Breakout from Normandy: German Mortain Offensive--Operation Luttich (August 7-13)

German Mortain counter offensive
Figure 1.--These two little French girls after the War moved north have converted a wrecked M-4 Sherman tank on the outskirts of Mortain into a playground. The Sherman was not capable of slluhhing it out with the German Mark V Panthers or even the Mark IV. Their speed and manueverability did make them perfectly suited fot the Allied break out from Normandy allowing them to fan out in the flat French countryside behinf German lines while the Germans werr not only bogged down in Normandy, but on Hitler's orders advancing even further West as part of Operation Luttich.

American units as part of Operation Cobra drove out of the Normany south into Brittany. Hitler determined to maintain his hold on France ordered a counter-attack--the Mortain offensive (Operation "Luttich"). It would be the last German effort to hold on to France. He ordered General Hausser's 7th Army to drive west and cut off the Americans. Hausser was ordered to attack from Mortain in Brittany toward Avranches and the Atlantic, cutting of the Americans seeping into the French countryside as a result of Operation Cobra. Hausser struck (August 7). The Germany Army, however, was no longer an overpowering force. They did have very effective tanks, but not very many. The German tanks were superior, but unlike 1940, the infantry now had had effective anti-tank weapons. And thanks to Ultra, the Allies were not totally surprised. Nor did the Germans have the critical air support needed for an effective offensive. The Germans advanced west, but within hours were stopped far short of the coast. They attacked with inadequate forces and simply did not have adequate reserves to exploit a break in the Amerucan lines. The result was that it simply put the German Panzers further west and in a more exposed position to the developing Allied encirclement. The Americans continued to attack behind the German lines. The German commitment of force to the far west of their position put them into a very vulnerable position with the Americans rapidly moving to close the developing pocket.

Operation Cobra: Breakout (July 25-26, 1944)

It was in the south that the American offensive finally broke the badly streached German lines--Operation Cobra (July 25). The Allied after weeks of costly fighting in the Bokage countty finally broke out from the Normandy beachhead at the end of July. The offensive named Operation Cobra finally broke through the badly streached German lines. Patton's highly mobile Third Army after a concentrated carpet bombing shattered the vaunted Panzer Lehr Division. The Americans pierced the German lines with armoured thrusts near St. Lô and then rapidly fanned out behind German lines. While American Sherman tanks were inferior to the German tanks in terms of armor abd fire power, they were faster and more numerous. They could not slug it out with the Germans, but they were perfect for a rapid advance behinf enenmy lines. This was ideal for rapid maneur in the open terraine beyond the brokage country. Combined with Allied air power made it impossible for the Germans plug the gap and contain the American offensive. As a result, virtually the entire western half of the German front in Normandy collapsed. American forces captured Avranches at the base of the Cotentin peninsula (August 1). The Americans also captured a nearby bridge at Pontaubault intact. This was a veritabke 'turning the corner'. The German could no longer anchor their western front against the coat. American forces began advancing west and south into Brittany. SHAEF activated the Third United States Army on the same day Avranches was taken. This was a highly mobil formation commanded by Lieutenant General George Patton. And now rather than the bockage area of Normandy, the Americans faced open countryside while the major and less mobil German units were bogged down in Normandy.

German Command Reaction (August 2)

American units as part of Operation Cobra drove out of the Normandy south into Brittany. Hitler was determined to maintain his hold on France. His instinct was to taken the offensive. Even at this point in the War he had no concept as to how the balance of forces had shifted. On the other hand, he knew that his regime was doomed unless NAZI forces could decisively defeat the Allied armies. The Mortain offensive was a poorly conceived German offensive to cut iff the American armies that had broken out from Normnandy. Generalfeldmarshall Günther von Kluge was the German supreme commander in the West. Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel was injured by Allied aircraft (July 17). von Kluge also took over direct command of Army Group B fighting the Allies in Normandy. Rommel had earlier warned Hitler that the battke for Normandy was lost. He had just escaped the July Bomb Plot attempt on his life and was in no mood to compromise on anything (July 20). Von Kluge repeated this assessment and warned Hitler that the collapse of the Normandy front was imminent (July 22). Hitler rejected this assessment and repeated his order to stand fast. After the American break out at St. Lo and seizure of Avranches, Hitler ordered Von Kluge to launch 'an immediate counterattack between Mortain and Avranches' (August 2). He sent General Walter Warlimont—the Deputy Chief of Staff at OKW to von Kluge's headquarters to make sure that these orders were carried out. Von Kluge insisted there was no possibility of success. His officers concurred, but were overruled. Von Kluge had to hastily began preparations. The result was the the Mortain Counter Offensive (Operation "Luttich"). Lüttich is the German name for Liège in Belgium, where the German Army had won an importantv battkle at the onset of World War I. It would be the last German effort to hold on to France. General Hausser's 7th Army with SS Panzer divisions were ordered to drive west and cut off the Americans sweeping into the French countryside as a result of Operation Cobra. Possession of Avranches and Mortain would cut off the advancuing Americans moving into Britainty from their supply bases in Normandy. Hausser's objective was Avranches on the Atlantic coast.

German Force

The Germany Army, however, was no longer an overpowering force. They did have very effective tanks, but not very many. Only Hitler could have conveived of an oiffensive after the battering taken during Operation Cobra. These were chaotic conditions to be launching an offensive in. The German forces in Normandy were in no condition to launch an attack, There were powerful units there, but they had been badly wirn down by the fighting after D-Day and had received few replaements and new equipment. Von Kluge pulled together what was left of his armor in Normandy, eight Panzer divisions. At least four of these divisions had taken such severe a battering from the Anmericans as part of Cobrathat they were no klonger at divioonal strength. They were not capable of launching a serious campaign against the Americans. Generaloberst Paul "Papa" Hausser following the death of Friedrich Dollmann was promoted to the command of Seventh Army. Hausser is best known as the founder of the Waffen-SS which is how he git his knickname. Hausser had length battle experience ob the Eastern Front. While several divisions were involved, none were complete Divisions. The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte and 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich were powerful formations at the beginning if the Normandy fighting. At Mortain, however, they were no longer complete divisions. The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich had been surrionded as part of Operation Cobra and had just managed to break out of a pocket. They were then regrouped and thrown into the Offensive. It is a credit to the fighting soirit of these nmen that they were able o move fiorward at all. The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte had been fighting along the Bourguebus-Verrieres Ridge since Operation Goodwood on July 18. And when the irders came to strike west, the division was widely dispersed. Their various units had to be deployed picemeal as they reached the Mortain area. The German tanks were superior, but unlike 1940, the infantry now had h*ad effective anti-tank weapons. The Germans did not have the critical air support needed for an effective offensive.

Ultra

The Allies were initially surprised by the German attack. Ultra intellgence reached General Bradley's headquarters at about the sanme time as battkefiekd reports began coming in from he 30th Divusion. Some authors describe a warning from Ulttra. [D'Este, p. 415] According to Bradley himself, however, this did not occur. [Bradley] The Ultra code breakers at Bletchey Park, however, did provide valuable evidence allowing the Allies to assess German intentions and prepare a counter stroke. The Allies learned through Ultra intercepts that Hitler himself was responsible for the Mortain offensive (August 8). This led to the conclusion that the Germans would continue the attack with all available forces at their disposal. General Omar Bradley was thus presented with an opportunity that rarely comes to a commander--to envelop an entire enemy army. Bradley decided not to immediately reinforce The 30th Infantry Division in Mortain which would encourage Hauser to continue the offensive. XV Corps wa ordered to drive eastward towards Le Mans and then sharply north towards Argentan. Mortain became essentially the hinge for a wide sweeping American encirclement manoeuvre. At the same time, British, Canadian and Polish forces continued driving southwards past Caen towards Falaise where the two Allied pincers would link up and trap the German forces in what became known as the Falaise Pocket.

American Units

The American 30th Infantry Division stood alone in the initial phase. It was not, however, a simple matter of American infantry against attacking German armor. The 30th Infantry Division had attached armor units, including the the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 105th Combat Engineer Battalion. And as the battle developed, CCB of the 3rd Armoured Division arrived in support. There were also elements of the 4th Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division and 35th Infantry Division drawn into the battle. More important were the American forces whichb instead of entering the battle for Mortain, swept south around Mortain and gthen gheaded nort toward Falaise in a giant pincer movement to hoin yop with the British driving south from Caen.

Fighting (August 7-13)

Generaloberst Hausser, now in command of the 7th Army, struck (August 7). The German attack plan had been hastily conceived on Hitler's orders. The units involved were in no condition to attack. Many had been battered by Operation Cobra. Others were not well placed to attack west toward Mortain. These units thus had to be committed peacemeal. And there was no Luftwaffe aircover. These Germans thus attacked under what might be called chaotic conditions with inadequate forces. The Germans spearheaded by armor advanced west. The fighting centered on Mortain, but took place in an extensive around it. The Panzer Divisions all had different assigned attack routes. The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich with the attached elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Gotz von Berlichingen went straight through Mortain itself. The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte was not complete and was attached to the 2nd Panzer Division took a different route. Within hours were stopped far short of the coast. They immediately engaged units of the 30th Infantry Division during the Mortain Offensive. Earlier in the War, German armor would have smashed through an infantry division. The Americans had, however, had attached armor and anti-tant units. In addition, infantry units also had portable anti-tank weapons, in this case the bazooka. The bazooka was not as effective as German anti-tank weapons, but it was still extreemly helpful to infantry units facing German armor. While unlikely o pierce a Panther's front armor, it might do damage at the back or knock a track off which in battlefield conditions was nearly as good as destroying the tank. The fight put up by the 30th Infntry was impressive. They faced massively superior German firces, but did not break. Some military historians rank it among the the most impressive performance of U.S. infantry during the fighting in Europe. The 30th Infantry Division managed to delay and slow the German attack. The Division's 120th Infantry Regiment stand on Hills 314 and 285 were key to the American success. This bought time for the major American forces to set in motion a sweeping envelopment. Other U.S. forces then arrived and supported the hard pressed 30th division. Tactical Air Support also played a role in stopping the German advances, although there is some disagreement as to its importance. One author points out that of 17 destroyed Panther tanks found in the Leibstandarte area of the battle, only 4 were found to be destroyed by air attacks while 6 were destroyed by ground fighting. The other 7 were abandoned by the crews when the orders to withdraw came. Ultimately the Germans simply did not have adequate reserves to exploit a break in the American lines.

Result

The result of the German Mortain offebnsive was that it simply put the German Panzers further west and in a more exposed position to the developing Allied encirclement. The Americans continued to attack behind the German lines. The German commitment of force to the far west of their position put them into a very vulnerable position with the Americans rapidly moving to close the developing pocket around Falaise south of Caen. American unuits liberated Le Mans (August 8). It became clear to von Kluge, as he had forseen, that the entire German military position in France was now in danger. Bradleybegan to see that the Allies had the opportunity of destroying Germany’s military forces in occupied France. This was an opportunity that came to few military commanders.

Battle of the Falaise Pocket (August 19-22)

Falaise was the final battle in Normandy. At Falaise, German soldiers paid the price for their Führer's intransigence as was so often the case on the Eastern Front. The American breakout and the aborted German Mortain offensive drive to the coast led directly to the battle for Falaise. Falaise is on the river Ante, a tributary of the river Dives. It is about 20 miles southeast of Caen. Thus after the British and Canadians took Caen, Falaise emerged as a perfect place for the British and American asrmirs to meet and trap the renmaining German forces in Normandy. Falaise was notable in French and British history as the birthplace of William I the Conqueror who invaded Englanhd and founded the Norman dynaty. After the failure of their Mortain offensive, the Germans attempted to extricate what was left of the battered firces in Normandy. This set up the battle of the "Falaise Pocket". The Americans moved to trap the Germans in a pocket forming around Falaise. American, Polish, British and Canadian troops had nearly cokpleted the encirclement of the German 5th and 7th Panzer armies at Falaise--what has come to be known as Falaise Pocket. Somehow the Germans managed to open an escape gap to the east. While the ground troops tried to close off the Falasise Pocket, air strikes hammared away wreaked terrible carrnage on the Germans in the pocket. As mamy as 100,000 Germans made it out. The Allies encircled and destroyed two Germann armies, killing 10,000 Germans and taking 50,000 prisoners along with some 350 tanks and 2,500 other military vehicles. Generaloberst Hausser who had led the Mortain Counter Offensive stayed with his nmen in Falaise and was severly wounded again and finally evacuated. The Allies, however, failed to close the Falaise pocket in time to complelety destroy the German forces. The Germans troops managed to slip through the Allied encirclement, but had to abandon the heavy weaons that had not been lost in the Mortain offensive. The Americans complained that Montgomery did not act decisively enough. The British insisted that they faced stiffer resistance. Unable to plug the German retreat on the ground, the Allies hammered away at Falaise by air. German resistance in Normandy had been broken and the drive to Paris could start. Two-thirds of the town was destroyed The town was finally taken by a combined force of Canadian and Polish troops. Faklaise was an important Allied victory. Itcould have been a war winning victory. Had the 100,000 Germans not been able to escape the Allied encirclement, the Germans would have had much more difficulty making a stand at the West Wall and organizing the Bulge offensive. Falaise had to be largely rebuilt and restored after the war.

Sources

Bradley, Omar. A General's life.

D'Este, Carlo. Decision in Normandy (Konecky & Konecky, New York, 1983).






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Created: 2:07 PM 6/20/2013
Last updated: 12:18 PM 6/23/2013