Operation Atlantic

This was a Canadian subsidiary pinning operation by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps round Caen within Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group during ‘Goodwood’ (i) in the Allied Normandy lodgement (18/20 July 1944).

This Canadian offensive was launched in conjunction with the larger British ‘Goodwood’ (i), and was initially successful inasmuch as gains were made on the flanks of the Orne river near St André sur Orne, but an attack by the Canadian 4th and 6th Brigades against strongly defended German positions on Verrières ridge resulted in heavy casualties and only limited operational gains.

The historic Norman city of Caen had been a primary D-Day objective for Major General L. G. Whistler’s British 3rd Division after its landing on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944. The capture of Caen was by any standards an ambitious first-day objective, but was of singular importance as its capture by forces of Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps was an essential element in the plan of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group for Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army to establish itself along the line between Caumont l’Eventé in the west as far as points to the south-east of Caen, in order to acquire airfields and shield the left flank of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army as it moved to take Cherbourg on the north coast of the Cotentin peninsula after its landing on Omaha and Utah Beaches. Possession of Caen and its surroundings would also give the 2nd Army a staging area from which to advance to the south with the object of taking Falaise, which could itself be used as the pivot for a swing right to advance on Argentan and then toward the Touques river. Here the country between Caen and Vimont was especially promising as it was open, dry and suitable for the execution of fast-moving offensive operations. As the Allied forces greatly outnumbered the Germans in armour and mobile formations, the rapid transformation of the battle in the Normandy lodgement from its initial phase of armour-supported infantry operations into a second phase of infantry-supported armoured operations would be to the advantage of the Allies.

Hampered by congestion in its Sword Beach beach-head, which delayed the deployment of its armoured support, and forced to divert effort to attacking strongly held German positions along the 9.3-mile (15-km) route to the town, the 3rd Division was unable to assault Caen in significant strength on 6 June, and was brought to a halt well short of its outskirts. Immediate follow-on attacks were unsuccessful as the Germans, their first-day surprise, solidified and strengthened their defence. With a direct assault on Caen now deemed no longer feasible, the 21st Army Group and the 2nd Army ordered a pincer assault by Crocker’s I Corps and Lieutenant General C. G. Bucknall’s British XXX Corps. This ‘Perch’ offensive was launched on 7 June with the object of encircling Caen from the east and west. The I Corps, striking to the south out of its Orne river bridgehead, was halted by Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision, and the XXX Corps became bogged down in front of Tilly sur Seulles, to the west of Caen, in the face of stiff opposition from Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer-Lehr-Division. In an effort to compel the latter to withdraw or surrender, and also to keep operations fluid, Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division pushed through a gap which had opened in the German line in an attempt to take Villers Bocage. The resulting battle lasted one day, and saw the vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division withdraw from the town, but by 17 June the Panzer-Lehr-Division had itself been driven back, and the XXX Corps took Tilly sur Seulles.

Another attack by the 7th Armoured Division was planned but not implemented, and further offensive operations were abandoned when, on 19 June, a severe storm descended on the English Channel and Normandy. The storm lasted for three days, and significantly delayed the Allied build-up. Most of the landing craft convoys and ships already at sea were driven back to ports on the south coast of England, towed barges and other loads, which included 2.5 miles (4 km) of floating roadways for the ‘Mulberry’ harbours, were lost; and at least 800 craft were left stranded on the Normandy beaches until the next spring tides in July.

The next British major offensive was launched only after the storm had subsided. This was ‘Epsom’, in which Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps was to take the high ground near Bretteville sur Laize and encircle Caen from the south-west with an attack, to the west of Caen, southward across the Odon and Orne rivers. ‘Epsom’ was preceded by the smaller ‘Martlet’ (also known as ‘Dauntless’) intended to secure the VIII Corps’ flank by capturing the high ground on the right of the corps’ axis of advance. Although the Germans managed to contain the offensive, to do so they had been obliged to commit all their available strength, including two Panzer divisions newly arrived in Normandy and earmarked for a planned offensive against British and US positions farther to the north-west around Bayeux. Several days later the 2nd Army began a new offensive, ‘Charnwood’, to gain possession of Caen. This offensive incorporated a postponed attack on Carpiquet, originally planned for implementation at the same time as ‘Epsom’ as ‘Ottawa’, but now named ‘Windsor’. In a frontal assault, ‘Charnwood’ took the north-western half of Caen. German forces still held the part of the city on the south-eastern side of the Orne river, and including the Colombelles steel works, which provided them with an excellent artillery observation post.

On 10 July Montgomery, commanding all the Allied ground forces in Normandy, met Dempsey and Bradley to discuss the offensives which were next to be undertaken by the 21st Army Group after the end of ‘Charnwood’ and the failure of the US 1st Army’s initial break-out offensive. Montgomery gave his approval to ‘Cobra’ as the major break-out attempt scheduled to be launched by the 1st Army on 18 July at the western end of the lodgement, and ordered Dempsey to ‘go on hitting: drawing the German strength, especially the armour, onto yourself – so as to ease the way for Brad[ley]’.

The result was ‘Goodwood’, the detailed planning for which began on 14 July, though on the following day Montgomery instructed Dempsey to reduce the scale of this undertaking. Montgomery’s new order changed the operation from a ‘deep break-out to a limited attack’, and the operation’s objective was now not so much the seizure of ground, though any southward movement by the 2nd Army would of course be useful, as the engagement and degradation of the German armoured strength and thus its utility in subsequent operations. Montgomery’s order laid it down that ‘a victory on the eastern flank will help us to gain what we want on the western flank’, but also warned that operations must not endanger the position of the 2nd Army as this was a ‘firm bastion’ required to ensure the success of ‘Cobra’. The order stressed that the objectives of Simonds’s Canadian II Corps were now vital and that only after their attainment would the VIII Corps strike to the south.

Thus the Canadian II Corps was to plan and execute an operation, codenamed ‘Atlantic’, on the western flank of the VIII Corps to liberate the part of Caen to the south-east of the Orne river. Orders issued on the following day laid it down that the Canadian II Corps was to capture Colombelles and the part of Caen still in German hands, and following this to be prepared to proceed to the capture of the Verrières ridge. The start of ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Goodwood’ was planned for 18 July, two days before the revised start of ‘Cobra’.

The detailed planning of ‘Atlantic’ was undertaken by the staff of Simonds’s Canadian II Corps. Newly arrived as a corps commander, Simonds Simonds schemed the operation as a two-pronged assault using Major General C. Foulke’s Canadian 2nd Division and Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division, on the right and left respectively, to capture Vaucelles, Colombelles and the south-eastern bank of the Orne river. On the morning of 18 July, the Canadian 3rd Division was to cross the Orne river near Colombelles and then drive south toward Route Nationale 158, and the Canadian 3rd Division would then move to capture Cormelles. In slightly greater detail, the two divisions were to attack from Caen to the south-east, crossing the Orne river to capture the outskirts of Vaucelles and Cormelles, the latter then serving as starting point for an attack on the high ground near Verrières ridge some 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south.

On the morning of 20 July string tactical air support aided the advance elements of the Canadian 2nd Division in taking Colombelles and Faubourg de Vaucelles, a series of industrial suburbs just to the south of Caen along the Orne river. By the middle of the afternoon, two companies of the Black Watch of Canada were able to cross the Orne river. Additional battalions of Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade managed to push to the south in the direction of St André sur Orne. With the south-eastern bank of the Orne River thus secured, elements of Brigadier S. Lett’s Canadian 4th Brigade and Brigadier H. A. Young’s Canadian 6th Brigade moved into position for the assault on the northern slopes of Verrières ridge, which was held by General Friedrich-August Schack’s 272nd Division, SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Hermann Priess’s 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ and part of Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzerdivision of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps within General Heinrich Eberbach’s Panzergruppe ‘West’ of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’.

During the Battle of Caen, the I SS Panzerkorps had turned the Verrières ridge, which rises just 90 ft (27 m) above the surrounding country, into its primary defended area with hundreds of pieces of artillery, tanks, Nebelwerfer rocket-launchers, mortars and infantry of as many as three divisions.

As part of a minor follow-up to ‘Goodwood’, the Calgary Highlanders had managed to establish preliminary positions on Verrières ridge at Point 67 on the northern spur of the ridge. Then, on 20 July, the South Saskatchewan Regiment, with support from the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment) and rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers, assaulted the ridge. The Cameron Highlanders attacked St André sur Orne, but were driven back by the strength of the German defence. The main attack ran into torrential rain, which halted effective armour and air support, and the unsupported infantry then began to falter in the mud. The South Saskatchewan Regiment suffered 282 casualties in the face of tenacious German defence. Then elements of Priess’s 1st SS Panzerdivision’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s flanking 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ counterattacked, causing Canadians to retreat past their start lines. The German counterattack also savaged the supporting battalion, the Essex Scottish Regiment which, during the rest of the day, suffered almost 300 casualties. On July 21, Simonds committed the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and the Calgary Highlanders to stabilise the front along Verrières ridge, and these two regiments, with support from elements of the Canadian 3rd Division, were able to halt the counterattacks of the two SS Panzer divisions, though only with heavy casualties.

The Canadians suffered between 1,349 and 1,965 casualties during ‘Atlantic’, most of them in the Canadian 4th and 6th Brigades. The failure of ‘Atlantic’ to seize Verrières ridge led Montgomery on 22 July to order another offensive, but this time only as a holding attack, within the next few days at the same time as ‘Cobra’. Simonds therefore created ‘Spring’. This Battle of the Verrières Ridge lasted to 26 July, by which time the Canadians had succeeded in taking some neighbouring villages such as Ifs and Bourguébus, and cost the Canadians another 2,600 or more casualties.