SSNS Home > Senior Years > Curricula 9-12 > Grade 11 > Canadian History > Battlefields Tour > 22 July 2010
It was warm and sunny all day. After breakfast Lee told us a little about Operation Spring and challenged each group to figure out the battle plan of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry to capture the Village of Verrières. We then travelled east from Bayeux and stopped south of Caen at Point 67, which is at the top of a ridge overlooking St. André-sur-Orne and two other villages beyond it. Our group had been working on the battle plan on the way, but the maps were unclear, and I had difficulty getting oriented. Consequently, I wasn’t expecting such a steep drop to the valley below.
Lee helped us get our bearings by pointing out important features of the landscape, including the location of Verrières to the southeast. Caen had already fallen to the Allies, and Canadian troops had pushed to the east and south, including the outskirts of St. Andre-sur-Orne, which was on the western edge of the Allied Offensive. The Germans were directly south on the high ground of the Verrières Ridge, an army with plenty of equipment and determined men, many of them SS volunteers and Nazi fanatics. He also told us that their approach to Allied advances was to respond with a massive counter-attack in an effort to dislodge the enemy. This had some success, but it also cost them men they could not replace. The Allied campaign was destroying the German army little by little.
While we were at Point 67, we looked at the memorial plaques and listened to Cindy, who led a discussion of Allied efforts to restore the civilian infrastructure in the towns and villages they liberated. It revealed a side to the war effort that I had never considered previously. Getting civilian life back to normal as quickly as possible ensured their support.
We next drove up to the ridge opposite Point 67. We had to go down to the edge of the village of St. André, turn left, then right up onto a field overlooking the three villages of St. André-sur-Orne, St. Martine De Fontenay, and May-sur-Orne to the west. We could see Beauvoir and Troteval Farms to our left (east) and Verrières in the distance. Canadians had moved up into the villages on 25 July 1944, but there were still Nazis there. When the Black Watch came up onto this ridge, they faced machine gun fire from the villages to their right (west) and a counterattack from forward and left. Their inexperienced commanding officer thought the right had been secured, a grave mistake, and a German force under Michael Wittman heading for the village, although surprised to find them there, took full advantage of the Canadian misjudgement. The ridge became a killing field, and the Canadian force was nearly wiped out. However, remnants moved back under fire, which is a most difficult manoeuvre, to the edge of the villages, and held on. So it was not a total failure.
After a brief stop at St. Martin-de-Fontenay, we went up to Verrières, which is a little village in a bowl-like depression below the ridge. This made it a very good defensive position. The fields around it are open, so it is a perfect place to meet a counterattack. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry liberated Verrières, dug in, and prepared for the inevitable German counterattack. The Germans came again and again, and paid dearly in men and equipment over the next few days. It was one bright spot in an operation that failed to take the ridge itself from the Germans.
The next stop was Rocquancourt, where Operation Totalize began on August 7. We went into the village, which is mostly post-war buildings, to the monument of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, who liberated it. The stop here was brief. When we left there, we speeded through a field and up to a ridge overlooking this village. This was roughly the same path taken by Canadians and Polish infantrymen, who raced up at night in armoured vehicles right into the heart of the German artillery. They caught the enemy completely by surprise.
Our next stop was the Canadian Military Cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize, which we reached by a circuitous route, even though it is only 4 k. from Rocquancourt. It is very near Cintheaux, which is just a km away. Marlo did an excellent presentation here on her husband’s uncle, who was killed near here during the Normandy campaign. She had difficulty controlling her emotions when she described the circumstances of his death, proof of how affected we all still are by the lives of these sacrificial victims to war.
We travelled further south past a quarry north of Langannerie, turned left (east), and stopped at Point 140, where there is a memorial to members of the British Columbia and Algonquin Regiments, who died there. They had moved ahead during the night under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington, and stopped near here, thinking they were at Point 195. Consequently, when they came under attack by the 12th SS, they radioed back to their artillery to start bombing the 12th SS tanks at Point 195, instead of 140, where they were actually located. They were mostly killed, although a few got back to the Polish lines behind them. The tanks simply circled them and blew them up. The incident has often been cited as evidence of Canadian incompetence, but it was night when they moved and the terrain was difficult. Considering how difficult it was for me to get my bearings in daylight, I could well sympathise with them!
We left there and stopped for a break at Segrainville Langannerie, before going to the Polish Military Cemetery nearby. This cemetery is dignified and simple in its design, a lovely place with red roses between the rows of crosses. I looked up two soldiers named Kwiatkowski, a family name prominent in a nephew’s Polish heritage. Maybe they are his distant relatives. We had our wind-up seminar here, but I did not participate. It had been a troubling day, and the previous day had been worse. I had almost enough of war and just wanted to be alone.