Operation Kitten

This was the Anglo-Canadian advance of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group from Normandy to the Seine river (20/25 August 1944).

The move was undertaken by the Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps and Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army on the left, and Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British XII Corps and Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s British XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army on the right, and found no effective opposition from the German forces of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’.

Emerging from the Allied forces' organisational dislocation which had characterised the later stages of the fighting for the Falaise gap, which had been closed on 20 August and may be said to have ended the Normandy campaign proper, the 21st Army Group’s two armies were to advance to the Seine river on a front of four corps, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps having being halted near Vire in army group reserve and its transport component being added to the general pool to speed the advance of the other four corps.

The 2nd Army set XXX Corps to lead along the army group boundary, and directed it to make the right-hand crossing at Vernon. The XII Corps, being compelled to wait until the Canadian forces had cleared its front, was to come up on the left and cross the Seine near Louviers. The Canadian 1st Army was to despatch its Canadian II Corps through Vimoutiers and Bernay to Elbeuf, while the I Corps made its main thrust to the Risle river at Pont Audemer.

Speed was deemed to be of the essence, so any German garrisons in the coastal towns which showed any determination to resist were to be sealed off as economically as possible for subsequent reduction as and when possible.

As the leading elements of Major General Charles H. Corlett’s US XIX, which was to wheel left to the east of the Argentan area and pass across the British XXX Corps' natural axis of advance to the east, moved to the north from Verneuil, Horrocks’s XXX Corps started to the east from the Chambois area, and its 11th Armoured Division, under the command of Major General G. P. B. Roberts, reached the Touques near Gace during the evening of 21 August, where it outflanked some moderately effective resistance and occupied Laigle on the following day. On 23 August the XXX Corps was able to deploy Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division, and this quickly cleared the large Forêt de Breteuil lying just behind the Risle river. By the following day the corps' third formation, Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division, which Horrocks had detailed to force the Seine river at Vernon and held in reserve while it made its preparations, began to advance. Just ahead was the left of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army, and catching up on the left was Ritchie’s XII Corps.

As had been anticipated, the XII Corps had had to wait for the Canadians to move before advancing to the east. At this time it lost Major General L. O. Lyne’s 59th Division, which had selected for disbandment, and received in its place Major General C. M. Barber’s 15th Division, which was to seize the corps bridgehead near Louviers. By 24 August the corps was well on its way and its armoured cars would soon meet US patrols on the Risle river to the south-east of Bernay.

That evening Bernay itself had been reached by the Canadian 1st Army’s II Corps heading for Elbeuf. Next day all three Canadian divisions bridged and crossed the Risle river and linked near Elbeuf with the leading elements of the USA XIX Corps which, with the arrival of the Canadians, finally cleared the place that night and then prepared to withdraw.

Simultaneously the I Corps had continued its advance near the coast. The corps crossed the Touques river on 22 August, both Pont l’Evêque and Deauville being occupied the same day. Two days later Lisieux fell and the rest of the corps closed to the Risle river. By early morning on 26 August the line of the Risle river, from Montfort to the sea, was in the corps' hands, this gain including Pont Audemer where Major General R. N. Gale’s 6th Airborne Division completed its final task of the Normandy campaign before being withdrawn to rest.

Within this last week the US formations which had turned to the north across the British front had performed very well. The XIX Corps' armoured spearheads, driving to the north from Verneuil and Dreux, had easily scattered the infantry detachments of General Adolf Kuntzen’s LXXXI Corps, which was vainly struggling to stop them in what was excellent tank country. The US advance guards, thrusting through Evreux, were in fact almost at Elbeuf as the Canadians approached. However, in this area the US forces encountered more stubborn resistance from a number of armoured groups patched together by SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst Joseph Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee in an attempt to check the Allied advance.

Further to the east, between the Eure and Seine rivers, the broken and wooded country lent itself to ambushes and delaying tactics. There Major General Wade H. Haislip’s US XV Corps, having driven in some Panzergrenadier Kampfgruppen approached Louviers on 24 August. Although the 5th Panzerarmee recorded that it and General Heinrich Eberback’s 7th Army had managed to move thousands of vehicles across the Seine river between 20 August and the evening of 24 August, a period in which the Germans were greatly aided by the fact that adverse weather had made it impossible for the Allies to use their air superiority, the US thrusts had now deprived the two German armies of more than half the ferries they had been using, and consequently the two big loops made by the Seine to the south and south-west of Rouen became packed with transport.

At this stage the US XV Corps was ordered to pull back, leaving the US XIX Corps to complete its tasks on 25 August. The XIX Corps did this by securing both Louviers and Elbeuf.

While the British and Canadian corps were advancing to the Seine river, the preparations were completed for the bridging of this river. From Rouen to the sea river widens and the tides flow strongly, and the French had never attempted to bridge the river in this area. Between Rouen and Paris the river is in the order of 250 yards (230 m) wide or more, and all the bridges had been broken by air attacks. The river’s course is channeled between many small islands, winding its way between steep cliffs on one bank and long, low approaches on the other. As far up as Louviers it is tidal and subject to sudden bores or tide waves. Though bridgeheads should be gained fairly easily, the building of new crossings to maintain a large force must inevitably take some time.

The available engineer troops and equipment of 21st Army Group were divided between the XXX, XII and II Canadian Corps, together with GHQ and army engineers, so that each corps had 21 field companies.

In the XXX Corps the 43rd Division, which was to cross at Vernon, was organised in three groups. The first, with the troops and equipment for bridging the Eure river and assaulting the Seine river, contained 1,500 vehicles; the second comprised most of the artillery, material for one bridge, and 1,900 vehicles; and the thirds comprised the rest of the division and about 1,000 vehicles. The leading group harboured in the Forêt de Breteuil for the night of 24/25 August and sent forward its reconnaissance teams, together with some engineers, to repair the bridge over the Eure river at Pacy. Two four-hour timings through the US XIX Corps' area, but along only one route, were now allocated to the division for 25 August, and by 16.00 the first group was assembled under cover behind Vernon in readiness for an assault during the evening of the same day. The second group, however, proved much too large for its timing: some 700 vehicles were shut out and had to be filtered through during the night.

On 26 August the US XIX Corps began to withdraw to the south and the XXX Corps, moving to the east, was given one six-hour period to pass through the US forces in the morning on two routes. But this again was insufficient for the 50th Division and for the 43rd Division’s last group, which managed to reach the line of the river only late that night. The XXX Corps had another six-hour timing on 27 August and the US forces were finally clear of the British sector at a time early in the next morning.

The XII Corps had had few difficulties of this nature, being a little later in arriving on the scene. Barber, commander of the 15th Division, planned to assault on 27 August. Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps would also be ready to launch two divisions to the east of Elbeuf early on the same day. North of this town, however, the situation was different, for between the Forêt de la Londe and the mouth of the Seine river stood the last of 5th Panzerarmee, with 'chord' lines across the three loops which are marked by Rouen, Duclair and Caudebec en Caux. These had still to be cleared, the first by Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division and the other two by the British I Corps.

During the morning of 25 August the weather finally relented and the fighters and fighter-bomber of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force began a day of ceaseless attacks on the German traffic across the Seine river and vehicles collecting on the left bank. Great destruction was wrought, this culminating in an attack on a German convoy observed by reconnaissance planes early in the evening. A number medium bombers of Air Vice Marshal B. E. Embry’s No. 2 Group on their way to the Seine river were rebriefed in the air, and 30 of them attacked the convoy. The Germans reported that they were unable to complete a new floating bridge at Rouen and that ferries downstream at both Caudebec and Quillebeuf had been destroyed by direct hits.

On the same day Major General Hoyt S. Vandenburg’s US 9th AAF prevented German aircraft from making an all-out effort to cover the Seine river and the remaining ferries. A large number of German aircraft were caught over Beauvais and Soissons, and at their new bases east of Paris, and many were destroyed. The records of Generaloberst Otto Dessloch’s Luftflotte III confirmed that this formation lost 78 aircraft during the day.

Similar operations by both Allied tactical air forces continued throughout 26 August despite intense German Flak round Rouen, which made the Allied air attacks both difficult and expensive.

On 26 August, Montgomery issued a new directive which, as far as the 21st Army Group was concerned, laid down the objective of destroying 'all enemy forces in the Pas de Calais and Flanders, and to capture Antwerp' as a step toward an eastward advance to the Ruhr. Having crossed the Seine river, the Canadian 1st Army was to take Le Havre in 'Astonia' and Dieppe in 'Fusilade' with the minimum possible forces and clear the coastal belt as far to the north-east as Bruges as rapidly as possible. Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton’s Allied 1st Airborne Army would be dropped in the Pas de Calais well ahead of the Canadian columns, which should operate with their main weight on the right and deal with resistance by outflanking movements and inland 'right hooks'. The British 2nd Army was to cross the Seine rover as rapidly as possible and, regardless of the progress by flanking armies (Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army on its left and Hodges’s US 1st Army on its right), secure the area of Amiens, St Pol and Arras, with a strong force of armour making a dash for Amiens. Potent and determined action by the 2nd Army would thus cut across the lines of communication nourishing the German formations opposing Canadians. When these objectives had been gained, the 2nd Army was to prepare itself to drive forward through north-eastern France and into Belgium, though there was the possibility that part of the army might have to be diverted to support the airborne operation.

Montgomery had arranged with Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commanding the US 12th Army Group, that the boundary between the army groups should run generally on the line from Mantes-Gassicourt, via Beauvais, Albert and Douai, to Antwerp. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was to become the Allied supreme commander in the field as of 1 September, had ordered the 12th Army Group 'to thrust forward on its left, its principal offensive mission being, for the present, to support Twenty-First Army Group in the attainment of the objectives' laid down by Montgomery. 'The Army Group is employing First U.S. Army for this task,' and 'is to advance north-east on the general axis Paris-Brussels and establish itself in the general area Brussels-Maastricht-Liege-Namur-Charleroi.' Nothing was said of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army.

Montgomery believed that the Germans lacked the strength with which to hold any major position. Speed of action and movement was now vital, and he urged on all commanders the need for forward momentum as a matter of utmost urgency.

In the evening of 25 August, the day on which the Germans surrendered Paris, the guns and mortars of the XXX Corps opened fire on the German positions across the Seine river from Vernon. Some 15 minutes later, as the guns changed to smoke shell, the first British troops of the 43rd Division began to cross the river in 20-ft (6.1-m) storm boats, for the road bridge which joined Vernon to Vernonnet on the opposite bank had been severely damaged and the railway bridge 400 yards (365 m) farther downstream had a large gap in it. On the right the two leading boats grounded on a submerged island and they and most of the men they bore (two crew and 12 soldiers per boat) were destroyed by German fire from the opposite bank. Others turned upstream and landed about half a company of infantry, but seven of the eight boats initially committed had by then been lost and further crossings in this area were postponed until after the fall of darkness. Two companies of the left-hand battalion had been landed on what also proved to be an island, but were re-embarked and completed their crossing. Despite these setbacks, 1.5 battalions crossed during the night, and these repelled a number of German counterattacks and destroyed some mortar and machine gun positions. Meanwhile sappers were bridging the river, though they were delayed for a time by German fire. Meanwhile Vernonnet was cleared, and by late afternoon of 26 August a light bridge had been completed and armoured cars, carriers and anti-tank guns were also being rafted across. The infantry pushed forward to the high ground beyond Vernonnet and the 43rd Division’s second brigade began crossing to strengthen and enlarge the bridgehead. Some tanks of Brigadier G. E. Prior-Palmer’s 8th Armoured Brigade were ferried across early on 27 August and helped to beat off determined efforts by infantry and some Tiger heavy tanks rushed up from Beauvais to destroy the bridgehead. After stiff fighting all the German counterattacks had been driven off, and during that evening the division’s third brigade began crossing.

On the next day, 28 August, the 43rd Division and its attached troops beat through the large Forêt de Vernon and established a perimeter some 4 miles (6.4 km) to the east of the Seine river. Completion of their task had cost the 43rd Division some 550 casualties, and the Germans had lost to the division about as many prisoners.

Meanwhile other formations of the XXX Corps were moving forward to carry on the advance: the 11th Armoured Division was crossing and, from Condé some 120 miles (195 km) to the rear, Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division in tank transporters was on the way and expected to reach the river on 29 August.

On the XXX Corps' left, the XII Corps had also won bridgeheads on the eastern side of the Seine river by 27 August. One brigade of Barber’s 15th Division had crossed in storm boats followed by DUKW amphibious trucks near St Pierre du Vauvray, about 2 miles (3.2 km) from Louviers, in the process losing three boats to machine gun fire, with heavy casualties, and a second brigade near Portejoie, a few miles farther downstream, where little opposition was met. By 11.00 on 28 August the two bridgeheads had been combined into one and extended to the east, which made it possible for the division’s third brigade to cross unmolested at Muids, below Les Andelys. Engineers had been hard at work rafting carriers and anti-tank guns across the water and bridging the river: before 24.00 on 28 August a light bridge was open for traffic at Muids and a heavier bridge for tanks at St Pierre. By 29 August Les Andelys had been incorporated into the bridgehead and the 15th Division was holding the high ground above it. Patrols of the 15th Division were in touch with those of the 43rd Division on their right. The 53rd Division and Brigadier R. M. P. Carver’s 4th Armoured Brigade were moving to pass through the 15th Division’s bridgehead; Major General G. L. Verney’s 7th Armoured Division was coming across from the I Corps but was still about 30 miles (48 km) from Louviers.

The Canadian 1st Army, and especially the Canadian II Corps at Elbeuf, to the south of Rouen, had been faced with a more difficult task as all which remained of the 5th Panzerarmee to the west of the Seine river was crowded ahead of the Canadians in a bridgehead formed by the Rouen, Duclair and Caudebec loops of the river and were holding the Forêt de la Londe, to the north-west of Elbeuf, which covered most of the Germans' remaining escape routes. As a result of the high expenditure of bridging material at the Touques and Risle rivers, and some delay in the arrival of what was needed at the Seine river, the Canadians could not start their crossing until the morning of 27 August, although on the night before a few men of Major General H. W. Foster’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division had crossed the Seine river in a small boat about 3 miles (4.8 km) above Elbeuf and established a small bridgehead. In the morning infantry of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division crossed in storm boats at that point and men of Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division at Elbeuf, meeting little opposition.

The Canadians now found that Generalleutnant Hans-Kurt Höcker’s 17th Felddivision (L) was holding the high ground ahead of them, determined to block approaches to Rouen from that side of the river. The infantry had undergone heavy fighting, so the Canadian 4th Armoured Division moved its armoured brigade to the other bridgehead at Elbeuf, where the engineers had tank-carrying rafts in operation by 24.00. Early on 28 August a Bailey pontoon bridge was also available at that sire and by the fall of night the two divisions were strongly established on the low hills to the north of Igoville. On 29August the Canadian advance continued. From the bridgehead on the eastern side of the Seine river their armour reached Boos and, nearer the river, their infantry got to within 5 miles (8 km) of Rouen.

To the west of the Seine river in the Forêt de la Londe a fresh German division from the Pas de Calais and sundry Kampfgruppen and armour had been ordered to stand fast whatever the circumstances. Despite attacks by 500 light and medium bombers on the crossings behind them, the Germans fought a skilful and determined delaying action in which the Foulkes’s depleted Canadian 2nd Division suffered another 600 casualties.

On receiving the information about the British crossings above Rouen and the US spearheads at Soissons, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model decided that his Heeresgruppe 'B' had of necessity to abandon the line of the lower Seine river and withdraw to the 'Dieppe line', in which General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army held the sector from Dieppe to Neufchâtel, and Eberbach’s 7th Army the sector from Neufchâtel to the Oise river. The rest of the front would be held by Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee and General Kurt von der Chevallerie’s 1st Army. These positions were to be occupied on 31 August, but by then Model’s orders had been overtaken by events, and that morning Adolf Hitler was compelled to agree to Model’s withdrawal behind the Somme river. The last German resistance to the west of the Seine river therefore ended on 29 August. Heavy rain and the close proximity of the British and Canadian forces prevented air attacks on the final German evacuation. On 30 August the Canadians entered a nearly deserted Rouen, while the rest of the Canadian II Corps started to cross the Seine river in strength and the British I Corps on its left hurried to get over the river by any means it could find.

With the Seine river now behind it, the 21st Army Group could quicken the pace of its advance. Montgomery’s statement that speed was now of the essence was in everyone’s mind. Thus, while the Canadian 1st Army fanned out to capture Le Havre and Dieppe and to clear the coastal belt to the north-east in the direction of Bruges, the British 2nd Army set out on the first stage of its push drive through north-eastern France and on into Belgium.

At first light on 29 August two armoured brigade groups, screened by armoured cars, started out from the Vernon bridgehead in heavy rain and thick mist as the spearheads of the XXX Corps, whose task was to force a way over the Somme river on each side of Amiens and establish two armoured divisions in the area of Amiens, St Pol and Arras as rapidly as possible. On the right 8th Armoured Brigade, under command of the 11th Armoured Division, started along the route which the Guards Armoured Division would take as soon as it came up; and on the left Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey’s 29th Armoured Brigade led on the other route allocated to the 11th Armoured Division.

The British armour finally had the chance to show its paces, for the country between the Seine and Somme rivers is almost wholly cultivated in wide hedgeless fields, very different from the close bocage terrain which had so hampered movement in Normandy; apart from several large forests, only the villages were surrounded by trees and orchards. Moreover, beyond the Somme river lies the still more 'tankable' Picardy plain. Small parties of German infantry with a few tanks and anti-tank guns delayed the progress of the 11th Armoured Division at times in defiles or at crossroads, but by the fall of night the division’s leading columns had covered 20 miles (32 km) and taken 1,000 prisoners.

The 50th Division was moving up behind the 11th Armoured Division, ready to support the armour and protect the flanks; and the Guards Armoured Division was crossing the Seine river and would take over from the 8th Armoured Brigade on 30 August. Good contact had been made on the right with the leading elements of the US 1st Army advancing from its bridgehead at Mantes-Gassicourt. On the left the XII Corps was scheduled to start from Les Andelys in the morning.

The armour was in Gisors by the middle of the morning, searching for unbroken bridges over the Epte river between Gisors and Gournay. By 17.00 the leading elements had driven the Germans from the streets of Beauvais and were clearing the country to the north-west. The 8th Armoured Brigade had completed its task and was freeing the roads for the Guards Armoured Division. Horrocks ordered the 11th Armoured Division to drive through the night to Amiens, still 30 miles (48 km) ahead of the division’s leading tanks: the columns had to pause to refuel after the fall of night and continue their advance after the moon had risen, but in the event the moon was not visible when the march was resumed in pouring rain.

A night march through enemy-held territory is fraught with danger and fear at the best of times, and on a very dark night such as this it presented many hazards, though the Germans were not a factor to be taken too seriously as the few who were encountered were far too bewildered to fight. It was the crews of the armoured car and tank who found the night most testing: drivers peered out of their visors, intent only on avoiding the ditch by the side of the road; commanders stared ahead for signs of the Germans or landmarks by which to check the route; gunners saw almost nothing and held their trigger mechanisms simply for support; and wireless operators sat at the bottom of their turrets, in a strange world of their own and with stranger noises in their ears.

At 04.00 on 31 August, the leading tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade, with infantry close behind them, were 3 miles (4.8 km) to the south of Amiens; at 05.00 they reached the city’s outskirts; 30 minutes later they were over the first railway bridge; and by 06.00 they were in the city centre. Some Germans, not realising who the new arrivals were, drove along between them.

Soon after 08.00 Eberbach was captured. He had arrived to take over from the 5th Panzerarmee and was examining the Somme river positions for himself. Dietrich escaped, however.

Shortly before 11.00 the two main bridges in Amiens were captured and positions secured on the far bank of the Somme river. Meanwhile, the German garrison was being mopped up, together with much disorganised transport which continued to drive in from the west. At 18.00 a brigade of the 50th Division arrived to take over the town and the 11th Armoured Division prepared for another long day’s advance.

By this time the Guards Armoured Division was also across the Somme, 7 or 8 miles (11.25 or 13 km) farther to the east. After numerous brushes with the Germans, the division’s armoured cars had reached the river at about 12.00, just in time to prevent the three bridges for which they were making from being blown. The Germans made several attempts to retrieve their failure but the arrival of tanks and infantry soon settled the issue. By dark the Guards Armoured Division held a substantial bridgehead, some 90 miles (145 km) from their starting point at 02.00 on the same day.

By that time the XII Corps was coming up on the left of the XXX Corps, and its leading elements, driving through the night, would be at the Somme river in the morning. The corps had undergone a difficult day. Its 53rd Division, advancing on the left with an open flank, had run into much scattered opposition; and the 7th Armoured Division, due to join in the lead, was delayed for several hours in the morning by the collapse of a bridge on its way to the Seine river. The 4th Armoured Brigade had made better progress and by the fall of night was to the north of Poix and about 12 miles (19.25 km) from of the Somme. The 7th Armoured Division was by this time catching up quickly and arrangements were made for it to pass through, without pausing, to take the bridges at Picquigny and Longpré before the Germans could blow them.

By dint of hard fighting and the skilled use of ground, the Germans had slowed the Canadian advance sufficiently to buy the time needed for most of their surviving troops to cross the Seine river, but they had still to make good their escape to the north-east. Crerar now ordered that those formations of the Canadian 1st Army not immediately required to move for the capture of Le Havre, St Valery and Dieppe, to drive forward through Neufchâtel to Abbeville.

The 2nd Army’s advance and, in particular, the XXX Corps' dash to Amiens had shattered any hope that Model may have had of holding the line of the Somme river. And with adjacent US columns coming up fast on the 2nd Army’s right flank, a large gap in the middle of the Germans' Somme and Oise river front was clearly imminent.