Friday, May 6, 2011
No Holding Back: Book Review
No Holding Back; Operation Totalize, Normandy, August 1944.
By Brian A. Reid
I just finished this and found it very good. Most histories of the Canadian Army in WW2 seem to concentrate on Juno Beach and then leap ahead to the liberation of Holland.
Operation Totalize, the attack by 1st Canadian Army to break the German defence line south of Caen has been problematic. The fact that it failed to close off the Falaise Pocket and trap the German army in Normandy has been seen by later historians as a failure.
Brian Reid examines the lead up to Totalize, it's objectives, planning and execution. In fact he starts by examining the state of the Canadian Army in the years before World War 2 when the entire Regular Army amounted to 7 rifle companies spread between three regiments, 2 batteries of artillery and 12 armoured cars. As he observes, with an army that small it's hard to train up effective divisional and corps staff.
But just like every other conflict the Canadian Army has found itself in, it starts out ill-equipped and understrength and quickly learns, adapts and becomes an effective force. Totalize was in fact the first major operation undertaken by 1st Canadian Army and the first ever divisional sized armoured attack mounted by the Canadian Armoured Corps. The battle saw some unique innovations; the first attempt, against all conventional wisdom, of mounting an armoured attack at night, the use of heavy bombers in tactical support and greater use of armoured personnel carriers.
I found his chapters on the planning of the artillery and air support parts of the operation quite fascinating. It made me appreciate what all those staff officers were doing. In the movies a commander shouts 'fire' into a radio and a thousand guns open up to blast the enemy. In reality there are days of planning by dozens of staff officers; where will all those guns go? making sure the ammunition (of the correct caliber) is stockpiled in the right place at the right time, making sure every battery has the correct targets and shooting schedule so the barrage moves at the correct time, making sure the guns are being assigned appropriate targets that are within range, or that the guns are given orders to move to a new firing position (where more ammo needs to be stockpiled).
Not all of this was successful. Heavy bombers were not designed for tactical support and they proved to be a clumsy and ineffective weapon. Tying the attack to the bombing timetable limited the commander's ability to respond to opportunities. Thus Kurt Meyer's criticism of allied armour sitting on their start lines while he rebuilt the defences. The allied tanks couldn't move off to exploit the massive hole in the German lines because it was too late to cancel the bombers. So an opportunity to drive through to Falaise and seal off the Germans was missed.
Part of this was due to the complexity of the operation resulting in one brigade's Phase 1 objectives being in the target zone for the Phase 2 bombing, so units had to sit and wait until the bombers were done before they could finish their operation and let the Phase 2 units move through to continue the attack. The result was an unfortunate delay that gave the Germans time to regroup.
Reid takes an objective look at the statements made by SS general Kurt Meyer about Totalize, which have in previous years been accepted unquestioningly by historians. He notes that Meyer has a tendency to self-promote and aggrandize, focus on allied errors and gloss over his own.
There is also an interesting chapter examining the action in which German panzer ace Michael Wittmann (credited with 143 kills and his attack on 7th Armoured Division at Villiers-Bocage probably delayed the capture of Caen by several weeks). Some controversy exists as to who actually killed him, the RAF, the Northamptonshire Yeomanry and the Sherbrooke Fusilier regiment all claiming the kill. His laying out of all the facts, dissecting the battlefield and deployments makes for some strong arguments. But as he notes, the allied tankers didn't know who they were facing (they had never heard of Wittmann before) and the important thing on the day was that the German counterattack was stalled with the cost of 5 Tiger tanks (and other AFVs) destroyed. An irony that Reid also notices is that if allied tanks had charged into an ambush like Wittmann did, they would have been excoriated for tactical stupidity and lack of skill. But somehow none of the Nazi Panzerphiles seem to notice that Wittmann charged ahead without proper reconnaissance into a cross fire from three squadrons of Sherman tanks. The shooting of Trooper Ekins in the Northamptonshire Yeomanry who killed three Tigers, or the quick thinking and leadership of his troop commander who quickly took over to keep his Firefly fighting after the crew commander was wounded, are seldom remarked upon.
The book also contains detailed Orders of Battle, maps of the battle as it unfolded, diagrams of key weapons systems and some interesting analysis of the technical and tactical differences between the Allied and German armies in Normandy.
He concludes that despite some poor staff work, a drunken armoured brigade commander and the bombers hitting the allied rear echelons, Totalize drove the front several miles through a previously impenetrable German defence line and was at the time seen as a success.
For anyone interested in the battles for Normandy, I think this book is a very useful addition to the library and for students of the Canadian Army in WW2 it fills in some very important gaps.