August 19, 1944. American soldiers of the 90th Infantry Division make contact with the 1st Polish Armored Division near the French village of Falaise. Their connection completes the encirclement of almost 200,000 very angry Nazis - an entire German army. After two months of some of the bitterest fighting in history, the Normandy Campaign is reaching its dramatic and victorious conclusion.
I’ve tracked the Normandy Campaign pretty well ever since June 6, with I think at least three (four?) posts about the surprisingly long and bitter struggle to liberate France. I’ll offer a brief overview today since I’ve covered most of the major events in detail in the past.
After the successful Allied invasion of June 6 – D-Day – the American, British, and Canadian forces had fought a grinding campaign to slowly push the Germans out of Normandy. The struggle was made easier by Allied air supremacy and firepower, but was made much more difficult due to the poor supply situation, the extremely dense and difficult terrain in Normandy, and the ferocity of the German defense. Despite these factors, by mid-July the Allies had gained a large enough foothold in Normandy to launch their breakout.
All the best tank country was in the British sector of the battlefield – the eastern flank, commanded by General Bernard Montgomery. Unfortunately for the poor Brits, most of the elite German panzer divisions were concentrated in this area, and every attempt to break out from the slow stalemate ran into this brick wall of Tiger tanks and heavy Flak guns. With Montgomery failing to launch the big attack that could turn the Normandy Campaign from a war of positions into a war of movement, it fell to the Americans on the western flank under General Omar Bradley to punch a hole.
Bradley did so in Operation Cobra on July 25, 1944, plastering a whole section of the German lines with strategic bombers and then cramming armored divisions through the new hole. After a slow start, the attack picked up, and by August 1 four American tank divisions were pouring out into the open country of central France. There was only one man in the Allied command for the job at hand, and on August 1 General Eisenhower appointed General George S. Patton to command the new Third Army. His task was to raise a hell of a lot of trouble for the Germans, and he had both the mindset and the tools for the job.
And now we are caught up. The final phase of the Normandy Campaign would not just involve defeating the Germans. Instead, the Allies wanted to DESTROY the German army in Normandy, wipe it off the map so that nothing would be left standing between them and the industrial centers of the Rhineland. If the Allies wiped out the German Army Group B in Normandy…they could win the war in a matter of weeks. They didn’t, of course, and that’s why these next weeks are so interesting. The following 19 days would be some of the most controversial in the history of World War II, provoking a debate that is still not settled to this day.
When Patton broke out into the open country of France, General Omar Bradley stepped up to take command of the 12th Army Group, which made him Patton’s immediate boss and the link between Patton and Eisenhower. Bradley’s main concern in August 1944 was destroying the Germans, true, but he was concerned about his supply situation. The Germans had thoroughly wrecked every port facility in Normandy before the Allies could take them, and two months after D-Day the huge Allied armies were still dragging in supplies over the Overlord beaches. This meant that the supply situation was alarmingly tight, and there had even been hard limits on the use of ammunition during certain weeks in the Normandy Campaign. Until the supply bottleneck was resolved (spoiler: it wouldn’t be resolved until NOVEMBER), the Allies would be at less than full fighting trim, especially for critical things like fuel or ammo.
Patton’s Third Army faced a choice when it began to roll out into northern France. It could turn east and drive on Paris – the “big solution.” This was a risky move, but one that stood a good chance of bagging literally the entire German Army: high risk, high reward. Patton could turn east then northeast, linking up with the British to close a big noose around the German forces still facing the Allies in Normandy – the “small solution” which would still do a great amount of damage to the German forces. Or it could turn west to take the much-needed ports of Brittany, that big landmass that juts out on the west coast of France. The Breton ports offered a long-term solution to the supply situation, but at the cost of maybe letting the Germans escape. The “supply solution” had been part of the original Operation Overlord plan, since it placed a heavy emphasis on the need for supply and naval bases.
Omar Bradley was many excellent things, but he was not a creative thinker. The Overlord plan made sense, his armies needed supplies, and the Germans could probably wait. They certainly weren’t going anywhere. So Bradley directed Patton’s armored divisions west into Brittany, leaving minimal forces to push east into the German rear. Patton himself believed that in the “big solution,” but he obeyed orders, just happy to be back in charge again after his disgrace following the “slapping incident” in Sicily. Patton might have said that he was just happy to be here.
Patton’s forces scattered, most of his units driving west into Brittany, others pushing south to the Loire River, and a thin force advancing east to try and get behind the German Army. Of course, the German Army wasn’t going anywhere. Hitler had ordered his commander in France – Field Marshal Gunther Von Kluge – to plan an attack. Von Kluge recognized the danger he was in and wanted to withdraw behind Paris, but Hitler instead believed the Germans could attack west and cut off Patton’s Third Army from the rest of the Allied forces. On the map it looked like an excellent idea. In reality, though, the Germans were going in the wrong direction. By placing most of the panzer forces in the western tip of what was rapidly becoming a sack, the Germans were just putting themselves *deeper* into the pit. The Nazis were digging their own grave deeper.
The Germans exploded westward on August 7 in what has become known as the Battle of Mortain. Attacking by night, the initial wave of panzer units smashed into the 30th Infantry Division – National Guardsmen from the Carolinas. The 30th’s troopers were pushed onto a series of hills, where they held out until daylight even as the German tanks swarmed the lowland around them.
Daylight, though, was as deadly for the Germans as it is for vampires, since daylight brought Allied combat air patrols. Swarms of American P-47 Thunderbolts and British Typhoons with rockets swarmed down on the Panthers and assault guns that had hung up on the 30th’s defensive positions. Even worse for the Germans, Patton had kept a handful of tanks hanging back for just such an event, and the 2nd Armored’s Shermans joined in the attack the next day. The Germans struggled to push forward for almost a week, but they could make no headway against determined G.I. resistance and the swarms of Allied aircraft. The Battle of Mortain had the Germans caught by the nose.
As the Germans were caught by the nose, Patton was coming up behind them. On August 4, Bradley had changed his mind, ordering Patton to leave some of his forces to close in on the Brittany ports while he diverted the rest east. Patton was all for it, but sadly, this was easier said than done. The critical few days his forces had been racing west had cost him valuable time, and now he had to pull his forces back over almost 90 miles of terrain – just to keep them going east. The Third Army had advanced so far into Brittany that it made it that much harder to turn around and come back east. Many historians point to these lost days as the critical point in what was to come.
As Patton began racing east, Montgomery started launching attacks to the southeast, aiming for the towns of Falaise and Argentan. If Patton could meet him near these cities, they would link hands behind the German armies, trapping almost 250,000 Nazis inside the circle. The British held the northern face, nearest the D-Day beaches; Bradley’s Americans at Mortain held the western side; and Patton’s racing forces were forming the southern side of this enormous noose that was being tied around the German neck. All that remained was to close the eastern side – but that was, again, easier said than done. The noose would become known to history as the “Falaise Pocket,” and the stubborn gap between Montgomery’s advancing army from the north and Patton’s from the south would be called the “Falaise Gap.”
On August 9, Montgomery launched Operation Totalize, using two of his freshest and least experienced armored divisions to punch southeast towards Falaise: the 4th Canadian Armored Division and the 1st Polish Armored Division. The Poles were part of “Anders’ Army,” the Polish exiles who had escaped in 1939 and come to fight for the Western Allies. The Canadians led the way, breaking through the German front lines but being slowly brought to a halt by the 12th SS Panzer Division. Even if the Germans were buckling, they were not breaking and remained dangerous opponents.
Already, Patton was beginning to approach Falaise from the south. He had asked for and been denied permission to seek the “big solution” by breaking for Paris (Montgomery actually backed Patton on this), since Bradley and Eisenhower were concerned his tanks would run out fuel and supplies before they got there. Had Patton done so, he might – MIGHT – have seized the Seine bridges and isolated the entire German army in Normandy. It’s one of the many controversies of the campaign, and some historians have lambasted Bradley and Ike for seeking the “small solution” instead of the bolder, risker “big solution.”
On August 13, Patton reached the town of Argentan, only about twenty miles from the Canadian and Polish lines. This is where those critical days come in – some historians argue that with a few more days’ lead time, Patton could have cut off the Germans completely. As it was, the next move would be the most controversial decision in the Normandy Campaign – maybe in the whole war in the West. Bradley ordered Patton to halt at Argentan and not to push farther north to the central town of Chambois, which was the final link the Germans had with the outside world. The official rationale is that Bradley was concerned about fratricide when the two forces met, and that Argentan was the American limit of advance on the map. (I think this is BS, and my opinion is that Bradley screwed up here.) Patton objected but complied, which left the “Falaise Gap” still hanging open.
By August 16, Von Kluge was refusing Hitler’s shrill orders to attack and begging for permission to withdraw. Hitler finally granted it, but this order came too late to avoid disaster. The enormous German forces began to turn east and desperately hammer at the closing gates to the Falaise Pocket, as Patton to the south and Montgomery to the north tried to close the lid on them. The following few days saw some of the most chaotic fighting of the Normandy Campaign, as the Americans and Canadians/Polish tried to link hands and stop the onrushing flood of Germans.
On August 17, the 1st Polish Armored Division had punched through and swept southeast to link up with the US 90th Infantry Division at Chambois, and the two forces finally made contact on August 19 – but only small forces had made it to the town, and they were in the path of a horde of desperate German veterans trying to escape from the pocket. The Americans and Poles, with support from Canadians and French, began to try and string together a cordon to close the bag permanently on the German Army.
Unbeknownst to the Allies, several German units had already escaped, and soon the small forces in the middle were getting hammered from both sides, with two SS Panzer Divisions trying to crack the pocket back open so their comrades could escape. The 1st Polish Armored Division ended up surrounded on the ridge of Mont Ormel, known on the military maps as Hill 262 and to the Poles only as “The Mace.” The Poles fought like demons against the onrushing flood from the west and the relief attempt from the east; despite their best efforts, the SS managed to open a narrow gap in the cordon, and some German units began to spill out of the pocket.
The 90th Infantry held Chambois – just like the Poles, at the center of the maelstrom. The Mace, though, sat astride the main highway and received most of the punishment. On 20 August, the Poles were firing off the last of their ammunition, but they were tearing into the fleeing Germans. By the next day, the Canadians had finally made their way up to join the Poles, and together they finally slammed the Falaise Gap shut. While around 50,000 German troops had made it out of the Falaise Pocket, they had lost basically all of their heavy equipment and vehicles, and almost 100,000 were still left inside. Chambois and the Mace were littered with destroyed German tanks and vehicles – along with thousands of dead. The Germans had run the gauntlet and paid the price.
The price the escapees paid was nothing compared to what the Germans left inside the pocket endured. Allied air attacks immolated the retreating German columns from the air as Patton, Bradley, and Montgomery pulled the noose tight. Entire columns of trucks were left burning as Germans were sent scurrying into the countryside or died where they stood. The carnage in the Falaise Pocket resembled the “Highway of Death” in the Gulf War: a sea of human remains and detritus strewn across a few miles of landscape. The German army in Normandy had been effectively destroyed, even if a small rump escaped to race east ahead of the onrushing Allied flood.
The Battle of the Falaise Pocket wrapped up the nearly two and a half month-long Battle of Normandy. From August 1, what had been a grinding stalemate had transformed into a stunning Allied victory. With virtually no organized German resistance in their path, the Allies surged out across France, freeing Paris on August 25 and crossing into Belgium within days. The liberation of France was at hand, and at the spearpoint of everything was Patton, unleashed and triumphant at last.
Those 50,000 Germans who had escaped, though, would come to haunt the Allies. They were the seed of future German resistance in the west. Much of the upcoming pain in the war against Germany – the bitter fight on the German border, the failure of Operation Market-Garden, and the December Battle of the Bulge – would grow from this seed. The Falaise Pocket was a great victory, but it was incomplete. The question of “who was responsible” remained a subject of controversy to the Allied generals for the next several decades, and still is today.
Personally, I blame Bradley. But I’m not alone.