The Battle of Normandy was one of the biggest war operations in human history and it would turn the tide of the Second World War in favour of the Allies. The entire operation, called Operation Overlord, would last two months, three weeks and three days, resulting in more than two million Allied troops getting into France by the end of August.
Today on the podcast, I am looking at one of the engagements of that operation, called the Battle of Verrieres Ridge, which raged from July 19 to 25, 1944 and was one of the fiercest battles of the war for Canadians.
Verrieres Ridge is located eight kilometres south of the city of Caen, which is where Commonwealth forces were halted until the first week of July. The city would finally fall to the Allies on July 19, and the city was mostly destroyed. For the Canadians, the next goal was the town of Falaise, but Verrieres stood in the way and the Germans were strongly defended in it.
Under the command of Lt. General Guy Simonds, he would assign two infantry divisions and one armoured brigade to assault on the German positions. The Canadian Third Infantry Division took part but had suffered heavy casualties over the previous six weeks and was put into a support role.
The task of clearing out the Germans fell on the Canadian Second Infantry Division and the tanks of the Canadian Second Armoured Brigade. The British units would be made available later in the battle but the inexperienced Canadian troops took most of the battle on themselves.
Due to the landscape, the ridge allowed the Germans to fire upon the advancing Canadians, with the 12th SS and 1st SS Panzer Divisions occupying the ridge with artillery, Tiger tanks and mortars.
Intelligence reports suggested that there would be light, if any resistance, but this was not true and the soldiers attacking would soon realize that over the next few days.
Everything kicked off on July 19 with the Calgary Highlanders who attempted to take the northern spur of the ridge but mortar fire from the Germans caused limited progress. Tanks were sent in to support the Highlanders and were able to eliminate machine-gun positions on each side of Point 67 on the Ridge. With this, the Highlanders were able to dig into their position. With the strengthened position, the Fifth and Sixth Infantry Brigades made repeated attempts to exploit gains on the ridge. Unfortunately, the Canadians were pushed back with heavy casualties.
The next attack took place as part of Operation Atlantic the next day. Led by the South Saskatchewan Regiment with support from the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, the Camerons were able to sure a position before they were pinned down by German infantry and tanks. The South Saskatchewan Regiment was able to move directly up the slope of the ridge but the heavy rain caused slow progress and made air support useless. Two Panzer divisions launched a counter attack, pushing the South Saskatchewans back past the support lines, causing the Essex Scottish to come under attack and lose 300 men.
By the end of the day, the South Saskatchewan Regiment had suffered 282 casualties and the ridge remained with the Germans. Despite the issues with taking the ridge, Simonds demanded that it be taken and he sent in the Black Watch of Canada and the Calgary Highlanders to stabilize the Allied position. By July 21, counter attacks by these battalions had contained the armoured formations of the Germans and the Canadian forces held several footholds and a secure position at Point 67, while four German divisions held the ridge. The operations over these few days caused 1,300 Allied casualties in total.
On July 22, with Operation Atlantic not achieving its aims, Simonds changed the objective of the new Operation Spring to be a breakout offensive. Four phases were scheduled in the operation. The Calgary Highlanders would attack Bourguebus Ridge and May-sur-Orne to secure flanks on the main thrust, allowing the Black Watch to make a move on Verrieres Ridge. The first phase was supposed to take place on July 23 but the weather caused it to be delayed two days. This gave the Germans the chance to bring in an extra four battalions, 480 tanks and 500 guns.
The plan on the Canadian side, devised by Simonds, was over complicated and worked on the war by timetable approach with strict timings and a lack of contingency plans.
On July 25, Operation Spring was launched and the Black Watch were scheduled to attack at 5:30 a.m. but because of German resistance at St. Martin Road, they did not reach their assembly point until 8 a.m. By that time, the two highest ranking officers in the Black Watch were dead. Simonds had ordered Charles Coulkes, who was commanding the Second Division and his other commanders to conduct a breakout battle at the ridge, also known as a blitzkrieg. Holding the tanks back, the Black Watch and 17 other infantry regiments lead the charge.
From 6:12 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., 74 medium bombers attacked the woods of La Hogue but this had little effect on the ground attack that was already being held up.
At 8:30 a.m., the attack was launched. From the German perspective, they were preparing for this attack and they would suddenly see the Black Watch in their sights. Peter Prein, who was with the Second Panzer SS, would say later.
“In four years in Russia, we never saw anything like it. The soldiers were marching upright, holding their rifles across their breasts in readiness, as if on parade drill.”
Over the next hour, the Canadians advanced up the ridge and were easy targets for the Germans. Within minutes of the advance, the Black Watch lost its communications, which made things even more complicated.
In one retelling of the battle by the Second Canadian Armoured Brigade Signals in its history, it is said of that day.
“We were under heavy air attacks with bombs dropping all around the area. This day was very noisy, hard fighting on the entire front.”
For Major Philip Griffin, a 26-year-old officer, he would see the two officers in front of him killed, putting him squarely in command. Promised tanks in the assault up the ridge in his communications with command, he does not receive them and he doesn’t receive the promised artillery cover either. Griffin gave his word that the attack would launch and he sends himself and 300 men up the ridge, leading from the front.
Only a few members of The Black Watch made it to the crest of the ridge and those who did were hit by heavy bombardments. By this point, of the 325 men who were at the assembly point only an hour or so earlier, 315 were killed, wounded or captured, and all the senior commanders were dead.
A total of 16 soldiers would make their way back to their line after they were forced to retreat under the bombardment. Impressed by their bravery, the Germans did not shoot a single fleeing man. Prien would say later.
“You should know that we did not fire on these retreating men. We were too deeply impressed, and embarrassed, by this sacrifice and gallantry of men who had no chance. It had been sheer butchery.”
By the end of this battle, all the advance in ground made by the Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders were lost to the Germans in their counter attacks.
One writer after the war described the failure of the attack as, ‘the story of the most glorious failure of the war, the failure to capture May-sur-Orne. But whether it was really a failure, I leave you to judge. I will simply call it the Battalion of Heroes.”
The failure to capture and hold the ridge had little impact on the Allied position but because of the weakening of the defences, future attacks by the Commonwealth forces were more successful and on Aug. 8, Operation Totalize would capture the position from the Germans for good. When the Allied soldiers take the ridge, they will find the body of Phillip Griffin in a glade of poplars, with the last seven of his men who followed him to the end.
Overall, it is estimated that 800 Canadian soldiers were killed and 2,000 were wounded in the days of battle form the 19th to the 25th, with 1,500 casualties including 500 dead coming on July 25 alone. One-fifth of the casualties on that day came from The Black Watch. The Battle of Verrieres Ridge would be the single costliest battle for the Canadians since the 1942 Dieppe Raid.
One person captured after the battle was Harold Fromstein, who had landed in Normandy on D-Day and was assigned with the Black Watch. He would take a machine gun bullet to the neck and another near his eye. Thinking quickly, he tore off his dog tags to ensure that when the Nazis came, they would not see that he was Jewish. He was captured and treated by the Nazis and then the Americans liberated the hospital he was at. He would be sent back to England to recover and would have a six inch scar on the back of his neck when he returned to action six months later. He would eventually be awarded the Military Medal for saving the lives of many of his men in February 1945.
After the war, a report on the battle was released, blaming its failure on the Germans reinforcing their position thanks to the two day delay in the attack and historians today accuse Simonds of being careless with the lives of his men. A reassessment of the battle as a successful holding attack is put forward, likely thanks to Simonds, who in a 1946 report declared Operation Spring to be not a breakout battle, but a holding attack to distract the Germans. The truth is that it was advertised as a breakout battle by Simonds before the battle took place, and only changed afterwards to minimize the losses that the Canadians took in the battle. Simonds also put most of the blame for the battle and its outcome on the inexperience of many of the soldiers, who had only two weeks experience in Europe before hitting the ridge.
As a holding attack, it was successful as it diverted resources from where the Americans would strike, allowing them to push through the line.
Due to the burying of the information related to the battle at the time, many of the soldiers do not receive the recognition they deserved, including Griffin who likely would have been in consideration for the Victoria Cross.
Information comes from Royal Regiment of Artillery, History Of The Calgary Highlanders, Wikipedia, Radio Canada, Macleans, National WW2 Museum, Historica.Fandom.Com, CJ News, Montreal Gazette, Legion Magazine