Chapter IVOnce more unto the breach, dear friends, once more ...
Victory at Falaise
AT THE time when General Crerar took over the Caen sector, the Canadians had already begun to prepare a new operation to break through the formidable defences barring the way to Falaise. Before the 2nd Canadian Corps actually came under his command, the Canadian Army Commander had, by arrangement with General Montgomery, instructed General Simonds to begin planning for the major thrust which he now anticipated; and General Simonds had previously given the problem consideration in consultation with General Dempsey.
At the end of July, the immediate requirement on the Canadian Army front was minor operations to "keep the Boche worried" and occupy as large an enemy force as possible; at the same time, the Army had to be prepared to mount a full-scale offensive when the opportunity arose. Not until 4 August did General Montgomery definitely order General Crerar to launch a heavy attack in the direction of Falaise. In the meantime, attacks with limited objectives were undertaken at various points on General Simonds' front. On 1 August, the Calgary Highlanders thrust at Tilly-la-Campagne but were driven back by powerful enemy armoured forces. The next day, a unit of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, tried again with no better success. On the evening of 5 August, sub-units of the Lake Superior
The Expansion of the Normandy Bridgehead
Regiment (Motor) and the 22nd Armoured Regiment (Canadian Grenadier Guards) attacked the neighbouring village of Las Hogue but were likewise thrown back. These engagements gave us additional information concerning the enemy positions overlooking the Caen plain, and made it still clearer that only a carefully-mounted deliberate attack with very heavy support could be expected to breach those defences.
"One Great Consistent Pattern"
The tremendous operations which were now beginning are second in importance nto none in the whole history of the war. It is essential to note the time-sequence, in order to understand the manner in which General Montgomery, who was still commanding all the Allied ground forces in the theatre, directed the action of his various Armies in accordance with one great consistent pattern, turning success in one sector of the steadily extending front to instant advantage in another.
On 25 July, as we have seen, the 2nd Canadian Corps, in continuation of the offensive operations about Caen, had launched a heavy attack which, while it gained comparatively little ground on its own front, nevertheless served the purpose of forcing the enemy to retain large and formidable forces in his line overlooking Caen. On this same date, the troops of the First United States Army attacked on the St. Lô sector (St. Lô itself they had captured on 18 July) with a view to breaking right through into Brittany. This was Operation COBRA; and very deadly it proved. Although considerable German forces, amounting to elements, at least, of as many as twelve divisions, were present on the American Army front, General Bradley's men made an important penetration
Near Bretteville-le-Rabet, 14 August 1944
Canadian armour preparing for the great attack towards Falaise.
In the foreground is a British "Flail" tank.
of the enemy positions south-west of St. Lô on 25 and 26 July and on the 27th effected a decisive break-through which brought them almost to Coutances. This was only the beginning. By 30 July, an American spearhead was in Avranches, at the head of the Gulf of St. Malo, which lies between the Cherbourg and Brittany peninsulas. The Americans were now "running wild". In accordance with General Montgomery's original instructions for the operation, part of their forces turned westwards into the Brittany peninsula, while other columns swung east to threaten the rear of the German
divisions engaged with the British. By 6 August, they were in Mayenne and Laval and still driving on.1
The desperate situation thus created on the Germans' left flank immediately had repercussions elsewhere. The American break-through presented a favourable opportunity which General Montgomery was quick to exploit. The enemy in the west was heavily engaged with the Americans and becoming increasingly disorganized. On the British front, on the other hand, the pressure about Caen had drawn his best divisions to this easterly sector. The time was therefore ripe for a powerful blow by the right wing of the Second British Army, and this was delivered by General Dempsey on 30 July in the Caumont area. Attacking over very close and difficult country, the British on 1 August captured Le Beny Bocage. Next day they were close to Vire. Thereafter, another attack was put in further east, in the direction of the Orne; and by 7 August, they had established a bridgehead across this river just north of Thury-Harcourt.
The American successes and the British advance now in turn created the opportunity for decisive action by the First Canadian Army. The threat to the left compelled the Germans to withdraw from the area opposite Caen a great part of those formidable divisions that had barred the way to Falaise. By the end of July, the 2nd and 21st Panzer Divisions had moved west; in the first days of August, the 9th S.S. Panzer Division too had taken itself off across the Orne. Only one armoured formation (the 12th S.S. Panzer Division) thereafter remained on General
The Falaise Area
Crerar's front, although there were three infantry divisions also to reckon with in the Caen sector. Even now the problem facing the 2nd Canadian Corps was very far from easy. The enemy's commanding positions were unchanged; they still bristled with great numbers of 88-millimetre dual-purpose guns withdrawn from the anti-aircraft defences of Belgium and France; and there were still plenty of troops to hold them. Nevertheless, to break through these positions was now a more practicable operation of war.
General Crerar's "basic tactical plan" required that, while it was scarcely possible to disguise our general intentions from the enemy, the forthcoming offensive should nevertheless secure the greatest possible degree of surprise in the matters of timing and method. In a "tactical directive" to his formation commanders issued on 22 July, he had emphasized the basic importance of "maximum surprise, as well as maximum fire power" and had recalled principles which he had laid down iun an address delivered as long ago as 14 May:
... In the "Break-in" attack against an organized enemy position, a matter of highest importance is to get the infantry over and through the enemy's prearranged zones of defensive fire in the shortest possible time after the intention to attack has been revealed. ... It is essential that the fire and movement should be positively and very closely integrated at the outset.
With these broad requirements in view, General Simonds had drawn up his detailed plan. A passage from his appreciation, dated 1 August, should be quoted:
In essence, the problem is how to get armour through the enemy gun screen to sufficient depth to
Preparing to Attack
Infantry and tanks of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division waiting to play their part
in Operation TRACTABLE, the break-through to Falaise.
(From a watercolour by Major W.A. Ogilvie)
disrupt the enemy anti-tank gun and mortar defence, in country highly suited to the tactics of the latter combination. It can be done
By overwhelming air support to destroy or neutralize enemy tanks, anti-tank guns and mortars.
By infiltrating through the screen in bad visibility to a sufficient depth to disrupt the anti-tank gun and mortar defence.
He proposed to deliver the first attack at night, thereby robbing the enemy's fire of much of its accuracy. By dispensing with preliminary artillery bombardment, he made possible the achievement of a considerable degree
of surprise. For this night attack, the heavy night bombers of the R.A.F. would provide the air support; the succeeding phase, the object of which was to break the enemy's second line, would go in in daylight supported by the American day bomber force.
To get the infantry through the zone of defensive fire, General Simonds resolved upon a novel expedient: he would transport them in heavily armoured carriers improvised for the occasion. His instruction to his divisional commanders, written on 2 August, explained this plan:
The infantry accompanying the armour to first objectives in Phase One must go straight through with the armour. Arrangements have been made for about 30 stripped Priests' chassis to be available to each of the infantry divisions operating in Phase One for this purpose. The balance of personnel required to be carried through to the first or any intermediate objectives must be mounted under divisional arrangements. The essentials are that the infantry shall be carried in bullet and splinter-proof vehicles to their actual objectives. ...
This expedient entailed hard work against time to provide the carriers. American-pattern half-tracked vehicles supplied some of the capacity required, but the greater part of the carriers were created by removing the guns from the 3rd Canadian Division's "Priest" self-propelled artillery vehicles (which had just been replaced by 25-pounders) and covering the gun-apertures with plating. This was a tremendous job, but it was carried out on time, in spite of the fact that the date of the operation was put forward one day while the work was in progress.
Infantrymen of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal follow a tank into the ruined and burning town.
Among the preparations for the operation, not the least essential was effective arrangements for the cooperation of R.A.F. Bomber Command. After the plan had been concerted with the R.A.F. in France, Brigadier C.C. Mann, General Crerar's Chief of Staff, flew to England and held a final discussion with officers of the Command, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, its distinguished Commander-in-Chief. The Command was reluctant to undertake night bombing of a battle area unless it could be certain of attaining a very high degree of accuracy. It was suggested that our artillery might fire green and red coloured concentrations on the targets to guide the Master Bombers; and Air Marshal Harris requested that an actual experiment be made to determine
whether this would work. The experiment was made on the front of the 1st British Corps that same night (6-7 August); and the Master Bombers who watched the marker shells bursting were satisfied with the results. The night bombing programme was "laid on" accordingly, and the required marker shells reached the guns on time, though getting them there required an almost superhuman effort.
On the morning of 5 August, General Crerar addressed senior officers of the Army on the forthcoming offensive, which was to be known as Operation TOTALIZE. He outlined the problem and the plan, and incidentally pointed out the importance of the juncture at which affairs now stood. "We have reached," he said, "what very much appears to be the potentially decisive period of this five-year World War." A highly successful large-scale operation now might have very large effects and, by helping to convince the Germans that defeat was inescapable, might contribute to a quick termination of the war. "On that count," said the Army Commander, "our responsibility is a proud as well as a great one, and I have no doubt but that we shall make 8 August 1944 an even blacker day for the German Armies than is recorded against that same date twenty-six years ago."2
H Hour for Operation TOTALIZE was eleven-thirty on the night of 7-8 August. During the 7th, the columns of attack were forming up. General Simonds had available two fresh but inexperienced armoured divisions, the 1st Polish as well as the 4th Canadian having been placed under his command; and in addition to his Canadian infantry he had the 51st (Highland) Division. He
"The Old Town That Had Cost So Much Good Blood Was Itself a Shambles"
A military policeman directs traffic in blazing Falaise.
proposed to attack with this latter Division on the left and the 2nd Canadian Division on the right, using the armoured divisions for exploitation in later phases.
Each forward division was to attack in four close-knit columns. Each of these columns would be led by a squadron of tanks. This would be followed in turn by Flail tanks and A.Vs.R.E.; then came an infantry battalion riding in armoured carriers, while more tanks brought up the rear. Eight such columns would roll forward at H Hour, moving parallel to the road to Falaise, and guided forward through the night by wireless and by Bofors guns firing tracer shell along the line of advance. The columns were to by-pass the enemy's main strong points in the
villages which had been so bitterly disputed; the marching infantry of the 2nd Canadian and Highland Divisions would come up behind them and clear these places.
The Infantry Went Through
Precisely at eleven p.m. on the night of the 7th, the great aircraft of Bomber Command dropped their first bombs on and about the villages which were the focal points of the enemy's front line; the targets were neatly pin-pointed by the 25-pounders' marker shells, and this bombing was done with great accuracy. Half an hour later, the columns of attack charged forward through the darkness. At 11:45, a great force of artillery laid down a rolling barrage in front of the advancing divisions, and at the same moment, sixteen searchlights opened up to give light to the attackers.
The wisdom of General Simonds' plan of attack was more than vindicated by the event. The armoured columns tore through the Germans' front positions, and in the early hours of the morning, they were fighting in the vicinity of their first objectives far to the rear and had almost cleared them. Thanks to the armoured carriers and the degree of surprise that had been attained, the infantry had been carried through the German fire zone and deposited close to these objectives with very few casualties. Meanwhile, the marching battalions moving up in rear had entered the villages of the enemy's front line, those little hamlets with the bloodstained names--May-sur-Orne, Fontenay-le-Marmion, Roquancourt, Tilly-la-Campagne. By following close behind the barrages put down by our guns, they got into them with comparatively little trouble, but some very bitter fighting followed. At May-sur-Orne, in particular, the first attack of Les
Fusiliers Mont-Royal was beaten back; and the place was not cleared until the afternoon, when they went in again with the support of Crocodiles. The caves and tunnels connecting these villages with the old quarries and mines round about served the enemy well, but in due course his resistance was overborne at every point. The villages had been held by men of the 89th German Infantry Division, which had latterly been brought into the area to replace the withdrawing armour. This division alone lost some 1,200 men taken prisoners during Operation TOTALIZE--to say nothing of the dead.
The first phase having succeeded so well, the second, designed to break through the enemy's next line of defences, which had been prepared on high ground roughly five miles behind his front positions, was delivered immediately, going in a five minutes to two on the afternoon of 8 August. The air support for this phase was provided by American Fortresses. It began precisely on time and was most valuable; nevertheless, by one of those mischances which much experience indicates are extremely difficult to ensure against, some of the bombs came down among our own troops, causing a certain number of casualties. One of the victims, unfortunately, was General Keller. The Tactical headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Division, which was standing by to advance when required, was showered with fragmentation bombs and the G.O.C. received several serious wounds. He was succeeded in the command temporarily by Brigadier Blackader and ultimately by Major-General D.C. Spry, who flew from Italy to take up this new appointment. On this same day, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, Brigadier R.A. Wyman, was wounded by a sniper when he left his tank to reconnoitre.
The second phase was primarily the responsibility of the two armoured divisions. The Poles were to pass through the Highland Division, and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division through the 2nd Canadian Division, and rush on to the final objectives, which were defined as high ground on either side of the great road, immediately north of Falaise, where it passed over or around a succession of commanding heights before dipping down to the town itself.
On the right, the Canadian armour broke through the enemy's second line, and by evening was threatening Bretteville-le-Rabet ("The Rabbit"), some distance in rear of it. The Poles on the left had become engaged with large forces of enemy tanks and 88-millimetre guns and had made considerably less progress. Had the two armoured divisions not been fighting their first real battle, they might perhaps have got further on this day. As it was, they did not attain the final objectives and further advance had to be deferred until the morrow.
The enemy was not slow to profit by the respite. Improvising rapidly and skillfully, he set up a new defensive position on the hills some seven miles north of Falaise, arming it with about ninety 88-millimetre guns. The consequence was that the continuation of the attack on 9 August, designed to break through to the original objectives, made little headway. The tanks of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, thrusting for a commanding ridge just west of the great road and south-west of Bretteville-le-Rabet (which fell during the morning) were brought to a halt; and one unit, the 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment) came sadly to grief east of the road, losing no less than 47 tanks and a high proportion of its officers and men. At dusk
Prisoners From the Pocket (Trun, August, 1944)
(From an oil painting by Capt. O.N. Fisher)
our leading troops were held up a considerable distance short of the objectives. Operation TOTALIZE had carried us some eight miles forward down the road to Falaise, but had left us with about eight more to go. On the night of 10-11 August, the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigadier attacked Quesnay Wood, an enemy stronghold athwart the road, and was driven back with heavy losses. It was apparent that it would be necessary to mount another deliberate attack with powerful support to break through the new enemy gun-screen.
Such a break-through was now a most urgent necessity. Adolf Hitler, beguiled by the glittering possibility of severing the extended American lines of communication, had ordered Kluge to commit the bulk of his available armour in the far western sector and had mounted there the most powerful counter-attack which the Germans had yet organized. On the afternoon of 6 August, the First United States Army had been heavily assailed by five enemy armoured divisions on a front between Mortain and Vire. The enemy's object was clearly to break through to Avranches and cut off the American spearheads already in the area of Alençon. He had misjudged his antagonists; his attack made very little progress; yet he continued to pour in his forces recklessly in spite of very heavy losses. On the 7th, rocket-firing R.A.F. Typhoons struck hard at the enemy armour; 81 tanks were reported as destroyed in this manner on this day alone.3 With the main part of the enemy's mobile forces thus involved in the west, the capture of Falaise now held out the tremendous prospect of cutting off and destroying the most dangerous elements of his armies in France.
While the main attack was being prepared, the 2nd Canadian Division carried out a subsidiary operation on the right flank, clearing the enemy from the wooded area west of the river Laize and joining hands with the troops of the Second British Army advancing from across the Orne. This "right hook" was a serious threat to the main position covering Falaise, and was calculated to ease the task of the formations making the frontal attack.
Over the Heights to Falaise
The final great attack to break through to Falaise was delivered in daylight, beginning at noon on 14 August. The same basic tactics which had succeeded in TOTALIZE were employed in this operation, known as TRACTABLE; the leading infantry were again to be transported in armoured carriers, but whereas the former operation had been carried out under cover of darkness, in this one the front and flanks of the attack were covered by smoke-screens laid by the artillery. Each of the two columns of attack was composed of two infantry brigades and an armoured brigade, the troops employed being those of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.
As surprise was again highly desirable, preliminary shelling was dispensed with; preparatory bombardment was limited to a heavy blow struck at the enemy positions by fighter bombers only twenty minutes before H Hour. Then the artillery opened, laying down the smoke-screens which were such an essential part of the plan; and precisely at noon, the armoured columns drove forward across the start line. As they advance, the guns continued to lay a moving smoke barrage in front of them, screening them from the enemy anti-tank gunners on the heights.
The smoke was supplemented by dust--"dust like I've never seen before!" writes a unit commander--and it was extremely hard for the armour to keep direction. Again the attack was successful, though the price paid by our tanks was heavy. The Germans had found na copy of a Canadian Operation Order on the body of a dead officer, and this had enabled them to deploy still more anti-tank guns at the threatened point. Among our losses was the commander of the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade of the 4th Division, Brigadier E.L. Booth, who was mortally wounded when his tank was hit by an 88-millimetre shell. The armoured carriers again proved their worth, bearing the infantry through the enemy's forward positions into the valley of the little river Laison which marked his main line of resistance. Here the infantry leaped from the vehicles and set about clearing the valley. The speed and power of their rush had overwhelmed the enemy, and many of the Germans were found with hands up.4 The tanks, however, had difficulty in crossing the Laison, and their further advance was somewhat delayed.
In the second phase of the operation, a further misfortune befell our troops. It had been arranged that at two in the afternoon, R.A.F. Bomber Command was to deliver a very heavy attack on the enemy positions about Quesnay Wood and Potigny. The bombing at Quesnay was highly accurate. (Visitors to the area later found it hard to believe that anything could have lived there.) Unfortunately, however, some of the subsequent bombing went wrong, and for a considerable time bombs fell among our own men in the Hautmesnil area far in rear.
St. Lambert-sur-Dives, August, 1944
A soldier of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, shovel on back,
runs forward past a burning Sherman tank in the village street.
Such attacks are the hardest possible experience for any troops; men who will face the fire of the enemy with comparative equanimity are badly shaken by being bombed by our own forces. Nevertheless, in mere justice to the R.A.F., it must be added that it was estimated that not less than 80 per cent of the bombs fell on or about the designated enemy targets; and there is no doubt that the result was to assist the Canadian attacking formations to breach a very strong defensive system at a comparatively limited cost in casualties.
By the evening of 14 August, our troops had fought their way on to the northern spurs of the heights above Falaise, and our leading elements were now less than four miles from the town. One Canadian officer has recalled the strange hush that fell that night. "The evening was silent as death--only the crackling noise of flaming tanks
and buildings." But next morning the roar of battle broke out once more. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions had been directed to complete the capture of Falaise, while the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions were to drive south-eastward in the direction of Trun to cut the enemy's main eastward line of retreat. The remnants of the 12th S.S. was still fighting savagely (and holding the German infantry divisions in line). Only on the 16th did the 3rd Division and 2nd Armoured Brigade finally get possession of "Point 159", the dominating height immediately above Falaise. The same day the leading troops of the 2nd Division entered the town itself, fighting their way in against determined opposition. By noon of the 17th, the place was clear, except for one last strongpoint, a monastery, which held out against Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal until about midnight.
The old town which had cost so much good blood was itself a shambles. A much smaller place than Caen, it had been more universally ruined by the bombs and shells poured upon it; whole streets had been reduced to rubbish-heaps, and the bulldozer men who were called in to clear passages for our vehicles must have found it difficult to determine just where the roadways had once run. Only that relic of older wars, the grim grey castle where the Conqueror was born, towering on its loft rock, seemed comparatively undamaged; and even it bore the marks of shots fired by our tanks in the process of clearing out the snipers who had fought there to the bitter end.
The Pocket and the Gap
The situation of the large enemy force in Lower Normandy was now desperate. The First United States Army had driven forward against the German divisions
counter-attacking about Mortain, and had pushed them back and established contact with the Second British Army. Simultaneously, the Third United States Army had continued its rapid and powerful drive eastward. By 9 August, it had captured Le Mans; thereafter it drove north, straight for the rear of the Germans facing the Canadians. By the 13th, the Americans were in the region of Argentan, only fifteen miles or so south-east of Falaise. The result was that the enemy's forces were now in a "pocket" threatened by complete encirclement as the Canadian jaw of the pincers cut south through Falaise and the American jaw moved northward from the vicinity of Argentan. Realizing, somewhat belatedly, the extreme danger to which he was exposed, the enemy pulled back a major part of his armour to hold the american advance, and its northward progress was greatly slowed, though to the east it continued unchecked. The burning question new was whether the Germans could withdraw their forces, or important part of them, before the jaws of the trap closed. Eastward movement out of the area had certainly been in progress for some days, but vast numbers of Germans remained in jeopardy.
After the fall of Falaise, the responsibility of closing the trap and keeping it closed fell mainly upon General Simonds' two armoured divisions which, as already noted, were pushing forward to cut the German communications east from the town. On the night of 17-18 August, the advanced elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division occupied Trun and the high ground to
St. Lambert-sur-Dives, August, 1944
German officers and men coming forward to surrender. At the left, pistol in hand, is Major D.V. Currie,
his face marked by the strain and the grime of the three days' fighting that won him the V.C.
This is one of the war's most remarkable photographs.
the north of it, cutting one of the few good roads still available to the Germans for the north-easterly withdrawal which was now their object. Subsequently, the 3rd Canadian Division relieved the 4th in this area.
At the same time, the splendid fighters of General Maczek's 1st Polish Armoured Division were exacting from the enemy a terrible revenge for the wrongs he had inflicted upon their country. General Montgomery had given them a new objective, directing them on Chambois, south-east of Trun. As they fought their way towards their goal through the steep and broken country east of Falaise, they had repeated encounters with enemy tanks and took toll of them. Germans from both inside and outside the pocket assailed the Poles, but they pressed on. By the 18th, they were within striking distance of Chambois.
"The Gap" through which the trapped German forces were striving to retreat had now shrunk to a very narrow compass. The American advanced troops were by the 198th in the Forest of Gouffern, the northern edge of which is not much more than two miles from Chambois. The Germans' dire circumstances were driving them to attempt mass road movement in daylight, something which, in view of our great superiority in the air, they would not normally have thought of. On 17 August began what an account by No. 35 Reconnaissance wing, R.A.F. (the "eyes" of the First Canadian Army) called "three days of the largest scale movement, presenting such targets to Allied air power as had hitherto only been dreamed of". The airmen did tremendous damage on the 17th. Then, on the 18th, reconnaissance aircraft spotted immense masses of enemy transport, packed nose to tail, slowly moving eastward through the Gap; there were particularly heavy concentrations about Vimoutiers.
"Our Air Forces Had Destroyed Every Permanent Bridge Across the Seine"
The remains of the railway bridge at Elbeuf.
(From a watercolour by Capt. O.N. Fisher)
"Send out all available aircraft", was now the word; and the whole of the resources of Nos. 83 and 84 Groups, R.A.F.,5 were turned upon these targets, which were also brought under artillery fire. Hundreds of planes dived on the enemy columns through a long afternoon; and from the packed roads the smoke of hundreds of burning vehicles rose into the summer sky. It was difficult for the airmen to distinguish friend from foe, and again our own troops suffered some casualties. At one point, the attack was checked when information was received that American armour had appeared on the edge of the target area; arrangements were made for the Americans to
withdraw, and the air forces then returned to the assault. Never before in history had such destruction fallen upon an army from the air. When the score was counted, the R.A.F.'s 2nd Tactical Air Force estimated the results of this one devastating day's work at a total of 182 enemy tanks and 2,179 motor vehicles destroyed or damaged. How well founded these estimates were, our troops, during the next few days, were able to verify; the grisly evidence lay out in the sunlight for all to see.
The Germans did not submit tamely to their fate. During the next few days, there was constant desperate and confused fighting in the area of Trun and Chambois, as groups of the enemy of varying sizes and in varying states of organization and disorganization strove desperately to break out of the trap. It may be said that the Gap was finally closed about seven o'clock in the evening of 19 August, when the fighting Poles captured Chambois and made contact with elements of the 90th United States Infantry Division. Nevertheless, the condition remained critical for some time thereafter; it could not be asserted that there was a continuous established line containing the enemy, and at time the situation at various points was far from clear. For some time, indeed, the Poles, battling against incessant furious counter-attacks from both the south-west and the north-east, were cut off from ground contact with the remainder of the First Canadian Army, and on the morning of the 21st, it was necessary to drop ammunition to them from the air.
During this period of extraordinarily savage and chaotic fighting, there were certainly many fierce encounters of which no full account was ever put on paper. But some incidents of those desperate days have been clearly recorded and serve to give us some idea of what
was passing in the whole area about the Gap. We know, for instance, that on 20 August, two squadrons of the 18th Canadian Armoured Car Regiment (12th Manitoba Dragoons), forsaking their normal role of reconnaissance, devoted themselves to working havoc among the struggling enemy, and continued to do so until their ammunition was exhausted, killing hundreds and capturing "well over a thousand". And we know the story of two machine-gun platoons of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (M.G.), who on 21 August found themselves in position on high ground just north of the highway between Trun and Chambois and not far east of the former town. Here, just before six o'clock that morning, enemy tanks and infantry put in a violent local counter-attack through the neighbouring village of Magny. One tank approached the machine-gunners' position, followed by a swarm of infantry; but when it came within range, it was damaged by a PIAT bomb and hastily sheered off; and thereafter the Vickers guns took "a dreadful toll" of the men on foot:
Caught on rising ground, there was no cover at hand for them. Those who were not hit ran towards the dead ground in the draw to their right, through which a stream runs. The attack was completely disrupted.
During that brief engagement the gun numbers had been presented with just such a target as they had often wished for. All available rifles and Brens had also been in use.
Until about eight o'clock the machine-gunners fired at whatever they could see. During this time, a host of white flags appeared and hundreds of the enemy crowded in to surrender. Many other were
unable to give up, for every move towards our lines brought bursts of fire from certain S.S. troops patrolling the low ground behind them in an armoured half-track.
Such was the story on one part of the line on one morning; such was the fate of one large group of enemy troops who attempted to escape from the Falaise pocket. During this same counter-attack in Many, the Glengarrians captured a prize in the person of Lt.-Gen. Erwin Minny, commanding the German 84th Division. It appears, indeed, that the main object of this enterprise had been to carry this eminent officer through the cordon; but when the Tiger tank in which he was riding bogged down, General Menny "bailed out" and became our prisoner. The Poles had previously captured another general officer, Lt.-Gen. Elfeldt of the 84th Corps, who made a similar unsuccessful attempt to break through; and the Lincoln and Welland Regiment had taken the commander of the 708th Division (who was, however, a mere Colonel).
Events in one other area must be noted. This was the little town of St. Lambert-sur-Dives, which lies on the main Trun-Chambois road at its junction with a secondary road running north-east. On the evening of 18 August, a small mixed force of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division approached this key point. It consisted of tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns, and infantrymen of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada. The whole force, amounting to 175 all ranks, was commanded by Major D.V. Currie of the 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment). It immediately ran into determined resistance from enemy troops ensconced in the village, and 88-milllimetre guns knocked out two of its tanks. At dusk, Major Currie entered the place alone on foot, reconnoitred the enemy defences and
"When Quiet Again Descended Upon the Area of the Gap,
It Presented an Extraordinary and Terrible Sight."
(From an oil painting by Major W.A. Ogilvie, M.B.E., based on sketches made in the Chambois-Trun area)
[Blank page: back of painting]
"At Elbeuf Our Sappers Did a Notable Job of Bridging"
Here the 3rd Canadian Division crossed the Seine.
(From a watercolour by Capt. O.N. Fisher, 28th August, 1944)
in the face of heavy mortar-fire brought off the crews of the disabled tanks. Early the next morning, he led his men against the village. In the face of the fiercest opposition from enemy armour, artillery and infantry, the fought their way into the middle of it and consolidated their position there.
Now began a period of most desperate fighting. The enemy, resolved to break out to the north-east, during the next thirty-six hours hurled a succession of violent counter-attacks against Major Currie's force. All were driven back. At dusk on 20 August, the Germans made their final effort, but "the attacking force was routed before it could even be deployed". The Canadians then themselves attacked and completed the capture of St. Lambert.
Not only had the determination of Major Currie and his men "throughout three days and nights of fierce fighting" denied the enemy a route by which he might
have extracted many of his troops, but they had inflicted upon him extraordinarily heavy losses. The count was seven enemy tanks, twelve 88-millimetre guns and forty vehicles destroyed; while some 300 Germans were killed, 500 wounded, and 2,100 captured. The Victoria Cross which the commander of the little force subsequently received--the first won by a Canadian in the campaign in North-West Europe--was no extravagant recognition.
The Graveyard of an Army
When quiet again descended upon the area of the Gap, it presented an extraordinary and terrible sight. Burned-out tanks and vehicles in incredible numbers lined and blocked every road and track. Dead soldiers and dead horses by hundreds and thousands lay on the roadways and in the ditches. Bulldozers had to clear a way through the human and mechanical debris for our advancing columns. This region of Trun and Chambois was in fact, as one observer later put it, "the graveyard of the flower of the German Army". Let one matter-of-fact account be quoted. It was written by an officer who visited the area on 22 August:
The road from Trun to Chambois was liberally strewn with German equipment and dead. The 6th Canadian Armoured Regiment was north-east of St. Lambert-sur-Dives on a side road ... The road in was lined with hundreds of dead, so close together that they were practically touching. They did not smell and in most cases had not become discoloured.
This officer, perhaps, was fortunate in visiting the Gap at an early date. As the days passed, there arose from this tremendous charnel-house a stench which made it virtually impossible to enter the area. So numerous were the
dead that, although numbers of German prisoners were put to work burying their compatriots, many still lay unburied weeks later.
It had been a very great victory. The cooperation of troops of many nations, fighting in concert on a front of hundreds of miles, had produced the effect for which General Eisenhower and General Montgomery had planned. Some German troops had got out of the pocket, but vast numbers were dead, many thousands were in the prisoner-of-war cages, and material beyond reckoning had fallen into our hands. The price on the Canadian front had been high. The total casualties of Canadian troops of the First Canadian Army, from the beginning of operation TOTALIZE on 7 August through 23 August, by which date the pocket had been finally liquidated, were 389 officers and 5,795 other ranks, killed, died of wounds, wounded or missing. Enemy prisoners taken on the Army front during the same period numbered 18,381. No attempt was made to count the enemy dead, but as has already been amply demonstrated, their name was legion. On those portions of the front where movement had been more rapid and the Allied columns had "motored" freely across country, the number of prisoners was still greater.
Tremendous events had also been happening elsewhere. On the night of 14-15 August, Allied forces had landed in Southern France and in an unbelievably short space of time that whole region of the country had been liberated and the invaders from the Mediterranean had joined hands with those from the Channel. And while the battle was raging in the Gap, General Patton's right wing was driving on eastwards towards the capital. The approach of the armies of liberation led to a patriotic uprising of the people of Paris; the city that had fallen so easily in 1940 now
became once more a beacon for free men. On 25 August, the news that General Leclerc's 2nd French Armoured Division had entered Paris that morning electrified the civilized world.
The Normandy bridgehead was now a matter of history. The operations were no longer a question of breaking out; the breakout had succeeded and the enemy had suffered a devastating reverse. His Seventh Army had for the present ceased to exist as a fighting force; his Fifth Panzer Army had been very heavily defeated and was reeling backward. The Allied operations had entered the phase of pursuit.
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