A Sherman tank of the Fort Garry Horse
Both Carpiquet airfield and village were held by the 12th SS (Hitlerjugend) Panzer Division, which had proven a tenacious and ruthless foe during the June 7–12 fighting. All SS divisions were fierce and fanatical, but the 12th SS was uniquely comprised almost entirely of teenaged soldiers commanded by older, veteran officers and NCOs. The youths had been indoctrinated to believe they were Aryan “supermen.” The 12th SS was commanded by the extremely capable, thirty-three-year-old Standartenführer Kurt Meyer.
Its thick stone-walled buildings bordered by the Caen-Bayeux railway to the north and the airport to the south, Carpiquet was a typical Norman farm village. On the other side of the railway was a series of iron quarries. To the east and west were grain fields.
In front of the village, fifty panzer grenadiers from 26th Regiment hid in trenches and bomb shelters. Another 150 of Meyer’s men were mostly sheltered in thick concrete bunkers.
The June fighting had scythed through Meyer’s infantry strength. Lacking reinforcements, his only hope was to break the Canadian attack with heavy weapons. The troops in front of Carpiquet were intended to lure the Canadians into a series of minefields and then suck them into the village by executing a rapid withdrawal. All available artillery and mortar units had the village zeroed in. Chief among these was an 88-millimetre battery next to Saint-Germain, a village to the east. Five Panzer Mark IV tanks lay in ambush position inside the southern hangars. A dozen-strong company of Panther Mark V tanks nearby could also be brought into play. Meyer had several unique 50-kilogram rockets [Nebelwerfers]filled with either explosives or flammable oil.
Meyer never doubted his young soldiers would fight like lions. They had done so during the attacks on the beaches—and events during those days left many fearful for their lives should any decide to surrender. During that fighting, 156 Canadian prisoners had been brutally murdered by the 12th SS.
Although most execution sites, such as the Abbaye d’Ardenne, remained behind German lines, enough bodies had been recovered for the atrocity to be known. Without orders being issued, it was understood among the Canadians that they should show “little mercy in subduing the German defenders” of Carpiquet.
Brigadier Ken Blackader knew his 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade would aim “at the heart” of the 12th SS and “the fanatical youth of this division” would fiercely defend it. A forty-six-year-old World War I veteran, who had won a Military Cross during that war, Blackader had a rock-solid reputation for competent leadership and personal courage. Quickly realizing his three battalions were insufficient to win both airport and village, he acquired 7th Brigade’s Royal Winnipeg Rifles as reinforcement. Two Fort Garry Horse tank squadrons would help the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and Régiment de la Chaudière gain the village, while a third supported the Winnipeg advance on the hangars. Once these two objectives were taken, the Queen’s Own Rifles would clear the control and administration buildings on the airfield’s northern edge. A squadron each of the 79th British Armoured Division’s specialized tanks, known as “funnies,” were also on hand. One squadron mounted Petards—short-barrelled guns that fired a heavy charge intended to destroy concrete bunkers. The Flail squadron’s tanks were fitted with rotating drums to which long chains were attached that slapped mines into harmlessly detonating. The third was a Crocodile squadron, its tanks equipped with flame-throwers.
A lavish artillery plan included every gun within range—428 from one heavy, eight medium, and twelve field regiments. There were also six 16-inch guns of battleship HMS Rodney, two 15-inch guns of monitor HMS Roberts, and nine 6-inch guns of cruiser HMS Belfast. A total of 30,250 shells would provide a creeping barrage for the troops to advance behind while also concentrating on specified strongpoints. The entire complement of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (MG) 4.2-inch mortars and Vickers medium machine guns were ranged on village and airfield. Two squadrons of tank-busting Typhoon fighter-bombers were also available.
In the North Shore’s perimeter on the night of July 3–4, four men huddled in a slit trench. Lieutenant Chester MacRae was upset when Lieutenant Hector “Hec” MacQuarrie and Company Sergeant Major Joe Murray both confessed to premonitions that they were sure to die in the fight. Neither McRae nor Lance Corporal Wes McDavid could offer meaningful reassurance, because it was clearly going to be a rough attack.
At 0300 hours, the North Shores, Chauds, and Queen’s Own moved to starting positions in front of La Villeneuve, while the Winnipegs formed up outside Marcelet. To avoid being seen, the men lay down in the wheat fields. Major Lochie Fulton walked over to greet Major Alex Christian, whose Fort Garry Horse ‘B’ Squadron had just rumbled up. Intelligence staff reported that the airport was “a very strong defensive position” with many “concrete strong points, barbed wire, communication trenches, gun positions of all types and even extensive underground tank hangars and tunnels … Also many infantry trenches with machine guns and mortars and anti-personnel and tank minefields.” Yet, because 8th Brigade’s main thrust was directed towards Carpiquet and the control complex on the northern side of the airport, the tanks supporting the Winnipegs were not accompanying the infantry. They would instead remain on the edge of Marcelet to serve as an armoured reserve that could be sent towards Carpiquet if required. Christian’s Shermans would fire their 75-millimetre guns over the advancing infantry’s heads—scant help on a battlefield boiling with blinding smoke and dust raised by the massive artillery bombardment.
At 0500 hours, North Shores’ Major Clint Gammon, commanding ‘D’ Company, looked over his shoulder in amazement as “the whole horizon in a semi-circle behind us became a blaze when the artillery opened up.” Major J.E. “Ernie” Anderson at the head of ‘A’ Company thought the barrage “awe-inspiring.” One minute he was “in a quiet and peaceful countryside with dawn just breaking; the next, the ground … was shaking from the bursts of shells.” When the great naval guns on Roberts and Rodney joined in, the noise rose “to a crescendo.” Anderson’s men were on the battalion’s right, Gammon’s on its left. They were to secure the first half of the village, and the two following would clear the rest. Gammon had two platoons out front, the third hanging in reserve. As the advance was not to begin until ten minutes into the bombardment, Gammon decided he had time to check on the rear platoon. He had covered just fifty yards when the start line exploded with shell bursts. Through burning and smoking wheat, Gammon ran back to the company front and discovered that “a lot of my men were dead or wounded.”
German artillery and mortar units had deliberately struck at this moment to catch the Canadians on their start lines. Increased wireless traffic the day before had warned Meyer that a Canadian strike was imminent, and past experience led him to expect a dawn attack. So he arranged a coinciding fire plan. Perfectly timed, it had devastating results.
The bombardment and counter-fire came as Meyer was scrambling over the rubble of destroyed airfield buildings. A salvo of 50-kg rockets flashed overhead, “leaving their long, fiery trails behind them.” Dashing into the concrete bunker of the infantry battalion’s headquarters, Meyer was unable to hear Sturmbannführer Bernard Krause’s report. There “were crashes and shrieks all around us. We crowded together in the bunker entrance. The bunker shook as the … rounds from the battleships exploded nearby … The naval rounds spun entire hangars into the air. The village could not be identified … Thick clouds of smoke lay to the west.”
German casualties were heavy. “Many … survivors had to dig themselves and their weapons out of the rubble,” the 12th SS historian recorded. Every building in Carpiquet and at the airport was either destroyed or damaged. While most exterior walls of the stone houses in the village withstood the shellfire, their roofs were torn open.
Lying in the dew-drenched wheat field had left Rifleman Alex Kuppers of Fulton’s ‘D’ Company soaking wet. He was watching the fall of the incoming shells. Kuppers poked the guy beside him. “I think we should move—either right, left or back,” Kuppers shouted. “The way these are coming, the next one’s going to be here.” The soldier refused. Kuppers scrambled back about four yards to where a sunken road afforded some shelter. Then the signal to advance sounded. When Kuppers reached his previous spot, he saw that “the shell had landed right beside [the other soldier] and the only thing missing was that half his foot was gone. Blood was running from his eyes.”
As the Winnipegs crossed the start line, Fulton thought the artillery was falling short, “but then I realized we were under German barrage, which had been waiting for us. Their locations made it possible to direct their fire with deadly accuracy. Casualties were immediate, and in the waist-high wheat, the stretcher-bearers had difficulty finding the wounded and in giving first aid. Jeeps usually used to evacuate casualties to the regimental aid post (RAP) could not be used because, as soon as a vehicle appeared on the airfield, it was knocked out by the German guns.
“We kept moving ahead but soon all the Platoon officers were hit. The last one to go was [Lieutenant] Jack Mitchell. He came over to … say that he was hit in the arm and would go back to the RAP to get fixed up and would be right back. Jack was a stout-hearted individual, but his wounds were more severe than he realized, and his war was over.”
‘A’ Company led the Winnipeg advance in arrowhead formation with Lieutenant Richard Moglove’s No. 9 Platoon at the front and the other two platoons behind and out on opposite sides. Rifleman Arthur Davey was on No. 9 Platoon’s point. Davey was packing bolt cutters, his task to cut a hole through the eight-foot perimeter fence. To his relief, the artillery had ripped the fence asunder. The platoon dashed through great gaping holes and Davey threw the cutters aside.
“Davey, get up on the tarmac and dig me a slit trench for OP[Observation Post] purposes,” Moglove yelled.
“Why me?” Davey replied.
“Because you have the pick.” True enough. It was slung across Davey’s back. “I crawled up and took one swing with the pick when a sniper shot ricocheted between me and the handle of the pick. I moved out of there fast,” leaving the pick “stuck in the tarmac.”
All three battalions were taking heavy casualties. Private Abraham Feldman, a young wireless operator assigned to Major Hugues Lapointe of the Chauds’ ‘A’ Company, weighed 122 pounds and stood just five feet, five inches tall. The No. 18 set weighed 35 pounds, his rifle 11 pounds. Feldman figured he carried at least 70 pounds of equipment.
Walking out from the start line in reserve position behind the two leading companies, ‘A’ Company was “clobbered.” Feldman saw Carpiquet “inundated with bombs, shells and bullets. You just had to keep going. It’s hard to describe. You’d move, advance two feet at a time, drop down, get up again and bingo you hear the 88s. It was a slow advance with men dropping like flies.”
To indicate the location of a wounded man, the nearest soldier would drive the man’s rifle bayonet into the ground so the butt was visible above the wheat. The rifle markers also helped prevent tanks and Bren carriers from running over the fallen. On the extreme left flank, the North Shore’s carrier platoon rumbled along in their Bren carriers next to the railroad. Their commander, Captain J.A. Currie, thought the “dust and smoke made it like a night attack … and during the clear spots, we could see men going forward, but had no idea so many had been hit. Padre [R. Miles] Hickey was right among them, giving the last rites and so was Doc [John Aubry] Patterson with his medical kit. No other unit had a pair to match them.”
Hickey had waded into the midst of ‘B’ Company, shredded even as it advanced towards the start line. “Everywhere men lay dead or dying,” Hickey wrote. “I anointed about thirty right there.”
‘A’ Company’s Major Anderson thought the “advance through the grain field was little short of hell.” He kept his bearings in the boiling smoke by taking constant compass readings. Behind him, one platoon wandered off at a right angle to the line of advance. Lieutenant Darrel Barker had been mortally wounded, and, unable to see the rest of the company, the platoon drifted out of sight into the smoke before Anderson could bring it back on course.
Many of the fifty 12th SS soldiers deployed in the field west of Carpiquet had been killed or so badly dazed by the shelling that they meekly surrendered when overrun. But a few remained defiant. Their fire added to the casualty toll. “I am sure at some time during the attack,” Anderson recalled, “every man felt he could not go on. Men were being killed or wounded on all sides and the advance seemed pointless, as well as hopeless. I never realized until the attack on Carpiquet how far discipline, pride of unit, and above all, pride in oneself and family can carry a man, even when each step forward meant possible death.”
‘B’ Company’s Lieutenant Charles Richardson had only twenty of the thirty-five men in his platoon left. Lieutenant Paul McCann’s platoon was on his right. Both men were using compasses. When the smoke lifted momentarily, Richardson saw that McCann’s men were now to his left. He had no idea how that had happened. His men emerged from the smoke in an extended line and suddenly faced a field that had been burned to stubble by artillery fire. Charging forward, they wiped out a slit trench defended by five Germans. Richardson saw a pinwheeling stick grenade land in front of him. “I felt a hot stinging in my right side and left hand, then thought it didn’t matter too much.” Suddenly alone, Richardson took on the German position single-handedly and killed its defenders. His batman and two runners had all been seriously wounded by the grenade.
“My side started to bother me badly and my left hand was peppered with shrapnel. I had a long cigarette case in the inside pocket of my battledress and a towel wrapped around my waist. In order to look at my side, which was throbbing, I unbuttoned my tunic and the towel was full of shrapnel. I reached for a cigarette and found the case bent almost double by a large piece of shrapnel. I felt I was not hit too badly but out of nowhere appeared our beloved colonel and I quickly had orders to get back to the first aid post—which marked the finish of my first month in action.”