Operation Battle of Verrières Ridge

The 'Battle of Verrières Ridge' was a series of engagements fought between Canadian and German forces in the Calvados region as part of the 'Battle of Normandy' (19/25 July 1944).

The primary combatants were two Canadian infantry divisions, supported by the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade, and elements of three German Waffen-SS Panzer divisions. The battle was part of the British and Canadian attempts to break out of the area of Caen, and was part of both 'Atlantic' (18/21 July) and 'Spring' (25/27 July).

The immediate Allied objective was the Verrières Ridge, which is a belt of high ground dominating the route from Caen to Falaise. In July 1944 the ridge was occupied by battle-hardened German veterans, who had fallen back from Caen and entrenched to form a strong defensive position. Over the course of six days, substantial Canadian and British forces made repeated attempts to capture the ridge, but the Germans' strict adherence to well practised defensive tactics, as well as strong and effective counterattacks by Panzer formations and units, resulted in heavy Allied casualties for little strategic or operational gain.

The battle is best remembered by the men of General H. D. G. Creadar’s Canadian 1st Army for its operational and tactical miscalculations, of which the most egregious was the highly controversial attack by the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada on 25 July, in which 315 of its 325 soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. This attack, which was the costliest single day for a Canadian battalion since the 'Jubilee' raid of 1942 on Dieppe, became the most contentious and critically analysed events in Canadian military history.

While failing to achieve its original objective, however, an important operational result of the 'Battle of Verrières Ridge' was its benefit to the overwhelmingly successful 'Cobra' US break-out farther to the west as it pinned powerful Panzer formations that might otherwise have been moved to counterattack 'Cobra'.

The Verrières Ridge lies 5 miles (8 km) to the south of Caen, overlooking broad plains and dominating the terrain between Caen and Falaise. Although Caen had been a major D-Day objective for the British and Canadian forces, the Allied push inland had been brought to a halt short of this objective, and positional warfare followed until the first week in July.

On 9 July, the 'Charnwood' operation had succeeded in taking the northern half of Caen, but SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps continued to occupy defensive positions in the remainder of the city. One week later, the 'Goodwood' (i) operation renewed the British offensive, and what was left of shattered Caen finally fell on 19 July. The next British and Canadian objective was the town of Falaise, but the Verrières Ridge, now strongly defended by the I SS Panzerkorps of General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzergruppe 'West', stood in their path. Elements of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army secured part of the adjacent Bourguébus Ridge and managed to gain a foothold on Verrières Ridge but were unable to dislodge its German defenders.

Commanded by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds, the Canadian II Corps initially assigned two infantry divisions and one armoured brigade to the assault on the German positions on and around the Verrières Ridge. After sustaining heavy casualties during the first six weeks of the 'Overlord' campaign in Normandy, Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division was allocated only a supporting role in the forthcoming battle.

The primary responsibility of the task therefore fell on Major General C. Foulkes’s fresh, though relatively inexperienced, Canadian 2nd Division, along with the tanks of Brigadier R. A. Wyman’s Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade. Additional forces, later made available, were three divisions of Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps, namely Major General D. C. Bullen-Smith’s 51st Division, Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division and Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division. Despite having significantly more combat experience than their Canadian counterparts, the British units played only a minor part in the battle.

While the British forces had been battling for Caen, elements of the I SS Panzerkorps, which was a component of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe 'B', had turned Verrières Ridge into their main defensive position along the British and Canadian front.

Although the ridge is not especially high, its topography meant that advancing forces would be exposed to fire from German positions across the Orne river, from the ridge itself and from the nearby German-held industrial hamlet of St Martin.

Two powerful and experienced armoured formations, SS-Brigadeführer under Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend' and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Theodor Wisch’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', held the ridge with the support of artillery, mortar emplacements and dug-in PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks. A third formation, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Sylvester Stadler’s 9th SS Panzerdivision 'Hohenstaufen', was in reserve. Additional support was available from Generalleutnant Friedrich-August Schack’s 272nd Division, which was a formation raised in 1943 on the basis largely of Russian and Polish combatants, Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 116th Panzerdivision and one battalion of Tiger heavy tanks.

In a follow-up to 'Goodwood' (i) on 19 July, the Calgary Highlanders attempted to take the northern spur of the Verrières Ridge, but their progress was limited by German mortar fire. Tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers were committed to support the infantry battalion and eliminated several machine gun positions on each side of Point 67, and the highlanders eventually managed to dig in, despite the accuracy of the German return fire, and in the course of the next few hours strengthened their position. Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade and Brigadier H. A. Young’s Canadian 6th Brigade made repeated attempts to exploit the gains. In the face of a tenacious German defence and small-scale infantry and tank counterattacks, the Canadians were broadly repulsed and suffered heavy casualties. Simonds rapidly prepared a new offensive for the following day, with the object of taking both the eastern side of the Orne river and the main slopes of the Verrières Ridge.

The next attack thus took place on 20 July as part of the 'Atlantic' operation, and was spearheaded by the South Saskatchewan Regiment, with supporting units from the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. In the early hours of 20 July, the Camerons secured a position in St André sur Orne but were quickly pinned down by German infantry and tanks. At the same time, the South Saskatchewan Regiment moved directly up the slopes of the Verrières Ridge, supported by tanks and Hawker Typhoon single-engined ground-attack aircraft. The Canadian attack faltered in torrential rain, which rendered air support useless and turned the ground into mud. Counterattacks by two Panzer divisions threw the South Saskatchewans back past their support lines and their supporting battalion, the Essex Scottish Regiment, came under attack. This last lost more than 300 men as it tried to hold back the 12th SS Panzerdivision, while to the east the remainder of the I SS Panzerkorps engaged British forces within 'Goodwood' (i): this was the largest armoured battle of the campaign. By the end of the day, the South Saskatchewans had suffered 282 casualties and the ridge was still in German hands.

Despite these setbacks, Simonds was adamant that the Verrières Ridge be taken, and sent in the Black Watch of Canada and the Calgary Highlanders to stabilise the difficult Allied position. Small counterattacks by both battalions on 21 July managed to contain Dietrich’s armoured formations and by the time the operation was terminated, the Canadian forces had several footholds on the ridge, including a secure position on Point 67. Four German divisions still held the ridge, and in overall terms these actions round the Verrières Ridge during 'Atlantic' resulted in more than 1,300 Allied casualties.

With the capture of Caen on 19 July, an Anglo-Canadian break-out had become strategically feasible. In the US sector farther to the west, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the US 1st Army, had been planning his own break-out as 'Cobra', and Simonds too began preparing a new offensive codenamed 'Spring'. This latter was originally conceived by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Allied 21st Army Group, as a 'holding attack' designed to pin German forces while 'Cobra' was under way.

On 22 July, however, with the failure of 'Atlantic' to achieve its aims, Simonds changed the objective of 'Spring' to a break-out offensive. With the Verrières Ridge taken, Simonds believed, it would be possible to launch armour and artillery attacks from its southern flank to push the Germans farther back, and this would clear the road linking Caen and Falaise, and his two British armoured divisions could then advance to the south to reach and take Falaise.

'Spring' was schemed on the basis of four tightly timed phases. The Calgary Highlanders would attack the Bourguébus Ridge and May sur Orne in order to secure the flanks of the main thrust, which was to be a move on the Verrières Ridge by the Black Watch, along with armoured support from Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division and Major General G. Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division. The plan called for the offensive to start on 23 July, but poor weather resulted in a two-day delay.

Taking advantage of this postponement, the I SS Panzerkorps reinforced the German positions on the ridge with an additional four battalions, 480 tanks and 500 pieces of artillery and mortars. Allied intelligence learned of this reinforcement through 'Ultra' signals intercepts and advised Simonds’s headquarters of the fact.

On 25 July, two days later than originally planned, 'Spring' was launched. The Black Watch was scheduled to begin its attack at about 05.30 from an assembly area at St Martin, some 3.7 miles (6 km) to the south of Caen. The Canadian infantrymen ran into strong German resistance on the St Martin road, however, and reached their assembly area only at 08.00. By that time, the Black Watch’s two highest-ranking officers had been killed and command had devolved onto Major Phil Griffin who, at 08.30, met with Megill, the commander of the Canadian 5th Brigade. The two men decided, despite the fact that their promised armoured support had not yet arrived, that the attack should proceed.

At 09.30, as they advanced up the ridge, the Canadian infantry regiments were easy targets for the well-entrenched German machine gun nests and mortar pits, supported by tanks, 88-mm (3.465-in) anti-tank guns, and Nebelwerfer artillery rocket batteries. To make matters worse, the Black Watch’s communications were knocked out within minutes of the assault’s start. Thus only a very few men of the Black Watch managed to make it to the crest of the ridge, and those who did were subjected to an even heavier bombardment as they ran into the counterattacking forces of the 272nd Division and the Kampfgruppe 'Sterz' of the 9th SS Panzerdivision. Of the 325 men who departed the assembly area, no fewer than 315 had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Black Watch lost all its senior commanders, including Griffin, and two of its companies were virtually annihilated.

All of the gains made by the Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders were lost to German counterattacks, which inflicted heavy losses on the highlanders and the Black Watch’s previously unscathed support company. The Black Watch had to be re-formed after the 'Battle of Verrières Ridge'.

The central area of the ridge near the village of Verrières was eventually taken and held by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. The ridge’s eastern side was also taken, but then lost, although two British armoured brigades were able to secure significant footholds near the positions of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.

The failure of the attempt to seize the ridge had little effect on the overall Allied position as the success of 'Cobra' was so overwhelming that the Germans diverted significant resources, including two Panzer divisions, from the ridge in their attempt to keep Bradley’s forces boxed in. With the German defences weakened, subsequent British and Canadian attacks on the ridge were successful, and 'Totalize' finally managed to wrest the position from its Waffen-SS defenders on 8 August.

Allied casualty figures for the entirety of the battle were not produced but can be inferred from those of the two operations. The accepted toll for 'Atlantic' is 1,349 men including about 300 dead. The losses of 'Spring' were about 500 men killed and about 1,000 wounded or taken prisoner. Thus historians estimate that about 800 Canadians were killed and 2,000 wounded or taken prisoner.

The German losses for the battle were significantly fewer than those of the Canadians. Between 16 July and 1 August, the 1st SS Panzerdivision lost 1,092 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner, together with 11 PzKpfw IV battle tanks and 10 Sturmgeschütz III self-propelled guns, in combat across all its fronts including Verrières Ridge. Over a similar period, it had been estimates that the 12th SS Panzerdivision in all of its sectors suffered only 134 casualties.

The report on 'Spring' by Simonds was released after the war and blamed its failure on '11th hour reinforcement' of German lines and 'strategically unsound execution on the part of Major Phillip Griffin and the Black Watch'. Declassified wartime documents show that Simonds, along with several others in the Allied high command, had probably been advised on 23 July of a major enhancement of the German strength on the ridge.

Despite it tactical failure, 'Spring' succeeded in its later-defined objective of a 'holding attack' and thus signally aided the overwhelming success of 'Cobra' by tying down powerful German formations which might otherwise have been deployed to the US sector, and this contributed to the fact that there was no immediate inquiry into its failure.

von Kluge, the German commander of the Normandy sector, was at the Canadian front on 25 July instead of the US front where the eventual break-out was made. The 'Battle of Verrières Ridge' had little overall effect on British attempts to break out of the Caen area, as significant resources were transferred to the US front in the aftermath of 'Cobra' in order to exploit Bradley’s success. The ridge eventually fell to the general Allied advance.