'Operation Charnwood' was one of a series of actions that together made up I Corp's dogged attempts to take the city of Caen.
The ancient capital of the Normandy region was considered to be critical to the success of the Battle for Normandy. Caen was a D-Day objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division, but congestion at the beachheads on the 6th June leading to delays in moving off the beaches and the absence of the full complement of divisional armour meant that it was an understrength 3rd Infantry Division that assaulted the city. Timely reinforcement by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjungend caused the attack to falter on the outskirts of the city.
The early capture of Caen was of great strategic importance to the progress of 'Operation Overlord' since with the city in Allied hands, Caen would serve as a staging post for the advance to Falaise and then further east to Argentan and on towards the Touques river. The city and its surrounding areas would also provide airbases from which air support could be provided to the left flank of the US First Army as it advanced inland on the Cotentin Penninsula to the west.
With Caen still under German control after D-Day, there followed a series of operations intended deliver the city into the hands of British and Canadian forces.
'Operation Perch' (7th June)
A pincer action intended to encircle the city with I Corps to the east, attacking from South of the Orne river and XXX Corps attacking across a front to the west. The eastern assault was halted by determined resistance from the 21st Panzer Division, whilst the western advance was checked at Tilly-sur-Seulles by the Panzer-Lehr Division. Tilly-sur-Seulles eventually fell to the XXX Corps on 19th June.
'Operation Martlet' (25th June)
A prelude to 'Operation Epsom' intended to secure the right flank of the VIII Corps.
'Operation Epsom' (26th June)
An VIII Corps action to the west of the city from Rauray in the west to Carpiquet in the direction of Caen. The objective was to gain control of the high ground at Bretteville-suer-Laize, once again with the intended outcome of an encirclement of the city. This action was opposed and halted by 9th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg of the II SS Panzer Corps.
'Operation Mitten' (27th June)
An 8th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division operation intended to capture the strongholds of Chateau la Londe and Chateau le Landel to the north of Caen. The objectives were secured on the morning of 28th June after heavy fighting which earned the area the grim epithet of 'the bloodiest square mile in Normandy'. The delay in achieving its objectives resulted in the cancellation of a planned Canadian action codenamed 'Operation Aberlour' which was to target the strongholds that 'Charnwood' attacked some days later.
'Operation Windsor' (4th July)
The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division attacked the village of Carpiquet and Carpiquet airfield on the western outskirts of Caen. The village was taken on 4th July, but the airfield still remained in German possession. With a change in command of the German forces in the west, Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt, who favoured redeployment of the main German defences to positions opposing the US First Army, was replaced by Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge and the defence of Caen was once again the German priority.
With knowledge of the change within the German High Command, Montgomery opted for a frontal assault to the north of the city. The orders for 'Operation Charnwood' were issued on the 5th July 1944.