It’s one of the most dramatic moments of World War II. The date is June 7, 1944–the day after the day, as it were–and there is some killing to be done.
The Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, freshly landed at the beach called “Juno,” is pressing inland, skirting west of the big Norman city of Caen. The objective is Carpiquet airfield, southwest of the city. To get there the division has to pass through a series of obscure Norman towns, blips on the map like Buron, Contest, and Authie. The unit in the divisional van is the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade (9 CIB), and the unit in the van of the brigade is the North Nova Scotia Highland battalion.
What follows is a tale that everyone conversant in the history of the Normandy campaign knows well. As the North Novas head south out of Contest and then veer southwest on the road towards Carpiquet, they meet a very special reception committee. A German division–no, more than that: an SS Division, one of the lucky German formations still topped off with men and materiel even at this late point of the war. It is the 12th SS Panzer Division, also known as the Hitlerjugend (“Hitler Youth”) Division. Much of the manpower is raw, certainly, consisting as it does of 17 or 18 year old boys. Their leaders more than make up for that lack of experience, however. Commanding the division’s 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment is a trained killer by the name of Kurt Meyer. He is a Standartenführer (Colonel) in the Waffen-SS, and so fearsome is his reputation in mobile warfare–earned in some pretty tough scrapes on the Eastern Front–that his nickname is, of all things, “Panzer.”
Panzer Meyer recognizes an opportunity when he sees one. As the North Novas veer southwest towards Carpiquet, his regiment is drawn up in a defensive position at the Abbaye d’Ardennes, facing northwest. The hapless Canadians are, therefore, passing directly across his front. Standing high up in the bell tower of the Abbaye, Meyer spies the entire thing though his binoculars. We can almost hear him breaking into a chuckle. He’s seen this before. A unit advancing as if on a parade ground. Drawn up in a long, vulnerable road column. Meyer himself would later recall the moment:
But what is this? Am I seeing clearly? An enemy tank is pushing through the orchards of Contest! My God! What an opportunity! The tanks are driving right across II Battalion’s front! The unit is showing us its unprotected flank. I give orders to all battalions, the artillery and the available tanks. Do not shoot! Open fire on my order only…. Wünsche, commander of the tank regiment, quietly transmits the enemy tank movements. Nobody dares raise his voice. … An unbearable pressure now rests on me. It will happen soon now…. I give the signal for the attack to Wünsche, and can just hear his order, “Achtung! Panzer marsch!” The tension now fades away. There are cracks and flashes near Franqueville. The enemy tank at the head of the spearhead smokes and I watch the crew bailing out. More tanks are torn to pieces with loud explosions.
There you have it. Another allied unit learning the art of war from a more experienced Wehrmacht. Learning to be careful. Learning respect.
A classic tale. But what if it isn’t true? Tune in next week for the Canadian “counter-narrative.”
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