Operation Spring took place in July 1944 as the Allies strove to get out of the Normandy bridgehead they had created after D-Day in June. Operation Spring had as its primary target a drive towards Falaise. The attack was to be combined with an American drive further east, which had been codenamed Operation Cobra. It was hoped that between them Operation Spring and Operation Cobra would trap the Germans that remained in Normandy in and around the Falaise Pocket.
The Allied landings in Normandy on June 6th had been extremely effective with the exception of Omaha Beach where the Americans sustained major casualties. However, they still succeeded in capturing their target, even if the casualty rate had been high. The Allied drive to Bayeaux had been swift but the capture of Caen proved much more difficult. D-Day had taken the Germans by surprise but by the time the Allies had moved towards Caen, the Germans had got themselves far more organised. Operation Goodwood was successful and the Germans had been pushed out of the city. However, their strength in Normandy remained strong.
On July 22nd 1944, three days after the capture of Caen, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery ordered the II Canadian Division to attack Verrières Ridge, three miles to the south of Caen. This was codenamed Operation Spring. The ridge had to be captured if the British and Canadians wanted to advance to Falaise, their next major target after Caen. General Guy Simonds, commander of the II Canadian Division, was instructed to come up with a plan of attack. Just days earlier, the Canadians had tried a similar attack against the ridge (Operation Atlantic) and had come up against the 1st SS Panzer Corps. They suffered heavy casualties and the operation failed.
For Operation Spring, Simonds produced a plan of attack that was built on three phases and required meticulous timing throughout. However, he faced a major problem – the Germans believed that another attack on Verrières Ridge was imminent and had sent reinforcements there. In the hours just before Operation Spring was to commence, the Germans had moved 480 tanks and assoretd armoured vehicles, 500 artillery guns and four infantry battalions to areas near to Verrières Ridge. However, code breakers at Bletchley Park had intercepted German coded messages and this information was given to the Canadians.
Operation Spring commenced at 03.30 on July 25th 1944. Despite ferocious defending by the Germans, the Canadians had captured their first target – Tilly-la-Campagne – within 60 minutes. Verrières village was captured by 05.30. Just before 08.00 Simmonds received news from his front line commander, Lt. Col. John Rockingham, that all the initial targets set by Simmonds had been captured.
The second phase of the operation had mixed results. Targets in phase two were captured but the Canadians took heavy casualties as the Germans started to reorganise themselves.
The start of Phase Three started badly when artillery and tanks that were meant to support the Black Watch failed to arrive on time. When they did, they suffered heavy casualties from accurate German gunfire. When the Black Watch attacked Verrières Ridge, they suffered heavy casualties. In fact, the attack on Verrières Ridge led to the worst casualties that the Canadians had suffered since the attack on Dieppe.
For the next two days, SS Panzer units continued to attack Canadian positions in and around Verrières village. Eventually, Canadian troops were forced out of Tilly-la-Campagne – captured in the initial assault on Verrières Ridge. But a German attack on Verrières village was forced back by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry despite the Canadians suffering over 200 casualties. However, Canadian units were pushed out of areas they had previously captured at the start of Operation Spring.
The major problem that the Canadians faced during Operation Spring was that the Germans believed that the Allies main push out of Normandy would be towards Falaise. Hence why battle-hardened SS Panzer units commanded by General Sepp Dietrich were ordered to the area around Verrières. However, this perception by the Germans was wrong, as the main push out of Normandy was to be Operation Cobra by the Americans. Therefore, Operation Spring proved to be a very important few days for the Allies as with experienced SS units confronting the Canadians in and around Verrières they were tied up. The American success during Operation Cobra may possibly have been more difficult if they had been confronted by Dietrich’s SS units at the start of the operation. However, there was a vital 48-hour delay in their redeployment, which was to the Americans advantage. For the Canadians, Operation Spring was costly but their part in the Allies drive out of Normandy was vital.