Header image

Chapter 8:

Blunting Goodwood

I SS Panzer Corps and the defeat of Montgomery’s attack.

As British and Canadian troops inched slowly into the devastated ruins of Caen, General Montgomery was putting the final touches to his next major offensive. This one, he hoped, would crack open the German defences in Normandy once and for all. Montgomery planned to throw in three armoured divisions – with 877 tanks which were to be backed by 10,000 assault infantry and 8000 vehicles – into the fray. The biggest preparatory bombardment so far in the campaign – involving some 712 guns, 942 British and 571 US heavy bombers – would deliver a massive 300,000 shells and some 7823 tonnes (7700 tons) of bombs onto the weaker German defenders.

Operation Goodwood, as the offensive was codenamed, would be launched from the small bridgehead over the Orne River, to the east of Caen, that had been seized in the first hours of D-Day by British airborne forces. The target for Operation Goodwood was the Bourguebus ridge above Caen. Standing in the way of the British was a defensive position laid out in considerable depth by the newly appointed German commander of the Caen sector, General of Panzer Troops, Heinrich Eberbach. The frontline was held by the remnants of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. Behind it were the remnants of the 21st Panzer Division, supported by 88mm Flak guns and Tiger tanks. In reserve on the Bourguebus ridge were the Leibstandarte and part of the Hitlerjugend Divisions, and these units were to go into action under the command of the notorious Josef “Sepp” Dietrich.

This would be the first main test of the Leibstandarte’s panzer crews and many of its panzergrenadiers, who had only arrived at the front a week or so earlier. It is estimated that only some 14,000 men of the division were committed to the Normandy battle, because nearly 6000 trained recruits and logistic personnel were left behind at depots in Belgium. After more than a month’s continuous fighting the Hitlerjugend Division was having a long-awaited rest in reserve, except for a strong Kampfgruppe under Max Wünsche, which Hitler ordered to the coast at the Orne estuary to counter a spurious invasion threat. Therefore the initial brunt of the coming fighting would fall on the Leibstandarte’s Panzer Regiment under the command of Jochen Peiper, with 59 Panzer IVs and 46 Panthers. The division’s assault-gun battalion had some 35 StuG IIIs ready for action and the 101st SS Battalion’s 25 Tiger Is. The famous victor of Villers-Bocage, Michael Wittmann, was now in command of this unit.

In total, the Germans could scrape together some 4800 infantry, around 200 tanks and 50 assault guns. In addition to this unconvincing force, they had 36 75mm antitank guns, 72 88mm Flak, 194 field guns and 17 Nebelwerfer rocket launchers. Their ability to blunt Operation Goodwood was doubtful.

The Bourguebus ridge gave German commanders a superb view of Caen below, and meant it was almost impossible for Montgomery to conceal his build-up. Radio intercept units first alerted the Germans to the coming offensive and Dietrich famously put his ear to the ground to listen for the vibration caused by the movement of so many tanks towards the front, a trick picked up during the massive tank battles in Russia.

British onslaught

The Allied artillery barrage began at 05:25 hours on 18 July, and 10 minutes later the RAF bombers appeared overhead and started to unload their deadly cargo on the positions of the 21st Panzer and 16th Luftwaffe Divisions. After nearly 1000 Lancasters had passed over the target zones southeast of Caen, two further waves of bombers, mainly US B-17s, added to the carnage. Hundreds of Germans were killed or wounded, and much equipment damaged or destroyed. Massive 58.9-tonne (58-ton) Tiger tanks were turned upside down, and some German soldiers were driven insane by terror, but Montgomery’s expectations for the bombardment soon proved to be very inaccurate. When the contrails of the last bombers disappeared just before 09:00 hours, the dazed defenders emerged from their bunkers, trenches, or under their tanks to man their defences. While the Luftwaffe division was devastated by the air attack and did not offer serious resistance, the German reserve positions were not so badly hit. All around the battlefield, small groups of determined Germans were preparing for what would happen next. The men of the Waffen-SS units were virtually untouched, and Dietrich immediately alerted them to be ready to counterattack the expected British onslaught.

Moving forward first was the British 11th Armoured Division, with some 214 tanks of the 29th Armoured Brigade leading the way. These were arrayed in attack formation. The division’s lead tank brigades moved out of the Orne bridgehead east of Caen with relative ease, covered by a rolling artillery barrage, then turned south before heading for Bourguebus ridge. In their wake there was chaos. There were not enough bridges for the follow-up artillery and supply units to cross the Orne River, and the 11th Armoured Infantry Brigade became bogged down in clearing two insignificant villages of a few isolated German defenders. When the Guards Armoured Division did get into action, instead of being able to move forward to help its sister division, it ran into just five 88mm Flak guns, eight infantrymen and six Tigers defending the village of Cagny and found itself bogged down for the rest of the day. One of the 29th Brigade’s tank regiments was also sucked into this battle. The 7th Armoured Division was immobilized for the remainder of the day, not because of enemy gunfire, but because ahead of it were thick traffic jams which blocked the Orne River crossings.

Despite having taken a few hits from the 88mm Flak guns and Tigers in Cagny, the 29th Brigade continued to press on to its objective.

The remnants of the 21st Panzer’s assault gun battalion had already started to engage the 29th Brigade’s lead regiment, the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, destroying more than 20 Shermans. It was to conduct a fighting withdrawal towards the Leibstandarte’s “stop line” on Bourguebus ridge. By 10:00 hours Wittmann’s Tigers had already moved up and were ripping into the Shermans of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR).

The Leibstandarte’s commander, SS-Brigadeführer Teddy Wisch, forward on the ridge, was engaged in conducting a detailed reconnaissance. For once, the Allied fighter-bombers were unsuccessful in stopping the movement of the German panzers, and by noon Peiper’s Panther battalion was lying in wait. It had moved up into hull-down ambush positions on the northern slopes of the Bourguebus ridge, where a series of sunken roads provided superb cover for the Waffen-SS tanks. While the Panthers held the British advance, Wisch intended to use his assault gun battalion in order to hit the British armoured phalanx in the flank. Then the panzer regiment would be able to advance forward.

Mobile battle

Peiper’s Panthers fought a mobile battle. While his Panzer IVs and Tigers held ground, he led the Panthers forward four times on raids into the British tanks before withdrawing to cover in order to rearm and reorganize. At 12:45 hours the Panthers moved forward to the village of Soliers to engage the 29th Brigade for the first time. In the space of a few minutes, the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry lost 29 tanks. The regiment ceased to exist as a fighting formation. It took two hours for the British command to form a rescue column from the 23rd Hussars, who had been bogged down fighting the 88mm Flak guns in Cagny. When they arrived below Bourguebus ridge they were greeted by the sight of dozens of Shermans burning across the hillside. Barely had the Hussars realized that there was no regiment to rescue from its predicament than they started to take hits from the combined force of Leibstandarte’s Panthers, Wittmann’s Tigers and the 21st Panzer’s StuG IIIs. Four tanks exploded within minutes of entering the battle, and soon another 16 were out action.

At this point the Leibstandarte’s StuG IIIs started to arrive, and Wisch fed them northwards to hit the right flank of 3 RTR. A further 20 British tanks were destroyed and the 29th Brigade began to waver; however, it did rally for just long enough to enable the Northamptonshire Yeomanry to attempt another move forward. But all of this was to no avail, and when 16 of its Cromwell tanks were knocked out, the regiment couldn’t help but lose heart.

By nightfall panzer crews of the Leibstandarte were looking out on a tank graveyard. At least 160 of the 29th Brigade’s 200 tanks were smouldering hulks. The Fife and Forfars and 3 RTR had each lost more than 40 tanks, while the Guards Armoured Division lost more than 60 tanks in its futile engagement with the 21st Panzer Division around Cagny.

map 8

Operation Goodwood: 18–19 July, 1944

The British claimed to have destroyed more than a dozen Panthers, but the day undoubtedly belong to Peiper’s panzer crews. The lack of German infantry support meant Wisch was unable to press forward and mop up the hundreds of British tanks crews which were wandering around in front of his division’s position among their destroyed vehicles. They received replacement tanks during the night, and the British were ready to attack again on 19 July.

During the night the British desperately tried to sort out the dreadful traffic jams in the Orne bridgehead and reorganize their battered armoured divisions for another attack, this time with three divisions attacking abreast. Just after first light, 3 RTR tried to push forward against the Leibstandarte’s Panthers, only to run into a wall of fire. Pinned down, the regiment lost 43 of its 60 tanks and the remaining Shermans pulled back behind a railway embankment for safety. A rare intervention by Luftwaffe Messerschmitt fighters on a strafing run served further to undermine the morale of the British tank crews.

It would not be until late morning that General O’Connor, still commanding VIII Corps, managed to issue his orders to his shell-shocked and battered divisions for his coordinated attack. The attack could not be started until late afternoon, which gave Dietrich time to feed in the first elements of the Hitlerjugend Division, with two panzergrenadier battalions and some tanks, in between the right flank of the Leibstandarte and 21st Panzer. Wisch’s remaining Panzer IVs were also brought into the “stop line” on Bourguebus ridge, and at last panzergrenadiers arrived in strength to give the Leibstandarte’s defensive line some depth. The British delay even allowed the Leibstandarte to launch a limited counter-attack. Later on that same afternoon, Kampfgruppe Wünsche also returned to the front. It had been caught up in an anti-invasion wild-goose chase, but now it was back it was tasked with providing the beleaguered Dietrich with another armoured reserve. The anticipation for the coming battle was heightened no less by the fact that in many senses this would be the first time the two sister divisions of I SS Panzer Corps had fought side-by-side in battle.

Taking on the Waffen-SS

Lined up from west to east to take on the Waffen-SS was the battered 11th Armoured Division and the fresh 7th Armoured Division, while the Guards Armoured Division was tasked with taking on the Hitlerjugend. Wisch favoured the tactic of concentrating most of his tanks in the centre of the line on the Desert Rats’ axis of advance. This decision would leave the left flank of the division held only by panzergrenadiers and a handful of StuG IIIs and 88mm Flak guns.

When the 11th Armoured began its attack at 16:00 hours, the German defence initially held. This was partly due to a map-reading error on the British side that sent the Northamptonshire Yeomanry driving across the front of the Leibstandarte’s line. It lost five tanks immediately. However, the now re-equipped 3 RTR pressed home the attack, and when it destroyed one of the two StuG IIIs holding the village of Bras, the other StuG withdrew. This was disastrous for the panzergrenadier battalion positioned in the village, as it now found itself without antitank protection. By 17:10 hours, 3 RTR and a British infantry battalion were mopping up in the village, and by the time they had finished, their total number of Waffen-SS prisoners stood at 300.

The Northamptonshire Yeomanry was now launched forward again to exploit this success, only to run into Peiper’s Panthers and more StuG IIIS in hull-down firing positions. In the space of a few minutes, 32 Shermans were ablaze and the British regiment ceased to exist as a fighting unit. As his tanks were dealing with this attack, the weight of the 7th Armoured hit Peiper’s main “stop line” in the centre of the Bourguebus ridge. The rapid loss of eight Shermans stopped the Desert Rats in their tracks, and they made no attempt to close with the Leibstandarte’s hull-down tanks and 88mm Flak guns.

Out on the Leibstandarte’s right flank, the Hitlerjugend found itself on the receiving end of the Guards Armoured’s onslaught. Its defence was stiffened by the arrival of the first Panzerjäger IV self-propelled antitank guns, which boasted powerful L70 long-barrelled 75mm cannons. When the British attacked in the evening, the new weapons proved very effective, destroying several tanks and enabling the Hitlerjugend to hold its ground. The British even mistakenly identified the new Panzerjägers as feared 88mm Flak guns. The Guards did not press forward their attack in the face of the Hitlerjugend’s strong antitank screen, because waterlogged ground meant their tanks could not manoeuvre. The day of 19 July had been a major defensive success for I SS Panzer Corps, and during that day it had knocked out 65 of the 11th Armoured’s tanks and scores of others along its front.

The Canadians join the fray

The 7th Armoured Division tried its luck again against Peiper’s tanks during the morning of 20 July and fared little better, with the County of London Yeomanry losing dozens more tanks to Panthers and Tigers. In the afternoon it was the turn of the Canadians to join Operation Goodwood from their bridgehead in southern Caen. With heavy fighter-bomber support, the Canadian 3rd Division hit the Leibstandarte panzergrenadiers and reconnaissance troops holding the division’s extreme left flank. Typhoons weaved over the battlefield, strafing German tanks and gun positions with impunity. At first the air support proved decisive, and they drove back the Waffen-SS men from several villages. Then, at around 17:00 hours, a massive thunderstorm broke over the battlefield, at a stroke denying the Canadians their advantage. A Leibstandarte panzergrenadier battalion, backed by a company of StuG IIIs, was launched on a counterattack. The Saskatchewan Regiment was overrun and 208 men killed or captured. Then the Kampfgruppe moved against the Essex Scottish Regiment, sending it back in considerable disorder. Leibstandarte panzergrenadiers fought on through the night, pushing the Canadians back, to restore the German line, despite the almost constant heavy rain.

By dawn on 21 July, I SS Panzer Corps was holding firm. After the night’s rain had engulfed the battlefield and turned it into a quagmire, Montgomery reluctantly called off the battle on the morning of 21 July. Operation Goodwood had spectacularly failed to achieve its stated objective: to capture the Bourguebus ridge and break open the German front east of Caen. Meanwhile, Montgomery had lost a total of 413 tanks and 6100 casualties in his futile offensive. Later, he claimed the offensive was only aimed at “writing down” or “attriting” the German panzer reserves and that more than 100 enemy tanks had been destroyed. In fact, less than 75 panzers and assault guns were hit during Operation Goodwood, and most of them were later repaired.

Victory, at a price

Montgomery is on stronger ground when he claims his offensive had strategic implications because it diverted German armoured reserves from the west of the Normandy Front, allowing the US Army to break through at St Lô on 18 July. The famous British general was, however, perhaps using hindsight in claiming that this was his only intended objective for Operation Goodwood. The British had paid a high price for the slender strip of land captured and the modest losses inflicted. British and Canadian morale began to fall.

Montgomery did not give up his ambitions to destroy the German defenders southwest of Caen. The British general now planned a rolling series of offensives to keep Hausser and Bittrich’s Waffen-SS panzer reserves occupied while the Americans launched their long-awaited decisive attack in the West.

The first of these offensives fell to the Canadians to conduct, and it would see them attacking the Leibstandarte on the Bourguebus ridge. They would be sent into attack over almost the same ground that O’Connor’s VIII Corps had been butchered on six days before.

map 9

Operation Goodwood: 19–21 July, 1944

Operation Spring started with a night attack early in the morning of 25 July, after an air strike by 60 medium bombers. Then the Canadian infantry regiment of the 3rd Canadian Division advanced straight into the guns of the Leibstandarte. At 400m (437yd) in front of their lines, the Waffen-SS tanks and panzergrenadiers opened fire. The North Nova Scotias were pinned down for more than 16 hours. Its supporting tank squadron was massacred by the Leibstandarte’s hull-down Panthers, losing 11 out of its 16 tanks. By the time the regiment pulled back under cover of dusk, only 100 men returned. The 3rd Division’s attacked was stopped dead.

The 2nd Canadian Division simultaneously attacked the left flank of the Leibstandarte. They benefitted from the presence of a 17-pounder antitank gun battery that neutralized the Waffen-SS panzers and StuG IIIs, knocking out four tanks. Without panzer support, the Leibstandarte panzergrenadiers had to pull back, and by dawn the Royal Highland Light Infantry (RHLI) had captured the village of Verrières. British tanks of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) were now sent forward to exploit this success. They ran into dug-in Leibstandarte StuG IIIs and soon British tanks were burning across the hillside. Later in the morning, it was the turn of the Black Watch of Canada to attack. They were enfiladed by panzer fire from high ground to the west, and their supporting tanks were decimated, so by the time they reached the crest of the Bourguebus ridge there only 60 men left. More than 300 dead and wounded were littering the battlefield by 17:00 hours.

Now the Leibstandarte launched a panzergrenadier counterattack, led by 10 Panzer IVs. They were closing in on the RHLI in Verrières when two squadrons of RAF Typhoons swooped down, rocketing three German tanks.

Few gains for the Allies

When the full casualty returns started to arrive at II Canadian Corps’ headquarters during the evening, senior commanders were horrified. More than 450 men were dead and some 1000 wounded, yet the frontline had only moved a few hundred metres farther south.

It took the British and Canadians six days to recover from the shock of Operation Spring. The 2nd Canadian Division was ordered to seize part of the summit of the Bourguebus ridge centred around Tilly-la-Campagne. After initial skirmishing on the night of 29/30 July, the main attack went in at 02:30 hours on 31 July led by the Calgary Highlanders. All day long, vicious fighting raged through the village. Canadian tanks and RAF Typhoons were thrown into the battle but by the evening the Leibstandarte panzergrenadiers held firm. More than 200 Canadians were killed or wounded. For the next three days, the Canadians resorted to pounding the village with artillery and air strikes, in between daily attempts to storm it. Each time, they were driven off with heavy losses. For the Leibstandarte men holding out in the ruins of Tilly-la-Campagne, this period entered their division’s folklore as the most intense bombardment it had endured in six years of war.

As the Leibstandarte held firm south of Caen, the Hitlerjugend was withdrawn from the front to act as reserve for Dietrich’s I SS Panzer Corps. Almost two months into the Normandy campaign, Kurt Meyer’s division had suffered 3500 casualties. Its operational tank strength stood at 61 Panthers, 39 Panzer IVs and 27 Panzerjäger IVs on 30 July, as well as 19 Tigers of the attached 101st SS Battalion. The Leibstandarte was in better shape, and had 61 Panzer IVs, 40 Panthers and 23 StuG IIIs ready for action.

Operation Express

To the east of Dietrich’s corps, Bittrich’s Frundsberg Division had been holding firm on Hill 112 for more than two weeks, after the 43rd Division’s failed attempt to take the strategic high ground. Montgomery kept feeding in units to keep up the pressure on the Frundsberg and 272nd Infantry Divisions. Thanks to the presence of the Tigers of the 102nd SS Battalion, most of these attempts failed with heavy losses. One Tiger was always kept on the hill’s summit while the rest of the battalion’s 19 tanks were held in reserve. Operation Express on 22 July saw two battalions of the Wiltshire Regiment, backed by the Churchills of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment (9 RTR), try to sweep up the eastern slope of the hill after they had taken the village of Maltot. The Tigers and Churchills clashed head on and the British tanks were getting the worst of the engagement, losing six tanks, when a forward air controller called down a squadron of Typhoons. The Tigers withdrew into cover, leaving the village in British hands along with 400 Wehrmacht prisoners. Hill 112 remained firmly in German hands for yet another week.

The Hohenstaufen Division was called back from the left flank of Frundsberg at the height of the Operation Goodwood battle and positioned in the Orne valley, guarding the southern suburbs of Caen. It helped the Leibstandarte defeat Montgomery’s armoured offensive, forming a Kampfgruppe to take back three villages taken by Canadian troops. Early in the morning on 22 July, two of the division’s Panthers led forward a panzergrenadier battalion which ran into heavy antitank gunfire. By the end of the day, 9 of the division’s 24 Panthers were out of action, but the key villages were secured. As Operation Spring got underway against the Leibstandarte on 25 July, the Hohenstaufen was also hit hard by Canadian troops. To restore the line, the division’s panzer regiment and 102nd SS Battalion Tigers rolled forward, inflicting heavy losses on the attacking tanks.

Halted to the east, south and west of Caen by Hausser and Bittrich’s panzer corps, Montgomery now switched the focus of his attack to the far west of the British sector. On 30 July, he launched Operation Bluecoat southwards towards Vire and Mount Pincon, with the 7th, 11th and Guards Armoured Divisions in the lead. II SS Panzer Corps was now diverted to block this move that punched a hole in the thinly held sector of the German line. Hohenstaufen led the move with 22 Panzer IVs, 29 Panthers and 27 StuG IIIs. The 102nd SS Battalion’s 30 Tigers followed close behind. A “fast group” Kampfgruppe from Hitlerjugend, made up of a company of 13 Panthers and panzergrenadiers in armoured halftracks, was also sent to help Bittrich’s corps. RAF Typhoons soon located the Waffen-SS tank columns in the afternoon on 2 August. They launched 923 sorties, destroying 13 tanks and 76 trucks, holding up the deployment of the Germans tanks for most of the day. British armour was advancing through open countryside and French villagers came out to greet their liberators with some long-hidden bottles of champagne.

The advance Hohenstaufen panzer Kampfgruppe engaged the 11th Armoured Division near le Beny-Bocage on the afternoon of 2 August, knocking out five Cromwells in the process. The Tigers went into action against the 23rd Hussars near Chenedolle, turning a squadron’s worth of Shermans into burning pyres. The bulk of I SS Panzer Corps was committed the following day and the British attack was brought to a standstill.

The 102nd SS Battalion’s Tigers were in the forefront of the action around Vire, and conducted an ambush against the regimental headquarters of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. Then Frundsberg’s panzer Kampfgruppe – with 7 Panzer IVs and 18 Panthers – entered the fray and were responsible for destroying 20 British tanks. This and other attacks carried out by the Waffen-SS panzers brought British tank losses since the start of Operation Bluecoat to a massive 200 vehicles.

Then Bittrich launched a counterattack into the rear of the British incursion at Chenedolle. Hohenstaufen’s Panthers were to account for 39 British tanks as they rolled forward, and they cut British supply lines. Panzergrenadiers stalked British tanks in the woods during the night, knocking out scores with Panzerfaust bazookas. Bittrich’s tired troops kept pressing forward until the battle reached a climax on 6 August.

Bittrich had brought Operation Bluecoat to a halt, but his thinly stretched and tired troops could now do no more. They established a strong defensive line around Vire and made sure the British paid a heavy price if they tried to advance again. Over the following two days, Waffen-SS Tigers alone accounted for 38 British tanks.

Despite Bittrich’s success, the foundations of the German front in Normandy were now starting to crack. Having received no reinforcements since late June, Waffen-SS officers were beginning to wonder whether they could hold on against the enemy for much longer.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!