The Advance to the Seine

My decision, following the collapse of the enemy's western flank at the end of July, to concentrate upon the encirclement and destruction of his forces in Normandy, and to use almost the whole of our available strength in order to attain this object, marked a considerable departure from the original Allied plan of campaign. Under this, as already explained, a primary objective had been th capture of the Brittany ports, through which it was intended to introduce the further divisions from the United States necessary to insure the completion of the German defeat. The capture of these ports had been envisaged as a task for the Third Army as a whole, but in order to accomplish our new plans for the Normandy battle it was necessary to move the bulk of General Patton's forces eastward to carry out the great encircling movement.

The prospects of inflicting a decisive and annihilating defeat upon the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West had been so good that I had no hesitation in making my decision. If their units could be shattered in Normandy, then I knew that there was o further German force in France capable of stopping us, particularly after the Franco-American DRAGOON forces landed on the Mediterranean coat on 15 August and proceeded to occupy all the attention of the German Nineteenth Army. In the event that we obtained the victory which I anticipated, the Brittany ports would be isolated without hope of relief, and they would no longer represent a vitally important factor in our build-up considerations, since our rapid advance eastward would be assured and our reinforcements could be introduced through the Channel ports nearer to the front lines as these were cleared.

Events demonstrated that the decision to throw the maximum weight into the Normandy struggle rather than detach substantial forces to lay siege to the Brittany ports was fully justified. Even though the battle of the Falaise-Argentan pocket did not accomplish the utter annihilation of the German armies in Normandy they were broken as an effective fighting force, and our way across France was opened. While Franco-American armies forced their way up the valley of the Rhône from the south, our forces swept across the north of France and through Belgium without a check by any major delaying action until they stood upon the frontiers of Germany.

The enemy, appreciating our need for the Brittany ports under the terms of our original plan, fortified them and rejected all appeals to surrender. Although the progress of our eastward advance must have made the garrisons realize that the ports they held were no longer necessary to the maintenance of our forces, they continued to hold out in their usual tenacious fashion, no doubt with the intention of proving thorns in our flesh after the manner of the British stand at Tobruk in 1941.

The desperate defense which the enemy was prepared to offer was revealed in the violent and bitter struggle to secure the capitulation of St. Malo, and still more so in the fighting which took place at Brest. By 8 August practically all resistance in the peninsula had ceased outside the ports, and our forces had taken up their positions preparatory to attempting the reduction of these strongholds. At St. Malo, the town was occupied on 14 August, but the garrison held on grimly in the Citadel, which did not capitulate until the 17th. Even after that the enemy batteries on the Ile de Cézembre, commanding the harbor approaches, continued to resist until 2 September despite bombardment by HMS Malaya on 31 August.

At Brest the resistance of th garrison of 30,000 men under General Ramcke was more prolonged notwithstanding the air and naval bombardments which we used to supplement the land attacks. Determined to hold on to the great port, which had been his chief Atlantic base for the U-boat campaign against Allied shipping, the enemy had to be driven back in house-to-house fighting before he finally gave in on 18 September. When at last the Allies gained possession, the found the port installations so completely wrecked as to be capable of rehabilitation only to a minor degree, and our plans for the introduction fo trans-Atlantic troop convoys to the once magnificent harbor had to be abandoned.

The heavy price which the enemy's resistance had compelled us to pay for this barren prize convinced me that the further employment of large numbers of our troops to secure the reduction fo the remaining enemy garrisons in Brittany--at Lorient, St. Nazaire, and Quiberon


Bay--was not worth while. At that time our advance to the east had progressed so rapidly that our men were on the threshold of the enemy's homeland, and I wished to employ all the weight we could muster to deliver a knock-out blow which might bring Germany to her knees before her exhausted armies could reform and renew the struggle on the Siegfried Line. Already, on 5 September, the Third Army had been freed from the embarrassment of commitments in the west, far from the areas where its main forces were operating, by the transfer of VIII Corps to the newly created Ninth Army, under Lieut. Gen. W.H. Simpson. After the fall of Brest, however, this army also was moved into the line on the German border, leaving the task of containing the remaining enemy in Brittany to the French Forces of the interior, who maintained the seige during the succeeding months, under difficult conditions, with such equipment as it was in our power to provide. Although these troops might not be able to secure the capitulation of the German garrisons, I felt certain that the latter were now in no condition to adopt a policy of aggression.

While VIII Corps was occupied in Brittany, XV Corps of the Third Army pushed eastward and then north to Argentan in the move to encircle the German forces in Normandy. While the enemy was still struggling to escape through the Falaise-Argentan gap, General Patton with XII and XX Corps began to dash eastward across France north of the Loire in another wider encircling movement. As the battle of the pocket drew to a close, XV Corps also joined in this advance, leaving V Corps of the First Army to complete the task of closing the gap north of Argentan. With his main forces trapped and broken in Normandy, the enemy had no means of checking the Third army drive, the brilliant rapidity of which was perhaps the most spectacular ever seen in modern mobile warfare. The three corps, each spearheaded by an armored division, raced headlong toward Paris and the Seine with an impetus and spirit characteristic of their leader, at once guarding the flank of the armies to the north and seeking fresh objectives of their own.

The primary objective of the Third Army advance was to deny to the enemy the use of the key lines of communication running through the Paris-Orléans gap, between the Seine and Loire Rivers. As has already been seen, the cutting of the bridges over these rivers had compelled the enemy to route part of his supplies and reinforcements from the east to Normandy through this gap, and now it was vital that we should cut it, not only to prevent the German forces in Normandy from receiving their necessary supplies, but also to bar the most convenient line of retreat from their doomed positions. We had prepared an airborne operation designed to accomplish the seizure of this strategic area ahead of the land advances, but, as events proved, General Patton's rapid moves made this unnecessary. By 17 August-2 days before the earliest possible date fo the airborne operation--Chartres and Dreux were captured, and the routes running to the south of Paris were virtually blocked. On the 19th the process was completed when XV Corps reached the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt; with this important communications center in Allied hands, the roads to Normandy from Paris itself were severed. Below this point, no bridges across the river remained open, and the enemy, deprived of all hope of supplies from the southeast, had to retreat toward the ferries lower down the river as his only means of escape.

Meanwhile XI Corps, on the southern flank of the Third Army, pushed through Vendôme to reach Orléans on 17 August, bypassing the small groups of the enemy mustered at the Loire crossings upstream from Tours. Advancing parallel with XII Corps, on its left flank, was XX Corps, whose patrols reached Fountainbleau on 20 August. During the following days the tanks swept like a sickle around the southeast of Paris to Melun, driving the enemy back across the Seine. Other elements forced their way past the strongpoints defending the Ling and Yonne Rivers, and by 25 August the spearhead of XII Corps was 40 miles east of Troyes. The pursuit toward Germany continued, so that within 1 month of the day on which the Third Army became operational in France it had not only broken out of Normandy and through Brittany but had secured the line of the Loire and had advanced 140 miles beyond Paris to within 50 miles of the German border.

Air power again played an important part in making the rapidity of this advance possible. To each of the armored divisions was attached a fighter-bomber group belonging to XIX Tactical Air Command of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, providing the "eyes" of the columns and smashing the enemy's troop concentration, armor, and supply system in advance of the ground forces. The closeness of the air-ground liaison in this work was one of the remarkable features of the advance and produced extraordinarily successful results. The air arm also took over the task of watching the long


flank of the Loire and of preventing any dangerous concentration of the enemy there. Strafing and bombing of the small parties of Germans prevented their coalescing into an effective force, and the Third Army was thus able to pursue its advance untrammeled by the necessity of detaching troops to protect its flank.

The chief difficulty in the drive eastward arose not so much from the armed opposition encountered as from the problems of supply. Already at the beginning of August, when General Patton's men were overrunning the interior of Brittany, the necessity of transporting from Cherbourg and the beaches the gasoline, ammunition, and other supplies needed to maintain the flying armored columns had, as previously mentioned, imposed a severe strain upon our supply organization. Now that the spearheads were far on their way across France to the east, these difficulties were multiplied a hundredfold. With the Brittany ports either wrecked or remaining in German hands, all the materials of war had still to pass through the overworked Normandy bases. As the Third Army neared the Seine, truck transportation became utterly inadequate

Map: Advance to the Seine
Advance to the Seine


to cope with the situation, and we were compelled to have recourse to air lift, by troop-carrier planes supplemented by heavy bombers, in order to enable the speed of the advance to be maintained. It was at first planned to allot planes for this task sufficient to lift an average of 1,000 tons per day to the Third Army forward bases, but when the capture of Dreux rendered the projected airborne operation in the Paris-Orléans gap unnecessary, this figure was increased to 2,000 tons per day.

Invaluable as this air lift proved, however, the use of the planes for such a purpose was inevitably attended by other draw-backs. The required numbers could only be provided by withdrawing craft from the newly created First Allied Airborne Army. This army had been instructed to prepare for operations, not only to seize the Paris-Orléans gap, but also to assist in crossing the Seine and the Somme should the enemy attempt a stand on the lines of the rivers, and later in breaching the Siegfried Line and in crossing the Rhine. Because of the obligation of making ready for these undertakings, the withdrawing of the planes caused considerable embarrassment to the Airborne Army's commander, Lieut. Gen. L.H. Brereton, whose program of training was thereby interrupted. he justly pointed out that there was a risk that continued cargo carrying would render the troop carrier commands unfit for a successful airborne operation. Since the procedure and training required for the two functions were in many respects diametrically opposed, combined exercises by airborne troops and the air transport personnel were of the utmost importance. I consider, however, that my decision to use the planes for ground resupply purposes was justified by the fact that thereby the speed of our armies' advances was maintained, and as a consequence of this the projected airborne operations in France were rendered unnecessary.

When our troops had reached the Seine at Melun above and Mantes-Gassicourt below the city, the position of the German garrison in Paris became intolerable. Not only were they faced with a threat of encirclement, but the Allies were at Versailles, threatening a frontal attack. Within the city, the police went on strike and defied the German authorities when the latter laid siege to the Prefecture of Police on the Ile-de-la-Cité on 19 August. The traditional barricades appeared in the streets, the resistance movement came into the open, and for over a week a strange, skirmishing battle was fought through the city. While General von Choltitz, the German commander, made no attempt to destroy the bridge or other installations, a truce to enable the garrison of 10,000 me to withdraw broke down, and the enemy troops retired into the hotels and public buildings which they had turned into strongpoints.

For the honor of being the first Allied troops to reenter Paris, the French 2d Armored Division was brought up from the Argentan sector where it had formed part of the Third Army spearhead in the original encircling move resulting in the battle of the pocket. On 24 August the division's tanks were in the outskirts of Leclerc, received the surrender of the German commander. During the past 4 years this division had fought its way from Lake Chad, across the torrid wastes of the Sahara, to play a notable part in the victorious Tunisian campaign, had been brought to England, and had come thence to assist in the liberation of metropolitan France. For these men to accept in Paris the surrender of the enemy, under whose dominions their country had lain for so long, was a fitting triumph in the odyssey which took them from Central Africa to Berchtesgaden.

Meanwhile, following the XV Corps thrust to the Seine at Mantes-Gassicourt on 19 August, the 79th Infantry Division had established the first bridgehead across the river at the nearby village of Rollebois on 20 August. The remainder of the Corps proceeded to press down the west bank in an endeavor to deny to the enemy the lower crossings and thus to cut off the only remaining escape routes of the elements which had struggled through the jaws of the Falais-Argentan gap. In this operation our forces encountered stiffening resistance as they advanced, and at Ellbeuf the enemy made a desperate stand to guard his last ferries as the remainder of his beaten army streamed across the river.

Following the elimination of the Falaise pocket, the U.S. First Army took over from the Third Army the forces attacking northward toward the mouth of the Seine, while the British and Canadians closed in from the west. Day by day the enemy-held territory west of the river shrank. The Canadians having overcome fierce resistance in Cabourg and other coastal strongpoints, the enemy attempted a delaying action on the line of the Tougues River. But that barrier was forced on 24 August, and, supported by the naval guns offshore, the eastward advance continued. Evreux had fallen on the preceding day, and now Lisieux was cleared. On 25 August Elbeuf was captured, and by the 30th the last


remaining pockets had been eliminated; apart from the beleaguered garrisons in Brittany, no German soldier remained west of the Seine who was not in Allied hands. Our bridgeheads were linked up along the whole length of the river, and our forces were pouring over in continued pursuit. The enemy's disorganization was such that any attempt to make a stand on the eastern bank was out of the question, particularly with the Third army providing yet a further threat to his line of retreat. Once again, therefore, the accomplishments of our ground forces had rendered unnecessary a projected airborne operation designed to facilitate the overcoming of a potentially difficult obstacle. The battle of western France was over, and the liberation of the entire country had been assured. On 31 August General Hans Eberbach, commander of the ill-fated German Seventh Army, was captured with his staff while at breakfast or Amiens.

That the enemy was able to extricate a considerable portion of his forces via the few crossings left to him following our advance to Elbeuf was due to the skill with which he organized his system of ferries and pontons. These had been established earlier, following our bombing of the bridges, as a means of transporting supplies and reinforcements to Normandy, and now they were to prove invaluable as a means of escape. Some of the pontons were cunningly hidden under camouflage against the banks by day to avoid detection from the air, and then swung across the stream at night. By such means, 27,000 troops were transported over the river at a single crossing in three days.

Nevertheless, the losses sustained by the Germans at the Seine were enormous. The dense concentrations of tanks and vehicles along the roads leading to the crossings afforded ideal target for strafing and bombing attacks from the air, and whole columns were annihilated thus. On the river itself, during the seven days preceding 23 August when the exodus was at its peak, 166 barges were destroyed, 10 probably destroyed and 116 damaged, and 3 large river steamers were sunk. Over 2,000 sorties a day were flown by aircraft of AEAF on these missions, while hundreds of planes of the Strategic Air Forces added their weight to the attacks. These attacks were not carried out entirely without opposition, for since the beginning of the battle of the Falaise pocket the Luftwaffe had come up in greater strength than for some time past in a desperate effort to assist the German ground forces. The enemy suffered severely in this air effort, however, and the losses sustained--coupled with the effects of the Third Army's thrust eastward which necessitated a rapid withdrawal to more distant bases on the part of the German fighter squadrons--were such as to produce a marked decline in the scale of the air opposition subsequently encountered.

Although the rush crossing of the lower Seine, planned to be made by 21 Army Group and he U.S. First Army in phase with the Third Army advance through the Paris-Orléans gap, had been somewhat delayed by the stubborn nature of the enemy's rearguard actions, the elimination of the last German pocket were of the river nevertheless marked the completion of a great victory. The German Seventh Army and the Fifth Panzer Army had been decisively defeated, and strength of the First and Fifteenth Armies. Sine our landings on 6 June, of the enemy's higher commanders, three field marshals, and one army commander had been dismissed or incapacitated by wounds, and 1 army commander, 3 corps commanders, 165 divisional commanders, and 1 fortress commander had been killed or captured.

The enemy's losses in men and equipment since the commencement of the campaign had been enormous. Of his panzer divisions, the equivalent of five had been destroyed and a further six severely mauled. The equivalent of 20 infantry divisions had been eliminated and 12 more (including 3 crack parachute divisions) had been badly cut up. Three divisions were trapped in Brittany and another division was isolated in the Channel Islands.

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 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 1,500 field guns and heavier artillery pieces had been captured or destroyed, apart from the destruction inflicted upon the Normandy coast defenses.

The German Air Force also had taken a fearful beating. Two thousand three hundred and seventy-eight aircraft had been destroyed in the air and 1,167 on the ground, in addition to 270 probably destroyed and 1,028 probably damaged in the air. These figures are all the more remarkable when on considers the depleted strength of the Luftwaffe and the feebleness of its attempts to counter the Allied operations.

By the end of August the morale of the enemy, as


revealed in the prisoners who passed through the Allied cages, was distinctly lower than it had been a month earlier. A lack of determination was particularly noticeable among the infantry, whose outlook, for the most part, was one of bewilderment and helplessness. This state of mind was produced by the rapidity of the Allies' movements, their overwhelming superiority in equipment (both on the ground and in the air), and by the Germans' own losses of arms and transport which had left them without the necessary means of mounting an adequate defense. Our air strafing attacks had especially contributed toward breaking the enemy's spirit. The great majority of the enlisted men from the ordinary infantry divisions stated that they were glad to be out of the war, but the élite of the SS formations still retained something of their former arrogant self-confidence. Many of the senior officers were now prepared to recognize the inevitability of defeat, but the younger ones, in whom the Nazi spirit was strongest, still proclaimed the invincibility of the German cause. The army as a whole, despite its losses, had clearly not yet reached the stage of mass morale collapse, and, as events subsequently showed, the escaping elements were still capable, when given a pause for breath, of renewing the struggle with all their old determination on the threshold of the Fatherland. Of the generals participating in the Normandy campaign, it is interesting to note that all appeared on the list prepared by the Russians of those guilty of atrocities in the east; it was not likely that surrender would be forthcoming from such men. In fact, although we might have reached the military conditions of 1918, the political conditions which produced the German collapse in that year were still remote.

Behind the strategic reasons for our success lay the many factors embodied in the excellence of the Allied teamwork. This, as in the Mediterranean campaigns, again demonstrated its ability, extending through all services, to overcome the most adverse conditions. Despite difficulties due to the enforced separation of commanders and the burden of maintaining signal communications over long distances and in rapidly changing situations, the command system, based upon complete inter-Allied confidence, functioned smoothly throughout the campaign.

In assessing the reasons for victory, one must take into account not only the achievements in the field but the care and foresight which were applied to the preparations before D-day. It was to the meticulous care in planning and preparation by my staff, supported resolutely in all important aspects by the Combined Chiefs of Staff, that we owed such essential factors as the degree of surprise achieved in our landings, the excellence and sufficiency of our amphibious equipment, and the superb organization which lay behind the miraculous achievements of our supply and maintenance services.

While it is true that we had hoped that the tactical developments of the first few days would yield us the territory south and southeast of Caen, so suitable for the construction of necessary airfields and for exploitation of our strength in armor, the fact remains that in the broad strategic development we attained our anticipated line of D-plus-90 two weeks prior to that date and in substantial accordance with our planned strategic program. Moreover, I am convinced that without the brilliant preparatory work of our joint air forces--a belief in the effectiveness of which was the very cornerstone of the original invasion conception--the venture could never logically have been undertaken.

The greatest factor of all lay in the fighting qualities of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen of the United Nations. Their valor, stamina, and devotion to duty had proved beyond praise, and continued to be so as the Battle of France gave place to the Battle of Germany.


Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (5) * Next Chapter (7)

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation