This was the Canadian offensive to take Falaise in the area to the south of the Allied lodgement in Normandy after ‘Overlord’ (7/11 August 1944).
The overall object of the operation was for Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian forces, which on 23 July had been grouped into the new 1st Army, to crush the German forces in the area to the south of Caen and to take the high ground to the north of Falaise as Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army and Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army were breaking out of the ‘Overlord’ lodgement area at Avranches to the west in ‘Cobra’. In basic terms, the offensive was to break through the German front and capture vital positions deep in the German defences, whereupon two fresh armoured divisions would continue the attack to reach the Canadian objective.
The British ‘Bluecoat’ operation, which had started on 30 July, had led to the commitment of several German armoured formations to its area, leaving only SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s reinforced 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ to hold the region to the south of Caen. General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group, ordered Crerar to advance his forces along the axis from Caen to Falaise, and Crerar allocated the task to Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps with Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division, Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 51st Division, Major General G. Kitching’s 4th Canadian Armoured Division and Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division.
The opposition was found by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’, and more specifically by SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps (Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s 85th Division, Oberst Karl Rösler’s 89th Division, Generalleutnant Friedrich August Schack’s 272nd Division and Meyer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision) of General Heinrich Hans Eberbach’s 5th Panzerarmee, which had organised a defence based on two strong lines.
Before the start of ‘Totalize’, the German defensive positions on the Verrières ridge were still formidable. The forward infantry positions were well dug-in and possessed wide fields of fire. The main concentration of 100 75-mm (2.95-in) anti-tank and 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns was deployed around the village of Cramesnil some 3 miles (4.8 km) behind the forward positions to halt any armoured breakthrough along the road linking Caen and Falaise. The front line and defences in depth were held by Rösler’s 89th Division, Chill’s 85th Division and the remnants of Schack’s 272nd Division, which had been very hard hit in ‘Atlantic’. Mayer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision, reinforced by an additional heavy tank battalion, with at least 75 tanks in total, was in reserve 3 miles (4.8 km) farther to the rear. Some of the infantry were controlled by General Hans von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps, but most of the sector (including the 12th SS Panzerdivision) was under the command of Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps, which had arrived in the area during ‘Goodwood’ (i).
Simonds knew that infantry assaults supported by massed artillery had failed to overcome the German forward lines in both ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Spring’. During ‘Goodwood’ (i), a bombardment by aircraft of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s Bomber Command of the RAF had allowed British armour to break through the German front before it started to suffer heavy losses from the intact defences echeloned in the depth of the German position. Infantry had been unable to follow quickly enough to support the leading tanks or to secure ground behind them, so that other follow-up units were also slowed.
To solve the tactical problem presented by the combination of the terrain and German defences in depth, Simonds proposed a radical solution. Some Canadian and British infantry divisions had been equipped on a temporary basis with M7 Priest self-propelled guns for ‘Overlord’. These had since been withdrawn and replaced by towed 25-pdr gun/howitzers. Simonds arranged for the M7 vehicles previously used by the Canadian 3rd Division to be converted into Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, which offered enhanced mobility and also improved protection against the effects of artillery and machine gunfire for the infantry embarked in them. This would allow infantry to follow armour closely across any terrain.
Simonds’s plan was for British bombers to saturate the German defences on both flanks of a corridor, 4 miles (6.4 km) wide, along the axis of the road linking Caen and Falaise during the night of 7/8 August. During the early hours of 8 August, two attacking forces of tanks and armoured personnel carriers would advance along this corridor. To the west of the road, under the Canadian 2nd Division, were Brigadier J. E. Ganong’s Canadian 4th Brigade and Brigadier R. A. Wymann’s (from 9 August Brigadier J. F. Bingham’s) Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade. To the east of the road, under the British 51st Division, were Brigadier J. A. Oliver’s 154th Brigade and Brigadier H. B. Scott’s 33rd Armoured Brigade. These two infantry/armour columns were to bypass the German front-line defences and capture the main German anti-tank defences around Cramesnil and St Aignan de Cramesnil at dawn.
The second phase of ‘Totalize’ would follow immediately. While the remaining four infantry brigades of the Canadian 2nd Division and British 51st Division cleared the isolated German forward defences, and Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division and Major General E. H. Barker’s British 49th Division (from Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps) were to begin subsidiary attacks to widen the base of salient captured in the first phase, and the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Polish 1st Armoured Division were to move along the corridor to Cramesnil in preparation for an advance farther to the south.
In preparation of the ground assault, bombers of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s US 8th AAF were to attack the German reserve positions at Hautmesnil. The ultimate objective, after an advance of 15 miles (24 km), was the high ground to the north of Falaise.
During the evening of 7 August 1944, the leading elements for the offensive formed in six columns (each only four vehicles wide) of tanks, Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, half-tracks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and mine flail tanks. At 23.00, some 1,000 heavy bombers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command started to drop 5,000 tons of bombs on the German positions along the entire Caen front, and at 23.30 the armoured columns began their advance behind a rolling barrage from 720 pieces of artillery. Movement was initially slow, largely because many of the armoured personnel carrier drivers became disoriented in the dust cloud raised by the mass of wheeled and tracked equipment; moreover, several vehicles became stuck in bomb craters.
Simonds had ordained a number of methods for the columns to maintain their direction: some vehicles were fitted with radio direction-finders, the artillery fired target-marking shells, and 40-mm guns fired bursts of tracer in the direction of advance; use was also made of the ‘artificial moonlight’ created by the beams of searchlights playing on the underside of the cloud cover. Despite these measures, however, there was still confusion and some vehicles collided or were destroyed or disabled. Even so, the attack opened major gaps in the German defence.
By dawn the Canadians had advanced 3 miles (4.8 km), but then slowed in the face of a strengthening resistance, for despite the collapse of the 89th Division and the near collapse of the 272nd Division on the German flanks, the 85th Division was holding its positions with the capable support of the 12th SS Panzerdivision.
By this time the 51st Division’s attacking columns had reached their intended positions. The infantry dismounted from their Kangaroo vehicles within 200 yards (180 m) of their objectives, the villages of Cramesnil and St Aignan de Cramesnil, and rapidly overran the defence. The columns of the 2nd Division were delayed by fog and unexpected opposition on their right flank, but by 12.00 on 8 August the Allied forces had captured the entire Verrières ridge.
The novel methods used by Simonds ensured that the attackers suffered only a fraction of the loss which would have been incurred in a normal ‘dismounted’ attack.
The Allies were now ready to move against the heavily defended town of Cintheaux, 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of their farthest penetration, but Simonds ordered a halt to the advance to allow the field artillery and the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Polish 1st Armoured Division to move into position for the second phase of the operation.
Commanding the 12th SS Panzerdivision, Meyer had already ordered infantry from various formations shattered by the Allied bombing and armoured attacks to occupy Cintheaux. He also moved forward two Kampfgruppen of his division, consisting of PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks, assault guns and infantry, into positions across the Canadian front. Shortly after 12.00 Meyer ordered these two Kampfgruppen to counterattack the leading Allied troops. At this point, the Canadian plan called for additional bombardment by the 8th AAF before the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Polish 1st Armoured Division pushed farther to the south in the direction of Falaise on either side of the road linking Caen and Falaise. While the counterattack by the 12th SS Panzerdivision was unsuccessful, it did serve to place Meyer’s tanks to the north of the target area which the US 8th AAF now bombed in preparation for the second phase of the Allied attack. These tanks, spared the effects of the bombing, slowed the advance of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, thus preventing a breakthrough to the east of the road. To the west of the road, the German infantry in and round Cintheaux likewise slowed the Canadian 4th Armoured Division.
These two divisions were both in combat for the first time and failed to press their attacks as hard as Simonds demanded, and then laagered for the night with the onset of darkness. To restore the momentum of the attack, Simonds ordered a column of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division to seize Hill 195, just to the west of the main road half-way between Cintheaux and Falaise. The column lost direction in the darkness, however, and was caught at dawn to the east of the road by German 88-mm (3.465-in) anti-tank guns. This Canadian force held its ground during 9 August, but suffered heavy casualties, including most of its tanks, but was then forced to retreat. Because the column was so far from its intended objective, other units sent to relieve it could not find it. Eventually, another force captured Hill 195 in a night attack on 10 August, but the Germans had been given time to withdraw and reform a defensive line on the Laison river.
By 11 August, ‘Totalize’ had been halted. The Allies had nonetheless inflicted heavy losses on the Germans while suffering only 560 dead and 1,600 wounded among their own formations, although the Canadian and Polish armoured divisions had lost many vehicles. Elements of four divisions of the Canadian 1st Army now held positions on Hill 195, directly to the north of Falaise. At the same time, Allied forces managed to inflict upwards of 1,500 casualties on already depleted German forces.
The notion had now entered the mind of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the US 12th Army Group, that the rapid eastward progress of the US 1st and 3rd Armies opened the possibility for Eberbach’s 5th Panzerarmee and SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s 7th Army to be trapped in a large pocket to the south of Falaise. However, because of the failure to reach the overall objective, in combination with the severe injuries he suffered in the US bombing, Keller was replaced in command of the 3rd Division by Major General D. C. Spry on 18 August. Crerar and Simonds now planned a follow-up offensive as ‘Tractable’, which took place on 14/21 August, ending during the day on which the Falaise ‘pocket’ was closed round Hausser’s 7th Army, effectively ending the Battle of Normandy with a decisive Allied victory.