Armoured Warrior is a work of fiction. It is, however, closely based on the experiences of units of the First Canadian Army in combat with German forces in the northern part of France during late August 1944. These operations have become known as the battle of the Falaise Gap. This was the climax of the campaign that had begun with the Allied invasion of the Normandy beaches on the French coast of the English Channel ten weeks before, on June 6, 1944.
The Normandy Campaign
The Normandy campaign was the first step in the liberation of north-west Europe from occupation by the armed forces of Nazi Germany, which had electrified the world by conquering France and the Low Countries during May and June 1940. Thereafter, the western democracies, Canada prominent among them, had focussed on building up the massive strength necessary to strike back from Britain.
When the moment finally came for the invasion of France, 'D-Day' as June 6, 1944, Canadian forces played a major role. Hundreds of Canadian aircraft and scores of warships protected the vast fleet of troop and supply ships that carried the Allied armies from Britain to the beaches, and blasted the heavy German defences. Of the five Allied army divisions that landed on the beaches, one was the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. It was grouped with two British divisions in the northern sector of the invasion; two American divisions were in the southern sector.
The initial Allied assault on June 6 succeeded in breaking through the coastal defences. Within 24 hours, however, the Germans began to strike back with fierce counterattacks. The Germans concentrated their strongest, tank-equipped ("Panzer") forces against the Canadians and British, who threatened the city of Caen, which is about 15 kilometres inland from the beaches. The rolling hills of the region allowed the Germans to keep their forces out of sight, but with perfect command for their powerful weapons down the slopes, up which the Canadians and British had to advance. The Germans were thus able to create extremely strong defensive lines. The fighting was as bitterly intense as any in the Second World War, indeed in the history of warfare. It was not until July 9 that the Canadians and British was able to take Caen, by which time the city had become a smoking ruin.
Thereafter the fighting became more intense still. Inland from Caen, the terrain becomes hillier. The Germans forces, led by some of the most professional and battle-experienced soldiers in the world, turned each succeeding line of hills and ridges into fortresses of automatic weapons and high-powered artillery, from which the Germans were able to strike out with their heavy tanks, which were superior to the Allied ones.
By the time the Allies began to push inland from Caen, in late July, the whole of the First Canadian Army had come from Britain to reinforce the Allied front. The First Canadian Army's combat formations included the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, in addition to the veteran 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. In August, the Canadians, with Free Polish forces also under Canadian command, mounted two large offensives, Operation "Totalize" and then Operation "Tractable" towards the town of Falaise, about 30 kilometres south-east of Caen. Meanwhile, the US armies had broken out into the French countryside and were sweeping towards Falaise from the west and south.
The Falaise Gap
When the First Canadian Army took Falaise against fierce resistance on 17-18 August, some 100,000 German troops faced encirclement by massive Allied forces. Determined to break out, the bulk of these troops struck east and attempted to cross the Dives River in and around the town of Chambois, south-east of Falaise. This was the Falaise Gap between the Canadian, British and Polish forces coming from the north, and the US armies coming from the south. To assist the German troops trying to break out, the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, which had already escaped from Normandy, struck back to the west into the gap. This German attack effectively surrounded the Polish armoured division that was occupying high ground between Falaise and Chambois. C.P. Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian Army, described the fighting on 18-21 August, as the Germans struggled to keep the gap south-east of Falaise open, and the Allies pushed relentlessly to close it, as the most desperate of the Normandy campaign.
In the end, it was only through sheer weight of numbers that the Allies were able to seal the Gap and capture nearly 40,000 German troops along with thousands of tanks and guns. On August 22, after the fighting had ceased, one observer recalled seeing "hundreds of dead, so close together that they were practically touching" and remembered "a stench so strong as to offend people flying in aircraft far above".
The town of Vimoutiers, some eight kilometers to the east of Chambois, was the strategic objective for elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on the morning of August 20. As the morning wore on, however, the situation facing the Allies at Chambois had become so critical that the Division was ordered to abandon its move upon Vimoutiers and rush to the help of the beleaguered Poles atop Hill 252.
In Armoured Warrior, however, the attack on Vimoutiers is carried through. To heighten the story's action, most of the tanks assigned to capture the town are diverted to Chambois, leaving only a few to press home the attack. This places the reader in the uneasy predicament of having to capture a vital objective with increasingly dwindling resources. If the decisions facing the reader seem somewhat daunting, one can readily imagine the prospects of Canadian tankmen who faced these hardships in actual combat. It is to their memory that this adventure is dedicated.