Operation Charnwood

Operation Charnwood
Operation Charnwood
Part of Battle for Caen
A file of soldiers carefully clambering over the heaped rubble of destroyed buildings in a badly-damaged street
Troops of I Corps pick their way through the rubble of Caen
Date 8–9 July 1944[5][6][7][8]
Location North of Caen, the city and Carpiquet, Normandy, France[8]
 United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Miles Dempsey[30]
United Kingdom John Crocker[1]
Nazi Germany Heinrich Eberbach[31]
Nazi Germany Sepp Dietrich[32]
3 infantry divisions[1]
3 armoured brigades[1]
Elements of 1 infantry division[33]
1 armoured division[33]
61 tanks[nb 2]
Casualties and losses
3,817 casualties[34]
~80 tanks[34][35][36][nb 3]
Over 2,000 casualties[34]
18–32 tanks[nb 4][nb 5]
300–400 French civilian casualties[38]
Operation Charnwood
Operational scope Tactical Offensive
Planned by British Second Army[1]
Objective Capture of northern Caen, up to the Orne river, and establish bridgeheads into southern Caen[2]
Executed by I Corps, Second Army[3]
Outcome Northern Caen captured, southern sectors remained in German hands and no bridgeheads established across the river.[4]

Operation Charnwood was a Second World War Anglo-Canadian offensive that took place from 8–9 July 1944, during the Battle of Normandy. The operation was intended to at least partially capture the German-occupied French city of Caen (French pronunciation: [kɑ̃]), which was an important Allied objective during the opening stages of Operation Overlord. It was also hoped that the attack would pre-empt the transfer of German armoured units from the Anglo-Canadian sector to the lightly screened American sector, where a major US offensive was being planned. The British and Canadians advanced on a broad front and by the evening of the second day had taken Caen up to the Orne and Odon rivers.

Preceded by a controversial bombing raid that destroyed much of Caen's historic Old City, Operation Charnwood began at dawn on 8 July, with battalions of three infantry divisions attacking German positions north of Caen behind a creeping artillery barrage. Supported by three armoured brigades, the forces of the British I Corps made gradual progress against the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend and 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. By the end of the day the 3rd Canadian and British 3rd and 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Divisions had cleared the villages in their path and reached Caen's outskirts. Moving into the city at dawn the following morning, the Allies encountered resistance from remnants of German units who were beginning a withdrawal across the Orne. Carpiquet airfield fell to the Canadians during the early morning and by 18:00, the British and Canadians had linked up and were on the Orne's north bank. Discovering Caen's remaining bridges to be defended or impassable and with German reserves positioned to oppose their crossing, I Corps closed down the operation.

With northern Caen's capture and the heavy casualties inflicted on the two German divisions defending the sector, despite I Corps' losses Operation Charnwood was a tactical success. Operationally, it achieved mixed results; although it forced the Germans to pull back all formations north of the Orne River, it did not stop the flow of formations to the American front. The Germans were able to establish a strong second defensive line along two ridges to the south of the city but the Allies maintained the initiative and launched the simultaneous Anglo-Canadian operations Goodwood and Atlantic a week later, during which the rest of Caen was secured.



The Normandy town of Caen was one of the D-Day objectives for the British 3rd Infantry Division which landed on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944.[39] The capture of Caen, while "ambitious", was described by historian L F Ellis as the most important D-Day objective assigned to Lieutenant-General Crocker's I Corps.[nb 6] Operation Overlord called for the British Second Army to secure the city and then form a front line from Caumont-l'Éventé to the southeast of Caen, in order to acquire airfields and protect the left flank of the United States First Army while it moved on Cherbourg.[43] Possession of Caen and its environs would give Second Army a suitable staging area for a push south to capture Falaise, which could then be used as the pivot for a swing left to advance on Argentan and then towards the Touques River.[44] The terrain between Caen and Vimont was especially attractive to Allied planners, being open, dry and conducive to swift offensive operations. Since the Allies greatly outnumbered the Germans in tanks and mobile units, creating the conditions for a fluid, fast moving battle was to their advantage.[45]

The 3rd Infantry Division came ashore as planned but hampered by congestion in its beachhead, the diversion of its strength en route and the late arrival of much of its armoured support, the division was unable to assault Caen in force and its lead elements were brought to a halt short of the city's outskirts.[46][47] Follow-up attacks were unsuccessful as German resistance solidified around the rapidly-arriving 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend,[47] so the British abandoned the direct approach and on 7 June launched Operation Perch, a pincer attack by I and XXX Corps. The intention was to encircle Caen from the east and west.[48] However I Corps, striking south of the Orne River was halted by the 21st Panzer Division[49] while XXX Corps's attack to the west of Caen stalled near Tilly-sur-Seulles in the face of heavy opposition from the Panzer-Lehr-Division.[49] In an effort to force Panzerlehr to withdraw the British 7th Armoured Division attacked the German flank on 13 June, through a gap in the line aiming for high ground near Villers-Bocage.[50] The resulting day-long tank battle ended when the 7th Armoured's vanguard was pulled back;[51] the Panzer-Lehr-Division held its position until XXX Corps captured Tilly-sur-Seulles on 19 June.[52]

Large-scale map of France and its neighbours, showing Caen on France's northwestern coast.
Large-scale map of France and its neighbours, showing Caen on France's northwestern coast.
Location of Caen in Normandy, northern France

The next British offensive, codenamed Operation Epsom, was launched by VIII Corps on 26 June. Preceded by Operation Martlet[53] (also known as Operation Dauntless)[54] to secure the corps' right flank,[53] VIII Corps advanced to the west of Caen on a four-mile (6.4 km) front between Carpiquet and Rauray.[55] Once across the Odon and Orne rivers the corps was to make for high ground near Bretteville-sur-Laize and encircle Caen.[56][57] The Germans managed to contain the offensive but to do so were obliged to commit all their strength,[58] including two SS panzer divisions newly arrived in Normandy[nb 7] and earmarked for an offensive against British and American positions around Bayeux.[60]

On 27 June the 3rd Infantry Division's 8th Infantry Brigade, supported by the Staffordshire Yeomanry and specialist armour from the 79th Armoured Division, launched Operation Mitten. The objective was to seize two German-occupied châteaux—la Londe and le Landel. The initial evening assault, led by the South Lancashire Regiment, was repulsed but the following morning further attacks gained the objectives and destroyed several German tanks. Operation Mitten cost at least three British tanks[61][62] and 268 men.[63] Norman Scarfe claims that had Mitten gone more smoothly, the 9th Brigade, supported by the Canadian 9th Infantry Brigade, would have launched Operation Aberlour, an ambitious plan to capture the villages of la Bijude, Épron, Galmache, St. Contest, Authie and Cussy. However, this was cancelled by I Corps's commander Lieutenant-General John Crocker.[61][62] Historian Terry Copp calls the fighting for these châteaux the "bloodiest square mile in Normandy".[63]

With Caen's strategic value to the Germans apparently lessening, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, in command of German forces in the west (OB West), directed on 1 July that the city should be gradually abandoned. Rundstedt's intent was to shift the bulk of his armoured divisions to the American front[64] but the city and its surroundings were considered by the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW) to be the linchpin of Normandy's defence. OKW was determined to hold an arc of defensible terrain from the English Channel to the western banks of the Orne;[65] Adolf Hitler's response was to dismiss Rundstedt from command and replace him with Generalfeldmarschall Gunther von Kluge.[66] Learning of this, the Allied ground forces commander, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, drew up an offensive with two goals: to capture Caen and to prevent a large redeployment of German forces from the Anglo-Canadian sector to the American front.[6]

On 4 July, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division launched Operation Windsor, designed to seize Carpiquet and the adjacent airfield from the 12th SS Panzer Division.[67] Although Carpiquet fell on 5 July, the airfield remained in German hands.[68]

Planning and preparation


Map of Caen and its immediate surroundings as described in the article text

Having failed to take Caen through successive flanking manoeuvres, Montgomery decided the next attack would be a frontal assault.[69] Although Caen's strategic importance had vastly diminished since D-Day,[69] he sought control of Bourguébus and the commanding high ground to the south.[70] On 5 July the orders for Operation Charnwood were issued; it was to be launched at 04:20, an hour and a half before dawn on 8 July.[1]

The objective of Charnwood was to clear Caen of its defenders up to the Orne river and if possible to secure bridgeheads in southern Caen.[2] To achieve the latter it was planned to send an armoured column through the city to rush the bridges;[22] it was hoped that I Corps could exploit the situation to sweep on through southern Caen towards the Verrières and Bourguébus ridges, paving the way for the British Second Army to advance towards Falaise.[71] Historian Roger Cirillo however points out the operation was designed to clear the town of German forces; due to it being cut by both a river and a canal any attempts to make rapid progress through and beyond Caen were "in all probability, impossible."[72]

Crocker's 115,000-strong I Corps[1][3] was assigned the task of penetrating to the Orne and Odon rivers.[1] The 3rd Infantry Division would attack on a one brigade front from the north-east, supported by the 33rd Armoured Brigade; the 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division would attack on a two brigade front from the north, supported by the 27th Armoured Brigade; and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division would attack on a one brigade front from the northwest, supported by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.[1] To maintain the maximum possible pressure on German forces in the sector,[73] VIII Corps was placed on 24 hours notice to launch further attacks to the west of Caen.[3]

In the light of lessons learned from the partial Canadian success during Operation Windsor, Charnwood was to be launched on a broad front to increase the pressure on the German defences and disperse their defensive fire.[35] SHAEF planners had advised, on 10 June, that the best way to break a stalemate was to use air power to support an attack; this method was to be used[74] for Charnwood as Montgomery enlisted the aid of RAF Bomber Command.[68] Heavy bombers would attack Caen on the night preceding the assault, with 15% of the total bomb load being delayed action bombs set to explode when the ground attack was launched. A second wave of light bombers would follow the heavies and a third wave of American bombers would attack on the morning of the operation.[75] Additional support would be provided by rocket firing Typhoon fighter-bombers,[19] the monitor HMS Roberts, the light cruisers HMS Belfast and HMS Emerald and the 16-inch guns of the battleship Rodney.[76] Five divisions would contribute 656 guns for bombarding German positions to the south.[77] In all, it was planned that 2,000 tons of bombs would be dropped on Caen before the infantry assault began.[64] Due to the proximity of the target area to the Allied lines and the resulting risk of friendly casualties, the aiming point for the bombers was shifted 6,000 yards (5,500 m) to the south—beyond most of the main German defences screening the city.[71] Following a long saturation bombardment, the three infantry divisions were to push through the fortified villages in their path and advance directly into Caen's northern suburbs.[78]


A frontal view of a knocked out German tank in a hull-down position, protected by earth entrenchments.
A Panzer IV of the 1/22nd Panzer Regiment in a dug-in defensive position, photographed near Lébisey.

Caen's defence fell to two divisions; the 12th SS Panzer Division of I SS Panzer Corps, and the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division of LXXXVI Corps. An assault on the city was expected, and it was assumed that further attacks in the Odon valley towards the Orne river would quickly follow suit.[79]

The 12th SS Panzer Division, commanded by Kurt Meyer, consisted of three panzergrenadier regiments including one—the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment—borrowed from the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (1st SS Panzer Division).[80][81] With its 61 surviving tanks[33] 12th SS Panzer was holding the northwest approaches to Caen, defending the city and Carpiquet airfield from the 3rd Canadian and 59th British Infantry Divisions.[8] The main German defensive line, a 9-kilometre (5.6 mi) arc of villages from the northeast to the west, was held by the 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment[33] and elements of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment.[82] Troops from the 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment were holding the western flank,[33] concentrating their strength, which included mortar batteries and a few tanks, in the area around Carpiquet airfield.[80] The 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment was occupying a line from Franqueville to the western end of Eterville;[81] the villages formed mutually-supporting strongpoints with dug-in tanks and assault guns, and the defensive line was 2–3 miles (3.2–4.8 km) in depth, supplemented by anti-tank ditches, weapons pits, minefields and other obstacles.[83] The rest of the division, with 35 tanks of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment, were held in reserve, with elements located north, west and south of the city.[84] Most of the division's artillery had been moved back across the Orne, and the divisional command centre had been relocated from the Ardenne Abbey to Abbaye-aux-Dames in the centre of Caen.[33]

The 16th Luftwaffe Field Division was an inexperienced infantry division that had only recently arrived in Normandy to relieve the 21st Panzer Division of its defence of Caen and its positions east of the Caen canal.[1][85] The division was under-trained[1] and lacked sufficient anti-tank weapons; to remedy the latter it was reinforced with a tank battalion from 21st Panzer.[79] The Luftwaffe division was deployed on both sides of the Orne, with three battalions holding the villages to the immediate north of the city.[nb 8]

The 1st SS Panzer Division was roughly 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Caen with a regiment of dual purpose 88 mm guns from the III Flak Corps.[76] The II SS Panzer Corps was to the west, with the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg around 2 miles (3.2 km) southwest of the city.[86]

Preliminary attacks

An overhead view of a bomber aircraft, flying over a pall of smoke
A Handley Page Halifax, of No. 4 Group, over Caen's burning northern suburbs following the previous night's bombing.

On the night of 7 July, 467 Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force—half of Bomber Command's available strength at that time—attacked Caen, dropping over 2,000 tons of bombs on the city.[nb 9] Although intended mainly to facilitate the Anglo-Canadian advance and to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the battle or retreating through Caen,[90][91] a secondary consideration was the suppression of the German defences. In this the bombing largely failed; the main German armour and infantry positions to the north of Caen remained intact.[71] Several tanks were hit and temporarily disabled, but only two Panzer IVs of the 12th SS Panzer Division were destroyed.[91] However, General Miles Dempsey, in command of the British Second Army, was more concerned with the bombing's morale-boosting effect on his troops than any material losses it might inflict on the Germans.[22]

The pathfinders of No. 625 Squadron RAF, dropping the target markers for the bombers, were instructed not to allow the target zone to "drift back" towards the Allied lines as had been the tendency in earlier operations.[71] Together with the cautious shifting of the target zone during the planning stage, the effect was that in many cases the markers were dropped too far forward, pushing the bombed zone well into Caen itself and further away from the German defences. By 22:00 on 7 July the bombers had departed, leaving 80% of the city's northern sector destroyed.[92] Caen University was particularly hard hit, starting chemical fires that soon spread.[70]

At 22:50, six squadrons of fast Mosquito bombers attacked individual targets,[89] and ten minutes later the 636 guns of the assaulting divisions opened fire, with the battleship Rodney and other ships adding their support.[77] This prolonged bombardment was intensified by the artillery of VIII Corps,[73] which targeted the villages north of Caen in an effort to eliminate German strongpoints before the infantry assault began.[77]

Advance begins

At 04:30 on 8 July, the artillery of I and VIII Corps shifted their fire deeper into the German defensive belt, along the axes of advance of the Canadian 3rd and British 59th Infantry Divisions.[5] As the infantry and armour moved off their start-lines the barrage slowly crept forward, concentrating its fire on positions in front of the Anglo-Canadian troops;[93] four battalions and two armoured regiments advancing on a two brigade front.[93] At 07:00, 192 B-26 Marauder medium bombers arrived over the battlefield but finding it obscured by cloud only 87 aircraft were able to drop their bombs, totalling 133 tons. Some bombs landed on the 12th SS Headquarters at Abbaye-aux-Dames.[91]

A dispersed group of infantry moving through a field
Men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, advancing through a wheatfield during the final assault on Caen.

Crocker launched the operation's second phase at 07:30, although neither division had yet reached its objectives.[93] The 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment was still in control of high ground around the Carpiquet airfield on the right flank of the advance. On the left, facing the relatively weak defences of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division, the British 3rd Infantry were making good progress. They attacked Lébisey and rapidly pushed through the village, although fighting intensified as the division reached Herouville.[94] Concerned about the state of the Luftwaffe division, General Heinrich Eberbach, in command of Panzer Group West ordered the 21st Panzer Division to redeploy northeast of Caen in support of the 16th.[31] The manoeuvre was spotted and when 21st Panzer attempted to cross the Caen Canal a strong naval barrage was directed against them. Facing the possibility of heavy losses, the move was abandoned.[31]

In the centre, the 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division was encountering much stiffer resistance from the 12th SS Panzer Regiment in Galmanche and la Bijude.[95] The 176th Infantry Brigade incurred particularly heavy casualties in la Bijude, with one infantry company losing all of its senior officers when German flak batteries (pressed into service as anti-tank guns) prevented armoured support from reaching the village. The 176th's running-mate, the 197th Brigade bypassed Galmanche and by noon had reached St-Contest.[93]

Further to the west, units of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division's 9th Infantry Brigade had been involved in heavy fighting in Buron, which was defended by 200 men from the 12th SS. With support from the 10th Canadian Armoured Regiment, by noon Buron had been taken, although the 9th Brigade's assault companies suffered 60% casualties in doing so.[96] South of Buron, a counterattack by Panzer IV and Panther tanks of the 12th SS Panzer Regiment was defeated by M10 Achilles self-propelled anti-tank guns and 17-pounder anti tank guns of 245th Battery, 62nd Antitank Regiment. Thirteen German tanks were destroyed in one of the most successful antitank engagements of the campaign, for the loss of four tank destroyers and a further four damaged.[97] Gruchy was captured with relative ease, with the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade encountering only mortar and artillery fire in their drive to Authie. The capture of Authie facilitated the 59th (Staffordshire) Division's assault on St-Contest and that town fell too clearing the way for an advance on Caen.[96] In Phase 3 of the operation, the 7th Brigade pushed towards the 12th SS Panzer Division's former headquarters at Ardenne Abbey, securing the position before midnight.[98]

The British 3rd Infantry Division had by now brushed aside 16th Luftwaffe and was approaching Caen's outskirts from the northeast. At 19:15 that evening, both Meyer and Eberbach authorised the withdrawal of all 12th SS Panzer's surviving heavy weapons and the remnants of the Luftwaffe division across the Orne to the southern side of Caen.[98] Throughout the early evening the 12th SS fought a rearguard action against elements of the 59th and 3rd Infantry Divisions as it pulled back from positions no longer considered tenable.[99] Reports of this withdrawal came in to the Anglo-Canadian command however patrols probing German frontline positions created a false perception that no withdrawal was taking place.[95]

Fighting in Caen

A soldier lies prone, rife at the ready by a building in a city street. Beside him is a sign reading "Caen centre", pointing back the way he has come.
A soldier from I Corps takes cover in the streets of Caen during Operation Charnwood.

British and Canadian patrols began to infiltrate the city at dawn on 9 July.[5] Carpiquet Airfield finally fell into Allied hands during the early morning, when the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division discovered that the 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment had withdrawn during the night.[68] With the German situation north of the river becoming increasingly precarious, 21st Panzer's battlegroups and the remaining regiments of the 12th SS Panzer Division conducted a slow withdrawal across the Orne, making for the Verrières and Bourguébus Ridges.[100] By noon the British 3rd Infantry Division had reached the Orne's north bank, virtually destroying the elements of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division, positioned west of the Orne, in the process.[nb 10] A few hours later the British and Canadians met in the centre of the city and by 18:00 the northern half of Caen was firmly under Allied control; all I Corps's objectives had been achieved. A few of Caen's bridges were intact but these were either blocked by rubble or defended by German troops on the south bank and the 1st SS Panzer Division had by now positioned itself to oppose any further advance.[4]

The 12th SS Panzer Division (by the end of the battle the division's infantry strength had been reduced to that of a battalion)[94]—claimed over the course of two days to have destroyed 103 British and Canadian tanks[101] for the loss of 20.[94] On entering Caen the Anglo-Canadian troops found it in ruins, with four-fifths of the Old City reduced to rubble by the 7 July bombings.[68] The debris that choked the streets made it almost impossible for British armour to manoeuvre through the northern half of the city, preventing Second Army from exploiting I Corps's success.[102] Without possession of the terrain flanking the south of the city, no further gains could be made within Caen[28][103] so by mid-afternoon on 9 July, Operation Charnwood was over.[5]


Operation Jupiter

A group of soldiers crouching beside a roadside hedge
Soldiers of the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division take cover from German mortar fire during Jupiter

On 10 July, the 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division attacked the positions of the 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg to the southwest of Caen on Hill 112.[103] Preceded by a two-day bombardment that included support from naval vessels and Hawker Typhoons, the assault was designed to threaten Caen from the west and push back the 10th SS Panzer Division. This would secure the British Second Army an avenue for future offensives.[5] The 43rd Wessex began their assault at dawn on 10 July, supported by two armoured brigades.[28]

By 08:00 British tanks and infantry were engaged with 10th SS Panzer and "well up" the slopes of Hill 112. Eterville was taken around mid-morning;[103] as the 4th Armoured Brigade and 43rd Wessex pressed their attack, Panzer Group West commander General Eberbach insisted that "Hill 112 is the pivotal point of the whole position West of Caen, and must therefore be held".[28] The 102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion and the 1st SS Panzer Division were committed to its defence.[28] The 4th Armoured Brigade reached the summit[104] but in the evening were counterattacked by remnants of the 1st and 12th SS Panzer Divisions.[105]

The British offensive resumed the following day with the support of antitank regiments from the Second Army; these had heavy losses in a counterattack by the 102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion.[106] Hill 112 was briefly taken by a battalion of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, only to be lost to further German counterattacks in the late afternoon.[106] By the evening of 11 July, with both sides exhausted and having suffered heavily the offensive had reached a stalemate.[28] The 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division and its supporting armour had sustained two thousand casualties in the two days of fighting.[103]


With Caen north of the River Orne in Allied hands, mine-clearance operations were launched, bulldozers were set to work to clear the streets and a convoy of trucks carrying supplies for the civilian population was brought in. On 10 July the French flag was raised over the city and three days later a parade was held in the Place Saint-Martin during which a second flag was raised to the strains of Scottish bagpipers playing La Marseillaise.[10]

A mixed group of soldiers and civilians in front of some damaged shops; the street is littered with debris
Some of the first troops to enter Caen pose with local inhabitants outside wrecked shops, 9 July 1944.

Rommel and Eberbach consolidated defensive positions in and around southern Caen,[28] the 12th, 1st and 9th SS Panzer Divisions turning the Bourguébus and Verrières Ridges into formidable barriers.[102] Having committed all of his armoured reserves, Rommel transferred the remainder of his infantry divisions—the 708th, 276th, 277th and 272nd—to the Anglo-Canadian front.[71] On 8 July he released the remnants of the Panzer Lehr Division and the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich to the American sector.[71] At the start of the campaign, Panzer-Lehr was one of the most powerful armoured formations in the German army,[107]by this stage it had been reduced to a number of battlegroups and was no longer operational as a division.[108] On 17 July, Rommel's staff car was strafed by British fighters, severely injuring the Field Marshal and confining him to hospital.[5] Two days later he was replaced as Army Group B commander by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge.[109] Rommel never returned to Normandy; implicated in the 20 July plot against Hitler, on 14 October he was forced to commit suicide.[110]

A file of soldiers walking through a blasted cityscape; only a few buildings are standing
Royal Engineers move through the ruins of Caen, looking for mines and booby-traps 10 July 1944.

Caen's partial capture allowed General Omar Bradley, commander of the First United States Army, to accelerate his plans for a breakout.[5] Shortly after Charnwood the US VII Corps attacked German positions in Saint-Lô,[111][112] which the 2nd SS Panzer Division had been ordered to "hold at all costs".[101][113] On 18 July, after eight days of fighting during which 95% of the town was destroyed and VII Corps had more than 5,000 casualties,[114] Saint-Lô fell to the Americans.[115]

The same day, Dempsey's Second Army launched Operation Goodwood with between 1,100–1,300 tanks in the largest armoured battle in British military history.[111] General Richard O'Connor's VIII Corps spearheaded the drive towards the Bourguébus Ridge with three armoured divisions, supported by Crocker's I Corps. After a preliminary attack by 1,056 heavy bombers,[116] elements of the 11th, Guards and 7th Armoured Division assaulted the positions of LXXXVI Corps north of Bourguébus[117] but despite early gains of around 12,000 yards (11 km), strong resistance prevented VIII Corps taking the ridge. Simultaneously, Lieutenant General Guy Simonds's newly activated II Canadian Corps launched an offensive on the Verrières Ridge, codenamed Operation Atlantic.[118] II Corps ran into fierce opposition; during the seven-day battle that followed the Canadians sustained 2,800 casualties. Verrières Ridge would remain in German hands until 8 August.[119][120]

Battle honours

The British and Commonwealth system of battle honours recognises the battle by the award to 55 units of the honour Caen, for participation in the capture of Caen between 4–18 July 1944. Awarded from 1956 to 1959, the recognition was accompanied by honours for taking part in Operation Charnwood. For participating in the capture of Caen between 8–9 July three units were awarded the honour Orne, nine the honour The Orne, and two the honour The Orne (Buron).[121]


Military historian Anthony Beevor calls Operation Charnwood a partial success, because although much of Caen was taken, the British and Canadians failed to secure enough ground to expand the Allied build-up; the bulk of the First Canadian Army was still waiting in the United Kingdom for transfer to Normandy.[10] Carlo D'Este states that unquestionably Charnwood did improve Second Army's position but with the high ground to the south of the city in German hands, Caen itself was useless. He writes that the capture of the city was too little too late, and a hollow victory.[14] Chester Wilmot supports this view to some extent, stating that in order for Montgomery to have maintained a credible threat to German-occupied Paris, Caen's southern suburbs with their factories and communications network would have been a more significant prize.[22] Historians John Buckley and Terry Copp note that by the time the city was captured, the Germans—weakened by the battles of late June and early July—had already established defensive positions on the high ground to the south of the Orne;[28][35] positions that blocked the way to the open terrain of the Falaise plain.[22] Copp, in a later work, notes how the British Second Army won an important operational victory during Charnwood;[13] a position expanded on by the Society for Army Historical Research who consider the attacks to have succeeded both tactically and operationally.[9] In Charnwood's aftermath, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed his concern that a breakout was now unlikely; it seemed as though the Germans would be able to keep the Allies penned up in Normandy. Montgomery did not subscribe to his chief's pessimism; in his opinion, the tenacity of the German defence was no barometer of its longevity.[122] Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was apparently of the same mind; he mentioned to Lieutenant-Colonel Caesar von Hofacker that the front-line in France could only be held for another three weeks. Hofacker was a member of the German resistance and linked with the Hitler assassination plot and according to historian Simon Trew, Rommel's comment led to the plot's timetable being decided.[29]

Two soldiers in a rubble-filled street bordered by badly-damaged buildings; one is clambering over the debris with a young child on his shoulder
A British soldier carries a little girl through the devastation of Caen, 10 July 1944.

The serious losses sustained in maintaining a static defence during June led to fractures in the German high command. On 1 July, Panzer Group West commander Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg had been replaced by Heinrich Eberbach, following disagreements with Hitler over how the campaign should be conducted.[123] The Commander in Chief of Oberbefehlshaber West (OB West), Gerd von Rundstedt, soon followed. That evening, in a telephone conversation with Oberkommando der Wehrmacht head Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, von Rundstedt advised "Make peace, you fools."[124] Taken to task over his endorsement of von Schweppenburg's recommendation for a withdrawal, he replied "If you doubt what we're doing, get up here and take over this shambles yourself".[125] The following morning, informed that perhaps his health was "no longer up to the task", von Rundstedt resigned and was succeeded as OB West by Günther von Kluge.[125] The costly battles in and around Caen and Saint-Lô convinced both Eberbach and von Kluge that their predecessors had been correct.[126] The Germans had suffered heavily, leading Hitler to order Army Group B to temporarily abandon all major counterattacks and go over to the defensive until more reinforcements could arrive to bolster the front.[29]

An intersection; an anti-tank gun is covering the crossroads in the foreground and in the street behind are some soldiers and two tanks
A 6-pounder anti-tank gun of the 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers along with two Sherman tanks near St-Pierre Church, 10 July 1944.[127]

Trew contends that the capture of northern Caen had a psychological impact on the French population, convincing them the Allies were there to stay and that the liberation of France could not be far off.[29] By Operation Charnwood's conclusion, Allied losses since 6 June had amounted to over 30,000 men, excluding those who had been evacuated due to sickness or those suffering from battle exhaustion.[128] Buckley believes Charnwood to have been a good idea but one that proved better in concept than in execution, influenced as it was by the mounting political pressure on 21st Army Group to produce results.[129] In contrast, Copp states that the broad-based assault plan across the entire front worked, preventing the Germans bringing to bear superior firepower on any one formation.[28] He suggests that Charnwood should have produced a rapid breakthrough but concedes that the battle was one of the most difficult of the campaign.[130] Buckley singles out poor cooperation between armoured and infantry units as one of the reasons for such high Allied losses; he is critical of the habit of tanks standing off from German positions and directing the infantry onto the objective like artillery, instead of moving forward to give close support. He further notes that from the German perspective, the Anglo-Canadian forces apparently lacked the desire or ability to press home their advantages, citing Kurt Meyer's opinion that during the battle the Allies allowed the opportunity of destroying his 12th SS Panzer Division to elude them. Buckley comments on the defensive power of the British and Canadian formations. The German practice of conducting immediate local counterattacks to retake lost ground cost them many of their best troops, losses they could ill-afford. He illustrates this with a typical action during which the Germans lost 13 tanks to British self-propelled anti-tank guns.[35]

Bombing of Caen

One aspect of Operation Charnwood that has particularly exercised commentators was the decision to bomb Caen. Max Hastings writes that the bombing came to be seen by many as "one of the most futile air attacks of the war",[70] a position supported by Beevor, who calls the attack a "disaster".[131] Historian Michael Reynolds describes the results of the bombing as "pathetic",[132] while D'Este states that not only did it do little to assist I Corps, but that it actively hindered the Allied push into the city. D’Este quotes Air Commodore E.J. Kingston-McCloughry and Solly Zuckerman who conducted a survey following Caen's capture and concluded that no targets of military value had been attacked nor were there any gun positions, tanks or German dead in the target zone. They interviewed men of the British 3rd Infantry Division, who were reportedly bewildered as to why the bombers had been employed.[133] 3rd Division's historian, Norman Scarfe, counters this, stating that in the wake of the air-raid the men "for the first time for weeks breathed freely. The full support of the Air Force gave them full hearts ... and the men were encouraged".[134] The campaign's Canadian official historian, Charles Stacey, takes a similar line, citing several Canadian formations who reported an increase in morale.[135] Wilmot claims that the bombing was essential for this reason; it raised Second Army's morale while reducing that of the German defenders.[22] A 21st Army Group intelligence report based on the interrogation of German prisoners goes so far as to claim the raid was "decisive"; it had reportedly destroyed the headquarters of the Luftwaffe infantry regiment based north of Caen and deprived the German troops north of the city of ammunition and rations the following morning.[135] Peter Gray grants that the bombing had an effect on the morale of both sides but contends that this was only temporary.[136] The campaign's official British historian, L.F. Ellis, along with Trew and Stephen Badsey, provides an alternative interpretation; they state that the raid was designed to hamper the city's lines of communication, cutting off German reinforcements from the battle and hindering any attempt to withdraw south of the Orne river.[90][91] Stacey notes that it was "obvious and desirable" for maximum advantage that the Allied ground forces should have advanced on the heels of the attack.[135] Gray's conclusion is that one "cannot satisfactorily answer the question 'why'" the city was bombed.[137]

A soldier holding the arm of an elderly lady in a debris-strewn street, with ruined buildings in the background
A British soldier helps an old lady amongst the scene of utter devastation in Caen after its liberation.

Analysis by Operational Research Section Number 2 (ORS2) concluded that the bombing of the first aiming point northwest of Caen was accurate, finding that the centre of the 90% zone (where 90% of the bombs fell) was 200-300 yards east of the aiming point, with some spillage to the south and west. Examination of the area after its capture indicated some destruction of German equipment, including the wreckage of 10 of the 40 trucks believed to be in the area at the time of the raid. The 48 hours that elapsed between the bombing and the Allied occupation of the area allowed the Germans time to recover from any shock and disorientation and to salvage some damaged equipment. Examination of the second aiming point, "Northern Caen", failed to reveal a 90% zone but it was noted that the obstructive effect of bombing a suburb was significant and had caused substantial delays to vehicles of both sides by cratering and blocking roads. ORS2 concluded that the success of Charnwood owed little to the bombing but made recommendations including changing to instantly fused bombs, dropping larger numbers of smaller anti-personnel bombs and rapidly following-up a bombardment with ground forces to take advantage of its main effect—the temporary suppression of the enemy's will to resist. The benefit of this advice would be seen in subsequent operations; Goodwood, Operation Bluecoat, Operation Cobra, Operation Totalize and Operation Tractable all showed a distinct improvement in the ability of 21st Army Group to exploit the effect of preparatory strategic bombing.[138]

A scenic cityscape showing destroyed and badly-damaged buildings
The aftermath of the bombing of Caen on 7 July 1944

The British initially announced that around 6,000 civilians had been killed during the air-raid and a Soviet war correspondent attached to the 21st Army Group, Lieutenant Colonel Kraminov, put the figure as high as 22,000—a claim that would later be used by French communists in post-war anti-British propaganda.[131] It transpired after investigation that only 300–400 civilians were killed during the operation.[38] Despite the hardships they suffered, Caen's citizens showed genuine relief and provided their liberators with a welcome that the troops found very moving; French accounts of the time claim that "All [of] Caen was in the streets to greet them". Although Ellis calls the French welcome "pathetic", no Allied unit recorded any complaints about the reception they were given.[21][4][139] Stacey reports that the populace were "particularly delighted to find their city freed in part by men from Canada".[139] Beevor makes the point that most of the population were numb from the events they had gone through; he quotes a British soldier who recalled that "most ... women were crying, grief-stricken and anguished".[10] As early as 12 June the French Resistance had sent messengers to the British, informing them that refugees were gathering in the areas around the Abbaye-aux-Hommes and the Hôpital du Bon Sauveur and begging for these locations not to be bombed. Assurances were duly given and these locations were almost untouched during the battle.[139] Gray notes that after the war the city regarded itself as being martyred; a perception that remains to this day and is reflected in the city's war memorial.[140]


  1. ^ Historians Michael Reynolds, Charles Stacey, Simon Trew and Chester Wilmot all note how the bridges across the Orne had been either damaged or destroyed impeding further progress[20][21][22][23] while Buckley and Ken Ford note that in addition German forces were dug-in on the opposite bank in position to block any such move south.[24][25] In light of this Montgomery called off any advance beyond the Orne as further attacks would be too costly for the gains made.[15][26]
  2. ^ The 12th SS Panzer Division's tank strength on 7 July was 24 Panthers and 37 Panzer IVs.[33]
  3. ^ Major Ellis, the British official campaign historian, states that about 80 tanks were either destroyed or put out of action during the operation.[4]
  4. ^ The 12th SS Panzer Division recorded the loss of 11 Panthers and 7 Panzer IVs.[34]
  5. ^ Buckley and Reynolds report that the 12th SS Panzer lost 10 Panthers and 22 Panzer IVs destroyed during the operation; Reynolds specifically stating these losses were for 8 July only.[35][37]
  6. ^ "The quick capture of that key city [Caen] and the neighbourhood of Carpiquet was the most ambitious, the most difficult and the most important task of Lieutenant-General J.T. Crocker's I Corps".[40] Wilmot states "The objectives given to Crocker's seaborne divisions were decidedly ambitious, since his troops were to land last, on the most exposed beaches, with the farthest to go, against what was potentially the greatest opposition."[41] However, Miles Dempsey always considered the possibility that the immediate seizure of Caen might fail.[42]
  7. ^ The 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen and 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, the II SS Panzer Corps, were ordered to Normandy from the Eastern Front within six days of the start of the invasion.[59]
  8. ^ Two battalions of the 31st Luftwaffe Rifles Regiment and the divisional fusilier battalion.[33]
  9. ^ The exact quantity of munitions dropped on Caen is subject to some degree of dispute. Keegan estimates the tonnage at 2,000 tons,[87] while Cawthorne puts the figure at 2,300 tons.[5] D'Este does not provide a figure for the tonnage of munitions dropped, yet does state that "Bomber Command dropped some 6,000 bombs in a narrow area of northern Caen".[88] Simon Trew states 2,562 tons.[89]
  10. ^ These elements were reported to have sustained 75% losses.[94]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Trew, p. 32
  2. ^ a b Stacey, p. 157
  3. ^ a b c Ellis, p. 310
  4. ^ a b c d e Ellis, p. 316
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Cawthorne, p. 120
  6. ^ a b D'Este, p. 305
  7. ^ Trew, p. 38
  8. ^ a b c Copp (2003), p. 102
  9. ^ a b Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 85, Issues 341-344, Page 200
  10. ^ a b c d Beevor, p. 273
  11. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 17
  12. ^ Copp, p. 105–106
  13. ^ a b Copp (2004), p. 94
  14. ^ a b D’Este, pp. 318–319
  15. ^ a b Hart, p. 63
  16. ^ How, p. 128
  17. ^ a b Meyer (v.II), p. 505
  18. ^ Reynolds, pp.154–155
  19. ^ a b Scarfe, p. 70
  20. ^ a b Stacey, p.162
  21. ^ a b c Trew, p. 44
  22. ^ a b c d e f g Wilmot, p. 351
  23. ^ Reynolds, p. 154
  24. ^ a b Buckley, p. 31
  25. ^ Ford, p. 88
  26. ^ Stacey, p. 165
  27. ^ Clark and Hart, p. 14
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i Copp (2003), p. 106
  29. ^ a b c d Trew, pp. 47–48
  30. ^ Trew, p. 40
  31. ^ a b c Trew, p. 39
  32. ^ Trew, p. 42
  33. ^ a b c d e f g h Trew, p. 35
  34. ^ a b c d Trew, p. 46
  35. ^ a b c d e Buckley (2004), p. 31
  36. ^ Reynolds (2001), p. 156
  37. ^ Reynolds (2001), p. 155
  38. ^ a b Stacey, p. 160
  39. ^ Williams, p. 24
  40. ^ Ellis, p. 171
  41. ^ Wilmot, p. 273
  42. ^ Buckley (2004), p. 23
  43. ^ Ellis, p. 78
  44. ^ Ellis, p. 81
  45. ^ Van Der Vat, p. 146
  46. ^ Cawthorne, p. 41
  47. ^ a b Van der Vat, p. 114
  48. ^ Ellis, p. 250
  49. ^ a b Van der Vat, p. 139
  50. ^ D'Este, p. 172
  51. ^ Taylor, p. 76
  52. ^ Clay, pp. 262–263
  53. ^ a b Clark, p. 21
  54. ^ Ellis, p. 275
  55. ^ Hastings, p. 138
  56. ^ Clark, pp. 32–33
  57. ^ Clark, pp. 31–32
  58. ^ Hart, p. 108
  59. ^ Reynolds (2002), p. 13
  60. ^ Wilmot, p. 334
  61. ^ a b Scarfe, pp. 68–69
  62. ^ a b Fortin, p. 30
  63. ^ a b Copp (2003), p. 113
  64. ^ a b Keegan, p. 187
  65. ^ Daglish, p. 36
  66. ^ D'Este, p. 251
  67. ^ Copp (2003), p. 99
  68. ^ a b c d Van der Vat, p. 150
  69. ^ a b D'Este, p. 298
  70. ^ a b c Hastings, p. 222
  71. ^ a b c d e f Keegan, p. 188
  72. ^ Cirillo, p. 99
  73. ^ a b Jackson, p. 61
  74. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 49
  75. ^ Trew, pp. 34, 36, 37
  76. ^ a b Ellis, p. 311
  77. ^ a b c Copp (2003), p. 101
  78. ^ Hastings, pp. 222–223
  79. ^ a b Meyer (v.I), p. 473
  80. ^ a b Reginald, p. 46
  81. ^ a b Reynolds (2001), p. 152
  82. ^ Swanston, p. 278
  83. ^ Ellis, pp. 310–311
  84. ^ Reynolds (2001), pp. 152–153
  85. ^ Meyer (v.I), pp. 472–473
  86. ^ Ellis, pp. 311–312
  87. ^ Keegan, p. 189
  88. ^ D'Este, p. 313
  89. ^ a b Trew, p. 36
  90. ^ a b Ellis, p. 313
  91. ^ a b c d Trew, p. 37
  92. ^ Van der Vat, p. 153
  93. ^ a b c d Copp (2003), p. 103
  94. ^ a b c d D'Este, p. 318
  95. ^ a b Ellis, pp. 314–315
  96. ^ a b Copp (2003), p. 104
  97. ^ Copp (2003), pp. 103–104, 296–297
  98. ^ a b Copp (2003), p. 105
  99. ^ Wood, p. 92
  100. ^ Wood, p. 93
  101. ^ a b Wood, p. 99
  102. ^ a b D'Este, p. 319
  103. ^ a b c d Hastings, p. 223
  104. ^ Hastings, p. 225
  105. ^ Hastings, p. 226
  106. ^ a b Hastings, p. 227
  107. ^ Forty, p. 29
  108. ^ Copp (2003), p. 86
  109. ^ Wood, p. vii
  110. ^ Cawthorne, p. 121
  111. ^ a b Van der Vat, p. 158
  112. ^ D'Este, pp. 339–341
  113. ^ Wood, p. 100
  114. ^ Hastings, p. 249
  115. ^ Van der Vat, p. 159
  116. ^ Trew, pp. 71–72
  117. ^ Reynolds (2001) pp. 170–171
  118. ^ D'Este, p. 357
  119. ^ Zuehlke, p. 168
  120. ^ Hastings, p. 296
  121. ^ Rodger, pp. 243–244
  122. ^ Wilmot, p. 352
  123. ^ Ellis, pp. 320– 322
  124. ^ Wilmot. p. 347
  125. ^ a b Hastings, p. 207
  126. ^ Copp (2003), p. 109
  127. ^ Trew, p. 41
  128. ^ Copp (2003), p. 110
  129. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 8
  130. ^ Copp (2003), p. 101–103
  131. ^ a b Beevor, p. 269
  132. ^ Reynolds (2001), p. 153
  133. ^ D’Este, p. 315
  134. ^ Scarfe, pp. 69–70
  135. ^ a b c Stacey, p. 158
  136. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 166
  137. ^ Buckley (2006), p. 167
  138. ^ Copp (2000), pp. 71–77
  139. ^ a b c Stacey, p. 163
  140. ^ Buckley (2006), pp. 158, 168


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External links

Coordinates: 49°10′59″N 0°22′10″W / 49.18306°N 0.36944°W / 49.18306; -0.36944 (Operation Charnwood)

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