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21 Days in Normandy

Angelo Caravaggio
In June, 1944 the Allies including the USA and Britain invaded France against the German occupiers. Great Britain was not alone, having the voluntary help of its Empire, colonies and territories who had rallied to the cause, providing both personnel and materiel. The invasion had been several years in the making and considerable work had been put into training and preparing the forces involved. The actual invasion and the break out from the initial beach head was done with more ease than was expected though the Germans soon recovered and further breakout became difficult, with the British, Canadian and Polish contingents making slow progress. However, the Germans used so many troops in their very effective defence the Americans further west were able to make better progress and looked likely to encircle the Germans. They responded by moving some troops to engage the Americans and the British, Canadians and Poles were able to make better progress though progress was much slower than was expected across the whole front. By mid July the Germans still controlled parts of the suburbs of Caen and the failure to capture Caen modified the situation for the Allied campaign. After the capture of Caen the intention was to break out of the bridgehead and reach the heights south of Falaise but the Germans had now had time to prepare an ideal line of defence. The speed of advance of the Americans was pushing the Germans back toward the Seine in the east and it was imperative that the gap was closed, bottling up a considerable amount of the German army.

The 4th Canadian Armoured Division completed its arrival in Normandy on 28th July. The Division was tasked with relieving 3 Canadian Infantry Division in the line south of Caen, the relief being completed on the 31st July.

Major General Kitching was relieved from command of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division by Lieutenant General Simonds on the 21st August 1944 and at that time, the Division had been in Normandy just over three weeks, being involved in both the operations Totalize and Tractable. These were the operations deemed to close the gap on the enemy and it was considered that the Canadian advance in particular was too slow allowing a considerable number of Germans to escape.

Kitching was shocked and very put out at the decision to relieve him, and the fact that the implication that he was incompetent was to follow him later on. He maintained there had been initial difficulties with training and that there were too many changes in orders to allow the Division to operate at its best.

In 1990 a battlefield tour of he D Day beaches was arranged for some Canadian Armed Forces officers and one of them was Lieutenant Colonel Angelo Caravaggio. With what he saw and heard from some who had been involved, including Major General Kitching and Oberst Meyer of the 12th SS Panzer Division who were present then and now, he decided to investigate and analyse what had happened. Eventually this became a book whose content takes to task what had actually happened then in 1944. The Bibliography gives some idea of the enormous amount of research that went into producing this book. Some references maybe not quite so easy to refer to but, in other cases, many provide snippets or more regarding what happened.

For those who may not be aware of some of the abbreviations used, there is a six page Glossary of Terms, placed immediately after the Preface and Acknowledgements, and before his detailed Introduction.

The first chapter is a description of the Division and that which is required of its Commander. Once this has been covered the author spends a second chapter explaining what had happened previously to those he considered to be the ‘Key Players’ for this scenario and followed by one chapter concerning the actual formation of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division. All this is relevant if one is to try and understand the content of the remainder of the book.

Covering the preparation for battle of the Division and describing what actually was happening in Normandy leads us through D Day to the arrival of the 4th Canadian Division and its movement into the line south of Caen on 31 July with the remainder of the chapter covering the attacks on Tilly and La Hogue. At this point, the author writes of possible loss of, and problems with, some of Kitching’s senior staff.

Following this, the plan for Operation Totalize is described with the part that the 4th Division will take whereby the Allies will move forward south of Caen with the objective of taking Falaise. It appears Kitching was now tasked with executing a plan he reckoned to be fundamentally flawed. Some considered that Phase 1 of the Operation was successful but there was then a delay in implementing Phase 2 which gave the Germans time to prepare defences and possible counter attacks. With a combination of incidents such as a narrow restricted front and friendly bombing of units to the left, progress became slower and slower and Phase 2 had to be revised but in such a way that both the 4th Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division (on their left) required more than they could both deliver in their first planned battle.

Once the Americans had broken out their forces were able to move south and east and the situation was such that most of the German forces in Normandy could be trapped because their only route of escape was through the countryside south of Falaise and it was therefore important that the Allies should immediately close this gap. The key to this was the taking of Falaise and Operation Tractable was such that Montgomery issued orders for the taking of Falaise before advancing to Trun and there closing the gap. Unfortunately the Tractable plan did not survive the initial contact with the enemy.

In chapter nine the author describes, in detail, the closing of the Falaise Gap and considers that the action had been the ultimate testing of the 4th Canadian Division. However, the Allied commanders considered the objectives were not achieved quickly enough, taking far longer than anticipated in closing the Falaise Gap and, as the commander of division the fault was held to be that of Kitching. Simonds believed that Kitching was ineffective as a divisional commander and relieved him of his command at noon on 21st August.

Finally, in chapter ten, the author wraps up the whole analysis with a summary of where he believed the problems lay and his own opinion of Kitching and his command.

The book is comprehensive with fourteen Appendices covering Summaries, Orders, and some Returns from the period involved, all of which give some indication of the orders issued, resources, and losses. There is a rather nice centre piece of original plates of photos supporting the content but the maps do provide some problems in that it was often necessary to scrutinise different maps when trying to find certain objectives because sometimes points were mentioned in the text but not displayed on the maps. Perhaps a text indication of which map to look at would have been helpful. As stated, there are a large amount of references, some of which might not necessarily have been end notes but rather foot notes. It would certainly have made life a little easier if there had been a mix of foot notes and end notes.

This is not a book for a quick read of what happened in one part of WW2 but a very comprehensive analysis of an investigation into what happened to both the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and its Commander during that episode in Normandy.

Having said all that it is certainly worth reading and then keeping for those occasions when it is necessary to refer to what was happening to certain units at that time.

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