THE BATTLE FOR CAEN

By the evening of June 6th, the tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, reinforced later that night by those of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend, had formed a barrier of fire and steel in front of Caen, which stopped the Allies in their tracks and banished all hopes of early deliverance for the thousands of civilians who had not fled the city after the initial bombings. The German commander brought his best divisions into play, notably most of his armoured units. The British and Canadians were pinned down in the cornfields around the city. Caen was to become the linchpin of the Battle of Normandy.

Temporarily abandoning the idea of a frontal attack, which was judged to be too costly, Montgomery launched a series of offensives to try and envelop the city from the west and capture it from the rear.

However, his troops were brought to a standstill outside Tilly-sur-Seulles on June 9th by Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr. The town, reduced to rubble during the fighting, eventually fell ten days later, but the Germans immediately formed a new line of resistance a few kilometres further south.

Montgomery then pushed his 7th Armoured Division forward, slightly further to the west, into what appeared to be a dead zone in the front. However, the famous “Desert Rats”, still basking in the glow of their Libyan victories ,were torn to pieces in Villers-Bocage on June 13th by a detachment of Tiger tanks ‑ 55-tonne steel monsters ‑ backed up by a number of Panzer IVs.

At the end of June, the British launched a large-scale offensive towards the Odon, between Caen and Tilly-sur-Seulles. This was Operation Epsom and involved 90,000 men. They crossed the river on June 27th, but were abruptly brought to a halt by the arrival of two SS armoured divisions in the sector of Hill 112. For nearly a month, this modest rise was to be the scene of desperate fighting that was as indecisive as it was bloody.

The Battle of Caen was in danger of becoming bogged down – or so it appeared. The fighting turned into a war of position, with soldiers on both sides holed up in trenches. Attack followed counter-attack without any tangible results. The Great War cast its grim shadow across the Normandy front.

In the early days of July, Montgomery returned to the principle of a direct assault on Caen. This started in the evening of July 7th, when the north of the city was subjected to a devastating aerial bombardment. The following day, the Canadians flushed the SS out of Buron and Authie, while the British broke down all remaining resistance on the outskirts of Lébisey. In the evening, the Germans started to retreat, and in the morning of July 9th, the Canadians took Carpiquet, Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herbe, Venoix and La Maladrerie, and at long last entered Caen. Further east, the British slowly advanced through streets that had been rendered totally unrecognizable by the piles of ruins that had been accumulating ever since June 6th.

The Germans had taken up position on the right bank, where they were to hold their ground for a further ten days before a fresh offensive (Operation Atlantic) dislodged them. On June 19th, guided by members of the Resistance (FFI), the Canadians took over the districts on the right bank. Caen was now totally liberated, though the enemy was still at its gates. That very same day, to the east of the city, Operation Goodwood was launched in order to open up the entrance to the plain, but despite the huge resources committed to it, it ended in complete fiasco.