This 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 August 1944).
The Falaise pocket 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 General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group started to make rapid progress at the beginning of August in and after ‘Cobra’, and by August 4 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 Adolf Hitler, this German undertaking had been 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 Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s 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 French 2nd Division Blindé, which had taken Le Mans on 9 August, Major General Wade H. Haislip’s US XV Corps was ordered on August 10 to move rapidly to the north. On August 12 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, 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 Americans might run into the Canadians 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 Americans had crossed the Seine river at Mantes, with Leclerc’s armour reaching the centre of Paris on 24 August.
To the north, Montgomery launched a new offensive to the south of Caen at the same time, when the Canadians and the Poles of Generał brygady Stanislaw Maczek’s 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 dead, with 5,000 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 rather than a deliberate withdrawal. On 15 August Hitler replaced Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge with Generalfeldmarschall Walter 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 of troops 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.