On this day, 26th June 1944, Operation Epsom (AKA battle of the Odon), the Allied plan to seize the German-occupied city of Caen, France during the Battle of Normandy, commenced. The offensive was to last until 30th June, and, although it resulted in heavy casualties and the British forces were ultimately forced to withdraw (they would eventually succeed in capturing Caen in mid-July), it is generally considered to be an Allied success story. The operation forced the Germans to mount a vigorous defence, which meant committing two newly-arrived Panzer divisions that would otherwise would have been sent to strengthen an offensive against British and American forces at Bayeux.
General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps, which included the 11th Armoured, 15th (Scottish) and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions, was given the task of helping to draw the Germans into fighting to the east, thereby allowing the American breakout from the beachhead to the west. Most of the troops involved were very inexperienced, having arrived in Normandy just days before, and for many this was their first battle. For riflemen William Parsons, John Edward Oswin and Thomas Querns, all three of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) regiment, and all aged just 18, it would also be their last. Each was tragically killed on this first day of fighting, and their headstones can be found at St. Manvieu War Cemetery, Cheux.
There were certainly many hazards to be encountered on the way to Caen, since the German defensive lines were several miles thick and low visibility on the day of attack meant that planned support from bombers never materialised. Early on the 26th the 15th (Scottish) Division began a 3-hour artillery barrage, supported by naval guns from the fleet off the beaches. The 31st Tank Brigade aided their advance, but it was swiftly counteracted by the 12th SS Division, who fought fiercely. During the advance, the troops would face not only tanks but machine guns, snipers, flame throwers, booby-traps and minefields. Nevertheless, they made steady progress, although they had some difficulty in securing the flanks.
Both sides fought hard over the next two days, and during June 28th the British managed to capture the northern slopes of Hill 112, thereby securing a foothold across the River Oden. However, they failed to conquer the summit, and since their bridgehead was very vulnerable, ultimately decided to retreat when the weather cleared and Allied aircraft reported that a huge German counter-attack was underfoot.
By the end of the battle, over 4,000 United Kingdom casualties would be sustained to the Germans’ 3,000- in fact, 25% of the total casualties from the 15th (Scottish) Division between landing at Normandy and VE Day were sustained over those four days of fighting- but 126 German tanks would also be knocked out of action. Moreover, Rommel’s plan to drive a wedge between the British and American troops would be foiled, largely thanks to the diversion of their Panzer divisions. The British divisions were able to snatch a few days rest behind the front line after the battle, but the Germans could afford no such luxury, as their forces were far more stretched than the Allies realised, and all units were needed on the front. They were forced to push on, tired and depleted.
Were any of your relatives involved in Operation Epsom? If so, you could log into Forces War Records, www.forces-war-records.co.uk, and search our vast archives to find out more about them. Perhaps there’s a war hero in your family just waiting to be remembered, or even discovered for the first time! Regardless, it’s worth visiting our ‘historic documents’ library to read some of the interesting war diaries that we get sent. There’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there.