Persian Infantry

Greek Reactions to the Wars with Persia

The wars with Persia were traumatic to those who lived through them. Most of Greece was involved in the fighting and many cities suffered deep losses. After the war, Greeks enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity. Their art and literature expressed a new sense of self-confidence. The Parthenon of Athens, great works of drama and philosophy, the maturing of classical sculpture and vase painting—much of what we think of as the defining achievements of ancient Greek civilization were created when the Battles of Marathon and Plataea were no more than a generation or two in the past. It is no surprise that we find the experience of the wars reflected in many of the great works of Greek culture.

Persians became the definitive barbarians in Greek consciousness and certain conventional narratives emerged in discussions of both the Persians and the wars. These narratives became part of the Greek philosophical, literary, and artistic repertoire, to be deployed at need and liable, like all such conventional narratives, to be reduced to shorthand and caricature. One narrative depicted the wars as a struggle between free but disciplined Greeks and weak-willed Persians under a despotic king. Another regarded Greek victory as the vindication of democracy. The unity of the Greeks in their alliance against the invaders was also celebrated. Another common theme was the hardiness of Greeks who lived in poverty as compared with the softness of Persians accustomed to luxury. There was never a single unified Greek view on Persia. Multiple conflicting and overlapping narratives always existed.

Some Greek ideas reduced the Persians to stereotypes. A narrative of otherness depicted the Greeks as hardy, democratic, masculine, and independent while portraying the Persians as soft, despotic, feminine, and servile. The philosopher Plato used Persia as an archetypal example of monarchy and its failings. His student Aristotle went further and defined all barbarians as natural slaves fit to be ruled over by Greeks. The orators Demosthenes and Isocrates both invoked the weakness of Persia in their arguments over Athenian foreign policy, clearly appealing to a theme their audience knew well.

Not all Greek responses to Persia were so straightforward. The writer and sometime mercenary Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus is a fictionalized account of King Cyrus’ youth that presents him as a model of temperance, honesty, and martial vigor. The final chapter of the work, however, portrays a modern Persia in which Cyrus’ virtues have all been overthrown and replaced with the vices of greed, gluttony, and deceit. The change is so dramatic that it seems unlikely Xenophon meant his conclusion to be taken at face value but was instead ironically tweaking an existing narrative of Persian decline. The Education of Cyrus casts contemporary Persians as the most stereotyped of others, but they stand in contrast to the virtue of earlier Persians, not Greeks.

Artistic renditions of Persians and the Persian wars are a similarly mixed group. Persians and Greeks in battle appear as a common theme of vase painting in the decades after the war, but while the Persians are depicted as the enemy, they are not caricatured as weak, effeminate, or cowardly. They stand their ground and fight as worthy adversaries; sometimes they even win.

In other cases, the Persians were assimilated into the Greek mythic tradition. In the Painted Stoa in Athens, images of the Battle of Marathon were paired with depictions of the hero Theseus fighting Amazons and Greeks fighting Trojans. On the Parthenon the Persians are evoked only through mythic analogues, as Greek heroes battle Trojans, Amazons, and centaurs. The symbolism is potent, but not simple. On one hand, figures such as Amazons and centaurs represent chaos. Their defeat is necessary for the restoration of good order as personified by Greek heroes. The Trojans are a different case. The legends of the Trojan War were among the most celebrated Greek myths, but the moral standing of the Greeks as destroyers of Troy was dubious, and the story of Troy was as much one of tragedy as of triumph. Recasting the Trojans as precursors of the Persians made the Greco-Persian Wars equally complex. As Herodotus points out, the destruction of Troy was a gross overreaction to the abduction of one woman. In this mythic context, Xerxes’ invasion of Greece could even be seen as justified retribution for the Greek invasion of Troy.

The modern assumption that Greeks and Persians were implacable enemies has distorted the interpretation of some artworks, such as the so-called Eurymedon vase. On one side of this vase stands a man naked but for a cloak, grasping his penis in one hand. On the opposite side a man in form-fitting clothes carrying a bow case stands bent forward with his hands raised. Between the two figures runs the text: “I am Eurymedon. I am bent over.” This image has conventionally been interpreted as a bawdy celebration of the Greek victory at Eurymedon; as Dover put it: “We’ve buggered the Persians.” But this interpretation depends on the unfounded assumption that Greeks considered being the penetrated partner in a homosexual liaison demeaning. In fact, a liaison like the one depicted was considered humiliating for both partners, not because of who was doing what to whom but because their disorderly haste showed a lack of self-control. The identities of the two figures are also less than clear. The Greek is unarmed and unkempt, far from heroic. The “Persian” may actually be a Scythian, another people customarily depicted in close-fitting clothes carrying bows. “Eurymedon” is the name of not only a river but also numerous individuals, including the man who introduced Scythian archers into Athens as a kind of police force. This vase may be a bit of political mockery aimed not at the Persians but at an Athenian.

Herodotus and Aeschylus: Bringing the Persians Home

While Greek art and literature of the classical age celebrates Greek victory, its attitudes toward the Persians are diverse and subtle. Simple narratives contrasting Greek virtue with Persian wickedness are a part of that diversity, but only a part. Two surviving works of Greek literature engage more deeply with the nature of the Persians and the causes of their wars against the Greeks than any others: Aeschylus’ drama The Persians and Herodotus’ Histories. Both of these texts emphasize the similarities between Greeks and Persians more than their differences.

Aeschylus’ tragedy takes place at the Persian court where the queen mother Atossa anxiously discusses the war with Persian elders. A messenger arrives bearing the news of defeat at Salamis and Atossa summons the spirit of Darius for counsel before Xerxes, defeated and bedraggled, finally returns home. Aeschylus was a veteran of the wars who was manifestly proud of his service and one might have expected a triumphal celebration of Greek victory, but the play is surprisingly subtle.

The Persians is a tragedy and Xerxes is its hero. The tragic hero is by definition a noble character brought down by the flaws in his nature. In Aeschylus’ drama, Xerxes’ flaws are rashness and arrogance, not an unusual turn in Greek tragedy. The catharsis that tragedy was meant to create came in the tension between the audience’s compassion for the sufferings of the hero and their horror at the deeds that led to his downfall. Without the audience being able to imaginatively cast themselves in the role of the tragic hero and recognize the small echoes of his faults in themselves, tragedy fails. Greek drama created empathy between the audience and the hero by inviting the audience to imagine the play as taking place in their own city. By setting his play in Persia with a cast of Persian characters, Aeschylus was asking his Athenian audience to imagine themselves as Persians.

Praise of Greece in the play is muted. Atossa questions the chorus as to who commands the Athenians and learns that “They are said to be no one’s slaves and heedful of no man.” Later the herald who describes the Battle of Salamis comments on the Greeks’ unity in battle, but both sections are brief.50 Aeschylus does not disparage the Persians but presents them as a noble people. As Darius recounts, their state was ordained by Zeus who gave the scepter of kingship to their first ruler. Atossa recalls a dream in which she saw Greece and Persia personified as two sisters whom Xerxes tried to yoke to a chariot. While Persia accepted the bridle, Greece refused and smashed the yoke, but in Atossa’s eyes they were equal in beauty.

The play leaves us in no doubt that Xerxes was wrong to invade Greece. Darius castigates his son’s arrogance and condemns the invading army’s sacrilegious destruction of temples and sacred images. But this was Xerxes’ failing, not a fault of the Persians as a whole, and if Aeschylus’ audience were to condemn overseas expeditions and the burning of temples, they would have to admit that the Athenians had interfered in Ionia and burned Sardis long before Xerxes had gone on the march. Nor was their involvement in the Ionian revolt the only campaign the Athenians had cause to regret. The hero of Marathon, Miltiades, had led a disastrous campaign in the Aegean in 489 that ended so badly he was nearly put to death on his return. The success of Aeschylus’  drama depended on the Athenians’ ability to see the Persians as people in whose troubles and sorrows they could share, not as oppositional others.

Herodotus’ Histories offers a similarly nuanced view of the Persians and their dealings with the Greeks. Early in his work, Herodotus gives an ethnographic account of the Persians with a mix of praise and disapproval. On one hand, the Persians were devout, truth-loving, and courteous. Their laws were moderate and they especially esteemed martial prowess and honesty. On the other hand, they overindulged in wine and fine foods, they abased themselves in unseemly ways before men of high status, and they left the bodies of the dead to be mauled by birds and dogs before burial, which offended Greek sensibilities. On the whole, however, Herodotus avoids judging the Persians. Their customs were appropriate for them just as Greek customs were appropriate for Greeks. The fact that their ways were different did not make them wrong.

Herodotus’ Persians were not ethnic stereotypes or anti-Greek others but individuals with their own individual virtues and flaws. Some, indeed, were bad. The worst of the lot was Cyrus’ abusive and impious son Cambyses. Xerxes was not much better, but his flaws were different: rashness and changeability. It was not only kings who were flawed: Xerxes’ general Mardonius was a blustering bully and a fount of bad advice. On the other hand, many Persians were good. Like Xenophon, Herodotus praises the wisdom of Cyrus, but he does not go on to paint the Persians of his own day as degenerate. Persians with admirable qualities were to be found in any age. Prexaspes, a general of Cambyses, revealed his master’s crimes to the public. Otanes, Darius, and a group of other noblemen, aided by Otanes’ daughter Phaidymie, boldly overthrew a usurper and then held a rational debate about what form of government was best. Darius’ general Zopyrus endured extreme physical hardship in order to get behind the walls of Babylon and open the gates for the king’s army. Artabanus provided wise counsel both to Darius and Xerxes.

Like Aeschylus, there is no doubt that Herodotus deplored the Persian invasions of Greece and was proud of his countrymen for their resistance, but the blame fell on Darius and Xerxes, not the Persians as a whole. Herodotus evinces sympathy for the Persians who were burdened with bad kings. Bad kings do not make a bad people, and the Persians were hardly the only ones to have them. The Egyptians and Lydians had them, too, but the bad rulers Herodotus devotes most of his attention to are the Greek tyrants, whose crimes included theft of private property, abuse of women, and the murder of rivals.

Herodotus was on the side of democracy, but he was not an absolutist. He knew that democracies sometimes failed, just as some kings were good. He also knew that democracy was not a definitively Greek invention. Greeks had lived under tyrants and, as he is at pains to inform his audience, the Persians were perfectly familiar with democracy. The Persians and Greeks were, if anything, more alike than any other people Herodotus knew.

This similarity gives force to one of Herodotus’ most powerful passages. At the very end of his history, once Xerxes’ invasion had been defeated, Herodotus casts his eye all the way back to the birth of the Persian Empire some seventy years before. He recounts a story in which some Persians approached Cyrus and proposed that they go forth and conquer an empire. Cyrus warned them that this plan would lead to their downfall: “For from soft lands come soft men; the same land cannot bear rich fruits and noble, valorous men.” Herodotus’ audience was the Athenians of the late fifth century who were themselves engaged in a project of empire building at the head of the Delian League. Cyrus’ warning to his people serves as a warning to the Greeks about the consequences of imperialism. Like Aeschylus, Herodotus believed his Greek audience could see the similarities between the Persians and themselves.

The Greek and Persian worlds had long been entangled. The wars left their scars, but they did not leave Greeks and Persians polarized and unable to think beyond binary oppositions. Individuals traveled between the two cultures, trade carried on, and culture was shared. Athenians adopted elements of Persian art, architecture, and dress while Ionian artisans helped carve the tombs of Persian kings. Stereotyped and pejorative attitudes toward Persia existed in the Greek world, but they existed alongside narratives that made Persians familiar, individual, and sympathetic.

The Greco-Persian Wars and Western Civilization

Although the wars with Persia were important events in fifth-century Greece, their consequences were not simple, nor should they be magnified into a battle for the fate of the West. The Persians and the Greeks were not idealized representatives of two fundamentally different ways of life. Greece was a small, underdeveloped, fractious region whose politics, economy, and culture had long been entangled with Persia’s. Persian kings recruited Greek mercenaries and hosted Greek exiles. Some Greek cities sought or accepted admission to the Persian Empire as a bulwark against their enemies, and Persians were sometimes looked to as arbiters between warring Greek factions. The fact that Herodotus knew so much about the Persian Empire, its peoples, and its history testifies to the deep interconnections between the two cultures.

While the outcome of the wars was important to the Greeks, the events were much less momentous for the Persians. The loss of territories in Europe and the Aegean registered very little effect on the wider empire. The Persian kings returned to a diplomatic strategy for dealing with the Greek problem, patiently managing frontier affairs as the Greeks wore themselves down with inter-polis fighting. This diplomacy eventually paid off in the fourth century when the Persians were able to dictate terms to exhausted Greek cities. For Persia, the conflicts with Greece had never been ideological. The shift from a military to a diplomatic approach to dealing with the unstable frontier region was a rational adaptation of policy. A useful comparison can be made with the Roman Empire’s policy toward the peoples of its northern frontier: when conquest proved unfeasible, Rome’s interests in the region were secured through diplomacy instead.

The idea that Persia would have stifled the emergence of democracy and classical art, literature, and philosophy, thus cutting off Western civilization at the source, is misguided. On one hand it gives classical Greek culture an unwarranted status, and on the other it misapprehends Persian culture.

The art, architecture, literature, and philosophy of classical Greece have long had a place of special honor in the Western tradition, not because Greek culture was superior but because later peoples chose to elevate and emulate it. The veneration of Greece was part of the ideology of European imperialism in which connections to the classical past were asserted as marks of a “superior” society justified in its conquest and colonization of “inferior” societies. Without Greek culture to emulate, later Europeans would simply have found other markers of status to celebrate.

Moreover, it is unlikely that a Persian conquest of mainland Greece would have snuffed out the creative flowering of the following age. The unexpected victory over Persia did invigorate the Greek imagination, but it was not the sole cause for the developments of the classical age. The archaic period saw a tremendous flowering of cultural inventiveness in Greece, even through difficult periods of war and internal conflict. There is no reason why defeat by the Persians should have stopped up that creativity. The Persians had no interest in suppressing Greek culture. The Ionian Greek cities thrived economically and culturally under Persian rule.68 Persian kings and satraps patronized Greek artists, and elements of Greek art were incorporated into the multicultural Achaemenid court style. Greek culture under Persian rule would surely have been different, but it would not have simply ended.

Like Greek culture, Greek democracy may have been different under Persian rule, but it would not have disappeared. In 480 the Athenians had lived under a stable democratic constitution for less than three decades, but democracy was not a fresh flower to be easily plucked. It was the product of centuries of social pressures and power struggles that were not unique to Athens and that could not be simply dispelled by Persian fiat. While most of the Greek poleis were governed with some degree of citizen participation, the nature of their constitutions varied drastically from one state to another, with many dominated by entrenched aristocracies. Sparta was a far more totalitarian state than the Persian Empire. The image of Persians as enervated slaves cowering under their master’s lash is a gross fiction.

After conquering the Ionian cities, the Persians suppressed democracies and installed friendly tyrants, but in the aftermath of the Ionian revolt the Persian satrap Artaphrenes renegotiated the arrangements in Ionia to be more favorable to the Ionians. The Persian general Mardonius shortly later deposed the Ionian tyrants and established democracies. No doubt these democracies were required to maintain an acceptable level of stability and not to challenge Persian suzerainty. Still, Persian rule was pragmatic and flexible. The Persians had no ideological opposition to democracy. As in Ionia, if the Persians had conquered mainland Greece they would soon have found it prudent to compromise on the nature of their rule there.

Furthermore, democracy was not a uniquely Greek invention. Other peoples had experimented with varieties of participatory government before and would do so later—notably the Roman republic.73 Greek democracy was always a work in progress built up out of personal feuds and precarious compromises, not a pristine development gifted to the world. It was a government that excluded women and immigrants (sometimes even the native-born descendants of immigrants) and that depended on a large slave population. Persian culture abhorred slavery, allowed women substantial freedoms, and welcomed people of all origins. In many ways, the ideals of modern Western society are more in line with those of ancient Persia than those of ancient Greece.

Persians and Greeks

The popular memory of Greeks and Persians tends to be dominated by the image of heroic Spartans making their last stand against a tyrannical Xerxes at Thermopylae. The reality of Greco-Persian relations was never so simple.

From a Persian point of view, Greece was at worst a minor frontier nuisance. Persians neither hated the Greeks nor wished to destroy their culture but welcomed Greek dignitaries, traders, and artisans into their multi-ethnic empire. Many Greek cities flourished under Persian rule, and Persian goods and ideas were welcomed in Greece, even in the aftermath of war.

The Greeks who lived through the Greco-Persian Wars of the early fifth century were deeply affected by the experience, and it is no surprise that we find anti-Persian sentiments in later Greek culture. The wars, however, were only a brief incident in a centuries-long history of commercial, cultural, and personal interaction between the Greek and Persian worlds. Many Greeks, even those who were proud of the victories against Darius and Xerxes, also thought of the Persians in ways that were sympathetic and nuanced. Indeed, the more focused the attention Greeks gave to Persia, the more they tended to dwell on the things that made Greeks and Persians similar, not different. Between Greece and Persia there were a few clashes of armies, but never a clash of civilizations.



The commercial trade between the Ohio American Indians and French or British agents and traders during the 18th century was of a different nature to previous trading. It degenerated into competition for Indian alliances by means of gifts. War gifts of cutlasses, scalping knives, hatchets, guns, powder, and bullet molds were added to vermilion paint, flints, cottons, blankets, scissors, needles, thread, cloth, watchcoats, and stockings. Once the Indians had become accustomed to the white man’s goods, they could not live without them. Unscrupulous traders plied Indians with rum, which often resulted in intoxication, brawls, and death. The French gradually regained the upper hand in the Indian trade during the first half of the 18th century, and they were in control of the Ohio area in 1754.

The eastern Woodland Indians, especially the Canadian Iroquois and Abenakis, were among the most steadfast allies of the French in Canada. Their villages were often close to the French settlements and they served with the Canadian militia. Most of the western Woodland tribes – Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Shawnee – were also allies of the French. The Hurons who had finally settled in the Ohio Valley following the dispersal of their confederacy by the Iroquois in the mid-17th century were known as the Wyandot. Allied with the Ottawa, they were the “eldest children” of Onontio, the governor-general of New France, and the cornerstone of the French alliance with the Great Lakes Algonkians. Although their relations with the French were tempestuous for many years, when war broke out in the Ohio Valley, the Wyandot sided with the French, and with the other French allies went east to fight in the French campaigns in northern New York.

The Iroquois for the most part fought on the side of the English, in part due to the influence of the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. The Irish trader George Croghan, in the British service of Sir William Johnson, won over the friendship of the western Indians at a great council in Pittsburgh in 1758.

Following the battle of Lake George, Sir William exerted himself to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause, or at least neutral, despite a series of disheartening military failures. The Iroquois fulfilled a campaign of diplomatic pressure by bringing the Delawares and Shawnees to heel at the treaty of Easton in October 1758, and they played a major part in the final British victory. However, following the end of the war, the actions of Amherst destroyed the relations with the western nations and led to Pontiac’s War.

William Johnson and the Mohawks

William Johnson, a young Anglo-Irishman, came to the Mohawk Valley in 1738. He built a huge commercial empire from the fur trade and land deals. Within three years he had built a fortress-like home, Mount Johnson, and had begun a long association with the Mohawks. His second wife, Caroline, was the niece of old “King Hendrick.” After her death he married as his third wife Molly Brant whose younger brother, Joseph Brant, was destined to become a captain in the British Army during the American Revolution. In 1745 Johnson was appointed British Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and in 1755, Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His victory at Lake George, supported by hundreds of Mohawks and Oneidas, was heartening to the British colonists, although King Hendrick was one of those killed in the fighting. Through this victory Johnson united the Iroquois behind him, and was rewarded by the Crown with a baronetcy and cash grant. Johnson spent the rest of the war trying to keep the Iroquois friendly to Britain’s cause. He took Fort 62 Niagara in 1759 with a force augmented by over 900 Iroquois warriors. Johnson’s home was palisaded in 1755 and became known as Fort Johnson, but with the return of peace he built a stately home called Johnson Hall at Johnstown, NY, where he sheltered Indians and entertained other distinguished guests. This illustration shows various distinguished Indian visitors to Johnson Hall, from left, an Ottawa chief a Wyandot chief a clan matron, Joseph Brant, a Fox chief and a Huron chief. As many as 60 to 80 Indians often camped in the grounds. His actions helped to bring about the end of Pontiac’s War in 1766, and in 1768 he made a formal treaty with all the Indians which set out the boundaries between the American colonies and Indian country. Johnson was adopted as a war chief of the Canajoharie Mohawks; his nickname was Orihwane, “Big Business.” He had a unique influence with the Mohawks, and through his many children he has descendants among them today. Jonathan Smith

French and Indian War (1754-1763) I

French and Indian War (1754-1763) II

French and Indian War (1754-1763) III

Lord Dunmore’s War

Sir JEFFERY, 1st Baron Amherst KB (1717–1797)


British-allied American Indians of the 18th century. On the left is an Iroquois warrior from about 1759. He is tattooed) and is armed with a painted trade musket. The Mohawk in the center is from the early 18th century) and is carrying a Hudson Valley fowling piece. He has complex tattoos on his face and body) and wears ear ornaments of swan down. He has a European blanket and shirt. On the right is a Mohawk warrior from about 1764. He carries a bow and arrows and a trade tomahawk. He wears feather and quillwork head ornaments, wampum ear ornaments and a ‘gorget.’ In the foreground are ball-headed clubs and a red-painted scalp with decorative stretcher rim. Richard Hook

Woodland American Indian men seem to have revered war above all else and, despite the great message of peace enshrined in the Iroquois league’s constitution, a conflict between the old men and the young over war policy was endemic. The councils could only adopt a policy of peace or neutrality; they could not force young men to observe it. War had been a major cause of the decline of the native population during the 17th century, for which the Iroquois compensated by the adoption of captives; in fact, war parties were often organized for this purpose. So despite the ideal that men were brothers and that killing should stop, the Iroquois were the major native disruptive military force in the northeast.

A warrior who wished to lead a war party would send a messenger with tobacco to ask others to join his expedition. The messenger would explain the purpose of the expedition followed by a ceremonial smoking of the pipe with those who enlisted. Later the warriors arrived near the camp of the leaders, who prepared a feast asking for a final pledge of support. The leader usually appointed lieutenants to act as his aides during the proposed raids. War dances and striking-the-warpost ceremonies were held before the war party left the camp together with the collection of ‘medicine,’ and materials for making and repairing moccasins. Amongst many of the eastern tribes parched corn was the standard provision of the warrior when on the trail; when mixed with maple-sugar it provided quick sustenance. The final event before the departure of the war party was often the dog feast, which was considered as a final pledge to meet the full fortunes of war. Dog war feasts were not acts of piety. They were organized by the warrior or clan societies in order to receive blessings from spirits. The dogs would be killed, singed, then boiled, and prepared in the same way as deer. The meat symbolized the flesh of captives that they might later eat, these enemies being compared to dogs. The attendant ceremonies, involving the ritual use of tobacco, evoked help from the night spirits, and also the bear and buffalo spirits.

On the warriors’ journey to the enemy village many songs and dances were held at the nightly camps, the warriors frequently singing of their former victories. The pipe bearer, a noted warrior, often led the war party with the leader walking last. A Chippewa war party could travel 25 miles a day. As the warriors neared the enemy they began preparations for actual warfare: singing medicine songs, making litters for the wounded, and designating individuals to carry extra supplies of medicine, corn, and water. An eagle-feather banner was often carried by one of the bravest warriors during the fight; another beat a drum to inspire his comrades.

The warriors would array themselves in the most colorful body-painting, trappings, feathers, and charms for the attack, which was often made at daybreak after taking ambush positions near the enemy village. The attackers usually rushed the enemy while they were sleeping. Occasionally one warrior might inspire the others by making himself a target, throwing away his weapons and clothing, and charging the enemy.

Returning victorious war parties sent runners in advance to carry the news of the warriors’ approach to their home village. The women would meet the warriors and carry the scalps, painted red, fastened inside hoops on the end of poles; frequently scalps were given to the women. The women led the procession, waving the scalps and singing, into the village. After the return preparations were made to hold a victory dance, and a feast of dried meat, wild rice, and maple sugar followed. The victory or scalp dance seems to have been common to almost every tribe in eastern North America. Wives and sweethearts of warriors usually carried the poles with the attached scalps at celebrations in neighboring villages. Unsuccessful war parties were generally ignored by villagers.

Amongst the Iroquoian tribes the taking of prisoners was an important part of warfare. They were often adopted into families who had lost warriors in battle, thus helping to maintain population strength. Ceremonial torture of prisoners and the eating of vital organs were also reported by early observers of the Iroquois.

The war dance was usually performed on special occasions such as council meetings to recall past deeds. In the dance itself attitudes of battle, watching, listening, acts of striking the foe, and throwing the tomahawk added to the war songs, rapid drumming, recitals, and speeches, giving the effect of passion, excitement, and violence. Most deeds of valor were recorded by symbols worn in public, usually eagle feathers worn upright, crosswise, hanging down, or colored red. Other warrior insignia were armbands, ankle and knee bands of skunk or otter skin, painted legs, painted hand designs on body or face, and raven’s skin around the neck. Sometimes the skulls of slain enemies were used as lodge weights, and their flayed skins were used as mats and doorflaps.

The Woodland American Indians fought bravely to defend their lands from neighboring tribes and whites. Their methods of warfare were culturally determined, and any atrocities committed were equally matched by their foes. The torture and burning of captives were often abandoned at the instigation of their own chiefs. Scalping was a New World custom, although it was later much encouraged by the payment of bounties by the English and French. However, killing and scalping were sometimes secondary objectives to prisoner-taking by Iroquois war parties. Scalping for bounty became a feature of white frontier life, as did the severing of heads. King Philip’s head was carried to Plymouth at the close of the 1675-76 war, where it was placed on a pole and remained exposed for a generation as a reminder to Indians and whites of the brutality of colonial warfare.

The disruptive use of gifts by both the French and the British during the 18th century did much to undermine the stability of the frontier and the dependability of American Indian auxiliaries. Braddock’s Indian scouts reconnoitering Fort Duquesne reported few men at the fort; following the death of the leader’s son by friendly fire only constant presents bribed the scouts to continue their duties, and they did so with little enthusiasm. A better understanding and treatment of the Indian allies by the British could probably have avoided the ambush of the column at Monongahela altogether.

Before the trade tomahawk and gun came into popular use by the eastern Indians, their principal weapons were the bow, the stone tomahawk, and the war club. The war club was a heavy weapon, usually made of ironwood or maple, with a large ball or knot at the end. Some antique clubs in museums have a warrior’s face carved on the ball, sometimes with inlaid wampum (beads cut from the shell of the clam or conch), a long-tailed carved serpent on the top of the ball adjoining the shaft, and a cross motif. The shafts were also occasionally carved with war records and decorated. It appears to have been a devastating weapon at close quarters.

In the Great Lakes region the so-called “gun stock club” was popular, often having a sharp-pointed horn or steel trade spike at the shoulder. These were largely replaced with the trade tomahawk of English, French, or later American manufacture in iron or steeL Originally of a hatchet form, these later incorporated a pipe bowl, thus symbolizing a dual role in peace and war: to smoke – to parley; to bury it – peace; to raise it – deadly war.

Poisoned blow-gun arrows were used by the Cherokee and Iroquois but not to any extent in the major conflicts, and perhaps for hunting only. Bows were usually of one piece, made from ash, hickory, or oak. Arrows had delicately chipped triangular chert heads, and were usually kept in sheaths or quivers of cornhusk or skins. Early reports suggest that a type of wooden slatted armor made of tied rods was used by the Huron and Iroquois.

The gun replaced the bow throughout most of the eastern regions between about 1640 and the late 17th century, and partly rendered obsolete the bow and arrow and rod armor. However, as late as 1842 (due to lack of ammunition) an eyewitness reported that a battle between Chippewa and Sioux was waged with club and scalping knife.

Between the I 7th century and early 19th centuries the practice of American Indian warfare changed little. A warrior’s equipment in later years included a blanket, extra moccasins, a tumpline used as a prisoner tie, a rifle, powder horn, bullet bag, and his own medicine. Delaware and Shawnee scouts in the US Army out west are said to have administered warrior medicine to white soldiers. The calumet ceremony was often performed for war and peace. It appears to have been of Mississippian origin and spread east to the Ottawa via most central tribes, together with the ritual use of tobacco and steatite and catlinite pipe bowls. Calumets were highly decorated wands of feathers, painted tubes with animal parts (including the heads and necks of birds) with or without the pipe. The use of the calumet and pipe for ritual smoking at treaty councils led to the term “peace pipe:’

Although the horse was adopted by the eastern tribes as a beast of burden, there seems to be little reference to its use in warfare except in the later 18th and early 19th centuries and particularly by the western tribes Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, etc. However, the Iroquois and Cherokee had large numbers of horses from the mid-18th century on.

The Iroquois conquered or exterminated all the tribes upon their immediate borders and by 1680 had turned their arms against more distant tribes, the Illinois, Catawba, and Cherokee. According to Iroquois tradition the Cherokee were the original aggressors, having attacked and plundered a Seneca Iroquois hunting party, while in another story they are represented as having violated a peace treaty by the murder of Iroquois delegates. The Iroquois war party usually took 20 days at least to reach the edge of Cherokee territory. Such a war party was small in number, as the distance was too great for a large expedition. The Cherokee often retaliated by individual exploits, a single warrior going hundreds of miles to strike a blow which was sure to be promptly answered by a war party from the north. A formal and final peace treaty between the two tribes was arranged through the efforts of Sir William Johnson in 1768.

About the year 1700 the Iroquois reached the apogee of their empire. From the start their relationship with the French was difficult, and from 1640 to 1700 a constant warfare was maintained, broken by periods of negotiated peace, the exchange of prisoners, and periods of missionary influence, which drew a portion of the Mohawks from their homelands to Canada. Their friendship with the English remained largely unbroken during the 17th century, but during the 18th century frontier politics were such that the league weakened and individual tribes no longer acted in one accord with league policy.

The Jesuits had established missions in eastern Canada by 1639, and by 1700 they were as far west as the Mississippi river. Thus France had a secure route to its southern territories, and secured French dominance of the Great Lakes fur trade until 176I. New France now encircled the Thirteen Colonies through the western wilderness. However, it was not always a friendly relationship between the French and the various American Indian tribes and several wars resulted with the Mesquakie (Fox), Sauk, Dakota (Sioux), Huron, and Chickasaw. While inter-tribal warfare seems always to have been the norm, the arrival of the Europeans added to inter-tribal rivalry within the fur trade. Indeed, the Iroquois’ conquests seem to have been largely to establish their superiority in such commerce. At times Indians took their furs to the British posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the far north, or even to Albany. By the 1730s the focal point of Indian and frontier colonial warfare was the Ohio River Valley, now populated along its tributaries by tribes forced across the Appalachian mountains by white population pressure. These were principally the Delaware and Shawnee, with portions of many tribes forming a multi-tribal population, including fragments of all six Iroquois tribes, Mahican, New England groups, Abenaki, and Chippewa (Mississauga).

American Indian Tactics

Though apparently crudely armed by European standards, American Indians had an undeniable advantage in North American warfare. Their knowledge of the forests and wilderness of their homeland was built up over centuries, and they could use the topography against any enemy. Having hunted since childhood, Indian warriors were well used to traveling vast distances at speed, dealing with fatigue and hazard, and being aware of every detail of their surroundings. They were lightly armed, highly mobile fighters, able to disappear into the environment at will, and supply themselves from their surroundings while on campaign for extended periods. Complete command of stealth tactics made Indians invaluable as scouts, and gatherers of intelligence. Colonial military leaders learned that spying on, and defeating, Indian warriors in battle was only possible with the expertise and knowledge of other Indians. Eventually, native scouts and tactical knowledge became legendary, and success in the Revolutionary War was partly attributed to the use of American Indian tactics and stealth.



Operation Totalize I

Tank crews from 4th Canadian Armoured Division gathered together south of Caen, at Vaucelles, Colombelles and Fleury, where these soldiers were photographed.

Excerpt from a rare Allied map prepared for Operation Spring, accurately detailing the German positions on both sides of the road leading from Caen to Falaise. From north to south, note the strong positions north-west of Garcelles-Secqueville, east of the main road. Rocquancourt appears to the west. A pencil inscription indicates the general direction along the axis of the main road. Further ahead, just before Cintheaux, a network of tunnels is marked on the map. The Allies knew the Germans’ ability to use such an underground network to come up behind their opponents, as the grenadiers from the Hohenstaufen had previously done in the area around May-sur-Orne. A network of trenches can also be seen in an arc around Hautmesnil. In the north-east corner (top right), note that the woods have been cut down and that the convoy shelter pits were sheltered by the opposite slope between Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil and Conteville.

This American map shows the 12th Army Group’s plan of attack on 8 August 1944. Even before the end of the German offensive at Mortain, the First US Army were ordered to advance on Domfront and Flers to join XXX (British) Corps which was advancing, with great difficultly, to Condé-sur-Noireau as part of Operation Bluecoat. Meanwhile, the Third US Army was ordered to circle behind the German Army, towards Alençon and Argentan, and join the II Canadian Corps, who had been ordered to take Falaise.

On 25 and 26 July 1944, the First US Army finally achieved the ‘Breakout’; the breakthrough along the Normandy front following Operation Cobra. The group then chased the Germans towards Coutances and Avranches, so as to not allow them to reconstitute a cohesive front. On its right, the Third US Army entered the line to advance on Brittany (to the west), and to the Loire region (to the east), on the back of the Normandy front. To aid this push on the German front, XXX Corps, supported to the west by VIII Corps (starting from the Caumont-l’Eventé salient), launched the ‘Bluecoat’ offensive through the rugged and difficult bocage [farmland criss-crossed by dense hedgerows, trees and sunken roads, which is typically associated with the Normandy landscape], which made any progress slow.

In order to try and cut the Allied forces in two Hitler launched Operation Lüttich, which involved a German counter-attack near the American positions at Mortain. However, because the attacked needed armoured units, these had to be removed from other areas along the front, thus weakening those areas in question. On 7 August 1944, 145 panzers were launched in this counter-attack and headed far to the west before having to retreat hastily following the failure of the offensive, which had unfortunately been launched just as II Canadian Corps was launching Operation Totalize in the area around Falaise. These 147 tanks would be sorely missed in the face of this new Allied offensive. South of Caen, where the 9.SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen and 1.SS-Panzer-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler had heroically resisted Operation Spring by holding onto the impregnable May-sur-Orne, the Troteval farm and Tilly-la-Campagne (names which now resounded in glory for the German Army), two weak divisions relieved the following panzer units; the 271.Infanterie-Division relieved the Hohenstaufen in order to deal with Operation Bluecoat, and the 89.Infanterie-Division relieved the Leibstandarte to participate in the counter attack at Mortain. The situation was in the Allies’ favour, especially as the Americans were now advancing towards the south of the Normandy front. It was now time for Montgomery to re-launch the attack on Falaise after the successive failures of Operations Goodwood and Spring. A carpet of bombs should be enough to settle the fate of the German support points, before the advance to the south could begin…

Beyond the former line of support points along the German front, the RN178 road runs straight towards Falaise over a gently undulating terrain of wheat fields. There are almost no obstacles, except for a few villages grouped together, small woods and bushes, but there are no hedges, as in the bocage. It is, therefore, an ideal ground for Allied armoured columns. However, there is a negative counterpart to all these advantages: the open terrain also favours the longest range of the German 88 guns, which were quite numerous in the sector, as well as the twenty Tiger tanks available in the area.

For Montgomery, the German sector located to the south of Caen remained of decisive importance, in spite of the failures of Operation Goodwood to the east of the town, then of Operation Spring to the south of it. He insisted on its importance in his directive of 6 August 1944, describing it as the ‘hinge’ of the German front. The situation for the German command would be particularly critical if the positions on either side of the road leading to Falaise, or even the town itself fell, ‘… tomorrow or during the next two days …’. Thus, the First Canadian Army decided to launch an offensive for the night of 7-8 August, with the aim of seizing Falaise. The offensive would be called Operation Totalize.

The operation was conceived following Montgomery’s M-516 directive of 4 August, which ordered the Canadian Army to launch a major offensive in the direction of Falaise from the area south of Caen:

[The] Purpose of the operation: a) The breakthrough of the enemy’s positions south and south-east of Caen. Gain as much ground as possible in the direction of Falaise in order to cut the enemy forces now facing the Second Army and hinder their retreat to the east, or make it impossible. (b) In general, destroy the enemy’s personnel and equipment in preparation for a possible extension of success.

The II Canadian Corps were to carry out this new offensive. After being strengthened since Operation Goodwood, at the beginning of August, it comprised of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the 33rd British Armoured Brigade and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. It also needed strong air support. The corps would launch its attack across the area from La Hogue to May-sur-Orne, then pass through Tilly-la-Campagne, following the main line of the German front. However, the Allied Command believed that the Germans were expecting an attack in this sector, which was indeed the case, and so as a preliminary to this operation, the plan was to establish a bridgehead on the Orne, on the back of the German front line.

The main attack would be launched in three phases:

First phase: two infantry divisions (2nd Canadian ID and 51st British ID) would attack at night, without preliminary aerial support, in order to break through the German positions between La Hogue and Fontenay-le-Marmion.

Second phase: the withdrawal position between Saint-Sylvain and Hautmesnil would be broken through by an armoured division (4th Canadian Armoured Division) and an infantry division (3rd Canadian Infantry Division). This attack would be supported, during the day, by all medium and heavy bombers, as well as fighter-bombers, with heavy artillery available.

Third phase: this would be led by two armoured divisions, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division. Their mission would be to widen the gap after phase two and then take the high ground to the north and north-west of Potigny (Hills 183 and 195). They would then try to maintain contact with the German troops.

Since the departure of 1.SS-Panzer-Division LAH for the Mortain sector, only two German infantry divisions opposed this powerful Canadian corps, which comprised of two divisions and two armoured brigades, as well as three infantry divisions. On 5 August, the 89.Infanterie-Division arrived to relieve the LAH, and was now facing the area from La Hogue to the Orne, north-west of Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. The 271.Infanterie-Division took up position along the eastern bank of the Orne, within the narrowing front, having relieved the Hohenstaufen. Like the 89.Infanterie-Division, its position lined up along the river, facing the eastern bank, up to 2 kilometres north of Thury-Harcourt, although the positions only really constituted a succession of support points. This area was under the control of the I.SS-Panzer-Korps and the only available reserves consisted of elements from the 12.SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend, although this division was also intended to be involved in the counter-attack on Mortain. This meant that the 89.Infanterie-Division would be on its own, with no panzers, against the Canadian Corps’ offensive . For now, these elements from the Hitlerjugend were using panzers from the Kampfgruppe Wünsche, which included the schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 and its powerful Tiger tanks.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

As discussed above, the operation would be preceded by establishing a bridgehead to the rear of the German front, and would be launched from the west bank of the Orne. This possibility was afforded to the Allies thanks to the withdrawal of the Panzerarmee to the west of the Orne and the abandonment of Hill 112 in order to shrink the front and reserve forces. Thus, two divisions from XII Corps, the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division and the 59th Infantry Division, which had followed the retreating German infantry divisions, were able to seize the bridges in the Evrecy and Avenay sectors. These two divisions were then ordered to build bridgeheads east of the Orne. The operation would take place in four phases:

First phase – The 59th Infantry Division would establish a bridgehead on the Orne, near Brieux, 5.5 kilometres north of Thury-Harcourt, with tank support provided by the 107th Battalion Royal Armoured Corps.

Second phase – The 53rd Infantry Division would then take over the bridgehead.

Third phase – The 59th Infantry Division would then establish a bridgehead near Thury-Harcourt, take Hill 205, 1 kilometre west of Meslay, and Hill 192, to the south-east of the former.

Forth phase – If the 59th Infantry Division were able to advance from the bridgehead established near Thury-Harcourt, the 53rd Infantry Division would cross it and push on to Falaise. If Hills 205 and 192 were not taken by the 59th Infantry Division, the 53rd Infantry Division would take them instead, before continuing to Falaise.

At 18:40 on 6 August, the British soldiers from XII Corps released artificial smoke in the Thury-Harcourt and Grimbosq sectors. During the night of 6-7 August, the artillery sent a rain of fire down on the German sector for two hours, before the 176th Infantry Brigade (59th ID) managed to cross the steep bank of the Orne, near Grimbosq, and to the south of it town, supported by the 107th RAC (tank battalion). On the afternoon of 7 August, two tank companies advanced across the river and then west of Brieux, on the eastern shore, towards Lower Grimbosq, in order to support the infantry. Meanwhile, in the morning, the battalion of fusiliers from the 271.Infanterie-Division had led a counter-attack to reduce the Grimbosq bridgehead, but was pushed back at the cost of many casualties for the Germans. The same would happen again following a second counter-attack.

The British were now firmly established on the eastern shore, supported by two tank companies, as elements from the 271.Infanterie-Division were unable to repel this already powerful force. As a result, the German commander-in-chief sent in the Kampfgruppe Wünsche in a counterattack. This particular Kampfgruppe was made up of staff from SS-Panzer-Regiment 12, the staff from the regiment’s 1st Battalion, with the 3rd Company (Panther) and 8th Company (Panzer IV), a company from schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 (Tiger), and the grenadiers of 1./26 and III./26 (minus its staff and a company).

The situation became critical during the day, and the British bridgehead strengthened from Lasseray (1 kilometre north of Grimbosq) via Grimbosq (to the east of the village) and Brieux (to the east) to the south of the locality, where the destroyed bridge over the Orne and the crossing point were located. The forward British elements had by now reached the forest of Grimbosq, as the front held by the 271.Infanterie-Division was several kilometres wide. Engaging the Kampfgruppe Wünsche now became a priority. However, during its march to the combat zone it was attacked by fifty-four bombers. Its Flak guns fired back immediately, damaging thirty-six, indeed so much so that some of the planes would not return to England.

The III./26 was sent in to clear out the Grimbosq Wood, allowing the rest of the Kampfgruppe to attack from the south and south-west of the forest. It was supported by the Hitlerjugend’s 3rd artillery group of (III./SS-AR.12). The Kampfgruppe attacked at 21:00 and made good progress, as panzers and infantry penetrated into Grimbosq and Brieux. The southern branch of the attack, with elements from the I./26, advanced to the bridge at le Bas de Grimbosq, according to the report by SS-Unterscharführer Förster, who was in position with two Russian guns (‘Ratschbumm’) from the 4./26’s tank section. However, he was forced to destroy them once all of the shells had been fired. At the end of a violent battle, twenty-eight tanks were destroyed, two of them by III./26, but the counter-attack’s initial success was soon stopped by the intervention of the British artillery. British observers could look out over the area from Hill 162, west of Goupillières, as Grimbosq is only 100-120 metres above sea level on the eastern shore. The grenadiers had to dig in and the German artillery was unable to see the Orne Valley and the crossing points. The panzers suffered under the terrible effects of the artillery, which caused the death of SS-Untersturmführer Alban, as reported by a veteran of SS-Panzer-Regiment 12’s 3.Panzer-Kompanie, SS-Sturmmann Hermann Linke, who recounted the battle near Grimbosq as the panzers were forced to retreat to more favourable positions:

It was in the late afternoon of 7 August. We were driving down a lane in the forest. Gradually, the wood thinned. But what we saw next was no longer a forest. Only tree stumps remained. All of the trees had been ripped apart by the artillery to a depth of about 200 metres. Outside of the forest was a large orchard. There too, there was not a tree that had not been shredded by artillery fire. We took up position at the edge of the wood. The Orne River flowed down in the valley, about 800 metres from us.

The attack started in the evening, together with the infantry. As the panzers’ engines were starting up, the enemy artillery fire resumed. The barrages were getting louder and stronger, and soon we could no longer see the grenadiers. Suddenly, the panzer on our left took a hit and caught fire immediately. On our right was SS-Untersturmführer Alban’s panzer. My commander, SS-Oberscharführer Mende suddenly said, ‘Alban has left his panzer and is leaping from one panzer to another. He must be crazy to leave his vehicle during this artillery barrage’. Alban shouted, ‘Disengage!’ He probably did not want to transmit this order by radio.

Then there was a terrible bang. A shell exploded right beside our panzer and we all immediately thought of SS-Untersturmführer Alban. Mende said to the driver, ‘Drive back slowly, maybe we can give Alban some cover that way.’ But we could not see him, and so Mende then gave the order to move forward again, hoping to catch sight of Alban. That’s when we saw him. He was leaning against a tree trunk, dead. I had never been a hero, but now I had to get out. I jumped towards the dead body of my platoon commander and secured his pay-book and other papers he had with him.

The enemy had observed our movements and concentrated his fire on us. The fire was so heavy that we were unable to take the body of our commander with us. In order not to get knocked out ourselves, we had to pull out as quickly as possible. By carrying the order to disengage in person, Alban had probably saved all of our lives and sacrificed his own. He was a brave soldier and a shining example for his men.

SS-Unterscharführer Heinz Freiberg was another veteran from the Panzer-Regiment. He reports that another platoon commander from 3./12 (Panther), SS-Untersturmführer Bogensperger was killed not too far away. Under such conditions, the German Command decided to continue the attack the next day in order to destroy the bridgehead. However, during the night, the British reorganised themselves so that they would be able to hold the bridgehead whatever happened. As a result, the new German counter-attack on 8 August would also fail. The fighting around Grimbosq resulted in a total loss of 122 men for Kampfgruppe Wünsche, including 24 killed, 91 wounded and 7 missing. SS-Panzer-Regiment 12 would lose 3 officers (including Alban and Bogensperger), 1 non-commissioned officer and 6 men (killed), while another 6 officers and 8 men were wounded. A total of 9 Panther tanks would be lost. Casualties from I./26 included 2 sub-officers and 48 men, while III./26 lost 7 men (killed) with 3 non-commissioned officers and 17 men wounded, and 7 men missing. The III./SS-AR 12 would lose a warrant officer. For their part, the British lost 28 tanks.

Operation Totalize II

Map showing the fighting that took place for the Grimbosq Bridgehead.

The Grimbosq Bridgehead

On 6 August, 176th Brigade, 59th Division, crossed the Orne near Bas de Brieux (near Grimbosq). The 271.ID fought fiercely, but the English were able establish a bridgehead. Kampfgruppe Wünsche counter-attacked on 7 and 8 August with Panther tanks and Tigers from 2nd Company.

However, the intervention of the 271.Infanterie-Division and Kampfgruppe Wünsche at the bridgehead prevented the 89.Infanterie-Division collapsing of its left flank. Despite their bridgehead, the British would remain temporarily blocked, unable to extend it, and this decisive action remained limited within the context of Operation Totalize.

However, at the time of the fighting, at 21:40 on 7 August, Heeresgruppe B ordered the transfer of the Hitlerjugend Division to reinforce the Panzergruppe, who were fighting next to the 7th Army. The transfer operations were activated and Kampfgruppe Wünsche was to follow at 10:00 on 8 August, after the destruction of the Grimbosq bridgehead. But two hours after the order arrived, at 19:45 on 7 August, SS-Brigadeführer Kraemer told the Panzerarmee that shelling was taking place in the Bretteville-sur-Laize sector and between Boulon and Grimbosq. Meanwhile, violent Allied artillery fire was falling on the German front line, which was the sign of an imminent offensive, and Kraemer requested that the Hitlerjugend Division remained at the disposal of I.SS-Panzer-Korps. It would eventually stay in the sector and thus play an important role in Operation Totalize.

The 12.SS-Panzer-Division was no longer at full strength, having suffered casualties following two months of heavy fighting, and some of its elements had been detached to the west (Kampfgruppe Olboeter). It currently comprised of Kampfgruppe Wünsche (as we have seen), which gathered all available panzers, Panthers at the Grimbosq bridgehead;, thirty-nine Panzer IVs, and around twenty Tigers (2nd and 3rd companies of SS Panzer-Abteilung 101), three grenadier battalions (I./25, I./26, III./26) and artillery (SS-Panzer-Artillerie-Regiment 12 and SS-Werfer-Abteilung 12).

On I./SS-Panzer-Korps’ right flank, to the east, the 272.Infanterie-Division would play an intermittent role against the left flank of the Allied offensive. But overall, the balance of power was very much in II Canadian Corps’ favour, which launched 60,000 men and more than 600 tanks into battle, meaning the odds were about three to one for men, and ten to one for tanks.

The 12 Manitoba Dragoons

This was the II Canadian Corps reconnaissance group and was launched into battle on 9 August 1944. 13 August was a black day for this unit, when nine vehicles were destroyed. C Squadron was in contact with elements of the 51st Infantry Highland Division in the Saint-Sylvain area. The unit would then participate in the closing of the Falaise Pocket.

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division

The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division saw action in the French Campaign (1939-1940), during which many of its number were taken prisoner. Reconstituted in Great Britain, it went on to serve in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and then in Sicily (1942-1943), before being repatriated to England to begin training for the Normandy Invasion. Its first elements landed on Gold Beach in the evening of 6 June, before taking part in Operation Epsom. From 7 August it was attached to the II Canadian Corps, with whom it fought during Operation Totalize.

The Canadian Corps

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division provided the other armed force of the offensive, and was part of the 1st Canadian Army and II Canadian Corps, commanded by Major General George Kitching. It was created in Canada in 1942 and transferred to Great Britain from the autumn of 1943. It landed in Normandy in the last week of July 1944, taking over from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on the night of 30-31 July. By 2 August it was already advancing towards Tilly-la-Campagne, although it failed to capture this position, and then came to a halt at La Hogue on 5 August. However, it was now preparing for the new operation and was comprised of an armoured brigade, as well as an infantry brigade.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 29th Reconnaissance Regiment, The South Alberta Regiment.

– The 4th Armoured Brigade aligned the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General’s Foot Guards), the 22nd Armoured Regiment (The Canadian Grenadier Guards), the 28th Armoured Regiment (The British Columbia Regiment) and a motorised infantry battalion attached to The Lake Superior Regiment.

– The 10th Infantry Brigade aligned The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, The Algonquin Regiment, and The Argyll and Sutherland Regiment (Princess Louise’s).

– It also included artillery from the 15th and 23rd Field Artillery Regiments, 5th Anti-Tank Regiment and the 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. In addition, engineering support was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Engineers and communication and information was provided by the 4th Canadian Armoured Divisional Signals.

Two Canadian infantry divisions would also join the offensive.

The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was under the command of Major General Charles Foulkes. Born on 3 January 1903, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Regiment in 1926, made captain by 1930, lieutenant colonel in 1940, brigadier in September 1942, then finally major general in 1944, when he took command of division on 11 January.

– Its 1st Infantry Brigade (4th Brigade), aligned The Royal Regiment of Canada, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and The Essex Scottish Regiment.

– Its 2nd Infantry Brigade (5th Brigade) aligned The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, Le Régiment de Maisonneuve and The Calgary Highlanders.

– Its 3rd Infantry Brigade (6th Brigade) aligned Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada and The South Saskatchewan Regiment.

Reconnaissance was provided by the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) and artillery was provided by the 4th, 5th and 6th Field Artillery Regiments, the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 3rd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the Toronto Scottish Regiment (machine guns and mortars), the 2nd Canadian Divisional Engineers and the 2nd Canadian Divisional Signals.

The division was formed at Aldershot in 1940 and participated in the landing attempt at Dieppe in August 1942. It landed in Normandy in the first week of July 1944, attached to the II Canadian Corps with the 51st ID, and took part in Operation Atlantic from 18 July onwards. It then unsuccessfully attacked the Verrieres ridge on 20 and 21 July, before taking part in Operation Spring from the 25th. The Black Watch had lost 324 men after finally taking Verrieres, but now remained stuck at May-sur-Orne, Saint-André-sur-Orne and Saint-Martin-de-Fontenay. However, all this meant that the men knew the area well.

The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, commanded by Major General R.F.L. Keller, had been fighting in the Battle of Normandy since 6 June 1944. It was formed on 20 May 1940 and was chosen in July 1943 as the first Canadian division to land in Normandy. It fought bravely in the fighting to the west of Caen against the Hitlerjugend, and was the first to enter the city on 9 July. It was attached to the II Canadian Corp as of 11 July, along with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. It proceeded to participate in Operation Atlantic on the 18th and Operation Spring on the 25th, before finally being relieved by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on the night of 30-31 July and being sent to the rear to recuperate. On 7 July it was recalled in order to participate in Operation Totalize and would be in action on the night of 9-10 July.

– Its 7th Brigade comprised of The Royal Winnipeg Rifle Regiment (The Winnipegs), The Regina Rifle Regiment (the Reginas) and the 1st Battalion The Canadian Scottish Regiment.

– Its 8th Brigade comprised of The Queen’s Own Rifle of Canada, Le Régiment de la Chaudière and The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

– Its 9th Brigade comprised of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI), The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (Glens or SDG) and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Novas or NNSH).

Reconnaissance was provided by the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars) and artillery by the 12th, 13th and 14th Régiments, the 3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and the 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

The Canadian Corps also included the 51st (Highland) Division, a British unit, which was commanded by Major General Tom Gordon Rennie. He had been injured on 12 June while in charge of the 3rd Infantry Division, and then took over command of 51st Division on 26 July following the dismissal of Major General C. Bullen Smith. The division comprised of three battalions of the Black Watch, a regiment that had first been created in 1740.

– Its 152nd Brigade comprised of the 2nd and 5th Battalions The Seaforth Highlanders, and the 5th Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

– Its 153rd Brigade aligned the 5th Battalion The Black Watch, and the 1st and 5th/7th Battalions The Gordon Highlanders.

– Finally, its 154th Brigade was made up of the 1st and 7th Battalions The Black Watch, and the 7th Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

The German forces opposing the offensive

The 89.Infantrerie-Division would bear the bulk of the offensive. The unit had been formed in January 1944 in Bergen near Celle, in northern Germany, as a division of the 25th wave, and trained in Norway from March to June. It was commanded (from February to September 1944) by Generalleutnant Conrad Oskar Heinrichs. In June, it was ordered to join the western front and four trains arrived at Le Havre and in the Amiens sector on 26 June, although by this time the rest of the trains carrying the men had not yet reached the OB West. Like the 84.ID and 85.ID (which would also see combat in Normandy), the division was low on numbers, with only 8,000-8,500 men. In fact, it comprised of only two infantry regiments; the Grenadier-Regiment 1058 and the Grenadier-Regiment 1056. Its artillery regiment (189) comprised of three groups and it also had an anti-tank group (Panzerjäger-Abteilung 189) with a single battery, and a battalion of fusiliers, the Füsilier-Battalion 189. On 3 August, it was placed under the authority of I.SS-Panzer-Korps and the next day its units were approaching the front. The Grenadier-Regiment 1056 was already in the Falaise/Bretteville-sur-Laize area, along with III./Artillerie-Regiment 189 and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 189. The Füsilier-Bataillon 189 and II./Artillerie-Regiment 189 were near Thiberville, while I./Artillerie-Regiment 189 was still south of Lisieux (according to OB West I Nr. 6450/44 g.Kdos, 4.8.44, T311, R28, F7035148). The division was in line by 6 August, reinforced by 13 Sturmpanzer IVs, which had been provisionally detached from Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 (from OB West Ia Nr. 6526/44 g Kdos 6.8.44, TR 311, R28, F7035220 and Pz.Gr.West Ia Nr. 801/44, g.Kdos, 7.8.44, Nachtrag zur Tagesmeldung 6.8, T313, R420, F8714118).

On the left flank was the 271.Infanterie-Division, which had been formed in November 1943 in the centre of Germany, from the former staff of the 137.ID and a large number of soldiers from this division, which had been dissolved after two years of fighting on the Eastern front. It took the number of an old 271.ID, which had been formed at the beginning of the summer of 1940 in Wehrkreis (military region) V and was made up of elderly soldiers who were to be sent to France in case the country continued to resist. As the campaign in France only lasted six weeks, the division was dissolved and its number was reassigned to a new division formed in Wehrkreis XIII. It completed its training in Holland and then joined the Montpellier sector, in the South of France. It quickly reached full strength, having just 119 men on 1 April 1944, but 11,617 men plus 1,004 Hiwis (volunteers from the USSR) by 19 June. It had 330 machine guns and 72 sub-machine guns, 58 8 cm mortars, 19 7.5 cm infantry guns, 6 15 cm heavy infantry guns, 32 10.5 cm howitzers, 22 7.5 cm Pak guns, 188 motorcycles, 158 light vehicles, 164 trucks, 38 self-propelled vehicles and 4,484 horses! It comprised of three infantry regiments; the GR 977, 978 and 979. The Artillery-Regiment 271 (four groups) had 3-4 guns for the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 9th, 10th and 11th batteries. The 12th had 3 guns, the others 4 (Anlagen zum KTB Nr.2 LVIII, Pz.Korps Ia, Gliederung 271. New Div.I.7.44, T314, R1496, F000963). The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 271 was a single company (Panzerjäger-Kompanie). The division was sent to the Normandy front at the end of June, embarking from Lyon on 1 July. It headed first for Rouen, because at the time, the plan was to send it to the Pas-de-Calais. Then, on the night of 13-14 July, its first elements (II./GR 979 and Panzer-Kompanie) arrived in the area north of Thury-Harcourt. On 15 July, 47 trains were scheduled to leave and 23 of them arrived with men. Three days later, the following elements arrived: II./GR.978, 3., 8. and 9./AR 271 at Livarot, II./AR 271, 13e and 14./GR 979 at Falaise, the Pionier-Bataillon 271, III./AR 271 (partially) were at Bernay, the 1st and 2nd batteries of AR 271 were at Brionne, most of the IV./AR 271 was at Chartres, I./GR 978 and the 7th battery of AR 271 were in Houdan, while the I./GR 971 was in Rouen. On 23 July, the bulk of the division took over from the 10.SS-Panzer-Division Frundsberg in the sector of Hill 112, west of the Orne. The other elements arrived the following day, but part of the units were still in the Livarot/Saint-Pierre-sur-Dive/Mézidon sector. Then, during the retreat to shorten the front line, the 271.ID moved to hold the eastern bank of the Orne between the left flank of the 89.ID and Thury-Harcourt, relieving the 9.SS-Panzer-Division. This was its position on the eve of Operation Totalize. From December 1943 to October 1944, the division was commanded by Generallutnant Paul Danhauser.

Sturmpanzer IV ‘Brumbär’ (sd.Kfz. 166)

Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 217 was the only unit to have been equipped with Sturmpanzer IVs during the Battle of Normandy, and had short 15 cm howitzers mounted on an armoured cockpit on a Panzer IV chassis. Although the gun’s low speed made it ineffective against tanks, it was otherwise useful against fixed targets. The battalion comprised of three companies of fourteen vehicles each and three others for the command company. Its organisation was similar to that of Sturmpanzer-Abteilung 216, which saw action at the Battle of Kursk. This unit was first stationed in the Reich (at Grafenwöhr), and on 24 June 1944 received orders to join the Normandy front, reaching the area around Condé-sur-Noireau/Le Bény-Bocage and Vire on 18 July. However, it did not appear to have all of its allocated panzers and it would only be used sparingly. On 21 July, its 2nd Company was in the 21.Panzer-Division’s sector and was attached to the division two days later. On 24 July it comprised of eleven Sturmpanzer IVs, with two in repair. On 29 July it was attached to the 1.SS-Panzer-Division LAH. The next day, it lined up nine panzers, with two in repair. On 30 July, 3rd Company was transferred from the II.SS-Panzer-Korps to the LXXIV Korps. On 6 August, thirten Sturmpanzer IVs from this battalion were with the 89.Infanterie-Division (Pz.Gr.West Ia Nr. 853/44 g. Kdos, 10.8.44, Nachtragzur Tagesmeldung 9.8., T313, R420, F87141177). On 9 August, ten of these panzers were in action with the Hitlerjugend and only one with the 89.ID. On the 10th, only five were operational with the HJ, and the situation was the same the following day. On 11 August, 1st Company was attached to the 271.Infanterie-Division (Pz AOK 5 Ia Nr 899 /44g. Kdos, 12.8.44, Nachtrag zur Tagesmeldung 11.8., T313, R420, F87141187). According to a report of 16 August, the battalion’s losses from 1-15 August were ten killed, thirty-five wounded and twelve missing. Out of 772 men, 69 were missing. A total of seventeen Sturmpanzer IVs were combat ready, but fourteen were under repair (predicted to be ready in less than three weeks). The battalion’s tanks would see action equally between the 89.ID and the HJ, as the two units fought side by side.

An anti-aircraft Crusader III AA MK3 TANK from the 1st Polish Armoured Regiment. Note the letters ‘PL’ for Poland and the number 51 for the unit.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division

The 1st Polish Armoured Division was commanded by Major General Stanislaw Maczek, who had been a colonel in the 10th (Motorised) Cavalry Brigade in Poland as early as October 1937 (the brigade had been formed in the spring of 1937). After fighting in Poland, the brigade retreated to Hungary and the men headed for France at the end of October 1939. Following the defeat of France, many of its members made their way to Britain, where the idea of reconstituting a Polish armoured unit quickly re-emerged, thanks to the efforts of General Sikorski. The remnants of the 10th Brigade settled in Scotland, establishing its headquarters at Forfar. Due to their travels throughout Europe, German propaganda described the brigade’s men on the radio as ‘General Sikorski’s tourists’. However, they would eventually prove to be very formidable opponents and the decision to regroup them in an English armoured division, the 1st Polish Armoured Division, was taken on 25 February 1942 on the orders of General Sikorski.

Even after intensive training, its numbers were still inadequate as there were too many older soldiers. The division was inspected by Marshal Montgomery on 13 March 1944 and a month later, on 13 April, General Eisenhower’s inspection prompted more sympathy among the Poles. By the time of Operation Overlord, the division comprised of 885 officers, and 15,210 non-commissioned officers and men. Its resources included a reconnaissance unit, an armoured brigade, a detached infantry brigade, divisional artillery, and engineering and service units, just as any other British division.

– Reconnaissance was provided by the 10th Polish Mounted Rifles, equipped with Cromwell tanks and commanded by Major Maciejewski.

– The 10th Polish Armoured (Cavalry) Brigade was commanded by Colonel T. Majewski, with Major Marian Czarnecki as his Chief of Staff. It was known as the ‘Schwarze Brigade’ (Black Brigade) by the Germans, in reference to the colour of the uniforms worn by the tank crews. The men also wore black berets, unlike their British counterparts, who wore khaki ones. The brigade, commanded by Colonel Wladislawdec, was equipped with Sherman tanks and included the 1st Polish Armoured Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Stefanewicz (its regimental insignia bore the coat of arms of Saint-Nicholas); the 2nd Polish Armoured Regiment; the 24th Polish Lancers Regiment and the 10th Polish Dragoons Regiment.

– The 3rd Polish Infantry Brigade, or 3rd Rifle Brigade, included the 1st Polish (Highland) Battalion; the 8th Polish Battalion (or 8th Rifle Battalion); the 9th Polish Battalion (or 9th Rifle Battalion), which was known as Flanders, and the 1st Polish Independent HMG Squadron.

– The division’s artillery was provided by the 1st Polish Motorised Artillery Regiment; the 2nd Polish Motorised Artillery Regiment; the 1st Polish Anti-Tank Regiment, and the 1st Polish Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

– Other units included the Engineers (10th and 11th sappers), as well as medical services, military courts, reserve squadrons etc.

The 1st Polish Armoured Division joined the front only shortly before Operation Totalize, on 30 July 1944. Edward Podyma was originally from Poland, but had been living in Normandy, near Potigny, where a large Polish community had settled in the area in the 1920s, due to the iron mines:

How did I find myself in this war? I received mobilization orders from the Polish Army (in France) on 11 June 1940, more than two months before my eighteenth birthday. I first had to go to a recruiting centre in Coëtquidan, 45 kilometres south-west of Rennes. In June 1940, the situation escalated quickly and there was no alternative but to defend our cause. Those who choose to continue the struggle headed for England. After four years of training in Scotland we were eager to see some action, but we didn’t land on the Normandy coast until 30 July 1944, at Courseulles-sur-Mer.

Other units, especially the armoured ones, disembarked at Arromanches. The division gathered to the south of Bayeux before finally setting out for the front on 6 August. Besides Corporal Podyma, other Poles from the Potigny area included Michal Kuc, who had arrived in Normandy in 1924 and worked as a miner in Saint-Rémy-sur-Orne. He was now the driver for the brigade commander, Major Wladislawdec’s tank. Meanwhile, Stephan Barylak, who had arrived in France at the age of seven, had also been signed up in Coetquidan before travelling to England. In April 1942 he was incorporated into the 24th Lancers. All three men worried about their families, and whether or not they would encounter them during this offensive, especially when destiny saw fit to bring them so close to the Polish colony of Potigny.

Operation Totalize III

A new generation of armoured infantry transports was born as a result of Operation Totalize: the ‘Kangaroos’, which were created using the chassis of Canadian Ram tanks. The REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) had already created this type of vehicle in early July to repair other armoured vehicles abandoned in No Man’s Land. This one is from the 30th Armoured Brigade Workshop, 79th Armoured Division.

At 23:30 on 7 August, the leader of II Canadian Corps, Lieutenant General Simonds, launched the offensive following the preliminary bombardment. In total, 1,020 RAF heavy bombers had dropped 3,462 tons of bombs on targets that had been marked by coloured artillery shells laid on the edges of the area to be hit, thus framing the corridor for the offensive. In the west; May-sur-Orne and Fontenay-le-Marmion. To the east; La Hogue, Secqueville-la-Campagne, Garcelles-Secqueville and Saint-Aignan-Cramesnil. The smoke obscured the entire area meaning that a third of the bombs could not be dropped. In addition, ten planes were shot down by Flak and the Grenadier-Regiment 1055, on the right flank, thus resulting in the bombs actually landing on Allied positions. It was not to be the last time such ‘friendly fire’ affected Allied troops in this operation. Seeing the bombs falling on their adversaries, the men from 89.Infanterie-Division come out of their individual foxholes to admire the show. During the bombardments on the left flank (west of the RN178 road), on the positions of Oberst Roesler’s Grenadier-Regiment 1056, a platoon left its position and advanced forward, taking the Canadian soldiers who were ready to attack by surprise. The grenadiers then returned to their positions after the bombing had finished, bringing Canadian prisoners back with them.

Lieutenant General Simonds had planned the operation around an unusual time frame and with equally unusual methods; a nocturnal aerial bombardment before an equally nocturnal attack. Errors were avoidable. The battlefield was once more (as it was for Operation Spring) illuminated by artificial lights, with headlights directed towards the sky creating an ‘artificial moonlight’ on both sides of the RN158 road, aided by the green glows of the marker shells that created a central boundary between the two forces of attack. It was time for the offensive to begin. To the west of the RN58, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division moved into the attack, preceded by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, in four columns. To the east, the 51st Highland Division, preceded by the 33rd British Armoured Brigade, in two columns. Each column was preceded by two Sherman tank sections, along with two flail tank sections to clear any mines, and engineers. Each column included 1,900 men and 200 armoured vehicles. A further group of tanks followed behind to support the armoured and infantry columns. The exploding shells illuminating the clouds from underneath made it easy for the men to navigate, as they followed the beams of light and took their bearings on their compasses. The advance was marked with conventional coloured lamps placed on stakes 1.5 metres high every 5 metres. The direction they needed to follow was given by the DCA tracing shells, which were continually aimed due south.

Allied artillery only opened fire at 23:45, when the two parallel forces approached their starting line (the road from Saint-André-sur-Orne to Hubert-Folie). On a front 3,700 meters wide, 300 guns launched an artillery barrage that advanced 200 metres per minute; all of the units were mechanised, hence the fast pace. Lessons had been learned from Operation Goodwood’s failure : the British and Canadians had not had armoured personnel carriers such as the excellent German SPWs. In the rush, the 150 mm guns from self-propelled ‘Priests’ were removed and reinforced with armour plates , converting them for armoured troop transport. They were consequently nicknamed ‘Unfrocked Priests ‘or ‘Kangaroos’ and carried the infantry alongside the tanks. The Allies also had 720 guns for various targets, some even reaching the 89.Infanterie-Division’s CP located at Bretteville-sur-Laize. But despite all these precautions, many columns went the wrong way and arrived late at their objectives. This was, in part, due to the lack of visibility caused by the fog, smoke, and dust raised by the caterpillars, but also because of fire from isolated resistance pockets and artillery. The columns were distended, with some vehicles ending up in other columns and being hit by ‘friendly fire’, while some lead vehicles fell into bomb craters and blocked the way.

To the west, 4th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, was at the forefront of the advance in the midst of the fog and dust. It advanced in four columns behind the flail tanks. Each was centred on the brigade’s three battalions and on the 8th reconnaissance regiment (14th Canadian Hussars). Seventy-seven Kangaroos carried the infantry companies, accompanied by the Sherman tanks from 2nd Armoured Brigade, followed by the Tank-Destroyers from 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, and the Bren-Carriers of the Toronto Scottish Regiment (machine guns). Meanwhile, 5th Brigade remained in reserve, while 6th Brigade would have the task of neutralising the German defensive points at May-sur-Orne (the objective for the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, with the support of flame-throwing tanks), Rocquancourt (South Saskatchewan) and Fontenay-le-Marmion (Camerons).

The infantry from 6th Canadian Brigade, which was on foot, came into difficulty as they attacked a part of the front which was only defended by two infantry battalions from the GR 1056 (Oberst Roesler) and some assault cannons. However, Rocquancourt was taken at 0:45 by the South Saskatchwan. The attack by the Fusiliers Mont-Royal was pushed back at first; the bombardments having clearly not been able to crush the powerful resistance of Colonel Roesler’s grenadiers. May-sur-Orne would not be fully taken until 16:00 on 8 August and would then only fall with tank support from the 1st Hussars. Roesler’s grenadiers had remained determined, in spite of the deluge of fire they had endured.

At Rocquancourt, which had been reduced to a heap of ruins (although the church bell tower still stood), a force of nearly 300 armoured vehicles advanced through the middle of the night in the smoke and dust, as well as through German fire and smoke bombs, all of which caused the armoured vehicles from 4th Brigade to veer off course. The Essex Scottish had to take Caillouet, but needed to reorganise near Rocquancourt at 8:55, losing vehicles under fire in the process, and would not reach its destination until noon. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) was halted by artillery fire at Gaumesnil quarry and had to dig in 1.5 km north-west of the area. Indeed, by dawn on 8 August the Royal Regiment of Canada would be the only one to arrive at its objective east of Gaumesnil, but it still suffered losses. Nevertheless .

To the east of the RN158 road, the 51st Highland Division advanced from the Bourguébus/Hubert-Folie sector in two armoured columns, following the same principle as the Canadians. Its 154th Brigade (1st and 7th Black Watch, 7th Argylls) on Kangaroos, 350 armoured vehicles and tanks, accompanied by the 33rd Armoured Brigade in two columns of four advance vehicles only 20 metres apart, advanced under the DCA’s spotlight and via the coloured shells. However, the attack on La Hogue was pushed back at first by elements of the 89.Infanterie-Division, supported on the right flank by the 272.Infanterie-Division. But when Hill 75, located to the west of Secqueville and also held with the support of 272.Infanterie-Division, was finally lost, elements of the 89.Ifanterie-Division who had fought there fell back to their second position on either side of Saint-Aignan. The attack also now clashed with the left flank of 272.Infanterie-Division, and the wood east of Secqueville was taken by the Germans. A German counter-attack was repulsed and the 272.Infanterie-Division consequently pulled its left flank back to Chicheboville/Conteville. The 1st Black Watch finally reached its objectives at 06:00, including Saint-Aignan. The 7th Black Watch reached Garcelles-Secqueville, which it would hold with the Churchill tanks from the 148th RAC, while the 7th Argylls and the Churchill tanks of the King’s Own (whose commander was killed in his tank) would cling on to Cramesnil from 04:30.

After the capture of Saint-Aignan, British tanks attacked in an easterly direction, but were beaten back near Conteville and Poussy. Behind the attacking force, the 132nd Brigade (2nd and 5th Seaforth Highlanders, Camerons) had to clear the areas that the two armoured columns had missed, on foot. At Tilly-la-Campagne, the 2nd Seaforth was repulsed by grenadiers from Grenadier-Regiment 1055 (89th), who clung on to the ruined village. Despite reinforcements, the 5th Seaforth was still unable to succeed and required the help of a tank platoon from the 148th RAC, who attacked the German grenadiers from the rear. At 09:30, an officer and thirty survivors from Grenadier-Regiment 1055 finally surrendered.

The Two Armoured Brigades

The first phase of the offensive, led by infantry divisions, was supported by two armoured brigades. To the west, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was supported by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade with three tank regiments: the 6th Armoured Regiment (also called the First Hussars); the 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse) and the 27th Armoured Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment). To the east, the British Armoured Brigade who supported the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was the 33rd Armoured Brigade, also with three tank regiments: 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1st Northants); the 144th Regiment RAC (until 22 August) and the 148th Regiment RAC (until 16 August).

8 August

Faced with this stampede and deluge of fire, the Kommandeur of 12.SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend, SS-Oberführer Kurt Meyer, headed out over the terrain in his Volkswagen before dawn, accompanied by liaison officers, to assess the situation. The information they gathered together was not reassuring: the 89.Infanterie-Division’s positions would be broken along a wide front and although some of the support points would still hold, contact with them would be broken. Tanks were reported in Saint-Aignan and if the breakthrough succeeded, the only option was to establish a new defensive line behind the Laison sector, on either side of Potigny. This could only be done effectively with the help of a new division, the 85.Infanterie-Division, which was on its way (on foot and by bicycle), and whose first elements were already in Trun. However, time was needed in order for it to reach the front line and stop the offensive to the far north, or at least slow down the Allied advance. For the moment, Kurt Meyer (nicknamed Panzermeyer) saw only defeated men who had ‘cracked’ under the violence of the bombardment, and who had retreated south in disarray. Some of the men were bravely trying to hold the ruined villages along the front lines, clinging on for hours in front of the Allied steamroller of armoured vehicles and infantry. Some had even tried to counter-attack. But this vision of a routed army had a shocking effect on SS-Oberführer Meyer:

For the first time during these long, gruesome years of genocide, I was seeing German soldiers running away. They were unresponsive. They had been through hellfire and stumbled past us with fear-filled eyes. I looked at the leaderless groups in fascination. My uniform stuck to my body; the heavy burden of responsibility made me break out in a sweat. I suddenly realised that the fate of Falaise and the safety of both armies depended on my decision.

I stood up in the Volkswagen and moved in the direction of Caen. More and more confused soldiers approached me as they fled southwards, as I vainly tried to stabilise the collapsing front. The appalling bombardment had unnerved the units of the 89.Infanterie-Division. Rounds landed on the road, sweeping it empty. The retreat could only continue off to the sides of the road. I jumped out of the car and was alone in the middle of the road.

I slowly approached the front and addressed the fleeing soldiers. They were startled and stopped [what they were doing]. They looked at me incredulously, wondering how I could stand on the road armed with just a gun. The young soldiers probably thought I had cracked. But then they recognised me, turned around, and waved to their comrades to come and organise the defence around Cintheaux. The place had to be held at all costs to gain time for the Kampfgruppen; speed was imperative.

Measures had to be taken immediately in order to prevent a collapse of the German front in this sector. Panzermeyer met General der Panzertruppen Heinz Eberbach, the leader of the 5.Panzer-Armee, at Urville. Eberback wanted to get an idea of the situation near the advanced positions, agreeing with Meyer’s analysis and with his planned counter-attack. In the meantime, I.SS-Panzer-Korps had already ordered the Allied breakthrough to be halted and, if possible, pushed back:

– Reinforcements would be provided by the HJ Division’s 2nd panzer battalion (thirty-nine Panzer IVs) (II./SS-Pz.-Rgt.12) and a Tiger tank company (around ten). Kampfgruppe Waldmüller (III./26, III Battalion SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26) was to take the high ground south of Saint-Aignan (east of the RN178) in a counter-attack. The Korps-Begleit-Kompanie would be attached to KG Waldmüller on its right, and would also join the attack.

– The Divisions-Begleit-Kompanie (HJ Division), along with 1st Company, SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 12 (also attached to KG Waldmüller), would advance on Estrées and take the high ground to the west of Saint-Sylvain.

– KG Wünsche would immediately suspend its counter-attack near Grimbosq and Brieux, disengage, and then occupy the high ground west and north-west of Potigny. It would then defend the area between Laison and Laize (on the western flank of the Allied breakthrough).

– The HJ’s artillery regiment (SS-Pz.-Art.-Rgt.12), with SS-Werfer-Abteilung 12, would support the counter-attack along the positions near the main road.

– The Flak group (HJ Division) would establish an anti-tank barrier on both sides of the mainl road, at Bretteville-le-Rabet.

By noon, all of the first phase objectives of Operation Totalize had been achieved along a line exceeding 5-7 kilometres south of where the front had been the day before. To the west, the Canadians counted 344 losses, 72 in the initial (armoured) breakthrough and 262 infantrymen who had advanced on foot to try and liquidate the various pockets of resistance (May-sur-Orne would hold until 16:00). To the east, the 51st Highland Division suffered losses due to the tragic bombardment error (including 17 losses in the 5th Black Watch alone) and 260 casualties as of midnight on 8-9 August.

– The reconnaissance group (SS-Pz.Aufkl.-Abt.12), under the command of SS-Untersturmfürher Wienecke, would maintain contact with the left flank of 272.Infanterie-Division (to the east) and would reconnoitre the existing gap, most likely in a westerly direction.

The 12.SS-Panzer-Divsions’s CP was located in a place that in other conditions might have been rather romantic, being under the tomb of Marie Joly, at the Breche au Diable (just under 1 mile east of Potigny). Kurt Meyer would remain with KG Waldmüller during the counter-attack.

It is impossible to provide the numbers and positions of the Nebelwerfer (rocket launchers) and Luftwaffe Flak positions. The 12.SS-Panzer-Division’s former chief of staff, Hubert Meyer, stated that, ‘we knew the Werfer-Regiment 83’s (Werfer-Brigade 7) 3rd battery was in position near Soignoles (south of Saint-Sylvain) and covered an area from Saint-Sylvain to Urville to a depth of 7.5km. Other batteries from the 1st group had to be engaged in the same sector. KG Waldmüller set off to Brettevillele-Rabet to assemble there and the attack was to begin around 12:30.’ It is also important to note the presence of III.Flak-Korps in the west, in the Laize sector, which would play a significant role in the counter-attack with its formidable 88mm guns.

Phase II was now put into action. To the west, General George Kitching’s 4th Canadian Armoured Division (4 CAD) arrived to occupy the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s positions on its former starting line. To the east, General Stanislaw Maczek’s 1st Polish Armoured Division was positioned on the former starting line of the 51st Highland Division. These two armoured divisions had not yet experienced what it meant to be under fire, and it would prove to be a terrible baptism for the Canadian division. The 4 CAD was to be divided into three battle groups. The first was the Halpenny Force (under the orders of Lieutenant Colonel Halpenny, commander of the 22nd CAR), comprising of the 22nd Canadian Armoured Regiment (22nd CAR) or Canadian Grenadier Guards (CGG) with the LSR, the 96th Anti-Tank Battery and a squadron of flail tanks. They had little time to prepare; their orders only reaching them at 17:00 the day before (see Brigadier General William J. Patterson, Soldiers of the Queen, The Canadian Grenadier Guards of Montreal 1859-2009, p.232).

As for the division’s infantry brigade, Brigadier Megill’s 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade (the Algonquins) was still in the Vaucelles area (south of Caen) on the morning of 7 August. They had witnessed the night-time hell and were already knew what their objectives were: Bretteville-le-Rabet and Falaise. In the morning, their convoys had been hit on the road from Falaise to Ifs, where they had to wait for most of 8 August until the bombardment in the afternoon. The infantrymen of the Lincs’ (Lincoln and Welland) had left Caen on foot and remarked that at midnight, ‘the sky was as bright as daylight.’ In the middle of the morning on 8 August, they were ordered to head for Rocquancourt, and the regiment’s journal describes the march:

[It was] like a day of horror under the artillery fire; limestone buildings were pulverized, houses were without windows and roofs, and the air was polluted by the pestilence of death. The unit had to dig in again while the plans were developed at the brigade command post. The men had soon learned the necessity and routine of digging shelters because they were targeted by the mortars. They could even be hit by a shell in a trench. So you dug here and there for your own safety. It became your home. (Geoffrey Hages, The Lincs, a History of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment at War, 2007, pp.27-29).

In this sector the hard limestone was close to the surface, making the task of digging any form of shelter difficult, but the men would remain here until nightfall.

Operation Totalize IV

Phase I of the operation had allowed the Allies to capture May, Fontenay-le-Marmion, Rocquancourt, Garcelles, Secqueville, and even Saint-Aignan, which would play an important role at the beginning of the next phase. At the start of Phase II, the HJ Division’s counter-attack using Tigers, Panzer IVs (I./12) and the KG Waldmüller would fail. However, over the next two days the 4th Canadian Armoured Division would suffer a disaster at Hill 140 (east) and heavy losses to the west at Hill 195, with the failure marking the end of Operation Totalize.

Kurt Meyer took command of 12.SS-Panzer-Division following the death of Fritz Witt. He attempted to stem the rush of Allied armoured vehicles with skill and determination.

Phase II

The Canadians from 4AD assembled between Fleury-sur-Orne and the main road, with the exception of a tank battalion which would advance east of the road, while the Poles gathered to the south-east of Cormelles . This new attack would be preceded by a bombardment scheduled between 12:26 and 13:55. However, the Eighth US Air Force did not reach its targets until 12:55. The Bomb Line passed through the great Aucrais quarry, at Caillouet, in the west, to Robertmesnil. But once again, the bombardment would hit Allied units. The batteries of III.Flak-Korps opened fire against this armada, even though they were already coming under fire from Allied artillery, managing to take down nine four-engined B-17s. A large number of aircraft were unable reach their targets and out of 658 bombers, only 497 aircraft managed to drop a total of 1,487 tons of bombs. One of the lead bombers became disorientated and dropped its load on the Poles positioned in the suburb of Vaucelles, south of Caen, resulting in thirty-six casualties (eight killed and twenty-eight wounded). The total Allied casualties from such bombarding errors amounted to 315 (Polish division and 3rd Canadian ID), of which sixty-five were killed and 250 wounded. In addition, four guns and fifty-five vehicles were destroyed, causing profound disruption. The head of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Major General Keller, was among the wounded and had to be evacuated. In The Story of the Algonquin Regiment, Major G.L. Cassidy writes: ‘The generally accepted idea was that the Germans had captured some of the flying fortresses and had joined the armada for a surprise bombardment. Whatever the reason, the depressing event was experienced by all of the troops, who then feared that the whole operation would be compromised.’

In his account, Kurt Meyers describes the decision he took with Waldmüller to counter-attack:

I met Waldmüller north of Brettevillele-Rabet and we moved to Cintheaux together to orientate ourselves. Wittman’s Tigers were already east of Cintheaux, hidden behind the hedgerows, and had not engaged in the fire fight up to that point. Cintheaux was under artillery fire, but the open terrain around it did not seem to be receiving any fire. From the northern outskirts of the village we saw the dense columns of tanks north of the road to Bretteville-sur-Laize. It was the same view to the south of Garcelles and to the edge of the wood located to the south-east of the area. The sight took our breath away. We did not understand the Canadians’ actions, why did such a powerful armoured force not continue its attack? Waldmüller and I decided that we must not let these ‘squadrons’ of tanks reach us and the enemy tanks must not be allowed to attack. On either side of the road, an armoured division stood ready for attack. The offensive must not resume; we had to seize the initiative. I decided to defend Cintheaux with the forces already in position there, and to attack east of the road at lightning speed road using all the available soldiers in order to upset the enemy’s plans. The wood located to the south-east of Garcelles was our objective … During my last discussion with Waldmüller and Wittmann we had seen a single bomber flying over the area several times, followed by the flares. I gave the order to attack immediately so that we could get out of the area that was going to be bombed. I shook Michel Wittmann’s hand once more and remind him that the situation was particularly critical. The good man laughed his youthful laugh and climbed into his Tiger, which up until that point had destroyed 138 enemy tanks. Would he increase this score, or would he be the victim this time?

The panzers rapidly rolled north, crossing the open terrain at full speed and using the undulating ground to shoot at the enemy tanks. The grenadiers followed the panzer attack and advanced towards their objective. I was at the northern edge of Cintheaux when the enemy artillery launched a destructive bombardment on the attacking panzers. Michel Wittmann’s panzer fired in the midst of the enemy fire. I knew his tactics on such occasions: keep going, do not stop! All of the panzers rushed into the steel hell; they knew they had to prevent the enemy from attacking and disrupt his plans. Waldmüller followed with his infantrymen; the brave grenadiers following their officers.

A machine gunner cried out to me in the all-destructive artillery fire. He pointed to the north-west. Speechless when confronted with the overwhelming power of the Allies, I observed an endless chain of large four-engine bombers approaching us. The ironic remarks of a few grenadiers allowed us forget the great danger for a fraction of a second. A young soldier from Berlin shouted out, ‘What an honour, Churchill has sent a bomber for each of us!’ Actually he was quite right. More bombers were approaching than we had grenadiers on the ground!

There was only one way to save ourselves at that point: get out and move into the open terrain. The men defending Cintheaux left the estate at lightning speed and waited for the bombs to drop in the fields to the north. We had been right: village after village was being flattened. It did not take very long before large fires sent flames skywards. We noted with pleasure that the American bombing fleet had also hit the Canadians. The last waves flew over the vigorously attacking KG Waldmüller, without dropping a single bomb on an armoured vehicle. The aircrew had engaged the targets they had been assigned without worrying about how the situation might have changed in the meantime…

Kampfgruppe Waldmüller had approached the patch of woods and was already fighting the Polish infantry. The grim duel of tank against tank was being conducted between the vehicles of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the Tigers of Michel Wittmann. Occasionally, the Tigers could hardly be recognised. Well-guided artillery fire was being directed against the Tigers and the Panthers [author’s note: these had to be Panzer IVs]. In the meantime, we had reoccupied our old positions in the ruins of Cintheaux. The estate was being attacked from due north and came under the direct fire of the Canadian tanks. Flanking fire from a few of Wittmann’s Tigers helped to keep the Shermans away from Cintheaux. We observed strong enemy movements 1 kilometre in front of us, heading in the direction of Bretteville-sur-Laize. Attack after attack collapsed in front of us. We had incomparable luck: our opponents did not launch a single concentrated attack against us. The Divisions-Begleit-Kompanie reported its location as west of Saint-Sylvain. It was fighting the lead elements of the 1st Polish Armoured Division and had destroyed several armoured vehicles. The Poles no longer attempted to move out of the woods at Cramesnil … The fighting had lasted several hours. The wounded were collected south of Cintheaux and evacuated under enemy fire.

As we know, Saint-Aignan was occupied by the 1st Black Watch from 06:00, along with tanks from 148th RAC and 144th RAC or 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry (1st Northants), as well as tanks from the 33rd Armoured Brigade. The British now occupied positions north and east of Saint-Aignan, with the 1st Northants’ CP being located in an orchard north of the locality. The tank unit’s A Squadron was in position south of Saint-Aignan and in the small wood to the south-west, facing Cintheaux. The squadron had three sections made up of three classic Sherman tanks and a Sherman Firefly tank. The latter was armed with a 76.2 mm long barrel and used APDS tank shells that could pierce 19.2 cm armour plating from 1,000 metres. It was this A Squadron from the Northants who would face the Tigers’ counter-attack, and we will return to these units later.

It is important to remember the course of events before this attack. The Tiger’s 2nd Company had been engaged with KG Wünsche’s Panther tanks against the Grimbosq bridgehead and, despite being recalled, would not be available to counter-attack. Instead, the Tigers from 3./s.SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 would be committed. Around 06:00, the head of 3rd Company, SS-Hauptsturmführer Heurich, had gone north with his vehicle without receiving orders from Wittmann, who was in command of the Tiger tank battalion under the authority of KG Wünsche. The aide-de-camp, SS-Hauptscharführer Höflinger, went to stop Heurich and told him to wait for orders. At about 07:00, a seemingly nervous Wittmann, (unusual for this normally calm and balanced Bavarian), went first to the battalion’s headquarters with Doctor Rabe and then to 3rd Company. He arrived at Cintheaux around 11:00 where he found the Tigers belonging to SS-Untersturmführer Willi Iriohn, SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Heurich, SS Oberscharführer Rolf von Westernhagen, SS-Oberscharführer Peter Kisters and SS-Unterscharführer Otto Blasé (all members of 3rd Company), as well as those of SS-Untersturmführer Helmut Dollinger (communications officer) and SS-Hauptscharführer Hans Höflinger (aide-de-camp). Together with the Tiger of SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, this meant that only eight Tiger tanks were ready for the counter-attack.

A few weeks later, SS-Hauptscharführer Höflinger would provide the following testimony of these few hours:

I was woken up exceptionally early at dawn on this hard day. This was because Heurich’s company had left its position, without orders from the Kommandeur, and advanced on the road towards Caen. Michel immediately wanted to know what was going on and for that reason, as I was the aide-de-camp, I had to get to the company as soon as possible and find out what was happening. I did this and then reported to Michel. After a brief pause, which I was accustomed to on his part, he ate his breakfast, a little nervously, and then ordered me to take the two staff tanks to where Heurich’s company was located. This I did before returning very quickly in my Schwimmwagen to report back to Michel.

We then left together, him in a Kübelwagen, me in a Schwimmwagen, for Meyer’s command post to attend a meeting. When it was over, we discussed whether or not we would accompany the attack. The communications officer, Untersturmführer Dollinger, was with us. All of a sudden, Michel said, ‘I have to go because Heurich will not.’ That day, Heurich led his first fight and it was dangerous. After a few hours, we returned to the panzers, which were on the road at Cintheaux. I did not have to accompany the attack at first, but all of a sudden the situation changed. It made me nervous because Michel was uncertain in his decisions. Shortly afterwards, we climbed into our engines and camouflaged them from any aerial observation.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann set off in Tiger 007, accompanied by the experienced SS-Unterscharführers Hein Reimers (driver) and Karl Wagner (gunner), both veterans of the Russian Campaign, as was SS-Sturmmann Rudi Herschel (radio operator). The crew was completed by SS-Sturmmann Günter Weber (loader). Wittmann, Dollinger and Iriohno’s Tigers were to the right of the RN158 road, and were probably joined by Kisters’ and a fifth Tiger. Höflinger and von Westernhagen’s Tigers advanced down the left side of the road, the company commander’s vehicle (Heurich), also advanced on the right, but behind the others. On the right, over to the east, was KG Waldmüller with I./25 and the Panzer IVs from II./SS-Panzer-Regiment 12, who moved in a northerly and north-easterly direction. What follows is the testimony of Hans Höflinger, who describes the Tiger attack:

We set off together, Michael to the right of the road and myself on the left. There were still four of us [Tigers], with von Westernhagen on the same side as me. There was a small wood about 800 metres to the right of Michael that would play at part in our destiny. We drove for 1.5 km and I received a radio message from Michael which only confirmed my apprehension regarding the small wood. We came under heavy anti-tank fire and Michel once again tried to contact me on the radio, but the message was interrupted. When I looked to the right, I realised that Michael’s panzer had stopped. I sent him a radio message but received no answer. My panzer then took a direct hit and I had to evacuate immediately as the vehicle was already beginning to burn fiercely. I lept out with my crew and we headed for the rear. I looked at what was happening and was completely shocked; five of our panzers had been destroyed. The turret on Michael’s tank was turned towards the right and hanging forward. None of the crew was left. Along with Heurich, I now began looking for who still had his panzer. I approached Michael’s panzer in von Westernhagen’s vehicle but couldn’t reach it. Dr. Rabe also tried, but in vain … The exact time was 12:55, along the Falaise-Caen road, near Cintheaux.

The history of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, written by one of its veterans, Ken Tout (A Fine Night for Tanks, the Road to Falaise, Sutton Publishing, 1998) provides a better explanation of what happened. After a ‘night of horror’ (remembering that in spite of the overwhelming Allied superiority and the disintegration of certain elements of the 89.Infanterie-Division, which Kurt Meyer had witnessed), many of the division’s elements fought back with great resistance, clinging on to certain villages, such as May, causing heavy casualties for the Allies who had attacked in the middle of the night. After leaving Cormelles, the unit passed through Bourguébus and crossed the start line, before reaching Garcelles then Saint-Aignan. The 1st Northants entered Saint-Aignant early in the morning, along with a tank unit from the 33rd Armoured Brigade (independent), accompanied by the 1st Black Watch, the infantry unit of the 51st Division. The tanks took up position in a circular arc south of Saint-Aignan: Captain Boardman’s A Squadron pointing towards the south and west (towards the Falaise road) and C Squadron pointing towards the south and east, towards the open terrain. B Squadron was kept in reserve, to the rear, while infantry from companies A and B, 1st Black Watch, took up position in trenches either behind or close to the tanks.

For C Squadron, the morning was still calm and peaceful as the sun broke through the early mist. In front of the village, the fields gently descended down to a thick hedge punctuated by large trees. Afterwards, the ground opened up towards the buildings of the Robertmesnil farm. Everything was calm, even though the unit was only 3 miles from the front line. No. 2 Troop from C Squadron advanced to a position between the trees in the hedge, without spotting any threat. While all eyes were surveying the terrain, discussions were taking place over the internal radio: ‘Why are we not going to take the other ridge?’ To which Commander Ken Snowdon replied, ‘We are already quite far forward and are sufficiently isolated enough here!’ Breakfast was taken while branches were cut down from the trees to help camouflage the tanks – an important precaution given what was to come. The illusion of peace lasted until 10:30, when mortar bombs began to hit the area. Over the radio came the message, ‘Medics forward, “Big Sunray” is wounded’. “Big Sunray” was the nickname of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry’s leader, Lieutenant Colonel Doug Forster. Stretcher carriers ran to the middle of the CP. Forster had been speaking with the Hon. Peter Brassey, head of B Squadron, when they were both injured by a mortar shell; Forster in the neck and Brassey in his hand. Major Wyckeman now took command of the unit, while the deputy commander was a Welshman, Captain Llewellyn. Forster had been a retired Hussar, but had gone back into service at the beginning of the war. His authority had helped keep the unit together and his loss was a hard blow for the Yeomen to bear.