Operation Epsom

June 26-30, 1944

Image : Cartes et plans de la bataille de Normandie
British advance to the west of Caen from 24 to 29 June 1944

Objectives of operation Epsom

The city of Caen is one of the major objectives of the British armies engaged in Normandy. Hard fights began on the evening of June 6 for the conquest of this city, which was to fall into the hands of the Allies on D-Day, in accordance with the plans originally foreseen. General Montgomery concentrated his efforts and decided to set up several operations in order to conquer Caen in the weeks following the beginning of the Normandy landing.

The tactical course devised by the British generals consists in breaking through the German front by skirting the city of Caen from the west while taking the bridges over the river Odon. No less than three British armies are engaged in the operation: the 1st corps, the 8th corps and the 30th corps.

It is the Germans of the 12th SS Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend who defend the sector, namely the 26th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment (on the Fontenay-le-Pesnel line and Saint-Manvieu) supported by the 12th SS Panzer-Regiment, the 101st SS Panzer -Abteilung and III. Flak-Korps. Since the beginning of Operation Overlord, they have valued excellent defensive positions, recognized all the access routes and prepared multiple catalogs of shots for their artillery. The division counted 58 Panzer IV and 44 Panther on 25 June 1944.

The terrain is composed of vast cereal plains favorable to armored combat because of the possibilities of long-distance observation. The herbs and cereal plants are high in this month of June and hinder the progression of the troop; They nevertheless make it possible to conceal themselves from the views of the adversary. The compartments of land are mostly flat and uncovered, dotted irregularly with hedges (less frequent than in the Cotentin) and wood. If the relief is not important, very low hills dot all the same the area like hills 112 and 113. Several villages and hamlets are in the area as well as isolated farms and bridges on the river Odon whose banks Do not allow vehicles to cross by freeing themselves from the structures of art: these allow access to the southern plains of Caen. In short, it is a maneuvering space favorable to defense, especially for artillery observers and snipers.

Initially scheduled for 19 June 1944, Operation Epsom was postponed due to the storm which, from 18 to 20 June, delayed landings in supplies, men and equipment. Allied artificial harbors are no longer able to function in the aftermath of severe meteorological conditions: the port of Arromanches can be repaired, but the port of Saint-Laurent is completely destroyed by the swell. Nevertheless, on June 24, Montgomery estimates that his forces (nearly 60,000 soldiers) are enough to launch Epsom.

Images : Les Ecossais du 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers progressent dans la brume normande The Scotsmen of the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers advance in the Norman mist. Photo: IWM

Beginning of the operation Epsom

On June 24, the Canadian sappers began the discrete opening of breaches to allow the Allies to emerge at the time of the offensive. On June 25, the Anglo-Canadian troops (representing a total of 60,000 men and 600 tanks) set up on their starting base.

On June 26, 1944, the troops attacked the ground, preceded by an artillery rolling fire starting at 7:30 am and progressing 90 meters every three minutes. Infantry and armor follow at a distance, but allied planes can not take off, due to disastrous weather conditions: there is no third-dimensional support on this morning attack.

The 49th British infantry division West Riding is attacking in the direction of Fontenay-le-Pesnel, but in the vicinity, the Panzer Lehr does not give up, like the village of Rauray, southwest of Tilly, Which is firmly defended by the 1st SS Armored Corps and where hard fighting commits itself for the control of this locality. The losses are significant and Anglo-Canadians are also delayed by German snipers and minefields.

Images : 26 juin, durant l'opération Epsom, les Ecossais du 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers sont en action June 26, during Operation Epsom, the Scots of the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers are in action. Photo: IWM

The adversaries of the British, the Hitler Youth fanatics, fought to the death and multiplied the counter-attacks that disorganized the British troops. The losses are high on both sides of the front. On this first day of intense fighting, the hamlets of Haut du Bosq, La Gaule, and Colleville were liberated and the Canadians moved closer to Saint-Manvieu. However, if most of the intended objectives are achieved at nightfall, Rauray and its heights still remain in the hands of the Germans: the salient that Canadians (also called the “Scots Corridor”) pierced to the west of Caen is threatened on both sides.

The locality of Cheux, directly southwest of Saint-Manvieu-Norrey, is liberated by the 2nd Glasgow Highlander belonging to the 15th Scottish infantry division, while the first bridge over the Odon is taken by Allied forces.

General Rommel, who understands the strategic importance of the village of Cheux, located at a crossroads of several other villages, ordered various SS troops to leave the area of ​​Saint-Lô to rescue the soldiers of the Hitlerjugend, attacked by Scottish infantry. But the allied aerial superiority is such that no movement of the German forces is possible during the day, under penalty of being mercilessly bombarded. Nevertheless, a dozen Tiger tanks manage to reach the front line under cover of the night.

On June 27, the Scottish 15th Infantry Division, backed by Churchill tanks of the 31st British Armored Brigade, also went on the attack. The locality of Saint-Manvieu-Norrey, located near Carpiquet and its precious airport, is released by the 44th Lowland Brigade Scottish after furious fighting which sometimes end in melee.

Fights for Hill 112

The British 8th Corps must at all costs take over Hill 112, a height that dominates a large part of the Odon region. But this strategic position is firmly defended by the Germans who refuse to give up this key point. The first British assaults resulted in failures and the allied ships intervened to support the troops of the 8th corps by bombarding Hill 112. The Scots resumed their march under enemy fire and tried to break through the German defenses. Tiger tanks, defensive in the area, slow down considerably and sometimes forbid Anglo-Canadian progression.

The localities of Mondrainville and Tourville are reached as well as the bridge over the Odon in Tourmauville from which advanced elements of the 15th Scottish infantry division establish a bridgehead on the right bank. At nightfall, the Cameronians, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Villiers, were severely hanged at the entrance to the village of Grainville, and fell in favor of the night.

Meanwhile, the reinforcements are routed along the famous “Scots Corridor”, which is 2.3 kilometers on average. On the evening of June 27, the Scots broke through the German front about 10 kilometers deep, an impressive performance that did not meet Montgomery’s expectations. In his headquarters in Blay, he is concerned about the catastrophic reports of British casualties since the start of Operation Epsom. On the night of 27-28 June the Germans were reinforced 2,500 men belonging to the 2nd Panzer Division and commanded by Weidinger and directly under the command of the Panzer Lehr.

Images : Le 28 juin, un tireur isolé de la "Hitlerjugend" est emmené par des soldats de la 49e D.I. britannique On June 28, a sniper of the “Hitlerjugend” is taken by soldiers of the British 49th D.I. Photo: IWM

On 28 June, Generals Rommel and von Rundstedt were in Germany, having been summoned by Hitler to discuss the present situation in Normandy. Their replacement, General Dollman, sees the tightness around Hill 112. He throws his last forces into the attack. Indeed, the 11th Armored Division headed for Hill 112 by clearing the major intersections along the Orne River while the 49th Infantry Division seized the Tessel Wood.

The 2nd Battalion of the Argylls and Sutherlands Highlanders of the 15th Scottish Infantry Division frees the village of Gavrus on the right bank of the Odon river and seize its two bridges, while the 23rd Hussars liberates the town of Baron-sur -Odon, directly northwest of Gavrus, which is on the road to Hill 112, which is reached by the 8th Rifle Brigade and the tanks of the 3rd RTR in the early afternoon.

The 44th RTR and the 2nd KRCC continue its progress to the village of Evrecy but it has to retreat, following the counterattack of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Division which concentrates on the western British flank.

Meanwhile, allied intelligence services using Ultra’s decoding keys alert the units on the front that a large German counter-attack will take place the next day from the Noyers-Bocage region. Indeed, the forces disembarked benefit from the “Ultra” machine which allows to decode the enemy messages and moreover, the British have since 1940 the codes of the machine to code the German secret messages concerning the traffics, denominated “Enigma”.

German reinforcements counterattack

On 29th June the Scots of the 15th Infantry Division secured the area around Gavrus, but from noon the Panzer Lehr opposed a very strong resistance and attacked the 2nd Argyll battalion in this village. Hard fights are committed to heavy weapons, and the Scots owe their salvation to the systematic intervention of the Allied air forces which take advantage of the weather and their total superiority in the air. British artillery also played a vital role throughout the offensive. The German tanks are destroyed by the American and British planes, which constantly harass the opposing movements.

The 11th British Armored Division, which has been retreating since the previous evening, leaves the strategic position of the 112. General Dempsey fears a massive counter-attack of the Hitlerjugend forces and prefers to replicate the tanks of the 11th Armored Division on the left bank Of the Odon. Only the men of the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry defend the position. The Germans take advantage of the opportunity to take the 112 point again, and hard fights are committed again, sometimes even in melee.

The corpses of the belligerents strew the banks of the Odon and the battlefields of the vicinity of the coast 112. The spectacle is atrocious, the losses are terrifying. Several thousand British soldiers (more than 4,000 on the evening of 29 June) have been put out of action since the start of Operation Epsom, which began on 26 June. General Montgomery is concerned about the turn of this operation and thinks then about a possible stop of Epsom in the days that follow. The chaos is indescribable and supplies of food and ammunition for Anglo-Canadians struggle to get to the front line.

The 21st Panzerdivision attacked the east flank of their opponents and many soldiers of the 159th British brigade were surrounded in the vicinity of the village of Mouen, north of Baron-sur-Odon and on the right bank of the river Odon.

The end of the Epsom operation

But the counterattack organized by General Dollman (who died on the night of 28-29 June 1944) and aimed at recovering Hill 112 turns into a massacre for the German soldiers who have to retreat, following the heavy defeat imposed by the Men of the 11th British Armored Division, who immediately withdraw to the left bank of the Odon.

If the German counter-attacks break against the Anglo-Canadian defenses, it is no longer a question of the Allied troops piercing the front. The German reinforcements of the Hohenstaufen and Fründsberg divisions have greatly slowed the progress of the forces landed and the losses are extraordinarily high.

General Montgomery orders the shutdown of Operation Epsom. The British forces encamped their positions and made no further progress. They must repel the German counter-attacks, especially in the vicinity of the village of Baron-sur-Odon. Allied aviation neutralized the German columns still in motion and British artillery prohibited access by shoot-outs in front of Scottish and English defensive positions.

Results of operation Epsom

The forces engaged showed a tenacity in any test in often violent and always fierce combats. The Scots of the 15th Division, who saw their fire baptism at Epsom, bravely faced the veterans of the fanatized S.S. troops.

The southern plains of Caen are still not reached and the German reinforcements crystallize around the capital of Calvados which is not ready to fall. This is a setback for General Montgomery who has just lost time and many men and equipment.

Indeed, the march diary of the British 8th Corps indicates that the three divisions involved had more than 4,000 men killed, wounded, disappeared or taken prisoner between 26 June and 30 June 1944. The German losses were also large, The Epsom operation remains a strategic failure because if Canadian and British troops have increased by 10 kilometers in five days and control an additional territory of 15 square kilometers, the front is still not truly pierced and the situation remains extremely fragile : The positions are taken, then abandoned and again taken such as hills 112 and 113 which, on the evening of June 30, are again in the hands of the Germans.

Operation Epsom transforms the fighting around the city of Caen into a war of positions during which the Allies seek to develop the right operation to pierce the front once and for all.