Falaise pocket (2/2)
D-Day + 70 to D-Day + 75 – August 20 to 29, 1944
Continuation of the page “Falaise pocket (1/2)“:
Closing the Falaise pocket
The American front, which was still oriented north-south on 5 August, is on 12 August oriented west-east. Further north, the 2nd British Army and the 1st Canadian Army advance southward: between the two fronts, the Germans are locked up and there is only one exit gate: the Falaise area.
American and Commonwealth troops now face each other, creating serious problems for Allied officers: the Germans, surrounded, are bombarded by gunners and aviators, and the two fronts are coming closer together. In such a situation, the Allies risk shooting themselves. General Patton, who leads the 3rd Army, asks General Bradley for permission to close the pocket and join the Canadians at Falaise.
But Bradley is worried about the risks of friendly fire and he asks Patton to stay at Argentan level and secure the surrounding area. The three-star general of the 3rd Army is angry: if he closes the Falaise pocket right away by joining the town of Falaise, the German army will be defeated in Normandy. But the American high command is formal, Patton must stop his progression for a few hours. Hours that will benefit thousands of German soldiers, reaching the Seine river.
For the Germans, the situation in Normandy is still catastrophic. Several dozen divisions are encircled by the Allies and the vise tightens. The Americans attack south of the pocket along three major axes; to the west, the 19th Corps of the 1st Army jostled four German divisions, including one armored. On its right flank, the 7th Corps of the 1st Army, the 2nd French Armored Division and the 15th American Corps advance to close the trap.
The Germans of the 7th Army, led by General Hausser, begin to evacuate a maximum of divisions from the pocket which is closing on them. Armored units take precedence over all troops for evacuation. Allied aviation bombards the pocket, a real range for fighter-bomber pilots with an impressive number of targets.
At the end of the day, more than 10,000 German soldiers belonging to the 12th S.S Panzer division have already left the pocket and head towards the Seine.
The closing of the Falaise pocket is finally ordered. To do so, Canadians are launching their own operation, called Tractable, which aims at capturing the major road used by the Germans, located in the area near the town of Falaise. The British 53rd Infantry Division, three Canadian divisions (2nd and 3rd Infantry divisions, 4th Armored Division), and the 1st Polish Armored Division, are on the offensive after heavy bombing, north and south of Falaise.
The 1st, 12th and 21st SS Panzer divisions, that were retreating at the time of the attack to leave the Falaise pocket, launch a counter-offensive northwest towards Soulangy. But the Allies repulse the attacks while the 1st Polish Armored Division progress east of Falaise to cut the retreat of the German divisions.
The German officers continually receive Hitler’s orders, which forbid any retreat towards the east, and which require the officers to remain in their positions. The Germans are bombarded continuously, day and night. The Allied airmen and the artillerymen attack relentlessly the Wehrmacht and Panzer divisions, which retreat towards the east in order to reach the Seine.
Despite the disastrous situation for the German forces, their withdrawal is extremely rapid: on the one day of 17 August, almost a third of the encircled Axis forces managed to get out of the cauldron.
The nine-kilometer corridor, located in the region near Chambois and which still allows the German forces to escape to the east, is gradually reduced by the Allied soldiers. But since the beginning of the evacuation of the German troops towards the Seine, on August 13, nearly 55,000 men managed to retreat, about 40% of the German forces threatened at the beginning of the encircling maneuver.
Troops and vehicles progress through a narrow corridor between Trun, Saint-Lambert and Chambois to escape from the pocket, constantly bombed by aviation and allied artillery. The encirclement of the German forces ends south-east of Falaise on 20 August 1944.
Review of the closure of the Falaise Pocket
The disruption of the retreat is indescribable: the steaming carcasses of vehicles, the bodies of Germans and horses used for their evacuation litter the roads and rivers, offering a terrifying spectacle of a defeated army: more than 200 tanks, near 1,000 artillery guns and as many other vehicles are destroyed.
Some bridges on the Dive river still allow the survivors of the 2nd Panzer divisions, 10th Panzer S.S. and 116th Panzer to flee. To cross them, the wounded and the wrecks of vehicles are precipitated in the ditches and in the river.
However, if the Axis situation in Normandy is disastrous and three German generals are captured, many units still manage to escape to the east and rejoin the Seine, despite the attacks of aviation. They take advantage of the morning mists to cross the Canadian, Polish and American lines.
Thus, if more than 6,000 soldiers are killed, more than 165,000 Germans reach the right bank of the Seine. This bad news for the Allies entails a new tactic: a larger encirclement is envisaged, which must trap the Axis soldiers fleeing Normandy and making their way to the east of France (most of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier division has already reached Lorraine as of August 13).