I’m writing you a bit later in the day because I’ve been busy up to this moment. This morning I got a call to go to a nearby farmer’s house and found a woman in premature labor. She was between 6 and 7 mos pregnant and had been terrifically frightened by a recent shelling. Well – with what instruments I had, plus some towels – I delivered her. The baby was stillborn, of course – but she was certainly glad to get it over with. It’s been some time now since I delivered anyone – but it was just as natural as anything – except for the poor working conditions. One of my boys acted as a midwife – there being no neighbors around to help.
Caen is the ancient capital of Lower Normandy, situated 148 miles NW of Paris and 74 miles SE of Cherbourg on the banks of the River Orne. It was a vital road and rail junction that the Allies needed to capture before they could advance south through the excellent tank country of the Falaise Plain. Because of its strategic significance, Hitler had ordered that Caen be defended to the last man by the well-prepared and resolute German defense that included fanatical SS soldiers and the potent 'Hitler Youth' Armored Division. The Royal Air Force played a crucial part in the Drive on Caen with more than 1250 aircraft, operating from bases in Normandy and Britain, destroying numerous tanks and armored vehicles as well as attacking railway traffic bringing reinforcements into the area. The British Second Army sought to capture Caen while the American First Army aimed to seize the port of Cherbourg. General Montgomery had hoped Caen might be reached on D-Day itself, but northern Caen did not fall until 9 July.
In the days immediately following D-Day, in Operation "Perch" (9-14 June), the Second (British) Army found themselves in a series of fierce actions against determined enemy resistance. In the first three days, they managed to push the front line only a few miles further south while incurring heavy casualties. On 12 June Lieutenant-General Bucknall learned there was a weak spot in the German line five miles SSW of Bayeaux. He ordered his 7th Armored Division (known as the "Desert Rats") to swing west around the resilient German defensive line, and audaciously thrust west to seize the high ground at Villers-Bocage, thus threatening the rear of the elite 12th SS Hitler Youth Armored Division. They were able to capture Villers-Bocage by the 13th of June. Unfortunately, the commander of an SS Heavy Tank Battalion - and one of Germany's leading tank aces - responded by launching a series of rapid counter-attacks using 13 Tiger heavy tanks supported by infantry. The British forces in Villers-Bocage were caught by surprise and within two hours were mauled, losing 53 armored vehicles in the process. Wittmann lost four of his precious Tigers.
In the aftermath of the setback at Villers-Bocage, the Second (British) Army mounted small-scale attacks, compelling the Germans to commit their newly arriving armored reserves to shore up their hard-pressed front line. Montgomery felt that this fulfilled his original intention of aiding the American advance towards Cherbourg by tying down German resources in the east. Meanwhile, Operation "Epsom" was developed for the next major offensive against Caen (25-30 June). The aim was to cross the River Odin in the close hedgerow countryside to the west of Caen, push beyond the Orne and seize the high ground that commanded the southern approaches to the city. If successful, this advance would compel the Germans to withdraw from Caen. Over 700 guns, 600 tanks and 60,000 troops (with little combat experience) were available for this campaign. Waiting in well-prepared defensive positions was the potent German 12th SS Hitler Youth. The 2nd SS Armored division and II-SS Armored Corps were moving toward the area to launch a major counter-offensive against Bayeaux that would throw the enemy back into the sea.
The great storm of 19-22 June upset preparations for Epsom, and denied the British the planned preliminary aerial bombing raid on the German positions. On 25 June a preparatory attack failed even though the RAF flew 525 sorties to prevent Luftwaffe operations over the battlefield. Close air support was also disabled by the weather, and, in spite of massive artillery support, enemy fire poured into the British from three sides on 26 June. Still, British tanks attempted to push down to the River Odon. Several thrusts were stopped. During the night of 26-27 June, help from reinforcements allowed the British to cross the Oden and establish a bridgehead to its south. On the 27th, the Germans received orders to attack the British on the Odon and after much give and take, pushed the British back across the Odon by the 29th. However, weather now permitted British aircraft both to intervene in Germany's attempt to bring in reinforcements and to keep the Luftwaffe out of the ground battle. Tenacious British defense and accurate artillery fire fragmented German attacks. But caution kept the British on the defensive, and Epsom was concluded prematurely on 30 June, having cost the British some 4020 casualties, 58% of which were within the 15th (Scottish) Division.
During 1–2 July, the II-SS Armored Corps continued to probe and bombard the Odon Valley and the British tried to improve their own positions, but neither side launched major attacks. It was not until 8 July that the next offensive against Caen, code-named Operation "Charnwood", was launched. To soften up the German defenses prior to the attack, as well as to limit the enemy's ability to resupply their forces, Montgomery requested a massive aerial strike. During the late evening of 7 July, 443 British Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers dropped 2,276 tons of munitions on Caen. Because of concerns about the risk of friendly-fire casualties, Montgomery's staff asked Bomber Command to strike the rear portion of the German defensive zone, located along the northern fringe of the city, four miles behind the front line. Unfortunately, the bombing instead inflicted heavy losses on French civilians and only modest casualties to the enemy. It also left the battle area severely cratered, thus hampering Allied ground operations. Finally, the Allieds left a 5-hour gap between the bombing and the ground assault which gave the enemy time to recover. The major benefit was that stray bombs destroyed several of the city's bridges thus hampering the enemy's resupply efforts.
Northern Caen Smolders after Attacks by Allied Bombers
Just before midnight on 7 June, massed Allied artillery initiated a powerful bombardment that continued until the ground attack began four hours later on 8 July. With the Germans temporarily stunned, the initial attacks went well. By dawn, the initial phase of the operation was complete. The Allies had advanced 1-1/4miles deep into the German position. Next, British fighter bombers struck dozens of enemy positions, followed by 250 American medium bombers softening up the enemy in preparation for the second phase of the offensive. By nightfall, three concentric divisional thrusts had reached a line less than 950 yards north of the city. During the night, the Germans began to withdraw their heavy weapons and some of their now exhausted troops from the northern half of the city, defying Hitler's express order that Caen be held to the last man. On the morning of 9 July Allied forces fought their way painfully through the rubble morass that had once been Caen, their progress slowed by German snipers, booby traps and mines. In two days of savage fighting, First (British) Corps had incurred 3500 casualties but had captured northern Caen. Not much remained of Caen on 10 July 1944.
|Rue de Bayeux, Caen after Bombs of 8 July 1944|
|Rue de Bayeux, Today|