Caen had been an important accomplishment, but much work remained to be done. On 18 July, the Canadian portion of Operation Goodwood, Operation Atlantic, began. It was the first stage in the breakout from the Normandy beachhead area. According to the plan, the 2nd Canadian Corps, with the British 7th British Armoured and the Guards Armoured Divisions under command, was to take the suburbs southeast of Caen. Once again, a strong German defence made this objective difficult to attain. The Canadians suffered heavy losses. The battle for Verrières Ridge provided a similar story. The Canadians, participating in Operation Spring, were to attack Verrières, a tactically important high point that controlled the road south of Caen. On 20 July, and again four days later, Canadian and British forces failed to take the ridge. Although they accomplished one of their goals-tying down German Panzer divisions and thus helping the Americans break out from their positions farther west-Verrières was a killing ground. (1) The 24 July engagement was particularly bloody. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders (3rd Division) ended the engagement with some 100 survivors. The Black Watch regiment from Montreal was decimated: only 15 survived. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry lost 200 men. On 23 July, as the battles of Operations Atlantic and Spring were winding down, Headquarters 1st Canadian Army was activated. Initially, it took under command only the 2nd British Corps, which remained part of 1st Canadian Army until March 1945. At this point, the "D-Day Dodgers," 1st Canadian Corps, transferred from Italy to northwest Europe. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the last of Canada's invasion forces, joined 2nd Canadian Corps in the last days of July, taking the place of the 3rd Canadian Division, which had faced the Germans for 55 days straight. At the same time, 2nd Canadian Corps and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade came under 1st Canadian Army. The 1st Canadian Army, commanded by General Harry Crerar, was a uniquely international formation that variously included, in addition to Canadians, British, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, and Czech formations.
The Nazis, wracked by rash military decision making at the highest level, now attempted one last gambit; Hitler directed an offensive against the US 1st Army at Mortain and Avranches. The attack was fraught with peril. If the German objectives were not taken immediately, both flanks of the attacking force would become prone to counterattack. The likely result would be encirclement. The offensive was, in fact, doomed from the start. Thanks to Ultra, Britain's top secret decoding unit, the Allies had broken the German codes and thus knew about the plan from the outset. For the Allies, by contrast, the German offensive was a huge opportunity. Allied armies could spring a trap at the rear of the advance and cut off a large segment of Germany's fighting force. The enemy might be crippled, ending the war.
Battle hardened and increasingly weary, the Canadians next saw action during the advance to Falaise and beyond. The fighting was savagely intense. The 1st Canadian Army, which had also incorporated the 7th British Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division, came under the command of General H.D. Crerar. Its goal was to reach Falaise and thereby help close a gap into which thousands of Germans were retreating from the north. On the night of 7 August, the new operation, Totalize, commenced. Although some striking tactical innovations were introduced, they could not overcome the inexperience of the Canadian and Polish armoured divisions fighting their first battles. (2) While the Canadians achieved some of their tactical aims, by 9 August, they were still far to the north of Falaise. On 14 August, Guy Simonds's 2nd Canadian Corps launched Operation Tractable, another major offensive in an attempt to meet up with American forces advancing from the south and close the Falaise Pocket. Initially repulsed, it redoubled its efforts on 16 August, this time with 2nd Canadian Division also committed to the attack. The next day, Falaise finally fell. In coordination with the Americans, who began to attack, belatedly, from Argentan in the south on the 18th, the 1st Canadian Army proceeded to close the gap. When the troops of the Polish Armoured Division linked up with the Americans at Chambois on late 20 August, the Allies finally shut the gate on the Falaise Pocket. The next day, the gate was locked definitively when tanks of the Canadian Grenadier Guards, 4th Canadian Armoured Division, linked up with the Poles at Chambois. A measure of the ferocity of the fighting is that the forward elements of both the Canadian and Polish armoured divisions were cut off for up to three days. One such Canadian unit was The South Alberta Regiment. Major David Currie, commanding the tanks of "C" Squadron and an all too small party of infantrymen of the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in seizing and holding St. Lambert, a key site in the line of the German retreat. Throughout the intense struggle for control of the Falaise Pocket, the Allied air forces were wreaking horrendous destruction on the Germans inside. While thousands of Germans were able to slip out of the trap, almost no tanks or vehicles survived. The Allies managed to capture almost one half of the Wehrmacht and its equipment then in Normandy. Thus ended the battle for Normandy; the definitive battle of the Western Front.
- 1. The aims of the battles around Caen have been a source of continuing controversy. General Montgomery, still in command of all land forces in Normandy, both US and British, always maintained that the primary aim of these battles was to draw all the German armoured forces against the Anglo-Canadian forces in the Caen area to allow a breakout by the Americans to the west. General Eisenhower, still in England, did not understand this point and criticized the failure to achieve a breakout in the Caen area. The German after-action assessment seems to support Montgomery and, by this criterion, the operations were an unqualified success. C.P. Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-1945 (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1960), pp. 176-180. 2. Allied armoured units have often been accused of being overcautious in the Normandy campaign, but this criticism is unjustified. In addition to having to learn the art of war during the campaign, the units possessed a main battle tank that was seriously outgunned and under-armoured in comparison with the German tanks. The Sherman tank was equipped with a short-barrelled, medium-velocity 75mm gun. They faced tanks, like the Panther, with long-barrelled, high-velocity 75mm gun and the Tiger with the famous 88mm high-velocity gun. The British and Canadian armoured regiments were equipped with the Sherman Firefly, which had a 17-pounder 76.2mm gun that could outgun all but the Tiger. But they only had one Firefly for every troop of four tanks, and the Germans quickly learned to knock out the Firefly. Once the Firefly was destroyed, the rest of the tanks were sitting ducks. Moreover, the Firefly was not a difficult weapon to disable. Indeed, Allied tank crews named them "Ronsons" (a brand of lighters) for the ease with which they caught fire.