Operation Raid on La Caine

The 'Raid on La Caine' was a British air attack in Normandy by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force against the headquarters of General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzergruppe 'West' at Château de La Caine, about 12 miles (19 km) to the south-west of Caen and to the north of Thury-Harcourt (10 June 1944).

The château had only recently been occupied by the headquarters of the Panzergruppe 'West', which was the command organisation for the seven German Panzer divisions in France and Belgium. The attack killed 18 staff officers and wounded Geyr von Schweppenburg. A counter-offensive was currently being planned by the Panzergruppe against the Allied 'Overlord' beach-head in Normandy was postponed and then cancelled, and command of the German armoured divisions was transferred to the headquarters of SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps. The Panzergruppe 'West' was temporarily withdrawn and remained out of action until 28 June.

Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West' controlling the German forces in western Europe. established General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzergruppe 'West' on 24 January 1944 as the primary headquarters for the administration and training of the seven Panzer divisions based in northern France and Belgium. The organisation was also to command the Panzer divisions as a strategic reserve during the anticipated Allied invasion from the UK. On 9 June, three days after the 'Neptune' (iii) assault landings which marked the start of 'Overlord', Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander of Heeresgruppe 'B' in northern France amd responsible for the defence of this large area, drove to the headquarters of the Panzergruppe 'West' and ordered it to plan and implement a counter-offensive against the Allied forces which had landed in Normandy.

The British Government Code and Cypher School code-breaking organisation at Bletchley Park read German radio signals encrypted using the Enigma cypher machine and was part of an elaborate system of wireless interception posts, traffic analysis and direction-finding used against Germany during the war. 'Ultra' decrypts on 11 and 18 March established the existence of the Panzergruppe 'West' and established that it was headquartered in Paris. A major increase in wireless traffic from the Panzergruppe 'West' was intercepted by British monitoring stations on 8 June, when SS-Gruppenführer Werner Ostendorff’s 17th SS Panzergrenadierdivision 'Götz von Berlichingen' came under the command of the Panzergruppe. The source of th signal was identified by 'Huff-Duff' (high-frequency direction-finding) at the château in the commune of La Caine. The information was forwarded to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and other headquarters in Normandy, which were thus informed that the Panzergruppe 'West' had taken up residence at the château and left its vehicles in the orchard with no other camouflage.

Early on 10 June, the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force was ordered to plan and execute an immediate attack the château with every available aircraft. At RAF Hurn in Dorset, No. 124 Wing (Nos 181 182 and 247 Squadron equipped with the Hawker Typhoon single-engined fighter-bomber) and at RAF Holmsley South, No. 245 Squadron of No. 121 Wing were brought to readiness. At RAF Dunsfold, No. 139 Wing (Nos 98, 180 and 320 [Dutch] Squadron) plus No. 226 Squadron of No. 137 Wing at RAF Hartford Bridge, all operating the North American Mitchell twin-engined medium bomber, were also alerted. What swiftly merged was the scheme for a maximum-effort raid by 10 Typhoon fighter-bombers of each of the squadrons and 18 Mitchell bombers of each of the squadrons. The Typhoon fighter-bombers were each loaded with eight 60-lb (27.2-kg) rocket projectiles of 3-in (76=mm) calibre, and the Mitchell bombers each with eight 500-lb (227-kg) bombs. Four squadrons of Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters were to escort the bombers.

The plan was to attack with the rocket-firing Typhoon fighter-bombers at low altitude and bomb-dropping the Mitchell bombers at medium altitude.

The morning of 10 June was overcast and cloudy, and the 10.30 briefing for a raid at 14.00 was postponed until the cloud cover had diminished. Wing Commander Lynn was to lead the Mitchell force with No. 180 Squadron in the lead. With the weather still not ideal, the first Mitchell of each bomber squadron was to be a machine equipped with 'G-H' navigation equipment as a precaution against cloud over the target. While waiting on the weather, the Typhoon fighter-bombers of No. 124 Wing flew two raids on German artillery sites near Caen. The 18 Mitchell bombers of No. 180 Squadron took off in three flights of six at 20.00, followed by 17 Mitchell bombers of No. 320 Squadron led by Commander H. V. B. Burgerhout. At 20.10, 16 more bombers of Squadron Leader Eager’s No. 98 Squadron took off. The three squadrons circled as they gained height and got into formation, then set course for France at 20.20. Over Selsey Bill 18 more Mitchell bombers of Wing Commander A. D. Mitchell’s No. 226 Squadron joined the formation. The 33 Spitfire Mk Vs provided by the Air Defence of Great Britain command for close escort and the high and low cover of three Spitfire Mk IX squadrons of No. 84 Group of the 2nd TAF arrived soon after this. One Mitchell of No. 226 Squadron turned back with mechanical failure, and two of No. 180 Squadron’s aircraft turned back before the bomb run over La Caine, one with a loss of oil pressure and the other with an instrument fault. The spare aircraft from two of the four Typhoon squadrons had joined, making 42 Typhoon fighter-bombers, eight of them without rocket armament to operate as fighters. The Typhoon aircraft were to attack in two waves, 30 minutes apart: the first was to attack the motor transport around the château synchronised with the bombing of the Mitchell aircraft, and the second wave was to attack anything that was seen to have survived the first part of the attack.

During the evening of 10 June, Generalmajor Sigismund-Hellmuth Ritter und Edler von Dawans, the chief-of-staff of the Panzergruppe 'West' and 18 other staff officers were dining in the Château de La Caine when air raid sirens started to sound the alert. The officers hurried outside to see and watched the approach of the Typhoon fighter-bombers through their binoculars, wholly unaware that they were the target until the last minute. Geyr von Schweppenburg arrived by car just before the attack. The 17 Typhoon warplanes of Nos 181 and 247 Squadrons fired 136 rocket projectiles from an altitude of 2,000 ft (610 m), and from an altitude of 12,000 ft (3660 m) the Mitchell warplanes of No. 139 Wing moved into vee formation with No, 226 Squadron at the base. At 21.15. the bombers released their 552 bombs, except for one Mitchell whose eight bombs had hung up. The bombs landed with great accuracy on the château and the grounds, killing Dawans and 17 of the 18 staff officers, while Geyr von Schweppenburg and another officer were wounded. Four of the Typhoon warplanes not carrying rocket projectiles strafed the nearby village of Montigny and the Mitchell bombers turned to north-west, receiving some Flak fire in the area of Caen. The second wave of rocket-armed Typhoon warplanes arrived to find the château and the vehicles of the Panzergruppe 'West' destroyed and launched their rockets at anything still standing. The Mitchell bombers had landed by 22.25 and preparations began for a night operation.

As their debriefings, the aircrews claimed a major success. Most bomber crews reported that they had hit the target, Flak fire had been sparse, no German fighters had intervened, and the Germans appeared to have been taken completely by surprise. The attack effectively destroyed the leadership of the only German army organisation in the western theatre capable of handling a large number of mobile divisions. German command of the sector was temporarily given to SS-Obergruppenführer 'Sepp' Dietrich and his I SS Panzerkorps.

The appointment of new staff under General Heinrich Eberbach, delayed the plans for the German armoured counter-offensive by three weeks, and it was then overtaken by events and never committed. The destruction the headquarters of the Panzergruppe 'West' thus made a major contribution to the German loss of the initiative. No German suspicions were aroused about Allied code-breaking as a reconnaissance aeroplane had been seen before the raid. The 'Ultra' decrypts which had revealed the location of the Panzergruppe 'West' were the first of a series which revealed the locations of several other tactically valuable targets, including the positions of fuel and ammunition dumps, which were attacked to exacerbate the increasingly problematical German shortages.