(Volume 26 Issue 5)
By Vincent J. Curtis
In June we celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, regarded as the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime. The greatest success that day, in terms of ground gained and objectives met, was by the Canadians coming off Juno beach.
Nevertheless, a close study of the movement off Juno leaves one with the impression of opportunities lost on account of failures of leadership.
The senior Canadian leadership of World War I were militia officers, civilian professional men, who had not commanded anything above a battalion before the war. They reached Corps and Division command on account of proven worth. They had no preconceptions about how war should be fought. They learned from Julian Byng the value of battle studies, and of applying the lessons learned (and adding new wrinkles of their own like sound-ranging) to the next battle. That’s why Vimy Ridge was such an astonishing success.
Prior to D-Day, the allies had landed in Sicily, Italy, and Anzio. The Sicily invasion went well in part because the commander of the American forces, the audacious LGen George S. Patton, Jr., exploded off the beaches. He wanted to beat Montgomery to Messina, and he wasn’t going to do it “protecting Monty’s left flank” through the central mountains of Sicily. Patton immediately sent a “reconnaissance in force” in the direction of Palermo, creating space and confusion, and got there practically unopposed.
The failure was at Anzio. The landings caught the Germans completely by surprise. The road lay open to Rome and to the complete dislocation of the German Winter Line – had the landing force moved off the beaches. But no, MGen John Lucas had to establish and consolidate first, and the resulting delay gave Kesselring time to react. He blocked movement off the beaches for four months.
Such were the lessons which ought to have been known. The French military theorist Ardant du Picq taught that a small force cannot afford to get involved in a melee because in a melee its organization, the real strength of the force, is lost.
In practical terms, this means that a superior attacking force can afford to by-pass pockets of resistance because doing so involves the defence in a melee. None of the lessons; of the importance of gaining space rapidly, of the value of by-passing small pockets of resistance, of closest infantry-tank coordination were applied by the Canadian commanders on D-Day.
The objective in the Commonwealth sector on D-Day was the capture of Caen. The Canadian landings began at 08:00 hours, but not until 14:30 was the beach deemed secure and movement inland ordered by Major General Rod Keller, Commander of the Canadian 3rd Division. The advance would not last long nor go far.
A troop of Sherman tanks, No. 2 Troop, C Squadron, 1st Hussars, led by Lieutenant William F. McCormick, nevertheless did their job. They found an unopposed route from Camilly on Phase Line Elm all the way to the objective: Phase Line Oak, the Caen-Bayeux rail line and the Carpiquet airfield. Despite frantic signalling, McCormick was not reinforced. Where was his Squadron Commander? His Regiment Commander? Why wasn’t anyone wondering where their lost Troop was? And why were the Canadians digging in back at Phase Line Elm with four hours of daylight remaining and an open road ahead?
They were digging on order from British Lieutenant General Miles Dempsey because the British 3rd Division on Sword was being attacked in flank by elements of the German 21st Panzer Division. Three divisions halted because one of them was counterattacked. The Canadian 9th Brigade halted three miles from Caen, the farthest inland of any allied force. The rest of the day was wasted. In the night the Germans moved in the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) and then the Panzer Lehr Division. Caen wasn’t captured until a month later.
Many life-saving opportunities created by surprise that day went unexploited from a lack of Patton-esque audacity on the part of senior Canadian leadership.