Breakout from Normandy: Battle for the Falaise Pocket (August 12-22, 1944)

Falaise Pocket
Figure 1.--What was left of the HJ 12th SS Division played an important part in the battle of the Falise Pocket., helping to keep the German escape rojute open. The caption to this British World War II playing card illustration read, "'The Falise Gap' Normandy 12-20th august 1944 by David Pentland. After almost two months of continuous fighting in the front line, remanents of the 12th SS Panzer Division, 'Hitler Jugend', fall back under incesant air attacks by Allied fighter nombers for their final battle in France. In their defense of the norther flank of what is to bcome the Falise Gap the new Jagdpanzer IV in particular is to prove a formidable foe to the attacking British nd Camadian tanks." The Jagdpanzer IV, Sd.Kfz. 162, was a tank destroyer based on the Panzer IV chassis, but the main danger was allied air attacks. Notice the anti-aircraft vehicle. Also notice the Sd.Kfz. 250/251 half-track.

Falaise was the final battle in Normandy. This time it was no longer a battle for Normabndy, but a struggle to destroy the two German field armies that had attempted to reduce and then bottkleup the Allies in Normandy. It was the only major Allied encircelent effort until the end of the War. After Falause Eisenhower would pursue a briad front campaign. 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 dynasty. 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. It could 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.

Final Battle in Normandy

Falaise was the final battle in Normandy. This time it was no longer a battle for Normandy, but a struggle to destroy the two German field armies that had attempted to reduce and then bottleup the Allies in Normandy.

Unique Action

Falaise was the was the only major Allied encircelent effort until the end of the War. After Falause Eisenhower would pursue a briad front campaign. At Falaise, German soldiers paid the price for their Führer's intransigence as was so often the case on the Eastern Front.

Precceding Actions

The American breakout from Normandy with Operation Cobra and the aborted German Mortain offensive drive to the coast led directly to the battle for Falaise. Operation Cobra had obliterated the left flabk of the German denses in Normandy. Generaln George Patton's Third Army plunged into the gap and made rapid advances to the south and south-east. Patton was at first ordered to drive weat into Britaunty. The Germans no longer had the forces to hold back the American penetration on their left flank or the British and Canadian offensives on their right flank south of Caen. Field Marshal Günther von Kluge commanding Army Group B wanted to withdraw. Hitler not only refused to allow Von Kluge to withdraw, but defying all military logic, ordered an offensive action--Operation Luttich. The Americans and British refer to it as the Mortain Counter offensuve. Von Kluge scraped together the remnants of four Panzer divisions, all that was keft after the battering handed out by Operation Cobra. Much of Germany's remainung armor attacked into the American First Army, primarily the 30th Infantry Division at Mortain. The 30th Division fiercly resisted, but was outgunned by the German Panzers. Von Kluge committed much of the remaining German armor to the offensive. The Germans advance given what they had just gone through was a credit to the fighting spirit of the German soldier. Operation Lüttich was, however, a disaster that merely served to move the Germans further west into the Allied lines, and vulnerable to encirclement given the mobility of the American forces. >br>

Falaise

Falaise is on the river Ante, a tributary of the river Dives. It is about 20 miles southeast of Caen. Falaise was notable in French and British history as the birthplace of William I the Conqueror who invaded Englanhd and founded the Norman dynasty.

Allied Encirclement Plan (August 8)

After the British and Canadians took Caen and Hitler ordered the Panzers to attack west, Falaise emerged as a perfect place for the British and American armies to meet and trap the renmaining German forces in Normandy. Both Fiekd Marshall Mongomery and General Bradley saw whatvwas unfolding on the map. General Montgomery ordered Allied ground forces to converge on the Falaise-Chambois area (August 8). The U.S. First Army commanded by General Bradley forming the southern pincer. The British Second Army became the base, and the Canadian First Army the northern pincer of the encirclement.

Northern Pincer: British, Canadians, and Poles Drive South

Field Marshall Montgomery organized the northern Allied pincer. He launched an offensive south of Caen. There the German defensives had been weakened by Hitler's deployment of much of the German armor for the disatrous Mortain offensive. Thus Montgomery finally broke out, but the fighting was very difficult. Canadian armor received a shock at Estrées-la-Campagne. Montgomery relentlessly drove south, launching a series of offensives (Operations Totalize 1 and II, and Tractable) using mostly Canadian units. The Canadians were reinforced with General Maczeck’s 1st Polish Armored Division.

Southern Pincer: American Sweep East

The encirclement began even while the Germans were still driving west toward Mortaine. The Americans moved to trap the Germans in a pocket forming around Falaise. Using Mortain and the 30th Infantry Division as a hinge. Powerful American forces sweopt west around the Germans anf then north to Falaise. Bradley entrusted the southern pincer to the American XV Army Corps which had just entered Le Mans (August 9). They were order to change their course and drive north toward Falaise. The southern pincer was led by General Leclerc’s 2nd French Armoured Division. The French took Alençon (August 12) and then attacked toward Ecouché and Argentan. Even after the reversal at Mortain, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht stand and fight, although many units had begun to retreat without orders toward the Seine (August 14).

Third Army Redirected

Gen. George S Patton made a name fior himself in North Africa and Sicily. Slapping two enlisted men nearly ended his career. He had hoped to lead the the D-Day Overlord invasion. Gen. Eisenhower continued his punishment by placing him in command of the FUSAG diversion iin Kent. This was opposite of the Pas-de-Calais where the Germans expected the invasion. And even after D-Day. Patton's presence in Kent helped convince the Germans for several critical days that the real invasion force would land at the Pas-de-Calais. Patton would have to wait 7 weeks before his command wascrekeased. The Third Army was slowly moved to Normandy and made ready for the brealout. After Ooperation Cobra blasted a hole in the German lines (July 24-26). The Third Arnmy was activted with Patton in command (August 1). Patton was the U.S. Army's greatest exponent of mobile armored warfare. When the Third Army was finally activated, it put in motion one of the epic combat records of the War beginning with a dash across NAZI-occupied France. Bradley after Avranches was taken, ordered Patton to seized Brittanty and Brest. Patton did not like the idea. He was not happy unless moving toward Berlin. Having been sudelined, Patton decided to obey irders and keepn his mouth shut. Bradley had second thoughts and redirected Patton's advance (August 3). He ordered Patton to leave a covering force in Brittany and attack east toward the Seine. This would outflank the German forces opposing the Anglo-Canadians attacking Caen, fiorcing the Germand to withdraw. Firld Marshall Montgomery agreed and ordered General Miles Dempsey commanding the British Second Army to attack towards the Vire river--Operation Bluecoat. This prevented the Germans did not redeploy to counter Patton's movement. The German Mortain Offensive did not slow Patton down (August 7-13). The Third Army took Le Mans (August 8) and then Nantes and Angers. This put the Germans in the developing Palaise pocket in mortal danger. Finally the Third Army approached the Seine via Chartres and Orléans. Patton's Third Army continued to attack eastwards, crossing the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt (August 20).

German Withdrawl (August 16-17)

After the failure of their Mortain offensive, the Germans attempted to extricate what was left of the battered forces in Normandy. This set up the battle of the 'Falaise Pocket'. Hitler did not want them to withdraw. As a result, the actual withdrawl was delayed. Hitler finally realizing the futility of further resistance south of the Seine, ordered a general retreat (August 16). The Germans finally began moving out of the Falaise pocket (August 17). The Wehrmacht wanted to save what remained of their armor. German infantry units were by now largely disorganized, but attempted to eascape through the narrowing gap between Faliaise and Argentan. This was put in motion when American and Canadian troops captured Falaise (August 17). The Germans moved east to Chambois. By this time, however, they were encircled.

Chambois (August 17-19)

The Battle of Chambois was part of the Battke for the Falaise pocket. Chambois was a village southeast of Falaise. The German 7th Army and several other battered units after the Allis entered Falaise withdrew Chanbois. Here they were entrapped in a 6-mile (10-km) pocket gap by the Allied forces (American, Canadian, and Polish). Here they faced a battle of annihilation, as the Allied troops closed in on Chambois. In Chambois the Germans were surround by converging Polish, American, and Canadian troops. Generalfeldmarschall Walther Model, Army Group B commander, ordered the 7th and 5th Panzer armies to withdraw to the Dives River and take up a new defensive position to fight off the Americans. Model was not, however, at the scene and unable to accurately assess the sutuation. . The Allies rapid advance out of Normandy created a confusing military situation. The Canadians defeated the assembling German forces at the river and managed to encircle Chambois. The Americans also closed with the Germans. The disiorganized German troops began to pour into the gap between the Canadians and Americans. Generaloberst Paul Hausser, commander of the 7th Army, managed to regroup and create some order.

Germans Open a Gap (August 19)

American, Polish, British and Canadian troops had nearly completed the encirclement of the German 5th and 7th Panzer armies at Falaise--what has come to be known as Falaise Pocket. The Germans retreated southeast to Chambois and fought feiercely to keep an escape route open to the east. Vicious fighting occurred between Argentan and Trun. SS units managed to hold a narrow corridor open, but the fleeing Germans were pounded by both artillery and air attacks. The Germans fled through “corridor of death” between the villages of Chambois, Saint-Lambert, Trun and Tournai-sur-Dives. Hausser who had extensive experience on the Eastern Front was a major force in keeping the escape route open. The Allies linked up in Chambois southeast of Falaise (August 19). The Allis attempted to seal the gap with insufficient strength. The desperate Germans conter-atacked and forced gaps opened in the Allied lines. The most important was a corridor past elements of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, who had managed to established a commanding position at the mouth of the pocket.

Allied Air Strikes

While the Allied ground troops trying o close off the Falasise Gap, air strikes hammared away and wreaked terrible carrnage on the Germans in the pocket. There were both saturation attacks by bombers and more targeted attacks by fighter bombers. The carnage was incredible, in part because beginning with the Mortain offendive the Gernmabns came out from hiding and were moving on the small number of roads. Thus the Allied fighter bombers did not have to spend air time searching fir them. They knew just where to find German targets. This made them much more vulnerable to the patrolling Allied fighter bombers. They were also more vulnerable because the Germans were trapped in a shrinking pocket. The photographs and personal accounts are incredible. There were dead animals everywhere, mixed in wuth the bodies of dead Germans. Even earlier in the War the Germans had to rely ion animal for transport. And by the time of Falaise battle, rheGermans were not only having trouble getting gasoline to their forces in Normandy, but the Allies had begun to target their sybnthetic fuel plants in the Reich. The Allied air attacks were demoralizing. The Germans had no air cover. The FRA Typhoon figher bombers with rockets and machine guns did huge damage. Just souheast of Falaise, one tanker reportd reported, "... the terrible results of Allies' saturation bombing and fierce fighting. The Germans had suffered heavy casualties : thousands of prisoners had been captured but manyn more lay dead in the fields, hedgerows, and woods. Animals too had suffered,. Cows, rigid and bloated, lay as they had fallen in the fieklds. Much of the German transport had been horse drawn. Dead horses still in their traces, sometimes with fearfull images and intestines blown apart, blocked every riad, the comtents of their wagons strewn in the ditches. The stnch of death was dreadful." [Morris] Both the Germans and the Allies commonly drove over the dead animals and men in the roads, adding to the carnage. Another observer reported a similar scene, "... where mss slaughter had taken place by Typhoon fifgter bombers. .... We traveled along one road and actually our vehicles trveled over the top of manyb hundreds of crushed German dead bodies and horses. Vehicles of all types of German transporl littered the whole area. I could never eporess here on this page or many others how that lot looked and stunk, dead bodies were runnng iver withb maggots and flies, it was indeed a gastly site. seeing these dead Nazi s bursting in the blistering heat of the day. This road was about a mile and a half long and never before had I smelled anything klike it." [Caines]

Closing the Gap (August 21)

The Allies finally closed the gap (August 21). The Americans launched a major attack on the Germans unh Chambois (evening of the 20th). The 116th Panzer Division and the 7th Army were encircled, but launched a countet-attack. The Americans pressed the attack and repelled every German counterattack. The 7th Army and her tank counterparts were forced to capitulate, and the surviving Germans taken orisoner. General Hausser was severly wounded and evacuated.

Results

The battle for Falaise resulted in the destruction or the wihdrawl of the bulk of Germany's forces west of the River Seine. The German losses in men and equioment were so severe that the Germans were now not capable of making a stand at the Seine. This thius opened the way for the liberation of Paris and the push on to the borders of the Reich. 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 men 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. As mamy as 100,000 Germans made it out. 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. 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.

Assessments

The Americans complained that Montgomery did not act decisively enough. The British insisted that they faced stiffer resistance. Falaise was an important Allied victory. I tcould 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

Caines, Capt. W.C, 4th Batallion, Dorsetshire Regimentm, 43rd Wessex Infantry Division, Imoerial War Museum, 90/20/1.

Morris, K.W. 4th Armoured Brigde. Imperil War Museum, 87/44/1.






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Created: 10:15 PM 6/21/2013
Last updated: 1:48 AM 5/10/2014