The Campaign in North-West Euruope:
The Battle of Normandy, June-August 1944
The Consolidation of the Bridgehead
During the latter part of June the front of the 1st British Corps in Normandy saw little heavy fighting. The 30th Corps put in a powerful thrust south of Bayeux on the 13th of the month and momentarily captured Villers Bocage; but violent enemy reaction, aided by opportune reinforcements, forced our troops back to the vicinity of Caumont. Intensive ding-dong fighting followed in this area without producing any great change in positions. These operations served, however, to pin down a considerable proportion of the enemy's strength and thereby to facilitate General Bradley's advance towards Cherbourg. The American troops had bitter fighting during this advance, but on 26 June the great port city fell into their hands.
General Montgomery was extremely anxious to take Caen, and proposed to do this by "a pincer movement from both flanks"; subsequently however he abandoned this plan in favour of a single blow on the western side. On 26 June, accordingly, the 8th British Corps attacked through the 3rd Canadian Division (which except for its artillery was not itself engaged), captured the high ground near Cheux which the Canadians had tried for on the 11th, and on the 27th established a bridgehead across the River Odon some seven miles southwest of Caen. Against this grave threat to the city the Germans deployed a great force of their best troops. The 2nd S.S. Panzer Corps, with the 9th and 10th S.S. Panzer Divisions under command, had been hastily brought from Russia and now went into action here, along with parts of the 1st and 12th S.S. Panzer Divisions and other formations. The Germans' effort succeeded in checking the advance but did not eliminate the salient or the bridgehead. Once again the enemy divisions were committed piecemeal as elements became available, and again they failed to achieve a large-scale coordinated counter-attack. An attempt on 29 June to put in such a thrust was broken up by Allied air attacks and artillery and naval fire and never really got under way.
Throughout this period the Canadian front was relatively static and the Canadian role was defence of the bridgehead while it was built up. Offensive operations were planned but postponed. Had the 8th Corps made greater progress, it was intended to launch the Canadians against Carpiquet while the other divisions of the 1st Corps attacked further
east, but this project was put off as a result of the check.
The Allied force in the bridgehead had grown rapidly. By 15 June half a million men and 77,000 vehicles were ashore in France, and construction of the two artificial harbours was well under way. Four days later, however, an almost unprecedented summer gale seriously threatened our communications. Unloading virtually ceased for three and a half days, the American harbour was so badly damaged that no attempt was made to complete it, and the British one also suffered. But as soon as the gale had blown itself out the "build-up" was resumed. It was some six days behind schedule, but the result was only a slight delay to Allied operations. One month after D Day there were nearly a million Allied soldiers in Normandy.
By the end of June we could take stock. Our "lodgement area" was secure and had been materially enlarged, although the great enemy force assembled on the eastern flank had so far prevented us from taking Caen. On 30 June General Montgomery defined strategic policy for the next phase in a directive addressed to Generals Bradley and Dempsey. This ran in part as follows:
The General Situation
My broad policy, once we had secured a firm lodgement area, has always been to draw the main enemy forces in to the battle on our eastern flank, and to fight them there, so that our affairs on the western flank could proceed the easier.
We have been very successful in this policy. Cherbourg has fallen without any interference from enemy reserves brought in from other areas; the First US Army is proceeding with its re-organization and re-grouping, undisturbed by the enemy; the western flank is quiet.
All this is good; it is on the western flank that territorial gains are essential at this stage, as we require space on that side for the development of our administration.
By forcing the enemy to place the bulk of his strength in front of the Second Army, we have made easier the acquisition of territory on the western flank.
Our policy has been so successful that the Second Army is now opposed by a formidable array of German Panzer Divisions--eight definitely identified, and possibly more to come.
Plan in Outline
To hold the maximum number of enemy divisions on our eastern flank between Caen and Villers Bocage, and to swing the western or right flank of the Army Group southwards and eastwards in a wide sweep so as to threaten the line of withdrawal of such enemy divisions to the south of Paris. The bridges over the Seine between Paris and the sea have been destroyed by the Allied air forces, and will be kept out of action; a strong Allied force established in the area Le Mans--Alençon would threaten seriously the enemy concentration in the Caen area and its "get-away" south of Paris.
Within this general plan, the task of the Second British Army was to hold the main enemy forces in the area between Caen and Villers
ENGINEERS CLEARING ROADS THROUGH CAEN, JULY 1944
From a painting by Capt. O. N. Fisher
The bulldozer shown belongs to the 3PrdP Field Park Company, Royal Canadian Engineers
(3PrdP Canadian Division). In the background are the imposing towers of the Abbaye aux Hommes,
built by William the Conqueror.
Bocage, to have no setbacks, and to develop operations for the capture of Caen as opportunity offered--"and the sooner the better". The task of the First U.S. Army was, beginning on 3 July, to develop an offensive southwards on the right flank, pivoting on its left about Caumont, and swinging south and east on to the general line Caumont--Vire--Mortain--Fougères. On reaching the base of the Cherbourg peninsula at Avranches, the right Corps was "to be turned westwards into Brittany", while the rest of the Army was "to direct a strong right wing in a wide sweep, south of the bocage country" towards the lines Laval--Mayenne and Le Mans--Alençon.
On this general pattern the battle was actually fought during the next seven weeks. Much would depend on whether the enemy would continue to fight strongly on the bridgehead line. General Montgomery's hope and object, as stated in an earlier directive of 18 June, were "to make the German Army come to our threat and to defeat it between the Seine and the Loire". As it turned out, Hitler enforced precisely the policy which the Allied commander desired.
The Canadian Army Headquarters had as yet played no part. General Crerar himself with his small tactical headquarters had crossed the Channel in H.M.C.S. Algonquin on 18 June and established himself in the village of Amblie. The course of operations, however, led General Montgomery to the decision that the arrival of the main Canadian Army Headquarters and Army Troops would have to be postponed. Fighting divisions were the great need, and until the painfully crowded bridgehead could be expanded -on the east there would be no room for another body of Army Troops. Crerar was obliged to stand by, awaiting the time when conditions would permit him to take over a sector of the front. In the meantime, however, arrangements were made to bring in the 2nd Canadian Division and the Headquarters of the 2nd Canadian Corps; and they arrived in Normandy at the end of the first week in July.
The Capture of Caen and the Attack Across the Orne
The 3rd Canadian Division returned to the offensive on 4 July with an attack designed to take Carpiquet village and airfield as a preliminary to the capture of Caen. The 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade, strengthened by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, went in with the support of armour, the guns of the fleet and a great concentration of land artillery. The village was taken and held, but after fierce fighting we were able to retain only part of the airfield; and Carpiquet remained a hot and unpleasant spot, subject to constant shelling and repeated counterattacks, until Caen itself fell.
It was on 8 July that the 1st British Corps delivered the final attack against the city. Three divisions took part, the 3rd Canadian Division being on the right, and the R.A.F. Bomber Command was employed to clear the way. The 9th Brigade took Buron and Authie, where it had been so stiffly checked on D plus One; the 7th drove through to take Cuesy and Ardenne, further east; and the 8th completed the conquest of Carpiquet. By evening our troops were on the edge of Caen, and 9 July saw the occupation of the city as far as the River Orne. Caen had paid a tragic price for its liberation, great areas having been ruined by the preliminary air bombardment and many people killed or injured; and yet the reception of our battalions could scarcely have been warmer.
Immediately south of the Orne at Caen are industrial suburbs, Faubourg de Vaucelles and Colombelles. Farther south again lie rich and pleasant fields, stretching away towards the old town of Falaise, the birthplace of William the Conqueror. Falaise stands 21 miles south-east of Caen and is connected with it by Route Nationale No. 158, the "Falaise Road" famous in the annals of this campaign. For a good 15 miles from Caen the ground along this arrow-straight road rises--gradually, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but steadily. Caen is only a few metres above sea-level, but near Potigny, five miles short of Falaise, the hills flanking the road reach an elevation of over 200 metres. Up this long, smooth, dangerous slope the Canadians were to fight their way for weeks to come. It is a formidable glacis. In general the land is open wheatfields, offering painfully little protection to tanks or infantry advancing southward; yet there are few areas which do not have their small patches of woodland, sufficient to conceal the anti-tank guns with which the enemy was so well provided. The waist-high grain, moreover, gave good cover to his lurking machine-guns.
After the fall of Caen, General Montgomery's immediate object on this flank was to break out across the Orne and establish his forces on the high ground to the south. He aimed now to make use of those crossings over the lowest reach of the river which the airborne forces had seized on D Day. Over these the 8th Corps, with three British armoured divisions, would pass and strike south. Simultaneously General Simonds' 2nd Canadian Corps, which had taken over the Caen sector on 11 July with the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade under command, would advance across the Orne from Caen itself and the area immediately east of it and seize the heights west of the great road. The bombers were again to strike a very heavy blow in advance of the ground forces. The British called this operation of which so much was hoped GOODWOOD; the Canadians named their part ATLANTIC. It began on the morning of 18 July.
The offensive, as it turned out, added some 35 square miles to the Allied bridgehead, but did not give us the heights. The bombers made
what Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory called in his dispatch "the heaviest and most concentrated air attack in support of ground forces ever attempted," dropping 7700 tons; then the British armour, which had been assembled behind the Orne without arousing the enemy's suspicions, went forward across the bridges. Fanning out over the fields beyond, it made fair progress during the morning. But the Germans were strong on the ground, and their reaction was prompt and violent. On the plain about Cagny, some four miles east of Caen, and on the lower slopes of the rising ground around the village of Bourguébus to the south, the tanks ran into a formidable screen of anti-tank artillery; and in the latter area the 1st S.S. Panzer Division (Leibstandarte S.S. Adolf Hitler) came into action. Here the 11th British Armoured Division lost over 100 tanks during the day, and the advance came to a stop. Only secondary gains were made by the armour thereafter.
In the meantime, the 8th and 9th Brigades of the 3rd Canadian Division had also crossed the Orne, just below Caen, and set about clearing Colombelles and the neighbouring communities south of the river. This job was done, not without bitter and confused fighting and after some delay. The brigades joined hands with the 7th, which had come straight across the river from Caen into Faubourg de Vaucelles, and General Foulkes' 2nd Canadian Infantry Division passed through and struck towards the high ground. During the 18th and 19th it cleared the area about the junction of the Orne and the Odon and pressed on south in the face of stiffening resistance.1 The next day the weather broke, and the advance was carried on through seas of mud.
Four miles or so south of Caen, between the Orne and the National Road, stands a kidney-shaped eminence, an outlying foothill of the higher hill-mass closer to Falaise. It is covered with cultivated fields and is usually called, after a hamlet situated upon its northern and eastern end above the road, the Verrières Ridge. It is of no great height, its loftiest point, at the west end above Fontenayle-Marmion, is 88 metres--but it completely commands the ground to the north. For this natural outpost of the new German line there was to be desperate fighting for a fortnight to come, and on and about it much Canadian blood was to be poured out. It was on 20 July that we first set foot on those perilous slopes. That afternoon the 6th Brigade attacked, with the Essex Scottish under command. The South Saskatchewan Regiment reached its objectives on the central portion of the Ridge, but before it could consolidate and get its anti-tank guns up it was struck by enemy tanks and cut to pieces; the remnants rolled back down the slope. The
Germans, pushing on, hit the Essex and drove them back with heavy loss. At the northeast end of the Ridge, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal had a similar experience; of two forward companies which obtained a foothold on it, very few men came back. Next day the Germans continued to attack fiercely, and the Essex again suffered severely. This unit had over 300 casualties in the two days' fighting. In the evening an effective counter-attack by the Canadian Black Watch, with tank and artillery support, recovered some of the ground that had been lost. Our forward positions were stabilized on the lower slopes of the north end of the Ridge.
On 18 July, the same day on which GOODWOOD began, the Americans, whose southward offensive commencing on 3 July had been hampered by consistently vile weather, finally captured the shattered remains of the old fortress town of St. Lô, which the Germans had defended with the utmost bitterness. The stage was now set for General Bradley to deliver what General Montgomery called "the main blow of the whole Allied plan"--the attack that was to break through the German defensive system on the western flank, carry the American armies clear into Brittany and launch them on that "wide sweep" to the eastward, prescribed in Montgomery's directive of 30 June, which was to threaten to envelop the great enemy forces massed opposite the British. But if this blow was to have its full effect it was essential that those forces should remain on the eastern flank. To ensure this, continued pressure by General Dempsey's Anglo-Canadian army was of the first importance. General Eisenhower laid great emphasis on this aspect in his discussions with his ground commander; and on 21 July Montgomery issued a further directive instructing Bradley to unleash his offensive (already delayed some days by the weather) and Dempsey to operate intensively to induce the enemy to build up his main strength east of the Orne "so that our affairs on the western flank can proceed with greater speed". This was the origin of Operation SPRING, the attack which the 2nd Canadian Corps launched simultaneously with Bradley's stroke.
The Canadian Holding Attack On 25 July
The battles about Caen had been hard and bloody from the beginning; and the final phase of the campaign there was not to belie its established character. The enemy continued to regard this area as the key to his whole position in Normandy. His line on the high ground astride the great road was very strong by nature. To make our problem harder, Operation GOODWOOD had led him to bring still more troops--and these some of his best--into this region. He had pulled the 2nd Panzer Division and the 9th S.S. Panzer Division eastward across the
Orne from his central sector, and the 116th Panzer Division had, we now know, arrived from the Pas de Calais and was in reserve north of Falaise. There were now, in fact, six enemy armoured divisions in or closely in rear of the comparatively short sector east of the Orne. A more formidable proposition than an attack on this line in these circumstances it would be difficult to imagine; such an enterprise, however, was essential to the success of the Allied plan as a whole, and this "holding attack" designed to pin the enemy's forces to their ground in the east was to be the Canadian contribution to the American success in the west. Lovers of historical coincidence may reflect on the fact that the two operations were launched on the 130th anniversary of Lundy's Lane, the most bitterly contested battle ever fought between American and Anglo-Canadian forces. Those forces were now fighting against a common enemy, and on this 25th of July they stood on the threshold of perhaps the greatest climax of the war.
For Operation SPRING General Simonds had under his command the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 7th and Guards Armoured Divisions. His plan was to attack in the first phase with the infantry; if this went well and the enemy's forward line was pierced, the armour would be put in to exploit and seize positions on the high ground east of the Falaise road and well to the south. The 2nd Division was to attack west of the road, its objectives on the right being the villages of May-sur-Orne at the west end of the Verrières Ridge and Fontenay-le-Marmion just below its southern slope; on the left it was to take Verrières itself and the mining village of Rocquancourt beyond. The 3rd Division, east of the road, was to take Tilly-la-Campagne. The attack was to begin at three-thirty in the morning, the troops being aided in finding their way forward by "artificial moonlight" created by searchlights directed on the clouds. Such was the plan; the attempt to carry it out, under the conditions which we have sketched, produced a singularly desperate and costly day's fighting.
At the appointed time the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, the 3rd Division unit charged with the attack on Tilly, moved off from Bourguébus. At first things went well; the leading troops got into Tilly and it seemed that they would make the village good. But the enemy had no intention whatever of giving it up. He counter attacked in strength with infantry and armour; the tank squadron supporting the Highlanders was virtually wiped out; the platoons in and around Tilly were cut off. After dark on the evening of the 25th a good many survivors succeeded in making their way back to Bourguébus. Other parties fought on for hours until overwhelmed. On the 2nd Division's front the ground was particularly unfavourable to the attackers. There was little cover, and the approaches across which the assault had to be delivered were dominated by enemy positions on the Ridge. In addition they were subject to
enfilade from high ground held by the enemy on the far side of the Orne. To make matters worse, the subterranean workings of the large iron mines in this area (there were shafts at Rocquancourt and north of Maysur-Orne, and extensive tunnels) gave the enemy special advantages; they certainly afforded him cover from our gunfire, and probably gave him the means of infiltrating back into positions which had been cleared. Throughout the operation machine-gun fire was reported coming from points well in rear of our own front line.
The attack here was carried by the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the left and the 5th on the right. In the former sector the most solid success of the whole operation was gained. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, storming up the gentle forward slope of the Ridge, took Verrières and held it. Here, however, success ended. The Royal Regiment of Canada, thrusting for Roe, quancourt, on the lower slopes of the next rise, met very fierce fire, lost heavily, and got only a short distance past Verrières before being brought to a stand.
It was, however, on the extreme right flank, closest to the Orne, that the day's grimmest and bravest incident took place. The 5th Brigade's attack was to be launched by the Calgary Highlanders, who were to go in from the two neighbouring villages of St. André-sur-Orne and St. Martin-de-Fontenay and capture May-sur-Orne; thereafter the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada were to take over and push on to Fontenay-le-Marmion. The attack struck snags from the very beginning. The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, who were to clear the "start line" area in St. André and St. Martin, had great trouble, and indeed these two villages were probably never wholly free of the enemy throughout the day. This helped to dislocate our efforts on this flank. The Calgary Highlanders duly delivered their attack against May, but though elements of the unit seem to have got footholds in the village, or in its outskirts, twice during the morning, they were pushed out again both times.
The Black Watch attack was delayed by the continued presence of enemy troops about the start line. In attempting to finish clearing St. Martin the unit lost a good many men, including its Commanding Officer, Lt.-Col. S. S.T. Cantlie, who was mortally wounded. Major F. P. Griffin took over and was ordered to proceed with the attack against Fontenay. Tank and artillery assistance was arranged, and at 9:30 a.m. Griffin led his four rifle companies forward from St. André. Their line of advance ran straight across the western end of the Verrières Ridge, which at this point is lofty and formidable. There was no cover, and as the companies moved across the wheatfields they came under deadly mortar fire, which was soon supplemented by artillery and machine-guns firing from south, east and west. Nevertheless, this inexperienced battalion--it had been in France only about a fortnight--pushed on with a steady constancy
which no veterans could have bettered. It is estimated that Griffin led some 60 survivors on to the broad crest of the ridge. Here they ran straight into a strong enemy position, carefully camouflaged and strengthened with heavy tanks disguised as haystacks. Now there could be no more advance; the remnant was pinned down by the storm of fire, and after a time Griffin passed the order for men to get back individually if and as they could. Not more than perhaps fifteen soldiers of the rifle companies, however, succeeded in returning to our lines. On 8 August, when we finally occupied the crest of the Ridge, Major Griffin's body was found lying among those of his men. The total casualties of the Black Watch on 25 July, as closely as they can be computed, amounted to 324 all ranks; as many as 120 officers and men lost their lives.
The squadron of the 1st Hussars supporting the Black Watch had pushed into May-sur-Orne with a view to assisting the battalion with fire from the flank. Here it immediately became engaged with German tanks and anti-tank guns and lost several of its own tanks; the survivors retired. Later Le Régiment de Maisonneuve tried for May in its turn, but had no better luck than the Calgaries. When it was clear that our attack had struck a stone wall, General Simonds decided not to commit the two armoured divisions, except for ordering the 7th to support the 4th Brigade and ensure that the ground gained in the Verrières area was not lost. Here in the evening an intervention by its tanks and R.A.F. Typhoons broke up a formidable counter-attack and probably saved Verrières. Our gains in this area were important. We now had a firm hold on a section of the Ridge at its eastern end, and though the highest part of it still remained in enemy hands we had materially reduced the Germans' observation, and correspondingly improved our own, by gaining this significant lodgement in their forward line. This was the only territorial advantage we could show for the operation, which had cost us over 1000 casualties.
The real fruits of Operation SPRING must be sought, however, in its contribution to the development of the plans of the. Supreme Allied Commander who had considered it so important to his grand design. It served the purpose of concealing from the enemy, on this all-essential day, the direction of the main Allied thrust and of delaying the movement of German reserves to the American front which was certain to set in as soon as that direction was clear. As it was, the concentration of enemy armour south of Caen began to shift westward only when the American offensive was well launched.
That offensive (Operation COBRA) had been postponed from 18 to 24 July, and had then been again postponed, on account of deteriorating weather, after the preliminary bombing had actually begun. When it went in next day it proved a shattering success. Steady progress on 25 and 26 July developed on the 27th into a complete break-through which
brought the Americans to the vicinity of Coutances. By 30 July they were in Avranches, some 30 miles, as the crow flies, from their starting point; and the ball was at their feet. On 1 August the Third United States Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Patton, assumed responsibility for this right sector and the continuation of the great encircling thrust.2
The Canadian Army Headquarters had by now, at long last, also "become operational". As we have seen, General Crerar had been in France since 18 June. Only after Operation ALANTIC, however, did the bridgehead afford elbow-room for the deployment of his Army. (In the meantime, after the arrival of the 2nd Canadian Corps, the Second British Army had been directing the operations of five full corps.) At noon on 23 July Headquarters First Canadian Army took over the extreme leftward sector of the Allied front, from the Caen--Mézidon railway to the coast, with the 1st British Corps under command. Plans were made for an attack in this sector which would push the enemy back far enough to enable us to use the inland port of Caen. This project, however, was soon shelved in favour of a much more important one. On 31 July General Crerar took under his command the 2nd Canadian Corps and with it the front south of Caen. He was now responsible for some twenty miles, from the Orne round to the Channel; and the time was at hand for the final breakout from t he bridgehead.3
The Struggle On the Falaise Road
After Operation SPRING another immediate major assault upon the enemy south of Caen was out of the question. "He is so strong there now", wrote General Montgomery in a directive of 27 July, "that any large-scale operations by us in that area are definitely unlikely to succeed; if we attempt them we would merely play into the enemy's hands, and we would not be helping on our operations on the western flank". With the enemy's left falling into ruin under General Bradley's blows, and with so much of his armoured strength concentrated athwart the Falaise Road, the best opportunity for a major offensive on the British front was on the Second Army's right sector; and General
Eastern Flank of the Normandy Bridgehead
Dempsey was now directed to strike here "in great strength". East of the Orne, pending the resumption of major operations, it was essential to do everything that could be done to pin down the enemy, to keep him from transferring forces across to the western flank to oppose the Americans.
Dempsey's attack, originally planned for 2 August but speeded up with a view to exploiting the American successes, was launched by the 8th and 30th Corps in the Caumont area on 30 July. In accordance with Montgomery's orders, the 2nd Canadian Corps continued to make local attacks. On 1 August, for instance, the Calgary Highlanders tried for Tilly-la-Campagne, only to be thrown back. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the last Canadian formation to reach France, landed during the final week of July and on the night of 30-31 July relieved the 3rd Canadian Division, which now withdrew for a short rest after 56 days in the line. On 2 August a unit of the 4th, the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, made another unsuccessful thrust at Tilly; and on 5 August parts of two others, the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor) and the 22nd Armoured Regiment (Canadian Grenadier Guards), attacked the adjacent village of La Hogue with no better result.
These and other minor enterprises sufficed to establish that the enemy was still present in strength south of Caen and intended to fight hard for his positions there. In the light of the desperate nature of the crisis confronting the Germans in other sectors, however, it is not surprising that these local attacks failed to prevent them from moving to the west a large proportion of the armoured concentration east of the Orne. The enemy had at last decided that we really did not intend to deliver the second seaborne attack, across the Strait of Dover, which we had done everything possible to encourage him to expect. He now began to do what he should have done in June, bringing down across the Seine from the Pas de Calais the infantry of his Fifteenth Army. Some of these troops he put in, as they arrived, opposite the Canadian Army, using them to relieve the armoured divisions which were to try to stem the American tide. He was now able, for the first time, to provide an armoured "mass of manoeuvre" capable of a large-scale counteroffensive. But he had waited too long.
First of the Panzer Divisions to move west were the 2nd and the 116th, both very recent arrivals in the Caen sector. The 21st followed before the end of July, and in the first days of August the 9th S.S. Panzer Division and then the 1st S.S. Panzer Division likewise moved out. Of the former great armoured force, only Meyer's 12th S.S. Panzer Division now remained on the Canadian front; and on 7 August Field-Marshal von Kluge4 ordered it too to move west. But that night things happened
south of Caen which rendered the move impossible.
The Canadians had been planning for some time past for the final assault upon the Caen hinge. Only on 4 August, however, did General Montgomery order General Crerar to "launch a heavy attack from the Caen sector in the direction of Falaise" with a view to cutting the line of retreat of the German divisions engaged with the Second Army. Montgomery was fighting the Battle of Normandy as a whole, turning success on one sector of the expanding front to instant advantage in another. The fact that Operation GOODWOOD had drawn so much enemy armour to the Caen sector had facilitated the American breakthrough on the opposite flank and the subsequent offensive of the Second Army. That offensive had made good progress; by 2 August the British were on the edge of Vire. The left wing of the Army then took up the attack, driving towards the dominating Mont Pinçon massif and the upper reaches of the Orne. With the German armour now draining away from in front of Falaise to oppose the British and Americans, an attack on the enemy's pivotal positions there became both more practicable and more important. The Cs in-C.'s order was that it should go in not later than 8 August, and if possible on the 7th.
The events on and after 25 July had made it clear that breaking through the positions athwart the Falaise Road was a tactical problem of extraordinary difficulty. The solution found for it is described by General Crerar in his report of 1 September 1944 to the Minister of National Defence:
My basic tactical plan required that, even though, in view of the obvious requirements of the military situation, it was impossible to disguise our general intentions from the enemy, the attack should secure the maximum of surprise as to means and methods employed. A further important requirement was that the technique of the attack should be such as largely to neutralize the long range and great strength of the enemy's anti-tank defence and to ensure that our infantry got through and beyond the enemy's zone of dense defensive fire, developed mainly by his mortars and machine guns, without heavy casualties. The essentials were the closest integration of fire and movement, and the denial to the enemy of the time to anticipate as well as the ability to see.
With these principles before him, the detailed plan for the attack was drawn up with very great skill by Lt.-Gen. Simonds, Commander, 2nd Canadian Corps. This Corps plan proposed to solve the problems by (a) attacking under cover of darkness; (b) beginning the forward movement of our troops simultaneously with the commencement of the fire support; (c) the use of heavy bombers to add devastating effect to the fire programme; (d) transporting the infantry through the zone of defensive fire in heavily armoured carriers.
Two innovations in this plan require some comment. Intervention by heavy bombers on the battlefield during the hours of darkness was not acceptable to the R.A.F. unless the targets could be identified beyond the shadow of a doubt. This need was met by the use of red and green flare shells fired at the target villages by our artillery. The other
novelty was the armoured personnel carrier, which now made its first appearance on the battlefield. Some of the carriers required were provided by using American-pattern half-tracked vehicles; but most were improvised from the "Priest" self-propelled guns lately withdrawn from the 3rd Canadian Division. Altering them in time for the operation was a major undertaking, but these "Unfrocked Priests" or "Holy Rollers" were ready to take their places in the columns as they formed up on 7 August for the attack that night.
Before the Canadian attack was delivered, the Second Army's offensive had given it substantial assistance. On the evening of 6 August a bridgehead was established across the Orne north of Thury-Harcourt and some six miles behind the enemy's front facing the Canadians. This development was calculated to shake that front, and in fact it led to at least a battle-group of the most formidable enemy formation still east of the Orne--the 12th S.S. Panzer Division, then in reserve--being committed to counter it. On 6 August, too, the British reached Mont Pinçon, and on the 7th they cleared it.
The essence of General Simonds' plan was that the carriers should bear the leading infantry straight through the enemy front positions to areas close to their objectives before his second line. Clearing the front positions would be the business of marching battalions coming up in rear. With this in view, each assaulting division formed its advanced group in two tight double columns, each consisting of two infantry battalions or equivalent units in armoured carriers accompanied and covered by tanks and engineer assault vehicles.5 These columns, guided forward through the night by wireless and by Bofors guns firing tracer shells along their thrust lines, were to by-pass the front-line villages and push far beyond them before halting to "debus" their infantry. West of the Falaise Road the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade led the attack; east of it, the 51st (Highland) Division and the 33rd Armoured Brigade.
At 11 p.m. on 7 August the aircraft of Bomber Command began dropping their missiles into four villages--May-sur-Orne, Fontenayle-Marmion, Secqueville-la-Campagne and La Hogue--on the flanks of the attack. At 11:30 the armoured columns rolled across the start line and drove on into the darkness. At 11:45 the great force of supporting artillery which had heretofore kept silence opened with a shattering roar, laying a barrage in front of the attackers. So began Operation TOTALIZE.
The first phase was completely successful. The armoured infantry
went through and, in spite of some errors in navigation, seized their objectives on the high ground astride the road three miles behind the German front line. The marching infantry had trouble in several of the villages, where the newly-arrived 89th German Infantry Division fought hard; in some cases the battle went on into the afternoon. But the line which the enemy had held for over a fortnight was smashed. La Hogue, Tilly-la-Campagne, Rocquancourt, Fontenay-le-Marmion, May-surOrne--these bloodstained hamlets, or rather their pathetic ruins, were now finally in our hands. The Verrières Ridge, where the bodies of the men of the Canadian Black Watch had lain since the attack of 25 July, had at last passed irrevocably into Allied keeping. And our casualties had been relatively light.
The second phase began early the same afternoon. It was the business of two armoured divisions--both fresh, but both lacking experience of battle: Major-General G. Kitching's 4th Canadian, and Major-General S. Maczek's 1st Polish. Their task was to break the enemy's second line, which crossed the road some five miles in rear of his front positions, and push on south to seize dominating heights on either side of the highway within five miles of Falaise. A third phase, it was hoped, would see them exploiting to encircle the town itself.
At the outset of the second phase things began to go wrong. Though the enemy got most of the bombs dropped in the preparatory air attack by the day bombers of the Eighth United States Air Force, a good many unfortunately came down in our own rear areas, causing casualties and dislocation. Among the wounded was Major-General Keller of the 3rd Canadian Division. And when the armour lunged forward at five minutes to two its progress was less rapid than General Simonds had counted on. German armoured support was already reaching the front. General Meyer had been on the ground before morning, and had ordered up two battle-groups of his 12th S.S. (including that opposing the Second Army's bridgehead over the Orne). A battalion of Tigers and a few assault guns also came into action. All these units were greatly reduced in strength,6 but desperate though the situation seemed their fighting spirit was still high. Knowing that the fate of the German army in Normandy was in their hands, the young fanatics of the Hitlerjugend Division were prepared to immolate themselves for the Reich in a spirit of Wagnerian tragedy. Small groups of tanks and large numbers of 88-millimetre guns, making skilful use of cover, impeded our armour's deployment and slowed its advance. On the right the 2nd Division took Brettevillesur-Laize and the 4th made considerable progress; but east of
the road the Poles were held up around St. Sylvain, and on neither flank did the tanks get through to the heights which were the objectives for the second phase.
Early on the morning of 9 August the attack was renewed. The delay had, however, given the enemy time to occupy and develop a third line on the threatened heights, crossing the highway a couple of miles north of the village of Potigny and running along the northern side of the River Laison, a very insignificant stream whose deep-cut and wooded valley was nevertheless an important obstacle. Digging had been observed here over a week before; now the Germans used their remaining tanks and their very numerous 88s, disposed in woods and copses, to make this position extremely formidable. In assailing it on the 9th we lost heavily without making much impression. The 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade suffered especially. The 28th Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment), with two infantry companies of the Algonquin Regiment attached, set out before dawn to capture "Point 195", the northern summit of a commanding ridge of downland immediately west of the highway. In some way this force strayed from its proper line of advance and ran squarely into the German gun-screen on the hills above the Laison east of the road.7 Through a long day the B. Cs. and the Algonquins held the ground they had taken up, their position swept by shells and under repeated counter-attacks. During the morning a convoy of vehicles got out with the wounded, including Lt.Col. A. J. Hay of the Algonquins. In the afternoon the few tanks still capable of movement broke out and withdrew. As evening came on, the attacks grew in violence, and Lt.-Col. D. G. Worthington, the group commander, who had conducted the defence with dauntless courage, was killed by a mortar bomb. After dark the surviving infantrymen and tank crews made their way into the Polish lines. The British Columbia Regiment had lost 47 tanks in its first day's fighting.
That night a daring silent attack by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada placed Point 195 in our hands; but the slightly higher southern point of the ridge remained to the enemy, who during the next few days rained down a torrent of shells and mortar bombs upon his unwelcome neighbours. A new infantry division, the 85th, now arrived from north of the Seine to bolster the German line. On the night of 10-11 August the 3rd Canadian Division took a hand, launching the 8th Brigade at Quesnay Wood, which stands astride the highway abreast of Point 195. This attack netted us nothing but heavy casualties. The
Germans had succeeded in stabilizing the position; Operation TOTALIZE had carried us some eight miles forward, but about the same distance still separated us from Falaise. The fierceness of the resistance indicated the vital importance which the enemy continued to attach to this sector.
An Order of the Führer
To mount another deliberate attack with heavy support, such as was required to break through the enemy's new line, would unfortunately take time; and time had become a matter of the greatest importance. Hitler had made one -of his most dramatic strategic interventions. He had directed Kluge to employ his disposable armoured divisions in a great stroke in the west. The object was to cut through to the sea at Avranches and thus sever the communications of the American columns which by 6 August were in Mayenne and Laval and still driving eastward. This scheme, so glittering to the amateur strategist, was less attractive to soldiers; but when Dietrich, the commander of the 1st S.S. Panzer Corps, pointed out to Kluge the shortage of petrol, the extreme risk involved in so large an armoured concentration in the light of our complete command of the air, the danger to Falaise if all the armour were sent west, and the possibility that the whole force would be cut off by the encirclement already beginning to take shape, there was only one reply "It is an order of the Führer".
The counter-offensive, known as Operation LÜTTICH, was launched, after some delay, in the Mortain area on the evening of 6 August. The force employed included the 1st and 2nd S.S. Panzer Divisions and the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions, with the 9th Panzer Division (from southern France) subsequently coming into action. Mortain itself was recaptured by the Germans during the night, and some other gains were made, but on the 7th progress came to an abrupt end. The weather was ideal for flying; and by noon, in the words of the War Diary of the German Seventh Army, the main attack "had been brought to a complete standstill by unusually strong fighter-bomber activity".8 The Allied airmen and the American soldier had dealt with it decisively. Yet, as the same War Diary clearly shows, no German officer was ready to make a frank statement of the failure of the Führer's plan and order withdrawal; and for four days to come the armoured divisions lay relatively inactive in the Mortain area, while the onward rush of Patton's columns placed them in ever-increasing danger of encirclement. During 8 August the Canadian offensive on the Falaise
Road frightened Kluge considerably. In a telephone conversation with the commander of the Seventh Army, in which the latter gave a gloomy picture of the prospects of the Mortain operations, the Field-Marshal said:
Everything must be risked. Besides, at Caen we are dealing with a penetration of unprecedented proportions. I draw the following conclusion: First of all, we have to make preparations to reorganize the attack. Therefore, tomorrow the attack will not be continued, but the attack for the following day will be prepared.
By the afternoon of 9 August Kluge was less worried about the Falaise sector, but he still would neither abandon the idea of a further offensive at Mortain, nor order it to take place at once:
I have just had a decisive conversation with the Supreme Command. In as much as the situation south of Caen has been stabilized again and apparently has not brought about the bad results which were expected, I have suggested that we stick to the idea of attack. The attack must be prepared and carried out, however, according to plan, and should not be done too hastily.
The italics have been supplied. These passages throw interesting light upon the plight of a general who serves a dictator.
Until Kluge launched his master's counter-stroke, the encirclement envisaged in General Montgomery's offensive plan had been a "long hook". The Allied commanders had anticipated that the Germans, fleeing from Normandy, would seek to escape through the gap between the Seine at Paris and the Loire at Orléans; and plans had been made to drop a large airborne force in this gap to block the enemy's retreat. The German thrust towards Avranches now led to a change of plan. To turn Hitler's scheme against himself and use it for the destruction of his armies, the Allied command decided to attempt a shorter encirclement, bringing Canadian and American forces together in the Argentan area and thus cutting off the German forces around Mortain. General Patton's Army, originally detailed for clearing Brittany, was to be used for the enveloping movement.
The Americans were already acting on the new orders when Montgomery issued a formal confirming directive on 11 August. It ordered the First Canadian Army to capture Falaise. "This is a first priority", wrote the C.-in-C., "and it is vital it should be done quickly." After taking Falaise, the Army would secure Argentan. The Second British Army would also fight its way into the Falaise area. On the other side of the German pocket, the 12th U.S. Army Group, whose vanguard had entered Le Mans on 9 August, was to swing its right flank up to Alençon and then on to the northward. As General Montgomery drily put it, "Obviously, if we can close the gap completely, we shall have put the enemy in the most awkward
Expansion of the Normandy Bridgehead
predicament." He added:
It is definitely beginning to look as if the main battle with the German forces in France is going to be fought between the Seine and the Loire.
This will suit us very well.
Organizing a large-scale set-piece attack, including arranging the required scale of air support, is a considerable process. General Montgomery's orders reached Canadian Army Headquarters on the evening of 11 August; but it proved, impossible to make the main attack before 14 August. In the meantime, the 2nd Canadian Division was ordered to press on forthwith on the right in a flanking movement aimed at weakening the enemy's positions across the Falaise Road. On 12 August, accordingly, the Division crossed the Laize River at Bretteville. During the next two days it fought its way southward in the face of stiff opposition and by nightfall on the 13th had re-crossed the river at Clair Tizon, establishing a bridgehead which constituted a decided threat to the main German line athwart the highway. Unfortunately, the diversionary effect of this advance on our right was nullified when on the evening of 13 August the Germans found, on the body of an officer who was killed when he blundered into their lines, notes taken at a Corps Commander's conference which made it clear that the main axis of our impending attack was to be east of the great road. This enabled the enemy to make effective last-minute preparations against it, and while these were not sufficient to defeat our plan they certainly caused us additional casualties and in the opinion of General Simonds delayed the capture of Falaise by twenty-four hours.
The general scheme of the attack was similar to that used with success in TOTALIZE: a concentrated, very heavy blow on a decidedly narrow front, using armoured carriers to protect the infantry during the forward rush. The new operation, designated "Tractable", diitered from the earlier one, however, in that it began in daylight. The cover which darkness had provided for TOTALIZE was to be supplied in. "Tractable" by smoke-screens laid by artillery along the front and flanks of our advancing columns. In the interest of surprise, preliminary bombardment was dispensed with.
General Simonds planned to attack in two columns, each led by an armoured brigade with two infantry brigades following. The right column consisted of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division less the 8th Infantry Brigade, but with the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade (now commanded by Brigadier J. F. Bingham, Brigadier Wyman having been wounded on 8 August) under command. The left column was the 4th Canadian Armoured Division plus the 8th Brigade. The leading infantry brigade in each case would be borne in armoured carriers. The armoured brigades were to go straight across the River Laison and push south to
the high ground immediately above Falaise. The armour-borne infantry would have the task of mopping up the Laison valley; the other infantry brigades, carried in lorries, would subsequently push forward to hold the ground overrun by the tanks.
Re-grouping for this operation entailed moving nearly every fighting formation in the 2nd Canadian Corps to a new location during the twenty-four hours preceding the attack. This was effected without a hitch. The operation commenced with a short fierce stroke by medium bombers at the enemy positions, and punctually at noon on the 14th the armoured columns went in. "It was a most impressive sight", wrote the diarist of the 21st Armoured Regiment (The Governor General's Foot Guards), describing the attack of the 4th Armoured Brigade. "The two leading Regiments were lined up in parade-ground order. At starting time the whole mass surged forward through fields of waving golden grain." The charging columns came under heavy fire and lost a good many men and tanks. Among the dead was Brigadier Booth of the 4th Armoured Brigade. The smoke, and still more the dust, made it difficult to keep direction. Nevertheless, the armoured phalanx broke through the enemy front line very rapidly, though in the Laison valley confusion developed and there was delay before the tanks were able to cross and continue the advance. The leading infantry, leaping from their carriers, cleared the valley with little difficulty, and many prisoners were taken. By evening it was clear that the operation had been decidedly successful, though the more distant objectives had not been reached. The armour had not got through to "Point 159", the high hill immediately north of Falaise; but our infantry were well established within about three miles of the town.
Unfortunately, the day's work had been marred by another serious mistake in bombing. The second phase of the air support, beginning at two p.m., was provided by R.A.F. and R.C.A.F. heavy bombers. Several of the later waves went astray, missed the targets and dropped their bombs within our own lines. This bombing went on for considerably over an hour and caused a certain number of casualties and heavy losses in transport and guns to Canadian and Polish troops. Luckily, it had little actual adverse effect upon the progress of the attack, and the large proportion of bombs dropped in the proper areas certainly contributed materially to its success.
When the advance was resumed on the morning of 15 August it went rather slowly, for the enemy still had enough tanks and antitank guns to be able to offer formidable resistance on the strong ground remaining to him north of Falaise. Only on 16 August did we get possession of Point 159. On the same afternoon, troops of the 2nd Division (Brigadier H. A. Young's 6th Brigade), pushing in from the north-west, finally entered Falaise. The centre of the town had been
almost totally destroyed by our preparatory bombing, but enemy rearguards and snipers fought savagely among the tragic ruins. Clearing proceeded systematically and was generally completed by noon of the 17th, although some tenacious survivors of the Hitlerjugend Division held out in one strongpoint until after midnight.
The Gap and the Cauldron
During 12 August the advance of General Patton's Army had brought it almost to Argentan. Here its progress was checked. The boundary between the 21st and 12th Army Groups ran just south of Argentan. About midnight on 12-13 August General Haislip, commanding the 15th U.S. Corps in this area, consulted Patton and was ordered to "push on slowly in the direction of Falaise until you contact our Allies". Some twelve hours later, however, this order was countermanded and Haislip was instructed to concentrate his troops in the vicinity of Argentan ready to move north, north-east or east. It is evident that higher authority, fearing that interference with established boundaries between formations might cause confusion, including perhaps attacks by our air forces on our own troops, had directed Patton not to overrun the boundary.9
In any case, resistance to the Americans had suddenly stiffened. The Germans had finally begun to withdraw their armour from the Mortain area on 11 August,10 and formidable elements of it were now being employed around Argentan to hold open the gap which was the only line of retreat for the great German forces still remaining in Lower Normandy. Through this troops and transport were streaming in the hope of reaching safety beyond the Seine. After the capture of Falaise thé neck of the bottle was narrowed to a mere dozen miles.
The task of closing this Gap devolved mainly upon General
Simonds' two armoured divisions, the 4th Canadian and the 1st Polish. On 18 August both were directed south-east in the general direction of Trun, an important road-junction about 12 miles east of Falaise, to cut the enemy's main escape route. On the following afternoon General Montgomery instructed the Canadian Army to push the Poles on as quickly as possible past Trun to Chambois, some four miles farther to the south-east. Early on the 18th Canadian troops got into Trun and that day there was violent and bloody fighting by units of both divisions striving to reach Chambois, the Poles from the north, the Canadians from the north-west.
The German withdrawal through the Gap had assumed the aspect of desperation. The enemy's dire circumstances were driving him to attempt something which our superiority in the air had not allowed him to think of for months past: mass road movement in daylight. On 17 August began "three days of the largest scale movement, presenting such targets to Allied air power as had hitherto only been dreamed of". During these bright summer days our fighterbombers struck at the packed roads hour after hour, turning the whole area of the Gap into a gigantic shambles; while our artillery, moving up within range, poured thousands of shells into the killing-ground. In that seething bloody cauldron which the Germans were to remember as "der Kessel von Falaise" one of the haughty armies that had terrorized Europe was perishing miserably.
The American formations had now regrouped. General Patton'.s columns, meeting little resistance to the eastward, had rushed on through Chartres and Orléans and were soon on the edge of Paris. As early as 17 August his patrols reached the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt. On 18 August the Argentan front was transferred to the First U.S. Army. On the 17th the Americans here had resumed their northward advance. The 90th U.S. Infantry Division and the 2nd French Armoured Division, beating down fierce opposition, drove slowly forward towards Chambois. At 7:20 p.m. on 19 August came the long-awaited contact between Allied forces north and south of the Gap, when, as a First Canadian Army situation report put it, the 10th Polish Mounted Rifle Regiment with the 10th Polish Motor Battalion "captured Chambois and were joined by 90 U.S. Inf. Div., forces". It was an historic moment; nevertheless, the story of the Falaise Gap was not yet entirely told. At this moment very considerable parts of the German armoured force from Mortain were still inside the Pocket. Other elements which had escaped from it were available for counter-attack from the outside. During 20 August, in consequence, there was violent fighting along the road between Trun and Chambois, across which the trapped enemy was making desperate efforts to break away to the north-east.
On the evening of the 18th, a small mixed detachment of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, amounting to about 175 all ranks and
composed of tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns, and infantrymen of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, had gained a foothold on the outskirts of the little village of St. Lambert-sur-Dives, which lies on the Trun-Chambois road roughly midway between the two places. The force was commanded by Major D. V. Currie of the 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment). On the 19th, he fought his way into the village and consolidated his position, and he and his men, weary, grimy and indomitable, held their ground through that day and the 20th in the face of a succession of most savage counterattacks, taking very heavy toll of enemy troops, tanks, guns and transport. During these days St. Lambert was the storm-centre of the incredible drama of the Falaise Gap; and the force there prevented the escape of great numbers of the encircled Germans. This detachment itself is credited with thecapture of over 2000 prisoners. Major Currie was later awarded the first Canadian Victoria Cross of the North-West Europe campaign.
In spite of all the efforts of the South Albertas and Argylls and of the gallant Poles to the east of them, a good many of the enemy got away. Currie controlled only the north-west part of St. Lambert; and at the church at the south-east end General von Luttwitz of the 2nd Panzer Division and General Harmel of the 10th S.S. Panzer Division were busily organizing battle-groups for dashes through the cordon. Early on 20 August a fierce large-scale thrust launched just east of St. Lambert carried a good number of German tanks through, and later in the day another rush extricated still more. It appears that during these attacks the Headquarters of the German Seventh Army and that of the Eberbach Armoured Group, which had latterly controlled the armoured forces about Mortain, both succeeded in breaking out of the cauldron.
The heaviest weight of this fighting fell upon the Polish. Armoured Division, which stood squarely in the path of the German rushes and had to contend both against the tank forces striving to escape from the pocket and against the 2nd S.S. Panzer Corps, with the 2nd and 9th S.S. Panzer Divisions under command, which had got out earlier and was now battling to hold the way open for the rest of the armour. For a time the Poles were entirely cut off from the rest of the First Canadian Army, and on the morning of 21 August it was necessary to drop ammunition to them from the air.
The 3rd Canadian Division had now moved into the Trun area to relieve the 4th Canadian Armoured Division as the latter shifted its weight eastward. In the course of the 21st a firm and continuous line was established; and Canadians and Poles held it against the further attempts of German groups in various states of organization and disorganization to break out to the north-east, while the 12th British Corps came driving like some giant plunger down the "gun alley" from the direction of Falaise, pushing the Germans into the hands of General Crerar's men.
During the three days 19-21 August, 12,000 prisoners (among them a corps commander and two divisional commanders) were captured by the Canadian Army. Uncounted thousands of other Germans had met death in the blind and desperate combats of these days of slaughter.
By the morning of 22 August fighting had virtually ceased in the area where the Gap had been. The whole vicinity of St. Lambert was covered with the human and material debris of an army which had suffered the greatest disaster in modern military history. At many places the bodies of German soldiers literally carpeted the ground; one observer spoke of "hundreds of dead, so close together that they were practically touching". Masses of destroyed or abandoned tanks, lorries and cars blocked the roads and filled the ditches; while some 8000 dead horses, which had drawn the vehicles of the German infantry divisions, lay offending the air. In the carnage of the Pocket and the Gap at least eight German divisions had been destroyed, and about twice as many more had suffered crippling losses. The remnants of the armoured formations--small remnants in most cases -had saved themselves it the expense of the infantry, who were left to their fate. One armoured formation, however, had actually fought to annihilation. Meyer's 12th S.S. Panzer Division had still had a few men left after the fall of Falaise, but the last survivors, 60 strong, were overrun in the Gap west of Trun. One battle-group of a few hundred men had been withdrawn earlier, and served as a basis on which the division was subsequently reconstituted. Apart from this the 12th S.S. had literally ceased to exist. Meyer escaped on foot. Captured later, he was condemned to death for complicity in the murder of prisoners. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
On 20 August General Montgomery had issued a new directive. This defined the immediate task of the Allied ground forces as the completion of the destruction of the enemy in North-West France, followed by an advance northward with a view to the destruction of all German forces in North-East France. The British and Canadian forces were to liquidate what was left of the enemy in the Pocket and then push rapidly on to the Seine, while the Americans, whose right wing, as we have seen, was already close to Paris, were to drive northward along the south bank-of the Seine to cut off the retreat of the Germans falling back before Crerar and Dempsey. The particular task of the Canadian Army was "to keep the Normandy 'bottle' securely corked", and simultaneously to develop a strong thrust towards Lisieux and Rouen. As soon as the bottle was clear the Army as a whole would advance to the Seine, cross it, and clear the Havre peninsula between the Seine and the Channel. General Montgomery wrote:
It is important to secure the port of Havre very early; the railway communications from the port, eastwards and northwards, will be required for the maintenance of the armies and much time will be saved if these can be secured
ESCAPE ROUTE, NORMANDY, AUGUST 1944
From a painting by W.A. Ogilvie, M.B.E.
This painting, based upon contemporary sketches made on the spot in the Trun--Chambois area,
records one scene of the terrible destruction wrought upon the retraiting German armies in the Falaise Gap.
intact, together with all possible rolling stock.
All Scotland will be grateful if Commander Canadian Army can arrange that the Highland Division should capture St. Valery.
I have no doubt that the 2nd Canadian Division will deal very suitably with Dieppe.
On the Canadian Army's seaward flank, where the front of General Crocker's 1st British Corps, facing the flooded valley of the lower Dives, had long been static, the eastward movement had begun as soon as the progress of the offensive down the Falaise Road shook loose the enemy's defences in this area. As early as 16 August the British troops got across the Dives in the areas of Mézidon and St. Pierre-sur-Dives. The Canadians themselves began to shift eastward on 21 August, when the 2nd Division moved; the remaining formations of the 2nd Canadian Corps, their work in the Pocket done, joined the pursuit on 23 August.
The advance was rapid. The Germans had sustained a tremendous reverse, and their plans were in total ruin. Nevertheless, in the words of General Crerar's report on the operations, "In spite of the severe treatment that had been meted out to him, the enemy continued to fight stubbornly and skilfully at many points to cover the retreat of his forces across the Seine." The British formations had bitter fighting in Lisieux and Pont l'Evêque. The Canadians met still fiercer opposition in the Seine valley itself. On the morning of the 26th General Simonds' leading troops reached the river, and took over from the Americans who had pushed down it as far as Elbeuf. The Canadians were now close to Rouen, but the occupation of the city was delayed for several days and the Germans were able to exact a heavy price for it.
Rouen stands at the top of one of the great loops of the Seine; and across the narrow neck of this loop, ten miles south of the city, lies the Forêt de la Londe, "a rugged piece of country that would do credit to the Canadian Laurentians". On this range of thicklytimbered hills, where their grandfathers had inflicted a severe defeat upon the French during the siege of Paris in 1870-71, the Germans now made a resolute stand. When the 2nd Canadian Division moved into the forest on the morning of 27 August they found it, contrary to report, held by a well equipped and strongly posted enemy. During the next three days the 4th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades sustained very heavy losses in nasty forest fighting without making much progress. Only on the afternoon of the 29th did the Germans withdraw. The next day troops of the 3rd Canadian Division, which had crossed the Seine near Elbeuf, entered Rouen. For twentyfour hours thereafter our pursuing formations poured through the sadly-scarred Norman capital, receiving a rousing welcome from its liberated people.11
The enemy, improvising with great skill, had managed to pull back across the Seine the greater part of the troops who had survived the disaster of the Battle of the Gap. Deprived of permanent bridges, he turned to pontoon bridges, which were used during the hours of darkness and folded back against the river-bank during the day; he also pressed into service great numbers of ferries. This movement, however, was harried by relentless low-flying attacks by the Allied airmen, who took a terrible toll. On 25 August the German air force, trying to cover the crossings, lost an estimated 77 aircraft in combat. "On this and the subsequent three days", Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory reported, "approximately 3000 vehicles were destroyed and several thousand dead German soldiers were found among the wreckage in the area of the Seine crossings". The destruction on the southern banks of the river was comparable to that in the Gap. British investigators nevertheless reached the conclusion that, taking the campaign as a whole, the Germans probably got a little more than half of their motor transport away to the north, although their loss in tanks and self-propelled guns was much heavier. Once proud enemy formations were reduced to shadows. The 2nd Panzer Division, for instance, had probably had a strength of about 15,000 men when the campaign began; now it was down to a little over 2000, with five tanks and three guns.
The Battle of Normandy was over, and the Allies had won an extraordinary victory. The German Seventh Army had for the moment almost ceased to exist as a fighting force, and the Fifth Panzer Army was in little better case.12 To quote General Eisenhower's report, "By 25 August the enemy had lost, in round numbers, 400,000 killed, wounded, or captured, of which total 200,000 were prisoners of war. One hundred and thirty-five thousand of these prisoners had been taken since the beginning of our breakthrough on 25 July. Thirteen hundred tanks, 20,000 vehicles, 500 assault guns, and 1500 field guns and heavier artillery pieces had been captured or destroyed, apart from the destruction inflicted upon the Normandy coast defences."
To this result General Crerar's Army had made a very great contribution. Nowhere on the long line had the fighting been fiercer. Of the damage inflicted on the enemy, the 25,776 prisoners taken on the Army front from the opening of the offensive on the night of 7-8 August until the end of the month represented only part; our Intelligence staff
The Falaise Road and the Pocket, August 1944
considered that the enemy's losses in killed and wounded might be conservatively estimated at about the same figure. But we had ourselves paid heavily. Casualties of Canadian troops of the First Canadian Army for the month of August totalled 632 officers and 8736 other ranks; 164 officers and 2094 other ranks lost their lives. "The loss of these gallant officers and men", wrote the Army Commander to the Minister of National Defence, "was the price of a most serious reverse inflicted upon the enemy".
On the night of 14-15 August a new blow had fallen on the Germans, when Allied forces from Italy landed on the Mediterranean coast of France. This operation, undertaken with many doubts and after vast discussion, was a sweeping success, and as early as 11 September the men from the south joined hands with the victors of Normandy. By then almost the whole of France was free. On 25 August the world had heard the glorious news that Leclerc's Division had entered Paris that morning. There now seemed no limit to the possibilities of the situation. After the crossing of the Seine, the question was whether the fleeing German armies could recover themselves so far as to stabilize it even temporarily. The Battle of Normandy had made ultimate German defeat inevitable; and at the beginning of September it seemed quite probable that the final collapse could not be postponed for more than a few weeks. These hopes proved illusory. Eight months' hard fighting still lay ahead in North-West Europe.
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