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Book Reviews

no holding back: operation totalize, normandy, august 1944

by Brian A. Reid

Toronto: Robin Brass Studio
491 pages, $39.95

Reviewed by John Marteinson

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Book coverBook reviewers usually try to avoid high praise or total condemnation, but, in this case, I simply cannot adhere to that custom. This book in every respect merits high praise. In my view, it is one of the very best books written in recent years about Canadian operations in the Second World War.

Operation Totalize is one of the four most important battles fought by Canadian troops in northwest Europe in 1944-45. It was a resounding success, but it has always been surrounded by controversy, because things went badly wrong for the Canadians in Phase 2 of the attack on 8 August. There are a significant number of reasons why that happened – poor leadership at several levels, overly ambitious operational plans made at Corps headquarters, last minute changes of the Corps plans that caused confusion, a failure of battle procedure, tanks that weremarkedly inferior to their German counterparts, and an eight-hour-long pause between the First and Second Phases that gave the Germans time to redeploy. All these conditions were topped off by skilled and determined German opponents, whose deadly-accurate anti-tank guns could kill our armour at longer ranges than our tank guns could reach out. Because there were so many factors contributing to what was a near disaster, it is remarkable there has never yet been a good, sound analysis of the operation from start to finish. Fortunately, we now have that embodied in Lieutenant-Colonel Brian Reid’s new book, No Holding Back.

The book is sub-divided into four parts: The Roots of Totalize, Preparing for Totalize, The Night Push, and From the Jaws of Victory. In addition, there are six valuable appendices that, among other things, give the complete orders of battle of First Canadian Army and the German forces in the Caen sector.

In the first part, Reid looks at how the Army got to Normandy in August 1944 – through the bleak inter-war period, and then, its rapid and almost haphazard expansion in the early years of the Second World War, to finally encompass a numbered field army, two corps, five divisions and two independent armoured brigades. The important point Reid makes is that because of that rapid growth, the senior leadership of the Army, from battalion on up, were completely inexperienced. And the consequence was that units and field formations were being trained for battle in Canada and England by people who hadn’t the foggiest idea what they were doing. There was thus a whole lot of ‘on-the-job’ learning taking place once the Germans were shooting at our troops in June and July 1944, and this was before most of the officers in command positions had developed much tactical skill.

Reid deals with the detailed planning for Totalize in the three chapters of Part Two. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds, Commander of II Canadian Corps, had begun to study the problems associated with a corps attack astride the Caen-Falaise highway soon after the first attempt to break though the crust of the German line south of Caen fizzled out in late July. Even though Totalize was in reality to be a ‘holding attack’ intended to keep the bulk of the German armour deployed against the Canadian front, Simonds appreciated that the strength of the German defences necessitated employment of a number of innovative concepts if there was to be any hope of success. As many readers will know, for Phase 1, these included attacking at night with tanks, and other armoured vehicles in phalanx-like columns, massed to avoid exposure to the deadly German anti-tank guns, the use of armoured personnel carriers ‘jerry-rigged’ from surplus self-propelled guns, so that the infantry would have the same mobility as the tanks, and the use of heavy bombers as part of the fire plan in order to neutralize the enemy on the flanks. Because intelligence reports indicated there was a second, partially prepared German position some 10 kilometres south of the first, Simonds decided it would be necessary to conduct two separate break-in operations. In that he intended to use heavy bombers as an important part of his fire plan to neutralize the enemy, he recognized that a “pause with loss of speed and momentum must be accepted” between the two assaults.

In formulating his plan, Simonds envisaged three phases.

  • Phase 1 would be conducted by two infantry divisions (2nd Canadian and the British 51st Highland divisions) each supported by an armoured brigade (2nd Canadian and 33rd British armoured brigades). Their task would be to break through the forward German line with strong, narrow armoured columns, and establish a firm base from which the second phase could be launched.

  • In Phase 2, after a second bomber strike on suspected German positions, one armoured division (4th Canadian Armoured Division) would penetrate through the Germans’ second position, closely followed by an infantry division (3rd Canadian Division) to expand the depth of the penetration.

  • Phase 3 was to be an exploitation toward the town of Falaise by a fresh armoured division (1st Polish Armoured Division), with the infantry divisions following on to occupy the captured ground.

On 5 August, two days before Totalize was to be launched, intelligence reported that 1st SS Panzer Division, holding the front opposite II Canadian Corps until then, was being replaced by 89th Infantry Division, but, even more important, that 1st Panzer was reinforcing 12th SS Panzer Division in the second or depth defensive line. To cope with a significantly strengthened second position, Simonds changed the plan of the operation. On the morning of 6 August, he issued revised orders: in Phase 2, 1st Polish Armoured Division was to be introduced on the left of the 4th Armoured Division (through the 51st Division) and launched at the same time, on a parallel axis, toward their objectives just short of Falaise. Phase 3 was thus cancelled. This last-minute change in plan resulted in many very serious problems, and undoubtedly contributed to the near-failure of Phase 2 .

The five chapters of Part Three cover the execution of Phase I, ‘The Night Push’ through the tough first line of German defences by the British and Canadian armoured columns. Reid very adeptly describes the confusion of the slow but relentless advance in the dark and the dust, and the consolidation in the objective areas during the early dawn of 8 August. There is a very good chapter detailing the British advance on the left flank, something often all but ignored in Canadian accounts. Reid also deals very effectively with the most controversial aspect of this Phase: that there were no organized German defences on the Canadian front when the 4th Infantry Brigade and the Sherbrooke Fusilier tanks consolidated their hold on their Phase 1 objectives, and the contention that the Canadians, at that time, could have driven down the road all the way to Falaise without much opposition. He demonstrates that there was, indeed, a considerable and dangerous German force in that area, even before General Kurt Meyer began to redeploy the German troops to counter the Canadian penetration. Then too, had elements of 2nd Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade been able to press forward, they very soon would have moved out of range of their supporting artillery. But, most telling, Reid suggests that General Simonds, in any case, would have had little detailed knowledge of the situation at the front, and therefore no compelling reason to alter his plan once again.

Phase 2 and all its questionable aspects is recounted in considerable detail in the seven chapters of Part Four, ‘From the Jaws of Victory.’ This is where Totalize broke down, and where most of the controversy still resides. There were simply a host of problems that contributed to the near debacle. Some stem from the confusion generated by 4th Armoured Brigade, which issued orders to its units far too late for standard battle procedure, meaning that many of the tank crews, especially in the Grenadier Guards, which was to lead the advance in Phase 2, had no idea what was about to happen. Major Ned Amy, commanding the lead tank squadron, thought that his H-Hour was to be at 0500 hours on 8 August; he appears never to have been told about the bomber strike across the immediate front that was scheduled for 1300 hours. It was this bomber strike that made it necessary to delay launching Phase 2 for some eight hours after the Phase 1 objectives had been taken. And, it was this lengthy delay that gave General Kurt Meyer time to rally and redeploy the German forces that remained in the area, to rebuild a credible defensive position, and even to launch a counterattack that lost many of the remaining German tanks. Should the bomber strike have been cancelled so Phase 2 could have begun earlier? Colonel Reid contends that even had the bombing been called off, neither 4th Armoured Division nor 1st Polish Armoured Division would have been ready to push off: there were still large groups of bypassed Germans offering resistance in the area ‘cleared’ in Phase 1, and many of their units were stalled in traffic jams. Then too, the divisional artillery had not yet been deployed forward. Reid then goes into considerable detail about the action once Phase 2 finally got underway, as well as the many instances of ‘finger trouble’ – too many to recount in a short review.

In an epilogue at the end of Part Four, Reid tackles the principal ‘myths’ that have grown up around Totalize, and he corrects many commonly held errors of fact and interpretation. This, in itself, is worth the price of the book. In fact, throughout the book Reid’s analyses of the rationale for decisions, and his explanations as to why events developed as they did, are logical and dispassionate, even though some may disagree with some of his interpretations.

One of the striking features of this book is its superb presentation. Even though it is all black and white, it is beautifully illustrated, with carefully chosen photos, maps, organization charts and vehicle and weapon drawings. The 27 maps drawn by Chris Johnson are simply excellent: accurate depictions of the ground and the action, with just the right amount of detail provided. Johnson also drew the charts and the vehicle profiles, for which he has become so well known. And, as with all Robin Brass books, the layout is thoroughly professional.

I do have one criticism, and that has to do with style. The author has chosen to use the original language for German and Polish rank designations, and for the names of units and formations. I find this both pedantic and annoying. For example, ranks are shown as SS-Oberführer or Sturmbannführer or Hauptsturmführer or Pulkownik. Formations and units are 1. Dywizji Pancernej (1st Polish Armoured Division), 24. Pulk Ulanów (24th Lancer Regiment), 1. Abteilung SS-Panzerregiment 12, Divisionbegleitkompanie 12, or SS-Werferabteilung 12, and so on. If the author were writing about Russian units, would their names be in Cyrillic script? While it is indeed common practice to use some commonly understood German words, such as Panzer or Panzer-Grenadier, the usual convention is to translate ranks and most unit titles into English. It makes it easier to follow the narrative.

In addition to being highly instructive, this book is a most enjoyable read. The writing style is lively, sometimes even with a bit of an ‘edge,’ sometimes showing the humourous side of a situation. Reid’s descriptions are vivid, and have that ring of soldierly understanding that comes from long experience in the field. This book should be in the library of every student of Canadian military history.

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John Marteinson is the former editor of Canadian Military Journal and Canadian Defence Quarterly. He teaches Second World War history at the Royal Military College of Canada.