Copyright Canadian War Museum (CN 12485).

Engineers Clearing Roads Through Caen, by Captain Orville Norman Fisher.

The Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers clear a path through the rubble and debris of Caen, France. Allied bombs had leveled many of the structures before the Canadians entered the town.

By the end of D-Day, the Allies had achieved their main goal of carving out a beachhead along the Normandy coast. They were then to move inland, with the Canadians and the British pushing south towards Caen. Once again, however, Caen was not to be an easy prize. From 7 to 12 June, the 3rd Canadian Division would encounter well-led and effective German troops, including an SS Panzer Division.

On 7 June 1944, the Allied command assigned the North Nova Scotia Highlanders of the 9th Brigade, with the tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers in support, the responsibility of conquering the towns of Buron and Authie, near Caen. There the Canadians confronted the 12th SS Panzer Division, comprised of Hitlerjugend (teenage Hitler Youth troops) and a Panzer-Grenadier regiment led by Kurt "Panzer" Meyer, a skilled, veteran commander from the Eastern Front.

National Archives of Canada (PA-131405, photo by Ken Bell).

Private J. Thomas, Caen, France, 10 July 1944.

 

The green Canadians were no match for the well-led and equipped Germans, troops that had been battle hardened by four years of war. Kurt Meyer's soldiers took many Canadian prisoners. On the evening of 7 June, Meyer ordered that some of the prisoners be executed. In all, the Germans murdered 23 Canadians, most of whom were North Novas and Fusiliers. "I saw seven men from C Company [of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders]," recollected one soldier, "...just sitting there... Then I heard firing and saw some of the boys tipping over towards the road and a couple tipped over backwards. I could see the guards standing on the road firing at them..."

National Archives of Canada (PA-130175, photo by Harold G. Aikman).

Chaplains, Working with R.A.P., Evacuate Wounded of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Caen, France, 15 July 1944.

 

Meyer was later found guilty of war crimes by a Canadian court martial and sentenced to death. The reviewing officer, General Chris Vokes, would ultimately commute Meyer's death sentence to life imprisonment. He judged that Meyer's role was vicarious rather than direct, but he admitted in his memoirs that the decision was also in part due to the recognition that Canadian soldiers had murdered German prisoners in reprisal.

 

By 12 June, the Canadian Division had been so battered by intense fighting that it had to be removed from battle for two weeks to recover. In six days of fighting, the Canadians suffered 2,831 casualties. The Allies, however, had managed to extend their beachhead to a point several kilometres inland.

National Archives of Canada (PA-162740, photo by Micheal M. Dean).

Ambulance Delivers Wounded Soldier, Caen, France, 8 July 1944.

Members of the 14th Light Field Ambulance unit aid a casualty from Le Régiment de la Chaudière.

Soon back in action, the Canadians renewed their efforts in the Caen sector. Initially, they attacked the SS (Schutzstaffeln, an elite German unit that had its origins as Hitler's personal bodyguards) at Carpiquet, a town located just outside of Caen. When the assault at Carpiquet failed, they attempted to raid Caen itself. Again, however, German defenders repelled the Canadians' attacks. Yet, only a month later, they were able to achieve the objective they had been pursuing since D-Day. On 8 July, the 3rd Division captured Buron and Authie. The following day, it moved into Caen. Fighting slowly and cautiously through the rubble-strewn streets, the Canadians were finally able to take the city. They were able to do so despite the fact that the Germans had deployed seven of their eight Panzer divisions in the Caen sector. As the troops of the 3rd Canadian Division were fighting through Caen, the 2nd Division was moving through the beachhead to take its place at the front. Headquarters 2nd Canadian Corps took control of both divisions on the 11th of July.

 

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