Life

HISTORY: Black day for Black Watch

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

CANADA AT WAR/SUBMITTED
A member of a Canadian patrol moves through May-sur-Orne during the Verrières Ridge battle.

CANADA AT WAR/SUBMITTED A member of a Canadian patrol moves through May-sur-Orne during the Verrières Ridge battle.

He was only 24.

Four years before, he'd been a sailor on the Great Lakes. Not an unusual job for a young man who'd grown up in Collingwood, on Georgian Bay. It was just one of the booming little harbour towns on the Great Lakes.

His parents, Andrew and Ethel McCort, had moved to Collingwood just before Robert John was born in 1919. Andrew had been born and raised in neighbouring Collingwood Township, at Heathcote. He met Ethel, a native of Listowel. They were married in Collingwood and lived there for decades on Hurontario Street. Robert had grown up in Collingwood.

While he was in Montreal on shore leave from his ship, Lance Cpl. Robert John McCort enlisted with the Royal Highland Regiment, also known as the Black Watch Regiment.

That was in May 1940. Now, he was in Northern France. He'd already survived a series of battles when he found himself, on July 25, 1944, moving through the pre-dawn darkness as the Black Watch Regiment advanced to the forward assembly area at Saint-Martin in northern France. It was 3:30 a.m.

They were somewhat surprised to find German soldiers still present in the village when they arrived just before 5 a.m. and they had to clear it before continuing to their next position. German machine-gun fire mortally wounded the commanding officer, Lt.-Col. S.S.T. Cantlie, and at the same time took out the senior company commander, leaving a major, Phil Griffin, to take over. Normally, a major would be in charge of a company of around 150 men; now a major was now taking command of a battalion that, at full strength, would be around 800 men.

The battalion was now behind schedule to reach the place where it was to begin its assault, from May-sur-Orne. Time for the attack was pushed back.

The Calgary Highlanders were the neighbouring unit that would take part in the attack and Griffin sent a patrol to make contact. His radio had been destroyed along with the Jeep that was carrying it. While searching for the tank unit, the patrol came under fire by a machine gun, which they reported when they returned, leaving the major under the impression the town of May was not strongly held -- a single machine gun could be taken out by a patrol.

Griffin had no idea he was marching his men into a place held by German veterans with years of experience fighting on the Eastern Front.

He secured his men in a position that was, according to briefings, safe. But it was clearly well-targeted by German mortar fire and, even before advancing into battle, he was taking casualties at a site called "the factory."

One of the battalion's companies had suffered so many casualties, it was under the command of a sergeant, who would normally be leading a section in a platoon. There are three or four sections to a platoon, three to six platoons to a company and three to six companies to a battalion. The Black Watch was slowly being decimated, with men leading units two levels above their training.

They were to cross an open field by a ridge, which was one of the mission's key objectives and gave its name to the battle -- the Battle of Verrières Ridge. As soon as they started out, "they came under intense and accurate fire from the ridge, from May, and from positions beyond the Orne (River): and men fell fast. The Black Watch nevertheless advanced with unwavering determination," the official army history records.

Survivors say Griffin led about 60 men to the top of the ridge. Just beyond the crest, the defenders, members of the 1st and 12th S.S. Divisions, equipped with tanks in camouflaged and dug-in positions, counter-attacked.

Griffin's 60-or-so men were now pinned down by intense, close-range fire. With the battalion depleted beyond any ability to maintain an offence, the major ordered his men to make their way back "as best they could."

The few surviving officers believe about 300 officers and men started out the attack and "not more than 15 got back to our lines. The last survivors at (the ridge) were probably overwhelmed early in the afternoon. When we later re-occupied the position, Major Griffin's body was found lying among those of his men."

McCort and his fellow members of the Royal Highland Regiment were given an almost impossible task: attacking a well-defended piece of high ground with inferior numbers. Along the ridge were veteran troops including the 272nd Infantry Division with about 1,200 men, battle groups of the 2nd and 9th S.S. Panzer divisions and, in support nearby, the 1st S.S. Panzer Division, the 10th S.S. Panzer Division and the 116th S.S. Panzer Division.

The positions had been prepared in advance, with the tanks able to move from one dug-in position to another.

The Canadian general, Guy Simonds, was a favourite of Allied Commander Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery had looked to Simonds to pull off a miracle. At the same time as the Canadians were attacking Verrières Ridge, the Americans to the west were breaking out. It was the job of the Canadian and British men to draw as much German armour and troops as possible away from the American break-out. While they were successful, it came at a cost.

McCort is buried at the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery about 16 kilometres south of Caen, on the main road between Caen and Falaise.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.