The Entry into Caen

This account describing the entry into Caen of the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, which was commanded by Lieutenant Ian Harris, was published in their Regimental journal, Quis Separabit, in November 1944:

“The Battalion first heard that it to have the honour of leading the Allied Armies into Caen on the afternoon of 7th July 1944. After three weeks in the line at Cambes, we had been pulled out for a rest at St Aubin d’Arquenay, but had only been there for a single day when we were ordered to move forward again to positions behind the Brigade at Bieville prior to passing through them into Caen.

The plan was as follows:- The 9th Infantry Brigade was to capture Lebisey Wood and, having consolidated, to seize the high ground above Caen on Ring Contour 60. The 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, supported by the 1st Battalion of The Kings Own Scottish Highlanders, was to move up to the heights and, from there, thrust down into Caen. The first half of this plan consisted of a deliberate attack, based upon information about the strength and dispositions of the enemy which had been accumulated since D Day. The second half, in which the battalion was to be committed, depended entirely upon the progress and success of the first. Our task was to maintain the momentum of the first assault and to pursue the enemy to the far side of the river Orne.

The Brigade launched their attack at 4am on 8th July. It was a clear night with a full moon and, as we moved forward, we could see the flashes and hear the rumble of the tremendous barrage which pounded the enemy for some hours before zero and, by dawn, we were secure in Bieville.

By 10am, the objective Lebisey Wood was reported taken; but mopping up and consolidation took time and not until 3pm did the reserve battalion of the Brigade, the 2nd Battalion King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (K.S.L.I.) begin the advance towards Ring Contour 60. Meanwhile, the Commanding Officer was making his reconnaissance and evolving a plan with the Commander of the supporting tank unit, a Yeomanry Regiment, assisted by Major W.D. Tighe-Wood and Captain A.C. Bird, commanding the two forward companies. At 230pm, the battalion moved forward and debouched from Leibsey Wood towards Ring Contour 60 at 530pm.

At this time, no news of the progress of the K.S.L.I. had reached us, nor had we heard anything of enemy dispositions behind Leibsey Wood. However, it was obvious from the viewpoint of Leibsey that the Boche was shelling intensively the whole area between the wood and Ring Contour 60, by using as O.Ps the chimneys of the factories at Colombelles, lying on the south side of the Orne to the north east of Caen. These chimneys constituted too small a target for the R.A.F. or for our own gunners, yet they dominated the battlefield and made the passage of our troops a difficult one, causing a number of casualties.

A and D Companies, however, moved forward according to plan. At first, while they were operating in close touch with the tanks, the enemy barrage was not troublesome; but later the range was closed and some damage was done. A Coy had just established itself on the objective when Company Headquarters received a direct hit which wounded Major W.D. Tighe-Wood and a number of his staff. Captain C.G. Alexander took over command. Meanwhile, liaison had been made with the K.S.L.I. and with supporting tanks providing admirable cover and protection against a counter-attack, everyone dug in with the utmost rapidly. Little small arms fire had been met and prisoners were few, but the position was being continuously and accurately shelled. A Company again suffered; this time its Stretcher Bearers were al wounded and great work was done by Corporal Reid, Rifleman A. Cranston and Rifleman Devaney in bringing in and tending the wounded. B and C, the two reserve companies, who moved up to the position under heavy shellfire also suffered casualties.

By the time the whole Battalion was in position, it was getting late and the light was beginning to fail. We had about eighty casualties, mostly all from shellfire since such German as had been found on the objective were swiftly liquidated. Nevertheless, we were determined to make an effort to enter Caen that evening and B Company, under Major J.W. Hyde, and two troops of tanks, set off to probe the enemy positions in the Northern approaches to the town. Some casualties on the start line were caused by an 88mm gun and opposition was encountered some 500 yards further on. The tanks were completely held up by the havoc and ruin wrought in bombing attacks by the R.A.F. and our men, themselves, could only move forward with the utmost difficulty. Finally, mines were discovered on the track and its verges. It was considered unwise to continue this operation by night, and so B Company, under orders from the Commanding Officer, returned to their original positions.

Early next morning, two more patrols were sent out. One platoon of A Company, under Lieut. R. Wise, with a troop of tanks went to Calix on the Eastern outskirts of Caen, and simultaneously, another platoon, also A Company, under Lieut. B.R. Burgess moved to St Julien in the North West of the town. The first patrol reached its objective and remained there until recalled later in the day. It had trouble with snipers and the Platoon Commander was himself wounded in the head. Lieut. Burgess, with his platoon, reached St Julien, and then began an advance of his own accord into the heart of the town. Some light resistance as thrust aside but later on the defences stiffened and casualties were sustained. Lieut. Burgess himself was wounded, though able to retain control of his platoon, and two of his N.C.Os were killed outright. Thereupon this patrol returned to its position at St Julien and did not link up again with the Battalion until the following day. It may be said, however, that this platoon were the first troops into the heat of the town because the Canadians did not appear on the right until late in the afternoon.

At 930am on 9th July, the Battalion began their advance into Caen. B Company led the way progressing slowly but surely, systematically clearing the ruins of enemy. Small groups of retreating Germans were dealt with, but no organised opposition was met and abandoned machine gun posts and rocket apparatus testified to the swiftness of the withdrawal. Owing to the rubble and devastation caused by the bombing, movement was slow and difficult. There was no question of vehicle movement here and so throughout the advance the infantry relied solely and entirely upon their own resources.

By 1130am Major Hyde was astride the Boulevardes des Allies and the remainder of the Battalion was pressing forward. Some casualties were sustained by D Company before moving off from Hill 60, where Lieut. Palmer and his Platoon Sergeant were both wounded and evacuated: but Lance Sergeant Benass assumed command and led the Platoon calmly and efficiently for the rest of the action.

When the main body of the Battalion arrived down into the town, the advance soon assumed the air of triumphant progress rather than a calculated operation of war: the people of Caen were determined to make it so. We discovered afterwards that they had suffered all the brutalities that had become commonplace in Europe. In addition they had seen their town laid waste in a series of R.A.F. attacks by their own friends, the British. If we were ever doubtful of a welcome reception, the first few hours in Caen put our minds at rest. Flags of France were draped out of windows, and the people poured out of their houses with greetings and glasses of wine.

On the Boulevardes, we were met by the Captain of the Resistance Movement with several of his comrades who gave us “Liberte” as the password agreed upon themselves and their Headquarters in London. One of their number guided C Company along the Boulevardes and others proved themselves invaluable in disclosing hide outs of German snipers and machine gunners. It may be said here that through the complete mastery of the language displayed by Major J.C.S.G. de Longueuil we were able to take full advantage of their assistance.

We met many other interesting people in Caen, two of whom may be mentioned here. One was Squadron Leader Sprawson D.F.C. R.A.F., whose Lancaster had been shot down near Caen on D Day and who had since then been sheltering with a patriot family in Caen itself. Having experienced R.A.F. bombing at the receiving end, he was anxious to get back, and having paused for a brief moment at Brigade Headquarters to make a recording for the B.B.C., he hurried back to England. The second was a Frenchman whom our men found to be widely travelled but who reached the peak of popularity when he revealed himself as an habitué of “Mooney’s” in Belfast. Needless to say, he was an old sailor.

Statue of Lieutenant Colonel Ian Harris in the British Garden in Caen.

The rest of the operation can be swiftly summarised. We pushed gradually to the line of the river Orne and then systematically mopped up such disorganised resistance as remained. Our most lasting impression and remembrance of Caen will be the magnificent spirit of friendship and co-operation displayed by its citizens. The men of the Royal Ulster Rifles will pay them lasting tribute and can hope to have done something towards forging a bond of mutual sympathy and friendship.”