Operation Goodwood was the culmination of the long Allied campaign to win the tactically crucial city of Caen, the regional capital of the Bay of the Seine. The British and Canadian forces that landed at Sword Beach were supposed to liberate it straight away, as an extension to their initial beachhead. The 21st Panzer Division was in the area, and if the Allies could capture Caen they’d gain a well-placed outpost and help to prevent tank attacks on the beaches all in one go. However, it was not to be.
As Dr Stephen Badsey explains in his ‘D-Day: from the Normandy Beaches to the Liberation of France’, certain geographical advantages made Caen a very difficult city to attack. To the west and south-west of the city lay difficult-to-navigate, featureless scrubland, not to mention Hill 112, from which the whole battlefield could be clearly seen. The countryside to the east was wide, flat and scattered with farms, an open killing ground. Meanwhile, a head-on attack would take soldiers immediately into built-up areas, which were notoriously difficult to fight in and full of hiding places, so that battles in this section were very dangerous for both the soldiers and the civilians who remained in the town. It was also possible to get a great view from the tall towers and steel works of Colombelles to the north east, and from the Bourguebous Ridge behind Caen (the gateway to Falaise). So, all approaches were difficult, and stealth near impossible to achieve with so many areas of high ground for the enemy to watch from. Unfortunately, there was no alternative but to launch an attack, since the armies had landed on a narrow corridor of land between two rivers, barely big enough for the soldiers to congregate and keep stores, and Caen guarded the mouth of that corridor. The only way into Europe, and certainly to Falaise, the next objective, was through the city.
Capturing Caen was the initial objective of 185th Infantry Brigade, who were supposed to have had the support of 27th Arrmoured Brigade. However, the beachhead had turned into something of a bottle-neck, delaying the armoured division so that the infantry were forced to press on alone. They managed to reach Beiville, three miles short of the city, but to their dismay were met by the fearful 21st Panzer Division emerging from Caen (reconnaissance had suggested that the Panzers were further south at the time). The British fought bravely, and took out a large number of tanks, but were only saved from being driven back into the sea by the fortuitous arrival of the 6th Air Landing Brigade in their gliders. The Panzers retreated, but Caen would not fall that day.
In fact, it would not fall for over a month, despite un-ceasing attacks by both the British and Canadian forces. First, the Desert Rats (7th Armoured Division), the British 1st Airborne Division and the 51st Highland Division tried their luck on 10th June, aiming to hold the road junction at Villers-Bocage and surround the town, but they were unluckily met and driven back by a tiny but fierce German tank unit under the command of Fighter Lieutenant Michael Wittmann of the Waffen-SS, no less than the record holder for most enemy tanks destroyed by either side.
The next attempt on Caen, Operation Epsom, commenced on 26th of June. This time the 15th Scottish Infantry Division attacked alongside the 31st Tank Brigade. A foothold was secured over the River Oden, and the 43rd Wessex Infantry joined the charge, but the British were once again forced to retreat. There was apparently no way to attack Caen from the west, so next a frontal assault would be tried.
The Canadians took on the challenge, and on 4th July closed with the Hitler Jugend Division, who fought ferociously, launching a series of suicide attacks on the tanks. Still, the Allies managed to take over the village of Le Carpiquet and an airfield west of Caen. On 7th July they bombed the city, then Operation Charnwood was launched on 8th July and the Northern outskirts of Caen finally fell. The Germans firmly held on to the rest of the city.
Dempsey needed to strike the final blow, which he did in the form of Operation Goodwood. The frontal assault hadn’t produced the goods, so it was time to try from the east. The three armoured divisions in the area were joined to form VIII Corps under O’Connor, and at 5.30am on 18th July 1,000 Allied heavy bombers dropped 5,650 bombs on the town in 45 minutes, then further bombs and shells for the next two hours. It seemed that the only way the Allies could win was by virtually destroying the town (a safe area was designated for the French citizens to shelter in, and the information of its whereabouts passed to the Allies by the French Resistance, but still many civilians died). The army went into action once the bombing stopped, with the 11th Armoured Division heading the charge.
The Germans on the front line, having been absolutely crippled by the Allied bombing, surrendered at once, but many Germans fought as if the very success of the German war depended on holding Caen - which, as the commanders of both armies had realised early on, it did. The Allied attack progressed swiftly, but soon ran into problems. The 11th Armoured Division got ahead of the infantry, who were held up by small firefights with scattered German units. Meanwhile, the rest of the tank units, trying to reach the fighting on the other side of the River Orme, found the crossing so narrow that they couldn’t progress easily, with some being stuck waiting their turn to cross all night long. The 11th Division found themselves alone, meeting with tougher and tougher opposition, and The Guards Armoured Division, next in line, also came under attack from tanks, assault guns and anti-tank guns. However, everyone fought on, and the 3rd British Division steamed in to help VIII Corps from the east, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions from the west. Caen finally fell on 19th July, and the next day so did Bourguebous village and the ridge overlooking Falaise. It had cost 400 tanks and 5,000 men to advance 7 miles, and still the job of breaking out from Caen to Falaise lay ahead.
The fact that it took the British and Canadian forces over a month to secure Caen damaged Montgomery’s reputation and worried the US forces. However, the ferocity and persistence of the attacks on the city had, over the course of the month, forced the Germans to pull in the bulk of their available tanks in to help defend it. This meant that the attention of the leaders and crucial arms were diverted away from the American advance from the beachheads. The ground the US troops were having to navigate was exposed and inhospitable, so they could not easily have coped with stronger opposition. Also, huge numbers of tanks fell defending Caen which could not later be used to combat Operation Cobra, in which the US forces successfully punched through the German defences and broke out into the rest of Europe. The British and Canadians were now firmly established on French soil and could no longer be pushed back into the sea, and they had a good supply line for troops and new tanks. The German forces were not so lucky, as the allies now effectively controlled the skies over Normandy. Exhausted and depleted, the German forces were not in the best state of mind to face the skirmishes yet to come. Already, their leaders could sense the clouds gathering. Eventually, they must lose the war.
Why not log on to Forces War Records and search our vast collection of records to find out more about your ancestors – there could be a war hero in your family just waiting to be discovered and remembered…See: http://bit.ly/HL95It