After almost four years of training in the U.K., the Calgary Highlanders embarked for Normandy at the start of July 1944, landing on the Continent over open beaches near Courseulles and spent several days in the cramped bridgehead behind Caen, under constant threat of air attack, as the now-veteran divisions smashed into the German units desperately holding onto Caen, which had been a D-Day objective. On the 12th of July, German shelling killed three Highlanders, initiating the battalion into the cruel business that lay ahead.
In 1944, the Caen-Flers highway was known as N162 (today it is the D562); the 5th Brigade to which the Highlanders belonged were ordered to move south along this road as part of a general advance across the Orne River during Operation ATLANTIC, the first major operation of the 2nd Canadian Division since Dieppe in 1942. The Royal Regiment of Canada became entangled at Louvigny on 18 July as part of the 4th Brigade’s task of securing the river line; further attacks in this area were abandoned in favour of driving south from Caen itself, though here, too, German resistance was stiff and the 3rd Division suffered as it moved forward into Faubourg de Vaucelles. The 5th Brigade’s Black Watch eventually made an assault crossing of the Orne in boats, setting the stage for Le Regiment de Maisonneuve and the Highlanders to advance to the south.
On the 19th, the Maisonneuves captured Fleury-sur Orne in mid-afternoon. After the loss of Caen, the Germans had established themselves on the kidney-shaped Verrières Ridge, dominating terrain that overlooked almost all Allied movements south of the city. The ridge was to be the object of Allied attention for many days to come.
Hill 67 was itself a low ridge connected to, and dominated by, the Verrières Ridge itself. The Germans defending the western edge of the Ridge were also supported by German troops holding out on the west side of the Orne. A hidden bridge across the river near Etavaux – withdrawn by day and emplaced by night – permitted German troops to move across the river as needed.
The assault on Hill 67 was the first act of many in the drama surrounding the Verrières Ridge; the assault on the ridge got off to a late start on July 19th. For the first – and last – time, pipers were permitted to play the troops forward. The kilt had already been officially banned from operational dress in 1939 as unsuited for modern war.
The attack was carried out as so many practice runs in England – two rifle companies forward, two back, with the mortars and anti-tank guns in support. The Germans obliged the regiment by “scurrying out of the wheatfields” in the words of one Calgary Highlander, and abandoning the hill as the battalion arrived on the objective. However, mortar fire at one point was so accurate, battalion headquarters turned its radio off for fear the Germans were somehow using it as a direction finder.
But the Germans were simply fighting according to their own well-established defensive doctrine, which called for lightly outposting positions, then heavily shelling their own defences once they were lost, and launching immediate and intense counter-attacks, all lessons learned in the trenches of the First World War. Thirty minutes after the Highlanders arrived on the hill and had begun digging in, the Germans were hurling themselves furiously at “C” Company, including soldiers from Infantry Division 272, reinforced by a battle group of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division.
Enemy tanks overran Lieutenant Vern Kilpatrick who had taken a fighting patrol 400 yards beyond the hill. He was hit by enemy fire, but not before he and his men immobilized two German tanks with their PIAT anti-tank weapons and knocked the turret off a third. The engagement alerted the rest of the battalion, quick to get underground as the German tanks closed in and pelted the Highlanders with close range fire. But there wasn’t enough SS infantry to retake the hill, and the Highlanders held on as “B” and “D” Companies rallied to the defence along with “C” Company. The entire unit continued to suffer from the intense mortaring, and the Pipe Major’s bagpipes were lost when an ammunition truck blew up in an impressive explosion at battalion headquarters.
Fatal casualties during the counter-attack had been relatively few – Kilpatrick was one of the six officers and men killed or missing, dying during the night at the age of 22 – but 92 soldiers had been wounded, mostly from “C” Company.
German infantry and tanks did not return on July 20th, but casualties continued to mount as men were picked off in ones and twos by snipers and the continual shelling. “A” Company, held in reserve, was sent towards Etavaux at 18:00 to deal with the Germans there, described as a “thorn in our side.” They encountered at least five machine guns in an orchard, and an all-night firefight fought at 400 yards range raged throughout the night into the 21st. Major John Campbell’s company was denied permission to enter the village, however, as it was felt that the enemy would just have to abandon it once the British on the other side of the Orne cleared Maltot. When it was realized the German strength at Etavaux was at least 200 men – or double Campbell’s strength – plans changed and a large scale assault was planned. “A” Company was eventually withdrawn, in favour of the Maisonneuves attacking, and Etavaux was secured on 23 July.
In all, the Highlanders lost 21 men killed, 10 died of wounds, and 97 wounded, in three days of fighting at Hill 67 and Etavaux, or 15% of the battalion’s total strength. Despite four years of training, the unit’s inexperience in its initial battle showed through – “C” Company entrenched on a forward slope, exposed to enemy fire and observation. Friendly fields of fire had been poorly chosen, and German troops and tanks were allowed to advance almost to the crest of the hill unhindered. Battalion headquarters was located directly on top of Hill 67, a poor choice. Patrolling once the hill was secure virtually ceased, and no effort to reconnoiter Etavaux had been made before “A” Company moved on it, finding enemy strength far stronger than anticipated.
What had not been lacking was courage, and despite the Regiment’s shaky first outing, the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade had achieved a successful baptism of fire; infantry-tank co-operation had been good, and the 5th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, part of the 2nd Canadian Division’s artillery and destined to be a key element in the Highlanders’ upcoming battles, had been fully professional in its provision of both pre-planned barrage fire and accurate response to on-call fire from Forward Observation Officers. What had not gone well were other actions on the Verrières Ridge, the bulk of which still remained in German hands. The battle for the heights was only just beginning.