Operation Goodwood: one of the biggest British disasters of the Second World War?

Mark Urban is the author of a new book on tanks in the Second World War. Here, he challenges the notion that Operation Goodwood, an attempt to capture Caen in Normandy in July 1944, represented the “death ride of British armoured divisions”…

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Operation Goodwood, the British attack across open country to the east of Caen in Normandy, is often portrayed as one of the biggest British disasters of the Second World War. In particular, the tank forces that spearheaded the attack have attracted a great deal of criticism, the battle being described by one historian as the “death ride of the armoured divisions”. 

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The fate of the British thrust towards well-prepared German defensive lines atop the Bourguébus ridge, south-east of Caen, has drawn historical parallels with Balaklava. It’s also been used as a plank in the argument that Allied armour was always tactically inferior to the Germans’. Having spent the last couple of years researching the wartime service of one of the British units involved, the 5th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) – as part of a wider examination of the role of the Royal Armoured Corps in the war – I have come to regard many of these characterisations as glib and unjust.

Operation Goodwood was launched on 18 July 1944, after weeks of slaughter and frustration in the Normandy hedgerows. Although parts of Caen had been secured, the aim of Goodwood was to achieve a breakout from the bridgehead where Allied forces were bottled up, by exploiting the open country to the east of that city. 

The idea that the attack, which lasted three days, was a disaster stems largely from two things: that it did not achieve the anticipated gain in territory and that the losses sustained by the armoured divisions were huge compared to those of the enemy. Some further ideas, misconceptions in my view, have also gained currency over time: for example, that the famous Desert Rats of the 7th Armoured Division, who formed the second wave of the attack, were ‘sticky’ or slow to get to grips with the enemy.  

One of the most serious accusations levelled against the 7th Armoured Division emanated from Major General Pip Roberts, who commanded the 11th Armoured Division during the operation. Roberts suggested that the aim of Goodwood was to capture Falaise (which was several miles south of the point that the attack eventually reached), and that the 7th Armoured Division hesitated about joining the battle. Yet, the surviving records suggest that Goodwood was meant to advance seven miles – only one more than the six it achieved – and that the Desert Rats suffered more men killed and wounded than the Guards Armoured in the second wave, who were supposedly far keener to engage the enemy. 

The number of tanks given as lost by most historians – more than 450 of the 750 or so British vehicles of this type taking part – is also misleading. While 217 British tanks were destroyed during the operation, the remainder of that 450 were damaged or abandoned – but, significantly, they were repairable. And, as the figure of 217 accounts for the entire British Army sector in Normandy, it’s highly likely that some of these tanks were lost in other areas. 

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An Avro Lancaster (top left) leaves the target area as smoke from exploding bombs smothers the village of Cagny, south-east of Caen. Some 942 British aircraft bombed German positions in support of Operation Goodwood in July 1944. (Imperial War Museum)

Anti-tank guns

We should also take into account the fact that the Germans lost 80 or 90 tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns during the battle. This rate of attrition was not significantly higher than that suffered by Allied infantry when attacking similarly well-defended targets in Normandy. And the positions here were well defended. As well as the armour deployed by the Germans on Bourguébus ridge, there were scores of 75mm anti-tank guns and the feared 88mm Flak taking out British Shermans and Cromwells too.

Major General Roberts had been given the unenviable task of leading Goodwood with his 11th Armoured. A couple of years before, while commanding a brigade in the desert, he had told his commanding officers that he abhorred “Balaklava charges”, or rushing with tanks towards the enemy, and that, “these tactics… will only be resorted to in extremis”. Ordered in July 1944 by his corps commander to do precisely this, Roberts had protested, but had been told that he would have huge air and artillery support. He was also informed that, if he was unwilling to do the job, his superiors would find someone else to do it instead.

Operation Goodwood got under way on 18 July when hundreds of RAF Lancaster bombers and Royal Artillery guns began to pound German lines. While the bombardment put a handful of Tiger tanks out of action, and badly shook up the Luftwaffe men who had been pressed into the first line of defence – prompting hundreds to surrender – it did only limited damage to German defences. This soon became apparent as the handful of tanks leading the 11th Armoured Division advance motored forward. As the machines moved across the wheat fields of the open country, German anti-tank guns concealed in woods and fortified farms – most of which had survived the bombardment – opened up. In places, entire squadrons were knocked out in minutes. Dozens of burning tanks soon littered the plain below the village of Bourguébus. 

Of the armoured units under Roberts’ command, the veteran 3rd RTR suffered the lowest casualties on this first day; and two green battalions, the 23rd Hussars and 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, the heaviest. One young trooper in B Squadron of 5th Tanks, with the 7th Armoured Division, was shocked by the near-complete destruction of the Yeomanry tanks, and could not help but reflect that when he had passed his basic training, he had originally been earmarked to join them. “Going to the 5th Tanks had probably saved my life”, he reflected. “The 8th Army boys [ie desert veterans] were great and they kept us out of trouble.” 

During the afternoon of 18 July, the 7th and Guards armoured divisions were held up in a huge traffic jam and, once they got out into the fields, presented the German 88mm Flak gunners with a perfect shooting gallery. 

Captain Arthur Crickmay, 5th Tanks’ adjutant and the survivor of many desert battles, felt that high losses were made inevitable by the way the operation had been conceived. “The Achilles’ heel of the plan”, he later wrote, “was that the considerable forces involved had to be launched through a bottleneck.” The resulting jam gave the defenders time to recover from the initial air and artillery onslaught.  

As the battle wore on, the Germans fed in reinforcements, mounting local counterattacks with Panthers, Tigers, and the even more fearsome 68-tonne King Tiger. This meant that the ensuing waves of British troops had a real fight on their hands. Even so, by the evening of 19 July, the second full day of Goodwood, the 7th Armoured Division’s loss of 12 tanks destroyed, compared favourably to the 143 suffered by the 11th Armoured. Each division had started with 250 runners. 

The record of the 5th RTR that came after the first wave was hardly disastrous: it lost eight tanks during the four days of Goodwood, and destroyed four or five enemy ones – including, according to a well-researched German assessment, two Tigers. An Irish Guards Sherman crew claimed the extraordinary honour of putting a King Tiger out of action by ramming it!

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Cromwell tanks of the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry advance near Escoville during Operation Goodwood, 18 July 1944. (Imperial War Museum)

Enemy losses 

By the time the operation ran out of steam, on 21 July, the British had advanced six miles. The limited advance and loss of tanks gave a handle to General Bernard Montgomery’s many enemies, particularly senior RAF officers, who exploited this outcome to try to get him sacked. Critics at the time and, more surprisingly postwar too, ignored the cost of the battle to the enemy. The estimated German losses of about 6,500 killed, wounded and prisoners was treble that of Allied manpower. Dozens of anti-tank guns had also been sacrificed. 

General Miles Dempsey, Monty’s subordinate as commander 2nd Army, and the man who in a real sense was the architect of Goodwood, summed it up thus: “Our tank losses were severe but our casualties in men were very light. If I had tried to achieve the same result with a conventional infantry attack I hate to think what the casualties would have been.”

This last point is key to understanding Goodwood: it was a premeditated armoured corps sacrifice made necessary by forgoing the suffering of the infantry. One example will suffice: during the first two weeks of the Normandy campaign the 50th Tyne-Tees Division (of infantry) had suffered almost 3,000 casualties – a figure roughly 35 per cent higher than the three armoured divisions put together during Goodwood. During the Normandy campaign as a whole, infantry made up 71 per cent of the casualties incurred by General Dempsey’s 2nd Army, despite forming just 16 per cent of its strength. 

By mid-July, six weeks into the campaign, divisions like the Tyne Tees were getting sluggish, and even reluctant to obey orders. Many infantry officers were quick to blame the tanks for their lack of progress.

Thus Goodwood played its part in easing the Normandy breakout, however bleak the cost to the crews involved. It is simply one more bitter irony of war, that having used armoured divisions to take the pressure off the infantry and other arms, their losses fuelled critics who castigated the tank men and their professionalism.  

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Mark Urban is diplomatic and defence editor for BBC Two’s Newsnight.