Infantrymen of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles advancing through fields during Operation SPRING near Ifs, France, 25 July 1944.
Operation SPRING was launched by the II Canadian Corps at 0330 hours on 25th July to coincide with a major US First Army offensive on the western flank codenamed COBRA. At this time Dietrich still had the 272nd Infantry Division, supported by elements of 2nd Panzer and 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, defending the left-hand section of his Corps area to the east of the Orne, the 12th SS Panzer Division HJ in defence in the Vimont sector and 1st SS Panzer astride the Route Nationale 158, the main Caen to Falaise highway. As an important reserve he had the balance of 9th SS in position to the north-west of Bretteville-sur-Laize. Dietrich had been told by von Kluge on 23rd July that both the LAH and HJ would shortly be relieved by infantry divisions; but before this was to happen the LAH, and indeed the 272nd Infantry Divisional Group, would have to withstand the onslaught of operation SPRING.
The aim of the operation, as defined by Montgomery, was to capture the area Fontenay-le-Marmion, Point 122 (also known as Cramesnil spur) and Garcelles-the exact area held by the Leibstandarte. To help in this task II Canadian Corps had been allocated the British Guards and 7th Armoured Divisions, giving it a total of four divisions, two of them armoured, and an additional armoured brigade. The successful conclusion of this operation was to be followed by a XII Corps attack west of the Orne on the 28th to capture Evrecy and Amayé, and finally VIII Corps was to attack through II Canadian Corps, down the Falaise road, to cover the capture by the British Guards of the large wooded area to the east of Garcelles. When all this had been achieved, Monty intended to launch several armoured divisions towards Falaise in a re-run of GOODWOOD. The role of the LAH in frustrating Montgomery’s plans would therefore be crucial.
How was 1st SS deployed to meet Operation SPRING? Starting on the east side of the Caen-Falaise highway, the area from inclusive Ia Hogue to just north-east of Tilly-la-Campagne (Tilly) was defended by Max Junge’s 2nd SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s 2nd Regiment, together with the 3rd SS (88mm) Flak Company. Tilly itself had been made into a strongpoint, with Dinse’s 3rd SS (SPW) Panzer-Grenadier Battalion, Wolff’s 7th SS Panzer (Mk lV) Company and a company of Scheler’s 1st SS Pioneer Battalion. To the west of Tilly, near the Caen-Falaise highway, Herford’s 2nd SS Grenadiers of the 1st Regiment were in position with the revamped 2nd SS StuG Company.
There were strong forces in depth-the 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion of Sandig’s Regiment was to the north of Secqueville, the 2nd SS Werfer Company just south of Tilly, the rest of Scheler’s SS Pioneers in Garcelles and, most importantly, Kling’s 2nd SS Panzer Battalion, less the 5th and 7th Companies, was in reserve just to the east of Garcelles.
The vital area from the Caen-Falaise road to and inclusive of Verrieres, was held by Fritz Lotter’s 1st SS Panzer-Grenadier Battalion less its 3rd Company, the 12th SS Heavy PanzerGrenadier Company of Graetz’s Battalion and the 15th SS (Pioneer) Company, all from Schiller’s 1st Regiment, together with SS Lieutenant Werner Sternebeck’s 5th SS Panzer Company and the reorganised 1st SS StuG Company. Forward of these main positions in Torteval there was a screen force provided by the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion and, in depth behind them at Rocquancourt, there was a strong reserve comprising four SS Grenadier Companies from the 1st Regiment and the 3rd SS Sturmgeschütz Company. The other two SS 88mm Flak companies were at Caillouet and St Aignan where the rest of Knittel’s 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion provided yet another reserve.
On 25th July the 2nd SS Panzer Battalion had forty-one operational Mk IVs and the 1st SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion had been re-equipped with thirty-two StuGs. It is unclear whether Kuhlmann’s 1st SS Panzer (Panther) Battalion was still with the LAH at this time or had been pulled out to reinforce the Hitlerjugend. Hubert Meyer says that by 31st July it was part of a reinforced KG Wünsche reserve force but he does not say when it moved across. The Leibstandarte TV/I by Lehmann and Tiemann records it as part of the LAH armoured reserve to the east of Garcelles on 24th July and goes on to mention it taking part in a counter-attack on the evening of the 25th. However, this must be questioned since it says the Battalion had only ‘about ten Panzers’ when we know that in reality it had thirty-one operational Panthers on that day. Certainly Jochen Peiper’s 1st SS Panzer Regimental Head- quarters was located in the Chateau at Garcelles-Secqueville at this time.
With or without the 1st SS Panzer Battalion LAH, the whole defensive layout facing II Canadian Corps was typical of German military thinking and destined to cause major problems for the attacker. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds’s plan called for Major General Foulkes’s 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to take May-sur-Orne and Verrieres, and Keller’s 3rd Division to capture Tilly. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division was due to advance down the centre-line to seize the Cramesnil spur, whilst the 2nd Division pressed on to Fontenay-ie-Marmion and Rocquancourt and the 3rd Division to Garcelles. The British Guards Armoured Division was to clear the woods to the east of Garcelles once the 3rd Infantry had secured the village. It was an ambitious plan involving an advance of over 10km.
Although the Canadian plan for SPRING looked on the face of it reasonably simple and logical, in reality it left a lot to be desired. For example, it sounds perfectly reasonable for an Infantry Division to be given the task of capturing Tilly; the attack was however to be carried out, not by the Division, not even by one of its Brigades, but by just one Battalion-the poor North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Only after Tilly had fallen and the ‘Desert Rats’ had secured Point 122, was the Highland Light Infantry of Canada due to advance on Garcelles. The rest of Brigadier Cunningham’s 9th Infantry Brigade and the whole of Foster’s 7th were being held for the exploitation phase and the entire 8th Brigade of Brigadier Blackader was, inexplicably, to be in reserve. The only thing which can be said for this plan is that it was simple.
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s plan was quite the opposite, over complicated and seriously flawed. In the first place the selected Start-Line for the attack, the St Andre to Hubert-Folie road, was not even in Canadian hands; and then, almost as if to ensure that there would be chaos, the three Brigades of the Division were muddled up. The 6th Brigade lost two of its battalions to the other Brigades so that they could secure the Start-Line, but then each of those two Brigades lost one battalion to Brigadier Young’s 6th Brigade in order to provide a reserve. The main attack was to be delivered against Verrieres by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) and against May-sur-Orne by the Calgary Highlanders. A second phase, due to begin at 0530 hours, was to involve Lieutenant Colonel Cantlie’s Black Watch of Canada and a tank squadron of the 1st Hussars taking Fontenay-le-Marmion, with the Royal Regiment of Canada (Royals) and another Hussar squadron passing through Verrieres to capture Rocquancourt.
Perhaps to add even more flavour to this ‘cocktail’, ‘Looney’ Hinde’s 22nd British Armoured Brigade was to move forward from Ifs in a counter counter-attack role and to be ready to exploit to Point 122 and, just for good measure, the British 27th Armoured Brigade, from a different Corps, was to secure the left flank. If the reader is now thoroughly confused, he will know what it was like for those who attended General Simonds’s ‘O’ Group on 23rd July.
Although the Allied heavy bomber force was now required to support the American breakout attempt in the west, medium bombers were available to help the Canadians in SPRING, as was a powerful force of Canadian and British artillery.
On the evening of 24th July sixty medium bombers took part in a preliminary air attack on the German positions, but due to very effective German Flak only fifteen aircraft succeeded in attacking their targets.
The main night attack by the Canadians which began at 0330 hours was meant to be helped by what was termed ‘artificial moonlight’-light created by reflecting searchlight beams off clouds. According to the commanding officer of the North Nova Scotias, all it achieved when it did come on, was to silhouette his men as they advanced from Bourguebus towards Tilly. Despite heavy artillery support, his three attacking companies had little hope anyway against Dinse’s Battalion of SS Panzer-Grenadiers, supported by Pioneers and Wolff’s Mk IV Panzer Company. During the attack seventy-four medium bombers bombed the woods to the east of Tilly, around la Hogue, for two hours beginning just after 0600 hours, but it did nothing to help the Canadian attack, and even when the rest of the Nova Scotias were thrown in, together with their carriers and SP anti-tank guns, they could not prevail. The unit War Diary noted that A and C companies were pinned down when ‘the enemy opened the door, let them in and trapped them’ and the 9th Infantry Brigade Diary described the Battalion as being ‘decimated’. The squadron of Fort Garry Shermans allocated to support the attack complained that it was unable to help effectively ‘as Panther tanks remained between our tanks and the advancing infantry’. It withdrew at 1715 hours having lost eleven of its sixteen tanks. Eventually permission was given for the surviving Canadians to withdraw back to Bourguebus. About 100 made it under cover of darkness. The Battalion had suffered 139 casualties, including sixty-one killed. According to the Official Canadian History the LAH, ‘had fought with genuinely fanatical determination and skill.’ Considering many of its soldiers were much younger than their Canadian counterparts and had received less than three months training, this was praise indeed.
Manfred Thorn, the nineteen-year-old driver of one of Wolff’s Mk IVs in the 7th SS Panzer Company, described his part in the day’s events:
Our Panzer was well camouflaged, huddled up against the wall of a house. . . . the three [Canadian] tanks had not seen us yet. One shot from our gun would have brought us certain death. . . . I turned the motor on and put it in reverse . . . We wanted to fire at the three tanks, which were still standing in the same spot, from behind. . . . We moved along the road to the east, out of Tilly. . . . turned south again, back toward Tilly. . . . When we were about 20m from the tanks we opened fire. The first one burst into flames and the other two took some hits. The crews bailed out.
A platoon commander in Wolff’s Panzer Company, SS Second Lieutenant Stiller, gave a wider picture.
The [SS] infantry crouched in their foxholes. The Panzer crews lay under their Panzers. Mortar and artillery shells rained down on us. . . . The sun was still low when Tommys’ tanks approached from the north-west. That was good for us; they had to aim right into the sun. Our orders were, ‘Let them get closer!’. . . . Finally the white flare went up! Fire at will! The tracer trajectories shot out of our ambush positions. Shell after shell flew out of the barrels, and more Panzers raced up to join our line. Five minutes of that and the Tommys [sic] stopped in their tracks. . . . Behind us, however, there was a thundering sound. Heavy Nebelwerfers pulled up, and for 500m in front of us the terrain turned into a hell. The Tommys fled from the field like rabbits. One of the tanks must have taken a direct hit, for it simply disappeared. Others stopped where they were and became smoking witnesses to the destruction. . . . We hunted down some more Canadians who had left their vehicles and hidden in the houses.
The attack by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was over. It will not surprise the reader to learn that the commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade and two of his commanding officers were sacked.