For British forces landing in Normandy on D-Day, the city of Caen was one of their most important targets. The Germans, recognizing the city’s strategic significance, dug in and fought determinedly to hold them back. The result was weeks of bloody and frustrating warfare as British and Canadian troops tried to take a city that had become a fortress.
The Importance of Caen
Caen was a site of great strategic importance. Lying at the eastern end of the Allied invasion zone, it lay across communication lines into the heart of France. From here, the Allies could break out into more open country to the southeast, where their tanks could roam more freely. That open space would let them bring superior numbers to bear before the Germans had time to rally more forces. It would also give them access to airfields, extending the range of their fighter cover.
Heading southeast wouldn’t just take the Allies deeper into France. It would mean a push towards Germany, threatening the enemies’ heartland and forcing them to react.
Caen became a vital battleground. By hunkering down in defensive positions around the city, the Germans had the opportunity to hold up an entire flank of the Allied invasion and to keep their homeland safe.
The German Defenders
The forces defending Caen were a mixed group that changed over time. As the Germans responded to the Allied invasion, they threw whatever they could muster into the gaps.
Some of the Germans were from the SS, the military wing of the Nazi party. The SS was regarded by many as a fighting elite, well trained and well equipped. They tended to be more fanatical about the cause of Nazi Germany than other soldiers.
The SS troops at Caen included parts of the 12th SS Panzer division, an armored formation that included Colonel Kurt Meyer, one of Germany’s leading tank commanders.
There were Hitler Youth troops among the SS. These teenagers had been drawn into war through the Nazi Party’s propaganda programs. There were also more conventional soldiers, including artillery units. But the brunt of the fighting was borne by the SS.
The Germans had already been building defenses across Normandy ready for an Allied invasion. As the enemy approached, they dug in around Caen, making use of existing buildings for defensive points. Meyer used the tower of Ardenne Abbey to give him a better view of the fighting.
From the first day of the invasion, Caen was an objective for the British Army and the other troops fighting under British command, including Canadians and Poles.
Their attempts to take the town on the first day were hampered by tough German resistance. As the fighting through the dense Norman countryside intensified, the British became caught on the road to the town.
On the 7th of June, a fresh attempt to break through was made by the 185th Brigade. It failed, taking heavy casualties in the process.
Meanwhile, the Canadians pushed towards the city on its western side. Here, they faced intense fighting against the SS and Hitler Youth forces through the 7th and 8th of June. On the night of the 8th, Meyer launched a counter-attack that almost broke through the Canadian lines and left some units isolated.
For more than two weeks, the British and Canadians sat facing Caen. Despite constant fighting and the added pressure of Allied air power, they were unable to make significant progress towards the city.
Something needed to be done.
On the 26th of July, General Montgomery launched the first in a series of concerted efforts to take Caen. Operation Epsom was a push south through the countryside west of the town. The aim was to swing around and seize high ground south of Caen, giving the Allies the advantage in future fighting.
60,000 men took part in Epsom, supported by over 600 tanks and 700 guns.
From the start, Epsom was a struggle. As elsewhere in Normandy, the Allies faced German troops dug in behind every hedgerow and turn of the road. It was hard to spot the enemy and so British forces often drove straight into danger. A German counter-attack on the 27th was repulsed, but still the going was slow.
On the 29th of June, the 11th Armoured Division finally reached Hill 112 and with it the high ground Epsom was targeting. But just as his men reached this target, General Dempsey made a crucial error. Believing that his troops were too exposed, he withdrew the 11th Armoured division back across the River Odon. The next day, the Germans retook the hill.
Montgomery called an end to Epsom. The Allies made some small advances but had not taken their target. In the process, they had suffered over 4,000 casualties. The Germans had lost around 3,000 and held their ground.
The climax of the fighting for Caen came with Operation Goodwood. Launched on the 18th of July, this combined a British drive past the city with a direct assault by the Canadians, designed to finally push the Germans out.
The Germans clung on through a heavy bombardment, then took their positions as the Canadians advanced. Again, they used their defensive advantage to lay ambushes and force difficult assaults. Anti-aircraft guns were turned into field pieces that could take out the oncoming tanks.
Despite several days of intense fighting, Goodwood didn’t provide the breakthrough Montgomery had expected. But it did change the situation in Caen. Most of the city was now in Allied hands. A month after they had set out to take it, British and Canadian forces had their objective.
The defense of Caen could be considered one of the German successes in Normandy. They inflicted heavy casualties on the Allies and held them up for weeks. The commitment drew their forces away from other areas, and so came at a cost. But the price had been heavier on the other side.
It was awful for the people of Caen. Many died and their city was left in ruins. As the war moved on, they were left rebuilding their lives amid the rubble.