As British Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, YOU must lead the attack to break through German defenses in World War II.
EDITOR’S NOTE: ACG’s September 2013 What Next, General? placed you in the role of German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, whose mission in early June 1944 was to defend France against an imminent Allied invasion. This issue’s interactive article moves the action forward six weeks and puts you on the opposite side of the battle line as Rommel’s British opponent at Normandy.
It is mid-July 1944, six weeks after the Allies’ successful invasion of France, as you assume the role of British Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey, commander of the on June 6, American forces have captured British-Canadian 2d Army. Since “D-Day” the Cotentin Peninsula and the Allies have linked their five Normandy invasion beaches to form a continuous front. However, British, Canadian and U.S. armies remain bottled up in a beachhead extending barely 18 miles inland. Indeed, many of the Allied objectives scheduled to be captured on D-Day still remain in German hands, including the city of Caen. German defenses, under the command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, have foiled Allied efforts to expand the beachhead and break through into the open country to the south.
The overall Allied ground commander, British General Bernard Montgomery, directs the combat operations of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s U.S. 1st Army in the west and your 2d Army in the east. In the western sector, German defenders skillfully use the hedgerows of Normandy’s daunting bocage country to block the advance of Bradley’s Americans, while in the east they hold Caen, their key to keeping British-Canadian forces in check. To break the deadlock, Montgomery has planned a two-pronged offensive: your 2d Army will attack first and capture Caen in Operation Goodwood, and then several days later Bradley’s divisions, supported by massive “carpet bombing,” will attack to break through enemy defenses at Saint Lo in Operation Cobra.
Montgomery not only intends for Operation Goodwood to capture Caen and open the way for a British-Canadian advance to the south, he also hopes it will draw German panzers and infantry away from Bradley’s breakout attack. While this may be good news for Bradley and his men, it hardly increases the chances that 2d Army will achieve a major breakthrough.
Although during previous operations 2d Army captured the portion of Caen north of the Orne River and established a small bridgehead northeast of the city by July 9, strong German forces still control the dominant terrain south of the Orne. This includes the area’s important road network and the high ground of Bourguébus Ridge, which provides excellent long-range observation and fields of fire for German artillery, panzers and anti-tank guns.
The area east and southeast of Caen consists of mostly open terrain that is suitable for a rapid advance by mobile forces – particularly the 30-mile-long corridor between Caen and Argentan. It is good “tank country” that will allow the Allies to capitalize on their forces’ superior mobility once they have penetrated the crust of enemy defenses around Caen.
Allied intelligence has identified a mix of German infantry and armored forces defending Operation Goodwood’s targeted area. In the center sector is 16th Luftwaffe Field Division (German airmen fighting as infantry) backed up by 21st Panzer Division in Caen’s southeastern suburbs. Guarding the flanks of the German line are 346th Infantry Division in the northeast, near your bridgehead, and 272d Infantry Division southwest of the city. Two additional panzer divisions, 1st SS and 12th SS, are also in the vicinity, although their combat status and ability to reinforce Caen’s German defenders are questionable. Intelligence has determined that the depth of German defenses is no greater than 5 miles. Including potential enemy reserves, the forces confronting your attack consist of several thousand infantrymen, 330 panzers and assault guns, 150 anti-tank guns, and 350 mortars and artillery guns of various calibers.
Your 2d Army units committed to Operation Goodwood are the tank and infantry divisions in British VIII Armored Corps, British I Infantry Corps and Canadian II Corps. The three tank divisions (totaling 1,200 tanks) and five infantry divisions in these corps give your attackers a more than 3-to-1 advantage over the Germans in tanks and assault guns, 3-to-1 in infantry, and nearly 4-to-1 in artillery. Moreover, a massive air bombardment will precede both your attack and Bradley’s Operation Cobra.
Although Montgomery has emphasized the importance of Operation Goodwood drawing German forces away from Bradley’s attack, your goal is nothing less than a major breakthrough. After five years of war, Britain’s ever-shrinking manpower pool is reaching a critical level. Costly battles of attrition are exhausting Britain’s ability to create new units or even to replace combat losses. You realize that achieving a breakthrough that quickly leads to fast-moving maneuver warfare is vital.
To attain your goal, you are considering three possible courses of action.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: MASSED ARMORED BREAKTHROUGH. Under the first plan, your three corps will attack in two phases, an initial breakthrough followed by exploitation. After a heavy Allied air bombardment, a massed three-armored-division corps (850 tanks) will attack out of the bridgehead, break through German defenses and advance to the high ground of Bourguébus Ridge. The units of two infantry corps will attack on the flanks in the wake of the tank divisions to mop up any remaining enemy resistance. Once a breakthrough has been achieved, the tanks will execute the exploitation phase by advancing into the open terrain toward Argentan. The infantry will follow behind and occupy the captured territory. COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMBINED ARMS BREAKTHROUGH.
The second course of action uses the infantry divisions to penetrate the enemy’s first-line defenses, thereby facilitating a more rapid, indepth advance by the tank divisions. Supported by massed artillery and aerial bombing, the infantry will attack from the bridgehead and from south of Caen to seize the city’s environs south of the Orne. The tanks will then quickly pass through the infantry lines and advance to the Bourguébus Ridge. Once the ridge has been secured, the tanks will continue southeast through the open terrain in the direction of Argentan, bypassing enemy resistance to maintain the attack’s momentum. COURSE OF ACTION THREE: CONVERGING ATTACKS. The third option aims to disrupt and fragment German defenses through two coordinated infantry-armor attacks striking from the flanks of the front line to converge on Bourguébus Ridge. The British infantry corps’ divisions and two tank divisions will attack out of the bridgehead, while the Canadian infantry divisions and a tank division assault across the Orne River from the southwestern suburb of Caen. With a massive aerial bombing paving the way, the two attacks will converge on Bourguébus Ridge, taking the enemy positions along its front and flank. Once the ridge is captured, the tank divisions will exploit the success by advancing southeast across the open terrain in the direction of Argentan.
The costly battle of attrition in Normandy has gone on far too long. The Allied armies must break out of the confined beachhead, move into open country and defeat German forces in France soon or the invasion will have been in vain. You are determined that Operation Goodwood will at last crack the enemy defenses and achieve a transition to a war of maneuver in which the Allies’ advantages in mobility, firepower and air superiority will prevail.
What next, General Dempsey?
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: MASSED ARMORED BREAKTHROUGH
You decide that your best chance of shattering German defenses is with a massed armored attack. At 5:30 a.m. on July 18, a tremendous two-hour Allied air bombardment saturates German defenses with 7,000 tons of bombs. Within the planned axis of advance, lighter bombs are used to minimize craters that might slow tank movement, while heavier bombs weighing 500-1,000 pounds are dropped along the flanks. The bombs, however, strike few targets on Bourguébus Ridge and none behind it.
At 7:30 a.m., a rolling barrage from 700 guns from all division and corps artillery units, to include naval gunfire, initiates the ground attack. Behind the barrage, the lead tank brigade of 11th Armored Division advances as 3d Infantry Division presses forward to secure the left flank. Meanwhile, units of Canadian II Corps capture Caen’s eastern suburbs.
The advancing tankers soon find enemy soldiers dazed and demoralized by the air and artillery bombardments; the Germans can manage only uncoordinated defensive efforts. However, much to the dismay of the division commander, 11th Armored Division’s progress is slowed when units must be dropped off to clear Cuverville and Démouville. The lead armored regiment finally crosses the Caen-Troarn rail line, but it is an hour behind schedule.
Forward tank units soon move beyond supporting field artillery coverage, and 11th Armored Division’s advancing tank formations have no infantry support to deal with enemy anti-tank weapons. They bypass Cagny, leaving a tank force to mask the village until Guards Armored Division can arrive to take over. At 11 a.m., 11th Armored Division begins its assault for the day’s main objective in the Bras-Hubert-Folie-Bourguébus vicinity – but the tankers have no infantry, artillery or air support. The sole ground-control officer coordinating tactical air support was knocked out early in the fighting.
By midday, bombardment-stunned German defenders begin to recover and react. Enemy fire from Cagny sets 16 British tanks ablaze. Guards Division tanks arrive later than planned and immediately run into a German 88 mm anti-aircraft battery that blasts them at direct-fire range. When PzKw VI Tiger tanks also engage them at 2,000 yards, a total of 40 tanks are knocked out. The inexperienced Guards Division responds slowly to the pummeling and becomes pinned down. After losing the initiative, it is unable to clear Cagny until 4 p.m.
A reckless cavalry-style “charge” by 11th Armored Division tanks (with no infantry support) stalls on the ridge between Bras and Bourguébus when it runs up against PZKW V Panther tanks from 1st SS Panzer Division. Only airstrikes by Royal Air Force Typhoon ground-attack planes blunt the enemy counterattack.
Meanwhile, heavy German artillery fire halts Canadian infantry attacks aimed at capturing Caen’s southern industrial suburbs. German 272d Infantry Division, bolstered by 1st SS Panzer Division tanks, holds onto the high ground on the Orne River’s west side, making maneuver difficult. Not until late evening are the Canadian forces able to cross the Orne south of Caen in strength and build a tank bridge.
At 2:30 p.m., a regrouped 11th Armored Division attempts its second attack against the ridge but again suffers heavy losses inflicted by 1st SS Panzer Division. By late afternoon, 12th SS Panzer Division arrives at Frénouville along the Caen-Vimont rail line, reinforcing German defenses there.
By 5 p.m., enemy anti-tank guns beat back yet another attack by British tankers against the ridge from the Caen-Vimont rail line. The 11th Armored Division loses 126 tanks – half its strength – while the Guards lose 60 tanks. Initially stuck at the attack’s start line, the “Desert Rats” of 7th Armored Division eventually manage to send one tank regiment forward, but the unit arrives too late to help 11th Armored Division.
Bad weather on the operation’s second day, July 19, precludes Allied air support and dooms another armored assault against the ridge. On July 20, after a Canadian attack is rebuffed with heavy casualties, you call an end to Operation Goodwood. With hundreds of tanks lost, Bourguébus Ridge is still in enemy hands and no breakthrough has been achieved. The operation has been a tactical disaster.
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: COMBINED ARMS BREAKTHROUGH
You are convinced that a combined arms attack with infantry and tanks working together promises the best chance of success. On July 18, for two hours beginning at 5:30 a.m., Allied bombers drop tons of bombs on targets flanking the axis of advance. A 25-minute heavy artillery preparation, including naval gunfire, follows. The barrage covers the advance of reinforced reconnaissance-in-force battalions whose mission is to clear enemy observation posts and strongpoints to pave the way for the main attack.
Following not far behind these forces, the main attack, consisting of 3d Canadian, 51st Highland, and 3d British infantry divisions, advances across the southern face of the bridgehead east of the Orne River. To ensure the attack is unobstructed, you previously ordered a complete clearing of Allied minefields.
Meanwhile, 2d Canadian Infantry Division reinforced with a tank brigade launches a supporting attack out of the southwestern suburb of Caen. Allied infantrymen soon encounter bomb-dazed enemy soldiers and destroyed equipment with only isolated and uncoordinated defensive fire. This eases the clearing of strongpoints, and your infantrymen advance well into the enemy’s tactical defense.
After the foot soldiers capture Cuverville and Démouville, VIII Armored Corps commits 11th Armored Division supported by an infantry brigade using self-propelled gun carriers for mobile transport. The division passes through the forward infantry lines at the Caen-Troarn rail line, penetrating the enemy’s main defensive area. Guards Armored Division tanks follow closely behind in march columns. The “Desert Rats” of 7th Armored Division are initially held in reserve against a potential German counterattack.
As 11th Armored Division advances to the Caen-Vimont rail line embankment, German defenders come to life with strong anti-tank fire from Cagny. However, the armored division’s motorized infantry battalion quickly maneuvers to silence the enemy fire, overrunning an 88 mm battery in the town. When the infantrymen report seeing PzKw VI Tiger tanks in the vicinity, 11th Armored sends reconnaissance elements to confirm. After the report is substantiated, infantry and anti-tank units are deployed to keep the Tigers at bay, allowing 11th Armored tanks to advance toward Bourguébus Ridge.
To maintain the attack’s gathering momentum, you personally ensure that Guards Armored Division is rapidly moved up behind 11th Armored, deploying on the right flank crossing the Caen-Vimont rail line. This puts the Guards in position to continue the advance toward Bourguébus Ridge.
Artillery displaces forward with the infantry divisions on strictly controlled routes to ensure the leading tanks and infantry remain within fire support range. German units on Bourguébus Ridge are subjected to heavy artillery fire, greatly facilitating the progress of your tank units.
Swarms of Royal Air Force Typhoon ground-attack aircraft, coordinated by ground controllers accompanying the advance, fire rockets to engage the German forces – including PzKw VI Tiger tanks at Emiéville – opposing your lead armored formations.
Units of Canadian II Corps advance with heavy street fighting before capturing Caen’s southern industrial suburbs. Its 2d Division, moving from the southwestern corner of Caen, uses artillery and airstrikes to suppress German artillery on high ground to the south, allowing the Canadians to cross the Orne and fight toward the western edge of Bourguébus Ridge.
The rapid advance of your units lets them occupy the ridge before the lead elements of German 1st SS Panzer Division arrive. Once the 1st SS does appear near the ridge, its hasty counterattack is smashed by Royal Air Force Typhoons.
Given priority of road use, 7th Armored Division quickly moves toward the ridgeline, while 11th Armored Division and Guards Armored Division hold firm against 21st and 1st SS panzer divisions’ assaults. Once 7th Armored Division arrives, it passes the Guards’ right flank and anchors your forces’ hold on the ridge. Both 11th and 7th armored divisions move against the now dangerously exposed flanks of 1st SS Panzer. By late afternoon, lead elements of 12th SS Panzer approach from Vimont but are turned back by 11th Armored Division.
With Bourguébus Ridge seized, your tank divisions reassemble during the night for an early attack the following day, July 19. You hurry forward field artillery for a pre-attack bombardment that prevents the enemy defense from solidifying. Advancing infantry divisions of British I Corps hold 21st Panzer Division in check while capturing Troarn and clearing Emiéville. Weather precludes air support all day July 19, but the battered enemy is ill prepared to resist your attacks.
That evening, having broken through the crust of German defenses, you order your units to prepare for a general advance southeast through the open terrain toward Argentan. Operation Goodwood has been a smashing success.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: CONVERGING ATTACKS
You are convinced that the key terrain of the Bourguébus Ridge is most vulnerable to converging attacks from the front and flank. In preparation for the attacks, you order the Allied minefields cleared and turn over the artillery’s self-propelled gun carriers to 7th and 11th armored divisions’ infantry brigades for mobile transport.
At 5:30 a.m. on July 18, Allied aircraft drop a devastating carpet of bombs, destroying or stunning German defenders east and south of Caen. Following a 70-minute artillery barrage, you launch the converging attacks. Hard on the heels of the infantry striking out of the Orne bridgehead, 11th Armored Division advances, followed closely by Guards Armored Division.
The 3d Canadian, 51st Highland and 3d British infantry divisions attack to secure the flanks and penetrate the enemy’s first line of defense. This sets the stage for the advancing armored divisions to reach the Caen-Troarn rail line. The 11th Armored uses its carrier-mounted infantry brigade to maneuver against a German 88 mm battery at Cagny. The infantrymen also report enemy PZKW VI Tiger tanks approaching near Emiéville. While your lead tank units advance on Bourguébus Ridge, arriving at midday, Guards Division tanks maneuver west of Cagny. The commander of 11th Armored Division sends a tank regiment to deal with the Tiger tanks of 21st Panzer Division at Emiéville, as the Guards lead the advance into the depth of German defenses.
Meanwhile, 2d Canadian Infantry Division and 7th Armored Division move through southwestern Caen, using artillery and Royal Air Force Typhoon airstrikes to suppress German artillery firing from the southwest. While screening German ground forces on the west side of the Orne River, the reinforced 2d Canadian Infantry pushes aside stiff resistance. Advancing infantry and tanks, the division secures an Orne River crossing to emplace tank bridges and rafts in the vicinity of Fleury-sur-Orne.
Soon, 7th Armored Division begins rafting tanks across the river, allowing the unit to spearhead the attack south toward the high ground. Around midday, a race for this ground develops between 7th Armored and the approaching German 1st SS Panzer Division. The 7th’s “Desert Rats” win, and then with the help of RAF Typhoon airstrikes they manage to hold the newly gained ground against 1st SS Panzer’s counterattacks.
Nearby, Guards Division tankers also engage 1st SS Panzer Division around Bra and Bourguébus. The Guardsmen prevail and occupy the dominating terrain. Meanwhile, 11th Armored Division clears Cagny by early afternoon. Although the British tankers found handling the monstrous Tigers difficult and deadly work, they soon discovered that the way to kill a Tiger is to make it move. If it does not succumb to mechanical failure, it is vulnerable to being rendered immobile by a well-placed hit.
By late afternoon on July 18, the advance units of 12th SS Panzer Division arrive, prompting a meeting engagement with 11th Armored Division on the road between Frénouville and Vimont. Using tanks, infantry, artillery and airstrikes, 11th Armored turns back 12th SS by nightfall.
Heavy rains on July 19 preclude airstrikes, but 2d Canadian Infantry Division and 7th Armored Division batter 1st SS Panzer Division while 11th Armored encounters no further German attacks in its sector. July 20 dawns clear, but the Germans are in no shape to mount a strong effort to retake Bourguébus Ridge. In effect, the enemy is conceding the battlefield to you. Several of your forward units report observing German panzers and infantry moving away from Caen, heading south and east.
Your converging forces have clearly won a decisive victory and positioned 2d Army to move rapidly through the open terrain toward Argentan. The only question remaining in your mind is whether Montgomery will turn you loose.
HISTORICAL COURSE OF ACTION AND ANALYSIS
General Dempsey chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: MASSED ARMORED BREAKTHROUGH and the fighting unfolded as described in the COA One narrative. Leading the attack with massed tanks without accompanying strong infantry support was a mistake. Estimated British tank losses in the battle ranged from an official history tally of 271 to a more precise later calculation of 413 – an appalling loss rate of over 30 percent of 2d Army tanks committed to the battle. Personnel casualties were also high at 3,500 killed, wounded or missing. Operation Goodwood demonstrated the continued flaw in the British conduct of mobile armored warfare to that point in World War II – armored combat was hamstrung by rigid command and control at the tactical and operational levels. As a result, the dominating ground of Bourguébus Ridge remained in German hands and on the tactical level Operation Goodwood proved a disaster.
Controversy continues today concerning whether Montgomery always intended for one of Operation Goodwood’s major objectives to be to tie down German panzer forces so that Bradley’s American divisions could break out at Saint Lo. Some historians believe that Monty’s claim was merely after-the-fact face-saving on his part to cover up 2d Army’s failed breakthrough attempt. Yet despite Operation Goodwood’s failure at the tactical level, its strategic impact on German defenses was to produce an overall Allied victory in Normandy. Whether intended or not, Operation Goodwood forced the Germans to commit their panzer divisions to heavy combat in the Caen fighting, rendering them unavailable to counterattack Bradley’s breakout.
Moreover, Operation Goodwood placed Dempsey’s 2d Army on the southeast side of the Orne River, where it was in control of all of Caen and its important road network. Thus 2d Army was well positioned to act as the sturdy “pivot” around which Bradley’s mobile forces swung south and east to roll up German defenses and open the way for the subsequent sweep across France.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.