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 in an attempt to break through the German lines, capture Caen once & for all & open up the area for wider operations. It was supported by a raid by British & American heavy bombers being used in the 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 – partly because the final “stop” line hadn’t been reached which, because the German guns had a greater range than the British ones and the Germans held the high ground & partly because the Germans threw in everything that they had to stop the breakthrough. With better armed & armoured tanks and better anti-tank guns they were able to halt the advance… and then the weather intervened with rain.
In the final analysis, the British had lost around 300 tanks (estimates vary), many of which could 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), but this attack convinced them that Caen was the key area that was wanted to be exploited & so as more forces arrived as reinforcements, they were sent directly into the line to hold back the British; few were sent to the American sector. Thus, when Operation COBRA (by the Americans) finally got going (after its abortive first day) quickly followed by Operation BLUECOAT (by the British), the Germans were totally off balance & without reserves to properly commit without taking them out of an already fragile line.
The long view
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 to allow the breakouts further west. None of this, however, helped prevent the unholy row that broke out in Allied circles with 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. Fortunately, he 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 to help 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 as a reference which Ian used to great effect in his book.
OK, so now to our day…
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 including the final cooling tower which would be clearly visible throughout both today & tomorrow as we worked our way around the battlefield.
We then moved to Escoville at the forming up area of units of 11th Armoured Division where, in the far distance, we could see the ultimate objective of Bourguébus ridge. 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 before moving on. What is interesting is that, from the start point, the ridge doesn’t look too imposing.
We then worked our way into Cuverville taking photos of its battle-scarred church, then moving on to Démouville and replicating the photograph on page 148 of my Battlezone Normandy: Battle for Caen book which we were using as a tour guide. Lunchtime was approaching, so we decided to investigate the village & 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 and, in effect, work our way backwards through the second part of the tour (or the next tour as it is in the book), stopping first at the CWGC Cemetery just outside of Sannerville where, as we were leaving, a team from the CWGC was arriving to cut the grass & we were given a booklet explaining the work that they do. We also realised that we’d been down this road before (without realising as such where we were as we recognised the imposing ruin of the gateway to Troan Abbey).
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 & probably more evocative of the state that many of the roads would have been in 1944 in this part of France – 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” (‘though why it’s termed that, I don’t really understand as it’s hardly friendly!!) – and 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
We then rejoined the original tour that we were following, past le Mesnil Frémentel and into Grentheville to visit one of the better preserved parts of the second, more major, railway line that crossed the Operation GOODWOOD area.
From the top of this, which has now been converted into a cycleway & footpath, 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. Even with a large-scale, detailed map, binoculars, sunny day and, perhaps most importantly, no explosions going off or people shooting at us, these places were still difficult to orientate on; I just can’t imagine doing so from the turret of a tank!
The embankment itself is over 12 feet high – more than double the height of my Landrover & 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 and during the battle, this one was used by A Squadron of 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment to cross into what their commander – Major Bill Close – described as “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 (having to take a detour as the underpass on the route in our guide was blocked) where we saw the village 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 to see the water- and cooling-towers that we had seen earlier in the day.
Time was now getting on, so retracing our route through Grentheville (this time taking a photo of the 11th Armoured Division memorial, we headed into Caen and an “off licence” where you can also drink inside – La Case à Bières – we’d 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 after a tiring but filled day in the sun.
One of the reasons for the 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!