Today we would be following in the footsteps – or rather tank tracks – of the British Army’s attack to the East of Caen: Operation GOODWOOD.
This was Montgomery’s plan to make good use of the “excellent tank country” to the South & East of the city. It was an attempt to break through the German lines, capture Caen once & for all & open up the area for wider operations. Support was by a raid by British & American heavy bombers. They were being used in this tactical role for the first time & high hopes were held for its results.
In the event, despite advancing almost 7 miles through the German lines, they weren’t able to fully break through. Firstly because the final “stop” line hadn’t been reached, due to the Germans holding the high ground and having guns with a greater range. Secondly, because the Germans threw in everything that they had to stop the breakthrough. With better armed & armoured tanks plus better anti-tank guns they were able to halt the advance. Also the weather intervened with rain.
In the final analysis, the British had lost around 300 tanks (estimates vary). A great deal of which would be recovered from the battlefield, or replaced from the mounting reserves piling up on the invasion beaches. Many of the crews managed to make it back to British lines to find a replacement vehicle. The Germans didn’t lose as many, but then didn’t have them in the first place. However, this attack convinced the Germans that Caen was the key area. So, as more forces arrived in reinforcement, they were sent directly into the line to hold back the British. Very few were sent to the American sector. Thus, when the Americans finally began Operation COBRA after its abortive first day, quickly followed by the British Operation BLUECOAT , the Germans were totally off balance. With no reserves, the only troops at their disposal were those in the already fragile line.
The long view of Operation GOODWOOD
Tactically, GOODWOOD had been a failure for the British. But, as part of a longer term strategy, it helped focus the Germans’ eyes in the wrong place and thus allow the breakouts further west. None of this, however, helped prevent the unholy row that broke out in Allied circles. Many in the “anti-Montgomery camp” wanting him sacked. Fortunately, for the remainder of the Battle of Normandy, and beyond, that didn’t happen. Though his reputation was somewhat tarnished in many eyes. He, however, was more concerned with beating the Germans!
There have been a number of books written about Operation GOODWOOD. Two of the best are by the late Ian Daglish – especially the one in his “Over the Battlefield” series. Photographic reconnaissance aircraft were sent over the area to take photographs in order to determine the impact that the heavy bombers had had in a tactical role. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the battle was still being fought and so we have aerial photographs of the battle in progress. Excellent reference material that Ian used to great effect in his book.
OK, so now to our day…
OPERATION GOODWOOD Battlefield Tour
We basically followed two of the tours in the Battlezone Normandy books . Although written in 2004, they are still a superb resource with excellent historical detail and maps, as well as well-planned battlefield tours.
We started by taking some close ups of what remains of the Colombelles steel works. This included the remaining cooling tower. A tower that would be clearly visible throughout both today & tomorrow, as we worked our way around the battlefield.
We then moved to Escoville and the forming up area of units of 11th Armoured Division. From there, in the far distance, we could see the ultimate objective of Bourguébus ridge. Before moving on we took some line-up photos, including of a funnel-shaped water tower, to allow us to look back once we were on the ridge. Interestingly, the ridge does not look that imposing when viewed from the start point.
We then worked our way into Cuverville taking photos of its battle-scarred church. It was then on to Démouville where we replicated the photograph on page 148 of my copy of Battlezone Normandy: Battle for Caen . The book which we were using as a tour guide. Lunchtime was approaching, so we decided to investigate the village We soon found a boulangerie – in fact our first of the holiday – and took a break. I’m trying to eat healthier, so I was glad that I was able to get something towards my 5 fruit a day.
The railway tracks
The Operation GOODWOOD battlefield was crossed by two railway lines. One a single track line – the other (which we will encounter later) a more substantial barrier. So next item to “tick off” was a photo of what remains of the railway track – two embankments…
The tour guide then takes us into le Mésnil Frementel. However, having looked at the map (and us being us!), we decided to do things in a backwards manner. To, in effect, work our way backwards through the second part of the tour (or the next tour as it is in the book). We stopped first at the CWGC Cemetery just outside of Sannerville. As we were leaving, a team from the CWGC arrived to cut the grass. We spoke to them and they gave us a booklet explaining the work that they do. As we carried on we realised that we’d been down this road before as we recognised the imposing ruin of the gateway to Troan Abbey. On the previous occasion its significance had escaped us.
Off-roading and von Luck’s 88’s
Moving on, via le Prieuré Ferme, we made use of the off-road capability of my car as the road moved from being tarmacked into just a dirt track. It evoked the state that many of the roads in wartime France would have been in. We were on the hunt for the location where two German tanks had been destroyed – potentially by their own guns in a mistaken act of “friendly fire”. Why it’s termed that, I don’t really understand, as it’s hardly friendly!! Also the location of the disputed “von Luck’s 88’s”. After the war, one of the German officers involved in the battle made a number of claims of how he changed its course – some of which are still disputed to this day.
Back to the railway and Operation GOODWOOD’s Objective
We then rejoined the original tour that we were following. Past le Mesnil Frémentel and into Grenthevill. To visit one of the better preserved parts of the second, more major, railway line that crossed the Operation GOODWOOD area.
The embankment has now been converted into a cycleway & footpath. From the top you get some excellent views across the battlefield. Toward the large village of Soliers and, between 2 & 3 KM away, the final targets: the villages of Ifs/Bras Hubert-Folie and Bourguébus itself. We had a large-scale detailed map, binoculars, a sunny day. There were no explosions going off or people shooting at us. Yet it was still difficult to orientate on these places. I just can’t imagine doing so from the turret of a tank in the heat of battle!
The embankment itself is over 12 feet high – more than double the height of my Landrover. So you can see why some of the British tanks used it as a respite area from the fire of the German guns. The embankment has a number of underpasses providing passage from one side of the embankment to the other. During the battle, this one was used by A Squadron of 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment to cross the line of the railway. Their commander – Major Bill Close – described that they came into “a scene of absolute peace and calm. No sign of enemy or war, just an ocean of golden corn waving gently in the breeze.”
We continued our journey through Soliers into the village of Hubert-Folie. Though we had to take a detour as the underpass used on the route in our guide was blocked. In the village of Grentheville we saw their memorial to the troops that liberated them.
Going down the now blocked off route out of the village, allowed us to look back over the battlefield. From here we could see the water- and cooling-towers that we had noted earlier in the day.
A well earned beer
Time was now getting on, so we retraced our route through Grentheville. This time pausing to take a photo of the 11th Armoured Division me morial. We then headed into Caen. Stopping at an “off licence” where you can also drink inside – La Case à Bières. We had been before, but it’s always good to return to check on quality!
After that, it was off to the hotel followed by food and sleep. A tiring but filled day in the sun.
One of the reasons for the level of detail is that, next year, I’m planning to do a talk based on Operation GOODWOOD for the Manchester Military History Society. So I thought that I’d better get my research photos taken!