Skip to content

Legacy of Liberation: Operation Epsom

Operation Epsom is one of the more controversial offensives of the Normandy Campaign. Discover the story of the operation with Commonwealth War Graves.

Operation Epsom

What was Operation Epsom?

Scottish WW2 era infantry advance through long grass and mist during Operation Epsom. The lead soldier is playing the bagpipes.

Image: Men of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders, 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, on the move during Operation Epsom (© IWM (B 6000))

Operation Epsom was a British Second World War offensive fought between 26-30 June 1944.

The fighting took place to the west of Caen in Normandy, north-western France as part of the wider Normandy Campaign.

Over the years, historians have debated Operation Epsom’s effectiveness. The offensive’s objectives and outcomes are not as clear cut as, say, the Normandy Landings, which makes it a fascinating battle to look at.

What were the objectives of Operation Epsom?

Operation Epsom was part of the British attempts to clear the areas around Caen and ultimately capture the city.

According to Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, the British mastermind behind the D-Day plan, Epsom was also designed to create a giant “hinge” around which the wider Allied breakout could manoeuvre.

Why did the Allies launch Operation Epsom?

Caen is one of the most important transport hubs in Normandy. Roads and railways enter and exit the city, commanding the main transportation links throughout the Calvados department.

In the Normandy Campaign, the city was well-defended and German lines around Caen were stiffening as the Allies attempted to push out of the narrow bridgehead they’d established following D-Day.

The Allied momentum and force build-up had started to drag, or so it seemed to some contemporary observers and post-war chroniclers.

One of the floating mulberry harbours had been damaged after a great storm battered the Normandy beaches, which limited force build-up.

Additionally, German V-1 cruise missiles were starting to hit London. Pressure from civilian and military leaders to bring Normandy to a close was beginning to mount.

By cracking Caen, the Allied advance could get into more open countryside, at least this was the thinking behind attacks like Operation Epsom.

Who fought at Operation Epsom?

A Churchill Tank advances through woods while supported by Scottish infantry.

Image: A Churchill tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment pushes on alongside men of the 8th Royal Scots Infantry (© IWM (B 6124))

Operation Epsom was fought between the British Army and the German Wehrmacht. 

For Epsom, around 60,000 men and 600 tanks plus supporting guns were drawn from Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey’s Second Army, specifically General Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps:

They were supported by elements of the 31st Independent Tank Brigade, 4th Armoured Brigade and 79th Armoured Division.

The 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division had served mainly on home guard duties for most of the Second World War. The Battle of Normandy would prove its baptism of fire.

In their way lay the men and machines of Heersgruppe B. The German forces had actually been preparing for a counterattack aimed near Bayeux but found themselves fighting at Caen as the battle evolved.

No fewer than six tank-heavy Panzer divisions had been assembled by the German Army. Amongst their number were elements of the fearsome Panzer-Lehr-Division and the 12 SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. 

It’s a bit of an urban myth that all the units the Allies faced in Normandy were “elite” troops. But in the case of the 12th SS Panzer, they were amongst the most well-equipped and motivated German troops in Normandy at that time.

Operation Martlet

Operation Martlet preceded Operation Epsom. 

Martlet formed part of the effort to take Caen. The operation was devised to protect VIII Corps’ right flank as it progressed during Epsom. 

Another benefit to Martlet would be the capture of the high ground at Rauray, which gave German observers perched atop panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. 

Martlet was launched the day before Epsom on 25 June 1944 with forces assembled from the 49th (West Riding) Division of the British Army’s XXX Corps.

For five days, the fighting raged to the east of the Epsom start line. Ultimately, the operation succeeded in tying up German forces, especially tanks, and keeping them away from the Epsom battle zone.

A ferocious German counterattack hit the Martlet positions on 1 July but only resulted in more German armour and infantry getting chewed up.

Operation Epsom begins

Scottish Infantry walking through shoulder-high cornfields in Normandy during Operation Epsom. A line of Churchill tanks is visible on the horizon.

Image: The 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division advances with Churchill Tanks of 7th Royal Tank Regiment (© IWM (B 6119))

Despite the positions at Rauray staying in German hands, significant Wehrmacht forces were drawn away from Epsom’s target areas.

Unfortunately for the British, the weather was starting to turn. Unseasonal rain fell on Normandy. For the first time since the D-Day landings, the Allies would not be able to bring their air supremacy to bear. Epsom infantry and tanks would be without air support.

Fighting was fierce during the day. Villages and towns were captured, lost, and won again as the Germans threw everything they could in VIII Corps’ path. 

The Wehrmacht had been hard at work. From hidden strongpoints, defensive positions, and the buildings of the towns they were fighting for, machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire scythed into the advancing British.

By the end of 26 June, the British forces, including the fresh soldiers of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division, had punched a thin two-mile salient in German lines.

In the face of the poor weather and a determined defence, momentum was with the British. The high points at Rauray were finally captured by the 29th Division, removing the German’s panoramic battlefield view.

The thin salient the British had established was called “Scottish Corridor” in honour of the Scottish soldiers in the vanguard.

As the sun set on another tough day of fighting in Normandy, VIII Corps was in position to begin its attack on Hill 112: the next piece in the Epsom puzzle.

Hill 112

The “hill” at Hill 112 might be a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, it’s a low ridge that runs between the Odon and Orne Rivers, instead of a major massif like Italy’s Monte Cassino.

In times of war, even the smallest elevation can prove strategically vital and so proved Hill 112.

At the time of Operation Epsom, Hill 112 was a formidable, heavily defended obstacle commanding views of VIII Corps’ advance. 

Showing its importance, German commander SS-Obergruppenfűhrer Paul Hausser remarked “He who holds Hill 112, holds Normandy”.

Meanwhile, two more panzer divisions were beginning to arrive at the front, giving more impetus for the Allied attack.

Hill 112 was defended by dug-in panzergrenadiers, artillery emplacements, tanks, and machine-gun posts.

11th Armoured spearheaded the assault on Hill 112 on June 28. It encountered spirited resistance and, after serious losses, including 40 Sherman tanks, they were able to drive the SS from the summit.

Now Hill 112 became the target for every available German gun in the region as well as fierce counterattacks. The 7th Rifle Brigade was forced to withdraw to the north slope, surrounded on three sides, after being pounded by German artillery.

Around this time, Montgomery and Dempsey received intelligence that the II SS Panzer Korps was on its way to Normandy. Its target? VIII Corps.

A massive German counterattack was on its way.

 The Wehrmacht counterattacks

A destroyed 17 pounder anti-tank gun lies on the roadside in Normandy during Operation Epsom.

Image: A knocked-out 17-pdr anti-tank gun shows the ferocity of the Epsom fighting (© IWM (B 7439)

The Battle for Hill 112 continued to rage on 29 June.

The ridge was alive with artillery and tank fire. Fighting across the high ground intensified throughout the day with battery fire pummelling the countryside in a scene comparable to that of the Great War’s titanic barrages.

By midday, British intelligence was convinced of the impending attack by II SS Panzer Corps. Once again, momentum shifted.

Montgomery and O’Connor decided to put the British on the defensive. 

Across the salient, German forces launched infantry and armour attacks on the British positions. 

In the face of fresh troops and determined attacks, the British held their ground. The 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions struggled to dislodge VIII Corp’s troops who were able to turn to the Normandy countryside to their advantage.

The skies were also clearing which meant one thing: the return of Allied air superiority. Each time the German armour formed for an assault they were pounced on by Allied aircraft. 

By the day’s end, the British had stopped dead II SS Panzer Corps’ main counterattack, although, on the ground, other Wehrmacht assaults were anticipated. O’Connor kept his men on the defensive throughout the night.

More British armour was deployed to the Scottish Corridor on the night of 29-30 June. By Midday, the Germans, after a series of smaller attacks and probes, had driven the British from Hill 112 and its neighbouring Hill 113.

The battle once again dissolved into an artillery slugging match. Any movement from VIII Corps was picked up by German observers on the high ground, making them choice targets for the Wehrmacht’s artillery.

The Royal Artillery responded firing 38,000 shells in response.

Still not knowing they had endured the worst of the German counterattacks, VIII Corps remained on the defence. Scottish Corridor still held but was not expanding.

With no advance, and still unsure of the German’s true strength, General Dempsey called off the action, ending Operation Epsom.

Was Operation Epsom a success?

Two British soldiers inspect a knocked out Tiger Tank during Operation Epsom.

Image: Two soldiers of the Durham Light Infantry inspect a knocked-out Tiger tank (© IWM (B 6140)

On the ground, Operation Epsom had failed to achieve its main objective of encircling and capturing Caen.

VIII Corps had not crossed the river Orne or made it past Hill 112. The southern approaches to Caen remained in German hands.

So, what’s the verdict? Historians differ in their assessments of Epsom.

One school of thought from critics like American historian Carlo D’Este say Epsom was a “dismal failure”. It had cost the British, particularly the 15th (Scottish) Division dearly for minimal ground and Caen still in German hands.

Others are keen to point out the wider implications Epsom had for the Normandy campaign.

Historian John Buckley in his book Monty’s Men: The British Army and the Liberation of Europe, suggests that while Epsom failed to capture Caen, it was an overall strategic victory for the British.

The SS Panzer Divisions at Epsom had been deployed to the battle piecemeal and extensively worn down. Significant numbers of German infantry had been killed too.

The Wehrmacht had originally been planning to drive an armoured wedge between the Commonwealth and American forces in Normandy too. Epsom stopped that possibility.

Nonetheless, the German High Command realised that post-Epsom any opportunity to drive the Allies back into the sea had been lost. 

In a conversation between German Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel and General Gerd von Rundstedt on July 1, von Rundstedt said, “Make peace you fools!”, summing up the attitude of Germany’s military leaders in Western Europe. 

The tanks, men and equipment lost by the German Army in response to offensives like Epsom could not be replaced. 

Casualties of Operation Epsom

Operation Epsom resulted in nearly 5,000 casualties for the British. 150 or so tanks were also knocked out or destroyed.

The bulk of the casualties sustained were from the fresh troops of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division.

The Scots suffered around 2,700 casualties with 300 killed. 

In the 11th Armoured and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions, casualties were as high as 1,250 men. Over 250 lost their lives.

The Wehrmacht sustained some 3,000 casualties between 26 June – 1 July 1944 in the Epsom combat zone.

While the British took higher losses, men, machinery and materiel could be more easily replaced. The Wehrmacht and the entire German military were simply running out of manpower, equipment, and time.

Lance Corporal Roland Edward Wheway

Roland WhewayImage: Lance Corporal Roland Edward Wheway as seen in the Manchester Evening Times

Roland Edward Wheway was born on 16 April 1909 in Manchester, England.

The son of postman William Wheway, Roland was a postie himself in his pre-war life. He was married to Alice, a shorthand typist, but the couple had no children.

Roland was called up like millions of other young British men and joined the Royal Armoured Corps.

Following training, he was posted to 23rd Hussars, seeing home service before the unit headed for France.

The 23rd Hussars and their Sherman tanks arrived in Normandy on June 15 1944. After assembling around Coulombs, the unit moved to the front on 26 June as Operation Epsom kicked off.

On the 27 June, the 23rd Hussars went forward. “A” Squadron clashed with 88mm guns near the village of Chaex. “B” and “C” Squadrons advanced alongside the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division.

After twelve hours of battle, the 23rd Hussars managed to cross the River Odon. They had been fighting for 12 hours.

The tankers had been battered. Many of the 23rd Hussars’ tanks had been hit and disabled. The unit had lost two of its officers and 16 men other ranks had been killed too.

Amongst the dead was Lance Corporal Roland Wheway. He was 35 when he was killed in action on 27 June 1944.

On 18 July 1944, the following In Memoriam notices were published in the Manchester Evening News. They speak of a family’s grief at the loss of their loved one:

WHEWAY – Treasured memories of my darling husband, ROLAND EDWARD (L. Cpl, R.A.C.) killed in action, in June 1944, and his two pals DICKIE and SACCO. God will tell me why one day, Roland. His heartbroken Wife ALICE. 61, Stansfield Rd., Failwsworth. A sorrow too deep for words. Motter. Father-in-law & Chas (H.M.F.) and Elsie. 

WHEWAY – In loving memory of our dear son and brother, ROLAND (R.A.C.) and his Pals, killed in action, in June 1944. No star can dim the memories of our love. Loving MAM and DAD May we be worthy of his sacrifice. Loving sisters OLIVE and EMILY, in-laws ARHTUR and FRED. Good night Uncle Ro. DEREK. 34, Leng Rd. Newton Heath.

Commemorating the fallen of Operation Epsom

Operation Epsom and casualties from the wider Battle of Normandy are commemorated in perpetuity on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Several of our constructed sites in Normandy hold burials from Operation Epsom.

They are painstakingly maintained and cared for by Commonwealth War Graves teams in France, keeping the final resting place of these men in beautiful condition.

Here are a few of the sites that hold burials from the Epsom battles.

St. Manvieu War Cemetery

St. Manvieu War Cemetery

St. Manvieu War Cemetery holds just over 1,600 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.

Those buried here died for the most part in the fluctuating battles in Normandy between mid-June to the end of July 1944.

685 of the Commonwealth burials at St. Manvieu date from the period of the Battle of Epsom.

As well as Commonwealth soldiers, some 555 German servicemen are buried at St. Manvieu.

Bayeux War Cemetery

Bayeux War Cemetery

Bayeux War Cemetery is one of the focal points for the commemoration of the Normandy campaign’s Commonwealth war dead. 

Over 4,500 graves of the Second World War can be found in Bayeux War Cemetery, making it the largest CWGC WW2 cemetery in France. Around 270 of these casualty’s date from Operation Epsom.

The Bayeux Memorial lies a stone’s throw from the cemetery stands, commemorating fallen officers and enlisted men with no known war grave.

1,800 servicemen are commemorated by name on the memorial. 175 of these are casualties from Operation Epsom.

Hottots-Les-Bagues War Cemetery

Hottots-Les-Bagues War Cemetery

Just over 1,000 Commonwealth burials and 130 German war graves can be found in Hottots-Les-Bagues War Cemetery.

Casualties were brought into Hottos-Les-Bagues from the battlefields surrounding the village, which lies some 14 kilometres southeast of Bayeux.

Like St. Manvieu, the casualties buried in this war cemetery fell during the fighting in and around Caen from late June to mid-July 1944. Around 120 stem from the Epsom battles.

Experience the Legacy of Liberation with Commonwealth War Graves        

This year sees the 80th anniversary of some of the Second World Wars most pivotal battles and moments.

Commonwealth War Graves is marking these world-changing events with The Legacy of Liberation.

Discover the histories behind the battles, take virtual tours of our war cemeteries, and much more.

Experience the Legacy of Liberation today.

Tags LEgacy of Liberation Normandy