From The Victory Campaign
The Normandy Landings
Source: C.P. Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, Volume III, Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War (The Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 1960).
The Landings in Normandy, 6 June 1944
The Assault on the Beaches
As has been explained, the times set for H Hour varied across the front of assault, those on the British beaches being later than in the American sector. The original H Hour on the Canadian front was 7:35 a.m. for the 7th Brigade and 7:45 a.m. for the 8th. However, the lateness of certain craft groups resulting from the weather caused the two Assault Group Commanders to defer H Hour ten minutes more in each case. Thus the final H Hour was 7:45 a.m. for the 7th Brigade and 7:55 a.m. for the 8th. This was unfortunate, in that the higher tide made it more difficult to deal with the beach obstacles; to quote Commodore Oliver, “craft beached amongst the obstacles instead of short of them, and clearance of the outer obstacles was not practicable until the tide had fallen”. The obstructions, and the mines attached to them, were in fact to take a heavy toll of our craft. *40*
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The combination of the rough sea, the obstacles and the enemy’s fire made an unpleasant prospect for the crews of the landing craft; but they were not daunted. In the words of Admiral Vian, “Their spirit and seamanship alike rose to meet the greatness of the hour and they pressed forward and ashore, over or through mined obstacles in high heart and resolution; there was no faltering, and many of the smaller Landing Craft were driven on until they foundered.” *41*
The fire that came down upon the leading craft as they ran in was actually much less than had been feared. As we have seen, there was not much firing by the heavy inland batteries, and of what there was little if any was directed at the ships of Force “J”. Nor were any enemy aircraft to be seen. As for the artillery weapons mounted in the beach defences, as already noted, they were so emplaced as to enfilade the beaches, and in almost all cases could not bear upon craft any distance offshore. In consequence, it was in the main only small arms and mortars that fired upon the approaching craft. Admiral Vian reported that opposition began to manifest itself only when the leading craft were about 3000 yards from the beach; and even then the fire was “only desultory and inaccurate”, except on “Sword” Beach, where craft were damaged by mortar fire until about two hours after H Hour. Heavy fire directed at the craft while still afloat was in fact the exception rather than the rule; Commodore Oliver wrote, “In general, apart from some inaccurate mortar fire, very little shooting was directed on craft before touch down.” *42* It was after the actual landings that really fierce opposition began to manifest itself.
The 7th Brigade’s Beach Battle
The 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade…was to be landed by Captain Pugsley’s assault group on the right or western sector of the Canadian front. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, with one company of the reserve battalion (the 1st Battalion Canadian Scottish Regiment) attached, landed on “Mike Red” and “Mike Green” Beaches, west of the river-mouth at Courseulles, while The Regina Rifle Regiment landed on “Nan Green” immediately east of the river. The D.D. tanks of “A” Squadron of the 6th Armoured Regiment (1st Hussars) were to support the Winnipegs, while “B” Squadron performed the same service for the Reginas. The 6th Armoured Regiment was commanded by Lt.-Col. R. J. Colwell….
…The two [tank] squadrons between them lost seven tanks during the run-in, the majority evidently as a result of the roughness of the sea. One was run down by a rocket craft, all but a single member of the crew being saved. One tank was sunk due to its canvas screen having been damaged by mortar fire. Most of the men in the sunken tanks were rescued, thanks to the tanks’ rubber dinghies. *52*
It seems evident from the accounts written by members of the 1st Hussars that the procedure followed by the tanks in most cases after touching down was to stop in the water on the seaward side of the beach obstacles, deflate, and open fire on the nearest pillbox. While thus engaged a number were flooded and immobilized by the rising tide. *53*
The infantry’s experience on the right battalion front of the Canadian division was a mixture of good and bad. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles state that they touched down at 7:49 a.m., all three assault companies landing “within seven minutes of one another”. *54* On the far right, “C” Company of the Canadian Scottish, which was prolonging the Rifles’ front here, reported that it landed with slight opposition and the platoon which had the job of knocking out the 75-mm. casemate north of Vaux approached it “only to find—thanks to the Royal Navy—the pill-box was no more”. *55*
Quite different was the experience of “B” and “D” Companies of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, a short distance to the left, whose task it was to deal with the western portion of the Courseulles strongpoint. The battalion diary remarked grimly, “The bombardment having failed to kill a single German or silence one weapon these companies had to storm their positions ‘cold—and did so without hesitation ” “B” Company met heavy machine-gun, shell and mortar fire beginning when the L.C.As. were 700 yards from the beach. This continued until touchdown, and as the men leaped from the craft many were hit “while still chest high in water” *56*. But the Little Black Devils were not to be denied. B Company, with the aid of the tanks, captured the pillboxes commanding the beach; it then forced its way across the Seulles bridge and cleared the enemy positions on the “island” between the river and the little harbour. The fierceness of the fight on the beach is attested by the report of the Special Observer Party which later examined the German positions: “Big guns in this area were probably all put out of action by close range tank fire, and the machine gun and mortar positions gave up when surrounded by infantry.”
When the strongpoint was clear B Company had been reduced to the company commander (Capt. P. E. Gower) and 26 men. Gower who had set a powerful example of leadership and courage as he directed the clearing of the successive positions, received the Military Cross. An assault party of the 6th Field Company Royal Canadian Engineers, which landed with the infantry, had similar losses; the company had 26 casualties during the day. *57*
“D” Company met less fierce opposition when landing, since it was clear of the actual strongpoint area. It had relatively little difficulty in “gapping” a minefield at La Valette and clearing the village of Graye-sur-Mer beyond it. When the reserve companies landed the beach and dunes were still under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire “A” pushed inland towards Ste. Croix-sur-Mer, starting at about 8:05 a.m., while “C” advanced on Banville. The latter place fell comparatively easily, but machine-gun fire held up the advance in front of Ste. Croix. Assistance was asked from the 6th Armoured Regiment, which with “cool disregard” of mines and anti-tank guns beat down the opposition and permitted the advance to continue. By 5:00 p.m. the battalion was consolidated in and around the village of Creully. *58*
In dealing with the other half of the Courseulles strongpoint, east of the river, The Regina Rifle Regiment, as we have seen, had the advantage of the fact that their D.D. tanks reached the beach ahead of the infantry and in larger numbers than on the Winnipegs’ front. Here as at most points, however the results of the preliminary bombardment had been disappointing. During the planning the village of Courseulles had been partitioned into blocks numbered 1 to 12, each to be cleared by a designated company; at the same time, careful study of aerial photographs and maps had familiarized the troops with the ground to such an extent that, as the Commanding Officer (Lt.-Col. F. M. Matheson) said, “nearly every foot of the town was known long before it was ever entered”. *59*
The two assault companies (“A” and “B”) reported touching down at 8:09 and 8:15 a.m. respectively. *60* “A” Company, which was directly opposite the strongpoint, immediately met heavy resistance. The strongpoint gave it a hard struggle, and Matheson testified that the help of the tanks of “B” Squadron of the 6th Armoured Regiment was invaluable. This observation is supported by the later examination of the German positions by the Special Observer Party which reported, with respect to the 75-mm. position at the east end of the strongpoint, “The gun had fired many rounds (estimated 200 empties) and was put out of action by a direct hit which penetrated the gun shield making a hole 3″ x 6″. … It is probable that the gun was put out by a direct shot from a DD tank.” Similarly, the 88-mm. position by the riverside was reported as “probably silenced by direct hits with guns from DD tanks”, although the concrete and gunshield were marked by shells probably fired by destroyers and L.C.Gs. The nearby 50-mm. gun’s shield had been pierced by holes “probably caused by aimed fire from tank at short range”. Of the strongpoint generally, the observers report, “The guns had fired a considerable quantity of ammunition and were put out of action by accurately placed fire from close range by tanks.”
When at last “A” Company had cleared the strongpoint after breaking through by “a left flanking attack”, its troubles were not over. It moved on to its next task without leaving any force in occupation, and the Germans promptly filtered back into the positions “by tunnels and trenches”. The work of clearance began again, with the assistance after a time of an additional troop of tanks. In the meantime, “B” Company, landing on the left of the battalion front east of the strongpoint, had met only slight resistance and had cleared a succession of the assigned blocks in the village. The fortunes of the reserve companies were similarly mixed. “C” reported touching down at 8:35 and moved inland without difficulty. “D”, on the other hand, met catastrophe. Coming in late (it reported touching down at 8:55), several of its craft were blown up on mined obstacles concealed by the rising tide. Only 49 survivors reached the beach. As the companies overcame resistance in their areas they pushed inland towards the village of Reviers, where the battalion gradually concentrated in the course of the afternoon; the last company to arrive was “A”, which had finally overcome the stubborn resistance in Courseulles. About 5:00 p.m. the Reginas began to advance southward from Reviers. Before 8:00 p.m. both Fontaine-Henry and Le Fresne-Camilly were in their hands. *61*
The 7th Brigade’s reserve battalion, the 1st Battalion of The Canadian Scottish Regiment, commanded by Lt.-Col. F. N. Cabeldu, found opposition still alive as its three companies approached “Mike” Beach about 8:30. The leading companies came under mortar fire on the beach, and one of them was held up there for some time while waiting for an exit to be cleared of mines. Soon after 9:30 the battalion was able to start its advance across the grainfields towards Ste. Croix-sur-Mer. En route it picked up its “C” Company, which had landed in the assault wave. There were a considerable number of casualties from machine-gun fire during the advance, which was pushed with all possible speed. After dealing with snipers in Ste. Croix the battalion continued its movement through Colombiers-sur-Seulles, passing through The Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Little or no opposition was now being encountered, and the Scottish could have gone farther, but under orders from brigade headquarters they dug in for the night around Pierrepont, with patrols out well in front of Cainet and Le Fresne-Camilly. The latter village had been taken over from The Regina Rifle Regiment. *62*
Gilbert Alexander Milne / Canada. Dept. of National Defence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Delay in opening exits from the beaches on the 7th Brigade front prevented the field artillery from moving inland as soon as had been planned. In these circumstances, Lt.-Col. Webb brought the guns of the 12th Field Regiment ashore about 9:00 a.m. and put them into action actually on the beach. Deployed side by side amid the confusion of men and vehicles, they opened fire in support of the advancing infantry. In the late afternoon the regiment was able to move to its planned gun area between Ste. Croix and Banville. The 13th Field Regiment had landed somewhat later. The first battery to land established itself south of Courseulles. By evening the whole unit was in its designated position adjacent to the 12th Field Regiment’s. *63*
The Centaurs of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment had comparatively little to do on the 7th Brigade’s beaches. Some of the Centaurs were lost at sea, and others landed late. They received few calls for fire, though one troop, answering a request received through a 13th Field Regiment observation party, silenced a beach position which was harassing the Reginas. *64*
Because of the late landings and the state of the tide, which was higher than had been predicted, the arrangements made for clearing the beach obstacles were badly disrupted. This task was to be shared by army engineers and special naval parties. Little could be done, as it turned out, until the receding tide uncovered the obstacles, which as we have seen inflicted heavy damage on landing craft. *65*
The clearance of exits from the beach was the business primarily of the AVREs and bulldozers of the assault engineers (the 5th Assault Regiment R.E.) and “Crabs” of the 22nd Dragoons. As already indicated, there was great difficulty in opening exits on the 7th Brigade front. A line of low sand-dunes, and beyond it a flooded area, were the causes of the trouble. On “Mike Red” Beach, one exit was opened across the dunes just west of Courseulles and the flooded area behind them a bridge being laid and a rough causeway built across an AVRE which had become submerged at a cratered culvert on the track which it was planned to use. Some tanks got across about 9:15, then the causeway failed and traffic had to be stopped This exit was not working quite satisfactorily until noon or later. A second one, on “Mike Green” farther west, gave less trouble and was working fairly well by about 9:30. In the meantime the assault infantry had made good progress inland, but very few tanks or other vehicles were available to support them, and the beach was extremely congested. *66*
On “Nan Green” Beach, on the left, there was rather less difficulty; the Crabs dealt with the mines, an anti-tank ditch was filled with fascines dropped by the AVREs, armoured bulldozers improved the lanes, and both planned exits (leading into the East Courseulles strongpoint) were working by about 9:00 a.m. All across the brigade front the Engineers and the 22nd Dragoons had done yeoman service, and the former in particular had had a considerable number of casualties. *67*
The 8th Brigade Beaches
The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group was to lead the assault on the eastern sector of the Canadian Division’s front, with The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (Lt.-Col. J. G. Spragge) landing on “Nan White” Beach, on the right, and capturing the resistance nest at Bernières, while The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, under Lt.-Col. D. B. Buell, landed on “Nan Red” on the left and cleared the similar strongpoint at St. Aubin. The brigade’s reserve battalion was Le Régiment de la Chaudière (Lt.-Col. J. E. G. P. Mathieu). Armoured support in the assault phase would be provided by the D.D. tanks of the 10th Armoured Regiment (The Fort Garry Horse), commanded by Lt.-Col. R. E. A. Morton, with “B” Squadron supporting the Queen’s Own and “C” Squadron the North Shore.
On the right sector of the Brigade front, “B” Company of the Queen’s Own ran into difficulty. Captain Otway-Ruthven reports that the assault companies “touched down about 200 yards east of their correct position”. “B” landed directly in front of the “resistance nest” at Bernières. “Within the first few minutes there were 65 casualties.” Then Lieut. W. G. Herbert, Lance-Corporal Rene Tessier and Rifleman William Chicoski dashed at the pillbox which was causing the losses, and put it out of action with grenades and Sten gun fire. This opened the way for clearing the rest of the strongpoint. (Herbert received the Military Cross, and Tessier and Chicoski the Military Medal.) In other respects the battalion’s experience paralleled that farther west.
Photographer: Aikman, Harold G.Ministère de la défense nationale – Bibliothèque et Archives Canada, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The other assault company, “A”, landing west of the strongpoint, had much less difficulty in getting off the beach, but shortly came under mortar fire and also suffered casualties. The reserve companies, like those on other sectors, suffered heavy casualties to their craft by mines as they came in, but fortunately losses among personnel were not numerous. By the time these companies arrived the Bernières strongpoint was being mopped up, and they were able to get through to the southern edge of the village. During the afternoon they led the battalion’s advance southward towards Anguerny, which was captured after some resistance had been overcome. *72*
This was the only Canadian assault battalion front where tank support was reported as ineffective. The 10th Armoured Regiment itself recorded that the Q.O.R. suffered severely “before B Squadron could support it The Special Observer Party, which did not report any visible damage by tank fire, got the impression that it was possible that “very good tactical surprise was achieved here” But this was not in fact the case, and the troop of assault engineers working on the beach 500 yards east reported being heavily fired on by the two 50-mm anti-tank guns in the Bernières strongpoint, which, they said, were silenced only after some 15 minutes, when they were captured by the infantry. Men of the 5th Field Company R.C.E., labouring at removing charges from the beach obstacles, also had heavy casualties on both “Nan Red” and “Nan White”. *73*
On the left sector, the North Shore Regiment found that the St. Aubin strongpoint “appeared not to have been touched” by the preparatory bombardment. “B” Company had the task of dealing with it, and this was done with the assistance of the tanks and later the AVREs, which used their petards with effect. “The co-operation of infantry and tanks was excellent and the strongpoint was gradually reduced.” The battalion diary records that the area was cleared by 11:15 four hours and five minutes after landing. It appears, however, that there was still sniping going on after this time, and the O.C. “B” Company stated that the enemy in the strongpoint did not finally give in until 6:00 p.m. *74*
The 50-mm. anti-tank gun in the resistance nest here caused serious trouble in the early stages of the assault. “B” Company’s commander recorded that it knocked out the first D.D. tanks to arrive; subsequently two other tanks and an AVRE dealt with it. The Special Observer Party reported that the concrete of the emplacement bore the mark of a 95-mm. shell, evidently fired by a Centaur. The gun had been put out of action by tank fire, but “about 70 empty shell cases around the emplacement attested the resolution with which its crew had fought it.
The North Shore’s “A” Company, landing to the west of “B”, *75* suffered some casualities in booby-trapped houses but in general made good the beachhead objective without great difficulty. The reserve companies, “C” and “D”, likewise had comparatively little trouble in the beginning. “D” carried out its task of securing the south end of St. Aubin, and “C”, which was to seize the inland village of Tailleville, met no opposition until it reached the actual outskirts of that hamlet. Here the enemy, well dug in, fought long and hard; in spite of early optimistic reports, it was “nearing evening” before the company, with tank support, finally cleared the place, taking over 60 prisoners. *76* Divisional Headquarters logged the report of its capture at 8:10 p.m.
Le Régiment de la Chaudière, the brigade’s reserve unit, began to land at Bernières about 8:30 a.m. Its craft had a difficult time with the beach obstacles. Captain Otway-Ruthven described “A” Company’s experience: “The L.C.As. of the 529th Flotilla (H.M.C.S. Prince David) struck a very bad patch of obstacles and mortar fire on Nan White and all foundered before touching down. The troops, however, discarded their equipment and swam for the shore. They still had their knives and were quite willing to fight with this weapon.” This was only a slight exaggeration; Canadian naval records indicate that just one of Prince David’s five assault craft made the beach undamaged. *77* Luckily, most of the men reached it safely. The battalion, however, was held up along the seawall for some time while the Queen’s Own Rifles finished dealing with the strongpoint. It then advanced through the village, meeting opposition, and assembled in the wooded area on its south edge. *78* The people of Bernières were surprised and delighted to find themselves liberated by men who spoke their own tongue. The regiment’s diarist wrote, “Les français sont assez accueillants et beaucoup nous acclament au milieu des mines de leurs maisons.” Two years later the present writer, visiting Bernières, found the recollection of Le Régiment de la Chaudière still strong among the people of the village.
The battalion records that it spent two hours in the assembly area (it reported itself still there at 1:56 p.m.) and then pushed southward towards Beny-sur-Mer, supported by “A” Squadron of the 10th Armoured Regiment. Traffic congestion slowed the advance. “A” Company captured a battery, described, apparently inaccurately, as consisting of 88-mm. guns, and, evidently somewhat later, “B” took what may have been the position known as the Beny-sur-Mer battery. *79* Beny-sur-Mer itself was captured by “C” Company, apparently about mid-afternoon, though the actual time seems nowhere to have been recorded. (Headquarters 8th Brigade signalled the Chaudière at 3:35 p.m., “Understand you are in Aleppo [Beny]”, but there is no confirming reply in the log. *80*)
The two self-propelled artillery regiments employed on the 8th Brigade front, the 14th Field Regiment and the 19th Army Field Regiment, R.C.A., began to land at 9:25 and 9:10 a.m. respectively. They had no great difficulty in getting off the beach. The 14th had 18 guns in action near Bernières by 11:30; the 19th had its first gun in action at 9:20. Both regiments had casualties in men and guns from enemy artillery fire. It appears that both spent most of the day in action in improvised gun areas close to Bernières. In the evening the 14th, at least, moved forward to a planned area a mile or so north of Beny. *81*
The Reserve Brigade Lands
While the 7th and 8th Brigades were fighting their way forward, the craft carrying the reserve brigade, the 9th, (This brigade crossed the Channel in the same craft-Landing Craft Infantry (Large) which landed it on the beaches.) were circling offshore waiting their turn to go in. At 10:50 a.m. Divisional Headquarters ordered the brigade to land. *85* As was natural in the state of the beaches, it was sent in through the 8th Brigade sector in accordance with the primary plan. However, it was considered necessary to land the entire brigade on Nan White beach. *86* (Craft had been diverted from Nan Red since about 10:30, since “the craft casualties were getting serious”; *87* the opposition still being offered by the St. Aubin strongpoint may also have had some influence.) This meant that the whole brigade had to land through Bernières and make its way southward over one road only, that leading to Beny-sur-Mer.
The battalions actually began to land about 11:40. At 12:05 Brigade Headquarters reported, “Beaches crowded, standing off waiting to land; but fifteen minutes later it signalled that the brigade commander had landed and the units were moving to their assembly area near Beny. *88*
However, the 8th Brigade’s slow progress and the severe congestion around Bernières retarded the movement. The battalions halted on the outskirts of the village, and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (Lt.-Col. C. Petch), who were in the lead, did not move on towards Beny until 4:05 p.m. They were accompanied by the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment), commanded by Lt.-Col. M. B. K. Gordon, and were followed by the other battalions of the brigade, The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders (Lt.-Col. G. H. Christiansen) and The Highland Light Infantry of Canada (Lt.-Col. F. M. Griffiths). *89*
At 6:20 p.m. the North Nova Scotias and the 27th Armoured Regiment, acting as the brigade’s advanced guard, moved off from the assembly area to pass through the Queen’s Own and the Chaudière and carry the advance southward. Three companies of the Highlanders rode on the Sherbrookes’ tanks. In the vicinity of Colomby-sur-Thaon “A” Company met opposition which, while not serious, caused some further delay. The vanguard in the meantime had run into other resistance at Villons-les-Buissons. It was now evident that the advanced guard units could not reach their objective in the Carpiquet area before dark. They were therefore ordered to dig in for the night in the area where they found themselves “and to form a firm base while there was still light”. *90* The infantry and tanks accordingly “formed a fortress” in the area Anisy—Villons-les-Buissons. *91* The brigade’s other battalions were still in the assembly area at Beny.
At 9:15 p.m. the G.O.C. sent out his orders for the night by liaison officer. The 7th Brigade on the right was to occupy the area Le Fresne-Camilly—Cainet. The 8th was to hold the area Colomby-sur-Thaon—Anguerny and to contain La Délivrande and Douvres-la-Délivrande with a view to clearing them both at first light in the morning. The 9th Brigade was to occupy the area Villons-les-Buissons—Le Vey….The 10th Armoured Regiment, and the 6th less one squadron, were to revert to the command of the 2nd Armoured Brigade and harbour in the area Beny-sur-Mer—Basly. (In fact, the whole of the 6th Armoured Regiment harboured at Pierrepont in the 7th Brigade area.) Division ordered active patrolling and “utmost preparation” to meet a counter-attack at first light. *93*
The Division had made much less progress than the day’s plans had called for. (As we shall see, its neighbours were in similar case.) The time-table had been in arrears from the beginning, when the state of the sea necessitated setting back the times of landing; and it had fallen steadily further behind as the hours passed. The lateness of the landing, and the consequent impossibility of clearing the beach obstacles, resulted in the beaches becoming clogged with damaged craft. And as so often in this war, the vehicles of a mechanized army intended to facilitate rapid movement, had in fact become hindrances to advance. The difficulty in opening exits from the beaches had led to congestion, and the enemy’s determined resistance at certain points, notably St. Aubin and Tailleville, had paid him considerable dividends. The accumulated difficulties, by forcing the reserve brigade to land on a narrow front where it had only one forward route available, prepared the way for further delays.
To the Division’s failure to reach even its final D Day objectives there was one small exception, or rather near-exception. A troop of tanks of “C” Squadron of the 1st Hussars commanded by Lieut. W. F. McCormick, which was supporting The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, helped them through Creully and then “just kept on going”, pushing on through Camilly to the north edge of Secqueville-en-Bessn. En route they shot up a German scout car and inflicted casualties on parties of infantry; and Mr. McCormick was punctiliously saluted by a German soldier who evidently did not expect to meet the enemy so far inland. *94* The fact that these few tanks—which probably got closer to the final inland objective than any of the Allies seaborne forces that day—were able to push so far and return is evidence of how slight the resistance on the 7th Brigade’s front was during the afternoon…..
The casualties suffered by the 3rd Canadian Division on D Day, though heavy, were fewer than had been feared. For the whole day Canadian losses in the seaborne force amounted to 340 all ranks killed or died of wounds, 574 wounded and “battle injuries”, and 47 taken prisoner. It is not possible to distinguish between casualties suffered on the beaches and those in the later stages. There was not much difference between the casualties of the two assault brigades….The Infantry unit that suffered most heavily was the Queen’s Own Rifles of the 8th Brigade, which lost 143 men; this loss was presumably mainly caused by the strongpoint at Bernières, captured without tank assistance. Next came The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, which had 128 casualties. This reflects the bitter fight at Courseulles. The North Shore Regiment lost 125 men, chiefly undoubtedly in the prolonged fighting at St. Aubin and Tailleville. *96*
The Situation at the End of D Day
At this point, let us lift our eyes from the situation on the Canadian sector and survey the general progress of the great Allied assault. Speaking broadly, the day had been extraordinarily successful; but, as was only to be expected, the degree of success varied considerably between different areas.
On the far right the two United States airborne divisions were greatly scattered during their drop….The operations of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were far from going according to plan. Nevertheless, although casualties were heavy and there was some confusion, these operations were valuable. By the evening of D Day the airborne troops had captured Ste. Mere-Eglise and were in general control of a large area lying between that place and Carentan. They had certainly contributed materially to disordering the enemy and confounding his counter-measures.
No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Of all the seaborne assaults, that which met least resistance was the attack by the 7th U.S. Corps, with the 4th U.S. Infantry Division under its command, on “Utah” Beach in the lower part of the Cotentin peninsula. We have seen that the bombing of the beach defences was more effective here than elsewhere. Although the assault battalions were landed almost 2000 yards south of the planned positions, this was actually fortunate, since they struck areas which were less heavily defended. Success was complete and casualties “extraordinarily light”. By evening a substantial bridgehead had been established. *97*
Very different was the story on “Omaha” Beach, east of the estuary of the Vire. Here the invading forces had more difficulty than at any other point; losses were extremely heavy, and for a time success seemed to hang in the balance….
On the evening of D Day the [Omaha] beachhead was still narrow and precarious, 2000 yards deep at best. Not until 8 June did the advance on this sector really get under way. *99*
On the front of the 30th British Corps (“Gold” sector), which was assaulting with the 50th British Infantry Division under command, the situation developed in a manner not unlike that on the Canadian front. The landing was carried out successfully, although, as already indicated, certain strongpoints on the coast offered prolonged resistance, and the final inland objectives were not reached. By the evening of D Day the 50th Division was firmly established ashore, had penetrated to within striking distance of Bayeux and the Bayeux—Caen road, and was in touch with the 3rd Canadian Division on its left (the 7th Green Howards and The Royal Winnipeg Rifles having made contact with each other at Creully during the afternoon). *100* The 50th Division beachhead and the Canadians’ were thus firmly linked up, but the 50th was not yet in touch with the Americans on “Omaha”. *101*
There had likewise been no contact as yet between the 3rd Canadian Division and the 3rd British Division on its left. When night fell on D Day the Germans were still resisting in a portion of the beach defences immediately east of the Canadian sector….
The 3rd British Division itself had met serious resistance north of Caen and had failed to seize the city. By the evening of D Day, however, it held a solid wedge of territory with its base on the coast between Lion and Ouistreham, and its point on the Lion-Caen road near Lebisey. This division had had to deal with the first German armoured counter-attack, which developed late in the afternoon. According to the 3rd Division, some 40 tanks of the 21st Panzer Division came in on the western flank, only to meet effective opposition from the British tanks and anti-tank guns. The 3rd Division calculated that it knocked out 13 tanks. *103* General Feuchtinger of the 21st Panzer later said that one group of his tanks (probably additional to the 40 reported by the British) reached the sea “at Lion-sur-Mer”. Evidence from our side does not support this, but the way was quite open to the coast around Luc-sur-Mer, farther west. *104*
The actual attack towards Caen on the evening of D Day was made by one depleted infantry battalion (the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who suffered heavily) supported by tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry and some self-propelled anti-tank guns. *105* The wide gap between the 3rd British and 3rd Canadian Divisions was a source of weakness to the former in thrusting for Caen and to the latter in its advance to the final D Day objective on 7 June.
Something has been said above concerning the 6th Airborne Division (which included the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion), on the extreme left of the Allied bridgehead. This division’s general task was to secure the left flank. Apart from capturing the bridges across the Orne and the adjacent canal as already described, it was to destroy or neutralize a coastal battery at Merville which was believed to be formidable, to secure the area between the Rivers Orne and Dives, and to operate offensively to delay the movement of enemy reserves from the east or south-east. The battery was to be dealt with by the 9th Parachute Battalion, which together with the 8th and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalions formed the 3rd Parachute Brigade. The particular tasks of the Canadian battalion, apart from “C” Company which dropped in advance as has been mentioned, were to destroy a bridge over the Dives at Robehomme and cover the 9th Battalion’s movement against the battery.
Midgley (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Thereafter the Canadian battalion was to take up positions around the Le Mesnil crossroads as part of the 3rd Brigade’s defence of the ridge running north from Troam towards Sallenelles. (For more details than can be given here, see an article compiled under the direction of Lt.-Col. Nicholson, “The First Canadian Parachute Battalion in Normandy”)
Like the American airborne divisions, the 6th was badly scattered in its drop. Darkness makes as many difficulties for an airborne as for an amphibious landing—and in June 1944 the airborne men had less experience to guide them than the sailors….One consequence of the dispersion was the fact that the Canadian battalion lost 84 men taken prisoner on D Day. Needless to say these inaccuracies, which in varying degrees were general throughout the division’s two parachute brigades, greatly enhanced the difficulty of carrying out the prescribed tasks. They were carried out nevertheless. The successful capture of the vital bridges has been described. The Merville battery—which turned out to be armed only with 75-mm. guns—was duly assaulted and taken by the 9th Parachute Battalion: this in spite of the fact that scattering in the drop had reduced the unit to a mere fragment.
The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion likewise performed its tasks successfully. “C” Company destroyed a bridge, over the Divette east of Varaville and, after a prolonged fierce fight, captured a strongpoint west of the village which threatened the brigade dropping zone. “B” Company reached the Robehomme bridge without the engineers who were to demolish it, except apparently for one sergeant; *107* it was successfully blown all the same. The company held Robehomme hill overnight, and on 7 June withdrew to the battalion position at Le Mesnil. Three other bridges across the Dives had been destroyed by other units of the Division. The Canadian battalion’s D Day casualties amounted to 113 all “ranks—19 killed in action, 10 wounded and “battle injuries”, and the 84 prisoners.
The D Day achievement was magnificent. In one morning’s work, on most sections of the front, the Atlantic Wall was breached and the way opened for a final victorious campaign. Nevertheless, reviewing the day as a whole, fifteen years after, one may be permitted to inquire whether it is not conceivable that we could have accomplished even more on the 6th of June. Was it really impossible to reach the inland objectives? Could not a more sustained effort in the later phases have produced deeper penetration and the seizure of ground which we later had to purchase by many weeks of bloody fighting? It is worth noting that more than one reserve brigade did not come into full action on D Day. We shall see in this volume that the British and Canadian forces—and the same is probably true of those of the United States—were usually better at deceiving the enemy and achieving initial success in an assault than they were at exploiting surprise and success once achieved. Perhaps they were rather too easily satisfied. “Well have we done, thrice-valiant countrymen”: but King Harry added, “But all’s not done; yet keep the French the field.”
Lieut.-General Richter of the 716th German Infantry Division commented later on the “hesitant and careful attitude” of the Allied troops, particularly the infantry. *110* On the basis of a study of the Italian and North-West Europe campaigns, no aspect of tactics is more in need of study by our forces than the problem of maintaining the momentum of the attack. In this respect we could certainly learn something from the Germans. These things can be said without detracting from the credit so richly due to the men who fought and triumphed on D Day….
…It is out of the question to state with accuracy the losses suffered by the British, United States and Canadian divisions which made the attack; for of the three countries only Canada has prepared post-war casualty figures on the basis of individual records….The available statistics…suggest that the total loss of the Allied armies on D Day—including fatal casualties, wounded, and prisoners—may have been somewhere about 9000 men. Of this total the Canadian Army’s share was 1074. These figures are conservative; and they do not include the losses of the supporting naval and air forces, which fortunately were relatively small.
It is happily true, however, that the casualties suffered on D Day were far fewer than had been expected before the assault. On 12 February Headquarters 21st Army Group had sent an estimate of British and Canadian D Day casualties to the War Office. It arrived at the grim conclusion that out of a landing force of 70,000 men there would be 9250 casualties, including 3000 men drowned. Assuming the strength of the Canadian landing force as 15,000 (which including the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion would be approximately the number planned) *112* the Canadian share of these 9250 would have been 1982 casualties. This was very nearly twice the number actually suffered. This fortunate result is doubtless largely responsible for the persistent legend that our losses were not heavy. They were not so heavy as the apprehensive planners had feared; they were painfully heavy nevertheless.
It is worth remembering that the men who stormed the Atlantic Wall surmounted, not only a terrible physical hazard, but a most formidable moral hazard as well. In Britain, for months before the assault, the coming operation had been the universal subject of conversation and speculation. It was the best-advertised enterprise in history; the all-important points of time and place were painfully guarded secrets, but no one doubted that an invasion of North-West Europe was imminent. The novel sight of great Allied air formations winging over London in the clear skies of early summer was an obvious sign; and such security precautions as the denial to foreign missions of the use of uncensored diplomatic bags (announced on 17 April 1944) merely publicized the project further and further excited the public mind. (The present writer wrote in his diary in London at the end of May, “The anticipated ‘Second Front’ operation in Western Europe continued to be a matter of great public interest in the United Kingdom and the ‘war of nerves’ conducted against the enemy in this connection appeared to be having some repercussions at home.’) In this feverish atmosphere the assault troops completed their preparations, constantly exposed to newspaper discussion of the strength of the defences which they had to assault. It followed that every man had to face and overcome deep unspoken fears within himself before he faced the German defenders of the beaches. These private terrors were, perhaps even more formidable antagonists than Hitler’s infantrymen. The soldiers who defeated both made the liberation of Europe possible. Free men everywhere should remember them.
In the history of the Second World War the Normandy D Day is notable for Canada, not merely as the date of a supreme military achievement, nor yet as marking the opening of a campaign in which the First Canadian Army was to fulfil its long-awaited destiny. The day was further brightened by an unusual conjunction. For once all three of the Canadian services fought together The 3rd Division held the centre of the stage; but overhead the Canadian bombers of No 6 Group and the fighter squadrons in No. 83 played their parts, as they had through the long months of preparation; while Canadian minesweepers helped to clear the way across the turbulent Channel, and Canadian naval guns helped to beat down the enemy’s defences. To the Army it was a particular source of delight that part of the 3rd Division was landed by craft of the Royal Canadian Navy. In the Canadian calendar this Sixth of June, so full of consequences for the cause of freedom, deserves to be “marked evermore with white”.
NOTES (footnote numbers correspond to the original text)
- Report by Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, II, 9, Report by Naval Commander Force “J”, 6.
- Ibid., Report by Naval Commander Eastern Task Force, 3.
- Ibid., 8. Report by Naval Commander Force “J”, 8.
- Reports by Majs. Brooks and Duncan, above, notes 48 and 50, and other accounts appended to W.D., 6th Armd. Regt., June 1944.
- Ibid. Cf.A History of the First Hussars Regiment, 1856-1945 (London, Canada 1951), Chap. XVI.
- W.D., Royal Winnipeg Rifles, 6 Jun 44.
- Company narrative, W.D., 1st Bn. Cdn Scottish Regt., June 1944, Appx. 2.
- Company narrative, W.D., Royal Winnipeg Rifles, June 1944, Appx. 6.
- W.DS., Royal Winnipeg Rifles and 6th Fd. Coy. R.C.B., 6 Jun 44. Recommendation for M.C., Capt. P. E Gower. Casualty figures from Director of War Service Records D.V.A., February 1956.
- W.D., Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
- Account by Lt.-Col. F. M. Matheson, given to Historical Offr., 3rd Inf. Div. 24 Jun 44.
- W.D., Regina Rifle Regt., June 1944, Appx.
- Ibid., and text 6 Jun. Account by Lt.-Col Matheson1st Battalion the Regina Rifle Regiment, 1939-1946 (n.p., n.d.) 34-5
- W.D., 1st Bn. Cdn Scottish Regt., 6 Jun 44 and Appx. 7. Battle log 7th Inf. Bde., W.D., H.Q. 7th Inf. Bde., June 1944, Appx 8 (2033 hrs). W.D., Regina Rifle Regt., June 1944, Appx. 3 (Intelligence Diary), 6 Jun, serial 49, and 7 Jun, serial 1.
- W.Ds., 12th and 13th Fd. Regts. R.C.A. 6 Jun 44. Memorandum of Interview with Lt.-Col. R. H. Webb, 23 Jun 44.
- United Kingdom records. WD 13th Fd Regt. R.C.A., 6 Jun 44.
- Report by Allied Naval Commander-in-Chief, II, 9, Report by Naval Commander Eastern Task Force; cf. ibid.. Report by Naval Commander Force “J”, 8.
- W.Ds., 5th Assault Regt. R.E., 26th Assault Squadron R.E., and 22nd Dragoons R.A.C. Planned locations of beach exits, 3rd Inf. Div. Operation Order No. 1, “Overlord” 13 May 44, para. 66 (b).
- W.Ds. as in note 66, above.
- W.D., Q.O.R. of C., 6 Jun 44. Interview with Major J. N. Gordon (O.C. “D” Coy), 12 Jul 44. Recommendation for M.C., Lt. W. G. Herbert, and M.M., L/Cpl. R. Tessier and Rfn. W. Chicoski.
- W.D., 80th Assault Squadron R.E., June 1944, Report of Capt. P. C. Grant. W.D 5th Fd. Coy. R.C.E., June 1944, Appx. 5.
- W.D., N. Shore Regt., 6 Jun 44. Interview with Maj. R. B. Forbes, 13 Jun 44.
- Interview with Maj. Forbes.
- W.D., N. Shore Regt., 6 Jun 44.
- Schull,The Far Distant Ships, 277.
- W.D., Régiment de la Chaudière, 6 Jun 44. Message Log, W.D., H.Q. 8th Inf. Bde June 1944, Appx. 1.
- W.D., Régiment de la Chaudière,, 6 Jun 44. Majs. A. Ross and M. Gauvin, Le Geste du Régiment de la Chaudière, (Rotterdam 1945), 27-9. H.Q. 8th Inf. Bde. Message Log.
- H.Q. 8th Inf. Bde. Message Log
- W.Ds., 14th Fd. and 19th Army Fd. Regts. R.C.A., 6 Jun 44. Gun areas, trace “TT” Operation Order No. 1, R.C.A. 3rd Inf Div., 15 May 44.
- W.D., H.Q. 9th Inf. Bde., 6 Jun 44 Message Log, H.Q. 3rd Inf. Div., W.D., GS H.Q. 3rd Inf. Div., June 1944, Appx “6”‘
- W.D., H.Q. 9th Inf. Bde., 6 Jun 44.
- W.D., No. 80 Assault Squadron R.E., 6 Jun 44.
- Message Log, H.Q. 3rd Inf. Div., above note 85.
- W.Ds., Nth. N.S. Highrs. and H Q 9th Inf. Bde., 6 Jun 44.
- W.D., Nth. N.S. Highrs., 6 Jun 44
- Ibid. W.D., 27th Armd. Regt., 6 Jun 44
- Message Log, H.Q. 3rd Inf. Div., 6 Jun 44.A History of the First Hussars Regiment, Chap. XVI.
- Lt. W. F. McCormick to the author 6 Mar 56, H.Q.C. 1453-21-7.
- Information from Director of War Service Records, D.V.A., February 1946.
- Harrison,Cross-Channel Attack, 278-304
- [Charles H. Taylor],Omaha Beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944) (Washington, 1945)
- Battle Log, H.Q. 7th Inf. Bde., 6 Jun 44 W.D., H.Q. 7th Inf. Bde., June 1944, Appx. 8.
- Maj. E. W. Clay,The Path of the 50th: The Story of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division in the Second World War, 1939-1945 (Aldershot, 1950), Chap. XIX. Cross-Channel Attack, Map XV.
- 3rd British Inf. Div. Intelligence Summary No. 1, to 2359 hrs. 7 Jun.
- Special Interrogation Report, Lt.-Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger, H.Q. Cdn Forces in the Netherlands, 25 Aug 45. Maj. R. C. Lane to the author, 25 Apr 56, H.Q C 1453-21-7.
- Norman Scarfe,Assault Division: A History of the 3rd Division… (London, 1947), 88-9. Marcus Cunliffe, History of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1919-1955 (London, 1956), 77-80. United Kingdom records.
- United Kingdom records.
- O.C.M.H. MS P.S.B. B-621, 31 May 47.
- 3rd Inf. Div. Operation Order No. 1, “Overlord”, 13 May 44, Appx. “G”.