood the situation, but there was little they could do – it was vital to get inland and stake out ground. No one considered ignoring orders because of uncertainty about the success of flanking formations.

The battlegroup that led 9th Canadian Brigade inland was a well-organized, balanced combat team composed of an infantry battalion, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, an armoured regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, a battery of M10 self-propelled antitank guns, and mortar and machine gun platoons from the Camerons of Ottawa. Lt.- Col. Charles Petch, the CO of the North Novas, was in command, though in accordance with doctrine the Sherbrooke CO, Lt.-Col. Mel Gordon, was responsible for the tactical direction of his tanks.

Critics of Anglo-Canadian operational doctrine make much of the practice of allowing armoured officers to work in cooperation rather than under command. This ‘flawed doctrine’ is unfavourably contrasted with the Germans’ system of single command of mixed battle- groups. There is no evidence that this was a problem on 7 June. The Sherbrookes and North Novas had messed together for several months and had rehearsed their plans for the advance inland. The two COs were in constant contact. The forward observation officers (FOOs) of 14th Field Regiment Royal Canadian Artillery, who were the essential component of any Allied battlegroup, were also well integrated with the subunits.

Maj. Don Learment of the North Novas participated in planning the role of the vanguard he was to command. A mixed force of some three hundred men, including his own company mounted in Bren gun carriers, a medium MG platoon, a troop of M10s, and the recce squadron of the Sherbrookes, were to move rapidly to the high ground overlooking Carpiquet and make contact with the lead battalions of the British and Canadian brigades on their flanks. They were the pointed tip of a diamond-shaped formation that employed squadrons of Sherbrooke medium tanks on either flank with a third squadron in reserve. The flanking squadrons carried two other North Nova companies, with the remaining company and squadron in reserve.

Surviving elements of 716th Division, with attached units from 21st Panzer, held well-camouflaged positions along the road to Buron. This forced the Canadians into a series of time-consuming engagements. Buron itself was defended, and the approaches were under enemy mortar fire from the higher ground around St-Contest. Petch and Gordon reacted promptly – B Squadron broke to the left of the centre line and A to the right while the reserve squadron sent first one troop and then another forward to Buron to assist the vanguard.

The Sherbrookes moved quickly, suppressing both MG and mortar fire. Buron was cleared of the enemy, and the advance pressed forward to Authie. This aggressive attempt to push through to Carpiquet was based on the belief that the enemy consisted of elements of the 716th and 21st Panzer divisions. There was no indication from air reconnaissance that an entire Panzer Grenadier regiment, with a battalion of MK IV tanks and artillery, had arrived at St-Germain and were assembling on the backslope south of the Caen-Bayeux road. At 1300, Learment signalled the capture of Authie and an advance to Franqueville, but he also reported sighting ‘enemy armour 800 yards east of Authie.’ The Sherbrooke recce troop, with its light tanks, had been joined by Shermans from C Squadron. The lead troop was 800 yards south of Authie when it came under fire from enemy armour. This first exchange resulted in the destruction of three Mk IVs, but in the next minutes a number of Sherbrooke tanks, advancing around Authie, were hit. The German counterattack had begun.

The commander of 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, Standartenführer (Colonel) Kurt Meyer, had watched the approach of the Canadi- ans from the tower of the church at the Abbaye d’Ardenne. Corps headquarters had ordered 12th SS and 21st Panzer to start their joint attack at 1700, but the arrival of the Canadians removed all possibility of surprise and threatened to outflank Meyer’s regiment. The Canadians could not be permitted to reach Carpiquet and dig in. Meyer decided to attack immediately, employing two of his three infantry battalions as well as three Panzer companies of about fifty Mk IV tanks.

At this stage, Learment believed that Authie could be held, so he began to organize its defences. Petch ordered Able Company, advancing on the right, to dig in on the high ground behind Authie while the balance of the battalion held at Buron. This was a well- practised response to the prospect of an enemy counterattack; all that was required now was timely and accurate fire support from 14th Field Regiment and the navy. Unfortunately, none was available. The Forward Observer Bombardment, a young naval officer attached from HMS Belfast, lost radio contact with the cruiser when his wireless set failed. There was no backup. However, contact was eventually regained when equipment was salvaged from knocked out tanks. The problems of 14th Field Regiment were more complex. This regiment was supposed to move forward in bounds so that artillery sup- port was always available. But as two of the batteries reached Basly they came under mortar fire from Douvres-la-Délivérande, and for two crucial hours they were unable to meet requests for fire support. The North Novas and Sherbrookes were on their own.

Meyer deployed his forces across the extended Canadian flank and struck with overwhelming force. A squadron of the Sherbrookes was engaged by German tanks, and the two forward troops on the west side of Authie were forced to withdraw after losing three of their six Shermans. To the east of the village, B Squadron, with eleven Sher- mans, fought a close-range battle, destroying several German Mk IVs before artillery fire and a ‘tank trap’ forced a withdrawal. About a hundred North Novas were now cut off and forced to defend Authie rely- ing on the one remaining Sherbrooke tank, a Firefly, to fend off the German armour. Able Company, north of Authie, was still digging in when the Germans attacked. Without artillery or armoured support, they were quickly surrounded and taken prisoner. The battle for Authie began with a heavy barrage from the 12th SS artillery followed by an infantry-tank attack. The defenders held on for more than an hour and beat back several enemy thrusts, but outnumbered and with- out artillery support, they were soon overcome.

The battle for Buron lasted longer and resulted in heavier casualties to the attackers, because contact was re-established with the navy and 14th Field was in range. Buron was lost, recaptured, and then abandoned to the enemy as the brigade commander decided to withdraw what was left of the battlegroup to a ‘brigade fortress’ in Villons-les- Buisons. The Canadian losses of 110 killed, 64 wounded, and 128 taken prisoner were much higher than any Anglo-Canadian unit suffered on D-Day.

The violence of this brief encounter on 7 June did not end when the fighting stopped. In Authie, ‘wildly excited’ Hitler Youth began murdering Canadian prisoners while the battle still raged, and continued killing prisoners systematically after the fighting ceased. Today’s visitor to Authie is shown the Rue des Canadiens, where the bodies of two murdered soldiers were placed in the street so that a tank could repeatedly run over them. Other murders were committed in Buron and during the German withdrawal from the village, bringing the total to at least thirty-seven men. After the war, SS Lt.-Col. Karl-Heinz Milius, the battalion CO, was indicted for war crimes, but he was never brought to justice. More Canadians were executed in cold blood in the courtyard of the Abbaye d’Ardenne.

While Meyer’s 2nd and 3rd battalions attacked the Canadians, the 1st battalion, on the German right, moved toward Cambes. The Royal Ulster Rifles, vanguard of 9th British Brigade, reached the village minutes before the Germans, and a fierce, close-range battle erupted. The momentum of the battle now shifted. The British withdrew to high ground north of Cambes and used artillery and mortar fire to great advantage. Fritz Witt, commanding 12th SS division, ordered Meyer to break off the action. Meyer had stopped the Allied advance well short of Carpiquet and had inflicted very heavy casualties, but his regiment had lost fifteen tanks and more than three hundred men. Meyer’s action also resulted in the piecemeal commitment of three battalions that could not now be disengaged without giving up ground. Since 21st Panzer was involved in a similar struggle south of Caen, the chances of launching a major counterattack on the beachhead were very greatly reduced.

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