The Battle of Caen, 1944
The Stalingrad of the Hitler Youth.
Location: France, Normandy
Canadians Capture Caen
Above: Soldiers from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division capture Caen.
By the evening of June 6th, the tanks of the 21st Panzer Division, reinforced later that night by those of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend, had formed a barrier of fire and steel in front of Caen, which stopped the Allies in their tracks and banished all hopes of early deliverance for the thousands of civilians who had not fled the city after the initial bombings. The German commander brought his best divisions into play, notably most of his armoured units. The British and Canadians were pinned down in the cornfields around the city. Caen was to become the linchpin of the Battle of Normandy.
Late on D-Day plus 1, in the area on the left of the Canadian assault, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, supported by the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, tried to break through to the Abbaye d’Ardenne, a distance of some five miles. The North Novas had leapfrogged through the Queens Own Rifles and the Chaudières. They had no inkling of what lay in store. It was to be the first encounter with the Hitler Jugend Regiment, the 12th SS.
The final Anglo-Canadian attack was scheduled to begin late in the evening of July 7 with a mammoth air bombardment designed to crush the German defences. The spectacular sight of hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of tons of explosives on the enemy raised the spirits of Canadian assault troops. As they moved to their startline the next morning, many felt that their task was already half done.
They were wrong. The Germans had been shaken by the weight of the onslaught but hardly erased as an effective fighting force. Most of them were well dug-in on the outskirts of Caen in areas which had not been targeted. Tragically, innocent French civilians made up the majority of the dead and wounded. In fact, the bombardment backfired since the tangled ruins it produced only enhanced the enemy’s defensive capabilities.
Canadian Engineers Clearing Roads Through Caen
Above: 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.
In an agonizing process the Canadians found all of this out for themselves. In revisiting the sites of recent disasters, they ran headlong into their old nemesis, the 12th SS. Thrown into action for the first time, The Highland Light Infantry of Canada received a cruel initiation at Buron. The fighting raged all day and one observer noted that "night fell on a quiet, smoking village which had witnessed one of the fiercest battles ever fought in the history of war." The regiment had lost more than 250 men and its commanding officer. But The North Nova Scotia Highlanders managed to take Authie, and the 9th Brigade captured an SS headquarters after a harsh struggle that continued well after dark, the flames and explosions illuminating the night sky.
The following day, July 9, the Canadians carefully cleared Caen of its snipers, mines, and booby traps. Among the mounds of debris, that too would be a baneful affair. Altogether, more Canadians were killed and wounded liberating the city than on D-Day itself. It had taken a month longer than planned but, thanks in large part to the persistent efforts of the 3rd Canadian Division, Caen was at last in Allied hands. Most of the Germans, however, had escaped to safety over the Orne River. The Canadians had not yet seen the last of them.
The Reginas had captured the Abbaye Ardenne, thus silencing a hornets nest and depriving the Germans of their excellent view over the brigade area.
With the entrenched Germans being overrun, the 3rd Div and the 2nd Armoured Brigade converged on the city of Caen.
The fighting front was confused. Many Germans gave up, but some held on to the bitter end. The bombing to this area, to the Canadian Front and the perimeter of Caen, had put the German defenders in disarray. Caen, cornerstone of the German defence, was captured by Canadians by July 10th. Some 33 days earlier, this band of untried citizen soldiers, most of whom had enlisted in 1940, had first gained a toehold in Normandy and in the week following D-Day, they had fought off wicked counter-attacks by Hitler’s so-called “supermen” and in driving the German tanks and Grenadiers from Caen, they had earned the battle honours, which today adorn their cap badges.
By July 11th, more than a month after D-Day, Caen was in our hands.
Canadians in Caen
Canadian infantry walking through rubble - 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
Personnel of the Regina Rifles in ruined storefront, Caen, France, 10 July 1944.
Former battalion headquarters of the Regina Rifles after it had been raked by German shell, Bretteville, June 23rd, 1944.
A tank rolls through the streets of Caen.
Infantry of the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders crossing Bailey bridge erected by Royal Canadian Engineers over the Orne River 18 July 1944 / Caen, France (vicinity)
Private J. Thomas, Caen, France, 10 July 1944.
Tpr. J.L. Gaudet and Tpr. G.A. Scott of the South Alberta Regiment, pause in front of sign pointing on to Falaise and putting Caen in background.
Unexploded German 15.5 mm. shell is examined by Canadian Sappers. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
3rd Canadian Infantry Division H/Capt. Padre John M. Anderson chatting with Pte. Lawrence Herbert in his trench. 15 July 1944, Caen (vicinity), France.
Band of the 2nd Canadian Corps playing at an outdoor Mass celebrating Bastille Dat at the Church of St. Ouen de Rots. 13 July 1944, Rots, France.
Signalman A. McNeil entering Caen in a captured German half-track. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
Lt.-Col. C. Petch (Montreal, Quebec) brings his North Nova Scotia Highlanders across the Odon River on the ’London’ bailey bridge. 18 July 1944, Odon River.
Canadian tank moving into battle. 11 July 1944, Caen, France.
Private R. Pankaski waiting for barrage made by the 5.5 Artillery to clear before moving forward. 25 July 1944, Caen, France.
Infantry men with a Bren gun looking out for snipers on a street corner, Caen. 10 July 1944 / Caen, France.
Troops of the 8th Infantry Brigade moving into attack on factory area of Caen. 18 July 1944 , Ranville, France.
Troops of the 8th Infantry Brigade moving to a new position as supposting tanks pass them. 18 July 1944, Ranville, France.
Canadian personnel celebrating the liberation of Caen. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
Canadian troops of the 3rd Infantry Division entering Caen, Normandy, after heavy bombing by Allied aircrafts and artillery, 10 July 1944.
Chaplains working with R.A.P. evacuate wounded 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, Caen, France, 15 July 1944.
Soldiers aided by Despatch Riders fire Schmiezer into battered house. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
The Highland Light Infantry of Canada take a quick rest on the bank of the Orne River. 18 July 1944, Caen, France (vicinity).
Personnel of Le Régiment de la Chaudière preparing to launch dawn attack across the Orne River, France, 18 July 1944.
Pte. W.J. Lutz, Pte. J.D. Hines (with guitar), and Pte. R. Lecoeyer relax beside dugout during battle. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
A Royal Canadian Engineer (R.C.E.) Sapper armed with a Stem Gun, searching buildings for enemy snipers. July 9, 1944, Gruchy, France.
Winnipeg Rifles on the move through the fields. 25 July 1944, Caen, France.
Rifleman R.R. Schwabe mans a loophole in French barracks used by the Germans and captured by the Regina Rifle Regiment. July 23, 1944, Vaucelles, France.
Chaplains work closely with members of R.A.P. and aid in evacuation of wounded, 3 Canadian Infantry Division. 15 July 1944, Caen area, France,
Personnel of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade taking part in advance around Caen. Ranville France, 18 July 1944.
Captain Robert L. Seaborn, chaplain of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Scottish Regiment, saying a prayer over a soldier of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. 15 July 1944.
The North Nova Scotia Highlanders near the crossing of the Orne River, Normandy, 18 July 1944.
Members of the Regimental Aid Party of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa treating a wounded soldier near Caen, France.
Highland Light Infantry taking a rest on the bank of the Orne on the road to Caen. 18 July 1944, Caen, France.
Personnel of the Regina Rifles inside a damaged building. (L-R): Riflemen Nick Lingor, Bert Colwell, Steven Pelepink, Jimmie Herriott. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
Caporal J.R. Pelletier in Bren carrier handling out cigarettes to civilians. 10 July 1944, Caen, France.
Pte. H.B. Hillis using truck mirror for shaving in bomb shuttered garage. He died 2 weeks later and is buried in Beny-Sur-Mer, Normandy.
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