Operation Goodwood was the name given to the Allies attempt to capture the city of Caen in Normandy. Operation Goodwood was started in July 1944 and by the time Goodwood was declared over the city of Caen was in ruins. Ironically, the people who had come to rescue Caen from German occupation were also the same people who caused far more damage to the ancient city than the German occupiers had done. However, by the end of Operation Goodwood the city was freed of German control and for the civilians who lived in Caen, they had their city back. It may have been extensively damaged, but it was under French control one again.
The landings at D-Day in June 1944 had by and large been highly successful. Despite the heavy American casualties at Omaha Beach, the general conclusion of the invasion of Normandy was that it had been very successful. However, for D-Day the Allies had the element of surprise. Hitler had become convinced that an Allied invasion would be in the Pays de Calais region and he had ordered his commanders to prepare for such. Therefore, the German forces stationed at the Normandy beaches were not as strong as they could have been such was the success of Allied subterfuge. However, the landings had been a wakeup call for the German military. The Allies found that breaking out of the Normandy beaches was more difficult. The initial successes in the immediate aftermath of D-Day when the Allies neared the town of Bayeaux were not sustained. The German Army, despite the activities of the French Resistance and the constant bombing by the RAF and USAAF, proved to be a far greater opponent in the month of July. The failure of the Allies to successfully push into the Normandy hinterland led to a number of pushes variously codenamed Atlantic, Tractable, Totalise and Spring. Operation Goodwood was part of this push with Caen the target. The push out of Normandy and past Caen led to a major engagement in Normandy at Falaise where the Germans lost a considerable number of men and equipment and basically made any chance of holding off the Allied advance in France all but impossible.
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day there had been a number of plans to advance on Caen. However, throughout June the Allies came up against ferocious German resistance. German troops who had been stationed in and around Calais to fight off Hitler’s imagined invasion were moved to Normandy. The relative ease with which British forces had captured Sword Beach on June 6th was not repeated later in the month when units from the British 3rd Infantry Division came up against German troops from the 21st Panzer Division and the Panzer Lehr Division. Neither side got the upper hand in June and July was clearly going to be a pivotal month for control of Normandy.
The Allies were further hindered when a storm destroyed the Mulberry Harbour on June 19th. This meant that desperately needed supplies were not available in that month and most operations had to be delayed until July when the supply issue had improved.
Operation Goodwood started on July 18th 1944, six weeks after D-Day. The British led the operation. They had moved up their massed armoured units on July 17th under the cover of dark in complete radio silence and with Allied artillery gunfire on German positions that disguised the noise of the tanks as they moved. Their specific target was eastern Caen. The British I and VIII Corps were supported by the Canadians whose objective was the west of the city (Operation Atlantic). While the primary objective of Goodwood was the capture of Caen, it also had a secondary objective: to tie up German forces in and around the city so that they could not be withdrawn and moved to where US forces were advancing as part of Operation Cobra.
British intelligence had given the British commander, General Miles Dempsey, much useful information about German strengths in and around Caen. German tank strength was thought to be in the region of 230, which included Tiger and King Tiger tanks. It was also thought that the Germans had a total of around 300 artillery guns of various sizes in the area. The most feared of these were the 88 mm guns that had proved highly effective against Allied tanks throughout Normandy.
Dempsey’s men moved forward after an aerial bombardment carried out by 2,000 bombers from the RAF and USAAF – the largest employment of bombers for any single operation in the Normandy campaign. The aircraft dropped a total of 4,800 tons of high explosive bombs and 1,900 tons of fragmentation bombs. Only twenty-five bombers were lost. Once they had done their job, aircraft such as the RAF Typhoon (the ‘tankbuster’) attacked individual targets on the ground.
This was followed by an artillery bombardment carried out using 760 artillery guns that had been allocated nearly 300,000 shells just for Operation Goodwood. The desire of the Allies to take Caen was matched by the Germans desire to keep control of what they considered to be the most important town –the linchpin – in Normandy.
As Dempsey’s tanks moved forward at 07.45 on July 18th, they moved behind a creeping barrage laid down by the artillery. This was combined with one final aerial bombardment that was designed to keep the Germans in Caen under cover. Engineers had cleared nineteen paths of German mines. Each path was twelve metres across – enough for an armoured column to advance safely.
On paper, everything was going according to plan for Dempsey. However, in reality, this was not the case. The aerial bombardment had not done as much damage as had been hoped. Ironically, the HE bombs used in the first bomber wave had thrown up so much dust and rubble that the next wave of bombers could not accurately pinpoint their targets. However, what they had done was to signal to the Germans that the attack on Caen had started. A second problem faced by Dempsey was that his armoured columns were not keeping up with the creeping barrage laid down by his artillery. However, the leading units from the 29th Armoured Brigade were going faster than their support units and became isolated. What had started as an attack by three armoured divisions swiftly became an advance by two armoured regiments with each not being able to communicate with the other.
To counter this, the German officer in command, General Ebernach, ordered an attack on the British positions. This attack was carried out by the 1st SS Panzer Division and the 21st Panzer Division. They quickly recaptured lost ground but the potency of this counter-attack was neutralised by RAF Typhoons. The Germans had no answer to the air-launched rockets of these aircraft as the Allies had effective control of the skies around Caen and the Typhoons were too fast to be overly troubled by German anti-aircraft fire.
The Germans faced many problems but one of the most difficult was that they could not easily replace lost tanks nor repair damaged ones. Replacement tanks brought up from the reserve were invariably attacked from the air and many never made it as far as the battlefront. Fuelling them was a major problem as well. Operational tanks were also very vulnerable to attack from the air – something the Germans could do little about. Ebernach was faced with numerous problems. If he ordered counter-attacks, there was a real chance that he would lose more tanks. For example, on the night of the 18th/19th, a counterattack against British positions led to the loss of three Panthers and one Tiger tanks. If he withdrew and then consolidated his lines, it only put off the inevitable – that his men would have to eventually face the armoured might of the Allies.
On July 19th, the Germans started a major counterattack. It lasted until the 20th. It failed and by the end of July 20th, Caen was under the control of the Allies. The British continued their attack to the east of Caen and captured an extra seven miles of land previously held by the Germans. In the process they destroyed a further 100 German tanks.
In total Operation Goodwood cost the British 4,837 men killed, wounded or captured. They lost 140 tanks destroyed and 174 damaged, 311 in total. Many of the damaged tanks were repairable.
One of the legacies of Goodwood was that the Germans believed that the British and Canadian sectors of the Allied front was their strongest and that any major inroads into German lines was most likely in the sectors controlled by the British and Canadians. Therefore, the German High Command kept six and a half Panzer divisions facing the British and Canadians while only one-and-a-half Panzer Divisions faced the Americans in Operation Cobra.
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