24-27 July 1944
Objectives of operation Spring
After operation Goodwood (July 18, 1944), the Commonwealth forces controlled the entire city of Caen and the suburbs to the south of the locality. Nevertheless, despite severe bombing, the Germans managed to re-establish a compact line of defense along the Verrières ridge and contain any breakthrough. The Canadians, who have suffered very heavy losses, must reorganize before they can resume the offensive and set themselves up in defense to the south and the south-east. At the same time, the Americans want to take advantage of the concentration of German forces in the region of Caen to pierce the front to the south of Cotentin towards Brittany. Indeed, most of the reinforcements and heavy armored vehicles in Germany are sucked into the region of the Norman capital, gradually releasing the pressure on the American lines.
General Omar Bradley has developed the cobra operation, which must shake the front in the American sector. The offensive was scheduled for July 25, 1944. In conjunction with General Montgomery and General Dempsey, Bradley hoped that Commonwealth forces would launch a new offensive in the direction of Verrières and then east in order to fix the German elements to the south of Caen, thus preventing them from countering operation Cobra.
The Anglo-Canadians gathered together, being reinforced on 24 July 1944 by the 1st Canadian Army commanded by General Crerar. These movements of troops and vehicles are spotted by German observers who inform their superiors. Since the end of operation Goodwood, the Germans have valued their defensive positions and on July 24 in the evening, nearly 480 tanks and 500 pieces of artillery are in place along the ridges of Verrieres. Four additional infantry battalions arrived to reinforce the German lines.
The plan of pperation Spring is subject to a very precise procedure which must be imperatively respected in order to guarantee the success of the offensive. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Petch, must first take possession of the village of Tilly-la-Campagne. The Calgary Highlanders regiment must then seize May-sur-Orne and cover the flanks of the offensive in the region of the crests of Verrières. The Black Watch, which represents the main effort of Canadians, has to move from Hill 61 to Saint-Martin before storming the Verrières Ridge, supported by tanks and artillery. Finally, the support must make a move following the breakthrough created by the Black Watch south of the bank of Bourguébus and position itself to support the continuation of the offensive.
Conduct of operation Spring
On July 24, 1944, at eighteen o’clock, the Allied artillery began its impressive check on the German positions.
On the night of July 24-25, Canadians are preparing to launch the offensive. After settling on the line to unclog, they launch the assault at 03:30, while an ingenious lighting device allows them to spot the German positions. But being themselves enlightened, the men of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders do not fully benefit from the process. After furious fighting, they free Tilly-the-Campaign at 04:30 and drive out the last occupants. However, the May-sur-Orne region is made up of several iron mines that are used by the Germans to infiltrate the back of the Canadian lines: a great confusion takes place in the allied ranks. The village of Verrières is reached at 05:30 by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel John Rockingham), which also faces a strong German resistance. Once these objectives are secured, Canadians will consolidate their positions and the second phase of operation Spring will begin.
The Calgary Highlanders regiment will also start. The Canadians, after suffering very heavy losses, managed to free Saint-Martin and reached the first houses of May-sur-Orne where furious fighting continued. The situation is critical. For its part, the Black Watch Regiment carries out its move from Hill 61 in the direction of Saint-Martin but it receives no heavy support. They are taken to task during the whole phase of movement and as they approach Verrières ridge, they fall into the trap set by the Germans: compartmentalized by adverse defenses, they are fixed and progressively destroyed by Cross-fire from the plant south of Saint-Martin, the Verrières ridge and defensive positions along the south bank of the Orne. At the end of the assault, Black Watch lost almost all of its vanguard. The men of the Maisonneuve regiment set out to attack the crest but failed in their turn.
The next day, July 26, 1944, the Germans took advantage of the situation to resume the initiative. The tanks of the 9th and 12th S.S. Panzer divisions attack in the direction of Verrières then Saint-Martin. The Calgary Highlanders left May-sur-Orne, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders Regiment abandoned Tilly-la-Campagne while the Black Watch retired from Saint-Martin. Pinned down, Canadians are no longer able to resume the progression and can only hold their positions and settle in firm defense. The Germans are convinced that the front can crumble at any moment and that they are able to infiltrate Caen: they multiply the attacks without counting their losses.
The men of General Simonds hold fast: their anti-tank parts destroy many of the German armored vehicles and no counter-attack on the front has ever been able to break through. Faced with the return of Canadians near their lines and after the catastrophic reports of losses, operation Spring was permanently suspended on July 27, 1944.
Results of operation Spring
On July 25, Canadian forces lost 1,500 soldiers: Canada had not experienced such a massacre since the landing in Dieppe on August 19, 1942. A total of 450 Anglo-Canadian forces were killed and nearly 1,100 wounded in only forty-eight hours. German losses are not known.
From a human and tactical point of view, operation Spring is a catastrophe, because the losses are particularly high for a gain of ground almost zero. These reports are not unlike those of the First World War. The German resistance was effective and the opponents of the Canadians even took the initiative after July 25, which represents a real victory for them. But from a strategic point of view, the Germans have facilitated the work of the Americans in the west, exactly as Omar Bradley wished: operation Cobra is a real success and the American forces are not threatened by the German armored divisions Focused on the Anglo-Canadian units south of Caen.
Once again in Canadian military history, Canadian soldiers sacrificed themselves for the success of the Allied armies, bearing the brunt of the efforts of the German forces engaged in Normandy. Their sacrifice is not in vain because the day after the cessation of operation Spring, the 84th German Corps is totally jostled to the west and the Americans are able to break through to Avranches, the gateway to Brittany.