Operation Spring

This was a Canadian offensive in Normandy by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army to the north of Falaise in conjunction with ‘Cobra’ (25 July 1944).

The capital of Normandy, Caen had been captured on 19 July during 'Goodwood' (i), after some six weeks of positional warfare throughout Normandy. About 5 miles (8 km) to the south of Caen, Verrières ridge blocked a direct advance by Allied forces to Falaise. The initial efforts to take this ridge during 'Goodwood' (i) had been defeated by SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps of General Heinrich Eberhard’s Panzergruppe 'West'. On 20 July, Simonds’s II Canadian Corps had attempted a similar offensive as 'Atlantic' which, though initially successful, was then stalled by powerful counterattacks by Dietrich’s Panzer divisions.

The 'Spring' operation was undertaken from the line which had been reached by the II Corps (Major General C. Foulkes’s 2nd Division and Major General R. F. L. Keller’s 3rd Division) by the end of ‘Goodwood’ (i), which had ended five days earlier, and was designed to exert pressure on the German forces containing the Allies at the eastern end of the Normandy lodgement so that Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ and also commanding Heeresgruppe ‘B’, could not switch formations to the west to help check the ‘Cobra’ break-out of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army at St Lô.

The tactical objective of the operation, which was the logical successor to 'Atlantic', was to secure the Bourguébus ridge and the northern end of the road to Falaise in order that, after the success of ‘Cobra’, General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group could exploit to the south and then to the east. The operation succeeded admirably in its primary task, for while the Canadian attacks on the Bourguébus ridge were repulsed bloodily, they succeeded effectively in slowing the redeployment of Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps of General Heinrich Eberbach’s 5th Panzerarmee. Thus it was 29 July before Generalleutnant Heinrich Graf von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin-Krosigk’s 116th Panzerdivision were able to reach the US break-out area at Avranches, to the south of St Lô.

It was on 22 July that Montgomery ordered Simonds to devise a break-out offensive along the Bourguébus ridge, to be launched in conjunction ‘Cobra’. With his II Corps bolstered by the temporary attachment of two British formations (Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division and Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division), Simonds devised a three-phase plan. In the first of these, the Calgary Highlanders were to move from St Martin to capture May sur Orne and the lower slopes of Bourguébus ridge, thus securing the flanks of Verrières ridge. In the second phase the Black Watch of Canada would move from Hill 61 to St Martin, assemble and attack the Verrières ridge with tank and artillery support. In the third phase, armour and artillery would be moved in to reach the final objectives south of the ridge, thus making a bulge in German lines and increasing the chance of a breakout from Normandy. Each phase of the plan required precise timing, and any failure of timing could lead to a major defeat.

The Germans were expecting further attacks in the Caen area, however, and had consequently reinforced their positions on the Verrières ridge in the days before ‘Spring’. By the end of 24 July 480 armoured fighting vehicles, 500 pieces of artillery and four additional infantry battalions had been moved into the sector. ‘Ultra’ decrypts discovered this, but it is not known whether or not Simons received the information before the start of ‘Spring’.

At 03.30 on 25 July, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders attacked Tilly la Campagne. The Canadians made use of 'Monty’s moonlight', based on the reflection and diffusion of searchlight beams from the underside of clouds, thus making it possible for the attacking infantry to see the German positions. This also meant that the Canadian infantrymen were clear targets for German defenders, however, and the Canadians were forced to fight very hard to gain ground. By 04.30, a flare fired by the lead companies indicated that the objective had been taken. Within the next hour, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Petch began to move reinforcements into the village to assist in mopping up the last German defenders.

To the west, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, although initially encountering strong opposition, managed to secure the village of Verrières by 05.30. At 07.50, Lieutenant Colonel John Rockingham reported to Simonds that his battalion had firmly entrenched itself in the objective.

This opened the way to the second phase of ‘Spring’. On 25 July the Calgary Highlanders tried to take May sur Orne and the Bourguébus ridge, but their assembly area near St Martin was still infested with German troops. However, two companies of the Calgary Highlanders bypassed St Martin and reached the outskirts of May sur Orne. Radio contact was then lost, and both companies suffered very heavy casualties. Late in the morning of the same day, the Calgary Highlanders secured St Martin and then attacked the German positions on the Bourguébus ridge. Heavy casualties were taken in two attacks, and the Calgary Highlanders struggled to hold onto May sur Orne.

Otherwise known as the Battle of the Verrières Ridge, the third phase required the most exact timing. Two previous attempts, by the Essex Scottish Regiment and South Saskatchewan Regiment, had ended in Canadian slaughter. Unfortunately for the Black Watch of Canada, matters now went awry from the start. The battalion’s armour and artillery support either failed to arrive or, when it did reach the area, was effectively destroyed. The battalion was therefore four hours late reaching its assembly area of St Martin after the battalion had encountered heavy German resistance moving from Hill 61 to the village. When it did attack the Verrières ridge, the battalion was subjected to hugely destructive counter-fire from three sides (the ‘factory’ area to the south of St Martin, Verrières ridge itself, and German units on the other side of the Orne river). Within minutes communications had broken down, and the Black Watch of Canada lost all but 15 of its attacking soldiers.

Throughout the next several days the German forces, mainly SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Sylvester Stadler’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’, continued to whittle away the Canadian positions gained in ‘Spring’. The Calgary Highlanders eventually pulled out of May sur Orne, and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders were forced to retreat from Tilly la Campagne. The German forces immediately counterattacked at Verrières village, but were beaten back.

Over the next two days, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry fought with huge determination to defend the ridge, fending off dozens of counterattacks. Rockingham relied on well-placed anti-tank guns and machine gun positions, fighting off the forces of two Panzer divisions. More German counterattacks managed to force the Cameron Highlanders, Calgary Highlanders and the Black Watch of Canada to retreat from May sur Orne and St Martin.

'Cobra' began on the same day as 'Spring', and the German high command was unsure which was the main operation. For about two days the Germans took 'Spring' to be the main effort because of the importance they gave to holding ground to the south of Caen, and only then realised that 'Cobra' was the Allies' principal effort and started to move formations to the west. 'Totalize' and 'Tractable' were launched in August and captured more ground against less opposition.