Operation Atlantic was launched by the Canadians on 18 July 1944. Operation Atlantic was started at the same time as Operation Goodwood , the British attack to capture the west of Caen and the area that surrounded the city. Operation Atlantic had the objectives of capturing the eastern section of Caen and securing the western bank of the Orne River and Verrières Ridge, which would have given the Allies a commanding view over German positions to the south of the ridge.
The landings on the Normandy beaches on June 6th 1944 had been a huge success. Despite the loss of life at Omaha Beach, the Americans had still succeeded in establishing a beachhead while the landings at the four other beaches were not only successful but had succeeded with a minimal loss of life. Intricate planning had been the key to success at D-Day along with Hitler’s belief that the Allies would land in the Pays de Calais. His ‘intuition’ meant that a great deal of German manpower and firepower was tied up in the Pays de Calais area. Therefore, with surprise on their side, the Allies achieve stunning successes at Normandy. However, once the landings had occurred, that surprise was gone. Initial beliefs that the Allies would liberate Caen with hours of D-Day were soon dropped. Instead, the Allies moved slowly and cautiously out of their Normandy beachhead. However, the overrall Allied commander of land forces in Normandy, Bernard Montgomery, was not prepared for a cautious and slow increase in the area under Allied control. He ordered junior generals to develop plans for the capture of land in and around Caen. A series of attacks were planned of which Operation Atlantic was just one.
The capture of Caen was considered to be of great importance by the Allies. The city was seen as being the pivot through which further attacks into Normandy and Brittany would start. Its capture would allow the Allies to consolidate their position in Normandy and from the city they would then move onto Falaise. After the capture of Falaise, crossing the River Seine and then Paris would be the next targets. However, the capture of Caen was essential for this plan of campaign to work. Terrain to the south of Caen was different to what the Allies had experienced to date in Normandy. The bocage countryside had led to many Allied casualties as it gave the defenders great advantages over the attackers. Hoever, once past Caen, the terrain became more flat and open – just what mechanised divisions wished for.
The Germans held Caen in equal importance and ensured that after D-Day the city and its surrounding area were heavily defended. A disproportionate amount of the German’s armour was used to protect the city and a majority of the army’s best troops were stationed there.
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, the Allies had attempted to push on to Caen – just under 10 miles inland. However, the Germans repulsed the attack (Operation Perch). The storm that destroyed the Mulberry Harbour on June 17th meant that the Canadians were short of supplies for a sustained attack on the city and regardless of what Montgomery wanted, a delay was inevitable. The Allies launched several other attacks against the Germans in Caen but none were entirely successful. By mid-July the Allies only controlled some northern sections of the city. More important, the Germans still controlled the Colombelles steelworks, which gave their artillery observers a great advantage with regards to Allied positions.
On July 10th, Montgomery met with Miles Dempsey (commander of the British Second Army) and Omar Bradley (commander of the US 1st Army). By the end of the meeting, all the men agreed on Operation Cobra (the US 1st Army’s drive out of Normandy into Brittany) and Operation Goodwood – the capture of Caen. Operation Atlantic was part of the attack on Caen and was handed to the II Canadians Corps. The Canadians were tasked with capturing the steelworks at Colombelles and those parts of Caen in the east which the British had yet to capture and liberate. II Canadian Corps was then expectd to move onto the strategically imporant Verrières Ridge, a few miles south of Caen.
The attack started on July 18th as planned. By July 20th, the Canadians had taken all their key targets including the steelworks and their section of Caen. As planned, they moved on to assault Verrières Ridge. However, the 90 feet ridge was very heavily defended. Not only were experienced German troops stationed there (men from I SS Panzer Corps) but a great deal of German armour was placed at the ridge including Tiger tanks, artillery and mortars. The Canadians were meant to have had aerial cover from tank-busting RAF Typhoons. Even the formidable Tiger tanks were susceptible to their cannon but the weather was not in the Canadians favour on the 20th. Heavy rain made their ground attack difficult while few Typhoons took-off and those that did fly, through no fault of their own, could offer minimal cover to the men on the ground. All the advantages lay with the defenders.
The Canadians suffered high casualties as they attacked the ridge and were repulsed back by a ferocious German counter-attack that pushed the Canadians back beyond their start line. The Canadians consolidated their positions on July 21st but once again they suffered heavy losses.
In total the Canadians lost 1,349 men killed or wounded during Operation Atlantic. However, they had no time to ‘lick their wounds’ as Montgomery required the Canadians to push on and their commander, General Guy Simonds, developed Operation Spring. This was a holding attack against Verrières Ridge to keep the Germans based there engaged while the Americans started Operation Cobra. Simonds plan was to tie down as many Germans at the ridge (along with their equipment) as was possible. By the time July 1944 was over, nearly 2,600 Canadians had been lost at Verrières Ridge. But the importance of what they did cannot be overstated. The German commander of land forces in Normandy, Marshal Kluge, believed that the Germans faced the biggest threat where British and Canadians forces were stationed. He therefore ordered that a disproportionate amount of men and equipment were kept facing the British and Canadians. Operation Cobra was successful for many reasons but the stationing of German troops to face British and Canadian forces – and the tieing up of their equipment – was one of the most vital.