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Nations at war
Reid, Brian A. No Holding Back: Operation Totalize, Normandy, August 1944. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2005
xix + 491 pages
Foreword; Introduction; Prologue; maps; photos; OBs; organigrams; drawings; technical specs; Epilogue; Endnotes; Bibliography; Index
Appendices: Dilemma of Normandy; OB, First Canadian Army; German Forces; Air Power in Support of the Land Battle; Who Killed Michael Wittmann?; Brief History of 1st Polish Armoured Division
Robin Brass Studio doesn't release a huge number of World War II books, but every RBS title exhibits high quality writing, editing, art direction, and production. No Holding Back takes that exacting approach to a new level, resulting in the Studio's best WWII work to dateand a strong candidate to become one of the top books of the year.
The author chooses a relatively familiar topic, Operation Totalize, the Canadian operation that defeated German defenses on the eastern end of the Normandy front, and breathes new life into it. He does so by going all the way back to the original wartime orders and unit diaries, examining all the subsequent studies of the campaign, and reaching his own conclusions while pointing out where other historians sometimes went astray. The book is very thorough, informative, and readable from start to finish, and Reid demonstrates complete mastery of his subject as well as a deep interest in the battle and the men who fought it. Interestingly, although this is by no means an oversized pictorial volume with a dearth of solid text, the author in addition to his strong narrative incorporates a wealth of sidebars with drawings and specifications for equipment, TOEs, OBs, organigrams, etc. This he accomplishes in a manner that integrates all the extra material seamlessly into the larger framework of the book rather than just tossing it out to fill pages. Similarly the photos are plentiful without overwhelming the text, and the maps are very clean, legible, and numerous. As a result, quite apart from packing a full load of well-written text, No Holding Back delivers an extremely handsome visual appeal all the more notable because it's entirely black and white.
Reid begins with a brief Prologue set on Cramesnil Spur during the height of Operation Totalize, which whets the appetite for more action, then promptly turns back the clock to describe the development of the Canadian Army during the inter-war years. Although this material focuses largely on the "wilful neglect of the military [as] a political strategy least likely to offend voters" and repeatedly points out the utter poverty to which Canadian forces were reduced, one highlight of the chapter involves the planning and structuring of the militia designed to "hold the Americans at bay for two years in the unlikely event of war with the United States." Reid goes on to chart the slow and pitiful development of Canadian armored forces and the many obstacles facing military leaders. For example, because of the five-and-a-half-day work week, it was only possible to train militia on Sunday, which provoked a public outcry from religious authorities for profaning the Sabbath.
Given these kinds of pressures, Canada entered the Second World War with a tiny cadre of trained troops. Despite a workable scheme for expanding the armed forces, a serious shortage of qualified, experienced officers would continue to plague Canadian units until late in the war. That shortage, with roots in the tiny size of the inter-war Army, was exacerbated by the belated entry of Canadian troops into combat. Other than the defense of Hong Kong (where the entire force was lost) and the brief Dieppe raid, Canadians did little more than train, train, train until the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, and even after Canadians were committed in Italy the divisions back in England mostly remained without combat-experienced troops or leaders.
In the third chapter of his book, Reid spends about twenty pages discussing the Canadian role in the invasion of Normandy and their early operations on the Second Front. Among other issues he brings up, the lack of experience among leaders soon made itself felt, necessitating some changes in command; this issue would reappear during Totalize and it becomes one of Reid's primary themes in ensuing chapters. The author also uses this part of the book to further develop the differences in personalities, abilities, and attitudes among the various generals from Canadian brigade and division COs all the way up to Montgomery. In choosing his position in one of the key debates about Normandy and Allied generalship, Reid places himself among Monty's admirers and supporters, although you have to like the author's style: "Montgomery, a truly great general but not one apt to be seized by attacks of humility, felt it unnecessary to explain himself to lesser beings...." On the other hand, Reid proves willing to criticize the field marshal whenever necessary, as in Monty's facile bashing of Crerar (commanding Canadian 1st Army) and the subsequent imbroglio involving Monty, Crerar, and Crocker of British 1st Corps.
Reid of course devotes considerable ink to Guy Simonds (commanding Canadian 2nd Corps) as the primary architect of Operation Totalize. Although the first description of Simonds seems almost worshipful, later chapters also relate the general's shortcomings.
Guy Simonds was a brilliant man with a compulsion to succeed in anything
he set his hand to. At the same time he was somewhat introverted and withdrawn and had learned to keep his fiery temper under control. As a result he
gave the impression of coldness and lacked the human touch of any number
of British and American (and even a few Canadian) senior commanders.
Simonds had patterned himself on Montgomery and firmly believed his role
as a commander included making his own plans, or at the very least, giving
firm, detailed direction to the staff. When faced with a tactical dilemma, for
example, he retired to his caravan and chain-smoked until he had worked out
the details himself. Like Montgomery, he brought a number of commanders and senior staff officers back from Italy to fill positions in 2nd Canadian
Corps; most notably he cleaned house in the upper echelons of 4th Canadian
Armoured Division, replacing the divisional commander and the commanders of the divisional artillery and both 4 Armoured and 10 Infantry Brigades, a
move he later may have had cause to regret. Simonds was right far more often
than he was wrong and a strong case can be made that he was the best corps
commander in 21st Army Group, and among the best of the war. Certainly,
like Sir Arthur Currie in the First World War, he was able to concentrate on
the task at hand to such an extent that he would seize upon an unorthodox
but workable solution to a seemingly insurmountable challenge, as he would
demonstrate in the series of operations he mounted south of Caen.
After three chapters in Part One (The Roots of Totalize), Part Two (Preparing for Totalize) includes three more chapters. Here Simonds further emerges as the central protagonist of the story, although the chapters cover considerable other ground. The Totalize plan featured a number of interesting aspects, including support by the Allied strategic bombing force, Kangaroo armored personnel carriers, and a highly unorthodox night attack by armor. Reid explains the use and structure of a formal appreciation ("a key military planning tool") and then dissects in considerable detail the appreciation completed by Simonds on 31 July. He also offers some new insights into the local "defrocking" of Priest self-propelled artillery to create the Kangaroos which would carry Canadian infantry into battle over the deadly ground covered by German defensive fire. Reid further scrutinizes the artillery fire plan, including a counter-flak program to help protect friendly aircraft but foregoing the traditional WWI-style preparatory bombardment in order to maintain tactical surprise. In sum, this amounts to a very thorough and strong account of the intricacies of the planning process with material specific to Totalize but also more generally applicable to all Allied preparations for offensives at this stage of the war.
The key element of all that planning for Totalize involved the use of carpet bombing by heavy bombers to prepare the way for the attackers on the ground. Use of bombers in that fashion had considerable ramifications during the course of the battle, so Reid devotes quite a few pages to discussing the original concept, the give and take between air and ground forces, and the costs (some hidden) and benefits derived from the decision to utilize carpet bombing. Designed largely to replace the need for artillery fire against the Phase Two objectives, and thus to eliminate the pause that would otherwise be required while artillery displaced forward into new positions close enough to engage Phase Two targets, the air plan was originally devised by ground officers without benefit of air force expertise. At a high level conference in England, the top air brass (including Tedder, Leigh-Mallory, Spaatz, Broadhurst, and a representative from Bomber Harris) began to introduce a variety of changes in the bombardment plan for technical and practical reasons. At that point the entire situation remained somewhat unsettled, as indicated by a phone call from France which interrupted the meeting to notify the conferees about changing conditions on the ground in Normandy and to pose questions about possible revisions in conjunction with the evolving situation at the front. Nonetheless, the army planners left the meeting with the opinion that all was well. The following day, however, the soldiers met with Bomber Harriswhose planes would actually fly the main missionsand he promptly and utterly refused to agree to the air plan thrashed out by his representative and the other air officers on the previous day.
The atmosphere in the office must have been glacial! Harris could dish it out with the best of them, but he certainly was not used to taking it, least of all
from an army officer three ranks his junior, and a "colonial" to boot. Mann
had refused to be intimidated, but he had come perilously close to insubordination when he accused Harris in so many words of reneging on a commitment. With the matter off their chests and their blood pressure returning
to normal, the three officers began to work on solutions to the dilemma. It
is important to stress that Harris was not being an obstructionist, a point he
successfully had managed to conceal from Mann and Richardson. He had
been directed to support the land forces and he would do it. However, he
understood all too well the limitations of his force, which was neither designed nor trained for this sort of task; his motivation was a real concern for
the safety of the forward troops. Matters proceeded swiftly and two possible
solutions were developed in less than an hour. Neither Mann nor Richardson, of course, had the authority to accept these, and Mann phoned Crerar
from Harris's office.
Given the cascading affects of multiple changes to the original scheme and additional revisions as mandated by Harris, at this point it appears from Reid's description that no two officers interpreted the final plan in exactly the same manner. In any event, it would soon become apparent that for all its thunder and destruction, strategic airpower in support of ground operations in many respects could not match the accuracy and flexibility of artillery fire.
The third and final chapter of the second part of the book looks at the tactical plans devised by the assaulting divisions, including some very nice diagrams of the long, narrow columns of AFVs in which the attacking forces would advance in the night. With four vehicles wedged together side-by-side in a row, each row squeezed to within a yard or two of the one in front, and row after row snaking back through the Norman countryside, these columns must have been an amazing sight and a tempting target, but no German air or artillery bombardment interrupted the assembly of assault forces. Without enemy intervention, the biggest headache was caused by more last minute changes when the date for the attack was moved from 8 August to one day earlier.
In the third section of the book Reid begins to describe and analyze the unfolding of the Totalize offensive. His first task is to set the German defenses, in particular looking at the German 89th Infantry Division which had recently taken over the ground in front of Canadian 1st Army. Although "...Kurt Meyer of the Hitlerjugend Division first libelled [the 89th's] reputation by claiming that it broke and ran and played no further part in the battle...," the author looks beyond that characterization, and he starts by comparing and contrasting the Allied intelligence assessment with the actual state of the 89th. Summarizing, it seems that Canadian intelligence officers underrated the division's capacity to put up a fight and Meyer greatly exaggerated its demise.
After reviewing German strength and dispositions, the book segues into the heavy bomber attack that marked the opening of Totalize:
As the sky finally darkened into night, the first of 1,019 heavy bombers
neared the French coast in two parallel north-to-south streams. The
bombing itself was to last from 2300 to 2340 hours, with May-sur-Orne and
La Hogue to be struck first at 2300, followed by Fontenay-le-Marmion and
Secqueville-la-Campagne at 2320 and finally Mare-de-Magne at 2340. The
targets were to be marked by flare shells, green for the western targets and
red for the eastern targets, fired at an interval of ten seconds between rounds
for five minutes ending at the time the first bomb dropped on each target.
At 2255 hours, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division 25-pounders began firing
green flare shells at May-sur-Orne, while farther east the guns of 51st Highland Division began to burst red flares over La Hogue. To the approaching
aircraft the red flares would appear to their port or left and the green to their
starboard or right, similar to the lighting system used on ships and aircraft. It
might be added that anything that could be done to avoid confusing airmen,
or anyone else for that matter, was always a good idea. The sky was relatively
clear, but the presence of low winds hinted that smoke and dust would not
clear as quickly as desired. The master bombers, flying at four to five thousand
feet, identified the targets and marked them with target indicators of the same
colour, although they later reported the green artillery flares ended before
Targets 1 and 3 could be marked accurately. With the targets identified and
marked, the main bomber force was called in and the attack commenced.
To some of the Germans on the ground the effect was immediately
apparent and highly gratifying. Some members of Grenadierregiment 1055
apparently mistook the bombing for a Luftwaffe attack on Allied positions,
and left their trenches to enjoy the rarely seen spectacle. Optimism is usually considered a positive asset in soldiers in wartime, but in this case it was
perhaps more in the nature of a combination of inexperience and refusal to
come to grips with reality, like the man who fell off a hundred-storey building and remarked, as he passed the fiftieth floor, "So far, so good." However,
Grenadierregiment 1056 reported "a massive [Allied] bombing attack on
the [Canadian] main line of resistance and well into the main battlefield."
When the bombs began to fall on May-sur-Orne, the tanks and vehicles in
Fontenay-le-Marmion withdrew and the troops in trenches north of the village were told to hold on and wait as there would be a counterattack in the
Without a brisk wind to dissipate the smoke and dust, the targets soon
became obscured and the master bombers ordered more than a third of the
aircraft to bring their bomb loads home. In all, 642 aircraft actually attacked
the five targets, dropping a total of 3,456 tons of high explosive. The air
force later claimed that the bombing was both accurate and effective, citing
both its own optimistic damage assessment and Crerar's glowing message to
Harris sent while bombs were still falling....
In fact while the bombing of two of the eastern targets, La Hogue and
Mare-de-Magne, was effective and the third, Secqueville-la-Campagne, lay
inside the cratered area, this was not the case in the west. Target 1, Fontenay-le-Marmion, was struck only slightly, the weight of the bombing falling
about a half mile to the west and obliterating the small hamlet of Le Val.
Target 3, May-sur-Orne, was largely untouched despite being attacked by
89 Halifaxes and 3 Lancasters, and while some bombs fell in fields near St.
Martin-de-Fontenay, no evident bomb pattern could be identified during an
investigation by No. 2 Operational Research Section shortly after the battle.
In fact, a few bombs even fell among the Fusiliers Mont-Royal companies
of 6 Canadian Infantry Brigade waiting for the order to advance. It is possible that the poor results on Targets 1 and 3 resulted from the gap between
the 25-pounder flares burning out and the arrival of the marking aircraft,
although other factors may have played a part, including the tendency for
the bomb pattern to creep backwards as the crews dropped on the rear of
the marker pattern.
This bombing attack was designed to seal off the flanks of the advance
but the strong points like Tilly-la-Campagne and Rocquancourt were still
untouched. The result was that, after a major attack by Bomber Command
resulting in the dropping of 3,456 tons of bombs and the loss of ten aircraft
shot down and another destroyed on landing, the main German defences
were left largely intact and fully alert. It now fell to the attacking troops and
the artillery to batter a way through six battalions of German infantry in
Chapter eight explains the advance of the British 51st Highland Division while chapter nine covers the advance of the Canadians. Despite all the uncertainties, the nocturnal attack succeeded in pushing through, over, and around German defensive positions and for the most part put all the Phase One objectives into Allied hands by daylight. The next chapter shifts to the German side of the lines to explore how the defenders reacted to the assault. Here Reid makes it clear that the Germans were well-served by competent, experienced officersnotably Kurt Meyer (12th SS Panzer Division) and Heinrich Eberbach (5th Panzer Army)who, commanding from the front, immediately grasped the gravity of the situation and reacted instantly. Interestingly, Sepp Dietrich, the corps commander (1st SS Panzer Corps) over Meyer and under Eberbach, is barely mentioned in the entire book.
At this point the author begins to unravel one of the most interesting aspects of the offensive. According to Meyer, the 89th Division was essentially out of action and his SS troops were too few and too scattered to quickly make themselves felt. Similarly, harking back to the book's Prologue set on Cramesnil Spur, Colonel Mel Gordon of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment at the forward tip of the attacking forces was convinced that in the morning light, as far as he could see, there were no German forces to shoot at and the road to Falaise was wide open. So why didn't the Canadians exploit their success by pushing quickly forward? To begin with, Reid relates (and refutes) the analyses of the situation offered by John English and Roman Jarymowycz. Using wartime archives, he goes on to document exactly what Crerar and Simonds knew (and didn't know) about the situation, concluding that neither had been alerted to the fact that the route to Falaise might already be wide open. Furthermore, he notes that even if they had known, they would almost certainly not have attempted to change the "ponderous execution of the corps plan" that was already in motion. Finally, even if they had wanted to change the plan, it would have been difficult or impossible to cancel the next scheduled strategic bombing mission.
In any event, Reid also indicates that while Meyer wrote that the 89th Division's troops had disappeared and Gordon certainly couldn't see them, in fact at least half the division was still able to resist and "there were German forces within 2,000 yards of [Gordon], and some of them were of the highly dangerous variety...."
The chapter then covers the "mopping up" of some isolated German posts as well as the German counterattack. This was, all things considered, a relatively potent punch including seven or eight Tiger tanks commanded by Michael Wittmann, the panzer ace. However, Simonds had insisted that all the assaulting troops must dig in after reaching their Phase One objectives and prepare for exactly this sort of enemy response, so the Brits and Canadians were ready for the attack. Both sides lost heavily, but the issue was probably decided by the destruction of most of Wittmann's Tigers when they charged into a position held on three sides with alert defenders including Fireflys. Reid follows this action very closely, charting the exchange of shots and the loss of AFVs on both sides. He also injects his steely opinion into the fate of one of the most famous tank commanders of the war.
This short, little action, lasting no more than 45 minutes from the time that
the first Tigers appeared east of Cintheaux to the end of the German advance
up the road, tilted the odds against the counterattack reaching its objectivesthe woods south of Garcelles-Secqueville. No matter what kind of spin is
put on it, the immutable truth is that Wittmann drove into an ambush. As a
result, the action cost the Germans five Tigers and crews they could ill afford
to lose. One cannot but question if a double standard has not been applied
over the years since 1944. If an Allied tank commander had done something
this tactically unsound, it would have told and retold over the years as a typical
example of American, British or Canadian tactical incompetence. Wittmann's
action, however, has survived in popular lore as an example of courage and
audacity; he may have been a dead hero, but the key word is dead, not hero,
And that applied not only to him, but also to most of his men.
Reid also deflates Kurt Meyer's reputation a little.
If any event during Operation TOTALIZE can be said to have finally
doomed the German hold on the area north of the Laison River, it was the
defence of St. Aignan-de-Cramesnil by 1 Northamptonshire Yeomanry and
1 Black Watch. For all their vaunted skill in the coordinated employment of
all-arms teams, the Germans had failed to do precisely that while mounting
their attacks. If the panzer grenadiers had been able to close with the British position while the tanks were slugging it out, the result might have been
quite different. As it was they were caught in the open and proved that the
SS camouflage smocks were no more bulletproof than battle dress. Despite
the skill and courage of these German soldiers, the feckless manner in which
they were thrown into battle meant that the attempt to capture the Garcelles-Secqueville woods ultimately failed, a matter which Meyer, characteristically,
omitted to mention in his memoirs. On the other hand, the Germans were
in a strong position to delay any further advance by the Allies east of St.
Aignan-de-Cramesnil, and, as we shall see, that is exactly what they did.
Moving to the fourth part of No Holding Back, chapter twelve takes up the story of Phase Two of Totalize. Right off the bat Reid delves into more controversy regarding complaints that Simonds upset his offensive by combining two phases into one while simultaneously failing to provide sufficient frontage for the attacking armored divisions, Canadian 4th and Polish 1st, to effectively maneuver. The author mostly dismisses these charges, but his criticism of some officers and their staff work will probably ruffle a few feathers. He moves on to the second carpet bombing attack of Totalize, this the midday operation by US 8th Air Force on 8 August. The planners of the operation pinned many of their hopes on this attack, expecting its success would be necessary for the armored divisions to be able to roll to their objectives. As with many other details of the air plan, the attack had evolved considerably. Originally intended as an 8th Air Force mission, then given to Bomber Command, then switched back to the 8th, it amounted to nearly 700 B-17s approaching their targets parallel to the front. (Although Reid omits any discussion, the ground forces preferred the parallel approach, because flying a route perpendicular to the front would mean bombers crossing the Allied lines immediately before reaching the targets, an approach which had in previous operations in Normandy caused large numbers of friendly casualties due to "short bombing." Of course, the parallel approach subjected the bombers to increased AA fire.) In this case, the 8th Air Force was not at the top of its game, and the targets were not hit as effectively as they should have been, although as Reid notes drily, the air forces later claimed to have "bombed in or adjacent to the target areas." Unfortunately for the Canadians and Poles, they happened to be in some of those areas adjacent to the targets, and some of those friendly troops ended up under the American bombs. Indeed, Reid provides a very telling map of the targets and the location of the Allied units hit by the 8th, which makes it impossible to apply the adjective "precision" to this particular bombing.
In fact, although some writers have blamed the American bombing for the Canadian and Polish problems in advancing to their objectives, Reid demonstrates that the units suffering from friendly fire were actually toward the rear around Caen and that none of the attacking units at the front were seriously damaged or disrupted. On the other hand, it seems that the midday carpet bombing was not especially effective in breaking up the German defenses. Thus, the Allies had been quite successful in their overnight Phase One advance but had then halted to dig in, fend off the counterattack launched by Meyer, and await the next strategic bombing strike. By the time the advance resumed around 4:00 in the afternoon on 8 August, the Germans had taken advantage of the pause to strengthen their seriously frayed line.
Canadian 4th Armored Division and Polish 1st Armored Division both quickly ran into problems. The Canadian Grenadier Guards in particular were held up near Point 122 by the need to advance down "a long, open forward slope" covered by German anti-tank guns. Eventually a troop of Canadian tanks managed to move forward through a gap and hit a German position apparently just as the guns there were in the process of being withdrawn, resulting in the quick destruction of four 88s plus other guns and vehicles. The Polish tanks were meanwhile mostly held up, apparently by a few Tigers and AT guns.
Although the Phase Two advance had not gotten off to a propitious start, the situation for the defenders was grim. Reid's fourteenth chapter investigates the German position and includes transcripts of three interesting phone conversations between Eberbach at 5th Panzer Army and von Kluge at ob West late on the 8th and shortly after midnight. Both officers were fully cognizant of the consequences should the German hinge south of Caen rupture completely.
The German defence line south of Caen had been shattered and 89. Infanteriedivision driven back after suffering heavy casualties. To the west and
south of the 2nd Canadian Corps area, the threat created by TOTALIZE had
forced the Germans to withdraw Kampfgruppe Wunsche from the Grimbosq
area and order its return to the area of the Route Nationale, conceding that
bridgehead to the British. While the Polish Division had been unable to advance past the forward position of the Highland Division, after a slow start
4th Armoured Division had advanced another 2,500 yards past Gaumesnil
to Hautmesnil. While Kurt Meyer fails to mention this in his memoirs, this
seemingly insignificant advance threatened to cost the Germans dearly as it
outflanked the Kampfgruppe Waldmuller position south of St. Aignan (despite what Eberbach thought, the Germans had not recaptured the village). Meyer's reluctance to raise this matter was understandable as he had written
off the possibility of any Allied advance in that area as being impossible and,
after all, German officers were no more likely than their Allied counterparts
to write "I screwed up" in their memoirs. Moreover, while the day's fighting
had cost 2nd Canadian Corps perhaps 70 tanks, it had cost the Germans at
least a third as many plus a number of towed and self-propelled anti-tank
guns. The simple fact was that the Allies could replace their losses and the
Germans could not. The question now was if Simonds's corps could make
the most of the opportunity?
The book follows the progress of Phase Two operations in considerable detail. Among other points, the author pulls no punches when he explains how the commander of one Canadian brigade ("professionally inadequate and personally disgraceful") was discovered by his division commander passed out in a drunken stupor when he was supposed to be directing the advance of his units. Miraculously, the brigadier was not relieved on the spot, butalthough the book doesn't cover this part of the campaignhe was mortally wounded a few days later. In another incident, "Worthington Force" with tanks and infantry advanced in the night, went off course, lost radio communications, dug in to defend the wrong objective under increasing enemy fire, and was completely lost to higher headquarters who were utterly unable to locate the isolated force. Eventually, after taking heavy losses including forty-four Shermans, a few of the Canadians escaped while the remainder were captured. Reid points out that the drunken brigadier, "incapable of exercising command," deserved much of the blame for sending Worthington Force to its destruction. For the second day of Totalize, by nightfall the Poles and Canadians had made some headway, but the results were not in line with the expectations of Simonds or Crerar. As a result, Simonds began further adjusting plans for his two armored divisions. At this point however, the Allied momentum was ebbing away. Strong German resistance at Quesnay Wood essentially brought the Canadians to a halt, partly because of poor tactical choices by Simonds. Here Reid offers some alternatives that might have been more successful, but in fact Totalize had reached its conclusion. The hard-pressed Germans had delayed the Allies long enough to bring up the 85th Infantry Division and form a new line along the Laison River. In any event, by now American divisions at the western end of the Normandy front were streaming deep into France and the focus of the campaign suddenly shifted to the possibility of pocketing all the German defenders. At roughly the same time Simonds was ordering his 3rd Division to attack Quesnay Wood, Montgomery was ordering Crerar to turn the Canadian army toward Falaise and then Argentan to meet the Yanks. Thus ended Operation Totalize and so began Operation Tractable.
In his Epilogue, Reid sums up the operation:
There is one point that towers above all else: TOTALIZE was a successful
operation of warafter all the Germans had been pushed back
more than halfway to Falaise and their tank strength seriously depleted, while 89. Infanteriedivision had lost more than half of its
fighting strength. Mistakes were made by both sides, but the simple truth
is that the German hold on the plain south of Caen was broken at a heavy
cost to their forces. Having said that, TOTALIZE revealed in vivid colour the
strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian army in Normandy. While many
of these were shared with the British, and perhaps to a lesser extent, with the
American armies, it should not mask the reality that there were some that
were uniquely Canadian. Above all elseand this must be confessed as a
sweeping generalizationthe standard of Canadian generalship and high-
level staff work in Normandy was a cut below that of the other Allied armies,
although Simonds certainly displayed vivid flashes of brilliance and would
continue to do so throughout the war.
In particular, Reid discusses "the recurring Canadian practice of failing to allot enough troops to tasks" and the "lack of cooperation between the infantry and the armour...." He then goes on the review and set the record straight on seven of the myths that have grown up around Operation Totalize:
- Myth 1: The aim of Totalize was to capture Falaise, thus closing the north flap of the Falaise Pocket
- Myth 2: The night attack of 7/8 August was a shambles
- Myth 3: Two Allied armored divisions waited on their start line for several hours, thus allowing the Germans to counterattack and foil the Phase Two advance on 8 August
- Myth 4: The counterattack by 12th SS broke up the attacks by two Allied armored divisions
- Myth 5: Having broken through the German defenses, Crerar and Simonds nonetheless refused to cancel the carpet bombing mission
- Myth 6: Kurt Meyer saved his troops from the carpet bombing by ordering them to move northward
- Myth 7: Totalize failed to achieve all its objectives because of the inexperience of the two armored divisions
Reid thoroughly refutes all seven myths, and in doing so he points out some of the shortcomings of Meyer (whose postwar interrogations and popular Grenadiers suffer from some imperfections) and Simonds ("who rarely, if ever, admitted that his planning could have been in error").
There is a time-honoured military adage that no plan survives first contact
with the enemy. In August 1944 Lieutenant General Guy Simonds could be
faulted for believing that no enemy would survive first contact with his plan,
and not the other way round. His precise, scientific mind could not accept
that human frailties or shortcomings in equipment or doctrine, let alone
any action the enemy might take, could possibly interfere with the execution of his plans. (Unlike his patron Montgomery, Simonds never learned
to simply keep repeating that his plans always worked exactly as designed.)
When things went awry, as they invariably do in war, it was always the fault
of others for not being able to execute his plan exactly as written. That is
not to suggest that he was a knave or a fool, far from it. Guy Simonds was
an intense man who was intellectually superior to most of his contemporaries; unfortunately his military education and experience had been largely
theoretical, at least until he landed in Sicily in command of the 1st Canadian
Infantry Division on 10 July 1943. It is often forgotten that his total experience of command in battle until his corps became operational on 11 July
1944 totalled less than three months. Still, for his faults, real and imagined,
Simonds clearly was by far the best Canadian senior commander of the war,
and one whose performance does not suffer when compared to the best of
his Allied contemporaries.
Finally, the author looks at three important factors involved in determining the outcome of Totalize. Regarding luck, although Reid doesn't quite say it in this manner, the Germans made their own good fortune. As to the much ballyhooed strategic bombers, the air attacks failed to live up to promises and expectations, and they were in fact counter-productive. Last, Reid points out that the decisive moment might have been when Simonds agreed to launch Totalize on the 7th, a day earlier than originally planned. Had the attack started as intended on the 8th, according to the author there was a very good chance that the last elements of 12th SS would have already moved off to Mortain and the Allied offensive would have run into only the German 89th Infantry Division.
Despite all that, No Holding Back rightly shows that Totalize, although not achieving everything Simonds hoped, must be considered a major success.
To his already excellent book Reid adds several very strong appendices. In "The Dilemma of Normandy" he devotes eleven pages to Allied problems with battlefield cohesion, tactical doctrine, and equipment. One appendix provides details of the OB for Canadian 1st Army during Totalize while another does the same for German forces in the Caen-Falaise sector. An appendix of fifteen pages discusses "Air Power in Support of the Land Battle in 21st Army Group." Next, having spent some time covering Michael Wittmann's counterattack and his death on 8 August, Reid writes twenty pages under the title "Who Killed Michael Wittmann" in which he examines all the factors and variables surrounding that question. Finally, John R. Grodzinski contributes fifteen pages about the Polish 1st Armored Division. The book concludes with endnotes (and this is a book in which the endnotes convey a great deal of extra information), a four-page bibliography, and an index.
Brian Reid has written a remarkably solid book of military history. He has researched the historical records, grasped the subtleties of Totalize, studied other commentators, reached his own conclusions, and formed some pithy opinions, all of which he transmits to readers in a consistently engaging manner.
This is not a pop history of Canadian troops as told by the men who fought in Normandy. Among many other recent books about Canadian troops in France, Ted Barris took that populist approach with his Juno. Mark Zuehlke took a similar "veterans' history" approach with his fine Juno Beach and his new Holding Juno, but Zuehlke has always been careful (including his Canadians in Italy trilogy) to include plenty of framing material and context with his books about Canadian soldiers. Reid, on the other hand, writes not so much about the soldiers who fought in the operation, but rather the operation itself and the men who planned and commanded it. He also relies far more on his own words, research, and opinions. While a work like those by Barris or Zuehlke with a wealth of accounts by veterans would nicely complement No Holding Back, in terms of explication and analysis there's no real comparison. The recent book that comes closest to this one is Fields of Fire by Terry Copp, butbecause it covers Canadian forces throughout the entire campaign in NormandyCopp's book offers not nearly the depth and detail for Operation Totalize. (Surprisingly, although Reid dissects many other books and their authors throughout his volume, he has nothing to say about Copp's treatment of the operation.)
With so much information so well presented, No Holding Back will probably remain the best book on this subject for many years. Highly recommended and likely to emerge as one of the best new WWII books of the year.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Robin Brass Studio.
Thanks to RBS for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 19 June 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone