On This Day: British and Canadian troops finally capture Caen five weeks after D-Day

Julian Gavaghan

JULY 9, 1944: British and Canadian troops finally captured the D-Day objective city of Caen on this day in 1944 – almost five weeks after the Normandy landings.

They overcame the most concentrated German resistance to take the vital port, crossroads and staging post to liberate the rest of France.

By the time the soldiers reached the centre, almost all of medieval Caen had been destroyed by fierce tank battles, an artillery barrage and Allied air raids.

A British Pathé newsreel shows troops from the Anglo-Canadian British Second Army fighting from house to house in the obliterated, ancient Norman capital.

And they had to fight on for another month before wiping out all pockets of resistance in Caen’s outskirts.

Yet the capture of the centre of the ancient Norman capital still represented a major victory for the Allies.

Caen was the last major geographical obstacle before open plains provided the rapid tank advance to Paris, 148 miles to the southeast.


The city, which was bisected by the River Orne, was also the junction to 12 major roads and home to France’s sixth largest port.

This would reduce the reliance on artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours on the beaches and allow more troops and supplies to be brought into Normandy.

It was so important that Britain’s General Bernard Montgomery, the commander of all Allied ground troops in Normandy, hoped it might be reached on D-Day itself.

















Allied Army soldiers clear the wreckage in Caen, France, after they successfully captured the port (Getty)

 

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But German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had been his famous adversary in North Africa, had other plans.

He believed that if the Allies could be kept within a few miles of the beach – and if reinforcements were sent – he could ‘drive the invaders back into the sea’.

Rommel, who was visiting his wife on D-Day and had to rush back to France, also saw Caen as the key and poured as many troops as he could muster into the area.


Yet he was held back by Adolf Hitler, who believed that the Normandy landings was just a decoy and the real invasion would take place further east at the Pas-de-Calais.

As supreme commander, the Führer refused to allow reinforcements to be sent – after having slept in until noon on D-Day with no one daring to wake him.

And, rather than ordering a massive defensive war in France, Hitler instead ordered the new German super weapon, V1 flying bombs, to attack London.











While the Canadians, seen here, struggled in Caen, the Americans drove the west side of the Cotentin Peninsula (Getty)

 

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Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief in the West, was left so exasperated that, when Berlin phoned for advice, he yelled: ‘Make peace, you idiots!’

Meanwhile he and Rommel, who backed a July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, were forced to spread their troops thinly in other parts of Normandy.

The German generals hoped that the tough ‘Bocage’ terrain of hills, woods and ditches in the rest of the region would be enough to hold the Allies back.


While the British and Canadians struggled in Caen, the Americans, whose troops accounted for two-fifths of the D-Day forces, drove down the west side of the Cotentin Peninsula.

They were finally in a position to push south on August 1 after capturing the town of Avranches on August 1.







The Abbaye-aux-Hommes was one of the few buildings left standing in Caen after the Battle of Normandy (Getty)

 

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Five days later, the Anglo-Canadians were also ready to advance after finally pushing the Germans well clear of Caen – having lost 50,000 men in the struggle.

Paris was liberated on August 25 and the Second Army would push on into Belgium and Holland – freeing millions - before striking at the dark heart of Hitler’s empire.