Envelopment from the North
Twenty-four hours after the Germans counterattacked toward Avranches, the First Canadian Army, from positions three miles south of Caen, launched a massive attack southeast toward Falaise. The timing was accidental, but it could hardly have been more fortunate.
The Canadian attack had been in preparation for almost a week, its object at the least to wear down enemy units, at the most to unhinge the German withdrawal to the Seine that General Montgomery expected.1 The German thrust toward Avranches, changing the situation, widened Montgomery's perspective on the role of the Canadian effort. The Canadian attack now became his main instrument of destruction.
The Canadians were to "break through the German positions astride the road Caen-Falaise," and advance toward Falaise, twenty-one miles southeast of Caen.2 For the first fifteen miles the road was "arrow-straight," rising "gradually, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but steadily," from little more than sea level to more than six hundred feet in height. "Up this long, smooth, dangerous slope the Canadians were to fight," across acres of waving wheat broken by an occasional village, a patch of woods, an occasional orchard--through an area where only an infrequent hedgerow or belt of trees lined the side roads.3
The ground was good for employing armor, but solidly built villages and the woods provided defenders excellent natural centers of resistance. Three German divisions--the 272d and 89th Infantry and the 12th SS Panzer--manned two defensive lines in depth. Fifty 88-mm. antiaircraft pieces, sited for antitank action, supplemented about sixty dug-in tanks and self-propelled guns.
To overcome these strong defenses, General Crerar decided to combine overwhelming air support with ground penetration under the cover of darkness. After a strike by heavy bombers, tanks were to lead the attack. Infantrymen riding in armored personnel carriers (self-propelled gun carriages specially converted for troop transport by Lt. Gen. G. G. Simonds, the corps commander, and later called Kangaroos), were to follow the tanks and detruck at appropriate points to mop up.
An hour before midnight, 7 August, more than a thousand RAF planes were ready to blast bomb zones flanking the projected ground assault area, and fighter-bombers were prepared to loose more than 5,000 tons of bombs on the assault area. Even though darkness, weather, smoke, and dust made visibility so poor that only two-thirds of the planes dropped their loads, the bombardment was more effective than that in Operation GOODWOOD, less than three weeks earlier.4 On the ground, 720 artillery pieces were available to shell the enemy and light the battlefield with flares. While Bofors fired tracer bullets to mark the direction of the attack and searchlights provided "artificial moonlight," two divisions moved out shortly before midnight. Preceded by tanks with flailing mechanisms to detonate enemy mines and by engineers who were to establish routes through German mine fields, eight columns of armor (each with four vehicles abreast) moved toward Falaise.
Dense clouds of dust mixed with ground mist obscured vision. Although the assault troops crawled in low gear at one hundred yards a minute, collisions occurred and units lost their way. Yet the confusion that enveloped the attackers was less than that covering the defenders. By dawn of 8 August the Canadians had gained their first objectives; they had penetrated the German lines for a distance of three miles.
Off to a good start, the attack bogged down as the Canadians struck a solid line of defense, a "lay-back position."5 To break through, the Canadians committed two fresh but inexperienced armored divisions, one of which was the 1st Polish Armored Division.6 At that point everything seemed to go wrong. The new divisions displayed the usual shortcomings of green units. An air attack, delivered by bombers flying across the front and moving progressively forward like a creeping barrage, killed 25 men and wounded 131 (including a division commander), mostly Polish troops. Although the ground attack continued through 8 and 9 August for a gain of five more miles, momentum then ceased. The attack had carried the Canadian Army eight miles forward, but the same distance still separated it from Falaise.7
Meanwhile, the Second British Army, attacking since 30 June from positions south of Caumont, continued to exert pressure while turning between Thury-Harcourt and Vire southeastward toward Falaise and Flers. The original idea of the offensive was to pivot the line in order to keep pace with the Americans; later the purpose was changed to deny the enemy time to organize a withdrawal to the Seine; and finally, after the Mortain counterattack, to crush the German forces that were trying to hold the north flank of the counterattack toward Avranches.
Despite the changing purpose of the offensive, the attack itself continued relentlessly, grinding down the LXXIV Corps and making necessary its reinforcement by elements of the II SS Panzer Corps. British forces pushed through a region not particularly suited for offense, an area of rough terrain devoid of good roads. It was a slow, hard advance, destitute of glamor and newspaper headlines, but it was inexorable, and it increased German concern over the way the situation was developing.8
The German Dilemma
The aerial bombardment on the night of 7 August and the estimate that six hundred Canadian tanks were attacking toward Falaise alarmed the German command in Normandy:
"We didn't expect this to come so soon," Kluge told Eberbach, "but I can imagine that it was no surprise to you."
"No," Eberbach said, "I have always awaited it and looked toward the morrow with a heavy heart."9
The moment was particularly dark because Kluge, in compliance with Hitler's order for a second and stronger attack toward Avranches, had started to move three armored divisions out of the Fifth Panzer Army sector toward the Mortain area. The 10th SS Panzer Division was already on the move, but orders for the 9th SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions were canceled. The latter remained south of Caen to help stop the Canadians. Units of the newly arriving 85th Division, instead of being assembled at Tinchebray for eventual commitment near Brécey, were diverted immediately to the Falaise sector. The Panther tank battalion of the 9th Panzer Division and a rocket brigade, also scheduled to participate in the attack toward Avranches, joined the defenses north of Falaise.10
The second attack toward Avranches was scheduled for the evening of 9 August but, on the basis of the Canadian threat, Kluge that afternoon postponed it. Developments on the American front contributed to Kluge's decision. Attacks on 8 August by the V and XIX Corps between Vire and Sourdeval had strained the II Parachute and LXXXIV Corps and had ripped the 363d Division to such an extent that the Seventh Army was trying to accelerate the arrival of the 331st Division into the line. Perhaps worse, U.S. pressure had compelled the XLVII Panzer Corps during the night of 8 August to pull back slightly the 2d Panzer Division's most advanced wedge of the counterattack forces near le Mesnil-Tôve and Chérencé. Even more threatening was the attack of the 2d Armored Division against the deep southern flank of the 2d SS Panzer Division at Barenton. Finally, the capture of le Mans and the possibility of an American attack northward to Alençon tied down the LXXXI Corps and prevented the 9th Panzer Division from
adding its strength to the second attempt to gain Avranches.11
The second effort was to have been made over the same terrain as the first, but this time with two corps moving abreast: the XLVII Panzer Corps (with four armored divisions--1st SS, 2d SS, 2d, and 116th) and the LVIII Panzer Corps (with the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, as well as the Panther tank battalion of the 9th Panzer Division). The attacking corps were to have been supported by two rocket brigades and reinforced later by the 12th SS Panzer and 85th Infantry Divisions.12 Continued Allied pressure and the threats to the flanks made it necessary to divert an increasing number of elements designated for the attack to defensive missions. The 116th, 2d SS, and remnants of Panzer Lehr moved to the LXXXIV Corps to support the 363d and 353d Divisions between Vire and Sourdeval; the LVIII Corps (with the 10th SS Panzer Division) was inserted at Barenton to relieve the weak 275th Division (which moved to the Fifteenth Army area for reconstitution) and protect the long 2d SS Panzer Division flank. The emphasis turned unmistakably to defense.
Despite postponement of the second attempt to drive toward Avranches and despite the fact that the XLVII Panzer Corps, basically the striking force, retained control over the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions, the German commanders in Normandy felt that a renewed effort might still succeed if certain conditions were met: if the positions north of Falaise remained stable, if a strong defense could be established north of Alençon to protect the ammunition and gasoline dumps nearby, if the Panther battalion and a rocket brigade newly made available could be moved quickly to the Seventh Army sector, and if Eberbach, designated by Hitler to take command of the renewed effort toward Avranches, could have a few days in which to unscramble the assault forces and reassemble them for the attack.13
Hitler, who issued a new order that day, 9 August, was convinced that Eberbach could achieve success if he avoided the mistakes of the first attack, which Hitler considered to have been launched "too early, too weak, and in unfavorable weather." To insure proper timing, Hitler reserved for himself the designation of H Hour. Meanwhile, Eberbach was to prepare to attack southwest from the vicinity of Domfront, then northwest to the ultimate objective, Avranches. To protect Eberbach's left flank, LXXXI Corps was to follow the two assault corps echeloned to the left rear. Recognizing that Allied pressure had to be resisted particularly at Falaise, Hitler ordered sufficient antitank weapons, tanks, and assault guns, which were
coming from the Fifteenth Army sector, diverted to the I SS Panzer Corps for a strong stand at Falaise. Elsewhere along the front, Hitler prohibited local counterattacks that might lead to serious personnel losses; he also authorized withdrawals to neutralize any penetrations the Allies might effect.14
Although some commanders later called Hitler's order "pure Utopia" and not in keeping with the situation on the ground, the situation in the air, and the supply situation--"the apex of conduct by a command [OKW] ignorant of front line conditions, taking upon itself the right to judge the situation from East Prussia"--the commanders facing the crisis in Normandy reorganized for a renewed attempt.15 They planned to have the LXXXIV Corps pull the 116th Panzer Division out of the front for assembly; they hoped to withdraw the 84th Division to a shorter line east of Perriers-en-Beauficel; they instructed the XLVII Panzer Corps to withdraw the 2d Panzer Division somewhat and pull out the 1st SS Panzer Division for assembly. The 1st SS and 116th Panzer Divisions were then to be concentrated in forward assembly areas under LVIII Panzer Corps to provide impetus for the new attack. The Seventh Army also expected to receive the 9th Panzer Division's Panther battalion and two mortar (werfer) brigades to bolster the second effort. The new attack was to be launched, as Hitler wished, under Eberbach's command and from the Mortain-Domfront area toward St. Hilaire and eventually Avranches.
Leaving command of the Fifth Panzer Army to Panzergeneraloberst Josef (Sepp) Dietrich, formerly the commander of the I SS Panzer Corps, Eberbach, somewhat against his will, took command of Panzer Group Eberbach. His headquarters, formed for the express purpose of making the second attack to Avranches on 11 August, was directly under Army Group B. Eberbach assembled a skeleton staff of great ability that included Lt. Col. Guenther von Kluge, the field marshal's son, as chief of staff, and Maj. Arthur von Eckesparre, formerly Rommel's G-4, as operations officer. The command was nevertheless deficient in personnel and equipment and could function only with the aid of the Seventh Army staff or a corps headquarters. Despite these handicaps and the additional one of Eberbach's pessimism, the provisional headquarters began to plan the attack in detail.16
It did not take Eberbach long to conclude that he could not attack on 11 August. He felt that he would probably have to commit part of his attack forces to protect his assembly areas and thus would not be able to assemble his troops by that date. Judging that only 77 Mark IV and 47 Panther tanks were available for the attack, he wanted more. He also requested vehicle replacements and additional ammunition and POL supplies. All this would take time. Most important, however, Eberbach believed that because of Allied air superiority he could attack only after dark and in early morning when ground fog might provide concealment. At best, his movements would be restricted to the six
hours between 0400 and 1000. If his assault forces failed to reach their objective during that period, the events at Mortain would be repeated--his troops would be smashed by Allied air and artillery. To attack after nightfall, he needed the light of the waning moon, not to be had until 20 August. At that time also, according to meteorologists, the weather would change and become unfavorable for aerial activity. Thus 20 August, not 11 August, in Eberbach's estimation, was the best date for launching the new attack toward Avranches.17
While Eberbach was coming to his conclusions, a new threat developed. Just as it appeared that the Canadian attack on the north flank was halted, the Americans on the south flank "unmistakably swerved" north from le Mans toward Alençon. As Kluge evaluated the situation on the evening of 10 August, if the changed direction of the XV Corps drive was connected with the Canadian effort toward Falaise, he faced the threat of double envelopment. Furthermore, the weak forces of the LXXXI Corps could not possibly protect the army group on the southern flank. Nor could the LXXXI Corps keep the vital Alençon-Flers line open. Instead of continuing the attack toward Avranches, Kluge thought it "worth considering whether the spearheads of the enemy columns driving north should not be smashed by a . .&bnbsp; swiftly executed panzer thrust." He requested Jodl to get a decision on this matter from Hitler.18
Hitler replied with queries. He wanted clarification on why Eberbach could not mount his attack toward Avranches before 20 August. He wanted to know what Funck, the commander of the XLVII Panzer Corps, thought of resuming that attack. Hitler interpreted Kluge's suggestion as meaning an attack to regain le Mans and asked when, with what forces, and from where such an attack could be launched. Finally, he asked when the nth Panzer Division, if he ordered it moved from southern France, could reach the Loire River near Tours so that it could support an attack on le Mans--for if another attack toward Avranches could not be mounted before 20 August, Hitler conceded, an attack against the U.S. XV Corps "must perforce be carried out before that time."19
Before he answered Hitler's questions, Kluge phoned Eberbach. The commanders were in agreement that a new attempt to gain Avranches was out of the question, at least for the moment. The obstacles to a renewed drive toward Avranches were not only the strong opposition at Mortain and the unrelaxed pressure elsewhere along the front but also the uncomfortable thought that the Canadians attacking south toward Falaise and the Americans attacking north toward Alençon seemed to be converging on a common point. If the Allied forces joined, the major part of the German forces would be encircled. The Canadian and American spearheads had to be blunted immediately, and since the Canadians were apparently stopped, action ought to be taken against the Americans,
who threatened the vital supply installations around Alençon.20
Kluge informed Hitler to this effect an hour and a half later. All commanders agreed, Kluge said, that the prospect of continuing the attack to Avranches was unfavorable because the enemy had reinforced, surprise had been lost, and the attacking force needed time to bring forward more troops, tanks, gasoline, and ammunition, and required certain weather conditions. There was no possibility of fulfilling the necessary preattack requirements within a few days. As for an attack against the XV Corps, Kluge would need at least two of the best panzer divisions, which he envisioned attacking from the vicinity of Alençon. The direction of the attack would depend on developments. He hoped to make his approach march during the night of 11 August and attack on 13 August with the hope of completing the operation three days later. The 11th Panzer Division in southern France could not reach the area of operations in time to lend support.21
Kluge was again in touch with Hitler's headquarters at noon on 11 August. He had conferred with Hausser and Eberbach, and all three commanders were convinced that an attack on Avranches had no prospect of success. The situation on the extreme southern flank of the army group was deteriorating so rapidly--the 9th Panzer Division, for example, was fighting near Alençon with its back close to vital supply installations--that immediate measures had to be taken in that area. Kluge needed more armor there. The only practical way to get armor was to pull three divisions out of the line--the 116th that night, the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions during the following night. These units could be released only if the Seventh Army salient at Mortain were reduced by withdrawal to the east. This meant abandoning hope of a breakthrough to the sea at Avranches. A clear-cut decision had to be made at once. In Kluge's mind, the decision could be only one thing: attack the XV Corps in the vicinity of Alençon with panzer divisions pulled out of the line and bring additional infantry divisions forward to launch an attack against the XV Corps from east to west, thus stabilizing the situation on the army group left flank.22
After further discussion with Jodl in midafternoon, Kluge issued a written report to Hitler and disseminated it to his subordinate commands, probably as a warning order subject to Hitler's approval. In this report, Kluge projected the following actions. The Seventh Army was to withdraw its Mortain salient that night. An attack force--composed of the XLVII Panzer and LXXXI Corps headquarters, the 1st SS, 2d, and 116th Panzer Divisions, two werfer brigades, and possibly an additional panzer division--was to assemble in the Carrouges area and prepare to attack during the early morning hours of 14 August, one day later than Kluge had originally contemplated. The attack, with three divisions abreast, was to be launched in a southeasterly direction
along the Lalacelle-la Hutte axis--generally a thrust starting northwest of Alençon and cutting across the le Mans-- Alençon road.23
Hitler's response to Kluge's report reached Army Group B headquarters late that evening. Acknowledging the new set of circumstances that had come into being, Hitler, though reiterating his intention to attack westward to the sea (this time by way of Mayenne), admitted that "the serious threat to the deep southern flank" of the army group required quick action. He therefore approved Kluge's plan to have Eberbach launch an attack with an armored corps from the vicinity of Carrouges. But instead of an effort envisaged by Kluge as an attempt to destroy the American spearheads driving north toward Alençon, Hitler envisioned an attack against the deep west flank of the U.S. XV Corps, the axis of the thrust passing in a more southerly direction across the Sillé-le-Guillaume-Beaumont road. In order to disengage the necessary forces, Hitler agreed to "a minor withdrawal of the front between Sourdeval and Mortain." He retained the 11th Panzer Division in southern France as the only mobile reserve in the Nineteenth Army sector because Kluge assured him that it could not reach the Normandy front in time to attack near Alençon, and perhaps because he was apprehensive over the imminent Allied invasion of southern France.24
Thus, while the Germans awaited reinforcements and favorable weather for another try at Avranches in compliance with Hitler's wishes, Eberbach was to make an effort to eradicate the American threat to Alençon. To make this possible, the Seventh Army during the night of 11 August began to withdraw eastward from Mortain.25
The Battle at Mortain
The German withdrawal from Mortain on the night of 11 August brought the battle that had been raging there to an end. Until that time, although the Americans could mark an increasing improvement in their situation about Mortain, no decisive result had been achieved.
General Hobbs, for example, had been variously elated and depressed. "We are holding and getting in better shape all the time," he informed General Collins on 8 August. "It was precarious for a while . .&bnbsp; [but] we are doing everything in God's power to hold." Yet on the following day, when Hobbs wondered aloud whether his positions might be "practically untenable," Collins flared in exasperation: "Stop talking about untenable."26
Essentially, the battle was small unit combat, "infiltration and counter infiltration," close-range fighting by splinter groups maneuvering to outflank, and in turn being outflanked, "a seesawing activity consisting of minor penetrations by both sides," operations characterized by ambush and surprise and fought on a level often no higher than that of the
individual soldier. "What does the situation look like down there?" the 30th Division G-3 asked a regimental officer. "Looks like hell," came the reply. "We are just mingled in one big mess, our CP is getting all kinds of fire, tanks within 500 yards of us."27
Though the Germans had been stopped on the first day of their attack, their retention of the ground gained represented a distinct challenge, particularly to the 30th Division, to expel them. In General Hobbs's words, it was a matter of "trying to plug up these rat holes."28 The rats were dangerous, as was indicated by the fact that the division's lines changed but little for four days.
Scurrying Along a Hedgerow in the Mortain area.
The first improvement occurred on 8 August, when the attached CCB of the 3d Armored Division and the 119th Infantry, after combining forces, made physical contact with the 4th Division several miles west of Chérencé and thereby blocked the possibility of unopposed further westward movement by the Germans along the south bank of the Sée. The death of Col. William W. Cornog, Jr., a CCB task force commander killed by an enemy shell on 9 August, temporarily disrupted efforts to eject the Germans from le Mesnil-Tôve, but after hard fighting on 10 and 11 August the armor and infantry regained the village and re-established contact with the 39th Infantry at Chérencé. On 12 August the 117th Infantry, on the immediate right, re-entered the smoking pile of rubble t hat was St. Barthélemy. The American lines north of Mortain were thus restored to the positions held before the counterattack.
In the sector south of Mortain, the 35th Division had had a difficult assignment in advancing through St. Hilaire to the Mortain-Barenton road. Two regiments had initially attacked abreast, but small counterattacks split unit formations repeatedly. General Baade, the division commander, committed his reserve regiment on 9 August, and all three attacking abreast made liberal use of tank and artillery fire. Unit commanders also formed "killing parties" to clear Germans out of the paths of advance. Still Baade was not satisfied with the progress, and though he exerted pressure to get the division moving forward
Antiaircraft Position near St. Hilaire.
aggressively, it took the 35th Division four days and more than seven hundred casualties to cover eight miles.29 The Germans withdrew from their positions southwest of Mortain and released their hold on Romagny on 11 August as the 35th Division reached the Mortain-Barenton road. General Baade then prepared to assault the south slope of Hill 317 to relieve the isolated battalion of the 30th Division on the crest. At noon, 12 August, after having moved up the south slope of the hill, troops of the 35th Division made contact with the battalion. Minutes later, the 120th Infantry, 30th Division, re-entered Mortain and relieved the men on the hill.30
The fact that the 2d Battalion, 120th Infantry, had retained possession of the top of Hill 317 during the battle of Mortain was one of the outstanding small unit achievements in the course of the campaign in western Europe. The battalion command post in Mortain had been overrun early on 7 August, and the command group had been captured on the following morning as the officers endeavored to reach their troops on the hill. Under the leadership of Capt. Reynold C. Erichson, who assumed command of the surrounded force, the troops on the hill for five days denied the Germans possession of terrain that would have given them observation over the major part of the VII Corps sector. Like Erichson, Capt. Delmont K. Byrn, who directed the heavy weapons company, and 1st Lts. Ralph A. Kerley, Joseph C. Reaser, and Ronal E. Woody, Jr., who commanded the rifle companies, refused to surrender.31 They were fortunate in having with them two forward observers of the 230th Field Artillery Battalion, 1st Lt. Charles A. Barts and 2d Lt. Robert L. Weiss, who brought accurate fire not only on the Germans assaulting the hill positions but also on other German units within sight of the crest.32
Under almost constant attack (the regimental-sized 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division under control of the 2d SS
Panzer Division had had the mission of seizing Hill 317), the troops on the hill had captured several prisoners; though they needed radio batteries, food, and medical supplies, they were "Not too worried about situation as long as [friendly] artillery fire continues." After two days of isolation, they still "didn't seem to be worried."33 If the men were not overly concerned about their situation, General Hobbs was. While waiting for the 35th Division to advance and relieve the pressure, he maintained a ring of artillery fire around the hill.34
It was not long before the 30th Division did more. On 9 August, two light artillery planes tried to drop supplies by parachute, but German flak drove them away. C-47 cargo planes did somewhat better on the afternoon of 10 August, dropping two days supply of food and ammunition, though half fell outside the defensive perimeter. Another drop on the following day was less successful.35
Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Lewis D. Vieman, commander of the 230th Field Artillery Battalion, conceived the idea of sending supplies by shell. Using smoke shell cases normally employed for propaganda leaflets, the battalion fired bandages, adhesive tape, morphine, and other medical supplies onto the hill. The first of the supply shoots occurred on the evening of 10 August, and eventually 105-mm. assault guns of the 743d Tank Battalion and 155-mm. howitzers of the 113th Field Artillery Battalion participated in the effort. Although it was impossible to propel blood plasma, which was badly needed on the hill, the other supplies helped morale considerably.36
Fed by French farmers who shared with the soldiers their chickens, vegetables, and the common danger, nearly seven hundred men held out.37 By 12 August three hundred men had been killed or wounded, but more than three hundred walked off the hill unharmed. During the battle of Mortain they had been a "thorn in the flesh" that had
paralyzed all German movements in the area.38
The 2d Armored Division had made a similar contribution by attacking northeast from Barenton toward Ger into the German left flank and rear. Employing the small task force of the 3d Armored Division's CCA and the battalion of the 30th Division already near Barenton, the 2d Armored Division had attacked on 8 August and advanced three miles into the broken terrain of the Mortain forest. Although stiffening opposition had prevented capture of Ger, the armored division had kept a spear sticking into the enemy flank for four more days, a constant threat hampering German communications between Tinchebray and Sourdeval, disrupting forward assembly areas between Sourdeval and Ger, and forcing commitment of the 10th SS Panzer Division elsewhere than toward Avranches.39
On 12 August, with the 35th Division beyond the Mortain-Barenton road and the 30th Division again in possession of St. Barthélemy and Mortain, the costly battle came to an end. The 30th Division alone had lost almost two thousand men in six days. The 9th Division, fighting on the fringe of the Mortain action, had sustained nearly a thousand casualties in closing the gap that had separated the division from the 39th Infantry. In protecting the Sée River line, the 4th Division, which had contributed a regiment each to the 9th and 30th Divisions, had sustained about six hundred casualties.40
As heavy as American casualties were, German losses were greater. The effect of artillery and air power had been particularly telling. One regiment of the 2d Panzer Division had been annihilated near le Mesnil-Tôve. The 1st SS Panzer Division had had especially heavy tank losses. The 2d SS Panzer Division had been slashed by artillery fire called from Hill 317, by tank fire from the 2d Armored Division near Barenton, and by air attacks that had seemed particularly effective in its sector. Allied tactical aircraft, somewhat hampered by early morning haze, flew from midmorning to darkness, while Brig. Gen. James M. Lewis, the 30th Division Artillery commander, alone massed more than twelve battalions of artillery to achieve devastating results. Between 1900 and 2000, 9 August, the 30th Division Artillery, for example, fired thirty observed and fully adjusted counterbattery missions, an imposing total for an hour's activity and one that was later claimed as a record. Observation was excellent from both the ground and the air, and artillerymen and pilots "just plaster[ed the enemy] . . . all along the line." Close to a hundred German tanks lay abandoned in the Mortain sector at the close of the battle.41
Wrecked German Armor in the Sourdeval Area
At the outset of the attack, American officers had estimated that the enemy seemed capable of driving a wedge to Avranches "to rupture" the front and make the position of the forces south of Avranches "logistically untenable." It was not long, however, before the "potential threat of a major counterattack" vanished. The enemy had very quickly "been forced to abandon his ambitious effort . . . because of heavy tank casualties from allied air attacks . .&bnbsp; and artillery fire." As early as 8 August, intelligence officers were optimistically considering what the Germans might do after the current attack was defeated or contained.42
The only effect of the Mortain counterattack was that it had "practically stopped the VII Corps advance." Beyond that, it had prompted some readjustment of forces in the Mortain-Avranches area, but the rearrangement of units had no more than local significance. What the counterattack might have accomplished seemed in retrospect to have been its only merit. Even had it succeeded in cutting the supply lines to the Allied forces south of Avranches, SHAEF was prepared to supply those forces with two thousand tons per day by air.43
Taken by surprise in newly occupied
positions, the 30th Division had stood its ground and fought as hard as any unit was to fight in the European theater. "It isn't very easy," a staff officer wrote, "to tell the man in the front lines that the battle is going well when he's still up against that old combination of machine guns, burp guns, mortars, 88s, artillery, tanks--and terrain. . .&bnbsp; [But] the battle is going well; [and] it's worth saying."44
The battle had indeed gone well, not only at Mortain but elsewhere on the First Army front. On the VII Corps left, XIX Corps, after having attacked in the Sourdeval-Gathemo area (with the 28th and 29th Divisions and CCA of the 2d Armored Division) and having sustained more than 1,200 casualties in three days of heavy fighting, finally moved forward with relative ease on 11 August, and on the following day made contact with the 30th Division north of Mortain and pinched out the 4th and 9th Divisions. On the First Army left the V Corps, which had held on firmly to the town of Vire with the 2d Infantry Division while exerting pressure toward the southeast, noted diminishing German pressure on 12 August.45
By that date, the Allies were maneuvering to trap the Germans who had plunged unsuccessfully toward Avranches.
Concepts of Encirclement
As early as 8 August, General Bradley was confident that the reinforced VII Corps would hold at Mortain. He felt that the Mortain counterattack had "apparently been contained." As he studied the situation, he came to the further conclusion that the Germans by attacking had "incurred the risk of encirclement from the South and North," and he acted at once to capitalize on the opportunity.46
In the presence of General Eisenhower who was visiting his headquarters on 8 August, General Bradley telephoned General Montgomery and secured approval for a bold course of action designed to encircle the German forces west of Argentan and Falaise.47 What he proposed was a radical change--a 90-degree turn--in the 12th Army Group offensive axis. Instead of driving eastward toward the Seine, the First and Third Armies would wheel to the north and attack toward the army group boundary, specifically toward the towns of Flers and Argentan. (Map 14) Since the towns were within the 21 Army Group zone, the American armies would advance only to the boundary, the east-west line generally from Mortain through Domfront and Carrouges to Sées. There, the American forces would be in a position to act as the southern jaw of a vise. Approaching the same line from the north, the British and Canadian forces between Tinchebray and Falaise would, in effect, form the other jaw. Closing the jaws on the
Map 14. 12th Army Group Plan, 8 August 1944
army group boundary would entrap and crush the Germans in between.
Specifically, General Bradley ordered General Patton to "advance on the axis Alençon-Sées to the line Sées--Carrouges prepared for further action against the enemy flank and rear in the direction of Argentan." This meant turning the XV Corps north from le Mans, and for this purpose Bradley gave Patton another armored division. He also ordered the 35th Division, involved in the battle around Mortain, to revert to the Third Army "without delay," but the division was still needed by the VII Corps, and Bradley soon revoked this part of this order.
General Bradley instructed General Hodges to pivot on Mortain, advance to the Barenton-Domfront line, and be ready to take further action northeast in the direction of Flers. Hodges was also to eliminate the German salient in the Vire-Mortain-Ger area.48
General Hodges issued his order the day after Bradley's instructions. To eliminate the German salient around Mortain, Hodges set up a converging attack by the VII and XIX Corps. VII Corps, attacking generally eastward along an axis through Mortain (south of a new temporary boundary with XIX Corps), was eventually to be pinched out by the advance of XIX Corps, which was attacking to the south through Sourdeval and Ger. This would wipe out the German salient. XIX Corps was then to assume control over its original zone and some of the forces of VII Corps and continue the attack east and northeast toward Flers. VII Corps was to concentrate its strength in the area south and southeast of Domfront and, together with its forces near Mayenne, it was to launch an attack northeast in the direction of Argentan. Meanwhile, V Corps was to attack from the Vire area southeastward to Tinchebray. The effect of these moves would be to push the German forces opposing First Army to the army group boundary. According to the erroneous interpretation of enemy intentions by the First Army G-2, who was two days ahead of events, the Germans by 9 August were already "pulling back to avoid entrapment."49
As for the Third Army, General Patton felt that since the "purpose of the operation is to surround and destroy the German army west of the Seine," he had first to surround the Germans so that their destruction would be inescapable. He envisioned forces cutting through the German rear on a relatively narrow front and encircling the enemy by making contact with the Canadians on the opposite Allied flank. This was the task he gave XV Corps.50
On 11 August--a day after XV Corps attacked north from le Mans, the same day that Kluge decided the Mortain salient had to be reduced, and a day before the First Army began its new attack--General Montgomery made known his concept of encirclement. He based his concept on the estimate that the bulk of the enemy forces were west of a north-south line passing from Caen through Falaise, Argentan, and Alençon to le Mans. As the Canadians attacked
toward Falaise and the XV U.S. Corps attacked toward Alençon, the gap, through which must come all German supplies and reinforcement from the east, would narrow. "Obviously," General Montgomery stated, "if we can close the gap completely, we shall have put the enemy in the most awkward predicament." (Map 15)
As the gap narrowed, the enemy was likely to react in one of two ways. He might bring up additional divisions from the east; or, more probably, he would try to move his armored and mobile forces eastward through the gap toward ammunition and gasoline supplies. If the Germans chose the latter course of action, they would probably operate in the general Domfront, Argentan, Alençon area in order "to have the benefit of the difficult 'bocage' country." Their purpose would be to hold off the Americans and withdraw on the Falaise-Vire line.
Expecting the Germans to mass stronger forces in defense of Alençon than of Falaise, Montgomery concluded that it would be easier for the Canadians to reach Argentan from the north than it would be for the Americans to get there from the south. He therefore ordered the First Canadian Army to continue its effort to capture Falaise, stating that it was "vital that it should be done quickly." The Canadians were then to drive south from Falaise to take Argentan. On the Canadian right, the Second British Army, turning to the left, was also to drive toward Falaise by pushing forward its left wing. At the conclusion of the advance, the British would occupy a north-south line between Falaise and Argentan, the right boundary of the Canadian army sector. Meanwhile, the XV U.S. Corps was to advance north from le Mans through Alençon to the army group boundary, which was several miles south of Argentan along a line between Carrouges and Sées.
The projected result would be a meeting of Canadian and American forces just south of Argentan to encircle the Germans who had concentrated the bulk of their forces west of the Orne and a sweeping advance by the British to herd the Germans into the Canadian and American lines. The First U.S. Army, inferentially, would drive the Germans in its zone into the path of the British advance. "It begins to look," General Montgomery wrote, "as if the enemy intends to fight it out between the Seine and the Loire. This will suit us very well. . .&bnbsp; Clearly our intention must be to destroy the enemy forces between the Seine and the Loire." Yet Montgomery did not overlook the possibility that the enemy might successfully evade encirclement at Argentan. In that case, the Allies were to be ready to institute the wider encirclement earlier projected to the Seine.51
What seemed perfectly apparent to all was that Allied occupation of Falaise and Alençon would narrow to thirty-five miles the gap between the two flanks of the German defensive positions. Since the bulk of the German forces were west of the gap and facing complete encirclement, capture of the two towns would cut two of the three main east-west roads still in German hands and force the Germans to escape eastward, if they
Map 15. Normandy Front, 7-11 August 1944
could, along the axis of the Vire-Flers-Argentan highway.52
It seemed not altogether unlikely that the opinion General Montgomery had ventured in mid-June--that the Allies might defeat the Germans between the Seine and the Loire--was about to be realized.53
Envelopment from the South
General Haislip's XV Corps had taken le Mans on 8 August with the 5th Armored and the 79th and 90th Infantry Divisions, and soon afterwards it was ready to drive north. The initial corps objective, thirty miles north of le Mans, was the town of Alençon--the great crossroads of the Rouen-Bordeaux and Rennes-Paris highways. The final objective was eleven miles beyond Alençon, a fifteen-mile stretch of the east-west road connecting the towns of Carrouges and Sées.
In driving north along the le Mans-Alencron-Argentan axis, XV Corps would have both flanks open. On the right, elements of the 106th Cavalry Group during the following few days would roam almost at will and meet only the slightest resistance. On the left, a gap of about twenty-five miles would separate the corps from the closest American units at Mayenne.54 (Map 16)
To increase the striking power of the XV Corps, Patton gave Haislip the 2d French Armored Division and ordered Haislip to lead with his armor, which would mean the 5th U.S. and the 2d French Armored Divisions. Much was expected of the French troops, for they were experienced in combat and eager to liberate their country. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Jacques Philippe Leclerc, the division had fought in Africa before being brought to England in the spring of 1944 expressly to represent French forces in Operation OVERLORD. Re-equipped with American matériel, the division arrived on the Continent and assembled just south of Avranches during the early days of August. It had been alerted briefly for possible employment at Mortain before being ordered to le Mans where, on 9 August, it was attached to the XV Corps.55
To protect the XV Corps deep left and rear, General Patton drew upon the 80th Division, newly arrived on the Continent and under the command of Maj. Gen. Horace L. McBride. The 80th Division was to clear the Evron area, where General Weaver's 90th Division task force had uncovered considerable resistance while driving on le Mans. Few Germans remained, and the 80th carried out its assignment without much trouble. The few difficulties came mainly from the fluid situation prevailing on that part of the front. For several days the division
oscillated between attachment to the XX and to the XV Corps, and such matters as corps control, boundaries, and objectives were rather vague.56
The road net between le Mans and Argentan determined the XV Corps zone of attack. Haislip committed the 2d French Armored Division, followed by the 90th Division, on the left and directed the two units to move along an axis through Alençon to Carrouges; the 5th Armored Division, followed by the 79th, was to move through Mamers to Sées. No cohesive front faced the corps. Intelligence was lacking.57
While the French force was entering the corps zone on 9 August, the 5th Armored Division in compliance with Haislip's orders, was securing the line of departure for the attack to the north and clearing initial assembly areas for the French. The corps engineers were constructing two bridges over the Sarthe near le Mans to facilitate entry of the French troops into their zone of advance. Early on 10 August all was in readiness for the attack.
The German decision to commit Panzer Group Eberbach in the Alençon area was not to be made for another day, and thus on 10 August the LXXXI Corps was defending the le Mans-Alençon axis. The corps had two divisions in the line: the708th, with most of its strength west of the Sarthe River (where it had been badly hurt by the 90th Division), seemed "doomed to failure" by its poor fighting quality; the 9th Panzer (less its Panther battalion, diverted to the Falaise defenses) deployed its well-trained troops
Map 16. XV Corps, 9-12 August 1944
more directly in the path of the American advance but had some elements committed west of the Sarthe and was to have difficulty concentrating for employment as an entity. On the east flank, the corps commander felt "there were no units worth mentioning." Backing up the line were remnants of Panzer Lehr, consisting almost entirely of supply forces and thus of "negligible combat strength," and remnants of the 352d Division, which had been pulled out of the Seventh Army line for wholesale re-constitution. The corps was about to acquire a regimental-sized kampfgruppe of the 6th Parachute Division, moving west from central France, but the unit could not reach the sector in time to meet the initial American thrust.58
The two armored divisions of XV Corps jumped off abreast for a day of action characterized by sharp tank skirmishes, harassing enemy artillery fire, and traffic congestion. Taking relatively light casualties (though the 9th Panzer and 352d Divisions together claimed to have knocked out thirty-six tanks), the Americans outflanked the 9th Panzer Division and moved forward about fifteen miles, or about halfway to Alençon. The command posts of the 9th Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions at Fresnay-sur-Sarthe came under fire. Both units withdrew to the north.59
The Fôret de Perseigne, a densely wooded area extending almost ten miles across the corps front between Alençon and Mamers, had seemed to SHAEF to offer excellent concealment for at least two German divisions and extensive supply installations, and intelligence officers warned the XV Corps of this possibility. More frequent roadblocks, utilizing tanks rather than antitank guns, and concentrated artillery fire encountered by the corps on 11 August appeared to bear out this concern, prompting Haislip to order his armored divisions to bypass the forest on both sides.60 To cover the resultant separation of his columns, Haislip ordered three artillery battalions to interdict the exits from the forest and requested an air strike on the forest with incendiary oil bombs to burn and smoke out enemy forces. As it turned out, the Germans had evacuated the woods. French and American armor bypassed the area without undue interference.61
On 11 August the Germans were coming to their decision to have Panzer Group Eberbach launch a massive counterattack against the XV Corps left flank with armored divisions pulled out of the Mortain salient. The LXXXI Corps, its main forces the 9th Panzer and 708th Divisions, was to protect the assembly area f or the projected attack. Eberbach
Mamers, where American forces met little resistance.
visited Alençon that afternoon and found the sector in confusion. The LXXXI Corps command post was threatened by the American advance. Rear area service troops were fleeing northward to the accompaniment of nearby blasts from the guns of American tanks. Burning vehicles, knocked out by Allied planes and tanks, littered the countryside. The 9th Panzer Division had been reduced to the point where Eberbach estimated it consisted of only a battalion of infantry, a battalion of artillery, and perhaps a dozen tanks. A bakery company was taking defensive positions at Sées.
The splinter units of the LXXXI Corps directly in the path of the XV Corps advance were evidently incapable of stopping the XV U.S. Corps. If the 116th Panzer Division, the first to be pulled out of the line near Mortain, arrived near Argentan in time to stop the Americans, Eberbach's armored attack could perhaps be launched. Meanwhile, Eberbach ordered antiaircraft batteries at Argentan to prepare immediately for defensive ground action.
French and American troops took advantage of German confusion to press forward. Even though the terrain impeded armored mobility, General Leclerc reminded his units that speed, maneuver, and daring must mark their operations. In an audacious thrust that night, a French task force drove to the Sarthe River at Alençon and early on 12 August captured the bridges there intact. The town was not defended.62 That same morning, after having bypassed Alençon on the east and rushed through Mamers against slight resistance, General Oliver's 5th Armored Division secured the town of Sées.
Patton's instructions to Haislip on 8 August had directed the XV Corps to drive to the Carrouges--Sées line and prepare for a further advance northward. On the basis of the "further advance" inferentially authorized, General Haislip, on the evening of 11 August, established Argentan as the new corps objective. While the 5th Armored Division turned to the northwest from Sées to secure Argentan, the 2d French Armored Division was to take Carrouges, close on a line between Carrouges and Argentan, and face generally northwest. If the Canadians reached Argentan as instructed, the Germans west of the Falaise-Argentan-Alençon line would be
encircled, and XV Corps, with two armored divisions in the line and two infantry divisions (the 79th and 90th, which were following) in support, would hold a strong shoulder between Alençon and Argentan.63
There seemed to be one serious obstacle that might hinder the maneuver: the Fôret d'Ecouves blocked the southern approaches to Argentan. If the Germans were to prevent encirclement, they had to keep a gap open between Falaise and Alençon so that their troops might withdraw eastward toward Dreux and Paris. It was plausible then to expect the Germans to try to hold this prominent terrain feature on the southern shoulder of the gap.64
General Haislip had instructed Leclerc to pass west of the forest. But Leclerc decided to send one combat command east of the woods, while another went through the forest and the third bypassed it on the west. He envisioned all three columns converging at Ecouché, a town five miles southwest of Argentan on the final Carrouges-Argentan objective line. There was one drawback to this plan: the combat command bypassing the Fôret d'Ecouves on the right (east) would trespass on the main highway from Alençon to Argentan through Sées, which had been reserved for the 5th U.S. Armored Division. Leclerc nevertheless disregarded his division boundary and Haislip's order and executed his plan. The three French combat commands partially cleared the forest and fought their way to within sight of Ecouché and the Carrouges-Argentan line.
When French troops usurped the Alençon--Sées--Argentan highway on 12 August, the 5th Armored Division, fortunately, had already taken Sées. Unfortunately, a 5th Armored Division combat command north of Sées--at Mortree, five miles southeast of Argentan-- had to postpone its attack toward Argentan for six hours. Only after the French column cleared the road could gasoline trucks blocked south of Sées come forward to refuel the command. The attack did not jump off until late afternoon, and by then the Germans had interposed a new unit between the armor and Argentan. The attack, which if launched six hours earlier might have resulted in capture of Argentan, made little progress.
That day, 12 August, Panzer Group Eberbach assumed command in the Argentan sector. The XLVII Panzer Corps headquarters, having turned over its responsibility at Mortain to the LVIII Panzer Corps, arrived at Argentan. Since the LXXXI Corps headquarters had been severed from its divisions in the Argentan sector by the American attack and was out of contact with them, the XLVII Panzer Corps took control of the remnants of the 9th Panzer Division in the Ecouves forest. When a strong infantry battalion of the 116th Panzer Division, which was moving from the Mortain sector, became available early in the afternoon, the XLVII Panzer Corps sent it toward Sées. The battalion reached Mortree in time to block the 5th Armored Division attack.
The entire 116th Panzer Division moved to Argentan during the night of 12 August, and the XLVII Panzer Corps committed it piecemeal to build up a thin line of defense south of Argentan. The 708th Division, "literally pulverized," was to be transferred on 13 August to the Seventh Army. The LXXXI Corps, which had only radio contact with the remnants of the 352dDivision (sent to the Chartres area for rehabilitation), with the newly arriving 331st Division, and with the kampfgruppe of the 6th Parachute Division, was placed under control of the Fifth Panzer Army with the mission of covering Eberbach's east flank and blocking an American drive into the center of France along a potential front of about one hundred miles.65
Loss of Alençon and Sées completely changed the situation for the Germans. Kluge had suggested an attack against the XV Corps spearheads. Hitler had wanted Eberbach to attack well behind the spearheads. Either attack, if launched, might well have dealt the U.S. corps a crippling blow. Instead, Eberbach on 12 August had to commit the 116th Panzer Division in defense, and because of continuing American pressure he was virtually certain he would have to do likewise with the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions, scheduled to become available the following day, 13 August. Not only was the American advance upsetting German offensive plans, it had already deprived the Seventh Army of its supply base, thereby making Hausser's forces entirely dependent for logistical support on the Fifth Panzer Army. The ammunition and fuel supply situation, as a consequence, was "dreadfully serious." Only three main roads were available for supply and troop movements. Even these the Germans could use only at night because of Allied aircraft and excellent flying weather. All the roads were so congested that vehicular traffic moved at a walk. Some committed divisions existed in name alone, and all were far below authorized strengths. On 12 August the French and American armored divisions claimed almost a hundred tanks destroyed and nearly fifteen hundred prisoners taken. Most alarming, the Germans could no longer disregard the fact that if the Canadians reached Falaise and the Americans reached Argentan, only thirteen miles would separate them from achieving a literal encirclement of the German forces on the western front. With this menace a distinct possibility, Eberbach redoubled his efforts to establish a stable defense at Argentan.66
Eberbach had another reason for redoubling his efforts. Kluge was still planning to launch an attack in the Alençon sector, but because the relentless advance of the XV Corps created a new situation, he modified his plan for the attack scheduled now to begin on 14 August. In an order issued on the evening of 12 August, Kluge shifted the axis of attack from the southeast to a due east direction toward le Mele-sur-Sarthe. Upon reaching le Mele-sur-Sarthe-Mortagne
area, Eberbach was to turn north and complete the destruction of the American forces. Kluge thought it possible that the XV Corps would be beyond (north of) the Argentan-Laigle line before the beginning of the attack, but Eberbach was to execute his mission nevertheless. Eberbach's forces were initially to include the 1st SS, 2d, and 116th Panzer Divisions and elements of the 9th Panzer Division, two werfer brigades, and a heavy artillery battalion--these to be reinforced by the 10th SS Panzer Division.67
Meanwhile, south of Argentan General Haislip on 12 August was still motivated by his desire to have XV Corps make contact with the Canadians. About to reach the line he had been instructed to secure, he assigned the 2d French Armored Division the objective of Argentan and instructed General Oliver to assemble his 5th Armored Division southeast of that town. He then notified General Patton rather pointedly that he was about to capture the last objective given by the army commander. Should Patton authorize the XV Corps to proceed north of Argentan, Haislip would be ready to move the American armored division through the French division in Argentan for a drive north to meet the Canadians. Haislip recommended he receive additional troops so he could also block all the east-west roads north of Alençon.68
Haislip did not have long to wait for a reply. Very early on 13 August he received word from Patton to "push on slowly in the direction of Falaise." The axis of advance and the left boundary were both to be the Argentan-Falaise road. When the XV Corps reached Falaise, Haislip was to "continue to push on slowly until . .&bnbsp; contact [with] our Allies" was made.69 Meanwhile, Patton was searching for additional forces he could attach to the corps.
With a definite mission to keep moving, Haislip was pleased when the 2d French Armored Division on 13 August finished encircling and clearing the Fôret d'Ecouves. Leclerc took Carrouges and Ecouché, then built up a line between Carrouges and Argentan. A French patrol entered Argentan that afternoon and reached the center of the town, bringing the inhabitants short-lived hope of liberation, but German tanks soon forced the patrol to retire. That same morning the 5th Armored Division tried to advance north toward Falaise, but all efforts to get to Argentan or around its eastern outskirts failed. German guns well sited and skillfully concealed on dominating ground north of Argentan wrought a surprising amount of damage on the French and American attack formations.70
Elements of the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions had reached the Argentan sector early on 13 August despite road congestion, air raids, fuel shortages, and communications troubles. The artillery of the 1st SS arrived first without infantry protection, then came the Signal
battalion, later, tanks; the infantry would not arrive until the following day. The 2d Panzer Division arrived in better condition, but only at half strength; the other half was to require an additional day for the road march. With the 116th Panzer Division holding well at Argentan, Eberbach directed the 2d into the Ecouché area and committed the 1st SS in defense of the ground between Carrouges and la Ferte-Mace. Although these dispositions might have seemed adequate on paper, their actual strength was slight. Eberbach estimated that the 1st SS had thirty tanks, the 2d twenty-five, and the 116th fifteen. The 9th Panzer Division had been practically destroyed in the Fôret d'Ecouves.71
Thus, developments had forced Eberbach to commit piecemeal the panzer units that were earmarked as his striking force in the more urgent task of bolstering the badly shattered southern flank of Army Group B. On 13 August events canceled Kluge's plan to inflict a crushing blow on the U.S. XV Corps.
It was clearly apparent to the German command that three weak panzer divisions would not be able to maintain for long, if at all, the slender defensive line established to oppose the XV Corps. On the morning of 13 August Dietrich, the Fifth Panzer Army commander, stated officially for the first time what in retrospect all commanders later claimed to have thought--that it was time to begin to escape the Allied encirclement. "If the front held by the [Fifth] Panzer Army and the Seventh Army is not withdrawn immediately," he warned, and if every effort is not made to move the forces toward the east and out of the threatened encirclement, the army group will have to write off both armies. Within a very short time resupplying the troops with ammunition and fuel will no longer be possible. Therefore, immediate measures are necessary to move to the east before such movement is definitely too late. It will soon be possible for the enemy to fire into the pocket with artillery from all sides.72
Yet, contrary to expectations, the defensive line at Argentan did hold. It held not because of German strength but because of a cessation of the American attack. Early in the afternoon of 13 August the XV Corps attack came to an abrupt and surprising halt. General Bradley stopped further movement to the north. Patton had to inform Haislip not to go beyond Argentan. Haislip was to recall any elements that might be "in the vicinity of Falaise or to the north of Argentan." Instead of pressing the attack toward the Canadians, the XV Corps was to assemble and prepare for further operations in another direction.73
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (24) * Next Chapter (26)