World War II: Battle of Caen

Fighting during the Battle of Caen, 1944
Allied armor during the Battle of Caen. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Caen was fought from June 6, to July 20, 1944, during World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

Germans

Background:

Located in Normandy, Caen was identified early on by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Allied planners as a main objective for the D-Day invasion.

This was largely due to the city's key position along the Orne River and Caen Canal as well as its role as a major road hub within the region. As a result, the capture of Caen would greatly inhibit the ability of German forces to respond quickly to Allied operations once ashore. Planners also felt that the relatively open terrain around the city would provide an easier line of advance inland as opposed to the more difficult bocage (hedgerow) country to the west. Given the favorable terrain, the Allies also intended to establish several airfields around the city. The capture of Caen was assigned to Major General Tom Rennie's British 3rd Infantry Division which would be assisted by Major General Richard N. Gale's British 6th Airborne Division and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. In the final plans for Operation Overlord, Allied leaders intended for Keller's men to take Caen shortly after coming ashore on D-Day.

This would require an advance of approximately 7.5 miles from beach.

D-Day:

Landing during the night of June 6, the airborne forces captured key bridges and artillery positions to the east of Caen along the Orne River and at Merville. These efforts effectively blocked the enemy's ability to mount a counterattack against the beaches from the east.

Storming ashore on Sword Beach around 7:30 AM, the 3rd Infantry Division initially encountered stiff resistance. Following the arrival of supporting armor, Rennie's men were able to secure the exits from the beach and commenced pushing inland around 9:30 AM. Their advance was soon stopped by a determined defense mounted by 21st Panzer Division. Blocking the road to Caen, the Germans were able to halt Allied forces and the city remained in their hands as night fell. As a result, the Allied ground commander, General Bernard Montgomery, elected to meet with the commanders of the US First Army and British Second Army, Lieutenant Generals Omar Bradley and Miles Dempsey, to develop a new plan for taking the city.

Operation Perch:

Originally conceived as a plan for breaking out of the beachhead to the southeast of Caen, Operation Perch was quickly altered by Montgomery into a pincer attack for taking the city. This called for I Corps' 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade to cross the Orne River in the east and attack towards Cagny. In the west, XXX Corps would cross the Odon River, then swing east towards Evrecy. This offensive moved forward on June 9 as elements of XXX Corps began battling for Tilly-sur-Seulles which was held by the Panzer Lehr Division and elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division.

Due to delays, I Corps did not begin their advance until June 12. Meeting heavy resistance from the 21st Panzer Division, these efforts were halted the next day.

As I Corps rolled forward, the situation in the west changed when German forces, having been under heavy attack from the US 1st Infantry Division on XXX Corps' right began falling back. Seeing an opportunity, Dempsey directed the 7th Armoured Division to exploit the gap and advance to Villers-Bocage before turning east to assault the left flank of the Panzer Lehr Division. Reaching the village on July 13, British forces were checked in heavy fighting. Feeling that the division was becoming overextended, Dempsey pulled it back with the goal of reinforcing it and renewing the offensive. This failed to occur when a severe storm hit the area and damaged supply operations on the beaches (Map).

Operation Epsom:

In an effort to regain the initiative, Dempsey commenced Operation Epsom on June 26. Using Lieutenant General Sir Richard O'Connor's newly-arrived VIII Corps, the plan called for a thrust over the Odon River to capture high ground south of Caen near Bretteville-sur-Laize. A secondary operation, dubbed Martlet, was launched on June 25 to secure heights along VIII Corps' right flank. Assisted by supporting operations at other points along the line, the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, aided by armor from the 31st Tank Brigade, spearheaded the Epsom attack the next day. Making good progress, it crossed the river, pushed through the German lines and began expanding its position. Joined by the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, the 15th became engaged in heavy fighting and repulsed several major German counterattacks. The severity of the German efforts led to Dempsey pulling his some of his troops back across the Odon by June 30.

Though a tactical failure for the Allies, Epsom altered the balance of forces in the region in their favor. While Dempsey and Montgomery were able to maintain a force of reserves, their opponent, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, was compelled to utilize his entire force to hold the front lines. Following Epsom, the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division mounted Operation Windsor on July 4. This called for an attack on Carpiquet and its adjacent airfield which were located west of Caen. The Canadian effort was further supported by a variety of specialist armor, 21 artillery regiments, naval gunfire support from HMS Rodney, as well as two squadrons of Hawker Typhoons.

Moving forward, the Canadians, aided by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, succeeded in capturing the village but were unable to secure the airfield. The next day, they turned back German efforts to reclaim Carpiquet.

Operation Charnwood:

Increasingly frustrated with the situation around Caen, Montgomery directed that a major offensive be mounted to frontally assault the city. Though Caen's strategic significance had lessened, he particularly desired to secure Verrières and Bourguébus ridges to the south. Dubbed Operation Charnwood, the key objectives of the assault were to clear the city south to the Orne and secure bridges over the river. To accomplish the latter, an armored column was assembled with orders to rush through Caen to capture the crossings. The attack moved forward on July 8 and was heavily supported by bombers and naval gunfire. Led by I Corps, three infantry divisions (3rd, 59th, and 3rd Canadian), supported by armor, pushed forward. To the west, the Canadians renewed their efforts against Carpiquet airfield. Grinding ahead, British forces reached the outskirts of Caen that evening. Concerned about the situation, the Germans began withdrawing their heavy equipment across the Orne and prepared to defend the river crossings in the city.

The next morning, British and Canadian patrols began penetrating the city proper while other forces finally occupied Carpiquet airfield after the 12th SS Panzer Division withdrew. As the day progressed British and Canadian troops united and drove the Germans from the northern part of Caen.

Occupying the riverbank, Allied troops halted as they lacked the strength to contest the river crossings. In addition, it was deemed inadvisable to continue as the Germans held the ground flanking the southern part of the city. As Charnwood concluded, O'Connor launched Operation Jupiter on July 10. Striking south, he sought to capture the key heights of Hill 112. Though this objective was not gained after two days of fighting, his men secured several villages in the area and prevented the 9th SS Panzer Division from being withdrawn as a reserve force.

Operation Goodwood:

As Operation Jupiter was moving forward, Montgomery again met with Bradley and Dempsey to assess the overall situation. At this gathering, Bradley proposed the plan for Operation Cobra which called for a major breakout from the American sector on July 18. Montgomery approved this plan and Dempsey was tasked with mounting an operation to pin German forces in place around Caen and possibly achieve a breakout in the east. Dubbed Operation Goodwood, this called for a major offensive by British forces east of the city. Goodwood was to be supported by the Canadian-led Operation Atlantic which was designed to capture the southern part of Caen. With planning completed, Montgomery hoped to begin Goodwood on July 18 and Cobra two days later.

Spearheaded by O'Connor's VIII Corps, Goodwood commenced following heavy Allied air attacks. Slowed somewhat by natural obstacles and German minefields, O'Connor was tasked with capturing Bourguébus Ridge as well as the area between Bretteville-sur-Laize and Vimont. Driving forward, British forces, heavily supported by armor, were able to advance seven miles but failed to take the ridge. The fighting saw frequent clashes between British Churchill and Sherman tanks and their German Panther and Tiger counterparts. Advancing to the east, Canadian forces succeeded in liberating the remainder of Caen, however subsequent assaults against Verrières Ridge were repulsed.

Aftermath:

Though originally a D-Day objective, it took Allied forces around seven weeks to finally liberate the city. Due to the ferocity of the fighting, much of Caen was destroyed and had to be rebuilt after the war. Though Operation Goodwood failed to achieve a breakout, it did hold German forces in place for Operation Cobra. Delayed until July 25, Cobra saw American forces knock a gap in the German lines and reach open country to the south. Pivoting east, they moved to encircle German forces in Normandy as Dempsey mounted a new advance with the goal of trapping the enemy around Falaise. Beginning on August 14, Allied forces sought to close the "Falaise Pocket" and destroy the German Army in France. Though nearly 100,000 Germans escaped the pocket before it was closed on August 22, around 50,000 were captured and 10,000 killed. Having won the Battle of Normandy, Allied forces advanced freely to the Seine River reaching it on August 25.

Selected Sources