Operation Tractable

This was the Canadian and Polish development of ‘Totalize’ by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army to take Falaise, and then Trun and Chamois, and so close the neck of the Falaise salient from the north against the movement of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army from the south (14/21 August 1944).

The entire undertaking was schemed and implemented in an effort to trap considerable German forces, notably SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee, SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s 7th Army and General Heinrich Eberbach’s Panzergruppe ‘Eberbach’: this last was the remnant of Eberbach’s Panzergruppe 'West' after its main strength had been transformed into the core of the 5th Panzerarmee on 5 August.

The neck of the salient, created largely by the German advance to the west from Mortain in ‘Lüttich’ against the US ‘Cobra’ breakthrough at Avranches on the western side of the Cotentin peninsula, was about 25 miles (40 km) wide, and the Allies hastened to improvise ‘Tractable’ before the Germans could pull out of the trap. Commanding the US 12th Army Group, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley hoped that Major General Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps would be allowed to attack to the north to meet the Canadian II Corps, but General Sir Bernard Montgomery was jealous of his Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group’s operational area and concerned about the possibility of ‘friendly fire’ incidents as two Allied formations approached each other head-on, and therefore decided that ‘Tractable’ would use only the Canadian 1st Army, which would also leave Haislip’s corps free for a larger enveloping movement near the Seine river if Allied plans progressed according to intention. Thus a major opportunity was sacrificed, for at that time Haislip was preparing an advance to the north in the direction of Argentan in the direction that would allow him to link with the Canadian II Corps advancing to the south in the direction of Falaise.

‘Tractable’ incorporated lessons learned in ‘Totalize’, most especially the advantages of using mechanised infantry and the advantages of employing heavy bombers in the tactical assault role.

‘Tractable’ differed from ‘Totalize’ in being launched in full daylight. An initial bombardment by medium bombers was to weaken the German defences, and was to be followed by an advance by Major General G. Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division on the western flank of Hill 195, while Major General R. F. L. Keller’s (from 18 August Major General D. C. Spry’s) Canadian 3rd Division attacked on the eastern flank with Brigadier J. F. Bingham’s Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade in support. The Canadian advance was to be shielded by a large smokescreen laid down by the supporting Canadian artillery. Montgomery hoped that by 24.00 on 14 August the Canadian forces would have control of Falaise, from which all three formations would then advance toward Trun, 11 miles (18 km) to the east of Falaise, with the additional assistance of Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division, numbering approximately 10,000 men. Once in Trun, a junction with the US forces at Chambois could then be quickly accomplished.

The main opposition to the Canadians was provided by SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’, which now included the remnants of the two infantry divisions effectively destroyed in ‘Tractable’. In total, the German forces within the Falaise ‘pocket’ numbered some 350,000 men.

If surprise had been achieved, the Canadians would probably have succeeded in a rapid breakthrough but, during the night of 13/14 August, a Canadian officer lost his way while moving between divisional headquarters, drove into the German lines and was promptly killed: on the body the Germans discovered a copy of Simonds’s orders. The 12th SS Panzerdivision therefore placed most of its remaining strength (500 men, 15 armoured fighting vehicles and 12 88-mm/3.465-in anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns) along the expected Canadian axis of advance.

‘Tractable’ was launched at 12.00 on 14 August when 800 Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command dropped 4,000 tons of ordnance on the German front line, which was held by Generalleutnant Kurt Chill’s 85th Division and Oberst Karl Rösler’s 89th Division, with SS-Sturmbannführer Heinz von Westernhagen’s 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung (Tiger) in reserve. As had also been the case in ‘Totalize’, many of the bombers dropped short of their targets, causing 400 Polish and Canadian casualties.

Covered by an artillery-laid smokescreen, the two Canadian divisions then moved forward. Although their line of sight was reduced by the smoke, German units still managed to inflict severe casualties on the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, these including Brigadier E. L. Booth, commander of the Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade, as the formation moved to the south in the direction of Falaise. Throughout the day the continuous attacks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Polish 1st Armoured Division forced a crossing of the Laison river between Ernes and Montboint. Limited access to the crossing points over the Dives river opened the possibility of counterattacks by SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Weiss’s (from 18 August SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Hartrampf’s) 102nd SS schwere Panzerabteilung.

On the road linking Caen and Falaise, Potigny fell to the Poles late in the afternoon, and by the end of the first day, elements of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division and Canadian 4th Armoured Division had reached Point 159, directly to the north of Falaise, although the Canadians had been unable to break into the town itself. In order to bolster his offensive, Simonds now ordered Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division to move toward the front, with the hope that this reinforcement would be sufficient to enable his corps to capture the town.

Although the progress during this first day of the offensive had been slower than expected, ‘Tractable’ resumed on the following day. Both armoured divisions pushed toward the south-east in the direction of Falaise, and the Canadian 2nd Division and Canadian 3rd Division, supported by the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade, continued their drive to the south in the direction of the town. After severe fighting the Canadian 4th Armoured Division captured Soulangy, but the overall gains made were minimal as strong German resistance prevented an outright breakthrough to Trun.

On 16 August the Canadian 2nd Division broke its way into Falaise itself, encountering minor opposition from Waffen-SS units and scattered pockets of German army infantry. Although it would take two more days to clear all resistance in the town, the first major objective of ‘Tractable’ had now been achieved and Simonds began to reorganise his armoured strength for a renewed push toward Trun, and thus the closure of the neck of the Falaise ‘pocket’.

The drive of the Canadian and Polish armoured divisions toward Trun began on 16 August with preliminary attacks in preparation for an assault on Trun and Chambois. On the following day, both armoured divisions advanced. By a time early in the afternoon of the same day, the Polish 1st Armoured Division had completely outflanked the 12th SS Panzerdivision, enabling several Polish units both to reach the Canadian 4th Armoured Division’s objectives and to make a significant expansion of the bridgehead to the north-west of Trun. Maczek, the Polish commander, now divided his division into four battle groups. One of these struck to the south-west, cutting off Trun and establishing itself on the high ground dominating the town and the valley of Dives river, allowing for a powerful assault by the Canadian 4th Armoured Division on Trun, which was liberated during the morning of 18 August.

As the Canadian and Polish forces liberated Trun, Maczek’s second battle group was manoeuvring to the south-east, capturing Champeaux and anchoring future attacks on Chambois across a 6-mile (10-km) front. At its closest, the front was 4 miles (6.4 km) from the nearest part of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s US V Corps of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army in the town.

By the evening of 18 August all four of Maczek’s battle groups had established themselves directly to the north of Chambois (one outside of the town, one near Vimoutiers, and two at the foot of Hill 262). Reinforced quickly by elements of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, the Polish 1st Armoured Division was in an ideal position to close the gap on the following day. However, the presence of the Polish formation had also alerted Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s successor as the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ and commander of Heeresgruppe ‘B’, of the need to keep open the mouth of the pocket.

At a time early on 19 August, Simonds met his divisional commanders to finalise plans to close the neck of the ‘pocket’. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division were to attack toward Chambois, on the western flank of two battle groups of the Polish 1st Armoured Division. The other two Polish battle groups were to strike to the east, securing Hill 262 and thus covering the eastern flank of the assault. The Canadian 2nd Division and Canadian 3rd Division were to continue their grinding offensives against the northern extremities of the Falaise ‘pocket’, inflicting heavy casualties on the now-exhausted 12th SS Panzerdivision.

The assault began almost immediately after the end of the meeting, with one Polish battle group advancing toward Chambois and Major David V. Currie’s ‘Currie’ Task Force of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division covering the Polish advance. Simultaneously, two Polish battle groups moved toward Hill 262. Despite heavy German resistance, Battle Group ‘Zgorzelski’ was able to secure Point 137, directly to the west of Hill 262. By a time early in the afternoon, Battle Group ‘Stefanowicz’ had taken the hill itself, annihilating a German infantry company in the process. As a result of the severity of this fighting, Polish casualties accounted for nearly half those sustained by the whole of the 1st Army.

By a time late in the afternoon of 19 August, Canadian and Polish forces had linked with Major General Horace L. McBride’s US 80th Division and Major General Raymond S. McClain’s US 90th Division already stationed in the town. The neck of the Falaise ‘pocket’ had been closed, trapping Model’s forces. As the link took place, however, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps had begun its counterattack against the Polish forces on Hill 262, hoping to reopen the pocket. With the US and Canadian forces facing German counterattacks in their sectors, the Polish forces would have to defend against two veteran Panzer divisions to keep the gap closed.

On the morning of 20 August, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’ and SS-Oberführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Friedrich-Wilhelm Bock’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ attacked the Polish positions on Hill 262. At the same time Generalmajor Ernst Haeckel’s 16th Division and the 12th SS Panzerdivision attacked the US and Canadian forces from positions within the pocket, opening small passages through Allied positions. By the middle of the morning, 2,000 survivors of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s II Fallschirmkorps had managed to breach the Canadian positions along the Dives river and at Point 117. At about 12.00 several units of the 12th SS Panzerdivision, SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’ and Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin’s 116th Panzerdivision managed to break through these weakened positions. By the middle of the afternoon, reinforcements of the ‘Currie’ Task Force managed to reach St Lambert sur Dives, denying two German armies evacuation of the pocket. Over the next 36 hours, this small battle group repulsed almost continual attacks by German forces, destroying seven German tanks, 12 88-mm (3.465-in) anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns and 40 vehicles. In the brutal fighting around St Lambert sur Dives, the ‘Currie’ Task Force was able to inflict nearly 2,000 casualties on attacking German forces, including 300 killed and 1,100 taken prisoner.

By the evening of August 20, the Germans had exhausted their effort against St Lambert sur Dives, and the surviving elements of Generalleutnant Otto Elfeldt’s LXXXIV Corps surrendered to Canadian and US forces near Chambois.

While the ‘Currie’ Task Force stalled German forces outside St Lambert sur Dives, two of the Polish battle groups were engaged in a protracted battle with two high-quality SS Panzer divisions. Throughout the night of 19/20 August, the Polish forces had entrenched themselves along the southern, south-western and north-eastern lines of approach to Hill 262. Directly to the south-west of Mont Ormel, German units moved along what would later become known as the ‘Corridor of Death’ as the Polish inflicted heavy casualties on the German forces moving toward Mont Ormel with a well co-ordinated artillery barrage. From the north-east, Baum’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision planned an assault in force against the four infantry battalions and two armoured regiments of the Polish 1st Armoured Division dug in on Hill 262. Bock’s 9th SS Panzerdivision would attack from the north, while simultaneously preventing Canadian units from reinforcing the Polish armoured division. Having managed to break out of the Falaise ‘pocket’, the 12th SS Panzerdivision, 10th SS Panzerdivision and 116th Panzerdivision were then to attack Hill 262 from the south-west. If this major obstacle could be cleared, German units could initiate a full withdrawal from the Falaise ‘pocket’.

The first attack against Polish positions was by SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Weidinger’s 4th SS Panzergrenadierregiment ‘Der Führer’ of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision. Although the Podhale Rifles battalion was able to repel the attack, it expended a substantial amount of its ammunition in doing so. The second attack was devastating to the dwindling armoured forces of the Polish battle groups: for example, a single German tank, positioned on Point 239 to the north-east of Mont Ormel, was able to destroy five Sherman tanks within two minutes. Generalmajor Walter Wadehn’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision and an armoured regiment of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ now attacked Mont Ormel from inside the Falaise ‘pocket’. This attack was repulsed by Polish artillery, which exacted a very heavy toll on the German infantry and armour.

As the assault from the south-west petered out, the 2nd SS Panzerdivision resumed its attack on the north-eastern part of the ridge. As the Polish units were now concentrated on the southern edges of the position, the 2nd SS Panzerdivision was able to force a path through to the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision by 12.00, so opening a corridor out of the ‘pocket’. By the middle of the afternoon, more than 10,000 German troops had escaped through this corridor.

Despite being largely overwhelmed by strong counterattacks, Polish forces continued to hold the high ground on Mont Ormel, and also savaged passing German forces with well co-ordinated artillery fire. Irritated by the presence of these units, which were exacting a heavy toll on the men of his 7th Army, Hausser ordered the destruction of the Polish positions. Although substantial forces, including Generalleutnant Erich Müller’s 353rd Division and several Kampfgruppen of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision, inflicted heavy casualties on the 8 and 9/Polish 1st Armoured Division, the counterattack was ultimately fought off.

The battle had cost the Poles almost all of their ammunition, leaving them in a precarious position. At 19.00 on 20 August, a 20-minute ceasefire was arranged to allow the German forces to evacuate a large convoy of medical vehicles. Immediately following the passage of these vehicles, the fighting intensified. Although the Germans were incapable of dislodging the Polish forces, the hill’s defenders had reached the point of exhaustion. With ammunition almost totally expended, the Poles were forced to watch as the remnants of General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps escaped from the pocket. Despite this, the Polish artillery continued to bombard every German formation and unit which entered the evacuation corridor. However, Stefanowicz, commander of the Polish battle groups on Hill 262, doubted his force’s chances of survival.

The fall of night was welcome to both the Germans and the Poles. Fighting was sporadic as both sides tried to avoid contact with one another, but frequent Polish artillery fire interrupted German attempts to retreat from the sector.

By the morning, the German attacks on the position had resumed. Although not co-ordinated as well as they had been during the previous day, the attack still managed to reach the last of the Polish defenders on Mont Ormel. As the remaining Polish forces repelled the assault, their tanks were forced to use the last of their ammunition. At about 12.00, the last Waffen-SS elements launched a final assault on the positions of the 9th Battalion, and were driven back by point-blank fire. But there would be no more attacks, and the two Polish battle groups had survived the onslaught despite being completely surrounded by German forces for three days.

The Polish casualties in the fighting for Mont Ormel were 325 killed, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing, representing some 20% of the Polish 1st Armoured Division’s combat strength. Within an hour, the Canadian Grenadier Guards managed to link with the remnants of Stefanowicz’s force. By a time late in the afternoon, the remainder of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and 9th SS Panzerdivision had started their retreat to the east in the direction of the Seine river.

The Allies were now compressing the ‘pocket’ with six corps (the II Corps of the Canadian 1st Army, the XII, XXX and VIII Corps of the British 2nd Army, and the VII and V Corps of the US 1st Army), and on 20 August the net was finally closed on the German armies, trapping two army headquarters, four corps headquarters and 10 divisions. By the evening of 21 August the vast majority of the German forces remaining in the Falaise ‘pocket’ had surrendered. Nearly all of the major German formations which had caused significant damage to the Canadian forces during the Battle of Normandy had been destroyed. Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz’s Panzer-Lehr-Division and 9th SS Panzerdivision now existed only in name. The 12th SS Panzerdivision had lost 94% of its armour, nearly all of its artillery and 70% of its vehicles: numbering close to 20,000 men and 150 tanks before the campaign, it had been reduced to 300 men and 10 tanks.

Several German formations, notably the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and 11th SS Panzerdivision, had managed to escape toward the Seine river, but without most of their equipment.

Conservative estimates for the number of German soldiers captured in the Falaise Pocket approach 50,000, although some estimates put total German losses in the ‘pocket’ as high as 200,000. By 23 August the remnants of the 7th Army had reached new positions on the Seine river to prepare the defence of Paris. Simultaneously, elements of Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Heeresgruppe ‘G’, including Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s (from 25 August General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s) 15th Army and Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee, moved to engage the US forces in the south. In the following week, elements of the Canadian 1st Army would repeatedly engage the units on the Seine river in attempts to break through to the ports along the French coast of the English Channel. During the evening of 23 August, French and US forces entered Paris.

As a result of the speed of successive offensives during the first three weeks of August 1944, the Canadian casualties for ‘Tractable’ are not known with any certainty. However, casualty figures for the combined losses during ‘Totalize’ and ‘Tractable’ are put at 5,500 Canadians. Exact German casualty figures during the period of ‘Tractable’ are also uncertain. Although semi-reliable figures can be found for total casualties within the Falaise ‘pocket’, no statistics are available for how many of these were taken as a result of Canadian operations during ‘Tractable’.

In the aftermath of the Falaise ‘pocket’, the 7th Army was found to have been effectively annihilated, having lost anywhere from 50,000 to 200,000 men in the pocket, as well more than 200 tanks, 1,000 pieces of artillery and 5,000 other vehicles. In the fighting around Hill 262 alone, the German casualties reached 2,000 killed, 5,000 taken prisoner, and 55 tanks, 152 other armoured fighting vehicles and 44 pieces of artillery lost.

The Polish losses in ‘Tractable’ are more certain. In its attacks on Chambois and Mont Ormel, the Polish losses were 325 killed, 1,002 wounded, and 114 missing. Before the Chambois and Ormel actions on 14/18 August they lost a further 263 men, bringing the total Polish losses for ‘Tractable’ to 1,704 including 588 dead.