After the costly battle for northern Caen, Montgomery was even more concerned about infantry shortages. British and Canadian losses had now risen to 37,563. The Adjutant-General, Sir Ronald Adam, had come over to Normandy to warn Montgomery and Dempsey that replacements would run out in the next few weeks.
Dempsey’s Second Army was not, however, short of tanks. He now had three armoured divisions, five independent armoured brigades and three tank brigades. While Montgomery remained wedded to his idea of holding down the German panzer formations on his front to allow the Americans to break out, Dempsey was determined to break the bloody stalemate. The bridgehead east of the Orne appeared to offer a good opportunity for a major armoured attack over open country south-east towards Falaise. Dempsey had been deeply impressed by the destructive power of the heavy bombers in their attack of 7 July. He seems, however, to have been strangely misguided about its lack of military effectiveness.
On 12 July, Dempsey persuaded Montgomery that he should mass the three armoured divisions into General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps. Montgomery was extremely reluctant. He did not like the idea of tank formations ‘swanning about’ as they had in the Western Desert, occasionally with disastrous consequences. But he felt he had no option in the circumstances. He did not want to risk another major infantry battle, yet he had to do something to head off the criticism building in London and at SHAEF headquarters. The attack on Caen had failed to gain the territory needed for airfields and to deploy the Canadian First Army.
Most important of all, in Montgomery’s thinking, this offensive represented a major blow on the Caen front just before the Americans launched Operation Cobra in the west. If nothing else, this would prevent the Germans from transferring panzer divisions to face Bradley’s First Army. Yet Montgomery’s true feelings are still not clear. Either he had suddenly convinced himself that the operation must achieve a major breakthrough, or else he felt compelled to mislead his superiors to be sure of obtaining the heavy bombers to smash open the German lines. Politically, this was a very unwise course of action.
On 12 July, he sold Dempsey’s plan to Eisenhower on the basis that it offered the possibility of a decisive breakthrough. The supreme commander, who had despaired of Montgomery’s caution, replied exuberantly two days later, ‘I am viewing the prospects with the most tremendous optimism and enthusiasm. I would not be at all surprised to see you gaining a victory that will make some of the “old classics” look like a skirmish between patrols.’ Also on 14 July, Montgomery wrote to Field Marshal Brooke, saying that ‘the time has come to have a real “showdown” on the eastern flank’. Then, the very next day, Montgomery gave Dempsey and O’Connor a revised directive. This was more modest in its objectives. He wanted to advance only a third of the way to Falaise and then see how things stood. This may well have been a more realistic assessment of what was possible, yet Montgomery never told Eisenhower and he never even informed his own 21st Army Group headquarters. The consequences would be disastrous for Montgomery’s reputation and credibility.
The Guards Armoured Division, originally delayed by the great storm, was by now ready to take part. Its officers were urged to visit the different fronts in Jeeps to pick up what they could in battle knowledge. But the experience was not exactly encouraging. ‘I came upon a line of six or seven British Sherman tanks,’ wrote a member of the Irish Guards, ‘each of which had a neat hole in the side. Most had been burnt out. They had obviously been hit in quick succession, probably by the same gun.’ On their return, when briefed for Operation Goodwood, they were told that they were ‘going to break right through’. Goodwood, named like Epsom after a racecourse, prompted the joke that it would be a ‘day at the races’.
Montgomery, using his strategy of ‘alternate thrusts’ to throw the Germans off balance before the main offensive, persuaded Dempsey to begin with diversionary attacks further west. Shortly before midnight on 15 July, the British attacked near Esquay, Hill 112 and Maltot with flame-throwing Crocodile tanks. In the dark, they must have appeared like armoured dragons. Even further west, XXX Corps mounted a limited push. ‘There is a nice cool breeze now moving the ripening corn,’ wrote a captain near Fontenay-le-Pesnel. ‘Amongst the corn one can just see the tops of guns and tanks, the spurts of flame and clouds of dust as they fire ... another gloriously hot day. Dusty, hazy, with gunfire smoke hanging low over the corn like a November fog.’
Once again, Hill 112, the ‘hill of Calvary’, saw the most bitter fighting. The commander of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen recorded that, on the evening of 16 July, the British laid such a heavy smokescreen on this high ground that his defending troops felt sick and thought it was a gas attack. British tanks broke through at about 21.00 hours and took sixty of his panzergrenadiers prisoner. But Hohenstaufen Panthers on the reverse slope of the hill counter-attacked and claimed to have knocked out fifteen tanks.
The German 277th Infanterie-Division had just reached the front near Evrecy from Béziers on the Mediterranean coast. A young gunner with the division, Eberhard Beck, travelled with his artillery regiment to the Loire by train, then marched from there by night. Even the draught horses pulling their 150 mm howitzers and limbers had been half asleep. When the column halted, which was often, the horses trudged on, and the soldiers dozing on the back of the gun carriage in front found a horse’s muzzle in their face. The only high point of their journey had been the successful looting of a wine cellar in a château. Beck and his fellow soldiers had no idea what to expect in Normandy.
Closer to the front, they were joined by infantry, carrying Panzerfaust anti-tank grenade launchers over their shoulders. They could see ahead the sickly light of magnesium flares and ‘the whole length of the front flashed and flickered like lightning’. Beck wanted to hide himself in the depths of a wood or forest. ‘An unbelievable nervousness came over both soldiers and horses.’ The sound of aircraft overhead became ‘an endless, relentless roar’.
Their battery commander, Oberleutnant Freiherr von Stenglin, directed them to their first fire position west of Evrecy. Almost immediately, shells began to explode. The head of a driver named Pommer was taken off by a piece of shrapnel. Horses reared in terror and a container of hot food brought up from the field kitchen went flying, spilling goulash on the ground. Beck had two preoccupations, one of which was to sleep after the exhaustion of the march. The other was that, like most young soldiers, he did not want to die a virgin.
Fire missions against British tank concentrations round Evrecy were few, because of the shortage of ammunition. Often their battery was rationed to three rounds per day. With time on their hands, Beck and the other gunners played chess or skat when not under fire. Allied air attacks on their supply lines also reduced their rations. Beck was so hungry that he had the ‘hare-brained idea’ of slipping forward to dig up potatoes by the front line. But, like the British troops on the other side, they almost all suffered from dysentery, which had spread from insects feeding off corpses.
They soon encountered very young SS panzergrenadiers in camouflage uniforms, ‘outstandingly well-equipped’ in comparison to their own infantry. ‘They were not, however, to be envied,’ he felt. ‘They were ambitious and were splendid soldiers. We all respected them.’ But ‘for us the war had been lost for some time. What counted was to survive.’ That was certainly the opinion of the older soldiers. ‘They were more mature, concerned, fatherly and humane. They did not want any heroics.’ Beck and his comrades sometimes had to go forwards with a two-wheeled handcart to collect the wounded, who told them that, as artillerymen, they were lucky not to be in the front line: ‘Up there it is hell.’ The young gunners, when sheltering in their trenches from a bombardment, also discussed the right sort of Heimatschuss which would be just serious enough to have you sent back to a hospital in Germany. ‘My thoughts,’ wrote Beck, ‘were wound, casualty clearing station, hospital, home, end of the war. I wanted only to get out of this misery.’ But the British bombardment, including naval guns which made craters thirteen feet across and six and a half feet deep, provoked psychological as well as physical wounds. When a senior sergeant was blown up by a shell, a seventeen-year-old signaller next to him went completely to pieces.
German infantry losses were so great that a division was ground down within three weeks. Rommel’s headquarters noted that on 16 July the 277th Infanterie-Division near Evrecy had lost thirty-three officers and 800 men in the last few days. They were now reinforced by part of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, but even they had lost so many men that they had to reorganize their two panzergrenadier regiments into three weak battalions.
During the night of 16 July, Ultra intercepted a signal from Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle, the commander-in-chief of the Third Air Fleet. In it he predicted a major attack ‘decisive for the course of the war to take place south-eastwards from Caen about the night of 17-18th’. German air reconnaissance had for once penetrated Allied lines and overflown the Orne bridgehead to photograph preparations. In any case, the British knew that the Germans in the factory district of Colombelles, on the east bank of the Orne, would have observation posts on the top of tall chimneys and could see almost everything in the bridgehead. Yet this clear warning from Ultra that the Germans were well aware of the main British thrust did not make Dempsey re-examine his priorities. Without surprise, their only chance of success was to follow the bombing with a speedy and resolute attack.
General Eberbach of Panzer Group West did not believe that his forces, with 150 tanks, would manage to hold back the 800 British tanks massing against them. When Hausser’s Seventh Army demanded the transfer of a panzer division from the Caen sector, because it had no reserves left to meet the American attack round Saint-Lô, Eberbach said it was ‘out of the question’. Rommel backed him up.
On 17 July, Standartenführer Kurt Meyer, the commander of the SS Hitler Jugend Division, received an order to report to Generalfeldmarschall Rommel at the headquarters of Dietrich’s I SS Panzer Corps. Most of the division had been withdrawn to rest and refit near Livarot after its battering in Caen. Rommel asked Meyer for his assessment of the impending British attack. ‘The units will fight and the soldiers will continue to die in their positions,’ Meyer said, ‘but they will not prevent the British tanks from rolling over their bodies and marching on to Paris. The enemy’s overwhelming air supremacy makes tactical manoeuvre virtually impossible. The fighter-bombers even attack individual dispatch riders.’
Rommel became impassioned on the subject. He vented his exasperation with the OKW, which still refused to listen to his warnings. ‘They don’t believe my reports any more. Something has to happen. The war in the West has to end . . . But what will happen in the East?’ As Rommel took his leave, Sepp Dietrich urged him to avoid the main road on his return to La Roche-Guyon. Rommel apparently waved away the idea with a smile.
Less than an hour later, Rommel’s open Horch was attacked by two Spitfires on the road near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery. He was thrown from the car and badly injured. A Frenchwoman on her way to buy meat had been forced to duck in panic as the fighters came in. She recounted that the locals found it ironic that the attack should have taken place next to a village with a name so similar to that of his opposing commander. Rommel was taken first to a pharmacy in Livarot and then to a hospital at Bernay. He was out of the war.
Eberbach, on receiving the news, set off immediately with an army doctor. At 21.30 hours, Speidel rang Panzer Group West to say that Hitler had ordered Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge to take command of Army Group B while continuing as Commander-in-Chief West. When Eberbach returned, a call came through from Kluge’s staff ordering the transfer of a panzer division to the Seventh Army to help stop the American breakthrough at Saint-Lô. Although his side of the conversation is not included in the log, General Eberbach evidently refused. Within a matter of minutes Kluge himself was on the telephone. Eberbach explained ‘that the Panzer Group was facing a major English attack’. He then went on to specify the threat. The only reserve available was the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, which had just been removed from him. In what was clearly an ill-tempered conversation, Kluge rejected Eberbach’s demands for reinforcements as out of the question. The record then adds that Kluge reminded him of the situation on the eastern front, with the onslaught of the Red Army’s Operation Bagration. But Eberbach refused to be browbeaten. He returned to the charge over the threat facing his sector and the consequences of sending one of his panzer divisions to Saint-Lô.
That night, the first bombardments began in preparation for Operation Goodwood and also Operation Atlantic. The idea was to cover the sound of tanks moving into position, but it only confirmed what the Germans already knew. Operation Atlantic was the simultaneous Canadian offensive aimed in part at taking Vaucelles, the southern part of Caen and its outskirts. Canadian artillery hit a large fuel and ammunition dump in Vaucelles, causing a huge explosion.
Of all the offensives in Normandy, Operation Goodwood was the most obvious to the enemy. Attempts to conceal it with deception measures, including ‘pre-recorded wireless traffic’ to simulate an attack towards Caumont, were doomed to failure. Even if the Germans had not known in advance from photo-reconnaissance and their observation posts in Colombelles, the dust clouds in the unusually hot weather indicated the movement of tank formations. The signs by the side of the road warning that ‘Dust Kills’ (because it attracted German artillery fire) seemed no more than an ironic reminder as the military police in their white canvas gaiters and white gauntlets waved the vehicles on.
Goodwood also represented a failure in military intelligence. Even with RAF Mustangs flying photo-reconnaissance missions, Dempsey’s staff assumed that Eberbach’s defences had a depth of less than three miles.In fact there were five lines going all the way back to the rear of the Bourguébus ridge, over six miles away. And despite the identification of the 16th Luftwaffe Feld-Division, they had no knowledge of the number of 88 mm guns brought forward with Generalleutnant Pickert’s Flak Corps. Cavalry regiments were later to curse the intelligence staff, whom they dubbed the ‘crystal-gazers’.
The 11th Armoured Division led the way across the Orne bridges into the eastern bridgehead that night. Despite Montgomery’s revision to the plan, Dempsey’s headquarters had done nothing to cool the fever of expectation. ‘We’ll be moving into top gear!’ the commander of a brigade in the 7th Armoured Division told his officers. ‘We are undoubtedly on the eve of a battle much bigger than Alamein,’ wrote a squadron commander of the 13th/18th Hussars in his diary. ‘The crush east of the Orne has to be seen to be believed. There isn’t an orchard or a field empty.’ Memories of the North African victory were perhaps in their minds also because of the great heat, the terrible dust, ‘which we all agree is comparable to the desert’, and the unrelenting swarms of mosquitoes. Soldiers complained that the army-issue insect repellent seemed to attract them even more.
Officers in the Guards Armoured Division were very conscious of the fact that they had not fought in North Africa and that this was their first battle. Rex Whistler, the painter and set designer, although fifteen years older than the other troop leaders in the armoured battalion of the Welsh Guards, had been determined to stay with his squadron. And just because they were at war, he saw no reason to stop painting. Back in England, Whistler had commissioned the local village blacksmith to make him a metal container to fix to the outside of his tank turret to take his paints, brushes and some small canvases. But as the senior subaltern, Whistler was made the battalion burial officer. His crew were unhappily superstitious about the twenty wooden crosses they had to carry on the tank.
Like the poet Keith Douglas, Whistler seems to have foreseen his own death. He told a friend that he did not want to be buried in a large military cemetery, but just where he had fallen. Shortly before their divisional commander, Major General Adair, briefed the officers, he wrote a last letter to his mother from the orchard where they were leaguered. He enclosed ‘a bit of mistletoe from the tree above my bivvy’, the tarpaulin stretched sideways from the tank under which the crew slept. At dusk on 17 July, Francis Portal, a fellow officer, talked to Whistler, while the tank engines were being tested and checked a last time. ‘So we’ll probably meet tomorrow evening,’ Portal said as they parted. ‘I hope so,’ came the wistful answer.
Every senior commander on the Allied side was praying for Montgomery to make a breakthrough at last. Even his foes in the RAF, including ‘Bomber’ Harris, made no objection to his request for heavy bomber support. The commander of the tactical air force, Air Marshal Coningham, who loathed Montgomery most of all, was desperate for success so as to have room to build the forward airfields. Air Chief Marshal Tedder, who had privately been discussing with Coningham the possibility of Montgomery’s dismissal, wrote to assure the commander-in-chief that all the air forces would be ‘full out to support your far-reaching and decisive plan’.
At 05.30 hours on 18 July, the first wave of bombers flew in from the north to attack their targets. Over the next two and a half hours, 2,000 heavy and 600 medium bombers of the RAF and the USAAF dropped 7,567 tons of bombs on a frontage of 7,000 yards. It was the largest concentration of air power in support of a ground operation ever known. Warships of the Royal Navy off the coast also contributed a massive bombardment. The waiting tank crews climbed out to watch the spectacular dust clouds thrown up by the seemingly endless explosions. For those watching, it was unthinkable that anyone could survive such an onslaught.
Germans who endured the man-inflicted earthquake were stunned and deafened. The wounded and those driven mad screamed and screamed. Some, unable to bear the noise, the shock waves and the vibration of the ground, shot themselves. Heavy Tiger tanks were flipped over by the blast or half buried in huge craters. But with the target areas obscured by dust and smoke, the British could not see that the bombing had been far from accurate. And they still had no idea that Eberbach had formed five lines of defence. The most important of them, along the Bourguébus ridge, had to be taken if the Second Army were to advance towards Falaise. But this line received hardly any bombs at all.42
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment moved forward to lead the 11th Armoured Division into battle. Ahead lay gently rolling country, mainly large fields full of ripening corn, dotted with hamlets of Norman stone farmhouses surrounded by orchards. The terrain sloped up towards the main objective, the Bourguébus ridge, rapidly dubbed Buggersbus by British soldiers.
Very soon a major drawback in the plan became apparent. The 51st Highland Division had laid an ill-mapped minefield across its front. General O’Connor decided that they could not lift the whole minefield without alerting the Germans (by then an unnecessary concern) so only a dozen narrow channels had been cleared during the night. This slowed the whole advance, with disastrous consequences.
There were also huge traffic jams behind while the Guards and 7th Armoured Division waited for 11th Armoured to clear the area so that they could cross the six Bailey bridges over the Orne. As the sun rose higher in the sky, tank crews ate or even stretched out to sleep at the edge of cornfields beside the road. Despite the dust and the petrol fumes, Rex Whistler and some fellow officers in the Welsh Guards passed the time playing piquet. Even when the columns began to move, the scene ahead was ‘like cars crawling back to London from the coast on a summer Sunday, stationary as far as one could see, then shrugging forward’. Air Marshal Coningham, who was with Dempsey next to O’Connor’s headquarters, was beside himself with frustration. The slow progress of the armoured brigades through the minefield meant that the shock effect of the bombing attack was going to waste.
On the west side of O’Connor’s main thrust, the 3rd Canadian Division was advancing into Vaucelles, the southern part of Caen across the Orne. But heavy resistance halted the Régiment de la Chaudière at 10.30 hours. The Queen’s Own Regiment of Canada swung left round the obstruction to take Giberville, and then the Regina Rifles crossed the Orne in Caen and took Vaucelles. Meanwhile, the Nova Scotia Highlanders went on to take the adjoining suburb of Mondeville. The North Shore Regiment attacked the factory buildings of Colombelles, where weakened infantrymen from the Luftwaffe’s 16th Feld-Division were so shaken by the bombing that they were at first unable to walk. On the left side of the main advance, the British 3rd Infantry Division, supported by an armoured brigade, was advancing on Touffréville and then on towards Troarn.
For the first two hours of the battle, the attackers saw many encouraging signs. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment encountered dazed German infantry, rising out of the corn with their hands up to surrender. Their tank crews directed them to the rear. B Squadron of the 11th Hussars came across a German dugout in which the men appeared to be asleep. Their bodies were untouched, but they were in fact dead, killed by shock waves. The 13th/18th Hussars, advancing on the east flank towards Touffréville with the 3rd Infantry Division, machine-gunned trenches until prisoners emerged with their hands up. ‘Prisoners are streaming in past us, most of them paralysed by our bombing effort,’ wrote a major with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion back in the Orne bridgehead. Even the commander-in-chief of Panzer Group West, General Eberbach, wrote that ‘a breakthrough appeared unavoidable’.
Most of the 16th Feld-Division had been smashed by the bombing and was ‘completely overrun’. The 21st Panzer-Division, reinforced by the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion with Tiger tanks, was the worst hit of the German armoured formations. ‘Some tanks had received direct hits, others had turned over or had fallen into bomb craters. The tank turrets had been immobilised by the dirt which had been whirled up, the gunsights and radios had been incapacitated.’ The 21st Panzer soon received orders from Eberbach to take part in a counter-attack with the 1st SS Panzer-DivisionLeibstandarte Adolf Hitler, but that was later postponed twice because of the state it was in. German artillery observers could still see little due to the dust and smoke and so their heavy batteries behind the Bourguébus ridge remained silent. ‘At 10.00 hours,’ wrote Eberbach, ‘came the terrible news that the enemy had broken through to a depth of ten kilometres.’
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment soon found, however, that Goodwood was not going to be ‘a day at the races’. As they headed for Le Mesnil-Frémentel, a tiny hamlet of stone farmhouses near Cagny, they came under fire from German anti-tank guns. ‘Suddenly a Sherman on my left rolled to a halt belching smoke,’ wrote the squadron leader at the front. All the guns traversed on to the point where the shell had come from. They knocked out the German guns, but then they came under fire from another quarter. More Shermans were hit and the corn around them began to blaze.
The leading squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry on their left was hit by devastating fire from Cagny. This was where a battery of 88 mm guns from the 16th Feld-Division had escaped the bombing, along with two 105 mm assault guns. The squadron was almost entirely annihilated within minutes.
The 3rd Tanks received orders to bypass Le Mesnil and head south-west for Grentheville. Another major flaw in Dempsey’s plan was becoming apparent. O’Connor had wanted to send in infantry with the armoured regiments to clear the defended villages and hamlets, but because of the constrictions caused by the minefield, Dempsey told him to hold back the infantry. For the tank crews, all the talk of breaking out into ‘good tank country’ now sounded like a sick joke. The range and accuracy of the German 88s meant that they were at even more of a disadvantage than they had been when attacking in the bocage.
There were anti-tank positions all round Grentheville and concealed assault guns. The 3rd Tanks had no option but to charge them like cavalry, and several tanks were set on fire. Burning crewmen rolled in agony on the ground, attempting to put out the flames. The regiment’s losses were so heavy that they had to pull back and call in fire support from the 13th Royal Horse Artillery. The 11th Armoured Division had suffered an unexpected blow early in the battle when their RAF liaison officer was hit. They could not call in the Typhoons circling above, ready to attack a target when requested.
The Guards Armoured Division had meanwhile followed on to the rolling plain. Its officers, conscious of the fact that they were new to battle, tried to display an unnecessarily dangerous insouciance, such as not ducking inside the turret when under fire. The 2nd Armoured Battalion of the Grenadiers headed for Cagny, where the Fife and Forfar had received such a battering. They too lost nine Shermans to the 88s. This setback unaccountably held up the advance of the Guards Armoured, which should have pushed on to Vimont and not waited for their infantry to come up. General Eberbach could not believe his luck. With slight exaggeration, he wrote, ‘What happened was incomprehensible to an armoured soldier: the enemy tanks remained stationary during the decisive hours of 10.00 to 15.00!’
On the right flank, Rex Whistler’s squadron in their Cromwells were given the task of supporting the Canadian infantry moving into Giberville, two miles from the start-line. Whistler’s troop circled Giberville on the east side to cut off any retreat. The village seemed deserted. One of his Cromwells ground to a halt, its sprocket entangled with wire. Whistler dismounted and went over with pliers to help free it. He should never have left his own tank. They came under fire. Whistler ran to his troop sergeant’s tank to give him instructions to attack the village. But instead of staying in the lee of the sergeant’s Cromwell as it moved forward, he ran back across open ground to his own tank. A mortar bomb exploded near his feet, hurling him into the air and breaking his neck. Having been appointed battalion burial officer, Whistler was their first casualty.
German anti-tank guns, not tanks, were mainly responsible for what was later called the ‘death ride’ of the British armoured divisions. The lack of infantry with the leading regiments had proved disastrous. Cagny was not taken until 16.00 hours, when the motorized 1st Battalion of the Grenadiers went in on foot. The 88s and the assault guns had no infantry protection and the Grenadiers overcame them rapidly.
At midday, General Eberbach had ordered a counter-attack with the remaining tanks of the 21st Panzer-Division and those of the 1st SS Panzer-Division, which had been held in reserve well behind the Bourguébus ridge. They were ordered to Hubert-Folie to concentrate against the approaching spearhead of the 11th Armoured Division. But the 21st Panzer, which had only five Tiger tanks and eight Mark IVs serviceable after the bombing, was still unable to move two hours later. The Leibstandarte panzer group set off on its own.
At 13.05 hours, Eberbach also demanded the remnants of the 12th SS Panzer-Division, which had been withdrawn on Hitler’s personal order to recover near Lisieux. On the grounds that he had ‘no more reserves’, Eberbach’s request was passed upwards from Army Group B at La Roche-Guyon to OB West in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and then to the OKW, now at Hitler’s Wolfsschanze headquarters in East Prussia. Just over two hours later, agreement was given.
The 1st SS Panzer-Division, now organized in three battlegroups, reached the area of Soliers, near the west end of the Bourguébus ridge, around 15.00 hours. They were in position by the time the 3rd Tanks and the rest of the 29th Armoured Brigade - the Fife and Forfar and the 23rd Hussars - pushed on to the hamlet of Ifs-Bras. There the 3rd Tanks came up against the Leibstandarte Panther tanks, which only the Firefly Shermans could hope to take on. The other Shermans concentrated on the anti-tank guns. Meanwhile, the Northamptonshire Yeomanry in their Cromwells swung round to the west to attack from the flank, but lost a dozen tanks in the process. The squadron leader with the 3rd Tanks escaped from a knocked-out Sherman for the second time that day and transferred to a third one. It took courage to get back into a tank after having just been ‘brewed up’.
The 11th Armoured Division should have been supported by the 7th Armoured Division, but the traffic jams and delays caused by the minefield on the start-line meant that the Desert Rats played almost no part. O’Connor, well aware that the whole offensive had faltered, asked for a renewed bombing of the Bourguébus ridge, but this was refused. Yet even after the Leibstandarte entered the battle, Montgomery, with catastrophic bad timing, claimed success.
At 16.00 hours he signalled Field Marshal Brooke, ‘Operations this morning a complete success. The effect of the bombing was decisive and the spectacle terrific . . . situation very promising and it is difficult to see what the enemy can do just at present. Few enemy tanks met so far and no (repeat) no mines.’ He then went on to claim quite erroneously that the 11th Armoured had reached Tilly-la-Campagne, and that the Guards Armoured had taken Vimont. It was one thing to have misled Brooke, but he also issued a similar communiqué to the BBC and gave a press conference. According to one of Montgomery’s own brigadiers, he talked to the assembled journalists ‘like children’. This was to produce a bitter backlash.
The British had lost nearly 200 tanks that day. Fortunately, they had nearly 500 replacements in reserve. Many of these were brought forward to the Orne bridgehead during the night. The 29th Armoured Brigade - the 3rd Tanks, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 23rd Hussars - recieved top priority having lost so many armoured vehicles. Although the British losses in tanks had been horrific, most crews escaped comparatively unharmed. They were assembled back in the Orne bridgehead to be reassigned to new tanks. But, in a terrible irony, the Luftwaffe finally made a daring raid and many who had survived that day were now killed or wounded.
German tank recovery teams, meanwhile, towed their damaged panzers back to workshops concealed in the Fôret de Cinglais. Knowing how few replacements they could expect, they worked with dedication and ingenuity, making as many vehicles serviceable as possible. ‘We were fighting a poor man’s war,’ wrote Eberbach.
On the eastern flank, the British 3rd Infantry Division had been held up at Touffréville by a fiercer defence than they had expected because the bombers had missed the target. Yet part of the division pushed on through the southern edge of the Bois de Bavent to reach the edge of Troarn by nightfall. The German 346th Infanterie-Division had been so battered in the fighting that day that General Eberbach became deeply concerned. He was even more worried by the gap between Troarn and Emiéville, which, luckily for him, the British had not spotted: ‘The enemy needed only to march in that direction, then there would have been a breakthrough. This was a bad moment for us.’
At 17.45 hours, he directed the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend to fill the gap in the line. But just fifteen minutes later, Eberbach heard that the Hitler Jugend had been attacked on their way by Allied fighter-bombers and lost ten tanks. Once darkness fell, according to Eberbach, ‘the British continued to stay immobile, as if a miracle had happened’. The Hitler Jugend filled the gap and Eberbach had a continuous line again, albeit very thinly held.
On the following day, 19 July, the British divisions made more attacks, but none were in great strength. Rain began to fall and the sky was overcast, so there were no Typhoons overhead. A few more hamlets were taken, but most of the Bourguébus ridge remained in German hands. The 88 mm batteries positioned there continued to knock out tanks effortlessly. The Germans were bringing in rear troops to replace casualties and fresh divisions to reinforce the line. The 2nd Panzer-Division opposite the boundary between the British and American armies was brought eastwards to strengthen Panzer Group West’s left flank and the 116th Panzer-Division began to move from Amiens. The only major benefit from Operation Goodwood was that Eberbach and Kluge became even more convinced that the major attack in Normandy would still come on the British front and head for Paris. This was confirmed by Ultra intercepts a few days later.
Field Marshal Brooke flew to France at midday, partly to sort out a ridiculous row with Churchill, who believed that Monty was trying to stop him visiting France. When he saw Montgomery after lunch, he ‘found him in grand form and delighted with his success east of Caen’. Perhaps Montgomery was simply putting on a brave front. The gulf between the claims made before the operation began and the reality of the situation revealed after his press conference was becoming a major embarrassment.
On the eve of battle, war correspondents had been told of a ‘Russian style’ breakthrough, which might take the Second Army forward by 100 miles or more. Several of the journalists present pointed out that that meant all the way to Paris. When two days later the same colonel had to admit that the offensive had come to a halt, he faced tumultuous heckling. He tried to explain that Tiger and Panther tanks had appeared, and that General Montgomery had received a formal order from above not to risk a failure. This statement was openly disbelieved.
The next day Brigadier Alfred Neville from 21st Army Group was brought in to soothe the furious journalists. He tried to put a positive gloss on what had been achieved. The Second Army had taken the southern part of Caen and now controlled an important communications network. But then he claimed that the objective had not been to break through the German positions, but simply to penetrate them. Journalists threw back at him what they had been told before the offensive. Next day, Dempsey’s chief of staff made another attempt to explain away the situation using impenetrable military jargon. An American correspondent caused roars of laughter by demanding a translation.
The heat became oppressive on the morning of 20 July and then the rains came again. Under an almighty downpour, the dust turned to sludge and slit trenches filled with water. Tracks were eighteen inches deep in mud. The conditions were so terrible that they provided an excuse to call off Goodwood officially.
For the troops who had taken part, the situation was a bitter disappointment after all the promises. An infantry officer with the 7th Armoured Division was bivouacked with his battalion near Démouville in ‘a field strewn with German dead’. ‘Countless flies swarmed over the corpses. Maggots seethed in open gash wounds. It was revolting, yet I could not take my eyes off a lad who could not have been much more than sixteen years of age; only fluff on his chin. His dead eyes seemingly stared into infinity, his teeth bared in the agony of death. He would not have hesitated to kill me, yet I was saddened.’
For some the strain had been too great. The squadron leader with the 3rd Tanks recorded that three senior sergeants asked to be relieved from tank duties. ‘There comes a time when the bank of courage runs out,’ he observed. Tank crews in other formations were also shaken by the losses inflicted on 11th Armoured Division. ‘Either it was just gross bad handling on the part of senior commanders,’ Major Julius Neave in the 13th/18th Hussars wrote in his diary, ‘or else very bad “crystal gazing”. They may have thought there was only a thin crust and once through it they could bum on. However, I feel it is monstrous that a division trained for three years - very highly - should lose two thirds of its tanks in its second battle.’
Their only consolation during the deluge of rain was to stay relatively dry inside their tank or under a bivvy alongside it. ‘Thank God I am not an infanteer who has to choose between keeping “dry” aboveground or dodging the mortars by jumping into a trench with three foot of water in it,’ noted Major Neave.
The 3rd Infantry Division’s field ambulance was established in Escoville, next to the troublesome minefield. ‘It rained and there were mosquitoes, and you’d wake up in the morning with your face all puffy,’ wrote a medic with them. ‘It was here that we had a tremendous number of [combat] exhaustion cases. Some of our own men went down with it which was rather disturbing. Then at this point it seemed as though there was a jinx because casualties would arrive in quite good shape and then for no reason whatever they would begin to fail and flicker. And more died under our hand there than in any other place.’
The British and Canadians had suffered 5,537 casualties during the brief operation. This took their losses in Normandy to a total of 52,165. Goodwood had failed for a combination of reasons. There had been a lack of clarity in the thinking behind the operation and a lack of frankness in the briefing. While Dempsey still dreamed of a breakthrough, Montgomery had put pressure on O’Connor to be cautious. But a half-hearted charge was almost bound to lose more tanks than an all-out attack. O’Connor’s biggest mistake was not to have accepted that they could never have hoped to hide the operation from the Germans. They should have cleared the whole minefield. Only then, with a greatly accelerated advance, could they have fully exploited the shock effect of the heavy bombers.
The bombing itself, in spite of its intensity, was also far less effective than had been imagined. Army officers complained to the RAF afterwards that more bombs should have been dropped on the Bourguébus ridge and fewer on the nearer targets, but this failure in priorities was largely the responsibility of the army intelligence staff. The RAF,on the otherhand, was incandescent with rage. Tedder,Harris and Coningham felt that they had been badly misled by Montgomery. He had promised a dramatic breakthrough to secure the support of their heavy-bomber squadrons, yet secretly he was considering only a very limited offensive. The row continued long after the war was over. ‘General Montgomery was reminded,’ their version went, ‘that the Air Forces were relying on the early capture of terrain beyond Caen, but after a few days he appeared to be accepting the situation with something like complacency.’
Liddell Hart, however, feared that the problem was more fundamental. He believed that there had been ‘a national decline in boldness and initiative’. War-weariness had encouraged an attitude of ‘let the machine win the battle’. The British were stubborn in defence, as the Germans acknowledged in their reports. But there was what Liddell Hart termed ‘a growing reluctance to make sacrifices in attack’. ‘When one goes deeply into the Normandy operations, it is disturbing and depressing to find how poor was the performance of the attacking force in many cases. Time after time they were checked or even induced to withdraw by boldly handled packets of Germans of greatly inferior strength. But for our air superiority, which hampered the Germans at every turn, the results would have been much worse. Our forces seem to have had too little initiative in infiltration, and also too little determination - with certain exceptions . . . Backing up was very poor and very slow.’
Although Liddell Hart’s harsh criticisms contained important truths, they also revealed a lack of imagination. To put it mildly, it was dispiriting for tank crews to attack batteries of the dreaded 88 mm guns, knowing full well that they could be picked off long before their own inferior tanks could engage them. And once again, we should never forget that the essentially civilian soldiers of a democracy could not be expected to show the same level of self-sacrifice as indoctrinated members of the Waffen-SS, convinced that they were defending their country from annihilation.
In the main base hospital near Bayeux, Colonel Ian Fraser recounted how he used to make his rounds of the wounded German prisoners. They all smiled back when he greeted them. Then one morning they all turned their backs on him. The chief nursing sister told him that a wounded SS soldier had been brought in and they were now afraid of showing any friendliness to their enemy. Fraser examined this SS soldier, who was in such a serious condition that he needed a blood transfusion. ‘But once the needle was in, the passionate young Nazi suddenly demanded: “Is this English blood?” When told that it was, he pulled it out, announcing: “I die for Hitler.” Which is what in fact he did.’ Fraser noted that the other German prisoners soon became friendly again.
Badly wounded prisoners from the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend behaved in a similar way. Churchill’s aide, Jock Colville, serving as a Mustang photo-reconnaissance pilot, heard from a young British nurse about her experiences. ‘One boy of about sixteen had torn off the bandage with which she had dressed his serious wound, shouting that he only wanted to die for the Führer. Another had flung in her face the food she had brought him. She had quelled a third by threatening to arrange for him to have a transfusion of Jewish blood.’ One could hardly imagine a British or Canadian prisoner of war wanting to die for Churchill or King George VI. Their loyalty in battle was much more parochial. They did not want to let their comrades down.
Whatever the serious flaws in Goodwood and Montgomery’s false claims at the time and later, there can be no doubt that the British and Canadians had kept the panzer divisions tied down at the crucial moment. The Canadians renewed the attack on 25 July to coincide with Operation Cobra, Bradley’s great offensive in the west. This again convinced the Germans that the major Allied attack towards Paris was coming down the Falaise road. A breakthrough here was their greatest fear, because it would cut off the whole of the Seventh Army facing the Americans. Kluge and his commanders did not recognize the true point of danger until it was too late. So the ‘death ride’ of the British armoured divisions was not entirely in vain.
The Germans also were shaken by news of the assassination attempt on Hitler at the Wolfsschanze near Rastenburg on 20 July. In fact the threat of an Allied breakthrough in Normandy and Hitler’s refusal to face reality had played a large part in the course of the plot.