Dueling Narratives at Carpiquet: The Canadian View

By Robert M. Citino
5/11/2010 • Fire for Effect

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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