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Battle of the Falaise Gap, August 1944
The battle of the Falaise Gap (8-20 August 1944) was the final stage of the wider battle of Normandy, and saw the Allies exploit the breakthrough achieved in Operation Cobra to destroy the German position in France. In its aftermath the Allies were able to sweep onto to Paris, across the Seine and liberate most of France ahead of their original schedule.
In the aftermath of the D-Day landings the Allies had made slower progress than expected. In the east Caen, one of the D-Day targets, remained in German hands for another month. Even then only the northern part of the city fell during Operation Charnwood (8-9 July 1944) and the southern part of the city wasn’t cleared until Operations Goodwood (18-20 July 1944) and Atlantic (18-21 July 1944). On the American front the Cotentin Peninsula was quickly cleared and the port of Cherbourg captured by the end of June, but progress to the south was much slower. The Bocage country proved to be ideal defensive terrain, and the Germans were able to bottle up their opponents in a much smaller beachhead than expected.
Although the Allies hadn’t advanced as far as they had hoped, the overall pattern of the battle was still following Montgomery’s plan, as set down well before D-Day. This was for the British and Canadians to try and pin down as many German troops as possible around Caen, using repeated attacks to convince them that the Allies were planning to break out in that area and dash for Paris. This would allow the Americans to slowly expand their bridgehead until they were ready to break through at the western end of the line.
Before the Americans could launch the breakthrough attack they needed to push south, away from the wetlands at the base of the Cotentin, and capture a firm base for the main attack. The key target was St. Lo, which finally fell after a difficult battle (7-19 July 1944). Bradley now came up with a plan for a large scale attack on a very narrow front, supported by a massive air attack – Operation Cobra. This attack began on 25 July, and after a day or two in which it looked like the Germans were going to hold on, smashed through the German lines. By the end of July Operation Cobra had finally ended the stalemate on the Normandy front. The western end of the German line had been broken, and late on 30 July US troops reached Avranches, at the ‘hinge’ between Normandy and Brittany.
On 1 August Patton’s 3rd Army was activated. Bradley moved up to command the 12th Army Group, while Hodges replaced him as commander of the 1st Army. The overall Allied plan was also changed. Originally the idea had been for Patton to turn west into Brittany, to try and capture a series of ports including St Malo, Brest, Lorient, St Nazaire and Nantes. Once Brittany had been secured, the Allies would turn east and advance towards the Seine.
At the start of August this plan was changed. The potential for a dramatic breakout to the east now beckoned. This would have two main objectives – the destruction of the Germany army in Normandy, and the capture of the ports of Le Havre and Rouen, which were much better placed to support an advance into Germany. Most German troops had already been pulled out of Brittany to fight in Normandy, so there was little danger of a counterattack from the rear.
The new plan was to transfer Middleton’s 8th Corps to Patton’s control, and use that corps to clear up Brittany, while the rest of the 3rd Army joined the 1st Army’s advance to the east. Eisenhower, Montgomery and Bradley were all in agreement on this, and by 4 August the new plan had been adopted. The main thrust was to be made towards the Seine. Patton was ordered to advance to the Mayenne River and cross at Mayenne and Laval. He was also to clear the area as far south as the Loire.
Patton’s new army included the 8th, 12th 15th and 20th Corps, all of which were officially attached to in on 1 August. The 8th Corps was allocated to Brittany, so didn't take part in the fighting around Falaise.
The 15th Corps (General Wade H. Haislip) had been activated without troops in mid July, ready to join the Third Army once it was activated. The exact forces to be committed to it was unclear, and kept changing, but it eventually entered battle with the 5th Armoured Division and the 90th Infantry Division, and gained the 79th Infantry Division soon after entering battle.
On the German side two alternative plans were considered. One was to accept that the battle for Normandy was lost, conduct a fighting retreat to the Seine and use the time to work on defensive lines further back. However there were very few good defensive positions between Normandy and the West Wall along the German frontier. The Germans were unlikely to be able to hold the line of the Seine for any length of time, and the Germans were likely to suffer very heavy losses during the retreat. The second plan was to launch an immediate counterattack to try and cut through the narrow American corridor around Avranches. This would isolate those troops that had broken through the gap in the lines, and restore the line in Normandy. This would need fewer troops to maintain than any other position in France. At the start of August one panzer and six infantry divisions were on their way to Normandy, although most probably wouldn’t arrive in time to take part in the counterattack. Hitler decided in favour of the second option, and ordered Kluge to continue the fight in Normandy, and prepare for a counterattack.
The American Breakout
At the start of August the task of exploiting Operation Cobra’s success was given to the same corps that had taken part in that battle. Nearest to the west coast was General Middleton’s 8th Corps (under the supervision of General Patton by 1 August, even though his army wasn’t quite ready to become operational). Next in line was General Collins’ 7th Corps. By the end of 1 August 7th Corps had advanced more than thirty miles from their starting point for Cobra, but the most dramatic advance was on the coast. On 28 July the 4th Armoured Division was committed to the battle, with orders to reach Monthuchon, just to the north of Cobra’s main objective at Coutances, while the newly committed 6th Armoured Division was ordered to prepare to attack along the coast.
Traffic congestion was the main obstacle, and by the end of the day the 6th Armoured had bypassed Coutances to the west and 4th Armoured had taken the town. The two divisions were then ordered to attack towards Avranches, thirty miles to the south. After slow progress on 28 July the two divisions advanced ten miles on 29 July, and on 30 July the 6th Division took Brehal and almost reached Granville, while the 4th made even more impressive progress, and that evening entered Avranches (almost capturing General Hausser on the way!). The next task was to secure the narrow coastal corridor south of Avranches, to capture the entry into Brittany, as well as to defend Avranches against German troops retreating from the north. Both tasks were completed by the end of 1 August by which time Avranches was secured, the Americans had captured a number of bridges over the See and Selune Rivers and the 8th Corps had begun its impressively rapid advance into Brittany.
On 2 August Patton’s 15th Corps was committed to the battle, with orders to fill the gap between the First Army’s 7th Corps, which was pushing south-east towards Mayenne, and Patton’s 8th Corps, which was heading west and south-west into Brittany. The corps captured St. Hilaire, and another bridge across the Selune. On the same day the 79th Division was ordered to Fougeres, to close the increasingly large gap between the corps, and was assigned to 15th Corps.
3 August was the day on which the Allied change of plan was put into action. Bradley ordered Patton to clear Brittany with ‘a minimum of forces’ and use the rest of his army to support the drive east behind the German lines in Normandy. Patton’s 15th Corps was to capture a third mile stretch of the Mayenne River between Mayenne and Chateau-Gontier, while his 20th Corps was committed to the battle and ordered south to secure the line of the Loire west of Angers. Although this seemed like an ambitious plan, the Americans would be attacking into almost undefended countryside – although the Germans were attempting to move troops into the area, they arrived too late.
The 15th Corps attack towards Mayenne began on 5 August. The 90th Division advanced thirty miles by noon on the first day, then captured the town of Mayenne and a key bridge across the Mayenne River. Once Mayenne fell, Patton was given permission to push on towards Le Mans. The 79th Division was held up by a German strongpoint on the road to Laval, fifteen miles to the south of Mayenne, and was two miles north-west of the town at the end of the day. Overnight scouts reported that the Germans had destroyed the river bridges at Laval, but evacuated the town, and early on 6 August the division was able to cross the river and occupy the town. Engineers worked quickly, and a Bailey bridge was completed by noon on 7 August.
The job of taking Le Mans was given to the 90th Division. This time they would run into German opposition. Some of the troops being rushed north to try and close the gap created by Operation Cobra had now reached le Mans – the reconnaissance battalion from the 9th Panzer Division and part of the 708th Infantry Division. Le Mans was the HQ of the Seventh Army, and the Germans needed time to evacuate their administrative personnel. As a result these reinforcements were pushed west as soon as they arrived in Le Mans, so were committed piecemeal to the battle.
The 90th Division attack on Le Mans started on 6 August. One column advanced over twenty miles, before running into German resistance at Ste. Suzanne, but the main part of the division ran into the German reinforcements at Aron, just east of Mayenne, and were held up all day. On 7 August the division’s leading troops attacked on several lines, bypassing some resistance and sweeping aside other strong points. The rest of the division dealt with the German resistance, taking 1,200 prisoners and eliminating the counterattacking forces. By early on 8 August two columns from the division were just outside le Mans. Overnight they crossed the Sarthe River, and early on 9 August they entered the city. There they met up with the 79th Division, which had made quicker progress than expected on 8 August after being held up at Leval. The division entered the centre of le Mans by 5pm on 8 August, ahead of the division that had been given the task of taking the city. The fall of Le Mans was a sign of just how serious the situation was for the Germans – American troops were now more than eighty miles east of Avranches, and were advancing quicker than the Germans could react. Seventh Army had lost its HQ, and Patton’s men were free to move in just about any direction they pleased.
Further to the north the Americans ran into more organised resistance, especially as their advance threatened the area required for the German counterattack. Even so Collins’s 7th Corps took Mortain on 3 August, and was then ordered to move south to cover the northern flank of 15th Corps. 19th Corps attacked Vire on 5 August, and secured the town early on 7 August and Gerow’s 5th Corps took Tinchebray (south-east of Vire). On the British flank Dempsey’s 2nd Army captured Mont Pincon in thick fog, and Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army prepared to attack towards Falaise. On 6 August Montgomery issued firm orders. The Canadian, British and US 1st Armies would attack the Germans in their front, while the US 3rd Army attempted to race around their southern flank to trap them.
The Allied offensive was briefly interrupted by the German attack from Mortain (Operation Luttich). This began early on 7 August, but after recapturing Mortain the German advance bogged down. By noon a combination of fierce resistance and Allied airpower forced the Germans to dig in, and by the end of the day Kluge believed that the attack had failed. However he then received direct orders from Hitler to renew the offensive, and began to move fresh troops from the Falaise area to support a renewed attack.
This attack would never come. Late on 7 August the Allies carried out a massive bombing raid with 1,000 heavy bombers from Bomber Command. This was followed by a massive largely Canadian attack (Operation Totalize), which advanced 8 miles on 8 August, advancing half of the distance to Falaise.
The Falaise Gap
On the same day (8 August) Bradley suggested another change of plan. Instead of dashing to the Seine (the long envelopment), his troops could cut north towards Argentan and Falaise (the short envelopment). Eisenhower, who happened to be at Bradley’s command post at the time, approved of the idea. Bradley then phoned Montgomery and suggested that his troops should attack towards Flers and Argentan, stopping just short of that line, while the Canadians pushed south to close the gap from the north. While the basic idea was sound, there was one flaw with it – the idea of having a fixed point where the two sides of the trap would close, instead of allowing the gap to close wherever the American and Canadian forces met. The idea was to avoid any accidental clash between the Allies, but the Canadians were still fighting against an intact defensive line, while the Americans were advancing in the enemy’s rear. Montgomery, who expected the Germans to make a stronger defence of Argentan against the Americans, than they could of Falaise against the Canadians, approved the new plan. Bradley then passed on the orders to Patton, who in turn ordered Haislip’s 15th Corps to advance north from Le Mans towards Alencon and Argentan. Further to the west the US 1st Army was to push east from Mortain towards Domfront, then probably push north-east towards Flers.
15th Corps was reinforced by the experienced 2nd French Armoured Division, under General Leclerc, at Le Mans on 9 August. This gave the corps two armoured divisions, so General Haislip decided to advance along two routes. The French would lead on the left, heading through Alencon to Carrouges (ten miles to the south-west of Argentan), the 5th Armoured Division on the right through Mamers to Sees (ten miles to the south-east of Argentan).
The Americans began to push north on 10 August, and advanced fifteen miles during the day, against limited German opposition. The advance forced the HQs of Panzer Lehr and the 9th Panzer Division to retreat under fire.
On 11 August the Germans realised that the Americans were pushing north. Kluge wanted to withdraw all of his troops from the Mortain area to deal with the new threat, but Hitler still wanted to renew the offensive. Kluge was ordered to leave most of the troops in the west, while Eberbach dealt with the US 15th Corps. However on the same day Hausser began to withdrew his troops from Mortain, aware that they were in danger of being cut off. The plan was to use them to attack the left flank of the American force pushing north from Le Mans. On the Allied side Montgomery expected the Germans to mount a strong defence of Argentan, so he ordered Crerar to mount another Canadian attack towards Falaise.
To a certain extent Montgomery was right. Eberbach soon realised that the Americans were moving too fast for his troops to attack them at Alencon, so he moved them to Argentan, 30 miles further north, instead. Alencon itself was liberated by the French early on 12 August, and on the same day 15th Corps reached its initial objectives on the Carrouges-Sees road. However by then General Haislip had made Argentan his new objective. The French were to take Carrouges and face to the north-west to guard the flanks, while the American armour moved to Argentan.
Eberbach arrived ahead of the Americans and had time to set up a new defensive line. This was fairly weak on 12 August, but that night the 116th Panzer Division arrived from the Mortain front. The Americans of 15th Corps arrived outside the town on 13 August and found it strongly defended. However the commitment of the 116th Panzers did mean that the planned German counterattack became less likely.
One of the great controversies of the campaign then halted the American advance. Early on 13 August Patton gave Haislip permission to advance slowly towards Falaise, but early in the afternoon of the same day Bradley ordered Patton to order Haislip to stop offensive operations and take up a blocking position while he awaited further orders. The 15th Corps was thus static when the Canadians launched their next major offensive, Operation Tractable, on 14 August. There were plenty of good reasons for Bradley’s decision – the wish to avoid an accidental clash with the Canadians, a fear that it would make it difficult for artillery and air support to operation and a desire to secure the American position around Argentan, but despite this the decision was a mistake, and allowed the gap to stay open for longer, and more German troops to escape, than if both sides had continued to attack.
Operation Tractable involved a very heavy attack on a very narrow front. Canadian and Polish troops were able to break through Dietrich’s lines and got to within three miles of Falaise before they were stopped at the end of 14 August. The two flanks of the Allied army were now only fifteen mile apart. This created the famous Falaise Gap, through which most of the surviving German army in Normandy would have to try and escape.
15 August saw yet another command crisis on the German side. Early in the day Kluge left Dietrich’s HQ to visit Hausser and Eberbach, but his vehicle was attacked by Allied aircraft and he spent most of the day hiding in a ditch. He thus disappeared for the rest of the day. In the evening Hitler gave Hausser temporary command of all forces in the west, and gave him orders to attack the Allied troops at Argentan. Kluge then reappeared. On 16 August he met with his army commanders, and then recommended a full scale evacuation through the Falaise gap. For once Hitler agreed to authorise a retreat, and late in the day permission was given to pull out (two hours after Kluge had actually started to retreat). All troops west of the Dives River were given permission to retreat east, although typically Hitler also insisted on a counterattack to try and enlarge the gap. Although Kluge had reappeared, he had lost Hitler’s trust. Rumours about what he had been doing included the suggestion that he was attempting to surrender to the Allies. On 18 August General Model turned up to take command. Kluge was ordered back to Germany. On the road to Metz he committed suicide
On the Allied side there was also some confusion. On 14 August Bradley decided to sent Haislip and half of his 15th Corps east towards Dreux. On 15 August the Canadians finally captured Falaise, and Montgomery suggested a two pronged assault, with the Canadians attacking from the north and the Americans from the south, both aiming for the villages of Trun and Chambois, to the north-east of Argentan. This caused a command problem on the American side, as Haislip had accompanied the half of his corps moving east. Patton created a provisional corps under the command of his chief of staff Hugh Gaffey, while Bradley sent Gerow’s 5th Corps HQ around the pocket to take command on the southern flank. Gaffey planned an attack for the morning of 17 August, but after Gerow arrived he postponed it to give his corps artillery time to arrive.
By the end of 16 August the Germans had seven corps inside the pocket. Dietrich commanded on the northern side of the gap and Eberbach on the southern side. The westernmost troops were at Flers, while the exit from the pocket was at Trun, 40 miles to the east. The Germans estimated that they would need four days to escape fully from the pocket. The full scale evacuation of the pocket began late on 16 August, and that night the troops from the westernmost part of the pocket successfully moved across the Orne. In order to secure the southern flanks of the pockets elements from the 2nd SS and 116th Panzer Divisions attacked the 90th Division at a village east of Argentan, temporarily pushing the Americans off a key ridge.
On 17 August Crerer increased the intensity of his attack from the north. This forced to Germans to speed up the evacuation and on the night of August 17-18 Hausser was able to get all of his troops across the Orne. However he was forced to abandon some of his tanks and self propelled guns as fuel ran out. On the same day the Germans recaptured the ridge east of Argentan.
On 18 August Kruge was replaced by General Model, but the retreat continued. On the same day Hitler authorised a retreat from the south of France, only three days after the start of Operation Dragoon. The 1st Army, which had been in the far south-west, had already been ordered to retreat and the Germans hoped to form a new line on the Seine. However on the same day Canadian troops captured Trun, reducing the number of crossing points over the Dives river. Gerow had also finally launched his attack from the south, and the Polish 1st Armoured Division was attacking from the north. That night the Allied artillery increased its volume of fire, hitting the pocket from all sides.
On 19 August the 2nd Army crossed the Orne and got to within a few miles of the Falaise-Argentan road. The Canadians secured Trun and the Poles captured Mt Ormel, blocking the gap between Trun and Chambois. Polish troops coming from the north and US troops from the south met up in Chambois.
By the evening of 19 August the remains of ten divisions, four corps HQs (74th, 84th, 2nd Parachute and 47th Panzer Corps) and two army HQs (Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberach) were trapped inside a pocket only 6 miles deep and 7 miles wide. Most of the pocket was within range of Allied artillery and all of it was under constant air attack. During 20 August the trapped troops made one last concerted attempt at a breakout. The only way out was now the narrow gap between Trun and Chambois that was partly blocked by the Poles. The escapers’ task was to cross the Dive River, which runs between Chambois and Trun, cross the river plan and escape across the higher ground to the east, moving through a narrow gap between the river and the Poles on Mt Ormel, to the north-east of Chambois. Some managed to escape to relative safety during the night of 19-20 August, but many were still in the Dives valley at dawn on 20 August. They came under heavy artillery fire, but were spared air attack by a heavy downpour. However during the day the gap was finally closed – Argentan fell to the Americans and the British and Canadians crossed the Falaise to Argentan road. However the isolated Poles on Hill 262 came under heavy attack all day, reducing their ability to interfere with the German retreat. Organised German traffic ended at about midnight on 20 August and only a few individuals managed to escape after that.
The battle of the Falaise Gap was a major German defeat. Perhaps 20,000-40,000 men escaped, but with hardly any of their equipment. The majority of these men were from the support arms – most of the combat troops were lost within the pocket. Tanks, self propelled guns and artillery were almost totally lost and even most of the machine guns were abandoned in the rush to escape. The Allies later found 10,000 dead inside the pocket and captured 50,000 men. By the end of 21 August six of the Panzer divisions had 2,000 men, 62 tanks and 26 artillery guns between them!
Not all of the troops who escaped from the Falaise Pocket reached safety. While the battle had been raging part of Patton’s army had been advancing fast towards the Seine. The 12th, 20th and 15th Corps had all made rapid progress, and on 19 August Haislip reached the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt (now Mantes-la-Jolie), only 30 miles downstream from Paris. The Allied leaders now made two key decisions. Their original plan had been to pause at the Seine to build up supplies for the advance towards the German frontier, but with the German armies retreating in chaos the chance to continue the advance was too good, so the decision was made to push directly for the German border. The second was to order Haislip to use part of his corps to secure a bridgehead across the Seine and the rest to push down the river in an attempt to create a second ‘pocket’. On the night of 19-20 August one division crossed the river unopposed, and on 20 August they secured a bridgehead. The German plans to make a stand on the Seine had already failed.
The second part of Haislip’s orders didn’t go as well. He sent an armoured division south down the river, but it ran into determined resistance from the shattered remnants of the German armies from Normandy, and only advanced twenty miles in five days. Corlett’s 19th Corps soon joined in, and cleared the Germans as far as Elbeuf (just south of Rouen). The Germans made a stand here, as they had 18 major ferries and several small boats in operation, as well as one small bridge into Rouen. Further north the British and Canadians also reached the river, along a stretch from Vernon to the coast. This saw them overlap with the Americans, but this time there were no concerns about overlapping army groups.
At the same time Allied troops were engaged in the liberation of Paris. The French capital was freed on 25 August, after a somewhat confused battle involving French and American regulars, the French Forces of the Interior and a somewhat confused German response. De Gaulle made his famous entry into the city before it had been fully secured, coming under fire outside Notre Dame. By the time Paris fell, the Allies had a series of bridgeheads across the Seine, and were preparing for the next stage of the advance across France.