Operation Atlantic was a Canadian offensive during the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War, from July 18–20, 1944. This Canadian offensive was launched in conjunction with a British-led offensive, Operation Goodwood. Operation Atlantic was initially successful, with gains made on the flanks of the Orne River near Saint-André-sur-Orne, but an attack by the 4th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades against strongly defended German positions on Verrières Ridge resulted in heavy casualties and limited strategic gain.
The historic Norman town of Caen was a D-Day objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division that landed on Sword Beach on 6 June 1944. The capture of Caen, while "ambitious", was the most important D-Day objective assigned to Lieutenant-General Crocker and I Corps.[nb 1] Operation Overlord called for Second Army to secure the city and then form a front line from Caumont-l'Éventé to the south-east of Caen, to acquire ground for airfields and protect the left flank of the United States First Army while it moved on Cherbourg. Possession of Caen and its surroundings would give Second Army jumping-off points to attack southwards and capture Falaise, a pivot for a swing right to advance on Argentan and then the Touques River. The terrain between Caen and Vimont was open, dry and conducive to swift offensive operations. Since the Allied forces greatly outnumbered the Germans in tanks and mobile units, a mobile battle was to their advantage.
The 3rd Division was unable to assault Caen in force and was brought to a halt short of its outskirts. Follow-up attacks fauled as German resistance solidified and Operation Perch, a pincer attack by I and XXX Corps, began on 7 June, to encircle Caen from the east and west. I Corps, striking south out of the Orne bridgehead, was halted by the 21st Panzer Division and the attack by XXX Corps bogged down in front of Tilly-sur-Seulles against the Panzer-Lehr-Division. In an effort to force the Panzer-Lehr to withdraw or surrender and to keep operations fluid, the 7th Armoured Division pushed through a recently created gap in the German front line, to capture the town of Villers-Bocage. The resulting day long battle saw the vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division withdraw from the town but by 17 June Panzer-Lehr had been forced back and XXX Corps had taken Tilly-sur-Seulles. Further offensive operations were postponed on 19 June, when a severe storm descended upon the English Channel for three days and delayed the Allied build-up.
Operation Epsom began after the storm, in which VIII Corps to advance to Bretteville-sur-Laize, to encircle Caen. VIII Corps attacked west of Caen, southwards across the River Odon and the Orne. The attack was preceded by Operation Martlet to secure VIII Corps by capturing the high ground on the right of their axis of advance. The Germans managed to contain the offensive but used all their tanks, including two panzer divisions newly arrived in Normandy. A planned offensive against British and American positions around Bayeux was cancelled. Several days later Second Army launched a new offensive, codenamed Operation Charnwood, to gain possession of Caen. Charnwood incorporated a postponed attack on Carpiquet, originally planned for Epsom as Operation Ottawa but now codenamed Operation Windsor. In a frontal assault the northern half of the city was captured. German forces still held possession of the city on the southern side of the Orne river including the Colombelles steel works, a vantage point for artillery observers.
On 10 July General Bernard Montgomery, commander of all Allied ground forces in Normandy, held a meeting with Lieutenant-Generals Miles Dempsey and Omar Bradley, respectively the commanders of British Second Army and the United States First Army, at his headquarters to discuss the next attacks to be launched by 21st Army Group following the conclusion of Operation Charnwood and the failure of the First Army's initial breakout offensive. Montgomery approved Operation Cobra, a major break out attempt to be launched by the First Army on 18 July, and ordered Dempsey to "go on hitting: drawing the German strength, especially the armour, onto yourself - so as to ease the way for Brad[ley]".
Detailed planning for Operation Goodwood stated on Friday 14 July However on 15 July Montgomery issued a written order to Dempsey, scaling back the operation. These new orders changed the operation from a "deep break-out to a limited attack". The intention of the operation was now "to engage the German armour in battle and "write it down" to such an extent that it is of no further value to the Germans" and improve the Second Army's position. The orders stated that "a victory on the eastern flank will help us to gain what we want on the western flank" but warned that operations must not endanger Second Army's position as it was a "firm bastion" that was needed for the success of American operations. It was stressed that II Canadian Corps objectives were now vital and only following their completion would VIII Corps ""crack about" as the situation demands".
II Canadian Corps would launch an attack, codenamed Operation Atlantic, on the western flank of VIII Corps to liberate Caen south of the Orne river. The Corps orders were issued the following day. The Canadians were ordered to liberate Colombelles and the remaining portion of Caen. Following the capture of these areas the Corps was to be prepared to capture the Verrières Ridge. The Atlantic–Goodwood operation was planned to commence on 18 July, two days before the planned start of Operation Cobra.
Preparations for Atlantic were delegated to Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds of II Canadian Corps, his first action as the commander of the formation. Simonds planned the operation as a two-pronged assault, relying on the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions to capture Vaucelles, Colombelles, and the opposite banks of the Orne River. On the morning of 18 July, the 3rd Division would cross the Orne near Colombelles, and then proceed south towards Route Nationale 158. The 3rd Division would then move to capture Cormelles. The 2nd Division, under the command of Charles Foulkes, would attack from Caen to the south-east, crossing the Orne to capture the outskirts of Vaucelles. They would then use Cormelles as a jumping-off point for an attack on the high ground near Verrières Ridge three miles to the south.
On the morning of July 20, with heavy aircraft support, advance elements of the 2nd Canadian Infantry were able to capture Colombelles and Faubourg-de-Vaucelles, a series of industrial suburbs just south of Caen along the Orne River. By mid-afternoon, two companies of the Black Watch were able to cross the Orne River, with A Company taking fewer than twenty casualties. Additional Battalions from 5th Brigade managed to push southward to Saint-André-sur-Orne. With the east bank of the Orne River secured, forces of the 4th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades moved into position for an assault on Verrières Ridge, preparing to engage a forces of the 12th and 1st SS Panzer Divisions along the slopes of Verrières Ridge.
The failure to seize Verrières Ridge led Montgomery to issue orders on 22 July for another offensive, this time to be a "holding attack", within the next few days, to be launched in conjunction with Operation Cobra. As a result, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds formulated the plans for Operation Spring. However, the contemporaneous Battle of Verrières Ridge claimed over 2,600 Canadian casualties by the end of 26 July.
The Canadian Official Historian, C. P. Stacey, gave Canadian casualties in all services of 1,965 men, 441 of whom were killed or died of wounds. Copp recorded from 1,349–1,965 Canadian casualties in Operation Atlantic, the majority in the 4th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades.
During the Battle of Caen, the Germans had fortified the 90-foot (27 m) high ridge with guns, tanks, Nebelwerfers, mortars and infantry from several divisions. After Operation Goodwood, The Calgary Highlanders had established outposts on Verrières Ridge, at Point 67 on the northern spur. On July 20, The South Saskatchewan Regiment, with support from The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment) and Hawker Typhoons, assaulted the ridge. The Cameron Highlanders from Winnipeg attacked Saint-André-sur-Orne but were repulsed. The main attack took place in torrential rain, which grounded aircraft and bogged down tanks and the infantry struggled to advance in the mud. The South Saskatchewans lost 282 casualties and when tanks drawn from two SS-Panzer Divisions counter-attacked, the Canadian infantry were forced back beyond the start-line, as were The Essex Scottish who had c. 300 casualties. On July 21, the front was reinforced by The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada and The Calgary Highlanders, which with support from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, were able to halt counter-attacks by the two SS-Panzer divisions, albeit with heavy casualties.
- "The quick capture of that key city Caen and the neighbourhood of Carpiquet was the most ambitious, the most difficult and the most important task of Lieutenant-General J.T. Crocker's I Corps". Wilmot states "The objectives given to Crocker's seaborne divisions were decidedly ambitious, since his troops were to land last, on the most exposed beaches, with the farthest to go, against what was potentially the greatest opposition." However Miles Dempsey always considered the possibility that the immediate seizure of Caen might fail.
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