Book Review: “Seven Days in Hell,” by David O’Keefe
Published by Harper Collins, 442 pp. $34.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Sometime in the year 1028, in the medieval Norman town of Falaise, a baby boy was born to Duke Robert I and his mistress Helvela. As a consequence of his illegitimacy, as he grew to manhood for much of his life he would be known as William the Bastard. But for centuries after his death in 1087, he would be forever remembered by history as William the Conqueror, leader of the 1066 Norman invasion of England that would dramatically change the fate of the island nation.
William was crowned King of the English on Christmas Day 1066, and would subsequently spend the rest of his life trying to assert control over his new dominion. He died at age 59 while leading a campaign in northern France, and was laid to rest in the town of Caen, located a little more than twenty miles from his place of birth. No one could have possibly envisioned it at the time, but nearly 900 years after William’s army vanquished the Saxons at Hastings, Caen and Falaise would serve as the bookends of another epic battle that would be fought at an enormous cost in Canadian soldiers’ lives.
Fast forward to the summer of 1944. Eisenhower’s gamble on June 6 had paid off, the greatest seaborne invasion in history had succeeded, and the Allies had managed to establish a secure foothold on the European continent. But a few weeks after D-Day, determined resistance by the Germans had prevented the rapid progress inland that had been hoped for after the invasion. In Seven Days in Hell, historian and former soldier David O’Keefe tells the story of a little known operation that was initially intended to help achieve a breakthrough, but ended with tragic results for the Canadian fighting men involved.
The battle plan for the Normandy invasion had originally called for the British to capture Caen, located ten miles from the Channel coast, on the first day the troops waded ashore. As things subsequently turned out, this did not happen until a month after D-Day, when British forces captured the northern part of the city. The II Canadian Corps, under the command of 1596 Guy Simonds, was then given the task of crossing the Orne River to liberate the southern part of Caen. Once that objective had been accomplished, their next mission would be to assault a heavily defended German position at Verrieres Ridge, a short distance south of Caen. This was intended to help open the route to Falaise, which the Allies could then use as a staging point to mount further attacks deeper into France.
Figuring prominently in these plans was Montreal’s Royal Highland Regiment of Canada – the storied Black Watch – which at the time was part of the 5th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Division. The Black Watch traced its roots to 1862, when it began life as the 5th Battalion, Volunteer Rifles of Canada. The soldiers who trudged into battle in the summer of 1944 carried the weight not only of their weapons and equipment, but also that of a distinguished regimental tradition of achievement they knew they were expected to live up to. During the Great War 25 years earlier, members of the Black Watch had earned over 800 decorations for valour, including six Victoria Crosses.
The regiment itself was microcosm of its hometown of Montreal in that era. The men in the ranks were progenies of the city’s working class, hailing from hardscrabble neighborhoods like Pointe Sainte Charles, Verdun, and Griffintown. During the Great Depression many had been forced to quit school to help support their families, but what they may have lacked in formal education they more than made up for in grit and street smarts picked up though surviving in downtown Montreal during the Dirty Thirties. Most had enlisted not to realize dreams of marital glory, but rather attracted by the lure of three meals a day, a regular if admittedly modest paycheck, and the chance to escape the mind-numbing boredom of the menial civilian jobs so many of them subsisted on.
Their officers were drawn from the opposite end of the social scale. Virtually all were members of Montreal’s business and professional classes, gentlemen for whom a commission in a fashionable militia regiment was a trapping of success every bit as essential as membership in one the city’s luxurious private clubs. Many Black Watch officers were products of leading Quebec independent schools like Bishop’s College and Selwyn House; several had also attended university at McGill.
Leading them all was an Ex-Cadet, 1834 Stuart Cantlie, CO of the regiment. The scion of a prominent Montreal family, Cantlie has graduated from RMC in1929 as Senior Under Officer (a term used in lieu of Battalion Sergeant Major from 1924 to 1933). Cantlie’s classmates at the College included such future luminaries as 1828 Brigadier Ted Beament, who served on the Canadian General Staff during the war, and 1865 Colonel Maxwell Meighen, the son of the Prime Minister, who following his wartime service became a prominent Canadian financier.
By 1944, Cantlie was a Lieutenant Colonel with fifteen years of service to the Black Watch under his belt. A firm disciplinarian and an inspiring leader, he was known for advocating rigorous training, something his soldiers might not have always have enjoyed at the time, but in their later years would be forever thankful for. Sadly, Cantlie would not be destined to survive the mission. He was mortally wounded one July morning when a German mortar round found its mark, and died at age 36 very shortly thereafter.
The capture of Verrieres Ridge was intended to be accomplished in two successive operations. The first was Operation Atlantic, to commence late in the afternoon of July 18, in which the Black Watch were tasked to cross the Orne River and secure the village of Ifs, located south of Caen. Traversing the river would require them to make the trip in flimsy canvas assault boats powered by notoriously temperamental outboard engines. It was hoped that German resistance would be light, and that the Black Watch would be able to quickly secure the opposite bank of the river so as to allow engineers to build the Bailey bridges that would enable supporting units to cross.
When the fateful day came, things did not get off to a good start. H-Hour was delayed, with the result that it was late evening before the Black Watch were on their way. To add to their troubles, the German defenders put up a much more vigorous resistance than had been originally anticipated. After several chaotic hours accompanied by numerous casualties, the crossing was finally accomplished by the early morning of July 19. Several more days of continued fighting followed as the Canadians attempted to consolidate their position and prepare for the assault on Verrieres Ridge itself.
The main event, Operation Spring, kicked off on the morning of July 25. The plan called for four tightly timed attacks to be made, involving respectively the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Calgary Highlanders, and the Black Watch. In the case of the latter, their mission was to assemble in the nearby village of St. Martin, and at 05:30, with armour and artillery support, begin their advance up the ridge.
As had been the case with Operation Atlantic, the mission got off to a bad start, and once matters began to unravel, the situation quickly deteriorated. Due to heavy fighting in St. Martin the Black Watch were over two hours late arriving in their designated assembly area; this caused them to forfeit any advantage that might have been gained by launching their assault during the early morning darkness. To compound the problem, the advance up Verrieres Ridge required the men to wade through a dense field of chest-high wheat, something which slowed their progress and made it difficult to maintain visual contact.
Adding to their woes, wireless communication was knocked out early on, and the much hoped-for armour and artillery support failed to materialize. Worst of all, the heavily armed German defenders were absolutely merciless in their counterattack, raining down a murderous curtain of heavy weapons and small arms fire upon the hapless Canadians.
The end was a debacle of the most gruesome kind. The same regiment that had fought so heroically at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Amiens, Canal du Nord, and numerous other Great War actions failed to reach a single one of its objectives at Verrieres Ridge. Even more tragic was the human cost of the fiasco. Out of the more than 300 Black Watch soldiers that crossed the start line that fateful morning, just 15 made it back safely to Canadian lines, all the others being killed, wounded, captured, or missing. It was the worst catastrophe in Canadian military annals since the ill-fated raid in Dieppe two years earlier.
The obvious question arises, who should bear ultimate responsibility for this disaster ? It is an issue that armchair critics might endlessly debate, but the events related in Seven Days in Hell strongly suggest that in the final analysis, blame for the failure should be laid at the doorstep of Guy Simonds, the Canadian II Corps commander, and the principal architect of the operation. A gunner by trade, Simonds had been born in England in 1903 to a prominent military family. Winner of the Sword of Honour when he graduated from RMC in 1925, he soldiered in relative obscurity for the next fifteen years in Canada’s tiny, booze-ridden Permanent Force, and had attained the rank of Major by the time the Second World War erupted.
Over the next few years Simonds made a meteoric ascent up the ranks, and by early 1944 he was the youngest corps commander in the British Empire. His cold and aloof demeanor earned him little affection from the troops, but he was nonetheless widely respected for his professional knowledge and obvious warfighting abilities. He was also believed to be the only Canadian General who was every successful in winning the full confidence of British commander Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who once described him as being the “only General fit to hold high command in war”.
In reading O’Keefe’s description of Simonds, a portrait emerges of a brilliant but vainglorious commander who brooked no opposition to his ideas, and who was absolutely ruthless about removing subordinate leaders who did not measure up to his expectations or who, in some cases, were men he simply did not like. A case in point was his tense relationship with his immediate subordinate and longstanding rival Major General Charles Foulkes, Commander of the 2nd Canadian Division. After the failure of Operation Spring Simonds was intent on relieving Foulkes, who he alleged was “lacking the right qualities to command”. Foulkes’ skin was saved only by the direct intervention of 749 General Harry Crerar, who had entered RMC in the bottom third of the Recruit Class of 1906, and who by 1944 was Commander of the First Canadian Army, and reportedly no fan of Simonds.
According to Seven Days in Hell, in planning the assault on Verrieres Ridge Simonds appears to have banked heavily on the expectation that the Allies’ superior firepower would be sufficient to carry the day. By that point in the war, it was common knowledge that the Wehrmacht had been bled white by the disastrous campaign in Russia, and was running desperately short of both manpower and critical resources. O’Keefe notes that the plan that Simonds eventually developed was complicated to implement and fraught with risk, and these factors undoubtedly contributed to its eventual failure.
As events would subsequently show, while the men of the Black Watch certainly did not lack for discipline and regimental spirit, what they did lack was real-life combat experience, and this was something no amount of training could ever expect to fully compensate for. Apart from three platoons that had participated in the Dieppe raid, most of the soldiers had never seen actual combat until their arrival in France in early July, less than three weeks before the attack on Verrieres Ridge. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, this was a limitation that Simonds should probably have recognized, and taken into account in his planning. The fact that he apparently failed to do so may well have sent many a good man to an early death.
Seven Days in Hell judges Simonds harshly. According to the book, in the aftermath of Operation Spring, Simonds steadfastly refused to take any responsibility for the failure of his plan. Instead, he resorted to a variety of highly questionable tactics to lay the blame elsewhere, and presumably protect his own reputation. He maintained that a significant contributing factor to the fiasco was “eleventh hour” reinforcements of the German lines; in fact, intelligence reports declassified after his death showed that Simonds was well aware of the strengthening of the German defences, but ordered the attack to proceed anyway.
Likewise, Simonds also suggested the disaster was partially attributable to poor tactical leadership on the part of the Black Watch senior officers, knowing full well that none of them were alive to defend themselves against these allegations. O’Keefe is stinging in his criticism of Simonds’s actions, characterizing them as being “inexcusable” and “an egregious act of cowardice and disloyalty to his subordinates”.
Notwithstanding the mission impossible they had been handed, to the credit of both their regiment and themselves the men of the Black Watch played the cards they had been dealt, and acquitted themselves heroically at Verrieres Ridge. After the bloodbath, the regiment would rebuild, and would fight with distinction in numerous actions throughout Northwest Europe and Germany for the rest of the war. In the early 1950’s, as part of the massive buildup of Canada’s armed forces that took place during the Cold War era, two regular battalions were authorized, and would serve for the next twenty years, until being reduced to nil strength in 1970. Since that time, the Black Watch has soldiered on as a unit of the Primary Reserve, headquartered in the same armoury it has occupied on Montreal’s Bleury Street since 1906.
After the war, like citizen soldiers from time immemorial, the men of the Black Watch returned home to make their way back into civilian life. Some made the transition relatively smoothly, and would go on to enjoy long and happy lives. Others, sadly, would be condemned to spending years battling the invisible demons they carried home with them like monkeys on their backs. But regardless of whatever may have happened in their lives after they took off their kilts for the last time, all the Black Watch veterans who were lucky enough to survive could at least take some small consolation from the knowledge that in the hellish crucible of Verrieres Ridge they had proven themselves to be true men of honour; indomitable warriors who stood ready to defend the name and reputation of their regiment, no matter how great the price; and without the shred of any doubt, eminently worthy successors to those who had gone before them.
As for Guy Simonds, he emerged from Operation Spring alive and in one piece, and made out pretty well in his life thereafter. Unlike many who had served under his command in the Black Watch, Simonds was lucky enough to survive the war with nary a scratch. His military career continued to prosper, and in 1951 he was elevated to the post of Chief of the General Staff of the Canadian Army, a position he would hold until his retirement four years later. Subsequently, he settled in Toronto, and pursued a second career in the private sector.
In 1970, Simonds was invested as a Companion of the Order of Canada for “a lifetime of military service to Canada”. He died of lung cancer in the early summer of 1974, two months shy of the 30th anniversary of Operation Spring. I was present at the ceremony in 2016 when his name was placed on the Wall of Honour at RMC.
As a Montreal boy who came from the same neighborhood as many of the men O’Keefe writes about, Seven Days in Hell is a book I wish I had been able to read before I attended RMC. After I left the College in 1977 I actually thought about joining the Black Watch, and in many ways this book now makes me wish I had followed through. Much as the Bayeaux Tapestry preserves for all time the drama of the Battle of Hastings, Seven Days in Hell provides readers with a front row seat from which to view in vivid detail the horrific realities and individual heroism of infantry combat in the Second World War.
The legendary Red Hackle symbolizes the sense fighting spirit and devotion to duty that define the identity of the Black Watch; as Seven Days in Hell shows, it was men like Stuart Cantlie and those who served under him that brought these qualities to life. This is a book that is an absolute must-read for any Ex-Cadet, the story of a now long-forgotten battle that represents one of the most tragic, but also most proud, days in the military history of Canada.