Operation Paddle

'Paddle' was a British and Canadian offensive to the north-east of Falaise by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group to close the neck of the 'Falaise pocket' and so trap 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 'von Eberbach' (17/21 August 1944).

The clearance of the southern side of the English Channel in north-eastern France was undertaken by the Canadian 1st Army in August 1944, following 'Overlord' and the breakout and pursuit from Normandy. The Canadian 1st Army advanced from Normandy eventually to the Scheldt river in Belgium and, in the course of this process, were tasked with the capture of the French north-coast ports needed to improve the logistical base for the support of the Allied armies advancing farther to the east from their Normandy lodgement, the clearance of the German forces from the English Channel coastal region, and seizure of the launch sites for V-1 flying bombs. Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s (from 25 August General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army of Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s (from 16 August Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s Heeresgruppe 'B' was able to oppose the Canadian advance only sporadically, for it was wary of being outflanked and isolated by the rapid advance of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army on the Canadians' right, and executed an orderly north-eastward retreat toward the Scheldt river.

On 4 September Adolf Hitler declared the German-held English Channel ports to be fortresses, but Dieppe and Ostend were taken without opposition. Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais were subjected to set-piece assaults in the wake of massed bombings, and an attack on Dunkirk was cancelled and the garrison contained. Troops investing Dunkirk were freed for the Battle of the Scheldt, where the Canadian 1st Army reduced the Breskens pocket, cleared the mouth of the Scheldt river and thus opened Antwerp to Allied shipping.

The German armies had strongly resisted the Allied break-out from Normandy, and after their front had collapsed in August the Germans lacked the reserves of men and equipment to resist the Allied advance, which ran into no German defence lines between Normandy and the 'Siegfried-Linie'. Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps of four divisions was attached to the Canadian 1st Army, and had been advancing eastward from the Dives river along the coast. Major General R. N. Gale’s British 6th Airborne Division and attached units captured Troarn and overran the German coastal artillery at Houlgate, but deliberate flooding by the Germans, the defences of Cabourg and positions at nearby Dozulé, slowed the advance across the Dives river delta. On 16 August, German resistance faltered, Canadian reconnaissance had been ordered three days later, and the authorisation for a full Canadian advance and pursuit was issued on 23 August.

On 26 August, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, issued a directive that all the German forces in the Pas de Calais and Flanders were to be destroyed and that Antwerp was to be taken. The Canadian 1st Army was required to cross the Seine river and capture Dieppe in 'Fusilade' and Le Havre in 'Astonia' with the minimum of forces and least possible delay, while occupying the coast as far as Bruges in Belgium. The Canadian 1st Army was to advance with a strong right wing and envelop resistance by swinging toward the coast, and was to expect support from Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton’s Allied 1st Airborne Army. The British 2nd Army was to operate on the Canadian forces' inland flank and dash for Amiens, cutting the communications of the German forces facing the Canadian 1st Army.

It is a measure of the overall disintegration of the German forces at this time that disintegration that Generał brygady Stanisław Maczek’s Polish 1st Armoured Division reached Ypres on 6 September and Canadian units were at Dunkirk one day later, just 15 days after the German defeat at Falaise, despite their losses in the Normandy battles. There was significant resistance in the Canadian sector. As noted above, Hitler had ordered that most of the Channel ports become Festungen readied to withstand a siege. Since they wished to possess the port facilities of the English Channel coast for the logistical nourishment of their advance, the Allied were not prepared merely to isolate the ports and leave them to 'wither on the vine'. Moreover, the Germans had established artillery positions capable of shelling Dover and threatening Allied shipping, and in the region there were also launch sites for the V-1 flying bombs currently being used for the bombardment of London.

The composition of the Canadian 1st Army varied to meet changing demands, but in general terms it composed of Lieutenant General G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps and Crocker’s British I Corps. Within these formations, at various times, were Czechoslovak, Polish, French, Dutch and Belgian units. After the Normandy campaign, the Polish and Czechoslovak formations were strengthened with countrymen who had been conscripted into the German army and were no in the position to change sides.

The Canadian 1st Army had fought several battles in Normandy, resulting in a steady depletion of its commanders and manpower at all levels. This was particularly acute among the commanders of infantry companies. The British I Corps attacked to the Canadian 1st Army had Major General G. L. Verney’s 7th Armoured Division and Major General E. H. Barker’s 49th Division, Major General T. G. Renie’s 51st Division and Gale’s 6th Airborne Division. The infantry divisions had not performed satisfactorily in Normandy and had been relegated to defensive positions on the eastern flank of the lodgement. The 6th Airborne Division had landed in 'Tonga' on 6 June despite its lack of heavy weapons remained defending the area. The formation had suffered many casualties and Gale had been instructed to harry the German retreat yet conserve its manpower for the rebuilding that was planned. The 6th Airborne Division was reinforced by Colonel Jean-Baptiste Piron’s Free Belgian 1st Infantry Brigade and Kolonel A. C. de Ruyter van Steveninck’s Free Dutch Royal Motorised Brigade (Prinses Irene), which were to gain 'operational experience in quieter sections of the line in the hope that ultimately they would return to their own countries and form nuclei around which larger national forces might be organized'.

The Canadian 1st Army advanced along the English Channel coast with the British I Corps advanced on the left and the Canadian II Corps on the right.

On the other side of the front line, much of Heeresgruppe 'B' had been destroyed in Normandy and the Falaise pocket, but the divisions which had been deployed to the east of the Allied lodgment were still largely intact. The German forces within the Festungen were generally of second-rate quality and included some Austrians and men of other nationalities not trusted sufficiently to be allowed to carry arms.

The Falaise pocket had comprised the area between Trun, Argentan, Vimoutiers and Chambois. Allied troops had made only slow progress in Normandy through most of June and July, but Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group started to make rapid progress at the beginning of August during and after its 'Cobra' breakthrough at St Lô and Avranches, and by 4 August the German forces facing the 12th Army Group had largely collapsed. The Germans launched their 'Lüttich' counter-offensive on 7 August at Mortain as a last-ditch attempt to check the Allied breakthrough by cutting off Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army. With the aid of air support and advance warning from 'Ultra' sources, the German effort had been repelled by the evening, and Patton’s forces had retaken Mortain.

Personally ordered by Hitler, this German undertaking had been wholly unwise as it shifted the weight of the German forces westward at the very time when they should have been pulling back to the east to avoid encirclement. In the process the Germans had been weakened, and Montgomery and Bradley moved to exploit the situation with a plan to encircle the Germans.

The initial notion was to cut off the Germans by sending the Canadian 1st Army to the south through Falaise to meet the US forces attacking to the north in the direction of Argentan but, appreciating that the Germans might escape, Montgomery later modified the plan to close the gap between Trun and Chambois 11 miles (18 km) farther to the east. Spearheaded by Général de Division Philippe François Marie Jacques Leclerc de Hauteclocque’s Free French 2ème Division Blindée, which had taken Le Mans on 9 August, Major General Wade H. Haislip’s US XV Corps was ordered on 10 August to move rapidly to the north. Two days later, the corps entered Alençon, then advanced to Ecouché and finally, on 14 August, reached Argentan, 13.5 miles (22 km) to the south of Falaise, where Bradley ordered it to halt as he needed Montgomery’s permission to cross army boundary lines. This was a decision supported by the Allied commander-in-chief, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, as the rapid changes in troop locations were causing confusion in the Allied lines of communication and raising fears that the US forces might run into the Canadian troops advancing from the north. This halt in the northward advance is thought to have enabled some thousands of German troops to escape.

Montgomery modified the northern boundary on 15 August after Bradley had waited for a crucial 24 hours, enabling the Americans to advance farther to the north, and on 19 August Major General Eugene M. Landrum’s (later Major General Raymond S. McLain’s) US 90th Division took Chambois, some 6 miles (10 km) to the north-east of Argentan, where it met the Canadian forces heading to the south in the direction of the town. Meanwhile the main focus of the US attack turned to the east, and by 20 August the US forces had crossed the Seine river at Mantes, with Leclerc’s armour reaching the centre of Paris on 24 August.

Farther to the north, Montgomery launched a new offensive to the south of Caen at the same time, when the Canadians and the Polish 1st Armoured Division launched the 'Totalize' drive to the south in the direction of Falaise on 9 August. Although under constant and heavy air attack by day, the German forces were still able to cause serious damage, and they also put up fierce resistance against Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division in the wooded area to the north of Falaise on 16 August. Falaise was finally taken on the following day.

Major General G. Kitching’s Canadian 4th Armoured Division occupied Trun on 18 August, and on the following day took the village of St Lambert sur Dives from the Germans and linked with the Americans at Chambois, digging in on a line from Falaise through Trun to Chambois, and fighting hard against the fleeing Germans. The South Alberta Regiment and elements of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada fought a vicious battle at St Lambert sur Dives, where a small force numbering less than 200 Canadians killed, captured and wounded around 3,000 Germans during the battle.

Also on 18 August, the Polish 1st Armoured Division took up position with 87 Sherman medium tanks on the wooded Hill 262 (Mont Ormel), known to the Poles as 'The Mace', to the east of the Canadians, to prevent any counter-offensive from the east seeking to rescue the trapped Germans. From the hill the Poles also had a commanding position overlooking the road linking Chambois and Vimoutiers, by now the last route out of the pocket, and proceeded to attack the fleeing Germans. In response, the isolated Poles were repeatedly and ferociously attacked, especially on August 20 when SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps, which had escaped the pocket, attacked and broke through from the direction of Vimoutiers. The Poles had lost 325 dead, with 1,002 wounded and 114 missing before they were reinforced by the 22nd Armoured Regiment (The Canadian Grenadier Guards) early in the morning of 21 August. The Germans lost around 2,000 men killed, with 5,000 men taken prisoner and 359 vehicles destroyed.

Under the combined pressure of the Americans and French in the south, the British in the west, and the Canadians and Poles in the north, the Germans were aware of the danger by 10 August, although Hitler was demanding an immediate counterattack on Avranches to the west rather than a deliberate withdrawal to the east. On 15 August Hitler replaced von Kluge with Model at the head of Heeresgruppe 'B' and on the following day, with the remaining 150,000 troops of the 5th Panzerarmee and 7th Army almost encircled, finally ordered a general withdrawal toward the Seine river. On the field the retreat had effectively been under way since 14 August in an attempt to save what remained of the German armoured divisions. The German infantry, spread out over the bocage country without support, became increasingly disordered as the troops tried to reach the narrow Falaise 'gap' and safety. With Allied artillery and ground-attack aircraft heavily bombarding the German troops, the retreat turned into a desperate flight along what became known to the Germans as the 'death road' between the villages of Chamois, St Lambert, Trun and Tournai sur Dives.

Late on 21 August, after a French priest had pleaded with the German field commander, the remaining German troops in the pocket were ordered to surrender. Although perhaps 100,000 Germans had succeeded in escaping the Allies as a result of the delay in closing the gap, they left behind 150,000 prisoners and wounded, more than 10,000 dead, and the road practically impassable because of the numbers of destroyed vehicles and bodies on it. The Canadians had also suffered heavy losses, with more than 18,000 dead or wounded.

The subsequent advance of the Canadian 1st Army to the Seine river was 'Paddle'. Allied commanders had hoped that a defeat comparable with that of the Falaise pocket could be inflicted on the Germans by trapping them against the Seine river and the sea. The US 3rd Army advanced northward to Elbeuf, across the British 2nd Army line of advance, to sever the route toward Paris, and this was partially successful. Although much of its remaining transport and the bulk of its armour had been lost to the west of the Seine river, Heeresgruppe 'B' checked the Canadians, thereby protecting improvised river crossings and making it possible for significant quantities of men and matériel to be saved.

The Germans evacuated their forces from the towns along the Touques river on about 24 August and the capture of Lisieux, about 45 km (28 mi) to the east of Caen, opened an important route to the east for the Allied forces. On the following day the Allies crossed the next natural barrier, the Risle river just to the north of Brionne. Brigadier the Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley’s British 6th Airlanding Brigade of the 6th Airborne Division took Honfleur on the Seine river estuary, but progress along the coast was slower than it was farther inland, rivers being wider and more difficult to cross. The 6th Airborne Division occupied the west bank of the Risle river from Pont Audemer downstream to the Seine river on 26 August, thereby completing its task in France, and returned to the UK on 3 September. Clearance of the last German units to the west of the Seine river had been completed by 30 August.

The British I Corps put patrols across the Seine river on 31 August. The advance to this river had outstripped the preparations of the Royal Canadian Engineers for bridging equipment and assault boats, but newly assembled assault boats carried Major General D. C. Spry’s Canadian 3rd Division across this waterway at Elbeuf on 27 August. Ferries for wheeled and armoured vehicles were in operation by the afternoon of the same day.

This advance cleared the way toward the Canadian 1st Army’s next series of tasks, namely the clearance of the Germans from the English Channel ports of Dieppe in 'Fusilade', Le havre in 'Astoria', Boulogne in 'Wellhit', and Calais and Cap Gris Nez in 'Undergo'. The Canadian advance next moved to the investment of Dunkirk.