7 – 14 June 1944
The objectives of Operation Perch
The city of Caen is one of the major objectives of the British armies engaged in Normandy on D-Day. 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 days following the beginning of the landing of Normandy.
Indeed, the city of Caen is a bolt that opens the door to clear areas, favorable to rapid offensives against the German troops. As long as Caen does not fall, Anglo-Canadians are likely to remain stuck on their D-Day positions.
The main objective of Operation Perch is to encircle the city of Caen and then seize it. The 1st corps is planned to advance east of the city while the 30th corps must recognize the villages and points particular to the west: this large encircling maneuver (in particular west of Caen) must push the Germans to spread out and disperse their units. For the 30th Corps, the 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division was given the task of seizing Bayeux and the Tilly-sur-Seulles road, while the 7th Armored Division, supported by the 8th Armored Brigade, had to reach Mount Pincon. As for the 1st corps, the 3rd Canadian infantry division must advance along the Orne River to reach the southeast of Caen.
Beginning of Operation Perch
Immediately after D-Day, divisions freshly landed take into account Montgomery’s objectives, while completing those that could not be accomplished the day before. They must also face the German counter-attacks, notably north of Bayeux. The Germans launched their first counter-offensive towards Port-en-Bessin, north of Bayeux, where US and British troops tried to unite their bridgeheads. The 716th German Infantry Division and the 21st Panzer Division are designated to counter-attack.
Allied fighter aircraft flying over Normandy saw German armored movements and destroyed a large number of tanks and vehicles. They abandon the counter-attack and decide to move at night. The paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division, located to the east of the landing beaches in the vicinity of the village of Ranville, clung to it and defended their positions with the newly disembarked anti-tank guns. Reinforced by the British 3rd Division, they rejected the advanced elements of the 21st Panzer Division, which retreated to the defensive line of Caen.
Meanwhile, hundreds of American and British gliders landed in Normandy, often behind the lines of German forces, forcing the latter to retreat.
The first corps is stopped in its impetus on the outskirts of Caen by the 21st Panzer Division, which forbids any crossing of its device and sets the Canadians of the 3rd division.
On June 8, 1944, the 346th German infantry division counterattacked in the vicinity of Breville. The fighting was extremely violent and resembled those of the First World War, with opponents burying themselves in trenches. The Germans decided to set up a large counter-offensive which was to begin on 10 June, but Marshal Rommel canceled the operation because he was not able to collect a sufficient number of troops and tanks. He nevertheless decides to set himself up in defensive position and not to step back in front of the allied roller. On the night of 8-9 June 1944, the first elements of the Panzerlehr positioned themselves against the 30th British Corps in the area of Tilly-sur-Seulles, which is reached on June 10, 1944 by the 50th Northumbrian. On June 11, the British secured the village when they underwent a fierce attack by the Panzerlehr, forcing them to withdraw and abandon Tilly-sur-Seulles. A furious duel begins for the control of this village.
The soldiers of the 51st Highlanders are placed alongside the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division to defend their positions near the village of Breville. The British attack again from Tilly-sur-Seulles towards Villers-Bocage. Their progress is virtually halted by the first German Tiger tanks arriving in Normandy and belonging to the S.S. Panzerbataillon 101. The German counter-attacks are however ineffective, due to Allied air superiority.
The Canadians of the 6th Armored Regiment must also stop their progress against the German tanks southwest of the village of Mesnil-Patry. The front seems to stabilize and no longer to evolve in this sector.
Northwest of Caen, the 6th battalion of the Green Howards seized the village of Ducy-Sainte-Marguerite. To the south of this locality, three other villages are still in the hands of the German forces of the Panzer Lehr: Chouain in the south-west, Brouay and Audrieu in the south-east. The 7th battalion of the Green Howards attempts to break through to the south-west but is unable to cross the line of defense set up by the Panzer Lehr men (who regrouped the previous day). They inflicted very heavy losses on the British, who were obliged to withdraw to the outskirts of the coast.
To the north-east as to the west of Caen, the front seems stabilized and the Germans bury themselves, disappearing in the eyes of the formidable Allied air patrols. The tanks are placed in embossments and only the turret is in shooting range. On June 12, 1944, the Americans made a breakthrough in the direction of Caumont following the collapse of the 352nd German infantry division, which retreated on the night of June 9 to 10 in the direction of Saint-Lô. This opening in the front allows Montgomery to imagine a new movement of bypass, this time towards Villers-Bocage. But the Germans anticipated this plan and placed the Tiger tanks commanded by Michael Wittmann on Hill 213, near this village.
General Dempsey disengaged the 7th Armored Division commanded by General George Erskine, in position opposite Tilly-sur-Seulles, to give him orders to move towards Villers-Bocage. To avoid any disengagement of the Panzerlehr from Tilly, the 50th Infantry Division pits its positions in order to fix its opponents. On June 12, 1944, the 7th Armored Division arrived at Livry around 8 pm and stationed for the night in the area defended by the Panzerlehr. On June 13, British advanced elements (including the 4th County of London Yeomanry) reached Villers-Bocage and took a position on Hill 213, a high point to the east.
The “Desert Rats” (7th British Armored Division) were then attacked by the heavy tanks commanded by Wittmann. The British losses are particularly important: in less than fifteen minutes, fourteen tanks (thirteen according to other reports), two anti-tank parts and fifteen transport vehicles are destroyed by the Germans. Armed with this victory, the latter continue their counterattack that falls in several ambushes stretched by the British in the ruins of Villers-Bocage and Tiger tanks are destroyed. But the Desert Rats are obliged to retreat early in the evening, continually harassed by the enemy’s artillery, up to Hill 174 near Amayé-sur-Seulles, west of Villers-Bocage.
The Germans, strengthened by this victory, counter-attack in the direction of Tilly-sur-Seulles and Lingèvres. But the British of the 49th and 50th infantry divisions resisted relentlessly and German tanks of the Panzer Lehr division were scattered. The counterattack is transformed into an organized retreat. But Caen is not under control and it seems that many days of intense fighting are necessary for its conquest.
End of Operation Perch and Battle of the Island
On 14 June, General Montgomery put an end to the encircling operations in Caen and stopped the offensive of the 1st corps to the northeast of the city. This decision marks the abandonment of Operation Perch’s strategy. During the day, the British of the 30th Corps set up in defense all over the Amayé-sur-Seulles region and fight furiously against German counter-attacks in what is today called the battle of The island.
Although they settled on defensive lines, the British sought to move away from the northward axis: elements of the 50th Northumbrian, supported by artillery and aviation, attacked the villages of La Belle Epine, La Senaudière, Lingèvres and Verrières, but the Panzerlehr stopped the penetration of its lines by inflicting heavy losses on the British. The Germans arrive at the beginning of the evening to pierce the lines of the 30th corps before being repulsed by the Allied artillery towards 22:30. The 50th Infantry Division is ordered to withdraw from the front line and is withdrawn from combat shortly after midnight as part of Operation Aniseed. The next day, the Panzerlehr managed to re-establish contact with the 50th Northumbrian and the fighting continued.
Conclusions of Operation Perch
Two villages are at the heart of the fighting and take strategic importance in the eyes of both camps following Operation Perch: Tilly-sur-Seulles and Villers-Bocage. They became key points in June 1944 for both the British and the Germans, and the fighting was particularly fierce: Tilly changed hands no less than 23 times before finally being released.
In the aftermath of Operation Perch, which is a strategic defeat insofar as the posted targets are not met, the 7th Armored Division is put to rest and replaced by the 33rd Armored Brigade. At the end of June 1944, the Desert Rats lost nearly 1149 men and 38 tanks while the 50th Northumbrian claimed the loss of 4476 soldiers.
The figures for the Germans are more difficult to find for the Perch-related losses, but at the end of June the Panzerlehr lost 2972 men, 51 tanks, 82 half-tracks and 294 other vehicles. On June 16, the 12th SS Panzer Division recorded the loss of 1417 soldiers and on June 26th the tank of 41 tanks.
The operation of Operation Perch, a very costly offensive in human life, symbolizes the difficulty of the British to break through the front in the region of Caen and the German resistance which holds despite the destructive allied aviation. In June 1944, the British adapt themselves to the opportunities presented to them, hoping to launch the offensive that will make a difference, as the decision to circumvent Tilly-sur-Seulles following the American breakthrough to Caumont.
But their leading units (51st Highland for the 1st corps and 50th Northumbrian for the 30th corps) opposed the most fanatical armored divisions of the German army on the ground on those dates and left them no chance. If the numbers are in favor of the Allies, the characteristics of their tanks are not.
However, Operation Perch had the effect of fixing three German armored divisions in the area of Caen. These units were not deployed against the Americans who were able to make relatively rapid progress towards Cherbourg. It is a fundamental element that is a strategic victory for the Allies, who open the gate of the deep-water port of Cherbourg and that of Brittany after Operation Cobra of July 30, 1944.