The Orne (Buron)
On 4 July, the 8th Brigade's assault on Carpiquet had managed a small toehold on the hangars. Medium and heavy bombers flew sorties over the city on 8 July, laying waste with high explosive; the 9th Canadian Brigade attacked Buron and Authie, scene of the bitter defeat in June. The day brought success but at great cost; the HLI alone suffered 262 casualties digging a battalion of SS panzergrenadiers out of Buron. The 7th Brigade took Cussy and the Abbaye d'Ardenne while the 8th seized the final objectives at Carpiquet. The British liberated the city itself and Canadians were warmly received on the 9th, despite the tragic destruction and loss of life among the civil population.
A general overview of Operation CHARNWOOD is given in the article on the fighting for Caen.
The assault on Buron has been well documented and is a good compare and contrast of the application of Lieutenant-General Simond's concept of operational policy - in effect, the Canadian Army's battle doctrine, as it was applied in the summer of 1944. In a directive issued in February 1944 to 2nd Canadian Corps, he outlined this policy in broad strokes.
For attacks on prepared positions, adequate reconnaissance was emphasized, with assaults to take place on a limited front with "all available" artillery so that "really heavy support may be given." It was noted that the Germans defended lightly with forward positions thinly held with small groups of men strong in automatic weapons and relied on counter-attacks as the key to their own doctrine. The forward positions were strongly supported by mortars, usually located 3,000 to 4,000 yards behind the forward positions capable of firing ahead of or anywhere within the defended zone. While a Canadian assault, properly planned and supported, might easily break the crust of such a defensive set-up, the German policy of counter-attacking with fresh reserves and armour meant that the real battle was one of defeating the follow on forces, which would also include any mortars not over-run in the initial assault. German armour (tanks and self-propelled guns) would be expected to counter-attack to very close range and deliver direct fire in this phase.
For this reason, Simonds insisted that planning had to consider the German counter-attacks as part of the battle. Initial objectives had to penetrate to beyond the normal range of German mortars, or else those mortars had to be dislodged by counter-battery fire (difficult to do owing to the ease with which they could be deployed in cover and concealment). Consideration was to be given in large-scale operations as to when to move friendly artillery forward, and when to schedule friendly air power, possibly as a substitute. Simonds also impressed on his commanders the value of friendly tanks and anti-tank guns being forward with the infantry, as well as the use of artillery against enemy tanks, directed by Forward Observation Officers of field artillery batteries travelling with the leading infantry. The propensity of the Germans to lay anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields was also noted, and initial attacks were to be made by the infantry to secure gaps through minefields or to breach obstacles.
At Buron, both sides demonstrated that adherence to their doctrine made for successful results in the field; the battle of Buron was costly for both sides. Buron has been the site of a battle on 7 June between the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 3rd Battalion, 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment. From that time on, the Highland Light Infantry of Canada occupied Villons-Les-Buissons, and the 25th SS occupied the Buron area. The HLI referred to their sector as "Shelldrop Farm" due to the exchange of artillery that went on over the course of the next four weeks. Reconnaissance and fighting patrols were common. Rumours circulated of an attack on Buron throughout June, orders were given and cancelled on at least four occasions. Operation ABERLOUR was ordered for 28 June as a follow up to Operation EPSOM, but cancelled when EPSOM fell short of its objectives.
To aid morale, at the start of July two groups of 25 men a day were driven from the HLI positions back to JUNO Beach to see the build up of men and equipment and gain an appreciation of the context of battalion's role in the invasion force. After the operation at Carpiquet, conditions were set for the next move on Caen, and a full corps attack.
The HLI's own intelligence summary of the terrain selected for their attack running just south of the Vieux Cairon-Les Buisson road was flat for the first half mile, rising gently for another half mile to meet Buron, covered in open, cultivated fields. The town itself stretched along the Vieux Cairon-Buron road, with few trees in the west sector, about 16 buildings on the north road and 24 in the south, most of them thought to be farms with adjoining barns. The east sector was heavily wooded, mostly along the north-south road with about 40 houses, mostly along the road, with large orchards on the eastern side of the town. Two large anti-tank ditches had been dug north of Buron.
A private soldier named Richard Zimmat had been captured on 5 July, identifying his unit as No. 10 Company, 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment. His 200-man unit was deployed in the northern part of Buron, with No. 9 Company between Gruchy and Buron, No. 11 Company in St. Contest. No. 12 Company, the 3rd Battalion's Heavy Weapons Company with heavy machineguns and mortars, was deployed in support of the three rifle companies (9, 10, 11) of the battalion. Anti-personnel mines had been liberally planted to the front of their positions.
Simonds' stressed preparation, and the HLI's CO, Lieutenant Colonel Franklyn M. Griffiths, ensured that his battalion was just that. When the orders for Operation CHARNWOOD were received, a great deal of activity was set in motion. The HLI's Intelligence section under Lieutenant Chuck Campbell built a model of Buron for briefing purposes while different officers worked on the different aspects of the plan. A battalion group was assembled for the assault, with a squadron of Sherman tanks of the Sherbrook Fusilier Regiment and two troops of British armour under command, as well as engineer and artillery assets. Six field regiments of artillery were assigned to the assault on Buron, but Griffiths declined to have a moving barrage, opting for a simple concentration on the target, wanting to decrease the risk of a short-firing artillery.
On the 7th the C.O. personally reconnoitered the Forming Up Point and the Rear HQ position to be located at Le Vey. At on Orders Group on the 7th, representatives from the supporting arms discussed Griffiths' plan and "fixed up" the "rough spots" (according to the battalion war diary). The sight of RAF bombers operating over Caen was a morale boost to all troops, though the actual material effect on German troops during CHARNWOOD was minimal due to the wide safety margin between the frontline positions and the actual bombline.
The HLI was fighting their first major battle; the C.O. wrote out his attack orders in longhand, and verbally advised his Pipe Major that if he wished, each company could have a piper play across the Start Line. The battalion employed pipers and drummers as Stretcher Bearers at Buron, but due to the heavy casualties they suffered in the battle, they were later redistributed to other duties in Support and Headquarters Companies.
German artillery fire opened the day's battle at 0500 on 8 July with heavy concentrations on Le Vey. Engineers were busy during the night lifting mines and clearing paths for the infantry. The Canadian artillery was on a timed shoot on Buron which later passed to other targets in support of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, attacking Authie. At 0730, "B" Company under Captain Vince Stark set off for the eastern half of the town, with "D" Company under Major Harry Anderson abreast of them tasked to clear the western half. Following behind were "C" Company under Major Ray Hodgins and "A" Company under Major David Durward, both tasked to pass through and take what was believed to be high ground to the south of town.
The Germans, true to their own doctrine, defended their positions with outposts manned by automatic weapons. While the Bren Gun in Canadian infantry sections was intended to assist the riflemen move forward, the riflemen in German sections were there to support the machine guns. the HLI came under heavy automatic weapons fire once they approached the anti-tank ditch, which was elaborately constructed, 12-feet wide and 15-feet deep, and remained under both machine gun and mortar fire until they cleared the ditch and pressed on into the village itself. The anti-tank ditch had dugouts built into it and was developed as a full-fledged fighting and living position, and had not been emplaced when the HLI initially patrolled the area in June. The briefing for the assault had advised the troops that the ditch would be empty of German troops and it took a considerable amount of time to work through the ditch at the cost of roughly 50% of the two assaulting companies. Germans losses were also heavy and 20 prisoners were taken.
The forward edge of the village contained a ring of fighting positions which were emplaced with medium machine guns. According to the War Diary, these "brought down continuous and devastating fire on our troops and it was almost impossible to advance through. Many times our (troops) were pinned to the ground by it only to get up and go on as soon as it let up. The (tanks) had to be called (forward) on several occasions to aid the infantry forward."
"D" Company in the west reached Buron first, but the tanks could not follow, having hit a minefield, and so "D" Company went through alone fighting through to the orchard that was their objective. By the time they reached the orchard, they numbered just 38 men. On the left (eastern) flank, "B" Company estimated they were opposed by a reinforced company by the number of machine guns facing them. Communications were lost with the tanks, and when contact was finally made (the Intelligence Officer ran out over 300 yards of fire-swept ground to physically make contact), they couldn't be convinced to move forward for some time out of fear of mines. At this point the Carrier Platoon was sent in to reinforce "D" Company, but ran into anti-tank fire from the eastern end of Buron. When the tanks were still not moving, the I.O. ran out a second time to the tanks to repeat the C.O.'s orders, and then a third time, finally convincing them that there were no mines to the east of the Vieux Cairon-Buron road, and a troop of tanks went forward to assist "B" Company with direct fire on German M.G. positions. The support of the tanks turned the tide, though in many cases, German troops simply played dead until the tanks went past, and individual riflemen held out until fired on at point blank range. The War Diary noted that "several isolated pockets offered up resistance until the next morning."
"C" Company, planned as the follow-up company, fought its way into the town and in behind "B", taking up a position on the Buron-Authie road. "A" Company followed them, with the Carrier Platoon, Anti-Tank Platoon and Mortar Platoon following in behind. Battalion headquarters walked into Buron after 1100. Assembling his company commanders at 1130, they gave the following report:
Mortar and shellfire were falling from the direction of St. Contest and Bitot on eastern Buron continuously, and the War Diary noted that "The enemy followed his old habits of bringing to bear all the fire he possessed on his own position once it was overrun...During the afternoon the enemy continued to shell every corner of the village systematically and submitted many (casualties) to our (troops).)
"B" Company was counter-attacked during the afternoon by eight tanks, which was driven off with the assistance of No. 245 Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery. The German defence was fought according to their own doctrine as outlined in "The German Squad in Combat" which called for units to "destroy the penetrating enemy by fire" if counter-attack was not possible:
In the defense the main line of resistance is established in an integrated manner. The forward light machine gun nests and rifle strong points are located in that line. By the combined fire of all the arms the enemy attack must be broken up in front of the main area of resistance. If sections of the line are captured by the enemy, they must be taken by the defender. In the defense the position must be held to the last man. There must be no withdrawal.
The forces in the main defensive position are distributed in depth, in order to scatter and render less effective the enemy fire, to insure a more concentrated volume of fire from the defender's guns in the rear, and, furthermore, to inflict heavy losses by flanking machine gun fire when the enemy attacks the main line of resistance or breaks into the main defensive position. If parts of the main area are lost, a vigorous effort must be made immediately to destroy the penetrating enemy by fire. Otherwise, he must be thrown back by a surprise attack of the defender's rear infantry units. This must be done before the enemy has had time to establish himself in the position he has won.
What is unusual about Buron is the ferocity with which the battle was prosecuted. While the platitude to hold "to the last man" is often seen in documentation, very rarely outside of the Japanese military was it ever actually applied in practice. In the 12th SS Division, the combination of youthful recruits, political indoctrination, and brutal Eastern Front experience of the cadre resulted in a level of fanaticism noted by veterans of the battle that was in contrast to even the toughest opponents met by the Canadians later on in the campaign. Total losses were 262 for the HLI, including 62 dead, 11 of 15 of the Sherbrooke tanks, and seven M-10s. No. 9 Company of the 25th Panzergrenadiers yielded 31 prisoners, No. 11 Company 10 and 5 from No. 12. No. 11 Company gave up no prisoners, and many of the SS refused to surrender, fighting instead to the death or holding out until morning.
The attack on Gruchy was similarly tough. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders attacked into the face of machine-gun and anti-tank fire with the support of "B" Squadron of The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment. Lieutenant Ayer's Scout Troop of the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment made a headlong charge with its thinly armoured carriers into an enemy company to help the attack forward, overrunning German positions, taking thirty prisoners, and inflicting dozens more casualties. Gruchy was cleared by mid-morning on the 8th.
The attack on Chateau de St. Louet, following on the capture of Buron and Gruchy, was delayed by the resistance in those two towns and did not begin until 1430hrs. By 1600 the SDG were on their objectives while The North Nova Scotia Highlanders had been shelled in their assembly area and on the start line, and then come under heavy machine gun fire as they stepped off. With strong fire support of the Cameron Highlanders and once again the armoured vehicles of the divisional reconnaissance regiment, the unit managed to get forward.
The regimental history of The Canadian Scottish notes that the plan for that battalion was "simple and straightforward." The unit, supported by "C" Squadron of the 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment and the 14th Field Regiment was to assemble behind Gruchy, form up on the start line (the Buron-Authie road), and advance on Cussy after Chateau de St. Louet, Buron, Authie and St. Contest were all firmly held. "A" Company under Captain W.H.V. Matthews was to advance on the right, its objective a strongpoint 300 yards immediately in front of the village and "C" Company on the left. "B" and "C" were tasked with enveloping Cussy. "D" Company was in reserve. Covering fire was to be provided by two sections of carriers firing from high ground on the left flank, with a platoon of MMGs of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa firing from the left rear of the village.
The Canadian Scottish were relieved in place on July 7th at Rots by the Inns of Court Regiment and relocated to a large estate on the outskirts of Cairon, partially protected by a 10-foot wall but nonetheless losing some men to mortar fire during the night and morning of 8 July. At 10:30hrs on 8 July the battalion moved to its assembly area, with a tentative H-Hour of 14:30, dependent on the success of the 9th Brigade operations. A tank was used to batter breaches into the stone wall of the estate to avoid deploying out the main entrance which was under shellfire, but even then, German spotters brought down mortar fire across the axis of movement as the men marched from the assembly area, and the unit was pulled back hastily after suffering casualties. They then left again by the main entrance, crossed the road to Vieux Cairon, and through low ground to the assembly area.
When moving up to the assembly area, the unit found German soldiers still manning slit trenches between Vieux Cairon and Gruchy. Shell and small arms fire hit the Canadian Scottish even as they reached the assembly area and began to dig in; the assembly area was exposed on all sides. A small battle there yielded 30 German prisoners, and 6 dead or injured enemy troops.
The order to move to the Forming Up Place (FUP) a few hundred yards back of the Start Line came at 15:00hrs. The C.O. asked permission to start from the assembly area to avoid further casualties waiting at the FUP, and permission was granted. At 17:00hrs H-Hour was set for 17:30. The unit stepped off with fighting still raging in Buron and St. Contest and with Gruchy unsecured. The lead companies were able to lean on the barrage, keeping within 50-60 yards of it. A barbed wire fence, booby-trapped with hand-grenades, was encountered near the start-line but breached quickly and the battalion approached to within a few hundred yards of Cussy before coming under heavy fire from a variety of weapons, including small arms, machine guns, mortars, and Nebelwerfer rockets. In the words of the regimental history, "It was the most intense and concentrated fire the men had ever experienced."
Bitot, too, had not been secured yet by the British and the Regina Rifles were still struggling in Authie, and thus both flanks were exposed. Into the melee came the Tactical Headquarters of the battalion, down the road serving to guide the axis of advance; their halftrack was destroyed by anti-tank fire and the adjutant and battalion second-in-command were wounded while a signaller was killed. The C.O., "as usual, well to the front," called down artillery fire onto Bitot which helped ease some of the enemy fire. In the meantime, the Regina Rifles had not yet called down their own gunfire on the area between Authie and the Ardennes Abbey, saving it in preparation for their own assault.
Approximately 500-600 yards further ahead, "A" Company reached its objective, including an 8.8cm gun with wire fence. The company rushed the position and the enemy largely withdrew, though the gun drew attempted to demolish the gun first. The Germans attempted to form a line of defence at the back of their position but were forced out of this as well. A German tank was unsuccessfully engaged with a PIAT as the company stormed into Cussy.
By this time "B" Company had also reached the village. No. 11 Platoon under Lieutenant S.R. Ross was tasked to clear orchards and buildings to the left of the road leading in and 10 Platoon under Lieutenant N.T. Park was to clear the other side and take up positions outside of Cussy facing the Abbey. No. 12 Platoon under Lieutenant Corsan was kept in reserve. This neat plan went immediately asunder when 10 Platoon came under fire from their right rear by an MG post. Hoping to leave the gun for the reserve platoon, a tank then came down the road. Lieutenant Park fired his rifle at the commander, missed, and the tank then rumbled towards "A" Company. As noted above, "A" Company unsuccessfully engaged it with a PIAT, but it was quickly hit and destroyed by Canadian tank fire, directed by a sergeant from the Canadian Scottish's mortar platoon. With the tank threat neutralized, Park's platoon dealt with the MG position, then found themselves in a series of hedgerowed fields, under direct observation from the Abbey, and, like the rest of the battalion, under heavy shell and mortar fire. Whenever Park's platoon tried to move forward - by jumping over the hedges - their movements were observed and heavier fire brought down.
On the other flank, "C" Company had come into the village supported by two sections of the Mortar Platoon; they set up two 3-inch mortars after the dash through the fields, and fired off their ammunition, leaving only a 20-bomb reserve to deal with counter-attacks and then fought as infantry until replenished. The rifle company (No. 13 Platoon (Lieutenant J.L. Gallagher), No. 14 Platoon (Lieutenant J.L. Harling) and No. 15 Platoon (Lieutenant G.D. Corry)) came under a crossfire halfway to the objective, from Bitot and the Abbey, with additional machine gun fire from Cussy itself as well as fire from a tank on their right flank and a burnt out tank being used as a pill box near Bitot. Twenty men were hit before reaching the objective. The Germans in this sector were equipped with, according to the War Diary, with two 8.8cm guns, two howitzers, an anti-aircraft gun, and numerous individual positions. No. 13 Platoon was to clear houses on the right of the village, 15 Platoon the left, and 14 Platoon in reserve was to send one section to clear individual trenches with two remaining sections remaining in reserve with HQ north of the village. No. 13 Platoon came under fire from an enemy tank early on, but it was distracted by targets to the left of the Platoon; coming under fire from an orchard, Lieutenant Gallagher led his men straight in and routed a large number of enemy troops. No. 15 Platoon took on a second enemy tank, reporting hits from PIATs; a third tank was also destroyed by PIATs fired by other troops.
"C" Company began to clear houses, a confusing task due to the shellfire and irregular layout of the village. Dust from the explosions, enemy snipers, and injured leaders added to the confusion; Lieutenant Corry was injured and Lieutenant Harling was killed. The C.O., unable to see clearly the picture of what was happening, feared that The Royal Winnipeg Rifles in reserve might have to be called in to assist. The anti-tank gun platoon was sent into the village and tank support was brought in closer. "D" Company, the battalion's reserve, was sent to the left to guard against counter-attack from Bitot; casualties became so heavy from the shellfire that the company commander, Major Henderson, thought that they may have run into a minefield.
The anti-tank platoon under Captain R.H. Tye were moved up due to concerns about enemy tank concentrations reported by the rifle companies, but enemy fire was so thick that only three guns could deploy; the rest of the platoon went into action as infantry.
Three soldiers of the Canadian Scottish Regiment were awarded the Military Medal for the day's work; one section commander, one section 2i/c, and another lance corporal who fired two PIAT bombs at a tank; one before the tank ran over his trench, with him in it, the other afterwards, destroying the vehicle. The Canadian Scottish claimed "six or seven" tanks knocked out with either PIATs or six-pounder anti-tank guns, and one German tank captured intact.
By dusk, with the Regina Rifles moving on the Abbey, enemy fire began to slacken and "C" Squadron of the 1st Hussars were able to pour fire into Bitot. Two companies of the Winnipeg Rifles strengthened a thinly held area between "A" and "C" Companies. The Canadian Scottish awaited a counter-attack, but by 22:30, when the Regina Rifles captured the Abbey, with it went their view of the battle area. Bitot fell to the British, and Francqueville, Authie, Buron, and Gruchy all were in Canadian hands. The Canadian Scottish lost 40 killed and 80 wounded - higher losses than they had suffered on D-Day.
Of necessity, the attack on the Abbey went in over a mile of open ground in broad daylight, and the Regina Rifles went in with a creeping barrage of 25-pounders reminiscent of the First World War, a squadron of tanks, heavy mortars from the divisional MG battalion, and a section of engineers. In the event, the Rifles went into action with a battle-strength of about 500 men, and lost over 200 men killed and wounded. Most of the tanks assigned as support were knocked out by long-range fire from German anti-tank guns.
The Abbey itself was heavily damaged, and surviving structures today have been heavily rebuilt. When evidence of a massacre was found, the remains were relocated. Post-war investigations identified many of the perpetrators, many of whom had subsequently perished in battle – the 12th SS was roughly handled in Normandy and escaped with few effectives from among its combat units, and was again smashed in the Ardennes in December. The most notorious officer, Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Mohnke, had allegedly murdered 80 British prisoners in France in 1940, was accused of doing the same to 35 Canadians in Normandy, and was implicated in the Malmedy Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge in which Battle Group Peiper gunned down at least 68 American POWs. In no case, however, was enough evidence found to bring him to trial.
Just 21 miles south of Caen stood Falaise, connected for a 15 mile stretch by the arrow-straight Route Nationale No. 158. It had taken four weeks to move the 10 miles from Juno Beach into Caen (though the industrial suburbs across the Orne were still in German hands); it took the Canadians six more weeks to reach Falaise. As the 3rd Division prepared to move across the river, the dark blue formation patches of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began to appear in the front line as that formation arrived in France and made their way towards the Caen area.
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "The Orne (Buron)" for participation in these actions:
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade
The following Canadian units were awarded the Battle Honour "The Orne" for participation in these actions:
2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade
3rd Canadian Division
9th Canadian Infantry Brigade