Monday 6 September 2010

Stupid blunders in battles and wars (Part I)

'Operation Spring' was an offensive operation conducted by II Canadian Corps (Black Watch) during the Normandy campaign. The plan was intended to create pressure on the German forces operating on the British and Canadian front simultaneously to American offensive operations in their sector known as 'Operation Cobra', an attempt to break out from the Normandy lodgement. Specifically, 'Operation Spring' was intended to capture Verrières Ridge and the towns on the south slope of the ridge. However, strong German defenses on the ridge, as well as strict adherence to a defensive doctrine of counterattacks, stalled the offensive on the first day, inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking forces, while preventing a breakout in the Anglo-Canadian sector.

On July 22, 1944, Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commander of 21st Army Group, ordered General Simonds (commander of II Canadian Corps) to devise a breakout offensive along Verrières Ridge, to be launched in conjunction with 'Operation Cobra', the American breakout to the west.

The second phase required the Calgary Highlanders to move from St. Martin to capture May-Sur-Orne and Bourguebus Ridge, thus securing the flanks of Verrières Ridge. In the third phase, the Black Watch would move from Hill 61 to St. Martin, assemble, and attack Verrières Ridge with tank and artillery support. In the fourth phase, Simonds would move in armor and artillery to reach the final objectives south of the ridge, thus making a bulge in German lines, and increasing the chance of a breakout from Normandy. Each phase of the plan required precise timing. If any phase of the plan didn’t reach its objective, it could result in total disaster for the entire operation.

The Germans were expecting further attacks in the Caen area and consequently reinforced Verrières Ridge in the days preceding the attack there. By the end of July 24, 480 tanks, 500 field guns, and four additional infantry battalions had been moved into the sector. Ultra intercepted coding signaling this, and delivered it to General Simond's HQ, although it is unknown if he actually received the notice.

At 0330, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders attacked Tilly La Campagne. Simonds had developed a complex lighting system using spotlights reflected off of clouds, thus allowing the North Novas to see the enemy positions. This also meant that the North Novas were clear targets for German defenders, and were forced to fight ferociously to gain ground. By 0430, a flare was fired by the lead companies, indicating that the objective had been taken. Within the next hour, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Petch began to move reinforcements into the village to assist with "mopping up" the last German defenders.

To their west, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, although encountering stiff initial opposition, managed to secure Verrières Village by 0530. At 0750, Lt.-Col. John Rockingham reported to Simonds that his battalion had firmly entrenched themselves in the objective.

On July 25, the Calgary Highlanders attempted assaults on May-sur-orne and Bourguebus Ridge. Unfortunately, the assembly area of St. Martin was still crawling with German troops. However, two companies of Calgary Highlanders bypassed St. Martin and reached the outskirts of May-Sur-Orne. Radio contact was lost after that, and both companies took extremely heavy casualties. Towards the late morning, the Calgary Highlanders secured St. Martin, and then attacked Bourguebus Ridge. Heavy casualties were taken in two attacks, and the Calgary Highlanders struggled to hold onto May-Sur-Orne.

Of all of the phases of the plan, Phase III likely required the most exact timing. Two previous attempts, by both the Essex Scottish Regiment and South Saskatchewan Regiment, had ended in slaughter. Unfortunately for the Black Watch, things went wrong right from the start. Their armour and artillery support never did show up (or when it did, it was destroyed), and they were four hours late reaching their assembly area of St. Martin, the Black Watch ran into heavy German resistance moving from Hill 61 to the village. When they did attack Verrières Ridge, they were subject to vicious counter fire from three sides (The "factory" area south of St. Martin, Verrières Ridge itself, and German units on the other side of the Orne). Within minutes, communications had broken down, and the Black Watch lost all but 15 of its attacking soldiers.

In mid July, German forces believed that Simonds's offensive would be the main push out of Normandy. As a result, the elite forces of the SS were concentrated there. However, when ‘Operation Cobra’ went ahead, German high command realized that Cobra was the main offensive, and thus transferred troops to that area. When ‘Operation Totalize’ was launched in August, the objectives were taken with relative ease. The Canadian Army's official history refers to Spring as a "holding attack" in that it was launched with offensive objectives, but also firmly with the intent to delay the redeployment of forces westward.

The South Saskatchewans had gone up the Verrieres slope ahead of the Essex and soon found themselves floundering in a hell-dance almost as flaming and body-consuming as that of Dieppe. They were forced to pull back or face the reality of annihilation. They left behind them, however, on the grassy slope, a lot of good men, men they’d sorely need in the days ahead. Their casualties numbered 66 killed, 116 wounded and 26 taken prisoner. Four days later in operation ‘Spring’ it would be the Black Watch’s turn to take a beating. They left behind even more men lying dead in the grain than had the regiment from the prairies. In fact, it came about as close to being wiped out as had the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Essex Scottish two years earlier on the bloodied stones at Dieppe. It was another black day for the 2nd Infantry Division.

As the prairie boys pulled back off the ridge on the 21st of July, hounded by small-arms fire all the way, they passed through the two lead companies of the Essex Scottish, who were already taking casualties from mortar bombs as well as snipers and intermittent machine gun fire. Dog Company, the Essex, led by Capt. Cy Steele of Chatham, Ontario, resolutely pushed on, though the small-arms fire thickened in intensity. All around them, bodies lay scattered about amidst the flourishing grain - their faces holding the gray pallor and serenity of death. The wounded were intermixed with the dead. As Bill Greaves describes it, he had to step around and over the bodies of South Saskatchewans carpeting the slope. Bill and his buddies had only a moment or two to contemplate what had happened here and what lay ahead for them, when suddenly they were hit by a whirlwind of 88mm shells fired at them by German tanks. Machine gun fire laced into their ranks from several directions. And as they went to ground, mortars zeroed in on them. Although the two companies had gone to ground, there was no protection for them there. The thick stand of grain offered concealment only. The stalks of wheat could neither turn aside nor stop the streams of 7.92mm steel-jacketed slugs slashing into flesh, bone and sinew. Nor could the grain stop the storm of white-hot, razor-sharp shrapnel perforating and slicing into their bodies as they pressed hard into the soggy soil in helpless desperation to escape death. The enemy, at full strength and in strongly set-up positions on the ridge, supported by mammoth 88mm-gunned tanks, knew exactly where the Essex had gone to ground, and poured everything they had at them. No amount of bravery could help the hapless infantry in that situation. To move forward was to die.

All of the gains made by the Black Watch and Calgary Highlanders were lost to German counterattacks, which inflicted heavy losses on the Highlanders and the previously unscathed Black Watch support company. The Black Watch had to be reformed after Verrières Ridge, having sustained more casualties than any Canadian infantry battalion since the disastrous raid on Dieppe.

The failure to capture the ridge had little effect on the overall Allied position, as the success of ‘Operation Cobra’ was so overwhelming that the Germans diverted significant resources, including two Panzer Divisions, from the ridge in their attempt to keep Bradley's forces boxed in.

‘Operation Spring’s losses were about 500 killed with a further 1,000 captured or wounded.

The role of the Black Watch was most gallant but was tactically unsound in its detailed execution. Recently declassified wartime documents show that General Simonds along with several others in the Allied high Command had likely been notified on July 23 of a massive German buildup on the ridge. Some historians subsequently accused Simonds of being too careless with the lives of his men. He should have ordered them to make a withdrawal but instead, he ordered his men to move onward towards the Ridge and as a result of his order, the men of the Black Watch were either killed, wounded or captured. None of them escaped the onslaught of the German tanks Verrières Ridge.

Why did these men die so needlessly? It was mainly because of the stupidity of General Simonds. How easy it is to order men to move forward to their deaths when you are safe in the rear.

No comments: