Finished Milner's book today. Overall, I rate it as a great read and an essential contribution to the Normandy literature. What follows is my analysis of what the book presents.
Milner's prime objective is to carry on with Terry Copp's effort to establish a "new balance sheet" (a play to Stacey's original remark in the Official History). Milner establishes that there is a problem with Stacey's narrative in the official history, which sets a general tone that the Canadians came off "second-best" and that opportunities were missed.
I went back and reviewed chapter 5 and 6 of the Victory Campaign (Vol III of the Official History) and while I found numerous instances where Stacey praised the Canadians and critiqued the Germans, his messaging in chapter 11 is unambiguous; the Canadian Army "did well, but they would certainly have done better had they not been learning the business as they fought" and that "Man for man and unit for unit, it cannot be said that it was by tactical superiority that we won the Battle of Normandy." Stacey puts the blame squarely on unit leadership; "we had probably not got as much out of our long training as we might have....Regimental officers of this type, where they existed, were probably the weakest element in the Army." As a result, "It is not difficult to put one's finger upon occasions in the Normandy campaign when Canadian formations failed to make the most of their opportunities."
The problem with the history of the Canadians in Normandy is that Stacey's narrative, written in 1960, has become the conventional narrative that carries on through the literature. I went through the works of Keegan, D'Este, Hastings, and Hart, who all wrote on the Normandy Campaign from the 80s to 2000, and their coverage of Canada's fight is taken from Stacey (and why not, its the official history after all!). Our own Jack English picks up on Stacey's narrative, but adjusts the aimpoint somewhat to take aim at the generals, calling the Canadian campaign a "less than successful performance."
It is this 50-year narrative that Milner seeks to change and, for at least the first four days of the campaign, he succeeds in doing so. Milner's thesis is that the 3rd Cdn Div's D-Day mission was to occupy positions astride the Bayeux-Caen Road and to "defeat the counterattack," and that it was successful in doing so. Allied planners, in looking at the terrain, considered the Canadian AO as the most advantageous area for a German armoured thrust, and they were right. Milner identifies six significant engagements in the Canadian AO from the period of 6-10 June 1944 that tell the story of this mission.
6 June - Beachhead Battles: Two Canadian brigades conduct a successful amphibious assault against three sites; Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernieres-sur-Mer, and St. Aubin-sur-Mer and destroy the garrison forces (II/736 Inf Regt and 441 Ost Bn of the 716 Inf Div). The conventional account is that the Canadians, and indeed the entire 2nd British Army, failed to achieve its D-Day objectives. Milner is apt to point out, however, that it was 2nd British Army Comd (Dempsey) who imposed the halt due to the nature of the heavy fighting on the beachheads and the fact that a counterattack by Kampfgruppe (KG) Oppeln of the 21st Pzr Div had actually reached the beaches between 3rd Cdn Div and 3rds UK Div, splitting I UK Corps. In light of this, Dempsey's halt seems prudent. For 3rd Cdn Div, D-Day was an unqualified success, and this is something Stacey acknowledges in the official history.
7 June - Buron: The 9 Bde vanguard of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders (NNSH) with the Sherbrooke Fus is cut up at Buron as it tries to get to its objective at Carpiquet. Milner's issue is that Stacey (and hence the conventional wisdom) claims the NNSH were caught off-guard and came out second-best against a similar sized force. Milner argues that subsequent research has shown that the NNSH faced a larger enemy forces than what was normally understood to be present. Against the NNSH in Buron was KG Meyer built around 25 SS PzrGr Regt, KG Rauch of the 21st Pzr Div, and an ersatz Bn of the 716 Div. Milner says despite 3-4:1 odds, and no fire support, the NNSH gave as good as they got before being decimated and thrown out of town. The rallied and counterattacked that night, retaking Buron, but withdrew due to the indefensible nature of the area. Stacey calls this action "clumsy", and English says it was likely an ambush, but these assessments are drawn from Meyer's self-serving bio. In reality, Milner establishes that the NNSH dug in after taking fire from three sides and fought a day-long battle against a superior force, with no fire support (more on that below).
8 June - Putot/Bretteville: With 9 Bde fought to a standstill on the Canadian's eastern flank, the action shifted to 7 Bde on the western flank. The Germans put in two separate attacks this day to clear the Caen-Bayeaux road as a line of departure for a three Pzr Div attack to take the Normandy beaches. The coordination is poor, with Pzr Lehr Div and 12 SS Pzr Div trying to occupy the same ground. In the morning, on the western edge, KG Mohnke (26 SS PzrGr Regt) attacks the Winnipeg Rif at Putot and overwhelms them, getting between their forward position and into the town, cutting them off. The Winnpeg Bn takes heavy losses. A counter-attack in the evening by the Can Scots retakes Putot. The performance of the Winnipeg Rifles is again held up as a sign of poor performance in the conventional histories (why don't we focus on the successful counterattack?). On the same day, Meyer forms a new KG with part of 12 SS Pzr Regt, and attacks the Regina Rifles in Bretteville. The attack is poorly coordinated (the infantry don't show up and the tanks on their own are shot up) and is repulsed. What's more, I/902 PzrGr Regt of Pzr Lehr Div is spotted in depth and wiped out by naval gunfire.
9/10 June - Putot/Norrey: Pzr Lehr Div is pushed west to stop the British south of Bayeaux. 12 SS Pzr Div consolidates infront of 7 Bde and again tries to clear the I SS Pzr Corps line of departure. KG Mohnke (26 SS PzrGr Regt) attacks Putot again, and is repulsed by the CanScots. Meyer organizes another attack by 12 SS Pzr Regt at Norrey, south of Brettville, but it is shot to pieces. He tries once more with a night attack by the Div's pioneer battalion, but it is repulsed.
After this, the Germans realize their counterattack to the beaches will not work, and change their operational approach to contain the expanding beachhead.
Overall, if you look at the record of the six major engagements, you see that the Canadians were successful in four of six. Despite this, it is the two unsuccessful engagements which seem to set the conventional narrative. The strength of Milner's analysis is that he digs into both Canadian and German sources to look at the tactical fight, and combines this with years of visits to walk the ground. It has all the components of great battlefield analysis. The only shortcoming I found with it was that it was overly focussed (on the Canadian side) on the battalion level. There is very little reference to what the Brigade commanders or even the Div Comd is up to.
The defeat of the NNSH at Buron was due to one reason; the complete lack of fire support. There were 2x RCA Regts (14 and 19) and NGS on call. If I look at this engagement from an AAR perspective, I can't help but fault the 9 Bde Comd, Brig Gordon Cunningham (who was later relieved of command following Op SPRING). Inexcusably, 19 RCA was committed to 8 Bde clearing operations in the rear, 14 RCA was offline for a move, and the Naval Gunfire Support could not be raised. I can't see how, tactically, a brigade commander could pitch his vanguard forward into an area with known enemy armoured concentrations (21 Pzr Div had attacked out of Caen the day before) without confirming fire support was available. If Buron was a tactical failure, it wasn't on account of the NNSH.
The defeat of the Winnipeg Rif at Putot seems, from my reading of Milner, to be due to poor tactical siting of the Bn by the CO (LCol Meldram) south of the town, which allowed its companies to be by-passed and cut-off by a superior-size force (26 PzrGr Regt). I deduce this as the cause due to the ability of the Can Scot's to successfully defend the town the next day with much tighter perimeter within Putot. While the 9 Bde may have had a unit poorly positioned, it made up with a bold evening counterattack by the Can Scots to retake the position (something the histories routinely praise the Germans for).
Finally, it is worth comparing these to the German performance. Even Stacey condemns the German counterattacks as clumsy. Milner cites frequent examples of poor coordination and a over complicated series of command relationships that led to piecemeal commitment of German counterattack forces. Multiple attacks by 12 SS Pzr featured poor interarm cooperation, which is likely due to the fact that their training was based more on Nazi ideal than sound tactical principles. It is difficult, when you look at the ledger, to accept the conventional wisdom that the Canadian Army was tactically inferior to the Germans in Normandy, at least for the 6-10 June period.
In the end, the Canadian Army was successful in four of six key engagements in the opening Normandy battles, recovered a fifth with a successful counterattack, and suffered a sixth through poor support to a forward unit. This was all against the elite Wehrmacht formations in France, the three Panzer Divs (21, 12 SS, Pzr Lehr) that made it to the beachheads in the first few days. More importantly, 3rd Cdn Div achieved its Op OVERLORD mission. From 6-10 June, it conducted an amphibious assault, gained lodgment, established itself on the Bayeaux-Caen road (where it was supposed to be), and defeated the primary German counterattack against the beachheads. 9 Bde's defence at Putot-Bretteville-Norrey from 7-10 June prevented the Germans from establishing the I SS Pzr Corps line of departure.
In all, mission success, due to tough fighting and tactical employment that was "good enough" for a formation that was new to battle. This book goes to show that there is still work to do in understanding the Canadian Army's fight in Normandy in 1944.