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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Caen Offensive

26 to 30 June 1944

Theatre: North West Europe
Location: North West France
Players: Allies: General Miles Dempsey's 2nd Army, comprising 1st Corps and 8th Corps. Axis: General Heinrich Eberbach's Panzer Group West and German divisions including Panzer Lehr, 'Hitler Youth' 12th SS Panzer and 21st Panzer.
Outcome: The Caen Offensive (Operation Epsom) secured a limited British advance west of Caen.

By 13 June 1944, a week after the Normandy landings, Allied forces had established a continuous bridgehead on the Normandy coast, but little more. In particular, the town of Caen near Sword Beach remained in German hands, despite two British attempts to capture it.

Further south, the Normandy bocage - densely wooded farmland, with narrow lanes and high hedges - gave way to open country more suited for tank battles. To reach it, the Allies had to either take or bypass Caen. The pace of the Allied military build-up had quickened after the Mulberry artificial harbours were built in the week after D-Day, then slowed again after Channel storms between 19 and 21 June wrecked the American Mulberry. If momentum was not to be lost completely, a breakout was required.

Controversy lingers around the objectives for Operation Epsom, the British drive southward to the west of Caen. As most observers saw it, the operation misfired badly: 8th Corps' advance was brought to a standstill by bad weather and lack of air support, and finally ground to a halt with heavy casualties.

By contrast, Montgomery maintained that the ground gained was secondary. The objective was not to bypass Caen but to provide a 'hinge' on which the broader Allied advance could turn. Operation Epsom had succeeded to the extent that it had pinned down several German divisions, facilitating an American breakout to the west of the bridgehead. The validity and appropriateness of this strategy remain subject to debate.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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