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Dueling Narratives at Carpiquet: The Canadian View

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: May 11, 2010 
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Last week we had Kurt "Panzer" Meyer launching his famous D+1 counterattack against the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division.  Catching the Canadian vanguard (Lt Col Charles Petch) unawares as it drove on Carpiquet airfield, Meyer smashed into the flank of the North Nova Scotia Highlander battalion (the "North Novas") and drove the Canadians back in some confusion to the north.

Or so we've always thought.   

The narrative has always made so much sense.  On the one side you had highly experienced, tough German commanders, better tanks, and higher unit cohesion; on the one side, you had green Allied troops, still getting their legs underneath them after their great landing the day before, inferior tanks, and a group of commanders who had done a lot of things on paper, but not much in reality.  For many Canadians, in particular, the failed drive on Carpiquet continues to stimulate a debate over the true quality of the army they sent overseas in World War II.  

As much as that tale seemed to resonate, there was always another narrative about what actually happened on the ground that day.  The North Novas themselves knew they'd had a bloody day, certainly, but a defeat?  Like any troops in the field, they had a mission:  take Carpiquet if they had a clear shot at it, ie, if there was "no serious opposition."  If the Germans were defending in force, the Novas were supposed to hunker down on the high ground between Buron and Authie, consolidate, and let the rest of the Brigade come up for a more deliberate attack.  They met opposition alright, plenty of it.  An ambush?  Not really.  More like a meeting engagement.  The Novas found that their Sherman tanks were no match for German antitank fire, especially of the 88mm variety–a lot of Allied crews were going to learn that lesson  in the ensuing weeks.  But they gave as good as they got.  From the start, accurate Canadian artillery fire played havoc with Meyer's assault columns.  His young grenadiers spent the day launching one senseless charge after another across 1200 yards of open plain against the entrenched Canadian defenders of Authie.  The finale, which saw Meyer trying to take that very ridge north of Buron specified in the Canadian orders, saw the Germans stopped cold, with heavy losses.  Both sides were exhausted, and it is safe to say that no one was unhappy to see nightfall.

And so it goes.  For historians, the war hasn't stopped.  It's still going.  The Germans vs. the Allies.  The 25th SS Panzergrenadiers vs. the North Novas.  Meyer vs. Petch. 

It's humbling.  Even today, we're still trying to figure out what "really happened" in World War II.

(For more, see Marc Milner's fine article, "Stopping the Panzers:  Reassessing the Role of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division in Normandy, 7-10 June 1944," in the Journal of Military History 74, no. 2, April 2010).

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17 Responses to “Dueling Narratives at Carpiquet: The Canadian View”


  1. 1
    Bill Nance says:

    I honestly think many, some might say most, small unit actions are like that described in that a "winner" was hard to define, and that that task would be taken care of later by historians.

    I've had a number of personal encounters where the sniper was neutralized, the IED disposed of, damage done to my vehicles. Who won? In my opinion, in many cases, it doesn't really matter. Winners and losers (besides the living and the dead) are often only awarded later, sometimes much later.

    Metaphysics aside, as you state, depending upon objectives assigned, both sides can 'win' a battle. Now what matters is who accomplished their objectives in the most efficient manner possible, thereby setting up more success later. Also, whose objectives will further along their side's macro objectives.

  2. 2
    Luke Truxal says:

    I have noticed that sometimes historians feel the need to assign victory or defeat like you have pointed out Dr. Citino. It is my belief that as historians we sometimes seem afraid or just don't like to use the word draw. Maybe it's because their are very few ties in war. Maybe I'm wrong and there is always a winner and a losers. I always like to look at the example of Sharpsburg where the battle is considered a tactical draw and a Union strategic victory. You could also point to World where multiple battles ended in no one gaining or giving much ground and taking huge losses of life.

  3. 3

    Luke–
    Good points here. I would only add one thing as a historian: the first person in print often seems to gain a narrative advantage that lasts for decades. At least that has been the situation regarding WWII.

  4. 4
    Luke Truxal says:

    I guess I missed my chance a few decades ago.

  5. 5
    Frank Chadwick says:

    Victory often depends on perspective. In on of his early works for the Soviet Army Studies Office (SASO), David Glanz makes tht point with respect to 48th Panzer Corps' celebrated defense of the Chir River line in December of 1942. From the German point of view the work of 11th Panzer division holding off the thrusts of 5th Tank Army was a brilliant tactical success. From the Soviet point of view, 5th Tank Army's objective had been to tie down German mobile troops to both preempt the thrust to relieve the encircled 6th Army at Stalingrad and to pave the way for the deep turning move to the north, against Italian 8th and Hungarian 2nd Armies, which would shatter the front and force the Germans to withraw all the way back to Rostov. Who won? Well, the Germans ended up back west of Rostov, 6th Army ended up in the bag, and 8th Italian and 2nd Hungarian Armies were shattered.

  6. 6
    Rob Citino says:

    Ah yes, Frank. I well remember the defense of the Chir from my first reading of Mellenthin when I was but a boy! A good example.

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    Frank, you made me pull out the book! From F. W. von Mellenthin, "Panzer Battles: A Study of the Employment of Armor in the Second World War" (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955), p. 177:

    "On the night 7/8 December the 11th Panzer Division regrouped in accordance with Balck's orders and the units moved into their assembly areas. When they attacked at dawn on 8 December they hit the Russians at the very moment when they were about to advance against the rear of the 336th Division, in the confident belief that the Germans were at their mercy. Panzer Regiment 15 bumped a long column of Russian motorized infantry coming from the north and took them completely by surprise; lorry after lorry went up in flames as the panzers charged through the column trowing the Russians into the wildest panic."

    As you say, his perspective.

  8. 8
    Peter says:

    I'd question the 'inferior tanks' claim. 12th SS had mainly PzIV which is very similar to the Sherman in most respects. The only tank the Germans fielded with an 88 was the Tiger 1 & 2. Meyer lacked those. The Sherman was the ideal tank for the allies in Normandy. Light enough to be landed on the beach from landing craft, reliable enough not to need massive maintenance elements and fast and fuel efficient. The 17lb armed version (the Firefly) could take out a Tiger and unlike a Tiger was unlikely to break down or run out of fuel ten mins later

  9. 9
    mark feldman says:

    2 days later( 9 june 1944) The Canadians would stop cold the Panzer attack by the 3rd company 12 SS. Panzer Regt in front of Norrey. 7 Panther Tanks Destroyed in few minutes by 9 replacement Fireflys of the Elgin Reg. was delivering 9 Fireflys to the Fort Gary Horse Reg . when the 12 Panther tanks came out of the low ground by the rail road tracks. From George Bernage's book The Panzers and the battle of Normandy. You think the Allies would have seen the Value of Massed firepower of 17pdr armed Shermans

  10. 10
    Frank Chadwick says:

    And a good, readable account it remains, with lots of very valuable details as well as some insights into decision-making under stress and with very limited information, But from Glantz's little-read "American Perspectives on East Front Operations in World War II":

    "Despite the vivid accounts of these tactical successes Mellenthin only in passing describes the operational disaster that provided a context for these fleeting tactical successes. For, in fact, while Soviet 5th Tank Army occupied XXXXVIII Panzer Corps' attention, to the northwest Soviet forces overwhelmed and destroyed the Italian 8th Army and severely damaged Army Detachment Hollidt. Moreover, Mellenthin did not mention (probably because he did not know) that Soviet 1st Tank Corps had been in continuous operation since 19 November and was understrength and worn down when it began its march across the Chir."

    In passing, I have suspected for some time that one of the keys to Soviet victory in WW II was that they tended to think one echelon higher than did the Germans, and the above is an example of that. But that's a subject for a different day.

  11. 11
    William Rolston says:

    Surely, you could say that the Germans failed because they couldn't break the Canadian line and ….. you know, lost the battle.

  12. 12
    Michael Dorosh says:

    The efforts of the Canadians in Normandy is one of those topics that has been quite contentious in recent years. Stacey, the official historian, did not do anyone any favours by printing the assessment of one Canadian general who said that they were "no match for the Germans", when I think the pendulum is now swinging – according to fellows like Copp – towards a more balanced view. The 12th SS, much hyped in the "Nazi-worship" years of the 60s, 70s and 80s, is starting to be looked at more realistically as well, and the conclusion one is more often drawn to is that they really did lack much tactical acumen. Both divisions were certainly lacking experience on D-Day; both had a core of battle experienced leadership (the SS more so, though some Canadians had been spelled to the British in North Africa in a little known scheme that is not often talked about; probably only a handful of soldiers were the beneficiaries – off the top of my head, I can think of only one in 3 Cdn Div – another in 2 Div (that earned both the MM and DCM) and a third in 1 Div).

  13. 13
    Rob Citino says:

    Michael–

    Both John English and Terry Copp are fine historians and serious scholars whose works have arrived at some fundamentally different conclusions regarding the Canadian Army in Normandy. The original "dueling narrative" almost always lives on in subsequent debate between historians!

  14. 14
    Rob Citino says:

    William–

    They lost the battle alright, and the war! But the point I was trying to make is that, from his perspective, Meyer was telling the truth. It looked to him as if he has smashed a major Canadian attack towards Carpiquet.

  15. 15
    William Rolston says:

    I can't help but come back to the fact that ALL the armies were stopped in the early days of Normandy by the Germans and to hold out the Canadians as singularly bad is, in my opinion, wrong. Cobra wasn't until 25 July. Why aren't people crapping on Americans since they were sitting on their asses for a month against relatively (in comparison to the SS divisions in the Commonwealth sector) poor German units. What was so fantastic about British leadership in that sector that made them so much better than the Canadians?

    Rob Citino,

    From my perspective, Meyer was a poor commander because he thought that the shock of armour would break the Canadian line, which, he was never able to do. This was an outmoded line of thinking based on Eastern Front tactics.

    A stated victory to him would be to push the "little fish" back into the sea like he did almost at will on the eastern front. Now we are defining victory down for the Germans to, not crumbling to the onslaught of the Canadians and defining victory up for the Canadians into not having Caen on June 7th. Nobody could live up to the level that has been set for Canadians in that case and nobody could fail to live up to the victory standards set for Meyer.

    Were the Canadians green? Sure. Were the Canadian commanders average? Sure. But, if the Canadians were as bad as everyone says they were, how come they just didn't break and run back to the beach? Or conversely, if the other armies were so superior, why weren't they stomping on the Germans at will? It doesn't help that Canadians historians have been crapping on them since June 7th 1944 its just that as I said last week that there is institutional bias in the American and British military/historical circles to crap on Canadians. I just wish that Brit/American historians were as critical of their respective militaries as Canadians are of theirs.

    Michael Dorosh,

    There is a pernicious line of thought that, well, the enemy wasn't that good. As I said last week, Chris Hedges said that there was nothing more dangerous than a teenager with a gun, Add to that excellent commanders and full stores and to think that the 12th SS wasn't one of the most dangerous units was just wrong and given the fact that relatively green troops crushed them( they were combat ineffective after Caen). I think is a testament to the individual Canadian soldier who fought there.

    All this reminds me of when I was in the Forces. We were constantly being told how crappy we where and how much more we needed to train but when we had maneuvers with foreign militaries we saw that we had actually a higher level of training than they did.

    Perhaps it is all for the best that there is a Canadian military view of always looking at the glass half empty and that they could always do better but it kind of blinds historians to the positive side of things.

  16. 16
    Kris Ringwood says:

    One point that rarely rates mention is the fact the "elite" SS divisions never fought on either the eastern or western fronts after the Normandy campaign with any of their vaunted proficiency.

    Reading accounts on the German side it is clear that, between them, Op.Bagration on the Eastern and Normandy on the Western front ripped the guts out of the Wehrmacht, destroying that elite proficiency.

    As the the reiteration of the Mellenthin trumpetting of the Chir river operation, demonstrated, the Germans would "win" at small unit level; but at a cost that made further operations untenable. Their opponents on the other hand would throw in fresh manpower and equipment after a suitable pause and win the Battle against their exhausted unreinforced opponent .

    But for myself I've always felt that, had the Br.17pdr gun been fitted to all Sherman Tanks in a 3:1 ratio, rather than vice-versa, what happened to Michael Wittmann in August 1944 would have been repeated throughout the campaign and a large number of "Tankees" and tankers would today be "…boring their Grandchildren".

    Also I think that their experiences on the "Ostfront" worked against the Germans in Normandy especially.

  17. 17
    Brian Reid says:

    Sorry to revieve an old thread, but I just came across it. I have written two books that deal with Normandy, No Holding Back, Operation Totalize, Nomandy, August 1944 and Named by the Enemy, A History of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and am working on a third about the death of Michael Wittmann.

    The 12th SS Panzer Division failed in its most important mission of the war – to break the Canadian defence on 7 June 1944. Over the next couple of days the division attacked and attacked again, with little success except against the Winnipegs at Putot on 8 June, and that advance was eliminated by a counter-attack within hours. There were a number of reasons, to my mind one of the major ones was the division's inability to mount a properly coordinated attack. This was a feature of the division's operations in Normandy, and despite Meyer's attempts to claim otherwise, was the reason his counter-attack on 8 August in Totalize failed, thus dooming the German hold on the ground south of Caen.



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