What was the real goal of Operation Goodwood, the biggest British tank offensive of World War II? And does it matter?
Within days of storming ashore on D-Day, the Allies found themselves hopelessly deadlocked in Normandy, unable to make headway against powerful German forces. The Americans, under Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, had enjoyed initial success in the western sector of the invasion front before encountering resistance in the hedgerows, where battles were fought from field to field through the mud and bocage of the Cotentin Peninsula. The British, meanwhile, had failed to capture their D-Day objective, the city of Caen, ancestral home of William the Conqueror.
The German army defending the western front—under the overall command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the famed Desert Fox—fought tenaciously, making the Allies pay a high price for even the smallest of gains. They had no choice: when Hitler visited France on June 17, 1944, he issued “fight to the death” orders that forbade retreat or withdrawal.
During the remainder of June and in early July, repeated British and Canadian attempts to capture Caen failed, with mounting losses on both sides. Attempts to outflank it from the west also failed. So fierce were battles in late June that the Odon River that ran through Caen’s outskirts became dammed with corpses. As the days passed the Allies’ ground commander in chief, Gen. Bernard Montgomery, came under increasing scrutiny and criticism.
Despite an enormous buildup of troops and supplies, there had been little progress, and as the campaign edged into July, Caen continued to hold out bitterly. To Montgomery’s critics, it was a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in the Normandy campaign. Winston Churchill, among others, was deeply concerned that a stalemate in Normandy would give Hitler a bargaining chip in any negotiations to end the war, leaving western Europe open to conquest by the Red Army. The Allies urgently needed a plan.
Bradley conceived an offensive, called Operation Cobra, to break out of the bocage. Bradley’s plan, scheduled to begin July 20, was to use American fighter-bombers to blast open gaps in the German defensive line, which the massed forces of VII Corps would exploit in a blitz toward Avranches. Waiting in the wings was Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. His Third Army had covertly begun arriving in late June, and his own presence in Normandy was a closely guarded secret.
To break the stalemate around Caen, Montgomery and Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey, commander of the British Second Army, devised a plan that would commence two days before the planned start date of Cobra. It was called Operation Goodwood, and when hundreds of British tanks roared into battle on July 18, it became the largest tank operation ever mounted by the British Army.
Although Goodwood would last essentially only a single day, controversy has lingered in its wake. What remains unresolved are the operation’s true objectives and, therefore, some measure of its success. Was it a failed attempt to break out from the Normandy bridgehead, as Montgomery’s critics have asserted? Or was it a successful attack that secured Caen and pinned down German formations in the eastern sector, preventing them from interfering with Cobra, as Montgomery himself claimed?
Ironically, it was Montgomery’s own words and actions before, during, and after Goodwood that obscured the question of its success. A closer look at what he wrote and told others, both during planning and afterward, points to a far more nuanced answer—one that takes into account that nothing about war is neat and tidy, and that Goodwood, in the end, is best judged not by its murky objectives, but by where it left the Allies at the end of the operation.
When the outspoken Montgomery, commander of the British 21st Army Group and the architect of Allied strategy in Normandy, assumed command in early 1944 he made significant changes to the original D-Day invasion plan crafted the previous year by a team of Americans and Britons. Deeming the invasion sector too narrow and thus vulnerable to being rolled up in a counterattack, he widened it from 30 to 50 miles. He also added three airborne divisions to the D-Day assault force to seize and hold the critical approaches to Cherbourg in the Cotentin Peninsula and to protect the eastern flank around the Orne River.
The invasion force consisted of one British army and one American army. The area from Bayeux eastward to the Orne River would be British and from Bayeux westward, American. The plan called for the Allies to quickly gain control of the main centers of road communication, which would make it difficult for German reserves to reinforce Rommel’s defenses.
On the eastern flank of the invasion front British and Canadian infantry, backed by heavy naval and aerial gunfire support, were to seize a beachhead along the Orne between Caen and Bayeux, which would allow armored brigades to quickly push inland, carve out a secure bridgehead, and seize the critical high ground southeast of Caen that the Allied air forces needed for supporting fighter bases.
Montgomery knew Rommel well from their previous confrontation in North Africa and anticipated that the German strategy for defeating the invasion would be to repel the assault at or near the beaches with heavy panzer counterattacks—to push the Allies back into the sea.
Rommel’s only hope of success did indeed lie in counterattacks before the Allies could gain a firm foothold. Nor was Rommel under any illusions. Normandy was over 400 miles from the Third Reich, at the end of a tenuous supply line, and with Hitler giving the eastern front priority, Rommel well understood he would have to make do for the most part with the forces at his disposal. Although the Allies initially had difficulty with their logistics, once they were firmly established in Normandy, where the might of their air, sea, and ground forces could be brought to bear upon Rommel’s defenders, the end result was inevitable.
Circumstances had prevented Rommel from striking fast and hard against the invaders: he had neither the assets available to carry out immediate counterattacks nor control of his own panzer forces, which Hitler, fearful of ceding too much power to his commanders, had given to Gen. Geyr von Schweppenburg, then commanding Panzer Group West, the German panzer reserve.
Montgomery’s challenge was to secure his eastern flank and block Rommel from defeating the invasion or interfering with First Army’s attempt to reach the key port of Cherbourg. Once Cherbourg was captured, Bradley intended to take the entire Cotentin Peninsula and then mount an offensive into Brittany with Patton’s Third Army to capture its many valuable ports.
Montgomery focused on the important high ground southeast between Caen and Falaise, not only for its suitability for airfields but, more importantly, because whichever side controlled the entire sector and the approaches to the formidable barrier of the Orne River held the advantage in Normandy. Caen was the key; before occupying the Caen-Falaise plain the Allies would first have to capture the city and the Orne River crossings. If they tried to bypass Caen they would encounter a further barrier to the west with the Odon River.
Montgomery correctly surmised that the Desert Fox would stubbornly defend the city. Rommel had even managed to persuade Hitler to dispatch panzer reinforcements from the eastern front, although they would take many days to arrive.
With Caen still in German hands in early July, Montgomery gratefully accepted an offer from the air commanders to use their heavy bombers to blast a gap in the German lines, which would allow his Second Army to finally capture the city. From the night of July 7 into the early hours of July 8, 450 Bomber Command aircraft dropped 6,000 tons of bombs on Caen. But in the two days of hard fighting that followed, only the northern half of Caen was secured, and the remnants of its defenders were entrenched in new blocking positions on the south bank of the Orne.
While Montgomery had unquestionably improved his position, the possession of one-half of Caen was useless as a hinge for support of future operations on either flank. The elusive high ground of the Caen-Falaise plain still lay in German hands, the Caen bridgehead remained unsatisfactorily small, and high infantry casualties made a growing manpower problem even more acute.
This unsatisfactory state of affairs provoked a chorus of criticism of Montgomery’s generalship from several senior RAF airmen and some American officers who did not understand that the reasons for the delay at Caen were not due to a lack of initiative but to ferocious German resistance—the same unhappy position of U.S. forces in western Normandy.
Monty’s strongest critic was the deputy supreme commander, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, an old nemesis from North Africa, who attempted to goad the supreme commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, into believing that the problem lay in a lack of aggressiveness.
Although completely untrue, this unhealthy perception nevertheless began to poison the atmosphere within the Allied high command. The unease over Normandy spread to Washington, while in London Churchill railed at the delay that brought back unpleasant memories of his own experience of the stalemate of World War I.
So was born Operation Goodwood, an offensive designed to end once and for all what had become an increasingly precarious situation. Acutely aware that there were few infantry units available to replace his losses, on July 10 Dempsey conceived a massive tank attack by three armored divisions, once again using the Allied air forces to blast a path that his tanks could exploit to gain access to the Caen-Falaise plain. To carry out his plan Dempsey attached two armored divisions, Guards Armored and 7th Armored, to Lt. Gen. Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps. These two divisions would follow the spearhead of the Goodwood offensive, Maj. Gen. G. P. B. “Pip” Roberts’s 11th Armored Division.
Although Montgomery would later imply that Goodwood had a more modest aim, on July 14 he wrote to Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, “I have decided the time has come for a real showdown on the eastern flank, and to loose a corps of three armored divisions in the open country around the Caen-Falaise road.”
With Eisenhower’s backing, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, the czar of Bomber Command, readily agreed to support the operation, and the Allied high command, from Eisenhower on down, applauded what seemed at last a full-blooded effort to break the Normandy stalemate. “I am viewing the prospects with the most tremendous optimism and enthusiasm,” Eisenhower wrote to Montgomery. “I would not be at all surprised to see you gaining a victory that will make some of the ‘old classics’ look like a skirmish between patrols.”
The Caen-Falaise plain was the only suitable tank terrain in Normandy, and Dempsey was convinced that once he could maneuver his armor, success would follow. In fact, evidence uncovered after the war has revealed that both Montgomery and Dempsey had ambitions that extended beyond a successful Goodwood. Dempsey said privately after the war, “What I had in mind was to seize all the crossings of the Orne from Caen to Argentan”; Montgomery envisioned an advance of some 20 miles south to Falaise. Neither articulated those views at the time, however—a fact critical in weighing the relative success of Goodwood.
While Dempsey conceived Goodwood as such a powerful armored threat that the Germans would have to move their reserves to meet it or risk a complete breakthrough, the only sector from which the offensive could be mounted was fraught with risks. VIII Corps would have to assemble within view of the towering Colombelles steelworks, in an eastern suburb of Caen that was still under German control. From its massive towers observers could easily see the British assembly points. It would have been impossible for any of the three armored divisions to move undetected to their start line opposite the Orne River in daylight; to avoid being found out they had to move only at the last minute and at night.
Before they could begin their assault the British had to first secure crossings over both the Orne Canal and the Orne River, which ran parallel to one another. The terrain the tanks had to traverse was open farmland, mostly cornfields that sloped gently upward for some 12,000 yards past a number of hamlets and two railway embankments to Goodwood’s primary objective, Bourguébus Ridge. Although the ridge was a mere hundred yards above sea level, the force controlling it held the whip hand.
The British had good reason to expect the bombers to blast a gap in the German lines and the massive weight of their armor to do the rest. No one, from the top commanders down to the lower-level intelligence officers, anticipated the great strength and depth of the German defenses. The principal German force defending the Goodwood route of advance was Panzer Group West. To counter this new Allied threat, Rommel and its recently assigned commander, Gen. Heinrich Eberbach, had prepared the strongest defensive positions yet mounted by the Germans in Normandy. Rommel deployed his forces in four successive defensive belts nearly 10 miles deep, with a fifth belt consisting of an armored reserve positioned behind Bourguébus Ridge, where he planned to make his primary stand.
Even though the British tanks had moved into their assembly points under cover of night on July 17, the Germans were not deceived. The I SS Panzer Corps commander, Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, who had once commanded Hitler’s SS bodyguard regiment, later said that he employed a trick he had learned on the eastern front. By placing his ear to the ground he was able to detect the distinctive rumble of British tracked vehicles assembling many miles away.
At 5:30 a.m. on July 18, 1944, Panzer Group West became the object of one of the most devastating air attacks ever launched against ground troops. The first wave of Bomber Command aircraft dropped some 6,000 tons of high explosive bombs on German positions astride the Orne. During the next two hours three more waves of bombers filled the skies and turned the battlefield into a cauldron of smoke, dust, and destruction unprecedented in the history of ground combat. A second bomb run was largely aborted because the smoke and dust that hung over the battlefield obscured the targets.
At 8:30 the bombing continued when another wave of bombers dropped 13,000 100-pound bombs and over 76,000 fragmentation bombs on Bourguébus Ridge. By day’s end more than 4,500 Allied aircraft had bombed and strafed German positions. The air attacks were followed by the massed artillery fire of three corps, supported by naval gunfire, which together hurled nearly a quarter of a million rounds into the Goodwood battlefield. One German tank commander found some of his Tigers literally buried and others turned upside down as if they were mere playing cards instead of 69-ton behemoths. Many German survivors of the hellish onslaught were dazed and demoralized, while others were crazed from the incessant bombing and shelling; a few committed suicide.
Nonetheless, the British expectation that the sheer weight of their assault would overwhelm the Germans soon proved flawed. Goodwood’s success depended on the rapid capture of Bourguébus Ridge, and by midmorning the 11th Armored had driven a wedge some three miles deep into51 German lines. But then Goodwood became unraveled—by one of history’s greatest traffic jams. There was incredible congestion at the six crossings over the Orne. British armored divisions at the time consisted of nearly 2,880 tanks and assorted self-propelled artillery, scout cars, armored cars, and trucks. The three assaulting armored divisions came to nearly 9,000 vehicles all together, all of which had to be funneled through narrow corridors and minefields before crossing the Orne—a nightmare scenario. As far as the eye could see, tanks and vehicles waited to be guided by traffic controllers through “friendly” minefields previously laid by a British infantry division.
To make matters worse, enormous clouds of dust from the bombing and the movement of hundreds of vehicles and tanks obscured large parts of the battlefield. The massive bombardment had failed to knock out not only the artillery behind Bourguébus Ridge but also the antitank guns and panzers situated in and around the hamlets of Cagny, Emiéville, and Bourguébus, which covered the British avenues of approach down the long corridor from the Orne crossings. The great depth of the German defenses and the fact that a battery of four Luftwaffe 88mm guns in Cagny managed to survive unscathed would prove crucial.
To reach Bourguébus Ridge, O’Connor’s armor had to bypass these hamlets and the two railway embankments bisecting the main avenue of advance. By a stroke of fortune for the Germans, Col. Hans von Luck of the 21st Panzer Division had just returned to his command post from a three-day leave in Paris. One of the veteran panzer officers serving in Normandy, Luck was responsible for the defense of the Cagny sector and soon learned that the great bombardment had miraculously spared the hamlet. The four 88s, a Tiger tank, and another 88mm antitank gun were still intact when Luck arrived in Cagny that morning. The first thing he observed was a line of 50 to 60 British tanks from the 11th Armored Division advancing on Bourguébus Ridge. The 88s were still pointing skyward when Luck recognized they could be put to far better use than air defense. He ordered the Luftwaffe officer in charge to move the guns to the northwest corner of Cagny and to employ them to direct fire at the British armor.
The officer foolishly refused, stating his mission was not shooting at tanks. With no time for debate Luck drew his pistol and politely inquired if the officer “would like to be killed immediately or cooperate. He decided the latter.”
Lethal fire from Cagny caught the Sherman and Cromwell tanks like sitting ducks. The 88s alone knocked out some 16 British tanks of the 29th Armored Brigade and the 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment. But more significantly, the ambush held up the advance on Bourguébus Ridge and created an additional traffic jam of tanks tailing behind them.
As the day wore on the British attack slowed noticeably due to German minefields; the congestion, which caused some units to be hours late reaching their start lines; and sudden fierce German resistance. German reserves were mostly unaffected by the bombardment and swung into action to counter the British threat. The 11th Armored advance stalled on the slopes of Bourguébus Ridge. And at that critical moment there was little the corps commander, O’Connor, could do to reinforce Roberts’s hard-pressed tank units, with the 7th Armored still stuck at their start line and the supporting infantry engaged in mopping up operations elsewhere. By late afternoon it was clear that the British had lost the initiative and were unable to take Bourguébus Ridge. Although Goodwood continued for another two days, the operation was effectively over on July 18—the same day it started.
Goodwood was yet another example of the German genius for defending against overwhelming odds. Without air support, against a powerful British force, not only did they prevent an Allied breakout on the Caen flank, but they turned the battlefield into a massive scrap yard of burned and broken British armor. One British officer described a scene of utter desolation: “I have never seen such bomb craters. Trees were uprooted; roads were impassable. There were bodies in half; crumpled men. A tank lay upside down, another was still burning with a row of feet sticking out from underneath. In one crater a man’s head and shoulders appeared sticking out from the side. The place stank.”
Nonetheless, for the German army in Normandy, Goodwood was a precursor to their inevitable defeat. Its soldiers fought with exceptional skill and bravery, but for the remainder of the campaign they were never again able to engage the Allies on terms favorable to the defense. Nor could they continue to fight for much longer while suffering such heavy losses. Most grievous of all, Germany lost its most inspirational commander when Rommel was gravely wounded in a strafing attack by two Spitfires on his command car the evening before Goodwood; he lay near death in a French hospital. The Desert Fox, soon implicated in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler and compelled to commit suicide in October 1944 in order to save his family, had fought his final battle.
The Guards Armored Division, recently converted to tanks from regiments of foot guards, had been anxious for their first taste of battle in Normandy. They learned a bitter lesson from Goodwood after being led to believe that all that stood between them and breakout were “a few old men and boys with Spandaus.” The British lost 400 tanks during Goodwood (36 percent of their overall strength), and suffered 5,537 casualties, no small number given Dempsey’s aim of holding down his human losses. The tanks were quickly replaced but the troop losses magnified the manpower shortage.
The results of Goodwood convinced Montgomery’s critics that he had needlessly forfeited yet another opportunity to win a decisive battle. Despite gains that seemed impressive on paper, the critical terrain remained in German hands. Nevertheless, Goodwood did tie up German armor and advance the eastern flank, leaving the British Second Army poised to mount a breakout operation in August.
Goodwood’s massive size was both a virtue and a liability. While the employment of strategic bombers in a direct support role was innovative, the results highlighted the limitations of air power. However, the greatest failure of Goodwood—and the one critical factor that, done differently, might have achieved far better results—was the decision to employ tanks without supporting infantry.
It is doubtful, for example, that Cagny could have held out as long and as crucially as it did had there been supporting infantry. It was a mistake the Germans would not have made.
And then there is the enduring controversy, grounded in historical misperceptions about Goodwood’s aims, and in miscommunication by key players in the plan’s design and execution. Without question, both Montgomery and Dempsey had grander aims for the operation. And why not? If the offensive had succeeded and Bourguébus Ridge had fallen quickly, a breakthrough to the Caen-Falaise plain beyond was likely.
However, war is not a board game, and from the outset the odds were stacked against the British through their failure to surprise and their inability to deploy their massed armor quickly into the teeth of a perfect storm in the form of the heaviest defenses Rommel had been able to mount in Normandy.
With no viable alternatives the operation was a calculated risk. Already under pressure, Montgomery felt compelled to deliberately oversell Goodwood to Eisenhower and SHAEF in order to receive bomber support. And while Montgomery’s predictions were intentionally vague, and his results less than desired, it’s also true that his critics never fully appreciated the extreme difficulties of implementing Goodwood. His old nemesis Arthur Tedder, for one, argued for Montgomery’s dismissal without the slightest understanding of the problems he faced.
Compounding the controversy, Montgomery seemed to imply he was after big results and was prepared to turn VIII Corps loose in an exploitation. But more than six weeks of combat against a resourceful and determined foe also left him skeptical of what Goodwood might accomplish. His false optimism and private uncertainty exacerbated his already strained relations with the supreme commander and did lasting damage to his reputation.
No small part of the controversy over Goodwood came about in an unfortunate moment of over-optimism and misinformation the afternoon of July 18, when Montgomery informed Brooke that “operations this morning a complete success…. The effect of the bombing was decisive,” when in fact Goodwood had become unraveled. He compounded this the next day in a message to Eisenhower that rejoiced over nonexistent gains east of the Orne. Although Eisenhower was understandably disappointed and angry that he had been misled, he wisely refused to consider replacing Montgomery. Omar Bradley also became an unlikely defender of Monty when he later declared that he never considered Goodwood anything more than an operation in support of Cobra.
For the men who fought in the hellish conditions of battle, the controversy never made the slightest difference. Soldiers do not care about who was right or wrong or who said what; they care about survival. For most of the men who rode the tanks into the cauldron that was Operation Goodwood, it was simply, as one British historian so aptly described it, “the death ride of the armored divisions.”
Originally published in the July 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.