Was Montgomery to Blame for the failure to take Caen?

On 15th May General Bernard Law Montgomery, the British commander of the Allied land forces told the assembled allied commanders that the allied troops would press on inland south of Caen, securing airfields and providing a shield for a American breakout towards Brittany.  But that did not happen.  Instead, after brief battles on D Day and D+1 there was no further attempt to take the city until July.   To some  American and British air force, commanders it seemed that the British were not trying hard enough and that Montgomery was making excuses for failure. 

General Bernard Law Montgomery is a controversial figure. A good Dunkirk and an outstanding record training soldiers troops took him to Army command in North Africa at El Alemein.  He was the talisman of success for the British, inspiring soldiers to believe in victory.  Monty was also arrogant, abrasive and undiplomatic, and far from universally popular even within the British Army.  A Time Magazine article dated 10 January 1944, says that British staff officers circulated the description “Indomitable in defeat, indefatigable in attack, insufferable in victory!” attributed to Churchill. 

The Phase lines – originally drawn  by staff officers as logistic estimates became benchmarks 

The delay in capturing Caen strained relationships between soldiers and airmen and between Montgomery and his boss Eisenhower.  Some members of Eisenhower’s staff even tried to get Montgomery dismissed.  Americans started to think that they were bearing an unfair share of the fight and casualties. Its an idea that has persisted: the only mention Stephen Spielberg included about the British in Saving Private Ryan was that the British were “drinking tea in front of Caen”.   But is that fair?  To what extent was Montgomery to blame?  Is there anywhere on the modern day battlefields of Normandy that can provide an insight.    

Failings in the 3rd British Division

The task of the assaulting divisions is to break through the coastal defences and advance some ten miles inland on D Day. Great speed and boldness will be required to achieve this. …As soon as the beach defences have been penetrated not a moment must be lost. 

1st British Corps Operation order No 1 5 May 1944
Sword  Sector, inland from the beaches D Day

There were questions about the performance of the 3rd British Infantry Division tasked with capturing Caen.  This Division landed on a single brigade front on Sword Beach.  At H+295 (12.30pm) the 185th infantry Brigade Group scheduled to have landed and assembled its infantry tanks and artillery to  d dash for Caen.  But this did not happen.  

The brigade landed roughly on schedule, with the infantry ashore around 10.00 but congestion on the beaches meant that none of the armour or supporting vehicles were off the beach by 12.30, when Brigade commander started the advance with infantry only on foot, partially by a circuitous route.  The assault brigade had also met unexpected resistance at a German position south of Coleville-sur-Mer which  imposed a further delay.  By late afternoon the leading infantry battalion had reached the edge of Lebisey wood, on the ridge just north of Caen.   Around the same time the   German 21st Panzer Division launched the only German armoured attack in D Day.  By the time this was stopped there would be no further advance towards Caen on D Day.   

The next day, D+1, 7th June, 185th Brigade mounted an attack with a single battalion.  This turned into a disaster as unsupported infantry tangled with German tanks.  The Brigade commander K P (Kipper)  Smith was dismissed.  

Post war there has been much criticism of the Sword beach plan.   Why land on a single brigade front?  In rehearsals there were questions the performance of the brigade commander. Why was he given a critical role in the assault? 

Staff college studies have also pointed to the 3rd Division becoming overloaded with tasks.  Besides capturing Caen they were to protect their own beachhead, link up with the Canadians to their west and provide artillery and armour to support the  airborne troops to their east.

Retired British General Mike Reynolds book “Eagles and Bulldogs” (2003) compares the fortunes of 3rd British and 29th US Divisions in Normandy.  His chief criticism are of the divisional and brigade commanders, whose performance was found wanting,. and the failure of the British Army to train its infantry divisional and brigade commanders combine armour and infantry effectively. 

Some historians such as Max Hastings have argued that man for man and unit for unit the Germans were better than the British, and Americans, who could only advance through brute force.  However, historians such as John Buckley and Terry Copp have challenged this interpretation.     

As God once said, and I think rightly.

Bernard Law Montgomery

 Poor Allied Intelligence and Unrealistic expectations

Allied Intelligence had not picked up the  
infantry, anti tank guns and artillery of the 21st Panzer Division inland from Sword Beach. The red crosses show the targets for the Allied fire plan

One of the myths of D day is that the allies had supremely good intelligence.  The Code breakers read the Germans communications. The Invasions maps showed every detail of the German defences, prepared from aerial photographs and with the aid of the gallant French Resistance.  All true, – up to a point.  There were a few things wrong with the Allied Intelligence brief.   During the early months of 1944 the Germans moved several formations much closer to the coast as part of Rommel’s plan to defeat the allies on the beaches.  Allied intelligence missed  the presence of soldiers from the 352nd Infantry Division doubling the number of defenders at Omaha Beach.  They also missed reinforcements to the 716th Division sector North of Caen, including half of the infantry and the anti tank battalion of the 21st Panzer Division. (The 21st Panzer Division was an incredible organisation commanded by an extraordinary figure – General Edgar Feuchtinger.)    By 15th May, the day of Montgomery’s briefing, there could not be a dash inland to seize Caen.   The Germans  were already there in force. 

When Caen was set as an objective, back in mid 1943 the planners based their assumptions on Germans forces  in France consisting of between a best case of 20 divisions and a worst case of  50 divisions.  By 6th June the Germans had 60 divisions in France, and chosen to deploy them as close to the coast as possible.  It may be that a ten mile advance ashore after an assault landing was not achievable objective 

The Germans did a good job of defending Caen.

This situation map drawn by German senior Prisoners for US Army historians shows the German reinforcements heading for Caen 7-9 June 1944   

War is a kind of democracy: The enemy gets a say.  The biggest single reason why the British and Canadians advance was so slow was because the Germans committed the necessary resources to stop them.  German doctrine required the commander to determine a point of main effort.  In summer 1944 in Normandy the Germans decided that they would put their main effort against Caen.  On D Day itself the German local Commander General Marcks organised the armoured counter attack from Caen. In the following days two more Panzer Divisions were brought up between Caen and Bayeux.  The Germans would continue to reinforce the Caen sector through out June, bringing a whole SS Panzer Corps and about 100 heavy Tiger tanks to face the British and Canadians. 

Montgomery Vindicated?  This German situation map 23 July 1944 :shows that 48 hours before the successful US breakthrough at St Lo the German effort and attention is focused on the Anglo Canadian force at Caen

To be fair to the Allied commanders and their staff, they had studied German doctrine and predicted that the Germans would strike at the British and Canadian forces.   This knowledge drove the allied strategy for the British and Canadians to act a s a shield was the basis for the role outlines as the British and e Germans who needed to throw the allies into the sea. 

Eisenhower should take some of the Blame.  

Inside Southwick House where the decision to go on 6th June  was made

By and large Eisenhower is praised by everybody for taking the decision to launch D Day in marginal weather, while Montgomery takes the blame for failing to achieve the objectives.  This isn’t wholly fair.  Launching D Day in poor weather had consequences.

  • High sea states caused many problems.  Some landing craft had to turn back to England and others were swamped. Few of the Amphibious DD Tanks swam ashore.   Difficulties operating Rhino ferries slowed the landings. 
  • The aerial bombardment was curtailed reducing the fire suipport on the beaches.
  • There were problems clearing obstacles and getting vehicles off the beach

This is an argument put forward by Stephen Badsey in “Culture Controversy, Cherbourg and Caen”  a chapter in “The Normandy Campaign 1944 Sixty Years on”  

Was Montgomery Over Cautious?

“The commander must decide how he will fight the battle before it begins. He must then decide who he will use the military effort at his disposal to force the battle to swing the way he wishes it to go; he must make the enemy dance to his tune from the beginning and not vice versa.”

Bernard Law Montgomery
Montgomery: Drinking Tea in front of Caen?

One of the major criticisms of Montgomery is that he was overcautious and  relied on overwhelming firepower. Behind this criticism is the suggestion that the British were not pulling their weight and that America was bearing a disproportionate proportion of the effort and cost of the Normandy Campaign,   It is true that the  USA suffered higher losses than the British and Canadians 125,847 compared to 83,825, but more American were landed.  Expressed as a proportion the casualty rates for both allied forces was just over 10%  of the troops landed by the end of August. 
(10.29% of US and 10.1% for the British)

Montgomery’s style was a series of methodical attacks supported by as much fire power as possible following as closely as possible his script for the battle.  This was key to winning the confidence and loyalty of his men.  For the first half of the war the British had tried to do too much with too little in too much of a hurry.  There was also the shadow of the Somme.  The men who served in Normandy grew up with the tales their fathers told of ill prepared attacks and huge losses.  My father, a Normandy veteran, told me that if Montgomery was in charge, everything possible had been done to make sure that  the operation would be successful.

The methodical approach suited the British Liberation Army.  The experience of the 3rd  British Division on D Day suggests that it wasn’t very good at improvised combined arms operations. This was a failing that would be shown up during the campaign.

There was a further reason for British caution.  In 1944, after nearly five years of war, the British had few men to spare to replace casualties. Casualty rates in Normandy were much higher than the allies expected.  The US Army could draw on infantry replacements from formations still in the USA. The British would have to reduce thew size of their army. 

had more manpower reserves.   During the campaign they  

What Can we Blame Montgomery for?

Ike on Monty: Good to work for, difficult to work with and  impossible to manage (Attributed) 

Montgomery probably didn’t give much thought to the 15 May phase lines that would cause so much trouble. According to Lieutenant Colonel Kit Dawney, Montgomery’s Military Assistant, who drew them, the intermediate lines were spaced equally. According to Dawney, Montgomery did not care groundwise where he would be between D+1 and D+90 as he was confident we would beat the Germans in three months. He was not going to capture ground. He was going to destroy the enemy. (From Hamilton Montgomery Master of the Battlefield)

Arguably Montgomery had a point.  As long as the Germans could not throw the allies into the sea, and the Allied forces ashore continued to expand  the Allies would achieve the aim of Operation Overlord.   The conduct of the battle rest was to wear down the Germans as efficiently as possible, even if it occasionally meant giving up ground. 

Soldiers needed to be given clear geographic objectives  even if the aim was to provoke an attritional battle – what Montgomery described as the “dogfight.”  Military history is full of examples of troops being ordered to do “Capture X”  with the commander fairly certain that the enemy won’t let them.   

Those that have followed the accounts of British operations so far will have realised that General Montgomery’s named intentions were clearly stated, that in no case were their geographical objective reached; yet when each operation concluded with its stated object unrealised, he asserted he was satisfied with the result.   To observers… the satisfaction he professed was incomprehensible.

Ellis Victory in The West Volume 1: The Battle for Normandy  p355

The report lines came to be the focus of criticism.  While he could structure his plans around destroying the enemy. the media and public associated success with conquering ground. Montgomery’s blindness to this did not help Eisenhower  manage expectations at a time when there was pressure for progress and a growing fear that operations had bogged down.

Among the traits that irritated and infuriated Montgomery’s claims of infallibility particularly grated – and was easily disproved by critics.  Eisenhower remarked that plans always change, and good commanders adapt. But Montgomery would claim that battle had played out as he had always predicted.  To see examples, read “Decision in Normandy”. Carlo D’Este documented the backtracking by Montgomery.   

Why did the British put up with Montgomery?

Normandy Veterans Association Service, Colleville-Montgomery 5 June 2014

Montgomery was probably the most influential British field commander of the Second World War.  He stood out in 1940 as the only  divisional commander to use the phoney war of 1939-40 to train his division for mobile war. After Dunkirk his training methods influenced the whole of the Home Army, and still shape the modern British Army. In 1942 in North Africa he restored the morale of British army and confidence in their ability to beat the Germans.  That wasn’t trivial.  By 1942 British soldiers had begun to lose confidence in their commanders after a long run of disasters. A contemporary joke was that the initials BEF, (British Expeditionary Force) really stood for Back Every Friday – which is why the British in 1944 were the British Liberation Army.  Montgomery’s  methods are analysed in Stephen Hart’s “Colossal Cracks”  (2007) which is a text book at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. 

Where to see this story in Normandy?

Battle damaged Centaur Tank at Sword Beach. It was one of 100 extra tanks manned by Royal Marines scheduled to land at H Hour on D Day.

Sword beach is not as heavily visited as Omaha beach. There is no Interpretation centre or commemorative preserved battlefield.   There is evidence of the battle, but dotted around the resort villages that stretch from Ouestrhem to Lion-sur-Mer.  Some of the concrete emplacements remain along the coast and inland, but most were removed.

The village of Colleville-sur-Mer changed its name to Colleville-Montgomery in honour of the British commander.  There is a fine statue of him in on the road from the beach to the village.  For many years this is where the British Normandy Veterans Association held their annual parade.  

The Hillman Bunker complex that delayed the advance 

The Hillman fortified position that caused so many problems has been preserved by local volunteers and dedicated to the Suffolk Regiment.

There is nothing to interpret or commemorate the defeat of the German armoured counter attack  on D Day.  But the landscape south of Periers Ridge is still open countryside.  The city of Caen  has expanded north and villages such as Lebesiy and Epron are now suburbs.  Enough of Lebisy wood is left for a battlefield visitor to see where the Germans  halted 3rd ambushed 185 Brigade on D+!. 

3rd Division memorial Caen

There is an exhibition on the post D Day battles for Caen at the museum at Bayeux just down from the Commonwealth Bayeux War Cemetery. The main memorials of the inland battles are the war cemeteries, each a reminder. The Canadians have done more than the British to explain their role with a series of interpretation boards. There are a few unit memorials to mark particularly grim battles.  

The Lessons from the Dieppe Raid- and where to see these in on the D Day Beaches

The raid on Dieppe on August 19th, 1942 is a controversial episode in World War 2. An Anglo Canadian force with some 50 Americans landed around dawn in an attempt to seize and temporarily hold, the port of Dieppe. A few hours later the force withdrew, losing 5,000 casualties, of which around 3,600 were Canadians. The operation was closely studied by American as well as British commanders and played an important part in shaping how the Allied lands on D Day.

In May 1943 Headquarters European Theatre of Operations US Army held a conference on Assault Landings in London. Before the US Army started to train troops to cross channel, the commanders wanted to ensure that doctrine and procedures would reflect the latest evidence from assault landings and the special circumstances of the English Channel. The conference started with presentations on the Dieppe Raid.   The papers from this conference are available online (Assault Landings conference US Assault Training Centre ETO, 1943)

Commodore Hughes-Hallett, one of the naval commanders said that the Dieppe raid was intended as a small-scale rehearsal for a major cross channel operation, which would eventually have to be undertaken. He went on to say that the “lessons learnt caused a drastic re-casting of our ideas concerning amphibious operations in face of a heavy scale of resistance… A major disaster would have occurred had we proceeded to attack in North West Europe on the lines hitherto visualised.” Major General C J Haydon from Combined Operations spelled out the implications. Any assault would need the same level of fire support as an assault on a fortified position on land and mentioned El Alamein as a bench mark – one 25 Pounder per 17 yards. This could be provided by field artillery firing from their landing craft and specialist fire support craft mounting field guns and lighter cannon. The navy had been asked to build fire support craft, but the numbers required would mean revising naval constructions schedules and fighting for priority against demands for more landing craft or light craft as escorts or minesweepers.

Dieppe at dawn from the Western cliffs 2012
Dieppe from the western Cliff 1942

Until Dieppe the British had relied on surprise and aggressive commando tactics to carry out raids on occupied Europe. This was to a large extent out of necessity. There weren’t enough landing craft, nor small warships. Using these swashbuckling tactics British Combined Operations carried out a spectacular raid on the German held port of Saint Nazaire, sailing up the river Loire, seizing the docks and destroying the facilities. The same techniques of night approach and landings worked well in the Mediterranean. If half of the small craft needed to be fire support craft fewer soldiers could be landed.

 There were lots more “Lessons learned” in the report made in Autumn 1942. Extract from Combined Report on the Dieppe Raid, Combined Operations HQ , Whitehall , October 1942. -paragraphs 324-376 “Lessons Learned.

The conference also heard presentations by British Major General Hobart on specialized armour, on drills developed by combined arms teams of infantry, specialized tanks and engineers tackling a typical German defence position. It wasn’t just British talking. Colonel O’Bare USMC added the US Pacific experience, in particular deploying Army Divisions to the Aleutian Islands.

Dieppe was also a stimulus to an important armoured vehicle used on D Day. Shortly after the raid a Canadian Engineer was looking at the problem of protecting engineers working to clear routes for tanks. The Churchill tank was adapted as an engineer vehicle, capable of carrying engineer stores and mounting a 165mm petard mortar for demolition work. Although the British had developed a family of specialist armour – flails and bridge laying tanks, The Churchill AVRE was a more versatile platform. An entire assault brigade of three battalions would be used by the British and Canadians on D Day.

The Germans also learned lessons. It confirmed OKW’s optimistic view that an attempt at invasion could be destroyed on the beaches and reinforced the view that the Allies would attack a port and encouraged the Germans to waste resources in the wrong places.

The lessons from Dieppe are controversial.  Many people argue that these lessons were obvious or could have been learned from other operations such as the Allied landings in the Mediterranean or Pacific.  However, these arguments are  counter factual. We can never know whether the D Day planners would have learned from other peoples experience, or whether they would have deduced the level of fire power for what Combined Operations argued were the unique circumstances of the Ciorss Channel Assault. 

TEN THINGS YOU CAN SEE ON THE  NORMANDY BATTLEFIELDS THAT ILLUSTRATE THE LESSONS FROM DIEPPE

1.   Unfinished Bunkers on Gold Juno and Omaha Beaches 

This German gun was captured outside theincomplete concrete emplacement
Incomplete concrete gun emplacement Mont Fleury Gold Beach

The Germans drew some important lessons from Dieppe: the wrong lessons. The incomplete bunkers on Gold and Omaha beach are reminders that the invasion coast was fourth out of fifth in the German defensive priorities for the Calvados coast.  The Germans poured ten times as much concrete protecting ports that would not be attacked. 

2.   Juno Beach 

The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer tells the story of the Canadian experience in the Second World War and of the preparations for D Day. The terrain on Juno beach was similar to Dieppe. As at Dieppe the assaulting soldiers were faced with fighting though a series of seaside towns.  Despite the extensive fire support and technology deployed, the fight on Juno beach was tough,

3.    Armoured Engineer Vehicles

The AVRE engineer tank at Greye-sur-Mer, on the western end of Juno Beach  was one of the many from the Assault Engineer Brigade that supported the British and Canadian landings. This particular tank was buried for half a century. 

4.    Ranger Memorial Pointe-du-Hoc

Dieppe was the first action in which US troops participated against the Germans 50 Rangers were attached to No 3 and No 4 Commando. The US Army was impressed with the aggressive tough training of the Commandos to set up their own version.

5.   Le Grand Bunker – Observation Bunker   Riva Bella Battery

No 4 Commando which landed on the eastern side of Queen Beach had participated in the Dieppe raid where it achieved its objective of capturing the Hess battery. Captain Pat Porteous awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry at Dieppe was one of the commandos who attacked the observation tower at Riva Bella on D Day.  “The observers in the medieval tower were communicating with the gunners at the inland battery. There was a single staircase up the middle of the tower and these Germans were on top.  They were as safe as could be; the walls were ten feet thick.  One of my men tried to climb the staircase, but the Germans dropped a grenade on him.  Another fired the PIAT at the tower, but it failed to penetrate – it was useless.  We tried to give the Germans a squirt with the flame-thrower, but they were too high; we couldn’t get enough pressure from those little backpack flame-throwers that we had.  We couldn’t touch the observers and were starting to take casualties from rifle fire from the tower,so I decided to leave it for someone else and set off for Pegasus Bridge.”

6.   Mulberry Harbour

Remains of the Mulberry Harbour, Arromanches-les-Bains 

The idea of a floating prefabricated harbour was developed before the Dieppe Raid.  However, the realization that it would not be possible to capture a harbour intact led the Allies to develop techniques and technology to support landings over a beaches. 

7.   Centaur Royal Marine Armoured Support Group

Eighty obsolescent Centaur tanks were landed on the British and Canadian beaches to thicken up the fire on the defences particularly for the last ten minutes of the run in.  These were originally intended as the turrets for close support Armoured Landing Craft, part of the armada of fire support craft for D Day.  The variously gun and rocket armed support craft do not have the iconic status of the  LCVP or LCA.  There are models of the different types of modified landing craft in museums covering the landings at Arromanches and Utah Beach. “Seawolf” at Hermanville-sur-Mer bears battle damage. A second Centaur is in the Memorial-Pegasus museum.  

8.     Point 67 Memorial  

The 2nd Canadian Division provided the bulk of the troops for the Dieppe Raid.  It was spared D Day, but landed in Normandy in early July. They were one of the formations that captured Caen and heavily engaged in the fighting between Caen and Falaise. The Point 67  memorial on Verriers ridge overlooks the battlefield of Operation Spring 25-27th July 1944. The 2nd Division attacked over this open ground South of Caen to keep the SS Panzer Divisions pinned on the Caen front while the US 1st Army attacked west of St Lo.  This fighting cost the Canadian forces over 1,300 casualties, their worst loss since Dieppe. 

9 Omaha Beach

The coast along Omaha Beach is rather similar to the Dieppe beach front, Regardless of whether Dieppe could or should have been attacked from the front or the flanks, for large stretches of the French coastline there were only a few places where an army could land.  These were obvious to the defenders and heavily defended.  It was obvious that any attack on the Calvados coastline would  include landings on Omaha beach.  

10 Operation Aquatint Memorial 

About half way along Omaha beach there are two prominent memorials, the concrete Liberation memorial and the steel Les Braves sculpture.  About a hundred yards to the west, on the seawall is a bronze plaque to the memory of Major March Phillips and his men who fell in Operation Aquatint on 12th September 1942. After Dieppe Combined Operations was ordered to focus on preparations for the cross channel assault.   No 62 Commando was left to stage small scale raids, which they did off the Channel Islands.  On 12 September a navigation error resulted in the raiders landing in the middle of what would become known as Omaha Beach in the face of an alert defence.  Three commandos were killed and others captured.