Operation Battle of the Falaise Pocket

The 'Battle of the Falaise Pocket' was fought between Allied and German forces as the final and decisive engagement of the 'Battle of Normandy' (12/21 August 1944).

The Western Allied forces trapped substnatial German forces in a pocket around Falaise in the French region of Calvados: here Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' had SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s [e[7th Army and SS-Oberstgruppenführer und Generaloberst der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s 5th Panzerarmee (ex-Panzergruppe 'West') encircled by Western Allied forces. The battle resulted in the destruction of most of Heeresgruppe 'B' in the area to the west of the Seine river, and this paved the way to the liberation of Paris and Western Allied advance the Franco-German border.

Six weeks after the 6 June Allied landings of 'Neptune' (iii), which had started the 'Overlord' invasion of Normandy, there was considerable turmoil on both side of the front lines. The Allies had experienced strong resistance: in the east of the lodgement, the British forces had expected to liberate Caen immediately after the invasion, but this took nearly two months, and similarly, in the west of the lodgement the US forces had expected to control St Lô by 7 June, but German resistance delayed this until after Caen’s liberation. However, the German forces had expended great, and largely irreplaceable, resources as they defending the front. Allied air forces had achieved air supremacy up to some 60 miles (100 km) behind German lines. Allied air forces continuously bombed and strafed German logistical lines, limiting the availability of fuel and ammunition. The German land forces had used their available reserves (especially its armoured reserves) to buttress the front line around Caen, leaving few additional troops to create successive lines of defence.

The Allied armies then developed and undertook a multi-stage operation. This began with a British and Canadian attack along the eastern line around Caen in 'Goodwood' (i) on 18 July, to which the Germans responded by committing a large portion of their armoured reserves in defence. On 25 July large numbers of US bombers carpet bombed a corridor, 6,500 yards (6000 m) wide, on the western end of the German line around St Lô in 'Cobra', and US ground forces pushed into the resulting gap. The German forces were overwhelmed and the Americans broke through. On 1 August, Lieutenant General George S. Patton was named the commanding officer of the newly recommissioned US 3rd Army, which included substantial elements of the force that had broken through the German lines. The 3rd Army drove quickly to the south and then to the east, meeting little resistance. Concurrently, the British and Canadian forces pushed to the south in 'Bluecoat' in an attempt to keep the German armour engaged. They forced the Germans back in a withdrawal that began in an orderly fashion but then collapsed into disorder for lack of fuel.

Adolf Hitler refused the request of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, then commander of Heeresgruppe 'B', for authorisation to withdraw, instead ordering him to conduct the 'Lüttich' counter-offensive at Mortain against the US forces. Four depleted Panzer divisions were insufficient to defeat Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army, driving the Germans deeper into the Allied envelopment.

On 8 August, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, the Allied ground force commander, ordered the Allied armies to converge on the area of Falaise and Chambois to envelop Heeresgruppe 'B', with the US 1st Army forming the southern arm, the British 2nd Army the base and the Canadian 1st Army the northern arm of the encirclement. The Germans began to withdraw on 17 August, and on 19 August the Allies linked at Chambois. Gaps were forced in the Allied lines by German counterattacks, however, and some of the trapped German forces escaped through these gaps: the largest was a corridor forced past Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division on Hill 262, a commanding position at the mouth of the pocket. By the evening of 21 August, the pocket had been sealed, with an estimated 50,000 Germans trapped inside it. Many Germans escaped, but the German losses were nonetheless huge in terms of men taken prisoner and, perhaps more significantly, armoured vehicles, artillery and other heavy weapons and equipment abandoned. The Allied liberation of Paris came a few days later, and on 30 August the remnants of Heeresgruppe 'B' retreated eastward across the Seine river, allowing the Allies to deem 'Overlord' complete.

Early Allied objectives in the wake of 'Neptune' (iii) had included the capture of the deep-water port of Cherbourg and the area surrounding the city of Caen. Allied attacks to expand the initial beach-heads had rapidly defeated the first German attempts to destroy the invasion force, but bad weather in the English Channel delayed the Allied build-up of supplies and reinforcements, while enabling the Germans to move troops and supplies with less interference from the Allied air forces. Cherbourg was not captured by Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps until 27 June, and the German defence of Caen lasted until 20 July, when the southern districts were taken by the British and Canadians in 'Goodwood' (i) and 'Atlantic'.

The Allied ground forces commander, Montgomery had planned a strategy of attracting German forces to the eastern end of the Allied lodgement against the British and Canadian forces, while the US 1st Army advanced down the western side of the Cotentin peninsula to Avranches. On 25 July the US 1st Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, began 'Cobra', his forces breaking through the German defences near St Lô and by the end of the third day had advanced 15 miles (24 km) to the south of its start line in several places. Avranches fell to the Americans on 30 July and within 24 hours Major General Troy H. Middleton’s US VIII Corps of the US 3rd Army had crossed the bridge at Pontaubault into Brittany and continued south and west through open country, meeting almost no opposition.

The US advance was swift and by 8 August, Le Mans, the former headquarters of the 7th Army, had been taken. After 'Cobra', 'Bluecoat' and 'Spring', the German forces in Normandy had been so reduced that 'only a few SS fanatics still entertained hopes of avoiding defeat'. Over the same period, on the Eastern Front Soviet forces had started 'Bagration' against Heeresgruppe 'Mitte', and thereby left no possibility of the redeployment of German forces to reinforce the Western Front. Hitler sent a directive to Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, the commander of Heeresgruppe 'B' after the dismissal of Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, ordering 'an immediate counterattack between Mortain and Avranches' to 'annihilate' the US forces and retake the western coast of the Cotentin peninsula. Eight of the nine Panzer divisions in Normandy were to be used in this 'Lüttich', but only four could be made ready in time. The German commanders protested that their forces were incapable of an offensive, but the warnings were ignored and 'Lüttich' began on 7 August around Mortain. The first attacks were made by the 2nd Panzerdivision, 1st SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler' and 2nd SS Panzerdivision 'Das Reich', but these had only 75 PzKpfw IV tanks, 70 PzKpfw V Panther tanks and 32 self-propelled guns between them. The Allies had been forewarned by 'Ultra' intelligence derived from signals intercepts, and although the offensive continued until 13 August, the threat of 'Lüttich' had been ended within 24 hours. 'Lüttich' had led to the defeat of the most powerful remaining German formations on the western side of the Cotentin peninsula by the US 1st Army, and the Normandy front on the verge of collapse. As Bradley noted, 'This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army and go all the way from here to the German border.'

The Canadian 1st Army was ordered to capture high ground to the north of Falaise as part of the movements to trap Heeresgruppe 'B'. The Canadians thus planned 'Totalize', with attacks by strategic bombers and a novel night attack using Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers, and the operation began on the night of 7/8 August: the leading infantry rode in the Kangaroos, guided by electronic aids and illuminants, against the 12th SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend', which held an 8.7-mile (14-km) front, supported by the 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung and remnants of the 89th Division. The Verrières ridge and Cintheaux were captured on 9 August, but the speed of the advance was slowed by German resistance and some poor Canadian unit leadership, which led to many casualties in the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and Polish 1st Armoured Division. By 10 August, British and Canadian forces had reached Hill 195, to the north of Falaise, and on the following day, Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds, commander of the Canadian II Corps, relieved the armoured divisions with infantry divisions, so ending the offensive.

Still expecting von Kluge to withdraw his forces from the tightening Allied noose, Montgomery had for some time been planning a 'long envelopment' in which the British and Canadian forces would pivot left from Falaise toward the Seine river as the US 3rd Army blocked the escape route between the Seine and the Loire rivers, trapping all surviving German forces in western France. In the course of a telephone conversation on 8 August, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, recommended a US proposal for a shorter envelopment at Argentan. Montgomery and Patton had misgivings: should the Allies fail to take Argentan, Alençon and Falaise quickly, many Germans might escape. Believing he could always fall back on the original plan if necessary, Montgomery accepted the wishes of Bradley as the man on the spot, and the proposal was adopted.

The US 3rd Army’s advance from the south made good progress on 12 August: Alençon was captured and von Kluge was compelled to commit troops he had been gathering for a counterattack. On the following day, Major General Lunsford E. Oliver’s US 5th Armored Division of Major General Wade H. Haislip’s US XV Corps advanced 35 miles (56 km) and reached positions overlooking Argentan. On the same day, Bradley overruled orders by Patton for a further push northward in the direction of Falaise by the 5th Armored Division, and instead instructed the XV Corps to 'concentrate for operations in another direction'. The US troops near Argentan were ordered to withdraw, which ended the pincer movement by the XV Corps. Patton objected but complied, which left an exit for the German forces in the Falaise pocket.

With the Americans on the southern flank halted and then engaged with General Heinrich Eberbach’s Panzergruppe 'Eberbach', and with the British pressing in from the north-west, the Canadian 1st Army, which included the Polish 1st Armoured Division, was ordered to close the trap. After a limited attack by Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division down the Laize river valley on 12/13 August, most of the time since 'Totalize' had been devoted to preparations for the 'Tractable' set-piece attack on Falaise. The operation began at 11.42 on 14 August under cover of an artillery smokescreen that echoed the night attack of 'Totalize'. Major General G. Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division and the Polish 1st Armoured Division crossed the Laison river, but delays on the Dives river provided the Tiger heavy tanks of the 102nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung to counterattack.

Navigating through the smoke slowed progress, and the Canadians' mistaken use of yellow smoke to identify their positions (the same colour strategic bombers used to mark targets) led to some bombing of the Canadians and thus progress that was slower than planned. On 15 August, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions and the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade continued the offensive, but progress remained slow. The 4th Armoured Division captured Soulangy against determined German resistance and then held several German counterattacks, which prevented a breakthrough to Trun, and on the next day the Canadian 2nd Division entered Falaise against minor opposition from Waffen-SS units and scattered pockets of German infantry before securing the town by 17 August.

At 12.00 on 16 August, von Kluge had refused an order from Hitler for another counterattack, and in the afternoon Hitler agreed to a withdrawal. Becoming suspicious that von Kluge intended to surrender to the Allies, late on 17 August Hitler sacked von Kluge and recalled him to Germany. von Kluge then either killed himself or was executed by an SS officer, Jürgen Stroop, for his involvement in the 20 July plot. von Kluge was succeeded by Model, whose first act was to order the immediate retreat of the 7th Army and the 5th Panzerarmee, while the II SS Panzerkorps (the remnants of four Panzer divisions) held the northern face of the escape route against the British 2nd Army and Canadian 1st Army, and the XLVII Panzerkorps (the remnants of two Panzer divisions) held the southern face against the US 3rd Army.

Throughout the retreat, German columns were constantly harried by fighter-bombers of Major General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s US 9th Army Air Force and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force, using bombs, rockets, cannon and machine guns, turning the escape routes into killing grounds. Despite claims of large numbers of tanks and other vehicles destroyed from the air, a post-battle investigation showed that only 11 armoured vehicles could be proved to have had been destroyed by aircraft, although about one-third of wrecked trucks were lost to air attack and many others had been destroyed or abandoned by their crews, probably as a result of the air threat.

On 17 August the encirclement was still incomplete. The Polish 1st Armoured Division, which was a component of Canadian 1st Army, was divided into three battle groups and ordered to make a wide sweep to the south-east to link with US troops at Chambois. Trun fell to the Canadian 4th Armoured Division on 18 August. After capturing Champeaux on 19 August, the Polish battle groups converged on Chambois and, with reinforcements from the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, secured the town and linked with the US 90th Division and Général de Division Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s French 2ème Division Blindée by the evening of the same day. The Allies were not yet astride the 7th Army's escape route in any great strength, however, and their positions were attacked by German troops inside the pocket. An armoured column of the 2nd Panzerdivision broke through the Canadians in St Lambert, took half the village and kept a road open for six hours until the fall of night. Many Germans escaped, and small parties made their way through to the Dives river during the night.

Having taken Chambois, two of the Polish battle groups drove to the north-east and established themselves on part of Hill 262 (Mont Ormel ridge), spending the night of 19 August entrenching themselves. On the following morning, Model ordered elements of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and 9th SS Panzerdivision to attack from outside the pocket toward the Polish positions. At about 12.00, several units of the 10th SS Panzerdivision, 12th SS Panzerdivision and 116th Panzerdivision managed to break through the Polish lines and open a corridor, while the 9th SS Panzerdivision prevented any Canadian intervention. By the middle of the afternoon, about 10,000 German troops had passed out of the pocket.

The Poles held Hill 262 and were able from their vantage point to direct artillery fire on to the retreating Germans. The 7th Army's commander, Hausser ordered that the elimination of the Polish positions. The remnants of the 352nd Division and several Kampfgruppen of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision attacked and inflicted many casualties on the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Polish division, but the assault was eventually repulsed at the cost of nearly all of the Poles' ammunition, and the Poles therefore could only watch as the remnants of the XLVII Panzerkorps escaped. During the night there was sporadic fighting, and the Poles called for frequent artillery bombardments to disrupt the German retreat from the sector.

German attacks were resumed during the next morning, but the Poles retained their foothold on the ridge. At about 11.00, a final attempt on the positions of the 9th Battalion was launched by nearby SS troops, who were defeated in close-quarter combat. Soon after 12.00, the Canadian Grenadier Guards reached Mont Ormel, and by a time late in the afternoon the remainder of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and 9th SS Panzerdivision had begun their retreat to the Seine river. For the Falaise pocket operation, the Polish 1st Armoured Division listed 1,441 casualties including 466 killed, while the Polish casualties on Mont Ormel were 351 men killed and wounded, and 11 tanks lost. The German losses in their assaults on the ridge were estimated at 500 killed and 1,000 men taken prisoner, most of them from the 12th SS Panzerdivision, and scores of PzKpfw VI Tiger, PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw IV tanks were destroyed, along with many pieces of artillery.

By the evening of 21 August, tanks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had linked with Polish forces at Coudehard, and the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions had secured St Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois. Thus the Falaise pocket had finally been sealed. Something between 20,000 and 50,000 German troops, less their heavy weapons and equipment, had escaped through the gap to be reorganised and re-equipped in time to slow the Allied advance into eastern France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

The 'Battle of the Falaise Pocket' ended the 'Battle of Normandy' with a decisive German defeat. Hitler’s involvement had been damaging from the first day, with his insistence on hopelessly unrealistic counter-offensives, micro-management of commanders, and refusal to countenance withdrawal when his armies were threatened with annihilation. More than 40 German divisions were destroyed during the 'Battle of Normandy', and while no exact figures are available, historians estimate that the battle cost the German forces some 450,000 men, of whom 240,000 were killed or wounded. The Allies had achieved victory at a cost of 209,672 casualties among the ground forces, including 36,976 men killed and 19,221 missing. The Allied air forces lost 16,714 men killed or missing in connection with 'Overlord'. The final battle of 'Overlord', the Liberation of Paris, followed on 25 August, and 'Overlord' had ended by 30 August with the retreat of the last German units across the Seine river.

The area in which the Falaise pocket had formed was full of the remains of battle. Villages had been destroyed, and derelict equipment made some roads impassable. Corpses of soldiers and civilians littered the area, along with thousands of dead cattle and horses. Fear of infection from the decaying condition of the dead led the Allies to declare the area an 'unhealthy zone', but the clearance of the area was a low priority and lasted through to November.

Disappointed that a significant portion of the German army had escaped from the pocket, many Allied commanders, especially among the Americans, were critical of what they perceived as Montgomery’s lack of urgency in closing the pocket. By 22 August, with the exception of those under siege in the ports of western France, all the German forces to the west of the Allied lines were dead or in captivity. Historians differ in their estimates of German losses in the pocket. The majority state that something between 80,000 and 100,000 men were caught in the encirclement, of whom some 10,000 to 15,000 were killed, 40,000 to 50,000 taken prisoner, and 20,000 to 50,000 escaped. After the battle, Allied investigators estimated that the Germans had lost some 500 tanks and assault guns in the pocket, and that little of the extricated equipment survived the retreat across the Seine river.