On This Day, June 26: Operation Epsom

Blogger: GemSen Launched on the 26th June, 1944, during the Battle of Normandy, Operation Epsom (aka the First Battle of the Odon) was a British offensive designed to seize the then German occupied city of Caen, France. Operation Epsom took place between the 26 and 30 June, 1944, and was a major Allied objective designed to outfox the Germans. The plan was to encircle the German defenders around Caen by  sweeping round to the west and south of Caen to reach the main Caen-Falaise road.

The attack was carried out by General O'Connor's VIII Corps (11th Armoured, 15th Scottish) and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions), which was part of the follow-up force that landed in Normandy after D-Day. Most of the 60,000 soldiers under O’Connor’s command were inexperienced and for many of them Epsom was their first experience of battle. British General, Montgomery, had originally planned to start the Epsom offensive on the 18th June, but unfortunately at that point only one of O’Connor’s divisions had reached Normandy. Poor weather also meant that the Allies could only land a fraction of supplies they needed. This delay enabled the Germans to place the powerful 2nd SS Panzer Corps, led by experienced General Hausser, in Normandy  by the 26th June. The Battle Visibility in the Normandy countryside was poor and the campaign continued to be plagued by bad weather, which brought thick mist and rain causing cancellation of useful Bomber support. It also made the ground very boggy and awkward to operate in. Operation Epsom began with early attacks to secure lines of advance with the units of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division advancing behind a three hour long artillery barrage - this was supported by naval guns from the fleet off the beaches. The tanks of the 31st Tank Brigade accompanied the 15th Scottish who made steady progress, but that didn’t stop the Germans from putting up a strong, defensive fight. As the troops got closer to the Odon River the scene got more and more dangerous and securing the flanks was difficult. During the 28 June, the British managed to capture the northern slopes of Hill 112, which dominated the local area, but the British were still unable to secure the summit. Allied aircraft reported sighting large German motorised columns travelling in daylight, signaling an impending major counterattack. The British bridgehead over the Odon was very vulnerable at this point. General Hausser hoped to launch his attack on the morning of the 29th June, aiming to strike the bridgehead across the Odon. However, the skies were clear on 29 June, and his tanks came under constant attack from rocket firing Typhoons. Delayed until the afternoon, the German offensive got put off track, by which time the Allies had captured a copy of Hausser's plans, and the 11th Armoured Division had moved some tanks onto Hill 112. The technical advantage of the 200 or so tanks the Germans brought to the battle pretty much went to waste as the Germans soon discovered how difficult it was to attack in limited visibility in the Normandy countryside and a lot of fighting happened at close range. The remaining German troops were under constant artillery bombardment stopping them reforming for a new attack and the enemy tanks that had threatened to reach Cheux had been destroyed. In the end, both Operation Epsom and the German counterattack had failed, coming to an end on 30 June and on the night of 29th June O'Conner withdrew his tanks from Hill 112. The German counterattack had forced Montgomery to abandon any idea of a prolonged offensive west of Caen, or of crossing the Orne on that flank. As is the case with many of the events of war, opinions differ about the intentions and conduct of Operation Epsom. However, there is a general agreement that it tipped things in favour of the Allies. Operation Epsom was successful in the way that it drew the attention of the Germans onto the British and Canadians, preventing Rommel from moving any of his panzer divisions west towards the American front, where preparations were underway for the breakout from the beachhead (Operation Cobra). The Germans had to commit all their strength, including two panzer divisions to Normandy that were originally earmarked for an offensive against British and American positions around Bayeux.  There were heavy casualties on both sides but Rommel couldn't put any of his units in reserve as they were needed on the front line - the German's couldn't rest. This campaign had stopped disruptions that could have threatened the major Operation Cobra breakout, and had actually been more successful than most Allied commanders realised at the time. The British carried on with the initiative and further operations by the Allied forces meant that Caen was eventually captured in mid-July. Sources: Wikipedia and History of War
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