Faubourg de Vaucelles
Operation ATLANTIC - The Plan
The operational order issued by 2nd Canadian Corps on 16 July announced that formations of the corps would capture the suburb of Caen known as Faubourg de Vaucelles, bridge the Orne River in the Caen area and "be prepared to exploit to capture, in succession" high ground north of St. Andre-sur-Orne and the commanding village of Verrières, overlooking the main road to Falaise, after which the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division would pass two brigades across the river and attack southwest from Ranville through Colombelles and Vaucelles.
The 8th and 9th Brigades were selected for the operation; the 8th to attack east of the Orne, to attack Colombelles, Giberville and Mondeville, with the 9th ordered to clear out Vaucelles. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, in its first operation since the fatal Dieppe Raid of August 1942, would exploit to the south, using the 4th Brigade to reconnoitre forward to the river and if practicable, cross and seize the high ground near St. Andre. The brigade was also tasked with taking Louvigny at the mouth of the Odon River to secure the west flank of the division. The 5th Brigade was to cross the Orne at Caen and, if the 4th was unable to take the high feature at St. Andre, do so.1
On the evening of 17 July the 8th Brigade moved across the Orne to their assembly area near Le Bas de Ranville. At 07:45hrs on the 18th the Brigade moved off with Le Régiment de la Chaudière on the right, nearer the river, and The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada on the left astride the road to Colombelles. Both battalions crossed the start-line about 08:00hrs with The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment following behind with the 9th Brigade to their rear, beginning to cross the Orne bridges at H-Hour as well. Four field regiments of 25-pounders covered the initial advance. At 10:40hrs, the Chauds were stopped by enemy fire coming from woods and a chateau above the Orne at Colombelles, while to their left, the QOR fell behind the barrage, and as the fire moved on a new axis towards Giberville, the infantry were held up by machine guns and snipers holed up in the vast steel complex at Colombelles off to their right.
The QOR cleared the area of the cross-roads east of Colombelles, with the assistance of tanks of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars), and then moved on Giberville, where they were again held up by German resistance and had to make a deliberate assault through the village, still under fire from the factory. By late afternoon, several hundred prisoners were in their hands from in and around Giberville.2 The Queen`s Own killed 200 dazed Germans of the 16th German Air Force Division and rounded up 600 more, for a loss of 79 men.3
The situation for the Chauds was more dire; held up in front of the chateau, the North Shore Regiment tried to assist by advancing along the steep river bank to the north, but were also stopped. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders attempted to push through the Chauds but were also prevented from doing so. Shortly after 12:00hrs, the Chauds pulled back to permit a bombardment of the chateau, but at 13:30hrs reports came back that the ground was hard and aerial bombs simply bounced over the building, rendering the attack ineffective. At 14:40hrs, the entire divisional artillery was brought to bear, but fire fell short and hit Canadian troops, adding to a deteriorating situation that was already confused. When reports came in at 15:18hrs that the chateau was on fire, the Chaudière made their move and succeeded in storming the building.
At 16:35hrs, the North Shore was ordered to clear the steelworks while the 9th Brigade was ordered to bypass, with the North Novas skirting the river bak to Vaucelles and the SDG moving against Mondeville. With this new orders, the attack regained its momentum, and the improvised attack on the steelworks went in at approximately 18:00hrs. A sudden rain storm provided cover for the assault companies who crossed the open fields and drove the few remaining Germans from the shattered buildings, a process not finally completed until early the next morning. The Queen`s Own Rifles in the meantime had to repel a counter-attack at Giberville before pushing on to the railway line south of the village, reaching their objectives by 21:30. The SDG were held up through the night at Colombelles but the North Novas entered Vaucelles just before midnight, with the HLI following behind, having come under fire from the factory in the process and having their acting C.O. wounded.
On the morning of the 19th, with his units of the 9th Brigade still delayed in the northeastern suburbs of Vaucelles, General Simonds (commanding 2nd Canadian Corps), directed Brigadier Foster of the 7th Brigade to attempt to get troops into Faubourg de Vaucelles from Caen proper by sending a patrol across the Orne River and, if there was no opposition, to send a battalion across. When the Regina Rifles`scout platoon edged over partially destroyed bridges meeting only light resistance, the rest of the battalion was sent over at 17:15hrs and established a bridgehead over the Orne.4
The 2nd Division
The 4th Brigade`s attack against Louvigny was began in the early evening of 18 July; by nightfall, The Royal Regiment of Canada managed to clear the orchards immediately north of the village. The brigade commander, Brigadier Sherwood Lett, was wounded during the course of the action (he had been wounded at Dieppe also). The 5th Brigade simultaneously came into action, with The Black Watch going forward at 22:15hrs against light opposition at Ifs, and making contact with the Regina Rifle Regiment.5
The assault on Louvigny is described in detail in the the regimental history of the Royal Regiment of Canada:
The Royal Regiment of Canada had been selected to protect the right flank of 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade while that formation crossed the river Orne north of Louvigny. Shortly after first light on the 18th, company commanders moved forward to reconnoitre the objective, but, although the day was fine, they found visibility extremely restricted because of huge clouds of dust being raised by an Allied heavy bomber attack on Faubourg de Vaucelles. The acting commanding officer, Major Anderson, issued his orders at 8:30 in the morning of 18 July, but for most of the day the men had nothing to do except catch up on some badly needed rest.
Major Anderson's plan was to launch an attack from a start-line at the hamlet of Le Mesnil, which would be secured by the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment. Thereafter the Battalion would proceed across the wheat fields east of Le Mesnil, and clear a large orchard north of the village of Louvigny. This orchard was bounded on three sides by a 7-foot wall composed of large boulders. "D" Company (Major J.D. Fairhead) was to lead the attack, followed by "A' Company (Major T.F. Whitley), with "B" Company (Captain D.S. Beatty) in support, while "C" Company (Major R.G. Young) established a firm base on high ground south of Le Mesnil. "D" Company, after passing through the orchard and clearing a chateau lying beyond it, was to advance through a wood as far as a railway line that ran north and south between Louvigny and Fleury-sur-Orne. From the orchard, "A" Company would wheel right and clear Louvigny, then "B" Company would pass through to take up a defensive position south-west of the village to stop any possible counter-attack from the direction of Athis, which was in enemy hands. Strong fire support was provided by the divisional artillery, one company of medium machine-guns, one company of (4.2)-inch mortars, the combined 3-inch mortar platoons of the Royals and the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, and by one squadron of the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment, which was to give close support for the attack and blast holes in the walls of the orchard by firing from hull down positions in "C" Company area.
H-Hour was not announced until the middle of the afternoon, and the companies began to leave the battalion area at five o'clock to reach their start-line by six. The enemy did not interfere with the move forward.6
The classic elements of Canadian battle procedure can be seen in the account; the use of another unit to secure a start line, collection of all available fire support, the use of a reserve, and the understanding that German counter-attacks would be part of the defensive scheme.
"D" Company crossed its start-line on time, as the supporting fire programme commenced. The leading troops had little difficulty in crossing the wheat fields, and as "D" company was about to move forward into the orchard, "A" Company was set in motion. As "A" Company advanced, random small arms fire began to sweep the wheat fields but did not impede progress, and although mortar bursts lit among the arrowhead formations of the advancing sections, these caused amazingly few casualties. When "A" Company reached the orchard, however, it found that, although there were three breaches in the orchard wall, "D" Company had suffered heavy casualties and had been unable to get forward. The company commander, Major J.D. Fairhead, had been killed a few feet inside the orchard, as had the only other officer, Lieutenant E.J. Chellew.
However, "D" Company was reorganizing, and under the command of Sergeant O.C. Tryon of the 3-inch mortar platoon, who had been attached to direct mortar fire for the assault company, it now advanced into the chateau grounds. Sergeant Tryon's courage and initiative in this attack subsequently earned him the award of the Military Medal. "A" Company followed close behind "D", and "B" Company was now part way through the orchard. The German defenders, well sited in weapon slits and in the huge aerial bomb craters with which the orchard was dotted, fought back desperately. Although between them "A" and "B" Companies could still muster three No. 18 wireless sets, none of these was able to contact Battalion Headquarters and therefore no supporting artillery fire could be brought down. However, by way of a diversion, a smoke and high explosive shoot was laid down north of the orchard by the 3-inch mortar platoon, and the artillery concentrations which fell on Athis had considerable effect.7
The 3-inch mortars of the Royals were pressed into service during the assault; Sergeant Tryon was awarded a Military Medal for his actions during the battle. The citation read:
Sergeant Tryon was acting as mobile fire controller for the three inch mortars with "D" Company, the Royal Regiment of Canada, on the night of 18 July 1944, during the attack on Louvigny. "D" Company was the left forward company in the attack and had been pinned to ground by fierce machine gun fire from the front in the general direction of the objective. All the Company officers and Section Non-Commissioned Officers had been killed or wounded and the Company was suffering severe casualties from shelling and mortaring.
Sergeant Tryon quickly appreciated the situation. He rallied the Company and personally led a daring flanking attack on the objective while still under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. The objective was successfully secured. Sergeant Tryon immediately commenced consolidation. Sergeant Tryon by his daring and resourcefulness was largely responsible for the success of the "D" Company attack.8
The narrative in the Regimental history continues:
At this point the acting battalion commander, accompanied by Brigadier Sherwood Lett and the regimental liaison officer, Lieutenant Lloyd Patterson, came forward to assess the situation. Unfortunately, very shortly thereafter Brigadier Lett was wounded by mortar fire and Lieutenant Patterson was killed. Major Anderson then sent Sergeant J. Corbett forward in a carrier to establish contact with the forward companies and discover the main points of enemy resistance. Sergeant Corbett returned about dusk - wounded - his driver having been killed and his carrier blown up by a mine. Although he had been unable to accomplish his mission, he brought back with him two prisoners whom he had wounded on his return journey. For his conduct on this occasion Sergeant Corbett was awarded the Military Medal.9
The award citation reads:
Sergeant James Robert Corbett was with Battalion Headquarters on the night of 18 July 1944 during the attack on Louvigny. Due to intense and consistent enemy fire Battalion Headquarters was temporarily out of touch with the forward company and was lacking important information concerning the progress of the attack. Sergeant Corbett was ordered to proceed forward by carrier, under cover of darkness, and obtain vital information. While proceeding forward his carrier was blown up by a mine and he was injured and badly shaken. Without any hesitation, he proceeded forward on foot, despite the intense enemy fire. He returned with the required information and a prisoner of war which he had captured enroute. Although wounded he refused to be evacuated until he had completed his mission. This Non-Commissioned Officer's courage and devotion to duty were an inspiration to the remainder of the Battalion, and contributed materially to the capture of the objective.10
The regimental narrative continues:
Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued before the orchard was cleared and the chateau reached. (Next morning one German defender was found throttled to death and with no other wound on him.) But by now it was obvious that with the troops available it would not be possible to clear the chateau, woods, and village. Moreover, the main objective of the operation, preventing any interference with the crossing of 5th Brigade, had already been accomplished. Therefore it was decided to concentrate on the village itself, attacking it with "A" Company, while the remnants of "D" Company provided left flank protection.
Enemy mortar fire had now greatly increased in intensity, but No. 8 platoon under Lieutenant L.H. Gage forced its way into the village and succeeded in clearing more than half of it before being held up by heavy machine-gun fire. By now it was almost dark, but No. 7 platoon went forward, while No. 9 platoon and "B" Company stood by to support an attack. However, information obtained from civilian refugees indicated that large numbers of the enemy were concentrated in the southern end of the village and the cleared section was being subjected to heavy mortar fire. The troops were therefore withdrawn to a firm base in the orchard so that fire support might be arranged for the completion of the task the following morning. All the Regiment's wounded were brought back to the orchard and evacuated during the hours of darkness.
Throughout the night the troops stood to in the orchard, and Major Whitley managed to get in touch with the Battalion Commander and arrange a fire plan for eight o'clock the following morning. The mortar platoon, commanded by Lieutenant T.R. Wilcox, who for several hours had been the senior officer of the Royals still alive in the battle area, spent the night firing tasks on the village and the bridge across the Orne. The Royals' mortars, augmented by those of the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, fired some 6000 rounds during the afternoon and night. The next day the number of German dead in the vicinity of the bridge showed that this fire had been effective.
At first light "C" Company, under Major R.G. Young, moved up and cleared the area of the chateau and the woods. When "B" Company entered Louvigny, it found that the enemy had withdrawn across the river under cover of darkness and that only mopping-up operations were required. By nine o'clock the Royals reported their task accomplished. Fifty-five enemy prisoners had been taken, but the victory had been an expensive one, costing the Regiment a total of 111 casualties, of which 34 were fatal.11
Another aspect of doctrine that had been apparent in the Italian Campaign and was repeated in Normandy was the willingness of the Germans to abandon a position they knew to be lost; such withdrawals took place under cover of darkness when possible, as reported here. As was the case at Buron, the use of mortars and artillery on their own positions was reported in heavy volumes.
The Canadian practice of heavy fire support paid dividends also; the regimental history of The Toronto Scottish Regiment reported:
...the (4.2") mortars engaged a battery of nebelwerfers (German mortars more commonly known as "Moaning Minnies") in the Fleury area. Their accuracy silenced the enemy battery which had taken a heavy toll of the advancing infantry. A high tribute was paid to Able Company about this time...A German officer, captured at Louvigny by 4 Brigade, maintained that it was without doubt the most effective weapon to which he had ever been exposed. The unfortunate fellow was dragged out of the wreckage of a building which had been subjected to 910 H.E. bombs from 2 and 3 (P)latoons.12
With the initial attacks in and the flanks secure, the engineers were now able to begin bridging the Orne. The 2nd Army plan required the 2nd Canadian Corps to bridge the Caen Canal and the Orne River at Herouville, near Colombelles, and later the river in Caen proper. However, enemy resistance in Colombelles proved frustrating and the 3rd Canadian Division`s engineers had to abandon attempts to bridge at Herouville after suffering many casualties on the 18th. The 2nd Canadian Division`s engineers had better luck at Caen, and within 12 hours of the start of the attack had managed a complete bridge at the main road crossing which was able to bear the weight of tanks, with a tank-carrying raft just above the city, a smaller bridge close by, and another installed in the dock area. The British 8th Corps had been hamstrung by its ability to deploy quickly over the water on the morning of July 18th, but with the addition of these new bridges, the southward extension of the bridgehead was greatly aided.13
Canadian Operations on 19 July - 3rd Canadian Division
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division completed its initial tasks without heavy fighting on the 19th; the 9th Brigade finished clearing Vaucelles of the enemy by noon, which consisted mainly of snipers. The 2nd Canadian Corps commander intended that the division reorganize and take Cormelles, the industrial suburb east of the main road to Falaise and now the boundary between the two Canadian divisions. At 11:00hrs, the 7th Brigade was ordered to Cormelles, but when reports were received that it might be unoccupied, the Highland Light Infantry of the 9th Brigade was quickly dispatched there. Confusion ensued and despite renewed complaints of friendly artillery fire falling among the infantry, two companies entered Cormelles in the afternoon.14
Canadian Operations on 19 July - 5th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division
West of the Falaise Road, the 2nd Division was tasked to take Fleury-sur-Orne, St. André-sur-Orne, the high ground between, and the village of Ifs. The 5th Brigadeʼs assault began badly when Le Règiment de Maisonneuve formed up on the opening phase line of their supporting artillery barrage, instead of on their start line.15 "A" and "D" Companies had advanced 200-300 yards too far; the Officer Commanding "D" Company, Major Lucien Brosseau, was killed, along with twelve others, including Captain A.L. Oriens, the commander of the Mortar Platoon. Thirty-seven men were wounded, and 27 were evacuated with battle exhaustion. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bisiallon, ordered "B" and "C" Companies forward to find little opposition and their objectives were taken by 16:30hrs; the reorganized "A" and "D" Companies joined them during the evening.16
After the Maisonneuves had taken Le Haute and Fleury-sur-Orne, the next phase called for the Calgary Highlanders to pass through Fleury-sur-Orne and seize Hill 67, a high feature overlooking St. André-sur-Orne from the north. Hill 67 was itself a low ridge connected to, and dominated by, the Verrières Ridge itself. The Germans defending the western edge of the Ridge were also supported by German troops holding out on the west side of the Orne. A hidden bridge across the river near Etavaux – withdrawn by day and emplaced by night – permitted German troops to move across the river as needed.
The assault on Hill 67 by the Calgary Highlanders was the first act of many in the drama surrounding the Verrières Ridge; the assault on the ridge got off to a late start on July 19th. For the first – and last – time, pipers were permitted to play the Highlanders forward. The kilt had already been officially banned from operational dress in 1939 as unsuited for modern war.
The attack was carried out as so many practice runs in England – two rifle companies forward, two back, with the mortars and anti-tank guns in support. The Germans obliged the regiment by "scurrying out of the wheatfields" in the words of one Calgary Highlander, and abandoning the hill as the battalion arrived on the objective. However, mortar fire at one point was so accurate, battalion headquarters turned its radio off for fear the Germans were somehow using it as a direction finder.17
But the Germans were simply fighting according to their own well-established defensive doctrine, which called for lightly outposting positions, then heavily shelling their own defences once they were lost, and launching immediate and intense counter-attacks, all lessons learned in the trenches of the First World War. Thirty minutes after the Highlanders arrived on the hill and had begun digging in, the Germans were hurling themselves furiously at "C" Company, including soldiers from Infantry Division 272, reinforced by a battle group of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division.
Enemy tanks overran Lieutenant Vern Kilpatrick who had taken a fighting patrol 400 yards beyond the hill. He was hit by enemy fire, but not before he and his men immobilized two German tanks with their PIAT anti-tank weapons and knocked the turret off a third. The engagement alerted the rest of the battalion, quick to get underground as the German tanks closed in and pelted the Highlanders with close range fire. But there wasn't enough SS infantry to retake the hill, and the Highlanders held on as "B" and "D" Companies rallied to the defence along with "C" Company. The entire unit continued to suffer from the intense mortaring, and the Pipe Major's bagpipes were lost when an ammunition truck blew up in an impressive explosion at battalion headquarters.
Fatal casualties during the counter-attack had been relatively few – Kilpatrick was one of the six officers and men killed or missing, dying during the night at the age of 22 – but 92 soldiers had been wounded, mostly from "C" Company.
German infantry and tanks did not return on July 20th, but casualties continued to mount as men were picked off in ones and twos by snipers and the continual shelling. "A" Company, held in reserve, was sent towards Etavaux at 18:00 to deal with the Germans there, described as a "thorn in our side." They encountered at least five machine guns in an orchard, and an all-night firefight fought at 400 yards range raged throughout the night into the 21st. Major John Campbell's company was denied permission to enter the village, however, as it was felt that the enemy would just have to abandon it once the British on the other side of the Orne cleared Maltot. When it was realized the German strength at Etavaux was at least 200 men – or double Campbell's strength – plans changed and a large scale assault was planned. "A" Company was eventually withdrawn, in favour of the Maisonneuves attacking, and Etavaux was secured on 23 July.
In all, the Highlanders lost 21 men killed, 10 died of wounds, and 97 wounded, in three days of fighting at Hill 67 and Etavaux, or 15% of the battalion's total strength. Despite four years of training, the unit had shown inexperience in its initial battle – "C" Company entrenched on a forward slope, exposed to enemy fire and observation. Friendly fields of fire had been poorly chosen, and German troops and tanks were allowed to advance almost to the crest of the hill unhindered. Battalion headquarters was located directly on top of Hill 67, a foolish choice. Patrolling once the hill was secure virtually ceased, and no effort to reconnoiter Etavaux had been made before "A" Company moved on it, finding enemy strength far stronger than anticipated.18
During the evening of 19 July, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada moved on the village of Ifs, and had to fight off several counter-attacks before declaring the town secure during the morning of the 20th.19 They first moved forward at 19:00hrs with tanks of The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment in support, and "probing attacks by small groups of enemy troops looking for a way around the Calgary position were beaten off." Ifs was heavily hit by German mortar fire during the evening and into the night.20
By evening of July 19th, it seemed that the 2nd Canadian Corps had almost finished its part in Operation ATLANTIC/Operation GOODWOOD. When the tanks of the British 8th Corps began to withdraw, however, the commander of the 2nd British Army called for the 2nd Canadian Corps to take over Bras as "soon as possible". On the 20th, the 8th Corps was ordered to halt, with the exception of 7th Armoured Division, who was to complete its capture of Bourguébus. The 3rd Canadian Division was left to relieve the 11th Armoured Division while the 2nd Canadian Division was to continue the advance southward and establish positions on the Verrières Ridge. The 6th Brigade, not yet engaged, was ordered forward, with the Essex Scottish placed under command.21 There followed a costly series of clashes between the 6th Brigade and German units.
Examined on their own, the actions for which the Battle Honour "Fauborg de Vaucelles" had been granted, were successful operations. The 5th Brigade had achieved a successful baptism of fire; infantry-tank co-operation had been good, and the 5th Field Regiment had been fully professional in its provision of both pre-planned barrage fire and accurate response to on-call fire from Forward Observation Officers. "Fifth Brigade was by comparison (to the 4th, which suffered heavily in the next two days) in good shape; morale, after what appeared to be some success in battle, was high."21
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "Faubourg de Vaucelles" for participation in these actions:
2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade
4th Canadian Infantry Brigade
5th Canadian Infantry Brigade
3rd Canadian Division
7th Canadian Infantry Brigade
8th Canadian Infantry Brigade
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade