Operation Tractable

Operation Tractable

14 – 21 August 1944

Image : Carte de l'opération Tractable
Operation Tractable map

Origins and purposes of operation Tractable

After the American breakthrough in the south of Cotentin and in Brittany made possible by the smooth operation of operation Cobra, the Allies achieved an all-out progress in France; In mid-August, the Americans are moving in Britain to the west, to the south and to Paris to the east. General Omar Bradley, commander of the American land forces, noticed that a trap was being formed in Normandy, encircling several thousand German soldiers. Indeed, the Anglo-Canadian forces commanded by Miles Dempsey are close to Falaise while the Americans (accompanied by Frenchmen of the 2nd Armored Division) head towards Argentan. If the Allies succeeded in making their junction between Falaise and Argentan, all the Germans still to the west of this line (belonging to the armed group B commanded by General von Kluge) would be taken prisoners.

For Anglo-Canadians, it is a matter of continuing the efforts begun during operation Totalize, which was to take them to the heights north of Falaise. General Crerar, commander of the newly formed Canadian 1st Army, examined the tactical possibilities of penetrating the German lines of defense and reaching Falaise as soon as possible. He draws heavily on the innovations made by General Simonds at Totalize, including the use of the Kangaroo APC, a modification of the American M7 Priest howitzer to carry up to fifteen infantrymen. The infantry no longer, according to him, should act independently of the tanks and vice versa. These fights marked the beginnings of modern mechanized infantry. Crerar plans to launch the assault in the middle of the day, considering that the impact of a dawn attack does not ultimately work for either the Allies or the Germans.

The plan of the attack predicts that after a massive bombardment of German defense positions, the Canadians begin their advance towards Falaise since Hill 195 with two front units: the 4th Armored Division to the west and the 3rd division Infantry in the east (supported by the 2nd Armored Brigade). Once Falaise under Canadian control, the assault troops (reinforced by the 1st Polish Armored Division) are to proceed towards the town of Trun to the east, about eighteen kilometers from the hometown of Guillaume le Conqueror, where the junction is planned to be carried out with the Americans of the 3rd Army of General Patton, then progressing from south to north to close the trap on the German Army Group B.

In front of the Canadians, the German positions are held by the 12th SS Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend, commanded by Kurt “Panzer” Meyer. Installed in firm defense since the completion of operation Totalize, they have increased the number of combat patrols to Hill 195.

Conduct of operation Tractable

The noises of the armored vehicles and the movements of troops towards the front line are noticed by German advanced observers who suspect their opponents to relaunch the offensive very soon These assumptions are confirmed on the night of 13-14 August 1944 when a A Canadian officer, who had lost himself on his way to the command post, crossed the German lines and was killed: he held a copy of General Simonds’ orders for the next day’s attack. As a result, Kurt Meyer moved his reserve into Falaise protection, namely fifteen tanks, twelve 88 mm guns, forty-three PaK 43 guns and five hundred infantrymen.

On August 14, 1944, at dawn, the Germans stood ready to contain the Canadian assault. But there was no sign of progression by the outposts, and there was no aerial bombardment: was the message found on the Canadian officer’s body a forgery intended to deceive the Hitlerjugend? The 12th SS Panzer division did not wait long to get an answer: at noon 800 bombers Halifax and Lancaster dropped a bombshell on German positions, but this time again on some allied positions: 400 Canadian and Polish soldiers were put out Of combat in the first seconds of Operation Tractable following the bombing errors. In spite of everything, the troops under the command of General Crerar set out and stormed the opposing positions.

The German resistance is strong despite the bombing and the Allies lose time by crossing the lines of defense installed in the outskirts of Falaise. But they manage to cross the Laizon River. The Poles captured Potigny in the late afternoon, while the Canadian soldiers of the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions reached Hill 159, a height north of Falaise. Out of breath, the Canadians were reinforced by the 2nd Infantry Division, which relaunched the assault. The progression stops at nightfall, Falaise is still in the hands of the Germans who hold despite adverse pressure.

On August 15, 1944, the offensive resumed. Army group B began to evacuate the trap, which gradually closed between Trun and Chambois. For the Allies, it is urgent to close this pocket and Falaise is to be liberated. East of Falaise, the Canadians and the Poles progress slowly towards the city of Trun to prevent more German soldiers from fleeing towards the Seine. Trun is reached but difficult fighting is taking place around this city, defended by elements belonging to the 7th German Army. The 4th Armored Division seized Soulangy after a bloody battle.

Finally, on 16 August, Falaise fell into the hands of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, although several German pockets of resistance were still in the ruins of the city. At 3:30 pm, General Montgomery (commander of the 21st Army Group) ordered the closure of the pocket from the village of Trun, while General Bradley, commander of the US land forces, believes that it is already too late and a large part of the German troops have already retreated towards the Seine river.

The closing of the Falaise pocket

Trun is the new objective of General Crerar, which leads from August 16 the second phase of operation Tractable. In the evening, the 21st army group seized the following towns (from west to east): Condé-sur-Noireau, part of the town of Flers, Saint-Denis and Pont-d’Ouilly. Hard fights continue in the area near Trun village.

On August 17th, the exit door of the encircling pocket where the Germans of the armed group B are trapped is sixteen kilometers wide and thirty-two kilometers long.

General Maczek, commander of the 1st Polish Armored Division, divides his unit into three groups of autonomous battles: he installs one of them in support of the heights overlooking Trun and the Dives valley in favor of the 4th Armored Division Canada. The three other combat groups advance towards the south-east and seize Champeaux and move closer to Chambois. Despite the disastrous situation for the German forces, their withdrawal is extremely rapid: on this one day, almost a third of the encircled Axis forces managed to get out of the cauldron.

On August 18, the Allies seized Trun and the Poles arrived in the evening at the gates of Chambois. The battle groups of Maczek are distributed as follows: a group facing Chambois, another near Vimoutiers and the last at the foot of Hill 262 (Mont-Ormel). In the early hours of 19 August, General Simonds decided to make the last effort, thus enabling the Allies to close the famous Falaise pocket. He ordered the 4th Canadian Armored Division to seize Chambois while two Polish columns attacked to the east and set up a cover on Mont-Ormel. Meanwhile, the 2nd and 3rd infantry divisions keep the pressure on the north side of the pocket in which the Germans are trapped.

The Polish soldiers of the fighting group commanded by Zgorzelski reached the 137th rank despite an important German resistance. Early in the afternoon, the Stefanowicz group seized Hill 262 by destroying the equivalent of an adverse company. However, their losses are extremely high. At the end of the day, the 1st Canadian Army joins the 3rd US Army: the Falaise pocket is now closed. For the Allied soldiers in the Trun-Chambois corridor, a difficult night begins: they settle in defense against the west and facing the east, preventing some from getting out of the pocket and others from breaking the ” encirclement.

On 20 August, the Germans counter-attack massively on both sides of the Trun-Chambois corridor. The Poles on Hill 262 of Mont-Ormel repulsed with great difficulty the multiple assaults of the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer divisions: in almost two minutes a German tank destroyed five Sherman tanks from its position on Hill 239. The 8th and 9th Polish battalions are severely affected. Allied artillery made multiple barrage preventing any German advance but at midday a gap was opened for the benefit of German soldiers: by the end of the afternoon, nearly 10,000 of them managed to break the gun, encirclement. From Mont-Ormel the Poles inflicted very heavy losses on German troops with the combination of infantry and artillery fire. But at the end of the day, their ammunition reserves are almost exhausted.

For their part, the 16th Infantry Division and the Hitlerjugend attempt a breakthrough to escape from the trap, using the covers of the morning fog. Several breaches are open in the Canadian system, notably along the Dives and Hill 117 from which the Germans are engulfed. In order to waterproof the allied device, Major David Vivian Currie was ordered to go to Saint-Lambert-sur-Dive to prevent any enemy exfiltration. With his armored fighting group, he destroyed seven tanks, twelve 88 mm guns, forty vehicles, 300 Germans, 1,100 prisoners and 600 wounded in the opposing ranks. Currie receives the Victoria Cross for this feat, the most prestigious British military medal.

From 19:00 to 19:20, the Germans are allowed to evacuate their wounded. Once this period has passed, the fighting resumes. The corridor used by the soldiers and the routed German vehicles was soon dubbed the “death row”: the steaming car bodies, the German corps and the horses used for their evacuation littered the roads and the rivers, Terrifying spectacle of a routed army: more than 200 tanks, nearly 1,000 pieces of artillery and as many different vehicles are destroyed. Some bridges over the Dives still allow the survivors of the 2nd Panzer divisions, 10th S.S Panzer and 116th Panzer to flee. In order to make traffic possible, the wounded and the wrecks of vehicles are thrown into the ditches and into the river. Throughout the night, Allied barrage continues to prevent trapped men from escaping.

On August 21st, the Germans attempted a new counterattack to the Polish positions on Hill 262. At noon they reached the 9th Battalion but were definitely stopped at Mont-Ormel before retreating to the Seine river. The units trapped in the allied net arrive at the end of the day.

Conclusions of operation Tractable

Operation Tractable is extremely costly in human lives. Allied side, Canadians lost 5,500 soldiers after both Totalize and Tractable operations. The Poles lose 1,441 men, including 325 killed, 1,002 wounded and 114 missing; Twenty per cent of the strength of their division are put out of action during the fighting of Mont-Ormel. On the German side, there are no precise statistics on their losses, because the units are routed at this point in the battle and the living are more concerned with their own survival than with the counting of their dead. However, several estimates have since been made: the 7th army trapped in the Falaise pocket loses its 200,000 men, 200 tanks, 1,000 pieces of artillery and 5,000 different vehicles. 2,000 German soldiers are killed on the death row or by attacking Mont-Ormel, 5,000 are taken prisoner; 55 tanks were destroyed, as were 44 pieces of artillery and 152 armored vehicles.

This offensive allowed Montgomery to reach the missed targets during operation Totalize: Falaise and Trun are under allied control, the Germans are retreating in the direction of the Seine and all the 7th army is trapped in the net. Although the tactical and strategic impacts of operation Tractable are linked to the offensives that preceded it, this last major operation of the Battle of Normandy greatly accelerated the evolution of the Western Front by putting an end to the firm defense tactics of Germans: caught up in speed, they are no longer able, after the episode of the pocket of Falaise, to retreat a few kilometers only to return to the position of prohibition. The German forces must now retreat and reorganize on a new line several tens of kilometers from their former positions.