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The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

WWII History Magazine and Warfare History Network

The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian

by Ludwig Heinrich Dyck

With the German Sixth Army destroyed at Stalingrad, the Soviet juggernaut lunged west and southwest across the River Donets. The Soviets seemed unstoppable, recapturing the major city of Kharkov from the Germans on February 14, 1943. However, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was only waiting for the Soviets to overextend themselves.

Once the Soviet armor ran dry of fuel and low on ammunition, Manstein unleashed Army Group South’s riposte. Fresh panzer formations sliced into the startled Soviet flanks, ripping apart two Soviet Fronts (Army Groups). Manstein’s brilliant counteroffensive restored the southern front and culminated in an SS frontal assault and a triumphant recapture of Kharkov.

Meanwhile, to the north of the Donets campaign, the Soviet winter offensive was held at bay before Orel by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge’s Army Group Center. Operations everywhere then bogged down to a standstill as the Russian spring thawed the frozen earth and turned it to mud. The thick “rasputitsa” clung to steel tank tracks, to truck tires, to the hoofs of tired horses, and to the boots of exhausted soldiers.

The front was left with a gargantuan Soviet salient, 150 miles long and 100 miles wide, bulging around the town of Kursk between the two German army groups. The Kursk salient was consequently the target of the last, great German summer offensive, ending with the legendary tank battles in the environs of Oboian and Prokhorovka.

With the third summer of the German-Soviet war approaching, the Red Army war machine had grown more powerful while that of the Germans proportionally declined. Despite von Manstein’s recent victory at Kharkov, only the most fanatical senior German commanders, along with Hitler, believed that the Soviet Union could be decisively defeated. A stalemate, however, was still in the cards, but only if the Germans managed to retain the initiative. To do so, Col. Gen. Kurt Zeitzler, chief of Army general staff, proposed eliminating the Kursk salient.

In what came to be known as Operation Citadel, the Ninth Army of von Kluge’s Army Group Center would strike for Kursk from the north while his Second Army defended the western face of the salient. At the same time, von Manstein’s Army Group South would attack toward Kursk from the south with Colonel General Herman Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army and General Werner Kempf’s Army Detachment. Once the two German army groups met, the Soviet armies in the salient would be encircled and consequently destroyed. The Eastern Front would be straightened out, allowing German troops to be transferred to the West along with thousands of Soviet prisoners to toil in the Reich’s factories and on its farms. Such were the rewards of victory, and to achieve it Zeitzler counted on the new, vaunted Panther tanks and the Ferdinand or “Elephant” tank destroyer.

Germans attempted to reduce the Soviet salient around the village of Kursk, resulting in one of the greatest tank battles in the history of modern warfare. The Germans attacked from north and south, but were kept at bay after fierce fighting.-Warfare History Network

Hitler presented Zeitzler’s plan to his senior Army commander on May 3-4. Von Manstein argued that Citadel might have worked in April, when Hitler first signed the operational order, but now its “success was doubtful.”1 Field Marshal Walter Model, commander of the Ninth Army, cautioned that the plan was painfully obvious and that the Soviets were already preparing deep and strong defensive positions.

Von Kluge, who liked to curry favor with Hitler but was known as a fence sitter, supported Citadel but argued against any further delay, so if it failed he could not be blamed. Col. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the inspector general of armored troops, called the idea “pointless,”2 certain to result in heavy tank casualties. Furthermore, he made it clear that the Panthers and the Elephants were in no way ready for combat.

When Wilhem Keitel, Hitler’s chief of the armed forces high command, later argued for the attack on political reasons, Guderian spat back, “How many people do you think even know where Kursk is?”3 Hitler admitted the idea made his “stomach turn over,”4 but eventually not only decided in favor of Citadel but delayed it for two months until the new tanks were ready.

Historian Charles Winchester has aptly noted, “The idea that an offensive involving millions of men fighting across a battlefield half the size of England could be determined by a few hundred new tanks shows touching faith in technology.”5

Hitler’s delays played right into Soviet hands. Stalin heeded the advice of Marshal Georgi K. Zhukov, deputy commander of the Red Army, and Marshal Alesksandr M. Vasilevsky, chief of the Army general staff, to postpone a Soviet offensive until the Germans bled themselves dry on the Kursk defenses. And those defenses were awe inspiring. Half a million railcars rolled into the Kursk salient, pouring in division after division. Whole towns in the forward areas were evacuated. Three hundred thousand civilians, mostly women and old men, helped dig trenches and build fortifications. The southern shoulder of the salient alone boasted 2,600 miles of trenches and mine densities of 5,000 per mile of front, laid out to channel the panzers into the crossfire of antitank strongholds.

Soviet Marshal Georgi Zhukov strides to meet with subordinates. To his right, Aleksander Vasilevsky, chief of the Soviet general staff

The 48th Panzer Corps Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Friedrich W. von Mellenthin, poignantly summoned up the German predicament: “The Russians were aware of what was coming and had converted the Kursk front into another Verdun. The German Army threw away all its advantages of mobile tactics, and met the Russians on a ground of their own choosing. Instead of seeking to create conditions in which maneuver would be possible … the German Supreme Command could think of nothing better than to fling our magnificent panzer divisions against Kursk, which had become the strongest fortress in the world.”6 If this was not adversity enough, the Soviets had twice as many men, two and a half times as many guns and mortars, 900 more planes, and 750 more tanks than the Germans.

Just before the battle, an SS trooper in the coal black darkness outside of a command bunker thought to himself, “The mud might slow us down but it cannot stop us. Nothing will.”7 Alfred Novotny, a fusilier of the elite Grossdeutschland Panzergrenadier Division, was of the same mind: “We were totally convinced as soldiers that Kursk would turn the war around again, in favor of Germany. We, the Fusiliers and Grenadiers, would do it!”8 The high morale was due in part to the fact that the soldiers were unaware of what they were facing. The troops were “prepared to endure any losses and carry out every task given to them,” but “the Russians are masters at the art of camouflage. Inevitably their strength was considerably underestimated,”9 reflected Mellenthin.

Over 2 million men, 35,000 guns, 6,250 tanks and assault guns, and 4,900 aircraft were flung at each other by two merciless totalitarian regimes, each bent on the utter annihilation of its foe. The German attack in the south opened at 3 pm on July 4, 1943, followed 12 hours later by the attack in the north. Forewarned of the exact time of Model’s attack by intelligence operatives, Soviet commanders ordered their artillery to bombard Model’s front lines before his own artillery had a chance to open up. The Germans answered back with air strikes and with a short but intense bombardment.

Using the Tiger as an armored shield, German grenadiers observe the devastating impact of its 88 mm gun.

Tiger tanks, Elephant tank destroyers, and Brummbär self-propelled artillery battalions of the Ninth Army smashed gaps into the Soviet defenses and chewed up counterattacks by the Soviet Central Front. Through the gaps poured the panzer and infantry divisions, only to find another of eight skillfully defended defensive belts.

Not only were the Soviet defenses far thicker than anticipated, but Hitler’s beloved 89 Elephants, all fighting with Army Group Center, did not live up to expectations. Although their powerful, long L/71 88mm guns proved deadly to Soviet armor, the 67-ton Elephants were underpowered and lacked a machine gun for protection against enemy infantry. When attacked by Soviet close-combat infantry anti-tank units, some Elephant crews tried to fend off the Soviets by firing their MG-42 machine guns through the main barrel.

Another nasty surprise was the Central Front’s 12 new SU-152s. The front’s 152mm assault gun unit knocked out seven Elephants and 12 Tigers of Model’s attacking units, earning it the nickname Zveroboi (animal hunter). After a week of round-the-clock fighting, Model’s exhausted Ninth Army was nowhere near breaking into the open, having only penetrated nine miles.

SU-152 Zveroboi (animal hunter) waiting in ambush for German Tigers and Elephants

Soviet casualties were heavy, but they did not prevent Zhukov from launching an offensive in the Orel sector on Model’s northern flank on July 11. From then on, Model was hard pressed just to contain a Soviet breakthrough. Zhukov, who had failed to destroy Army Group Center in two previous winter offensives, remained fixated on its destruction. He should have paid more attention to the southern flank of the salient, where Von Manstein’s thrust made dangerous gains.

Alfred Novotny has never forgotten the 4th Panzer Army’s opening artillery barrage and the foul weather that accompanied it: “The first hours of the Kursk offensive still cause flashbacks 50-odd years later. Sometimes I think I can still hear the incredible loud noise of the German weapons … flak, artillery, mortars, Stukas, and Nebelwerfers. I cannot forget the endless, terrible rain, rain, and more rain. We were totally drenched, heavily laden down with equipment, knee deep in mud all around us.”10

The Soviet defenses facing Novotny and his comrades were as formidable as they were in the north, but the defending Soviet armies had more front line to cover and, unlike Model, Von Manstein used massed armor formations from the onset. A bombardment that used more shells than the French and Polish campaigns combined opened the way for Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, the most powerful concentration of German armor under a single command during World War II.

The 4th Panzer Army blasted its way through the defenses of the Soviet 1st Tank Army and 6th Guards Army. The latter’s Guards distinction and the superior equipment that came along with it were indicative of its elite, veteran status. There were many Guards divisions at Kursk, and most of them had earned their distinction at Stalingrad.

Fighting with the 48th Panzer Corps on 4th Panzer Army’s left wing, the 200 Panthers at Kursk turned out to be a disappointment just like the Elephants to the north. Although the Panther eventually turned out to be arguably the best tank design of the war, at Kursk it suffered from mechanical problems and inadequately trained crews. By the second day of the battle, the Panthers, armed with high-velocity 75mm guns, were reduced to 50 in number. After five days, there were only 10 left.

The bulk of the fighting was left to the old workhorses of the German Army, the Panzer Mark IIIs and Mark IVGs with their new anti-tank rifle side skirts, the assault guns, and a relative few of the feared heavy Tigers, with their 88mm guns, to the defeat the Soviet armor. With their help, the battle-hardened veterans of General Otto von Knobelsdorff’s 48th Panzer Corps fought their way through swamps and streams and overcame mine-infested belts of trenches. Strongholds of camouflaged antitank rifle infantry, sappers with explosives, dug in heavy antitank guns, Soviet T-34 medium tanks, and tank destroyers awaited the German armor.

“The Mark V Panther medium tank was the German response to the outstanding performance of the Red Army’s T-34. The Panther sported sloped hull armor and a 75mm high velocity cannon”-Warfare History Network

Not only that, but the land sloped upward toward Kursk, giving the Soviets a clear view. Even so, Grossdeutschland managed to reach the outskirts of the villages of Kruglik and Nowosselowka by July 9. On the left wing of the 48th Panzer Corps, however, General Mikhail E. Katukov’s 1st Tank Army held up the 3rd Panzer Division in the woods north of Beresowka. To capitalize on this limited success, General Nikolay F. Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, transferred two tank corps and a rifle division from his reserve to Katukov.

With its left flank dangerously exposed, Grossdeutschland abandoned its northward drive and swung to the southwest on July 10, to trap and destroy the enemy between Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division. The diary of a Grossdeutschland soldier reads, “Squadron after squadron of Stukas come over to drop their deadly eggs on the Russian armor. Dazzling white flames indicate that another enemy tank has brewed up.”11

A Major Franz of the Grossdeutschland assault gun battalion sped toward the village of Kruglik when “at 300 meters from the village … I suddenly saw fiery red arrows coming toward us from the outskirts. There were explosions directly in front of the mass of advancing assault guns … we were under fire from a Stalin Organ.”12

General Andrei L. Getman remembered, “Many of our soldiers and commanders fell heroically in the five days of ferocious battle. Nevertheless, the corps continued to resist the enemy. Meeting organized fire resistance he ceased his attacks by nightfall.”13

That evening, the 3rd Panzer Division had joined the chaotic fighting among the groves and ravines that nearly eliminated the 6th Tank Corps. On July 11, the remnants of the 6th Tank Corps and the mauled 90th Guards Rifle Division pulled back to the west. The 3rd Panzer Division filled Grossdeutschland’s forward positions, allowing the latter to prepare for a renewed push to the north. It was not to be. During the night of the 11th, reinforced Soviet counterattacks flung the 3rd Panzer Division out of its new positions.

While Grossdeutschland dealt with the problems on its left flank, Knobelsdorff ordered the 11th Panzer Division to strike north along the road to Oboian and to the River Ps’ol. Its vanguard stood on the highest point on the way to Oboian. A soldier remembered, “One could see far into the valley of the Ps’ol River, the last natural barrier before Kursk. With field glasses the towers of Oboian could be made out in the fine haze. Oboian was the objective. It seemed within an arm’s reach. Barely 12 miles away.”14

Although bloodily slashed by the 11th Panzer Division, the Soviet defenders refused to give way. Not only that, but Vatutin gathered his forces for a massive counterstroke to “encircle and destroy the main German grouping penetrating to Oboian and Prokhorovka.”15 Victory for either side still hung in the balance, for, on the right wing of the 4th Panzer Army, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps was simultaneously on the verge of a decisive breakthrough.

The Battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

SS General Paul “Papa” Hausser’s cream of the Waffen SS armor reached the River Ps’ol. On his left flank, the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf (Death’s Head) crossed the Ps’ol on pontoon bridges on the 10th and immediately engaged the Soviet 52nd Guards Rifle Division and the 11th Motorized Rifle Brigade. To avoid further bridging operations for his heavy tanks, Hausser’s two other panzergrenadier divisions advanced south of the river.

The 1st Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) SS Adolf Hitler and the 2nd SS Das Reich (The State) panzergrenadier divisions pushed eastward through Soviet artillery barrages and dug-in tanks of the Soviet 2nd Tank Corps and elements of the 5th Guards Army. Leibstandarte spearheads were already at the outskirts of the Prokhorovka on July 9. The SS formations were aided by initial German air superiority and by Vatutin’s massive, chaotic redeployments, which caused Soviet units to pull back in some areas.

By July 11, paratroopers had dug in and stiffened Soviet resistance. A trooper of the 9th Guards Airborne Division recalled, “The village of Lutovo shuddered from exploding bombs, shells and mines. The soldiers observed the enemy from foxholes. Infantry poured out of the armored transporters. The distorted faces of the Fascists bore witness … that their warlike ardor was roused by a large dose of schnapps. Submachine gunners opened fire on the run and concealed themselves behind the tanks. A squall of 3rd Battalion fire met the Fascists. The long bursts of [Soviet] heavy machine guns struck the infantry in the flanks.”16

Meanwhile, General Herman Breith’s 3rd Panzer Corps’ northward thrust east of the Donets was constantly thwarted by the 7th Guards Army and the 69th Army. Von Manstein urged Kempf to have Breith catch up to the 2nd SS Corps and cover its right flank. On July 11, the Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Detachment ripped through the Soviet 305th Rifle Division and tore into the 107th Rifle Division to its rear. The 6th Panzer Division lunged forward nearly eight miles, and the 19th Panzer Division also made good progress. Although Breith’s armored spearheads were still 15 miles from Prokhorovka, the remaining Soviet defenses were too weak to absorb another German assault. Unless Vatutin immediately rushed in reinforcements, Breith and Hausser would break through to Prokhorovka.

Seven Soviet armies now surrounded the 20-mile deep bulge that the armor formations and the following infantry divisions of 4th Panzer Army and the Kempf Army had bitten into the Kursk salient. To blunt the German advance and at the same time launch his massive counteroffensive, Vatutin rushed in Lt. Gen. Pavel A. Rotmistrov’s crack 5th Guards Tank Army. The 5th Guards Tank Army, along with the already committed 5th Guards Army, was transferred from Col. Gen. Ivan S. Konev’s Steppe Front. Konev’s Front was to lead the planned post-Kursk counteroffensive.

The early commitment of two of the Steppe Front’s armies shows how critical the situation had become at Prokhorovka. Stalin even ordered Zhukov to fly to the Prokhorovka area and personally oversee the two Fronts. Reinforced by two tank corps and self-propelled artillery units, Rotmistrov fielded a total of 850 tanks, including 500 T-34s. Vatutin ordered Rotmistrov, “On the morning of 12 July, together with the 1st Tank and 5th Guards Army, launch a decisive offensive to destroy the enemy southwest of Prokhorovka.”17

Silhouetted against a battle-scarred landscape, a German Tiger tank is seen in action at Kursk on July 13, 1943-Warfare History Network

At dawn on July 12, the 121 tanks and assault guns of the Totenkopf Division prepared to shatter the Soviet defenses and advance northeastward on the ridge line north of the Ps’ol. The day promised to be humid, and clouds hung over the horizon. Brutal, indecisive fighting against three Guards rifle divisions raged throughout the day.

South of Prokhorovka, Hoth was on the battlefield watching the ensuing carnage in Das Reich’s sector through a trench telescope. Das Reich was forced on the defensive because the delay of 3rd Panzer Corps exposed its right flank to Soviet attacks.

During the day, 50 Soviet armored vehicles drove along one of the balkas, or valley bottoms, past a group of T-34s lined up on the ridge. There were white crosses on the turrets of the T-34s on the ridge. These were captured T-34s of Das Reich, and they suddenly opened fire on the vehicles below.

The first Soviet vehicle in line was also the only one equipped with a radio, and it was hit immediately. One after another, the Soviet vehicles exploded in flames. In another area of Das Reich, a T-34 rammed into a field kitchen before being destroyed in close combat. On the 12th, SS 2nd Lt. Hans Mennel, in command of a Mark IV, knocked out his 24th Soviet tank during the fighting.

Between Totenkopf and Das Reich, the Leibstandarte launched its attack at 6:50 that morning. Soviet artillery and Katyusha rockets howled upon the German formations. The Leibstandarte’s panzergrenadiers struck eastward, north, and south of the railway line that led northeast toward Prokhorovka. Crewmen in black uniforms and camouflage jackets took last puffs on their cigarettes and climbed into their sand yellow and red-brown Mark IVGs. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 67 tanks revved up their engines. Steel tracks clanged toward purple walls of smoke, flares from German reconnaissance planes, rising above the undulating ridge lines ahead. The smoke signaled a warning that enemy tanks were approaching.

The engine noise of the Red Army’s 18th and 29th Tank Corps roared from the direction of Prokhorovka. Hundreds of Soviet tanks in waves of 40 or 50, with Guards Airborne riflemen piled on top of them, rolled out of the town and surrounding area.

The Soviet tanks charged at great speed, colliding head-on with the SS grenadiers and SS Major Martin Gross’s 2nd Panzer Battalion. An SS 2nd lieutenant related, “They were around us, on top of us, and between us. We fought man to man, jumping out of our foxholes to lob our magnetic hollow charge grenades at the enemy tanks. It was hell! Our company alone destroyed 15 Russian tanks.”18

SS 1st Lt. Rudolf von Ribbentrop, son of the Nazi foreign minister, commanded a company of six Mark IVs, which drove down a slope to aid the hard-pressed panzergrenadiers. Ribbentrop’s company knocked out a handful of T-34s at 800 meters. The Mark IV, the most common German tank at Kursk, was not as fast as the T-34 or as heavily armored, but it had a superior gun and fire control. In the end, tactics and training proved decisive.

Soviet infantry, dead or alive, were hurled off the burning tanks. With its infantry seeking cover, the Soviet armor bravely sped on until the tanks of both sides sliced through each other. “There was neither time nor room to disengage from the enemy and reform in battle order or operate in formation. The shells fired at close range pierced not only the side armor but also the frontal armor,”19 witnessed Rotmistrov from his observation post on a hill.

“A T-34 began to burn,” reported Ribbentrop. “It was only 50 to 70 meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames. The avalanche of tanks rolled straight toward us … from this range every round was a hit.”20

Ribbentrop knocked out four more Soviet tanks. On the last one, he scored a direct hit at 10 meters. He recalled, “The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun.”21

Ribbentrop had turned with the waves of Soviet tanks that swept by him. Soon they were under withering fire from German assault guns and two more panzer companies lurking down the slope behind an antitank ditch. Amid the thick smoke and dust, the jumble of Soviet tanks and wrecked vehicles, Ribbentrop’s Mark IV remained unnoticed by the Soviet tanks around him. “Machine guns firing, we rolled through a mass of [Soviet] troops from behind,”22 he said.

Ribbentrop pulled his Mark IV into cover behind a destroyed T-34 and joined the slaughter of the Soviets tanks trying desperately to cross a bridge over the antitank ditch. “Burning T-34s ran into and over one another. It was a total inferno of fire and smoke, and impacting shells and explosions,”23 he remembered. A shell hit Ribbentrop’s turret, driving the gunner’s sight into his eye and inflicting a serious head injury. He was able to reach the safety of the German lines after he and his crew had knocked out 14 Soviet tanks.

Another scene from the battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian

Meanwhile, north of Oktiabrs’kii, the Tigers of SS Captain Heinrich Kling’s 13th Heavy Panzer Company crushed through hedgerows and thickets. Suddenly, a wave of 60 Soviet tanks swept out of a wood less than a mile away. Second Lieutenant Michael Wittmann’s Tiger rocked from the recoil as his 88mm gun knocked out the first T-34. The Soviet tanks fired on the go, rapidly closing the distance. Four Tigers were hit and temporarily crippled.

Wittmann’s Tiger shuddered from two hits but remained unfazed although his radio operator received a wound in the upper arm. “Three o’clock, three hundred!”24 cried Wittmann. A T-34 appeared out of some bushes. It swung its 76.2mm gun toward Wittmann’s Tiger, but Wittmann’s gunner, Balthasar Woll, was faster. The 88mm muzzle flashed and blew the turret off the T-34.

Captain Hans Ulrich Rudel’s Stukas appeared above the dueling tanks. Oily black smoke spiraled into the sky. Like birds of prey, the Stukas howled down upon the Soviet tanks. Swarms of Soviet Yak fighters appeared, shooting up the slow Stukas. Then, Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters tore into the Yaks until the chaos and destruction on the ground was mirrored in the sky.

Famed Tiger Ace Michael Wittmann

Wittmann’s platoon of three Tigers pushed on through the storm of steel, through the flames and smoke of burning grass. He had passed Prokhorovka when Kling’s voice rang through the radio, “Achtung! Strong force of enemy tanks approaching from ahead! Many tanks!”25 Soviet tanks of the 181st Tank Brigade closed in from about a mile away, disappearing into a valley and then reappearing over a rise. The stationary Tigers’ guns opened and maintained a rapid rate of fire. Numerous Soviet tanks were blown to pieces, but the remaining machines kept coming. They had to close to within 800 meters to be able to penetrate the Tigers’ frontal armor.

Leading a group of 15 tanks, Captain P. A. Skripkin’s T-34 closed in on Wittmann’s platoon. “Forward, follow me!”26 he shouted. Skripkin fired a round into a Tiger’s side, disabling it. Wittmann’s Tiger responded by pumping two rounds into Skripkin’s tank. Skripkin was wounded, and his crew pulled him out of the burning T-34. The driver jumped back in, and like a flaming ball of fire his T-34 tore down onto SS Staff Sergeant Georg Lötzsch’s Tiger. Lötzsch steered straight toward the oncoming Soviet tank, slammed on the brakes and fired. The 88mm round hit the edge of the turret and ricocheted into the sky. The 30-ton T-34 rammed into Lötzsch’s Tiger, shaking the ground with its impact. Flames engulfed both tanks. Lötzsch kept his nerves and backed out just before the T-34’s ammunition exploded.

The Mark Vi Tiger tank, with its 88mm cannon, was perhaps the most feared weapon in the Wehrmacht arsenal; however, the mammoth tank was plagued by mechanical failures and an insatiable appetite for fuel-Warfare History Network

Despite horrendous losses, the Soviets kept up the pressure. From north of Oktiabr’skii to south of Storozheveo, the battle seesawed back and forth. The Leibstandarte’s efforts to advance were thwarted by packs of Soviet tanks and infantry. The 1st Panzer Regiment was forced back to Oktiabr’skii. By 6 pm, the 181st Tank Brigade, assisted by the 170th Tank Brigade, threatened to sever the link between the Leibstandarte and Totenkopf at the village of Vasil’evka. Meanwhile, at Storozhevoe, Leibstandarte grenadiers reeled under an avalanche of Soviet tanks and mounted infantry.

A tank destroyer crewman recounted, “Salvo after salvo of Stalin’s Organs rained down upon our positions, with artillery and mortar shells in between. T-34 after T-34 rolled over the hill … three … five … ten … but what was the use of counting?”27 At one point Soviet tanks penetrated to Komsomolets, threatening Leibstandarte’s command post and engaging its artillery regiment at point-blank range.

By mid afternoon the sky broke into heavy showers. Rain sizzled on swaths of smoldering tank carcasses, and roads turned into mud pits. Combat in the 29th and 18th Tank Corps sector ground to a halt. Both sides were too drained by the terrible ordeal to go on.

All along Vatutin’s front, the 4th Panzer Army advances on July 12th had been arrested or slowed down, but so had Vatutin’s own offensive. The cost had been extremely heavy. The 5th Guards Tank Army lost about 650 tanks, although only 250 or so of them were total write-offs. Gross’s battalion alone accounted for 90 Soviet tanks, earning him the Knight’s Cross. The 2nd SS Corps lost just over 60 tanks and assault guns completely destroyed. The SS owed part of its success to the one-eyed “Papa” Hausser who “untiringly led all day from the front,”28 inspiring his troops with “his presence, his bravery and his humor, even in the most difficult situations,” noted Hoth, whose recommendation earned Hausser the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross.

During the night, troopers dug in and prepared for renewed offensives on the 13th. Soviet and German soldiers alike felt that victory could be achieved if, somehow, the last bits of energy could be called forth. The following day, the weight of the battle in the 2nd SS Corps sector switched from the Leibstandarte to Totenkopf and Das Reich. With its remaining 54 tanks and 20 assault guns, Totenkopf continued to advance north of the Ps’ol, engaging two Guards rifle divisions and the 51st Guards Tank Regiment. Totenkopf reached its objective, the Prokhorovka-Kartasshevka road, but was forced to relinquish its gains due to serious attacks on its left flank and the Leibstandarte’s failure to keep abreast south of the river.

Northeast of Oktiabri’skii, the Leibstandarte was flung back by airborne troops and riflemen supported by Soviet tanks, antitank guns, artillery, and mines. Rotmistrov related, “The fire of our Katyushas always instilled terror in the Fascists. Suffering great losses, the enemy was forced to fall back, abandoning the burning tanks and the bodies of his dead soldiers and officers.”29 The Soviets went on the offensive, but just north of Komsomolets State Farm they were given a dose of the German’s own nebelwerfer rocket launchers.

South of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich captured Storozhevoe and reached the outskirts of Vingoradovka, giving the Soviets cause for concern. It looked like Das Reich might link up with the 3rd Panzer Corps, which was rapidly gaining ground due to a daring night coup by Major Franz Bäke of the 6th Panzer Division.

A T-34 had led a column of vehicles into the darkness behind Soviet lines. The guards at the trenches must not have looked closely, because the T-34s’ markings were painted over and replaced with a small cross. It was one of the score or so of T-34s in German service, and Bäke used it and favorable terrain to lead his battalion of German tanks past the Soviet sentries. Bäke’s battalion was the spearhead of Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski’s battle group whose objective was the Donets bridge at Rzhavets. However,  after six miles or so, the T-34 broke down, “no doubt moved by national sentiments”30  Bäke opined.

Soviet soldiers labored to dig 6,000 miles of defensive trenches prior to the commencement of Operation Citadel. More than 300,000 Russian civilians contributed to the effort-Warfare History Network

Abandoning the T-34, Bäke’s battalion crept onward while continuing to keep radio silence. The lead was now taken by a Mark IV.  The German column rumbled past stationary T-34s and anti-tank guns. Exhausted Soviet crews slept in the grass, secure in their knowledge that the front was far away.

Things got dicey when a column of Soviet tanks, some mounted with infantry, appeared heading in the opposite direction. In the darkness, the Soviets appeared to believe Bäke’s tanks were their own returning from the front, or did they? At first twenty-two tanks passed his unit, almost track to track, but then six or seven pulled out of the column, turned, rolled back and pulled behind Bäke’s panzers. Bäke turned his panzer to block the T-34s. Although his own command panzer had only a dummy gun for protection, Bäke ordered the rest of his unit to continue and to secure the objective bridge.

The T-34s ominously drew up in a semicircle while Bäke and his operations officer slipped out of their panzer. They crept up to the T-34s and attached hollow charges. A handful of infantry was hitching a ride on one of the T-34s. One of them noticed Bäke and raised his rifle. Before the surprised Soviet managed to pull the trigger, Bäke snatched the rifle from his hand and jumped into a ditch. One after the other, three explosions lit up the night while one of Bäke’s tanks knocked out a fourth T-34. A cacophony of German and Soviet machine-gun and tank fire erupted. When the rest of the battle group joined the attack, the startled Soviets withdrew across the nearby Donets bridge. They blew up the bridge behind them but could not prevent German grenadiers from wading across the river.

Franz Bake with adjutant Captain Herbert to right

The bridge was captured and repaired, leaving the 3rd Panzer Corps free to thrust northward. To stop them, General Kuzma Trufanov, deputy commander of the 5th Guards Tank Army, hurled one rifle division, two reinforced Guards tank and two mechanized brigades at the 3rd Panzer Corps. On July 13, while the 19th Panzer Division, and behind it the 7th Panzer Division, were trying to move out of the bridgehead, the 6th Panzer Division was busy fending off Trufanov’s divisions around Aleksandrovka to the east. That day, the 6th Panzer Division suffered a heavy blow from friendly fire. A German Heinkel He-111 bomber accidentally bombed 6th Panzer Division headquarters, killing 15 and wounding Bäke and his division commander, Maj. Gen. Walther von Hünersdorf, and 47 other officers.

To the west, Grossdeutschland’s northward advance on July 13 was cancelled due to renewed Soviet onslaughts against the 3rd Panzer Division. For a while all contact with the 3rd Panzer Division was lost as the Soviets recaptured Beresowka. On Grossdeutschland’s right flank, the 11th Panzer Division was also unable to press forward due to intense Soviet counterattacks. Rain and muddy roads also hampered the supply of the troops.

Soviet T-34 tanks, supported by thousands of Red Army soldiers, advance rapidly during a counter-attack at Kursk -Military History Network

Despite the setbacks, Hoth and Kempf continued to have full confidence in victory. Hitler had other ideas. The Führer summoned his army commanders to his Wolf’s Lair headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler told them that the Allies had landed in Sicily on July 10 and that Citadel must be called off immediately to enable the transfer of troops to Italy. Kluge agreed because he was already embroiled in Zhukov’s Orel counteroffensive.

Von Manstein, who had originally argued against the whole Kursk operation, pressed for the attack to continue, saying, “To break off the battle now would probably mean throwing away victory.”31 Von Manstein still had the fresh 24th Panzer Corps with 112 tanks in reserve. He wanted to wear the Soviets down through attrition and thereby forestall major Soviet offensives elsewhere.

“We were now in the position of a man who has seized the wolf by the ears and dare not let him go,”32 was von Mellenthin’s impression. Hitler, however, had made up his mind. Four days later he ordered the withdrawal of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps followed by the transfer of Grossdeutschland to Army Group Center. Until then, von Manstein did his best to destroy as many of the enemy as he could.

On July 14 and 15, Grossdeutschland and the 3rd Panzer Division beat back two tank corps, a Guards corps, and Soviet rifle divisions to recapture the territory lost on the 12th. Throngs of Soviet infantry were sent fleeing to the west to be caught in a barrage of murderous German artillery fire. For the Soviets, however, the most dangerous situation was a linkup between the 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the 3rd Panzer Corps. If this happened, the Soviet salient between the two German corps would be closed and the five Soviet divisions therein trapped.

Despite their recent wounds, both Bäke and Hünersdorf were back leading the 6th Panzer Division on another attack on Alexandrowaka. Bäke himself knocked out two Soviet tanks and an antitank gun while his battle group destroyed another 29 tanks and 25 antitank guns. Hünersdorf’s luck, however, ran out. A sniper shot him in the head on July 14, killing him.

Russian infantry service field artillery and fire small arms at attacking Germans in defense of the Kursk salient- Military History Network

That same day in the Das Reich sector, grenadiers fought house to house in the village of Belenichino, destroying 12 Soviet tanks in close combat. SS Lance Corporal Simon Grascher remained glued to the ground in a storm of small caliber, grenade, and antitank fire. The flanking fire of two T-34s was decimating his company. Spurning the dangers, Grascher fought his way forward. He overcame two bunkers and a number of machine gun nests to destroy one of the T-34s with his last hollow charge. Grascher knocked out the second T-34 by throwing a grenade in the temporarily opened hatch. Grascher was killed in the fierce battles that followed, receiving his Knight’s Cross posthumously.

Men like Grascher kept a heavily reinforced Trufanov from being able to do more than slow down the contact between Das Reich and the 7th Panzer Division on July 15. Trufanov did, however, buy the time for most of the Soviet divisions to slip out of the closing German pincers.

By July 16, Hoth and Kempf were finally in a position to resume the push for Kursk. Although their divisions were largely intact, they were battered and their men were worn down, and 60 miles still lay between them and Model’s northern pincer. Von Mellenthin stated, “Gross Deutschland was dangerously weak after heavy fighting lasting for 10 days, while the Russian striking power had not appreciably diminished. In fact, it seemed to have increased.”33

Indeed, the remaining 27th and 53rd Armies of Konev’s Steppe Front alongside the fresh 4th Guards Tank Corps and 1st Mechanized Corps, with nearly 400 tanks, were closing in on Oboian and northwest of Prokhorovka. How they would have fared against von Manstein’s reserves is a matter of speculation, for on July 17, von Manstein began his withdrawal. Zhukov noted, “Because of the exhaustion of our own First Tank Army and the Sixth and Seventh Guards field armies, the enemy was able to pull his main forces back to the Belgorod defense line by July 23.”34 Inevitably, most of the German divisions were soon drawn into new battles against Soviet offensives elsewhere.

As exemplified by the e´lan of the German panzer formations at Oboian and Prokhorovka, the Germans inflicted deep wounds on the Soviets at Kursk while remaining themselves relatively unscathed. Together, Army Group Center and Army Group South lost 323 tanks and assault guns irreparably destroyed during the Kursk battles. Personnel losses amounted to 50,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. Red Army personnel losses amounted to at least 177,000, with combat losses between 20 and 70 percent of the units committed. Soviet tank and self-propelled assault gun losses amounted to 1,614 vehicles irreparably destroyed.

Losses to both the Germans and the Soviets in damaged armored vehicles were much higher than destroyed vehicles. By the time Wittmann’s Tigers disengaged on the 17th, Wittmann himself had accounted for 30 Soviet tanks and 28 antitank guns. From July 5-16, Das Reich alone knocked out 448 Soviet tanks and assault guns against a loss of 46 of its own. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps chalked up 1,149 Soviet tanks and other armored vehicles destroyed. The trend of high Soviet losses against those of the Germans would continue for a long time to come, and often at times be exceeded, as in future battles the Germans were usually on the defensive.

Nevertheless, the strategic consequences at Kursk were not lost on the German commanders. “Citadel had been a complete and most regrettable failure…with the failure of our supreme effort, the strategic initiative passed to the Russians,”35 reflected Von Mellenthin. Von Manstein commented, “When Citadel was called off, the initiative in the Eastern theater of war finally passed to the Russians.”36 Guderian agreed, “By the failure of Citadel we suffered a decisive defeat.”37

In an attempt to beat back a Red Army breakthrough near Belgorod, German artillery fires at the Soviet spearhead. In the foreground, a Waffen SS grenadier keeps watch over Soviet prisoners- Military History Network

Soviet propaganda naturally made the most of the Red Army victory by completely inflating the German losses. Zhukov wrote, “The picked and most powerful grouping of the Germans destroyed here [Kursk] … the faith of the German Army and the German people in the Nazi leadership … was irrevocably shattered.”38 Marshal Alexsandr M. Vasilevsky boasted of 500,000 German casualties. The massacre of Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army at Prokhorovka on July 12 was turned into the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army.” The Soviets claimed 400 German tanks destroyed that day and 3,100 German tanks destroyed during the whole Kursk battle. The reality was rather the reverse, and German morale remained high, both among civilians at home and among the soldiers at the front.

Only the relatively recent declassification of Waffen SS combat records and the public accessibility of Russian archival material has revealed the true nature of Kursk: a brilliant tactical victory for the Germans, but a decisive strategic victory for the Soviets.

 

“The Battle of Kursk: Showdown at Prokhorovka and Oboian” by L. H. Dyck was first published in World War II History Magazine September 2006 and republished on September 2016 at Warfare History Network . The  article above features additional images sourced from the net for educational, non-profit purposes only.

Notes

1, 2. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London: Arrow Books Limited, 1990), p. 30., 3, 4. Ibid., p. 309, 5. Charles Winchester,  Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945 ( Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1998), p. 106., 6. F. W. von Mellenthin, Panzer Battles (New York: Ballatine Books, 1973), p. 264., 7. A.J. Barker,  Waffen SS at War (Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing, 1998), p. 72., 8. Alfred Novotny,  The Good Soldier (Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003), p. 55., 9. F. W. Mellenthin p. 264.,10. Novotny p. 52-53., 11. Mellenthin p. 273., 12, 13. David M. Glantz and House Jonathan M., The Battle of Kursk (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1999), p. 152, 153., 14, 15. Ibid., p. 159., 16. Ibid, p. 173., 17. Ibib, p. 169., 18. Ibid., p. 185, Ibid., p. 188, Franz Kurowski, Panzer Aces (Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2004), p. 178., 21. Ibid., p. 179-180., 22. Ibid., 180., 23. Ibid., p. 181., 24. Ibid., p. 312., 25. Ibid., p. 313., 26. Paul Carell, Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944 (New York: Ballantine Books, 1973), p. 77., 27. Glantz and House, p. 186., 28. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Mueller Gene, Hitler’s Commanders (Lanham: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 281., 29. Glantz and House, p. 215., 30. Ibid. p. 199., 31. Carell, p. 88., 32. Mellenthin, p. 278., 33. Ibid. p. 276., 34. Zhukov Georgi R., Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 244., 35. Mellenthin, p. 277-278., 36. Glantz and House, p. 277., 37. Guderian, p. 312., 38. Ibid.,p. 278.

 

Sources

Barker A.J. Waffen SS at War. Sheperton: Ian Allan Publishing. 1998, Carell Paul. Scorched earth: The Russian-German war, 1943-1944. New York: Ballantine Books, 1973, Glantz David M. and House Jonathan M. The Battle of Kursk. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. 1999, Guderian Heinz, Panzer Leader. London: Arrow Books Limited. 1990, Kurowski Franz. Panzer Aces. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 2004, Mellenthin F. W. von, Panzer Battles. New York: Ballatine Books, 1973, Mitcham Samuel W. Jr. and Mueller Gene. Hitler’s Commanders. Lanham: Cooper Square Press. 2000, Novotny Alfred. The Good Soldier. Bedford: Aberjona Press. 2003, Winchester Charles, Ostfront, Hitler’s War on Russia 1941-1945. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. 1998, Zhukov Georgi R. Marshal Zhukov Greatest Battles.New York: Harper & Row. 1969.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Operation Goodwood: Epic Armor Clash in Normandy

Epic Armor Clash in Normandy

“Operation Goodwood”

By Ludwig Heinrich Dyck
Frustrated by weeks of failed attempts to break the deadlock around the British invasion beaches and move inland, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery seized upon the idea of launching a massive armored onslaught that would capture Caen and end the stalemate in Normandy.
From World War II Magazine, July / August 2004, painting "Prepare to Ram" by David Pentland.
From World War II Magazine, July / August 2004, painting “Prepare to Ram” by David Pentland.

A burst from a titanic bomb flung the colossal 58-ton Tiger tank into the air and onto its back. Four Tigers of the 3rd Company 503rd Heavy Panzer battalion, virtually invulnerable to anything but artillery fire and air strikes, were knocked out in the orchard outside of the hamlet of Manneville. Others were smothered in earth that erupted from 30-foot deep bomb craters. Though sheltered in foxholes beneath the steel behemoths, the crews’ nerves snapped. One man went insane while two others committed suicide.

Despite its 56-ton weight, this Tiger I of 3./s.Pz.Abt. 503 (3rd Company 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion) was overturned at Manneville by the bombing. Three men survived.[110]By Connolly (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tiger of the 3rd Company, 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion overturned by bombing. By Connolly (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

   Lieutenant Freiherr von Rosen remembered asking to himself “Will there never be an end to these explosions?” Later he remarked that “the bombing was the worst we ever experienced in the war…Of my 14 Tigers not one was operational. All had been covered in dust and earth, the guns dis-adjusted, the cooling systems of the engines out of action.”1

   The 3rd Company’s troubles began on July 18, 1944, at 0525 hours with an with an artillery barrage that erupted on the German positions a few kilometers to the east-southeast of Caen. Ten minutes later there followed the drone of 1,100 British heavy bombers.

   The British Twenty-first Army Group Chief of Staff, Freddie De Guingand, climbed on top a haystack to witness the spectacle: “It looked just like a swarm of bees homing upon their hives…One appreciated the great bravery of those pilots and crews as they flew into the most ghastly looking flak. Every now and then an aircraft would burst into flames and usually shortly afterwards a few parachutes could be seen making their way to earth.”2

   British Avro Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxes carpet-bombed with high explosives to suppress German anti-tank guns along the flanks of the planned British attack. At 0700hrs, 482 heavy and medium bombers of the US Eighth and Ninth air forces sought victims for their non-cratering fragmentation bombs along the central path of the British advance. Three hundred additional fighters and fighter-bombers swept down on German strong points and gun emplacements.

By Royal Air Force official photographer - This is photograph TR 197 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17668035
Avro Landcasters in 1942. Royal Air Force official photographer – This is photograph TR 197 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, via Wikimedia Common

   Huge clouds of smoke and dust from the explosions diffused into the hazy opal sky above the Norman countryside. Their view obscured, many pilots aborted their missions.  Still it was not over. At 0800hrs, 495 Eighth Air Force heavy bombers pounded the German defenders. The day would see more than 4,500 Allied aircraft in action against the Germans east of the River Orne.  Some 7,700  tons of bombs were dropped on the German lines, nearly half of them in less than 45 minutes. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, called it “the heaviest and most concentrated air assault hitherto employed in support of ground operations.”3

Goodwood
At first the aerial bombing of Goodwood appeared to have obliterated any German resistance  (The Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

The allied air strikes were the prelude to Operation “Goodwood,” the latest in a series of British offensives against the German positions in the Caen area.  Like the Americans on their right flank, the British had failed to make any decisive progress since early June, advancing at a snail’s pace and at the cost of high casualties and materiel. General Eisenhower blamed the stalemate in Normandy after D-Day on “first as always the fighting quality of the German soldier; second the nature of the country; third the weather.”4

   Though watered down by low morale foreign troops, veteran Waffen-SS, Paratroop and Wehrmacht soldiers of the German Seventh Army made the tangled bocage, or hedgerow country, a nightmare for the U.S. First Army, while its Panzer Divisions squared off against Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey’s British Second Army.  Storms played havoc with Allied shipping in the channel.  The Germans in turn faced the more serious problem of Allied air supremacy, which precluded all but night travel.  If the Allies had failed to break out into the open country to the south, the Germans were likewise unable to hurl the invader back into the sea.

   Goodwood was meant to break the stalemate in conjunction with Operation “Cobra,” an equally devastating American breakout on the Allied western flank, several days later. For Goodwood a vast bombardment would precede an overwhelming armored assault from the eastern side of Caen. The operation was the brainchild of Dempsey and found favor with Field Marshal Bernard L.  Montgomery, overall commander of Allied ground forces., who said, “the Second Army is now very strong…and can get no stronger…So I have decided that the time has come for a real ‘showdown’ on the eastern flank, and to loose a corps of three armored divisions into the open country about the Caen-Falaise road.”5 The objective of was “to engage the German armor in battle and write it down” to “destroy German equipment and personnel, as a preliminary to a possible wide exploitation of success.”6 Specific tactical objectives were the villages of Vimont, Garcelles, Hubert-Folie, Verrieres and Bretteville-sur-Laize, on the commanding Bourguébus Ridge. 

By Canadian government employee - Library and Archives CanadaThis image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the MIKAN ID number 4233436This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.Library and Archives Canada does not allow free use of its copyrighted works. See Category:Images from Library and Archives Canada., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18495746
Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery. Behind him is his  Miles Messenger aircraft. By Canadian government employee – Library and Archives Canada

   Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Armored Corps spearheaded the British Armored thrust, with its 11th Armored Division in the vanguard. The 11th was arguably the best British armored division, commanded by the very able Africa veteran, Major General “Pip” Roberts.  At 37 years of age, Roberts was the youngest British divisional commander. After the 11th came Maj. Gen. Allan Adair’s Guards Armored Division with Maj. Gen. Bobby Erskine 7th Armored, the famed “Desert Rats,” bringing up the rear.  With some 266 tanks, 361 scout and armored cars and 2,000 trucks in each division, the three together boasted over 8000 vehicles.

   Covering the VIII Armored Corps’ left flank was Lt. General John Crocker’s I British Corps.  To the right, General Guy G. Simmonds’ II Canadian Corps, in the joint operation dubbed “Atlantic”, hoped to oust the Germans out of southern Caen by attacking from eastern, central and western areas of the city.

At 0745 a creeping artillery barrage of 200 guns heralded the armored advance. Many guns fired more than 400 rounds but unfortunately some of the shells fell short of their target.  The friendly fire killed and wounded a number of unlucky crews who enjoyed a last cigarette outside of their tanks.  Major Bill Close, commander of A Squadron 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3 RTR) 11th Armored, recalled “This happening a few seconds before we were to start, added considerably to the confusion, and we set off after the barrage in some disorder.”7

Bill Close
Major Bill Close, commander of  A Squadron, 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 11th Armored Division (Goodwood Lectures, You Tube).

   With an order of “Move now” the ground trembled,  as the Shermans of the 29th Armored Brigade rumbled through the dust. With their crews’ vision obscured and the ground pockmarked by bomb craters, the tanks became jumbled and soon fell behind the advancing artillery fire.  From the bridgehead south of the  Orne River, the tanks continued in a narrow column, first through the cleared British minefields and then through a two-kilometer wide corridor flanked by the Caen’s factories to the west and a forest to the east. Beyond, a swath of flat and open ground, sprinkled with wheat fields and hamlets, lay before the main objective some 15 kilometers to the south, the Bourguébus Ridge.

By Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit - This is photograph B 7510 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-29), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=456635
Infantry have piled upon the two M4 Shermans in the foreground, and onto the Sherman Firefly behind them. At the very back, a Sherman Crab. All are waiting to launch the ground assault of Operation Goodwood, 18th July 1944. By Laing (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit – This is photograph B 7510 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-29), Public Domain.

   To surprise the Germans, only the 11th Armored Division’s 29th Armored Brigade crossed the River Orne before H-hour. But the deafening thunder of so many tanks could not be covered up.  Oberstgruppenführer (SS-Colonel General) “Sepp” Dietrich pressed an ear to the ground and heard the sound resound through the limestone of the Caen plain.  It was a technique he had used many times before in Russia. The Germans also enjoyed a view over the whole Orne bridgehead from their positions in the Colombelles factories south of Caen. They knew something big was about to happen.

Sepp Dietrich erhält die Brillanten By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J27366 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5364819
SS Col. Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich commanded the I SS Panzer Corps during Goodwood. Photo: Sepp Dietrich erhält die Brillanten (Sepp Dietrich is awarded the Diamonds [to his Knight’s Cross] By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J27366 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

Facing the British-Canadian onslaught were the soldiers of Panzer Group West, commanded by Gen. Hans Eberbach. The Panzer Group was part of  Army Group B, which in light of Rommel’s injury on July 17th was under the direct command of the commander of the western front, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge.  Panzer Group West fielded 194 guns, 272 rocket launchers and 377 Panzers and self-propelled (SP) assault guns-far more than the Allies anticipated.

   The Panzer Group was divided into two corps, with General Hans von Obstfelder’s LXXXVI Corps facing the British. The corps’ 346th Infantry Division was deployed from the coast to just north of Touffreville and out of the way of the main British-Canadian thrust.  The opposite was true of the already badly mauled 16th Luftwaffe Field Division,  deployed from Touffreville west to the Colombelles factories-right in the way of the British Armor.

   The 16th Luftwaffe Field Division provided little more than a thin screen. The key division to hold up the British Armor was Lt. Gen. Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzer Division (PzDiv) of Africa Korps fame and its Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) Luck.  Major Hans von Luck’s Kampfgruppe included the 1st and 2nd Panzer Grenadier (PzGr) battalions of his own 125th PzGr Regiment and Major Alfred Becker’s 200th Sturmgeschütze (StuG) battalion with 75mm SP assault guns and 105mm SP artillery.  On the left flank of Kampfgruppe Luck the 21st Division’s 192nd Panzer Grenadier (PzGr) Regiment augmented a Luftwaffe PanzerJäger (Anti-tank) battalion at the Colombelles factories. The 21st Division’s 1st Panzer Battalion and the independent 503rd Heavy Panzer battalion, including a few Tiger IIs, covered the right flank between Sanderville and Emviélle.  A battalion of the 9th Werfer (rocket launcher) Brigade was also positioned near Grentheville.

   On the German left wing, Panzer Group West’s I SS Pz Corps, led by SS Col. Gen. Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, awaited the Canadians.  Dietrich  had just received the 272nd Infantry Division to take over the forward position in Caen south from the exhausted 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.  After very little recovery time, Hitlerjugend was ordered into reserve on July 16th.  It had a Kampfgruppe stationed farther east at Lisieux, while the rest of the division was to the south, just north of Falaise. Unknown to the British, Dietrich’s other Panzer division, the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) was also in reserve, on and behind the western slopes of the Bourguébus Ridge with some of its units in additional corps reserve west of the Orne.

CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8097143
The Battle for Caen up to Operation Goodwoowd (dark green line). CC BY-SA 2.5

   Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Heinrich Eberbach had ensured that Panzer Group West sported the deepest and toughest defenses in Normandy-at 12 kilometers deep, they were far deeper than the seven kilometer estimated by the Allies.  Because of this, most of the vital German positions remained relatively unscathed by the Allied bombardment. These included the artillery and Nebelwerfers deployed behind Bourguébus Ridge. The remnants of the green 16th Luftwaffe Field Division, however, bore the full brunt of the bombardment and were virtually obliterated. Initial German prisoners taken were so stunned that they could not be interrogated for 24 hours. The general allied perception was “no one will survive this inferno. We need only march in with our tanks to open the way to Paris…how wrong we were.”8

"lurid lights illuminated the sea of destruction" from Battlefield The Battle for Caen
“lurid lights illuminated the sea of destruction” from Battlefield The Battle for Caen

At first though, things went smoothly for the British.  As the British tankers drove by villages of Cuverville and Démouville, dazed, pallied German infantry wandered out of the wheat fields to surrender.  At Démouville a Panzer Mark IV appeared and was promptly knocked out by the Shermans.  Most German survivors remained stunned in their trenches.  A few took potshots at exposed tank commanders.  The tanks and motorized companies left them to be mopped up by the British infantry following behind.

German prisoner
The first German  prisoners taken by the advancing British had been left stunned and dazed by the bombardment (The Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

   The Mark IVs of the 1st Panzer Battalion stationed in the woods between Sanderville and Emviélle suffered severely under the bombardment. Although not many were complete write-offs, they were deluged with tons of soil, fouling their engines. The waves of Shermans shot up four of the Mark IVs and overran another five, capturing their startled crews. The Tigers of the aforementioned 503rd in the same area fared somewhat better. Those that could not be repaired were towed out, sometimes only minutes before the arrival of British tanks. No British Recovery units could move a Tiger anyway-in one instance it took three Tigers to tow one Tiger out!  A number of Mark IVs and Tigers were repaired in the field by noon and thereafter harassed the British advance.

   Colonel David Silvertop’s leading 3rd RTR reached the Caen-Troarn railway line at 0830. There was some confusion due to poor visibility and congestion as the 11th Armored’s other tank regiments, the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, and the 23rd Hussars began to catch up with the 3rd RTR. Half an hour later the dull thumps of the artillery barrage ceased, leaving only a few 25-pounder SP batteries to support the British armor.

Sherman moving through ruins (Still from the Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)
Sherman moving through ruins (Still from the Goodwood Lectures, You Tube)

   At Le Mesnil-Frémentel the ground began to slope upward to the Bourguébus Ridge. The 3rd RTR veered to the west, while the 2nd Fife and Forfar headed eastward and then south. From the wheat fields, Nebelwerfer rockets howled into the air, leaving long blue-white trails.  The British tanks simply overran many of them.  But as they did so the Shermans and their motorized company rolled into the gun optics of Becker’s 75mm SP assault guns hidden in le Mesnil-Frémentel and in le Poirier, which burst up a handful of Shermans from the leading squadron of 3rd RTR. The rear squadron of the 2nd Fife and Forfar lost another 12.  To deal with the StuGs and their supporting grenadiers, the British needed more infantry but the 11th Armored Division’s 159th Infantry Brigade was busy clearing out the remaining Germans in Cuverville and Démouville to the north. After inflicting the damage, Becker skillfully withdrew his guns back to the south where more batteries of StuGs and 88 dual purpose Flak/Pak stood ready to engage the enemy.  

Major Becker (Goodwood lectures, You Tube)
Major Alfred Becker commanded the 200th Sturmgeschutze battalion.He “had a remarkable talent for improvising self-propelled guns and reconnaissance vehicles from captured chassis” (Goodwood lectures, You Tube).

   On July 18th, Major Hans von Luck, just back from a well earned leave to Paris and recently recommended for the Knight’s Cross, pulled his car into Cagny. The village stood just south east of Le Mesnil-Frémentel and smack-dab in the middle of the British assault.  The RAF had plastered the village with 650 tons of bombs in ten minutes, flattening eastern Cagny to the ground and causing confusion and lost radio contacts among the defenders.

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9990983
Major Hans von Luck in center. Luck’s Kampfgruppe played a vital role in Goodwood (Wikipedia.org)

   Dismayed, the lean and wiry Luck beheld 25 to 30 British tanks bypassing the western edge of the village. His eyes scanned north to where his 1st Battalion, 125th Regiment should have been. Instead the area was swamped with British tanks moving south. “My God,” thought von Luck, “the bombing and artillery barrage destroyed the battalion.”9

   Luck drove past the still standing village church when he espied a 16th Luftwaffe Division battery, its four 88mm barrels pointed into the sky. At once von Luck informed the young battery captain of the critical situation and told him to: “Hit the enemy in the flank.  In that way you’ll force the advance to a halt.” The captain calmly retorted: “ Major, my concern is enemy planes, fighting tanks is your job-I’m Luftwaffe.” Von Luck pulled out his pistol and pointed it at him: “Either you’re a dead man or you can earn yourself a medal.”10

   “I bow to your force,”11 exclaimed the Captain. What must I do?”Hidden in an apple orchard, the 88s lowered their muzzles at the British tanks. Salvos of 88s zoomed as Luck phrased it, “through a corn field like torpedoes.”12 Joining the Flak ambush were the last Pak 88 and Mark IV that remained at Cagny.  Sixteen Shermans from the 2nd Fife and Forfar  were blasted to bits.

The dreaded 88mm Flak and Anti-tank gun (Still from "88mm Flak kills 6 Shermans - Battle of Rheinland Februar 1945)
The dreaded 88mm Flak and Anti-tank gun (Still from “88mm Flak kills 6 Shermans – Battle of Rheinland Februar 1945)

   The German gunners were trained to single out ‘command’ or other special duty tanks. It is possible that it was the Cagny 88s or Becker’s earlier ambush knocked out the 29th Brigade’s air support signal tank. It contained an airman who could call up fighter-bombers. This was a real loss to the British.

   Silvertop’s 3rd RTR and its supporting motorized rifle company managed to reach the vicinity of the Cormelles factory area to the west some time after 1000. On the horizon to the north, flames and clouds of smoke spiraled up from Caen. Up to 3000 Frenchmen perished in the Allied bombing.

   The regiment turned south crossing the Caen-Paris road and struck for their objectives of Bras and Hubert Folie. To their left, the 2nd Fife and Forfar pushed past Four and Soliers toward the eastern leg of the Bourguébus ridge, between Bourguébus village and la Hogue.

   The two tank regiments charged up the open slope. When they were  within a kilometer of the walled brick-and-stone Norman villages that dotted the Bourguébus ridge, scores of dug-in and camouflaged 88s flashed into action. The Tigers of Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Michael Wittmann’s 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, likely joined the 88 Flak and Pak in the shoot out. Wittmann, arguably the greatest tank ace of all time, had only been promoted to battalion commander a mere eight days ago.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1805-12 / Scheck / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5410809
Heavy Panzer VI “Tiger I” ‘331’ of the 3rd SS Company, 101st Heavy SS Pz Battalion, in northern France, Spring 1944 (By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1805-12 / Scheck / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

   Major Close watched two tanks on his left get knocked out before his own rocked to the impact of an armor piercing round. “Bail out, sir!” shouted his crew. Fortunately the hit had only severed a track so that they all made it out.  Close ran over to the next tank, got inside and resumed command of A Squadron. Despite his bravery, the situation turned hopeless. “Within seconds, 15 of our tanks were stationary and on fire,” he remembered. “All attempts to turn aside to left or right failed. By late afternoon we had only a few tanks left that were still in tact. The other company fared no better. We had to break off the advance and withdraw.”13

   The grinding steel tracks of Standartenführer (Lt. Col) Joachim Peiper’s dreaded 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s Panthers and StuGs reverberated from the ridge. They pulled into position to greet the 2nd Fife and Forfar.  Peiper’s armor was part of Dietrich’s crack unit, which General Eberbach had ordered over to the LXXXVI Corps sector to stop the imminent threat of the British armor. The open ground was perfect country for the Panther’s long-range, high velocity 75mmguns. Within a few minutes the LAH StuGs and Panthers shot up 29 Shermans, killing their commanding officers.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5368448der Pz.-Rgts.-SS-Pz. Div. Lbstd. "Adolf Hitler", erhielt das Eichenlaub am 3.2.44 PK Alber/Scherl
Standartenfuhrer (Lt. Co) Joachim Peiper, commander of the crack 1st SS Panzer Regiment at Goodwood (By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R65485 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

   While the 3 rd RTR and the 2nd Fife and Forfar were being decimated, the 23rd Hussars, held in reserve around Grentheville, were temporarily ordered not to advance past Soliers. Behind them the tanks of the Guards Armored Division’s 5th Armored Brigade entered the battle. Its 1st Armored Coldstream Guards and 2nd Armored Irish Guards regiments bypassed Cagny via a detour through le Mesnil-Frémentel on their way to Vimont.  But by doing so, they blocked the forward elements of the 7th Armored Division coming up from behind. Simultaneously, the 3rd Guards’ tank regiment, the 2nd Armored Grenadier Guards, engaged the Cagny 88s. Within seconds the anti-tank fire from Cagny took a toll of another 20 tanks.

To the rescue of the beleaguered Cagny Flak came nine Mark IVs and ten Tigers from the Emviélle area. Although they could drive and shoot, all of the ‘working’ Tigers of the 503rd were in rough shape and their sights were still out of alignment. Worse still, the Luftwaffe 88’s mistook them for Shermans and knocked out two Tigers. The counterattack floundered, and the Tigers and Mark IV’s drew back to Le Poirier and Frénouville.

Advancing Mark IV Panzer crushing through fence, note the armoured skirts, Schürzen, for added protection (Still from Battlefield-The Battle for Caen)
Advancing  Panzer IV  crushing through fence, note the armored skirts, Schürzen, for added protection (Still from Battlefield-The Battle for Caen)

   At 1600 the troublesome 88s were finally subdued. Faced with the arrival of the Guards Division’s 32nd Infantry Brigade, the Luftwaffe crews blew up their 88s and withdrew. Wireless Guards operator G.H. Marsen describes the scene: “I could see Caen just to my right, the whole area was on fire, the earth shuddering from the bombing and shelling. I saw at least 40 Sherman tanks blazing…Our captives were mere boys, running toward our lines with hands on their heads…But they still retaliated with shellfire and most of all the dreaded ‘Moaning Mines’, the electrically propelled mortar; to be caught in their fire was certain disaster.”14 Even so, German resistance lingered on at Cagny until 2000.

   Meanwhile, around 1430 the 23rd Hussars reached the smoldering tank husks of the 2nd Fife and Forfars near Soliers and Four. On the ridge, the German division commander, SS-Brigadeführer (Brig. Gen) “Teddy” Wisch, joined the LAH Panzers. They combined with Becker’s assault guns in Soliers and the Panzers in Le Poirier and Frénouville, to engulf the Hussars in a cauldron of fire.

   In the words of the Story of the 23rd Hussars: “With no time for retaliation, no time to do anything but take one quick glance at the situation, almost in one minute, all its tanks were hit, blazing and exploding. Everywhere wounded or burning figures ran or struggled painfully for cover, while a remorseless rain of armor-piercing shot riddled the already helpless Shermans.”15 C Squadron lost every one of its tanks. 

   The 1st Coldstream Guards captured Le Poirier at 1630. Two and half-hours later, Panzer fire from Frénouville stopped an advance by the 2nd Irish Guards on Vimont. On the way there, Lieutenant John Gorman of the Irish Guards drove his tank headlong into a Tiger II plowing through a hedge. With the order “Traverse left-on-fire!”16the Sherman’s 75mm shell hit the front of the Tiger but bounced off into the air.  When ordered to fire again the gunner replied “Gun jammed sir.”17 With horror the lieutenant watched the Tiger’s gun slowly turn toward him. Risking it all, the Irish troopers rammed their tank  into the Tiger before it had a chance to fire.  On impact, both crews bailed out, and with heavy shelling going on, both jumped for cover into the same slit trench. The lieutenant, however, crawled back to a nearby Sherman Firefly, loaded its 17-pounder gun and “brewed up the Tiger” at point-blank range. He then collected his own and the Tiger’s crew!

Prepare to Ram, Operation Goodwood, Normandy, 18th July 1944 by David Pentland
Prepare to Ram, Operation Goodwood, Normandy, 18th July 1944 by David Pentland

   Heavy fighting continued at the western flank of the battle. At Bras the LAH StuGs met Pip Robert’s last reserves, his Cromwells of his 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry (NY) Reconnaissance Regiment. Knight’s Cross holder SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Karl Rettlinger’s  remembered his StuG attack: “ …2nd Company moved around Bras from the east…the 1st Company moved around from the north.  The pincers caught the enemy tanks…two of their tanks burst into flames immediately and some took direct hits.  Panic overtook the enemy….We lost not a Panzer.  By then it was 1900hrs.”18 Sixteen Cromwells were destroyed.  Together with the 33 tanks lost by the 23rd Hussars, the 45 from the 3rd RTR and the 47 from the 2nd Fife and Forfars, the 11th Armored Division lost 141 tanks. The Guards division lost another 60. Churned tank carcasses dotted the whole plain north of the Bourguébus ridge.  Greasy black smoke billowed up into the air.

Cromwell
Cromwell of the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry Reconnaissance Regiment (Still from Operation Goodwood Lectures)

   Hans von Luck blamed the poor British performance on lack of infantry support to take out German antitank pockets.  Standartenführer (Colonel) Kurt Meyer of the Hitlerjugend asked: “Where is the spirit of the Light Brigade at Balaclava…? The enemy drag themselves across the ground like turtles….”19 In fact, slowed down by traffic congestion, by the fighting ahead of it and by roaming Tigers, the 7th Armored Division did not even manage to join the battle.38

   At the end of the day, British tanks and infantry were entrenched from Le Mesnil-Frémentel-Cagny to Frénouville-Emieville. But the British advance had crawled to a standstill, and the villages on the crest of the Bourguébus ridge remained firmly in German hands. At least the British could console themselves in that human casualties were light. The VIII Corps lost 521 men, with only 81 killed in the tank regiments. Casualties among the 11th Armored’s infantry battalions were only 20, mainly because overly cautious movement and poor coordination kept the infantry from supporting their tank regiments at vital times.

   On the western flank of the British Armor, the Canadian I Corps seized the Caen suburbs and factories from the 272nd Infantry Division and 16th Luftwaffe elements after a stiff fight that claimed 200 Canadian casualties. On the eastern flank, the British I Corps inflicted 651 German casualties and knocked out 18 tanks, mostly as a result of the bombardment, and drove the Germans out of Touffreville and Sannerville.

   All this was less than clear at the various British headquarters, where complete confusion reigned.  Army commander Dempsey even turned down an offer from RAF’s Tactical Air Force for a bombing run of Bourguébus ridge because he thought it unnecessary. Montgomery himself seemed to be on another planet. While his armor bled to death on the Bourguébus, he ecstatically sent a message to the chief of Imperial General Staff, “Complete success…bombing decisive…spectacle terrific…difficult to see what enemy can do…few tanks met so far.”20 That night at 2100, BBC news blurted out the words “Second Army attacked and broke through…General Montgomery is well satisfied.”21 Everyone thought Montgomery had achieved a second Alamein.

   The Germans dreaded an infantry night attack, but none came. Instead the British consolidated their position and funneled in a number of replacement tanks for their mauled regiments. That same night it was the turn of the Luftwaffe to carry out a successful 50-plane raid against the British bridgehead. The Guards and 11th Armored Division’s administrative personnel and replacement tank crews sustained heavy casualties during the raid.

A young SS grenadier with Mg-42 (Bundes Archive)
A young SS grenadier with Mg-42 (Bundesarchiv)

   With the British poised for another assault, elements from Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division trickled in at 0530 on July 19. At 34 years of age, the ruthless Kurt “Panzer” Meyer was the youngest German division commander. General Feuchtinger of the 21st PzDiv rightly called Meyer the “soul of the fanatical resistance. that stopped the enemy from capturing Caen.”22 By midday, a Hitlerjugend Kampfgruppe took over the majority of 21st Panzer’s western positions as Luck’s Kampfgruppe pulled out for a rest. With Hitlerjugend holding the eastern Bourguébus ridges and the area east to the woods, and the LAH on the western ridges, the panzer divisions of the I SS Corps fought shoulder to shoulder for the first time.

   At first light 3rd RTR again drove up the slope towards Bras and Hubert-Folie. Major Close related that “as we reached the line of tanks burned out the day before, we again encountered heavy fire, intensified by more tanks on the ridge.”23 No sooner had Close hopped out of his tank to help some wounded crews than a shell smashed into his own tank’s turret, instantly killing the gunner and operator. “Once again I had to turn out a tank commander and take command from his tank,”24 remembered Close.

   At 0700 a company of the LAH’s 2nd SS-PzGr Regiment attacked from the village of Four and recaptured Le Poirier. To the east, a Hitlerjugend grenadier battalion with armored half-tracks repulsed weak attacks by the 32nd Guards Infantry Brigade at Emiéville.

  The 2 NY went for Bras but got lost and exposed their flanks to the German guns in the village of Ifs. “Half their tanks were brewed up or knocked out”25 Close remembered. The situation changed with the arrival of British field guns by the afternoon.  After they pounded the village, the 3rd RTR with grenadiers joined the assault under the cover of a smoke screen. One of the two LAH StuGs defending the village was knocked out.  An SS Grenadier relates: “The tanks rolled up.  Two, five, eight, ten, we stopped counting. They approached our foxholes carefully. Dread and fear paralyzed us. We knew they would pulverize us. Those of us who survived were taken prisoner.”26 The LAH grenadiers abandoned Bras at 1900, leaving many of their dead behind. By that time the victorious 3rd RTR was reduced to a pitiful nine tanks from an original 63.

stug_3_g_normandy
A StuG III in Normandy (World War Two Zone)

   While British Grenadiers were still busy mopping up in Bras, the 2 NY’s Cromwells drove on to Hubert-Folie at 1810. A hail of high-pitched machine gun fire erupted from LAH Grenadiers and StuGs in the village, supported by Peiper’s hull-down panzers farther up on the ridge, decimating the 2nd NY.  At 2000 it was the 2nd Fife and Forfar’s turn to storm Hubert-Folie.  To their surprise they took the village without opposition, the LAH grenadiers having pulled back up the ridge to join Peiper’s panzers at Verriéres.

   An hour earlier, the 32nd Guards Infantry went for Le Poirier.  The village again changed hands.  But when the 32nd pushed on to Frénouville the Hitlerjugend grenadiers backed by Jagdpanzers brought them to a halt.

   At Four and Soliers, the LAH’s 2nd SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment carried out a similar fight-and-withdraw tactic, at first delaying the advance of the 7th Armored Division’s 22nd Brigade’s, then pulling back to the Bourguébus-la Hogue ridge. The 5 RTR attempted to sweep around Bourguébus village but their attack again withered in the face of Peiper’s 1st Panzer Regiment. The British tankers drew back to Four and Soliers, leaving behind eight smoldering Shermans.

   With nightfall of the second day of Goodwood, the British-Canadian forces stood poised in front of their prime objective, the Bourguébus ridge, which still remained in German possession. The defensive victory was especially hard on LAH’s 1st StuG battalion: reduced to only three operational vehicles left from an original 20.

   The next day, July20th, saw the Guards Armored Division thrust towards the southeast, taking Frénouville and Emieville.  The villages,  hotly contested earlier, were abandoned by the Hitlerjugend to shorten their frontal sector. However, the youths of the 12th SS  repulsed the Guards at Vimont.

   In the British center, the 7th Armored Divison finally secured the likewise abandoned Bourguébus village. But its 4th County of London Yeomandry Armored Regiment and a company of the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade were prevented from advancing further up the gentle slope toward Verriéres by the fire of Dietrich’s panzers and the Tigers of Wittmann’s 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion.

   Dempsey decided that his armored regiments were too battered to continue and ordered the tanks to pull back. Eighth Corps would hold its current positions with infantry.  It was now time for the Canadians to show their mettle and make a try for Verriéres.

   Around 1500, supported by Canadian and British artillery fire and Hawker Typhoons, the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade met the SS and a newly arrived Kampfgruppe of the 2nd (Austrian) Pz Div in a climatic final. In a reverse of earlier British armored attacks, which lacked infantry support, the Canadian infantry attacked with precious little tank support.

Typhoons in the 'Falaise Pocket', a dramatic painting by Robert Taylor
Typhoon ground strikes (Painting by Robert Taylor)

   The Canadians began with a promising start. “The weather was hot and the roads were dusty,” recalled anti-tank gunner  Gordon Amos, “We were green but we soon ripened up.”27 Supported by rocket firing Hawker Typhoons, the Camerons of Canada seized St. Andre-sur-Orne from the 272nd Infantry Division. Shortly thereafter the Germans plastered the village with artillery and mortar fire.

   The South Saskatchewan Regiment struck for the Beauvoir and Torteval farms. German sniper fire hit the Canadians from wheat shocks. The Canadians replied with phosphorus grenades. “When the snipers see the odd guy come screaming out of a grain stook, his uniform covered with burning phosphorus, they start popping up all over the place with their hands up”27 related Captain Britton Smith.

Infantrymen of The South Saskatchewan Regiment during mopping-up operations along the Oranje Canal, Netherlands, April 12, 1945. Photograph by Lieutenant Dan Guravich.www.collectionscanada.gc.ca
The South Saskatchewan Regiment Infantrymen (Photo taken along the  Oranje Canal, Netherlands, April 12, 1945. Photograph by Lieutenant Dan Guravich,, http://www.collections.gc.ca

   When rain clouded the skies and drove off the Typhoons, Mark IV panzers of the 5th and 6th companies of the LAH’s 2nd SS Panzer  Battalion, a StuG company and SS grenadiers viciously counter assaulted. MG-42’s nicknamed “Hitler’s scythe and buzz saw” cut down scores of Canadian infantrymen. Panzer shells burst up the few supporting Canadian tanks. The Canadians in the center broke and ran through the cornfields. Panthers rampaged through the wheat fields with impunity, flushing out their hidden prey. Two companies of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal were all but annihilated. In its first real action, the South Saskatchewans alone took 208 casualties, including their commander.

  The Essex Scottish Regiment was up next. Lance-Bombardier Munro remembered: “its our men against tanks – the best tanks in the war…at the same time we’re facing heavy mortar and artillery fire.”29 A retreating South Saskatchewan yelled, “It’s bloody suicide up there!”30

   Despite their bloody casualties, the tough Canadians gritted their teeth and kept fighting. The German versus Canadian duel continued throughout the night. Thunder boomed in the sky and the rain poured in buckets over the war torn slopes. The ground turned into a quagmire. Unrelenting fire from their field guns enabled the Fusiliers Mont Royal to hold onto Troteval farm into the next morning.

   Artillery Captain Britton Smith remembers: “He’s [a tiger] so bloody close-only two hundred yards away–that each time he fires, the muzzle blast bang our ears together and flattens the grain all around us as the shot screeches overhead and a shower of sparks goes up from one of our tanks up on the hill…I put a battery of mediums on him and hammer him for about half an hour. I may not have knocked him out, but I’ll bet I loosened up the bowels of the crew.”31 The artillery fire copes with the enemy infantry but “when they begin coming with tanks, we realize the jig is up.”32

   Renewed attacks by the LAH in the morning of the 21st brought the Essex Scottish casualties up to 301.  The regiment was only able to withdraw due to a timely appearance by the Canadian Black Watch alongside tanks of the 1st Hussars and Sherbrooke Fusiliers.

normandy-p79
Canadian Infantry in Normandy 1944

   Goodwood had reached its end; the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS had shredded the British and Canadians to pieces. Skillfull fighting withdrawals combined with aggressive and well-coordinated counterattacks within a deep defensive belt demonstrated the German genius for a fluid defense. Sepp Dietrich also praised the mechanics of the nearby German tank repair shops. The mechanics, who made extensive repairs within a few short hours, had been vital for keeping his armor in battle. Dietrich personally awarded them   the Iron Cross Second Class.

   Aided by poor weather, that limited Allied air support, and poor British coordination and intelligence, Goodwood became perhaps the greatest German defensive victory of the Normandy campaign. The British suffered 3,474 casualties among VIII and I corps, the Canadians another 1,965.  Two hundred and fifty three tanks were destroyed, although a fair number of them were later repaired. On the other hand the Germans likewise salvaged enough Shermans to equip an entire company of the 21st Panzer Division. The heavy British and Canadian sacrifices only extended the Allied bridgehead by only nine kilometers and failed to secure the vital crest of the Bourguébus ridge. Though the British-Canadians held most of the northern slope, only one of the five main tactical objectives, the village of Hubert-Folie, had been secured.

Caen in ruins (Still from Battlefield, the Battle of Caen, You Tube)
Caen in ruins (Still from Battlefield, the Battle of Caen, You Tube)

   Goodwood also failed to “write down the German armor,”33 as Montgomery had phrased it. The Germans lost only 75 tanks in the battle. And, significantly, more than 40 of those were lost to Allied bombing. German personnel losses were relatively light as well, though the continuing attrition was clearly wearing down the panzer divisions.

   Incredibly, Montgomery calmly claimed that Goodwood achieved everything he hoped for. The validity of his position after Goodwood when compared to his prebattle expectations has been much debated. This was because Dempsey’s original operational order had also listed Falaise as one of the objectives. On July 15th, however, Montgomery changed Falaise to a target for reconnaissance units only, but then failed to notify Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) of the change. The likely reason was that Montgomery doubted that Goodwood would achieve a decisive breakthrough, but publicly he supported this notion to gain the required air support.

   What the British and Canadian troops expected became clear to von Luck.  Canadian prisoners told him that Monty had called out: “To Falaise, boys, we’re going to march on Paris.”34 SHAEF certainly expected as much. Furious at Monty’s failure, Eisenhower commented that the Allies could hardly expect to advance through France at the rate of 1,000 tons of bombs per mile! All the senior Air commanders were angry, as they had been eager to secure airfields for their short-range fighters south of Caen. Even Churchill was disappointed with Monty. With many calling for Mongomery to be fired, Goodwood was another nail in the coffin that buried his chance of remaining overall land force commander.

   In Montgomery’s defense, though, Goodwood managed to draw the bulk of the panzer divisions away from the American western flank.  On July 25th the American breakout of “Cobra”, delayed by the bad weather, finally got underway to coincide with “Spring” another British-Canadian offensive with virtually the same goals as “Goodwood.” By that time there were seven Panzer divisions facing the British-Canadians as opposed to the two Panzer divisions and one Panzergrenadier division that bolstered the German infantry divisions facing the Americans.  Nevertheless, the major contribution of Goodwood was not so much the diversion of German armor but rather the diversion of the deteriorating German supplies to the British sector. When Cobra broke loose in the St. Lô sector, the Germans not only faced a better-planned and-executed operation but also lacked the supplies to sustain an effective defense.

Operation Goodwood is an edited and slightly revised article closely based on Dyck's original article published in World War II Magazine July/August 2004.
Operation Goodwood is an edited and slightly revised article closely based on Dyck’s original article published in World War II Magazine July/August 2004. The article has also been republished by HistoryNet in Nov. 2016.
Notes
  1. Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 199.
  2. Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy (London: Collins, 1983) p. 370, 371.
  3. J.F.C. Fuller, The Decisive Battles of the Western World (New York: Granada, 1970) p. 558.
  4.  David Mason, Breakout: drive to the Seine (London: Macdonald & Co. 1968) p. 9.
  5. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy (New York: Dell Publishing, 1998) p. 207, 208.
  6. Ibid, p. 209.
  7. Ibid, p. 215.
  8. Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 196.
  9. Ibid, p. 193
  10. Ibid, p. 193.
  11. Ibid, p. 194
  12. Ibid, p. 197
  13. Ibid, p. 197
  14. Alexander McKee, Caen Anvil of Victory (London: Souvenier Press, 1964) p. 272, 273.
  15. Ibid, p. 272.
  16. Ibid. p. 274.
  17. Ibid. p. 274.
  18. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 220.
  19. Ibid p. 222.
  20. Carlo d’Este, Decision in Normandy, p. 381
  21. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278
  22. James Lucas, Hitler’s Commanders (Barnsley: Frontline Books, 2014) p. 128.
  23. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 278.
  24. Ibid, p. 279.
  25. Ibid, p. 279.
  26. Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 226.
  27. Alexander McKee, Caen, Anvil of Victor, p. 286.
  28. George C. Blackburn, The Guns of Normandy (Toronto: McClelland & Steward, 1995) p. 184, 185
  29. Ibid, p. 189.
  30. Ibid, p. 189.
  31. Ibid, p. 190, 191
  32. Ibid, p. 192
  33. Russell A. Hart, A Clash of Arms (London: Lynne Rienner, 2001) p. 314, Michael Reynolds, Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normand, p. 209, 231.
  34. Hans von Luck, Panzer Commander (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) p. 201.
Sources

Bercuson David J. Maple Leaf against the Axis. Toronto: Stoddard. 1995, Blackburn George C. The Guns of Normandy. Toronto: McClelland & Steward. 1995, Blumenson Martin. Liberation. Virginia. Time Life Books. 1978, d’Este Carlo. Decision in Normandy. London: Collins. 1983, Donnelly Tom and Naylor Sean. Clash of Chariots. New York: Berkley Books. 1996, Fuller J.F.C. The Decisive Battles of the Western World. New York: Granada. 1970, Hart Russel A. Clash of Arms. London: Lynne Rienner. 2001, Luck, Hans von. Panzer Commander. New York: Dell Publishing. 1991, Mason David. Breakout: drive to the Seine. London: Macdonald & Co. 1968, McKee Alexander. Caen Anvil of Victory. London: Souvenier Press. 1964, Reynolds Michael. Steel Inferno. 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy. New York: Dell Publishing. 1998.

 

Net Sources

http://www.onwar.com/maps/wwii/normandy/1goodwood44.htm, http://www.generals.dk/, http://www.panzerace.net/main/normandy.asp, http://home.att.net/~SSPzHJ/KurtMeyer.html, http://web.archive.org/web/20010405162157/valourandhorror.com/DB/CHRON/July_18.