Operation Battle of Hill 262

The 'Battle of Hill 262', otherwise known as the 'Battle of the Mont Ormel Ridge', was fought between German and Polish forces on an area of high ground above the village of Coudehard in Normandy (19/21 August 1944).

This sanguinary battle took place in the last stages of the 'Battle of Falaise'. By a time late in the summer of 1944, the bulk of two German armies had become surrounded by the Allies near the town of Falaise. The Mont Ormel ridge, with its commanding view of the area, sat astride the only escape route still open to the Germans. Polish forces seized the northern height of the ridge on 19 August and held it until 12.00 on 21 August in the face of determined German efforts to overrun the position. This Polish success proved to be a major contribution to the Allied victory in the 'Battle of Falaise'.

The success of the US 'Cobra' break-out from the Allies' Normandy lodgement provided the Allies with an opportunity to cut off and destroy most German forces in the area to the west of the Seine river, and US, British and Canadian armies converged on the area around Falaise, trapping SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s 7th Army and sizeable elements of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee in what became known as the Falaise pocket. On 20 August Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe 'B', ordered a withdrawal, but by this time the Allies were already blocking the two armies' exit path. During the night of 19 August, two battle groups of Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division had established themselves in the mouth of the Falaise pocket on and around the northernmost of the two peaks of the Mont Ormel ridge.

On 20 August, with his forces encircled, Model organised attacks on the Polish position from both sides of the pocket. The Germans managed to isolate the ridge and force open a narrow corridor. Lacking the fighting power to close the corridor, the Poles directed constant and accurate artillery fire onto German units retreating from the pocket, causing heavy casualties. The Germans launched fierce attacks throughout 20 August which inflicted losses on the Poles on Hill 262 but, despite their exhaustion and dangerous shortage of ammunition, the Poles managed to retain their foothold on the ridge. On the following day, less intense attacks continued until 12.00, when the last German effort to overrun the position was defeated in close-quarter fighting. The Poles were relieved by the Canadian Grenadier Guards shortly after 12.00, their stand having ensured the closure of the Falaise pocket and the collapse of the German position in Normandy.

On 25 July 1944, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the US 1st Army, launched 'Cobra' in the western part of the Normandy lodgement. Although intended only to cut a corridor through to Brittany to allow the US forces to emerge from the tight confines of Normandy’s bocage region of sunken roads and tall hedges, the offensive caused a collapse of the German position opposite the US sector when Heeresgruppe 'B', then commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, was slow to withdraw and expended many of its remaining effective formations in the 'Lüttich' counter-offensive. With the German left flank in ruins, the US forces began a headlong advance into Brittany, but a large concentration of German strength, including most of the armour, remained opposite the British and Canadian sector in the eastern part of the Normandy lodgement. The Allied ground forces commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, ordered Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army to swing to the north toward the town of Falaise, whose seizure would isolate almost all the German forces remaining in Normandy.

As the US forces compressed the developing German pocket from the south and Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army drove from the north-west, the task of completing the encirclement fell to the newly operational Canadian 1st Army of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar. Crerar and Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds, commander of the Canadian II Corps, planned an Anglo-Canadian offensive as 'Totalize'. Intended to seize an area of high ground to the north of Falaise, by 9 August the offensive was in trouble despite initial gains on the Verrières ridge and near Cintheaux. Strong German defences and a combination of indecision and hesitation in the Canadian chain of command hampered Allied efforts, and Major General G. Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division suffered many casualties. The Anglo-Canadian forces reached Hill 195, to the north of Falaise, on 10 August but were unable to make further progress and 'Totalize' was brought to a close.

The Canadians reorganised and on 14 August began 'Tractable'. Three days later Falaise fell. In a meeting with his divisional commanders on 19 August, Simonds emphasised to Maczek the importance of the rapid closure of the neck of the Falaise pocket. Assigned responsibility for the area of Moissy, Chambois and Coudehard, the Polish 1st Armoured Division had split into three battle groups, each comprising one armoured regiment and one infantry battalion, and these were sweeping the country to the north of Chambois. Facing determined German resistance and with Podpułkownik S. Koszustki’s battle group having gone astray and needing to be rescued, the division had not yet taken Chambois, Coudehard or the Mont Ormel ridge. Galvanised by Simonds, Maczek was determined to get his men onto their objectives as soon as possible. The 10th Dragoons (10th Polish Motorised Infantry Battalion) and 10th Polish Mounted Rifle Regiment (the divisional armoured reconnaissance regiment) drove hard on Chambois, whose capture would create a land link with Major General Raymond S. McClain’s US 90th Division, which was attacking the town simultaneously from the south. After taking Trun and Champeaux, Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division was able to assist and by the evening of 19 August the town was in Allied hands.

Although the pocket had been closed, the Allies were not yet astride the escape route of the 7th Army in any great strength and their positions came under severe attack. During the day an armoured column of Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzerdivision broke through the Canadians in St Lambert, capturing half the village and holding the road open for six hours until being expelled. Many Germans escaped along this route and numerous small parties infiltrated on foot through to the Dives river during the night.

To the north-east of Chambois and overlooking the Dives river valley, an elongated, wooded ridge runs approximately north/south above the village of Coudehard. The ridge’s two highest elevations, Point 262 North and Point 262 South, lie on each side of a pass within which the hamlet of Mont Ormel, from which the ridge takes its name, is situated. One of the few westbound roads in the area runs from Chambois through the pass in the direction of Vimoutiers and the Seine river. Viewing the feature on a map, Maczek commented that it resembled a caveman’s club with two bulbous heads, and the Poles nicknamed it the Maczuga (mace). Known to the Allies as Hill 262, the ridge constituted a critical blocking position for sealing the Falaise pocket and preventing any outside attempts to relieve the 7th Army.

Soon after 12.00 on 19 August, Podpułkownik Władysław Zgorzelski’s battle group (the 1st Armoured Regiment, 9th Infantry Battalion and one company of anti-tank guns) made a thrust toward Coudehard and the Mont Ormel ridge. While part of the battle group remained in Coudehard, two companies of the Polish Highland (Podhalian) Battalion led the assault up the north peak, followed by the squadrons of the 1st Armoured Regiment under the command of Podpułkownik Aleksandr Stefanowicz, which picked their way up a narrow, winding track. The Poles reached the summit at about 12.40 and took prisoner a number of demoralised Germans before proceeding to shell a column of PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks some 2 mile (3.2 km) long, armoured cars, 88- and 105-mm (3.465- and 4.13-in) guns, Nebelwerfer artillery rocket launchers, trucks and large numbers of horse-drawn carts. Three companies of the Polish 1st Armoured Regiment opened fire with every gun and machine gun available to it. The leading German vehicles were quickly destroyed and the Panther tanks, as a result of poor positioning, could not hit the Poles' Sherman tanks at the top of the hill, the German shells passing just above the Shermans' turrets. This victory was hard-won over a period of a few hours, for the Germans, despite being unnerved to discover that Point 262N was in Polish hands, responded quickly and vigorously with a bombardment from Nebelwerfer launchers and anti-tank guns. The Poles counterattacked and more Germans, including wounded, were taken prisoner and were moved to a hunting lodge on the northern slope. Point 137, near Coudehard, fell just after 15.30, yielding more German prisoners.

At about 17.00, Koszutski’s battle group, comprising the 2nd Armoured Regiment and the 8th Infantry Battalion, arrived at the ridge, followed by the rest of the Polish Highland Battalion and elements of the 9th Infantry Battalion at 19.30. The remainder of the 9th Infantry Battalion and the anti-tank company had remained around Boisjos 1.25 miles (2 km) to the north of Coudehard, but the bulk of two battle groups, amounting to some 80 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns, and 1,500 infantry, was concentrated on and around Point 262N. The Poles did not occupy Point 262S despite the fact that Podpułkownik Zdzisław Szydłowski, commanding the 9th Infantry Battalion, had been instructed to take this southern elevation: with darkness falling and the battlefield obscured by the thick smoke from the burning German column in the pass, this was deemed too hazardous to attempt before next light. The Poles spent the night fortifying Point 262N and entrenching the southern, south-western and north-eastern approaches to their positions.

Of the approximately 20 German infantry and armoured formations (including the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision, 84th Division, 276th Division, 277th Division, 326th Division, 353rd Division, 363rd Division, 2nd Panzerdivision, 116th Panzerdivision, 1st SS Panzerdivision, 10th SS Panzerdivision and 12th SS Panzerdivision) trapped in the Falaise pocket, some 12 were still combat-capable. As these formations retreated to the east, they fought with desperation to keep open the jaws of the encirclement, formed by the Canadians in Trun and St Lambert and the Poles and Americans in Chambois. German movement out of the pocket on the night of 19/20 August cut off the Polish battle groups on the Mont Ormel ridge, and on discovering this fact, Stefanowicz conferred with Koszutski: the two commanders knew that they lacked the means to seal the pocket or to fight their way out, so they decided that they could only hold fast until relieved.

Although the Poles on Point 262N could hear movement from the valley, other than some mortar rounds that landed among the positions of the 8th Infantry Battalion, the night of 19/20 August passed uneventfully. Without possession of Point 262S the Poles were unable to interfere with the large numbers of German troops slipping past the southern slopes of the ridge, and the uneven and wooded terrain, interspersed with thick hedgerows, made control of the ground to the west and south-west difficult by day and impossible by night. With the coming of dawn on 20 August, Szydłowski organised two companies of the 9th Infantry Battalion, supported by the 1st Armoured Regiment, for an attack across the road toward Point 262S but, hampered by the wreckage littering the pass, the attack soon bogged down.

The Poles' possession of some 0.77 sq miles (2 km²) of commanding terrain overlooking the 7th Army's only route out of Normandy was a huge impediment to the German retreat. Model, who on succeeding von Kluge two days earlier, had authorised a general withdrawal, was well aware of the need to open the neck of the pocket enclosing the 7th Army, and ordered elements of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Otto Baum’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich' and SS-Oberführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Bock’s 9th SS Panzerdivision 'Hohenstaufen', located outside the pocket, to attack Hill 262. At 09.00 the 8th Infantry Battalion’s positions around the Zameczek (Polish for small castle) to the north and north-east of point 262N were attacked, and it was 10.30 before the Germans were driven back. In the heavy fighting a number of the 1st Armoured Regiment’s supply trucks were destroyed.

From inside the pocket, German formations looking for an escape route were filtering through gaps in the Allied lines between Trun and Chambois, heading toward the ridge from the west: here a shallow stretch of the Dives river between Magny and Moissy, about 3.1 miles (5 km) long, was still passable and, although under indirect artillery fire, could be waded. The Poles could see the road from Chambois choked with troops and vehicles attempting to pass along the Dives river valley. Several columns moving down from the north-east that included tanks and self-propelled artillery, were taken under a one-hour bombardment from the 1st Armoured Regiment’s 3rd Squadron, breaking them up and scattering their infantry.

Having spotted German tank movements toward a nearby height, Point 239 some 1.85 miles (3 km) to the north of the ridge, an attack was planned to take this feature and provide a buffer for the Poles' northern positions around the Zameczek. However, the 2nd Armoured Regiment’s 2nd Squadron, tasked with capturing Point 239, was unable to release its tanks from their defensive duties. At one point during the day, one Panther tank of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision worked its way onto the height and at a range of 1,530 yards (1400 m) picked off five Sherman tanks of the 1st Armoured Regiment’s 3rd Squadron. The survivors were forced to change position, but later lost another tank to fire from the north.

At about 12.00, the Germans began an artillery and mortar barrage that inflicted losses on the ridge’s defenders and lasted for the entire afternoon. At about the same time, the Kampfgruppe 'Weidinger' seized an important road junction to the north-east of Coudehard. Several units of the 10th SS Panzerdivision, 12th SS Panzerdivision and 116th Panzerdivision managed to clear a corridor past Point 262N, and by the middle of the afternoon about 10,000 German troops had escaped from the pocket.

One battalion of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl’s (from 22 August Generalmajor Walter Wadeh’s) 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision, together with one armoured regiment of SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Mohnke’s 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler', now joined the assault on the ridge. At 14.00 the 8th Infantry Battalion on the ridge’s northern slopes came under attack once again. Although the infantry and armour closing on the Polish positions were eventually repulsed, with a large number of prisoners taken and artillery again causing significant casualties, the Poles were being slowly driven back, but nonetheless managed to retain their grip on Point 262N and with well co-ordinated artillery fire continued to exact a toll on German units passing through the corridor. Another attempt was made to organise an attack towards Point 239, but the Germans were ready and the 9th Infantry Battalion’s 3rd Company was driven back with heavy losses.

Exasperated by his men’s losses, Hausser ordered the destruction of the Polish positions. At 15.00, substantial forces, including remnants of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division and several Kampfgruppen of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision, inflicted heavy casualties on the 8th and 9th Infantry Battalions. By 17:00 the attack was at its height and the Poles were fighting German tanks and infantry inside their perimeter. Grenadiers of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision very nearly reached the ridge’s summit before being repulsed by the well entrenched Polish defenders, and the position’s security was not re-established until 19.00, by which time the Poles had expended almost all their ammunition and thus in a precarious situation. A 20-minute ceasefire was arranged to allow the Germans to evacuate a large medical convoy, after which fighting resumed with redoubled intensity.

Earlier in the day, Simonds had ordered that every effort was to be made to reach the Poles isolated on Hill 262, but at 'sacrificial' cost the remnants of SS-Oberführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Bock’s 9th SS Panzerdivision 'Hohenstaufen' and the 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision had succeeded in preventing the Canadians from intervening.

Very low on supplies and unable to evacuate their prisoners or the wounded of both sides, many of whom received additional injuries from the unremitting hail of mortar bombs, the Poles had hoped to see the Canadian 4th Armoured Division coming to their rescue by the evening. However, as night fell it became clear that no Allied relief force would reach the ridge that day. Lacking any means to interfere, the exhausted Poles were forced to watch as the remnants of General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps left the pocket. The intensity of the fighting declined to a sporadic level throughout the hours of darkness: after the savage nature of the day’s combat, each side avoided contact, although frequent Polish artillery bombardments continued to harass the German forces retreating from the sector.

During the morning of the following day, the Allies attempted, despite poor flying weather, to air-drop ammunition to the Polish forces on the ridge. Learning that the Canadians had resumed their push and were making for Point 239, at 07.00 a platoon of the 1st Armoured Regiment’s 3rd Squadron reconnoitred the German positions below the Zameczek. More German attacks were delivered during the morning, both from inside the pocket along the road linking Chambois and Vimoutiers, and from the east. Raids from the direction of Coudehard managed to penetrate the Polish defences and take prisoners, and the last German effort came at around 11.00 by Waffen-SS remnants who had infiltrated through the wooded hills to the rear of the 1st Armoured Regiment’s dressing station. This assault was defeated at pointblank range by the 9th Infantry Battalion with the 1st Armoured Regiment’s tanks using their anti-aircraft machine guns in support. The machine guns' tracer ammunition set fire to the grass, killing wounded men on the slope. As the final infantry assaults faded, the German artillery and mortar fire targeting the hill also subsided.

Moving from Chambois, the Polish 1st Armoured Division’s reconnaissance regiment made an attempt to reach the Poles on Point 262N, but was mistakenly engaged by the ridge’s defenders. The regiment withdrew after losing two Cromwell tanks. At 12.00 a Polish forward patrol from the ridge encountered the Canadian vanguard near Point 239, and the Canadian Grenadier Guards reached the ridge just over one hour later after fighting for more than five hours and knocking out two Panther and one PzKpfw IV tanks, as well as two self-propelled guns, along their route. By 14.00, with the arrival of the first supply convoy, the position had been relieved.

The Falaise pocket was considered closed by the evening of 21 August. Tanks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had linked with the Polish forces in Coudehard, and the Canadian 3rd and 4th Divisions had fully secured St Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois. The Polish losses on the Maczuga were probably in the order of of 351 men killed and wounded, and 11 tanks lost, though another estimate suggests 325 men killed, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing for a total of about one-fifth of the division’s combat strength, and the Polish 1st Armoured Division’s operational report indicated 1,441 casualties including 466 killed in action. Estimates for the German losses in the assaults on the ridge as about 500 men killed and 1,000 taken prisoner, most of these from the 12th SS Panzerdivision. The Germans also lost lost large numbers of Tiger, Panther and PzKpfw IV tanks destroyed, as well as a significant quantity of artillery.

Although some estimates state that up to 100,000 German troops, many of them wounded, may have succeeded in escaping the Allied encirclement, they left in their wake more than 10,000 dead and between 40,000 and 50,000 men to be taken prisoner.