The opening of 'Operation Charnwood' was preceded on the night of 7th July by the first involvement of Bomber Command in the Normandy campaign. In a tragic, and still much debated, episode in the Overlord story much of the ancient city of Caen was obliterated from the air.
The carpet bombing of the medieval city is to this day a highly controversial action on the part of the Allies. The strategic advantage gained by the bombing of the northern districts of Caen is questionable, given the resulting level of destruction and the high numbers of civilian casualties.
Between 21.50 and 22.30 hours on the evening of the 7th, a force of four-engined, heavy bombers totaling 467 Halifax's and Lancaster's flew over the north of the city. A combined payload of 2,560 tons of high explosive, incendiary and delayed-action bombs were dropped on the northern limits.
Flying at 2,500 metres, the intention was to complete bomb runs within a rectangular area measuring 4,000 yards by 1,500 yards. The target area was largely dictated by the insistence of Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris (perhaps now better known to history as 'Bomber Harris') that a 6,000 yard safety margin be in place from the position of the forward British and Canadian troops and the northern extremity of the target area. This was to be achieved through use of a system that had been successful in the raids over Berlin, whereby a Master Bomber marked the target area and then observed the progress and positioning of the subsequent attack from a higher altitude. From such a vantage point the Master Bomber could revisions and adjustments could be communicated to the Deputy Master Bomber below as the situation demanded to ensure the accuracy of bombing throughout the raid.
The need for such a system was to control a phenomenon in which over time bomb loads tended to to be dropped earlier with the result that the inflicted damage would creep backwards from the intended target area. This was caused both by the fact that target markers became obscured in the inevitable flame and smoke of the raid and as a result of the urge for aircrews, in the face of heavy flack put up by a city's defences, to minimise the time spent over the target before turning for the home run.
In the Caen raid of 7th July, the consequences would have been catastrophic had such a 'creep back' occurred and brought payloads down on the Allied formations massed to the north of the city. Thus it was that the bombing had a very limited impact on the enemy troop and armour concentrations facing the 59th Division as the target area was well to the rear of the Germans in an area in which few military installations were located.
In the event the raid had some impact upon the men of a detachment of the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. Additionally, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend lost a mortar section and two tanks to the action.
Not easily measurable in terms of military advantage gained, but to the men of the 59th, who in a few short hours were to experience combat for the first time, the psychological and morale boosting effect of watching the RAF giving the 'hun' a pasting would have been immense.
On the other hand the casualties inflicted on the French civilian population was high. The Centre de Recherche d'Histoire Quantitative within the University of Caen estimated that 350 civilians lost their lives in the raid of the night of the 7th and in the fighting that ensued in the city on the following day. This figure is high when one considers that three quarters of Caen's peacetime population had been evacuated from the city at this point in time.
A less emotive consequence of the raid was the fact that by reducing the northern fringes of the city to rubble, the Allies created a cityscape that was easy to defend effectively by the German units that emerged from the deep defences within the city. Moreover, the level of destruction impeded movement into the city, slowing progress and reducing the penetration of the Allied forces into Caen on the tail of the German withdrawal across the River Orne.
It comes as no surprise that my Grandfather talked of this night as he would not as yet experienced anything in war even remotely as powerful and dramatic as the destruction of Caen from the air. During the raid, he would have been approximately 6 miles north of the city