The Argentan-Falaise Pocket
When General Bradley halted the XV Corps just south of Argentan on 13 August, the Canadian army was still several miles north of Falaise. The stretch of terrain--less than twenty-five miles--that separated Canadian and American forces became known as the Argentan-Falaise Gap. Why Bradley did not allow Patton to try to close the gap and seal the Argentan--Falaise pocket later became the subject of a considerable polemic.
Rumor soon after the event ascribed the halt to warnings by the Allied air forces that planes had dropped time bombs along the highways in the Argentan--Falaise area to harass German movements; further northward movement by the XV Corps would have exposed American troops to this hazard. Whether this had a part in shaping Bradley's decision or not, the fact was that fighter-bomber pilots had sown delayed-action explosives over a wide area between 10 and 13 August, though the bombs were fused for a maximum of twelve hours delay and thus could not have endangered the troops.1
Perhaps more to the point was General Bradley's later explanation that a head-on meeting of Canadians and Americans would have been a "dangerous and uncontrollable maneuver" that (in General Eisenhower's words) might have caused a "calamitous battle between friends."2 Yet General Bradley himself afterwards offered two solutions that might have been applied to co-ordinate the artillery fires of the forces coming together: a distinctive terrain feature or conspicuous landmark could have been selected as the place of juncture, or the Canadian or American axis of advance could have been shifted several miles east or west to provide a double (and stronger) barrier across the German escape routes without the danger of a head-on meeting.3
A disadvantage of bringing Canadians and Americans closer together was that it would have hampered artillery and particularly air operations. Close support missions would have become increasingly restricted and the danger of bombing error greater. As it was, the extremely fluid front necessitated considerable shifting of bomb lines to protect the ground troops and made the work of the Allied pilots a delicate matter.
Yet for all the hazards of error, Allied aircraft operated in the Argentan-Falaise area with excellent effect until 17 August, when the bomb line in that sector was removed and close air support, at least officially, ceased.4
Another reason contributing to General Bradley's reluctance to send American troops beyond Argentan was his preference, as he later said, for "a solid shoulder at Argentan to a broken neck at Falaise." Although he afterwards stated that he had not doubted the ability of the XV Corps to close the gap (despite increasing resistance on the morning of 13 August), he had questioned the ability of the corps to keep the gap closed. Incorrectly believing that elements of nineteen German divisions were already stampeding eastward through the gap, he thought it conceivable that they would trample the thin line of American troops.5
Holding the XV Corps at Argentan conformed with General Bradley's concept of destroying the enemy by closing two jaws, for at Argentan the XV Corps formed the lower front teeth of a not yet solid mandible.6 Actually, the XV Corps was already in an exposed position. Both flanks were open. There were no German forces to speak of to threaten the right flank, but the situation was quite the opposite on the left.
American intelligence officers did not seem aware of Eberbach's mission to launch a massive attack against the deep XV Corps left flank, yet if Eberbach had been able to get it off, the attack would have struck exactly through a gap in the American line. Between the 1st Division troops firmly ensconced at Mayenne and French forces at Carrouges there was a gap of about twenty-five miles. American troops started to close the gap on the morning of 13 August, but until they actually did, a XV Corps advance beyond Argentan to close the Falaise gap would have extended the Mayenne gap. Although General Bradley did not mention this fact in his later account, it was reasonable for him to be concerned at the time with the exposed position of the XV Corps.
These reasons were sufficient to justify General Bradley's decision, but he may also have felt he could not let the XV Corps go to and beyond Argentan without exceeding his authority. Near Argentan the American troops were already across the army group boundary and impinging on the 21 Army Group zone. Since General Montgomery commanded the ground forces in France, Bradley needed his consent to go farther. Although Montgomery did not prohibit American advance beyond the boundary, neither did Bradley propose it.7
General Montgomery did not take the initiative, probably because he thought the Canadians would close the gap from
the north. Early in August he had planned to have Patton's Third Army make a wide envelopment to the Seine. Instead, Bradley had reacted to the Mortain counterattack by suggesting and securing approval for a shorter envelopment--the right hook thrust by the XV Corps to Argentan. The virtue of this maneuver was that it took advantage of the Canadian attack on 8 August toward Falaise, an attack launched out of an entirely different context. Juncture of the two forces was implicit. Yet the Americans were at that time much farther from Argentan than the Canadians. Montgomery, estimating that the Germans would shift their defensive strength to protect their southern flank against the Americans, consequently felt that the Canadians, attacking from the opposite flank, could cover the shorter distance to Argentan more quickly.8
Halting the XV Corps at Argentan seemed in retrospect to many commanders, Allied and German, to have been a tactical error, a failure to take full advantage of German vulnerability.9 General Bradley, too, seemed afterwards to consider the halt a mistake, and he sought to refute criticism by placing the responsibility for the halt on Montgomery. In that connection, he recalled that he and Patton had doubted "Monty's ability to close the gap at Argentan" from the north, and had "waited impatiently" for word to continue northward. While waiting, Bradley wrote, he and Patton saw the Germans reinforce the shoulders of the Argentan-Falaise gap and watched the enemy pour troops and materiel eastward to escape out of the unsealed pocket. It seemed to him and Patton, Bradley remembered, that Dempsey's British army by driving from the northwest was accelerating German movement eastward and facilitating German escape, actually pushing the Germans out of the open end of the pocket, like squeezing a tube of tooth paste. "If Monty's tactics mystified me," Bradley later wrote, "they dismayed Eisenhower even more. And . . . a shocked Third Army looked on helplessly as its quarry fled [while] Patton raged at Montgomery's blunder."10
It was true that the Germans were building up the shoulders of the gap by 13 August, but by that date they were not fleeing eastward to escape encirclement. Either Bradley and Patton were anticipating what was soon to occur or General Bradley's memory was faulty by several days. If Patton, in a subordinate role, could only rage, and if Bradley thought he might offend a sensitive Montgomery, Eisenhower, who was in France and following combat developments, might have resolved the situation had he thought it necessary to do so. Yet General Eisenhower did not intervene. Interfering with a tactical decision made by a commander who was in closer contact with the situation was not Eisenhower's method of exercising command. Long after the event, General Eisenhower implied that the gap might have been closed, which, he thought,
"might have won us a complete battle of annihilation."11
If this had been clear to Bradley at the time, he probably would have picked up the telephone and proposed to Montgomery that the XV Corps proceed beyond the army group boundary to make contact with the Canadians. Yet to propose was, in effect, to recommend, particularly in a situation where Montgomery and Bradley were both army group commanders and where one was British, the other American. Because sending the XV Corps through and beyond Argentan was risky, Bradley probably felt he could not in good conscience recommend such a course of action without reservation. Because Montgomery, not Bradley, was the ground force commander and thus the responsible commander, Bradley, by so proposing, would be saddling Montgomery with responsibility for a course of action that Bradley himself was, apparently, unwilling to recommend wholeheartedly. For Montgomery would, more than likely, have felt impelled to accept the recommendation, given the circumstances of the command setup. Where the assumption of risk was involved, finesse, good manners, and the subtleties of coalition warfare required the responsible commander to make the responsible decision without prompting, and this only Montgomery--or Eisenhower--could have done.
What might have seemed clear to commanders from the perspective of a later vantage point was not so clear at the moment of decision. Bradley himself made the decision to halt, probably on the basis of five tactical considerations: (1) Montgomery, the ground force commander, had not moved the army group boundary, nor did he seem about to do so, and thus he appeared not to favor further American advance. (2) On the evidence of the increasing resistance to the XV Corps on the morning of 13 August, there was no certainty that American troops could move through or around Argentan and beyond. (3) Since the XV Corps was already in an exposed position by virtue of the vacuums on both flanks, there was no point in closing the Argentan-Falaise gap at the expense of further exposing the corps, particularly by enlarging the gap on the left. (4) Intelligence estimates inclined to the incorrect view that the bulk of the German forces had already escaped the pocket. (5) The Canadians were about to launch their second attack to Falaise, an effort that, it was hoped, would get troops beyond Falaise to Argentan and preclude further American advance into the 21 Army Group sector.
The Canadians at Falaise
Despite Montgomery's injunction for speed in getting to Falaise and beyond from the north, General Crerar, whose Canadian army had been stopped in the Caen-Falaise corridor by 9 August, was unable to mount a full-scale operation at once.12 While Crerar regrouped his
forces and arranged for air support, he launched a diversionary action on his right on 12 August in division strength, hoping thereby to outflank German positions along the Caen-Falaise road. On 14 August, as the diversion continued into its third day of difficult fighting without substantial advance, he kicked off his main effort.
The main effort was "a concentrated, very heavy blow on a decidedly narrow front," much like the first attack seven days earlier, but it dispensed with artillery preparation to gain surprise, used smoke to provide cover, and employed a "short fierce stroke by medium bombers."13 Smoke and dust made it difficult for armor and infantry to maintain proper orientation toward the objective, but two armored columns bypassed the resistance astride the main road and approached the objective from the northeast. More than 800 heavy bombers of the RAF and RCAF then dropped 3,700 tons of bombs in the area.14 Although several bomb loads fell short of their targets and inflicted almost 400 casualties and heavy equipment losses on Canadian and Polish units, the attack advanced to within three miles of Falaise on the first day.
With the Germans off balance, Canadian troops entered Falaise from the northwest on 16 August and cleared the town by the end of the following day. Artillery shells and air bombardment had transformed the town of William the Conqueror into a pile of rubble. Bulldozer operators, trying to open routes for traffic, could hardly determine where the streets had been.15
Though the Canadians had finally reached Falaise, U.S. troops were still just south of Argentan. The gap had been narrowed, but fifteen miles still separated the Allies. "Due to the extraordinary measures taken by the enemy north of Falaise," General Eisenhower wrote to Marshall, ". . . it is possible that our total bag of prisoners will not be so great as I first anticipated."16
The Pocket Tightened
The task of filling the hole on the XV Corps left flank belonged to the First U.S. Army, specifically to the VII Corps. While the V and XIX Corps on the north exerted pressure on the Germans by attacking, respectively, toward Tinchebray and Flers, the VII Corps on the south was to drive from Mayenne to the northeast toward Fromental to cover the XV Corps left flank. In the case of each corps, the objective was the army group boundary, which corresponded with the right flank boundary of the Second British Army. In advancing to the southeast, the British troops would pass in turn across the fronts of all three First Army corps. (Map 17)
General Hodges had ordered the First Army to attack as early as 9 August, but not until the Seventh Armywithdrew from Mortain did the operation get under way. On 12 August the V and XIX Corps initiated the attack. The VII Corps needed an additional day for
displacement south of Mortain to Mayenne.
In Gerow's V Corps sector, the 29th and 2d Divisions attacked abreast through a narrow sector of rough terrain lacking good roads, and three days later captured Tinchebray and high ground south of the town. With the corps front facing eastward and the troops out of contact with the enemy, the advance came to a halt. Hodges had hoped to trap a considerable number of Germans, but the prisoners taken during the four-day attack came to the disappointing total of 1,200, less than the number of casualties sustained by the V Corps.17
From positions near Sourdeval, Corlett's XIX Corps had attacked with the 28th Division. In hope of improving the division's performance, which he considered unsatisfactory, Corlett on 12 August provided the division a new commander, Brig. Gen. James E. Wharton, formerly assistant commander of the 9th Division.18 Several hours later General Wharton was mortally wounded, and the next day General Cota came from the 29th Division to take command of the 28th.
On 13 and 14 August, respectively, the 2d Armored and 30th Divisions, earlier part of the VII Corps, augmented the XIX Corps. Pivoting on Ger, the corps moved eastward against light resistance and seized Domfront, which was garrisoned by a battalion composed of stragglers, depot personnel, and soldiers recovering from minor wounds--many of whom were intoxicated when the Americans arrived. On 15 August the corps made contact with the British several miles west of Flers, and on the following day British forces swept southward across the XIX Corps front, as they had across the V Corps front. Although the advance had been relatively rapid and casualties comparatively light, few Germans had been trapped.19
The VII Corps commenced its effort on 13 August after Collins released the 35th Division to the Third Army, reunited the combat commands of the 3d Armored Division under a new commander, Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose, brought the 9th Division to join the 1st at Mayenne, and placed the 4th Division in reserve south of Barenton.20 Against an estimated 7,600 combat effectives, the 1st Division on the left and the 3d Armored Division on the right drove more than twenty miles northeastward from Mayenne on the first day. Fairly heavy fighting occurred on the following day around Rânes as resistance stiffened in defense of the highway between Flers and Argentan. Though the 9th Division moved into the center to strengthen the corps attack, strong opposition slowed the advance. Montgomery approved a request to cross the army group boundary, and at the end of 17 August the corps made contact with British troops at several points along its
MAP 17. Argentan-Falaise Pocket, 12-16 August 1944
front. In the five-day action, the VII Corps had closed the gap on the XV Corps left flank, had taken more than 3,000 prisoners, and had destroyed a considerable amount of enemy equipment.21 Though VII Corps had been well on its way on 13 August to closing the gap on the XV Corps left, the XX Corps, recently committed under Third Army command, had also been involved.22 The fluid situation had prompted some confusion. Events outran decisions, and communications conveyed outdated missions. The result was a comedy of errors.
The beginning of the story occurred on 8 August, when Patton had ordered Haislip's XV Corps to advance north from le Mans to secure the Sées-Carrouges line. He also alerted the XX Corps to the possibility of its commitment beside the XV--but on which side of the XV Corps the XX would eventually operate, the Third Army could not yet tell.23 Three days later Third Army instructed XX Corps to assemble on the Mayenne-le Mans line for an attack to the northeast to secure the Sées-Carrouges line, the objective previously assigned to the XV Corps.24 Apparently, Third Army had decided to commit the XX Corps on the XV Corps left. The only unit immediately available to
XX Corps was the 8oth Division, which had been clearing the Evron area.
A day later, on 12 August, after telephone conversations between staff officers of both headquarters, Third Army, confirming the previous attack order, changed the corps objective. The XX Corps was to advance only until it came in contact with the XV Corps around Alençon (taken by the XV Corps that morning) or farther north, there to await further orders.25 Completion of this mission would sweep clear the XV Corps left flank.
The XX Corps issued its field order close to midnight. In an area between VII Corps on its left and XV Corps on its right, XX Corps designated zones of advance for two divisions to attack abreast, the 80th on the right, the 7th Armored (recently arrived on the Continent and hurrying toward le Mans) on the left. Because the armored division would not arrive in the area until the afternoon of 13 August, XX Corps ordered the 80th Division to initiate the attack at 0800, 13 August; the armor was to follow, pass through the 80th, and take the lead. With two regiments abreast, the 80th was to attack from the Evron-Sillé-le-Guillaume area to capture the Argentan-Sées line. The northeasterly route of advance thus projected cut directly across roads being used by the XV Corps going north from Alençon toward Argentan. Evidently through oversight, the XX Corps field order made no mention of the Third Army instruction to hold the advance upon establishing contact with the XV Corps in the vicinity of Alençon or farther north.26
The 80th Division field order for the attack indicated the Argentan-Sées railroad line as its objective. The troops were to destroy hostile forces in zone and "establish contact with XV Corps Armd elms, when same cross Division front." The overlay designated routes of advance to the objective. It also showed a route presumably to be taken by "Armd elms XV Corps"--these elements would enter the 80th Division zone from Alençon and move through the Fôret d'Ecouves to Argentan, thereby cutting diagonally across the XX Corps zone, which was oriented to the northeast. Like the corps order, the division order made no mention of halting upon contact with XV Corps forces. Quite the contrary, "rapid progress . . . is essential to the success of the mission. Forces . . . will advance without regard to progress of forces to right and left."27
The attack jumped off on 13 August, and that afternoon the regiment on the right, the 318th Infantry, was hopelessly entangled with part of the 90th Division, which, under XV Corps command, was moving west of Alençon to protect the deep left flank of the corps. Intent on its own mission, the 318th cut across the 90th Division routes and precipitated serious traffic congestion and heated argument. The 90th ordered the 318th off the road. The 318th refused to move because it was sure it was on the right road to its objective. The 90th informed the 318th that another unit (under XV Corps command) had already captured and was occupying the 80th's objective. The 318th was adamant; its orders were clear and it planned to carry them out. The
90th radioed XV Corps headquarters. The 318th radioed 80th Division headquarters. The XV Corps commander sent an officer down to tell the 318th to "get the hell off the road." The 318th retorted that it was under XX Corps jurisdiction, then dispatched a cub plane to division headquarters for help. Elements of the French armored division arrived on the scene and compounded the confusion.28
The regimental commander of the 318th Infantry finally got a radio message through to the 80th Division headquarters. He informed General McBride that the XV Corps had ordered him off the road, then said: "My mission requires speed. What is decision?"29 What he did not know was that his mission had become outdated by the rapid development of events. The VII Corps had started to close the gap on the XV Corps left that morning, and General Bradley had decided to halt the XV Corps short of Argentan. The commitment of the XX Corps on the XV Corps left proved unnecessary. Instructed to regroup, the XX Corps at 1300 had ordered the 80th Division to concentrate in the Laval-Evron area.30 General McBride therefore radioed the 318th--and the 317th Infantry as well--to "halt in place, clear road, bivouac present position for night . . . and await further orders."31
This did not quite end the confusion. The regiment went into bivouac, but the area turned out also to be in the path of the 90th Division advance. More argument ensued until the regimental commander wearily chose another bivouac. On the following morning General McBride went forward and personally ordered both regiments back to the Laval-Evron area.32
By then the V, XIX, and VII Corps of the First Army were closing firmly to the army group boundary. When they completed their moves, the Allied front resembled an irregular horseshoe virtually encircling the major part of the German forces in Normandy. Allied troops held a line from the Canadian positions at Falaise westward to the British near Flers, then eastward to Argentan, thereby forming the Argentan-Falaise pocket. Yet the Argentan-Falaise gap still existed, and through the fifteen-mile opening the Germans were to try to escape complete encirclement.
The German Decision To Withdraw
Pulling the German armored divisions out of the Mortain sector to augment Panzer Group Eberbachnear Argentan left the Seventh Armyin a drastically weakened condition. Corps strove to maintain more than precarious contact with adjacent units, plugging holes in the line with scanty local reserves from splinter divisions. Despite desperate efforts to hold the line, the "undiminished violence" of the V and XIX U.S. Corps attacks on 12 August forced the Seventh Army to continue the withdrawal it had started from Mortain the previous night.
Yet since Hitler was still obsessed with the thought of attacking again toward Avranches, Kluge could not order an unequivocal withdrawal eastward to escape the threatening Allied encirclement.33
Combat on the Seventh Armyfront assumed the character of delaying action. The units fought only to gain time and avoid annihilation. By their tactics they sought to lure the Allies into time-consuming reconnaissance and deployment for attack, then they retired to the next position, usually during the night. The Seventh Armycontinued to resist in this way, withdrawing rapidly weakening units slowly but steadily through successively shrinking fronts. On 13 August the destruction of telephone wires by bombs and artillery intensified feelings of insecurity, for throughout the day the Seventh Army was out of communication with Panzer Group Eberbach. For twenty-four hours personnel at the Seventh Army headquarters wondered whether they were already cut off and isolated.
Panzer Group Eberbach was also drastically reduced in strength by 13 August. The 9th Panzer Division had only 260 men, 12 tanks, and a few artillery pieces. The 1st SS Panzer Division had 352 men, 8 self-propelled assault guns, and 14 Mark IV and 7 Mark V tanks. The 2d Panzer Division, which had had 2,220 men, 5 self-propelled assault guns, and 9 Mark IV and 3 Mark V tanks on 11 September, was considerably diminished two days later.34
While these were extreme cases, the over-all strength of Army Group B had declined markedly during the two months following the Allied invasion. By 14 August the Germans in the west had lost 3,630 officers, more than 151,000 enlisted men, and 3,800 Osttruppen--a total of almost 160,000 troops. On the surface, this compared favorably with the Allied battle casualties of approximately 180,000 by that date. The difference, however, was more than offset by the increasing number of Allied units arriving on the Continent and by the constant influx of Allied replacements. For the Germans, only 30,000 men had arrived to replace losses in the west; only 10,000 more were on their way to the front.35 On the basis of this alone, the German situation was hardly promising. Added to this was the increasing threat of Allied encirclement.
An order from Hitler arrived in the west early on 14 August, and according to him, "The present situation in the rear of the army group is the result of the failure of the first attack on Avranches." Alluding to what seemed to the Germans to be a change in the direction of the XV U.S. Corps thrust from the north to the west, Hitler advised of the "danger that Panzer Group Eberbach, which was committed much too far to the north, will again become involved in a sterile frontal fight." What he wanted was an attack in Eberbach's sector, "in the Alençon-Carrouges area," in order to destroy the great part of the
XV U.S. Corps. The 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and the 21st Panzer Division, he instructed, "can and must be employed for this purpose." This time the reinforced Panzer Group Eberbach had to be committed far enough to the south to strike the deep left flank of the enemy and thus deny him the possibility of launching a counterthrust into the right flank of the panzer group as he had done before. In order to free the three designated panzer divisions for the attack, Hitler admitted that contraction of the salient west of Flers could not be avoided. Yet he warned Kluge that as the front west of Flers was withdrawn to a shorter line, the enemy would bring strong pressure to bear against the south flank between Domfront and Alençon. The speed and the extent of the withdrawal to the shorter line near Flers, therefore, should depend on the amount of Allied pressure. Concerned also by "anticipated landings" on the coast of southern France (actually to take place on the following day), Hitler advised Kluge that "destruction of the enemy near Alençon" was the immediate OB WEST mission and that all further directives from Hitler would depend on the course of the battle there.36
If Hitler's order failed to bring comfort, it at least had the virtue of being positive. It authorized further withdrawal, and Kluge ordered the westernmost forces to start a retrograde movement that was to take place in two stages (two nights) to a shorter line roughly through Flers. Kluge instructed Dietrich to disengage the II SS Panzer Corps, with the 9th SS and 21st Panzer Divisions, in the course of the withdrawal and to transfer those forces to Eberbach. Then, during the evening of 14 August, Kluge departed his Army Group B command post and went forward to see how further compliance with Hitler's order could best be carried out.37
Meanwhile, what had seemed like the beginning of stabilization on 13 August had deteriorated by the end of the next day. The "great offensive" the Germans had expected on the Canadian front materialized. On a nine-mile front the Canadians made a breach in the German defenses astride the Caen-Falaise road for a depth of five to six miles. On other parts of the front other penetrations occurred, the "most unpleasant" being the pressure of American forces around Domfront. Ammunition and gasoline shortages were getting more critical by the hour.38
As Kluge drove toward Dietrich's Fifth Panzer Army headquarters on the evening of 14 August, he found the roads clogged with traffic and dispirited troops. When he reached Dietrich's command post, he learned firsthand that the depleted divisions of the panzer army were too weak to react effectively to the second Canadian attack toward Falaise. In view of the gravity of the situation on the I SS Panzer Corps front, the 21st Panzer Division had to be diverted to
Signal Corps Troops in Domfront repair wires cut by the Germans.
Falaise in order to prevent a complete collapse of the German defenses in that critical sector. Word from the southern sector was scarcely better. Having judged it impossible to attack because of a shortage of tanks, gasoline, and ammunition and because of the constant activity of Allied planes over the battlefield, Eberbach had ordered all his troops to "pass to the defensive." The 10th SS Panzer Division had become involved with hard-pressing American forces who were endangering the Seventh Army left flank north of Domfront. Thus, of the three panzer divisions designated by Hitler to reinforce Eberbach, only the 9th SS for the moment was available.
The prospect was grim. If Dietrich could not hold the Canadians, and if Eberbach could not launch a strong attack in the very near future south of Argentan, the only alternative would be to break out as quickly as possible from the threatened encirclement by moving east and northeast through the Argentan-Falaise gap. Delay could very well mean the loss of all the forces in the pocket.39
Kluge left Dietrich's headquarters early on 15 August to confer with Hausser and Eberbach at the village of Nécy. Four hours later Kluge and his small party had vanished from sight and sound. When radio contact could not be re-established, a frantic search to find Kluge ensued.
While the search proceeded, the situation in the pocket worsened. Allied attacks continued, with Falaise, Domfront, and Argentan the critical points of pressure. Astride the Caen-Falaise road, the 12th SS Panzer Division met the continued Canadian attacks with its last strength, while several miles to the west (near Condé-sur-Noireau) the 21st Panzer Division had to be committed to seal off a penetration. Near Domfront, as the Seventh Army executed the second stage of its withdrawal to Flers, American troops threatened to overrun the thin rear-guard line of resistance. Near Argentan, Panzer Group Eberbach lost possession of Ecouché.
In addition to these developments, a new difficulty arose, this one outside the pocket. On the Army Group B right, in the Fifth Panzer Army sector, an Allied attack launched along the boundary line between the I SS Panzer and LXXXVI Corps broke through the German defenses, and Allied spearheads
reached the Dives River near Mézidon and St. Pierre. An immediate decision was required, and with Kluge still missing Dietrich ordered a withdrawal to positions behind the Dives River.40
Meanwhile, there was still no word on Kluge's whereabouts by 1830, when Blumentritt, Kluge's chief of staff at OB WEST, was talking to Jodl on the telephone. "The situation west of Argentan," Blumentritt declared, "is worsening by the hour." Implying that withdrawal from the pocket was becoming increasingly necessary, Blumentritt passed on the insistence of Dietrich, Hausser, and Eberbach that "an over-all decision has to be made."
"If such a decision has to be made as a last resort," Jodl replied, "it could only be to attack toward Sées to gain room so that other intentions can be carried out."
"I am duty bound," Blumentritt said, "to point out the state of the armored units." All suffered from a great shortage of gasoline because of the difficulty of transporting supplies westward into the pocket.
Jodl did not see the logic of this thinking. In order to break out of the encircling Allied forces, one had to attack.
"We must speak frankly," Blumentritt said. If Jodl had in mind an attack with all available forces in order to bring out of the pocket--if at all possible--at least part of the forces, this was a sound decision. But if the intention was to carry out some other operation, such was no longer feasible.
Jodl was not convinced.
"I must emphatically state," Blumentritt said, "that I am in a difficult position as chief of staff when Kluge is not here. I have the most urgent request. As long as Kluge is absent, someone must be appointed by the Fuehrer to take charge. It could only be Hausser, Dietrich, or Eberbach."
Jodl seemed to incline toward Hausser.
"I'll be most grateful," Blumentritt said, "for the quickest possible decision. As far as I am concerned, I am cool as a cucumber. But I must say that the responsible people on the front contemplate the situation as being extremely tense."
Jodl stressed once more the essential prerequisite for any possible action in the future: an attack by Eberbach. "But," he added with a touch of sarcasm, "the only reports we receive are that he is unable to do anything."
Blumentritt overlooked the remark. "If a new commander in the field is appointed by the Fuehrer," he reminded Jodl, "he must be given a clearly stated limited mission without any strings attached." Only then would he be able to estimate reasonably how he could expect to come out of the situation. Otherwise, the Germans would probably lose the best divisions they had. Time was short--"it is five minutes before twelve."41
An hour later Hitler placed Hausser in temporary command of the forces under Army Group B.42 Later that night
Hitler telephoned Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model and Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring for advice on a successor to Kluge should such an appointment become necessary.43
Hausser's immediate mission as acting commander of Army Group B was to destroy the American forces near Sées "which threaten all three armies with encirclement." To achieve this, he was to attack with Panzer Group Eberbach from the west. The LXXXI Corps, stretched on a 70-mile front from Gacé to Chartres, was to lend its dubious support from the northeast. The Fifth Panzer Army was to stand fast north of Falaise, and the Seventh Army was to protect Eberbach's rear.44
Before Hitler's order reached Hausser on the evening of 15 August, Kluge turned up. What had caused him to vanish was not in the least mysterious. An Allied plane had strafed his party and knocked out his radio. The presence of Allied aircraft overhead had prevented him from reaching his rendezvous point until late in the day.45
Whether Hitler's order could be carried out was a moot point because the situation in the southern sector on the evening of 15 August was discouraging. Furthermore, in the west the Seventh Army was in the process of withdrawing to a line east of Flers. The 10th SS Panzer Division was unable to disengage, not only because of its involvement in battle near Domfront but also because it lacked fuel to move anywhere else for offensive commitment. The long Panzer Group Eberbach front from Briouze through Rânes and Ecouché to east of Argentan, with the 1st SS, 2d, and 116th Panzer Divisions on line facing south, was being hammered. Though the Rânes, Carrouges, and Ecouché areas seemed to the Allies to be "crawling" with Germans, the fact was that the LVIII Panzer Corps was being squeezed and this in turn was endangering the LXXXIV Corps.46 Of the two panzer divisions earmarked for Eberbach's attack, the 2d SS was in assembly area northeast of Argentan and ready for employment, but the 9th SS, delayed in its relief by a shortage of gasoline, was still west of the Orne River. Not much could be expected from the LXXXI Corps, which held its overextended sector with an equivalent of about two divisions--the newly arrived 331st Division and a regimental-sized kampfgruppe of the 6th Parachute Division on the right from Gacé to Verneuil, remnants of the 352d Division with some security elements attached on the left from Dreux to Chartres. An improvised kampfgruppe under a Captain Wahl covered the twenty-mile gap in the middle--two understrength battalions of the 2d SS Panzer Division and twenty Panther tanks of
the 9th SS Panzer Division, which had been moving behind the front toward the east before being intercepted by the 331st Division and put to use by the corps. Despite these discouraging conditions, Jodl, who telephoned shortly before midnight to inquire about Kluge's whereabouts, held the opinion that no matter how bad the situation seemed, it was necessary to attack to the east to broaden the open end of the pocket--"because it is impossible to get two armies out the end of an intestine."47
Jodl could not see what was happening in the Panzer Group Eberbach sector. The roads were virtually impassable; units were intermingled; movements were frequently made under the muzzles of long-range Allied artillery pieces; tanks were repeatedly immobilized for lack of fuel; ammunition supplies arrived erratically; the troops were hungry and exhausted; communication was almost nonexistent, except by radio. Signs of disintegration appeared in certain formations, and straggler lines picked up many more than the usual number of men. Divisions consisted of "a miserable handful of troops" that "never before fought so miserably."48 An Army Group B staff officer, alluding to the retreat from Moscow in 1812, described the situation on the roads as having "a Napoleonic aspect"; since the army group had no means with which to bring matters under control, could OB WEST help?49
Kluge's reappearance on the evening of 15 August brought hope that a weighty decision would be made. After conferring with Hausser and Eberbach, Kluge returned to Dietrich's command post where telephone communication was better. There he remained during the night and the next day, in touch with Jodl, Blumentritt, and Speidel.
His first act was to send a message to Jodl. At 0200, 16 August, Kluge informed Jodl that in his judgment--and he was supported by the army commanders--all the available armored forces together were insufficient for a large-scale attack to improve the situation in the army group rear. He felt that scanty POL supplies were a "decisive" factor. He was discouraged by the "increasingly critical" south flank. He therefore recommended immediate evacuation of the western salient through the still existing Argentan-Falaise gap. Hesitation in accepting his recommendation, Kluge warned Jodl, would result in "unforeseeable developments."50
Kluge then waited for the decision from Hitler on whether or not to withdraw. At 1135, 16 August, he telephoned Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, his chief of staff at Army Group B, to be brought up to date on messages received by the headquarters. Not long afterwards he talked on the telephone with Blumentritt, who informed him of the Allied landings in southern France. Blumentritt suggested that Kluge request OKW for a free hand in directing the withdrawal operation out of the
pocket that had obviously become necessary.51
At 1245 Kluge telephoned Jodl and again set forth his estimate of the situation. Unquestionably, Jodl admitted, the armies had to be withdrawn eastward. But it seemed to him that a withdrawal was feasible only if the escape opening were enlarged, and this could be done only by an attack to the southeast.
Kluge was direct and to the point. He believed it impossible to comply with Hitler's wish as expressed in Hitler's directive to Hausser. An attack southeastward through Argentan and Sées was out of the question. "No matter how many orders are issued," Kluge said, "the troops cannot, are not able to, are not strong enough to defeat the enemy. It would be a fateful error to succumb to a hope that cannot be fulfilled, and no power in this world [can accomplish its will simply] through an order it may give. That is the situation."
Jodl assured Kluge that he understood perfectly. A concise and clear directive from the Fuehrer, he said, would be sent to Kluge in the shortest possible time.52
Twenty minutes later Speidel telephoned Kluge to report information to the effect that a directive from Hitler would shortly arrive in the field. Presumably it would give Kluge full freedom of action. Since Jodl had agreed that withdrawal was necessary, Kluge directed Speidel to prepare immediately the draft of a withdrawal order for Seventh Army. The Seventh Army was to begin withdrawing on the following morning. Hausser was to pull two divisions out of the front at once and dispatch them to the Fifth Panzer Army, which had lost two divisions in two days of fierce combat. The II SS Panzer Corps headquarters was to be made subordinate to Panzer Group Eberbach so that Eberbach could exercise better control over the many splinter units assigned to him. How to get the Seventh Army back across the Orne was the most troublesome problem of the withdrawal. The movement of supplies westward into the pocket was already virtually impossible. Tanks were being abandoned for lack of fuel. The bridges over the Orne were not suitable for heavy traffic. Because antiaircraft protection was generally inadequate, Allied air attacks on massed vehicles at the Orne River crossing sites could create insurmountable difficulties. For these reasons it was necessary to provide for the strict regulation of traffic during the withdrawal. The Seventh Army was to be charged with this job. Since the most difficult part of the withdrawal would be across the Orne River itself, Kluge wanted a corps headquarters that had no other assignment to take charge of traffic control over the Orne; he designated the LVIII Panzer Corps for the task.53
An hour and a half later, at 1439,
though Hitler's directive had still not arrived in the west, Kluge issued his withdrawal order. The armies were to withdraw behind the Orne River during two successive nights, starting that night. Two divisions of the Seventh Army were to be disengaged and dispatched to the Fifth Panzer Army as rapidly as possible to assist in the Falaise area. Panzer Group Eberbach was to cover the withdrawal by launching attacks in the Argentan area. Eberbach was to be ready to send two panzer divisions under II SS Panzer Corps eastward to the Vimoutiers area, where it was to remain at the disposal of the army group.54
Two hours afterwards, Hitler's order arrived. It authorized Army Group B to withdraw its forces that were west of the Dives River. The movement eastward was to be made in two stages: across the Orne River, then across the Dives. Junction with the LXXXI Corps was to be made near Gacé. Hitler emphasized two requirements: Falaise had to be strongly held as a "corner pillar," and the Argentan-Falaise gap had to be enlarged by an attack launched by Panzer Group Eberbach toward the southeast.55
There was nothing in Hitler's order that had not previously been considered and discussed more than once in the headquarters along the chain of command. Withdrawal behind the Dives River had been contemplated, and the necessity of holding the Falaise shoulder of the gap was self-evident. While Jodl's concept of enlarging the escape corridor by Eberbach's attack to the southeast was theoretically sound, no means existed to carry out the attack. Yet Hitler and Jodl both refused to accept this hard fact despite irrefutable evidence presented by the commanders in the field. By 16 August, with the loss of Falaise that day the most dramatic illustration of the shrinking pocket, the commanders found themselves not only virtually surrounded by a contracting enclosure but also threatened with being engulfed by crumbling walls. Furthermore, their only escape route was in imminent danger of being blocked.
The decision to withdraw having finally been made, the Germans began to pull out of the pocket after dark on 16 August.
The Allied Decision to Close the Pocket
Having halted the XV Corps just south of Argentan on 13 August, General Bradley made another decision on the following day. Without consulting General Montgomery, he decided to retain only part of the XV Corps at Argentan while sending the rest to the east toward the Seine River (and across it if possible), with Dreux the first objective.
The reasons for Bradley's action were clear. The apparent scarcity of enemy forces between Argentan and the Seine seemed to warrant a thrust to the eastern boundary of the OVERLORD lodgment area. There seemed no need to retain a large force at Argentan, for "due to the delay in closing the gap between Argentan
and Falaise"--by implication the fault of the Canadians who had not reached the army group boundary as the Americans had--it appeared that "many of the German divisions which were in the pocket have now escaped." On the basis of Montgomery's directive of 11 August, which had stated that the wider envelopment to the Seine would be in order if the Germans evaded encirclement at Argentan and Falaise, an eastward drive seemed justifiable. It was true that the Mayenne gap on the left of the XV Corps appeared to be well on its way to elimination, and the XV Corps could have therefore attacked northward through Argentan with greater security on 14 August. But since Montgomery had had twenty-four hours to order a resumption of the XV Corps advance to Argentan and farther north and had not done so, Bradley felt he need not hold all his forces in place. He decided to keep two divisions of the XV Corps at Argentan and to reinforce them with the 80th Division. These units, "together with the VII Corps," he thought, "will be sufficient for the southern jaw of the trap."56
Patton received word of the decision by telephone, and on 14 August instructed General Haislip to go eastward with part of his XV Corps. Haislip alerted his two divisions on the right--the 5th Armored and 79th Infantry--for the movement. The 79th Division, assembled between Alençon and Mortagne, had been out of contact with the enemy since moving north from le Mans in the wake of the 5th Armored Division--though on 14 August a small part of the 79th hunted down and destroyed about fifty German tracked vehicles trying to escape eastward from the Fôret d'Ecouves toward Mortagne. The division made ready to depart the area on the following day. To free the 5th Armored Division, the 2d French Armored Division extended its lines eastward to cover the southern exits from Argentan, and the 90th, which had followed the French from le Mans to Alençon, took positions east of Argentan along the le Bourg-St.-Léonard-Exmes road.
On 15 August the two departing divisions drove toward Dreux, followed by the XV Corps headquarters and artillery. A skeleton corps staff remained at Alençon to conduct the holding operation that had devolved upon the 2d French Armored, the 90th, and the 80th Divisions.57
Deployed along the Ecouché-Exmes line, the 2d French Armored and 90th Infantry Divisions held the southern shoulder of the Argentan-Falaise gap, while the 80th Division prepared to move north from the Evron area to bolster them. The two divisions on line kept the east-west roads through Argentan under constant interdiction fire and shelled particularly the Argentan-Laigle highway, a vital traffic artery toward Paris and the Seine. Argentan itself, burning since 13 August, remained in German hands.58
As though confirming American estimates that most of the Germans had already escaped the Argentan-Falaise pocket, contact along the Ecouché-Exmes line slackened on 15 August.59 Patton on the following day ordered the 90th Division commander, General McLain, to dispatch a force to the town of Gacé on 17 August to find out what was there. Sixteen miles east of Argentan, Gacé would give the 90th Division control of a hill mass dominating the terrain to the north and northeast and would deny the Germans an important road center on the escape routes north to Lisieux and northeast to Bernay and Rouen. But before the 90th Division could act, the Germans broke the comparative calm that had existed. Contingents of the 2d SS and 116th Panzer Divisions launched an attack on the afternoon of 16 August against 90th Division roadblocks at the village of le Bourg-St.-Léonard.60
Six miles east of Argentan, little more than three miles south of Chambois, and at the southeastern edge of the Fôret de Gouffern, le Bourg-St.-Léonard is on the crest of the ridge forming the watershed between the Orne and the Dives River valleys. A narrow belt of woods running along the ridge line from Falaise to le Bourg-St.-Léonard offered the retreating Germans good concealment and a staging area for an attempt to break out of encirclement. But the Argentan plain to the southwest and the Dives River valley to the northeast, over which the German troops had to move on their way out of the pocket, was open land almost devoid of cover. The dominating terrain near le Bourg-St.-Léonard provided excellent observation over a large part of the Dives River valley, where the last battle of the Argentan-Falaise pocket was to be fought.
The attack against the 90th Division opened Kluge's planned withdrawal to the Seine, and it drove the 90th off the ridge. Though American infantry supported by tanks retook both le Bourg-St.-Léonard and the ridge after dark, action there had not yet ended. The fight for possession of this tactically important terrain feature was to continue for another twenty-four hours.
The German attack was something new, something quite different from the rather disorganized forces the 90th Division had scattered and destroyed during the preceding days. It became apparent, contrary to earlier intelligence estimates, that a large proportion of the German forces still remained in the Argentan-Falaise pocket.61 Closing the gap by the joint effort of Canadian and American forces thus became even more urgent than before.62
Closing the gap on 16 August was bound to be more difficult, not only because of the German withdrawal of the Mortain salient and the concentration of German troops at the shoulders but also because of the reduction of forces at Argentan in favor of the drive to the
Le Bourg-St.-Léonard and the terrain across which the Germans ultimately withdrew from the Argentan-Falaise pocket.
Seine. Four divisions and twenty-two battalions of artillery had been in the vicinity of Argentan on 14 August, but two divisions and fifteen artillery battalions had departed on the following day.63 On 16 August, when the Germans began their withdrawal across the length of the American front, it was doubtful that the American forces around Argentan were strong enough to hold the shoulder. Two divisions and seven artillery battalions were on the Ecouché-Exmes line; the 80th Division was still southwest of Alençon, a considerable distance away.
Yet on that day Montgomery phoned Bradley to suggest a meeting of Canadians and Americans, not somewhere between Falaise and Argentan, but seven miles northeast of Argentan, near Trun and Chambois.64
In compliance with Montgomery's suggestion, Bradley ordered Patton to launch a drive northeastward from the Ecouché-Exmes line to seize Chambois and Trun and make contact with the Canadians. The departure of the XV Corps meant the absence of a headquarters in the Argentan area to co-ordinate the divisions on the southern shoulder of the gap. Earlier that day, Patton had alerted McBride, the 80th Division commander and the senior officer in the area, to be ready to take command if necessary, in a defensive situation. But this was hardly practical for the offensive action ordered by Bradley. Patton thus directed McBride to move the 8oth forward to join the 90th Division and the 2d French Armored Division.65 He then created a provisional corps under command of his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey, for the purpose of getting the drive under way at once.66
With four officers comprising his staff, General Gaffey arrived near Alençon on 16 August, set up a command post, established communications with the three divisions comprising his command, and soon after midnight issued an attack order. He directed the 2d French Armored Division to send one combat command west of Argentan to cut the Argentan-Falaise road; the 90th Division to take Chambois and establish a bridgehead over the Dives River there; the French to pass another combat command through the 90th to capture Trun; the 80th Division to move to an assembly area south of Argentan.67
All units were to be ready to attack by 1000, 17 August. But before they jumped off, a new corps commander arrived on the scene. The attack did not get under way as scheduled.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (25) * Next Chapter (27)