Closing the Pocket
The Beginning of the End
When the Germans began their withdrawal on the night of 16 August, the bulk of the depleted forces of Army Group B were west of the Dives River and inside the Argentan-Falaise pocket. Elements of the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies and of Panzer Group Eberbach--comprising four panzer corps, two army corps, and one parachute corps--seemed about to be trapped. (Map XI)
Only two army corps, both under the Fifth Panzer Army, were outside the pocket, and they held the rest of the army group front, to the north and east of the pocket. On the north and facing generally west was the LXXXVI Corps (with three infantry divisions), deployed east of the Dives River on a 25-mile front from the coast to a point south of St. Pierre-sur-Dives; its left flank, badly shattered by Canadian Army attacks during the past few days, had no contact with the I SS Panzer Corps. East of the pocket and facing generally south was the LXXXI Corps (with two infantry divisions on the flanks and an improvised kampfgruppe in the center), stretched along a 70-mile front from Gacé to Rambouillet.
The pocket itself was shaped like an elongated letter U lying on its side, the open part on the Dives River, the curvature near Flers. The shortest possible road distance from the westernmost part of the pocket near Flers to the town of Trun, near the center of the gap on the east, was close to 40 miles. The width of the corridor averaged somewhere between 11 and 15 miles, which meant that most of the ground inside the pocket was within range of Allied artillery fire.
The Germans judged they needed three nights to get the westernmost forces across the Orne River, one more night to complete the withdrawal behind the Dives. Thus the outcome of the withdrawal operation would depend on whether the crumbling shoulders of the gap could be held and the exit kept open for four days.
The withdrawal started quietly after dark on 16 August. That night the westernmost forces moved back to the Orne River. The Allies interfered very little, and the movement was orderly. The troops then prepared to start crossing the Orne on the following night, the II Parachute and LXXXIV Corps making ready to defend the river line and cover the withdrawal of the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions of Panzer Group Eberbach.
The comparative calm accompanying the beginning of the withdrawal did not last, for events on 17 August hastened the deterioration of the German situation. On that day Montgomery telephoned Crerar's First Canadian Army to
direct increased pressure on the pocket from the north. Among other instructions Montgomery relayed to Crerar's chief of staff by telephone was a specific order: "It is absolutely essential that both armoured divisions of the 2d Canadian Corps, i.e. 4th Canadian Armoured Division and 1st Polish Armoured Division, close the gap between First Canadian Army and Third U.S. Army. 1st Polish Armoured Division must thrust on past Trun to Chambois at all costs, and as quickly as possible."1
Three things happened as a result. First, east of the Dives, part of the LXXXVI Corps left flank was forced back behind the Viette River. Second, the two armored divisions of the 2d Canadian Corps, the 4th Canadian on the right, the 1st Polish on the left, struck the weakened I SS Panzer Corps. Advancing roughly parallel to the Dives River, the armored divisions broke through the German line and reached positions little more than a mile from the Trun-Vimoutiers highway, less than two miles north of Trun. Third, another penetration southwest of Falaise presented a potential threat to the Seventh Army right rear.
To deal with these developments, elements of the 2d SS and 9th SS Panzer Divisions of the II SS Panzer Corps, moving to Vimoutiers in army group reserve, were committed against the Allied penetration at Trun, and the Seventh Army was ordered to accelerate its withdrawal across the Orne River.
The departure of the II SS Panzer Corps had already created a precarious situation on the German southern flank, where the 116th Panzer Division and elements of the 2d SS Panzer Division (the latter at le Bourg-St.-Léonard) were holding the gap open. Units of both German divisions had attacked and taken le Bourg-St.-Léonard on the previous day, only to be pushed off the ridge. But at dawn of 17 August they attacked again with infantry, armor, and artillery well massed. Again they drove 90th Division troops from the village and ridge. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day, this time the Germans retaining possession of the high ground.
The situation there might have been quite different had General Gaffey's provisional corps launched its attack to seize Chambois. But before Gaffey's operation could get under way, another officer appeared on the scene with authority to take command of the forces on the Argentan-Exmes line. He was General Gerow, commander of the V Corps.
The V Corps, under First Army command, had been pinched out near Tinchebray on 15 August and had no further immediate combat mission. When General Montgomery made known by telephone on the following day his intention to close the pocket at Trun and Chambois, the availability of the V Corps headquarters made it an obvious choice to take charge of the divisions around Argentan. General Bradley therefore ordered General Hodges to send General Gerow to the southern shoulder of the gap. General Patton, apparently not informed of this arrangement, had meanwhile sent General Gaffey to the area.
Gerow, on the evening of 16 August, had received a telephone call instructing
him to report immediately, with several key officers, to First Army headquarters. He took eight officers with him. Traveling in three jeeps, they reached their destination shortly after midnight and found the tent that housed the war room a beehive of activity.
Hodges and his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. William B. Kean, informed Gerow that he (Gerow) was to assume command at once of three divisions near Argentan and to close the Argentan-Falaise gap. "Where are those divisions?" Gerow asked. No one knew exactly. Nor could anyone tell him anything about the enemy situation there.
Shortly after midnight, in the midst of a heavy rain, Gerow and his staff departed in search of the three divisions. By daybreak on 17 August Gerow was in his new area. He set up a command post in the Hôtel de France at Alencon and located General Gaffey. Messages to the First and Third Armies soon clarified the matter of command. Bradley shifted the army boundary to place Trun and Chambois in the First Army zone of advance. The provisional corps headquarters was disbanded. Because the V Corps Artillery was moving from Tinchebray to the Argentan area on 17 August, Gerow postponed the attack toward Chambois and Trun until the following morning.
For this attack General Gerow wanted the le Bourg-St.-Léonard ridge as the line of departure. Though General McLain proposed to recapture the village and ridge as part of his effort on 18 August, Gerow insisted on having the high ground before the attack. In compliance, the 90th Division attacked after dark, re-entered the village at midnight, and secured the jump-off positions Gerow wanted.2
The German situation on the southern shoulder of the gap was further aggravated that evening of 17 August, for the 116th Panzer Division received orders to relieve the 2d SS Panzer Division troops near le Bourg-St.-Léonard so the latter could rejoin the II SS Panzer Corps at Vimoutiers. The relief was accomplished during the night by committing the last 116th Panzer Division reserve--a reconnaissance battalion about eighty men strong.
Meanwhile, Kluge had outlined and made known his future intentions in a warning order to his army commanders. The armies, after crossing the Orne River, were to fall back without delay to the Dives River-Morteaux-Trun-Gacé-Laigle line. There Panzer Group Eberbach was to be disbanded. The Seventh Army was to assume responsibility for the front between the seacoast and Laigle. The Fifth Panzer Army, with Eberbach again in command, was to take the sector from Laigle to the vicinity of the Eure River just west of Paris.3
Kluge was not to remain in command much longer. Model arrived on the
17th with instructions from Hitler to relieve Kluge and become OB WEST and Army Group B commander as soon as he was familiar with the situation. Model's arrival in the west was not altogether surprising. Hitler had not granted Kluge the free hand that Jodl had seemed to promise. Furthermore, Hitler had advised Kluge to stay personally out of the pocket. While this could have reflected perhaps nothing more than concern for Kluge's well-being, it could also be interpreted as virtual confinement to quarters, an attempt to keep the commander in chief in the west away from the temptation of making contact with the Allied command for the purpose of arranging an armistice.4
Developments on higher command levels were of little concern to the western-most German troops in the pocket, who continued their withdrawal during the night of 17 August. In the face of light Allied pressure from the west, the bulk of the units crossed the Orne River that night in good order despite road congestion, Allied artillery fire, and diminishing supplies. Gasoline shortages prompted the destruction and abandonment of some tanks and self-propelled guns. Few supplies were reaching the troops by road transport, but an air delivery on the evening of 17 August by 45 Heinkels (bombers modified to cargo carriers) brought some relief.5 Behind the Orne River, the forces prepared to move on the following night to the highground immediately east of the Falaise-Argentan highway.
Field Marshal Model
The retreat across the Orne was a creditable achievement. Many divisions were by then only weak groups unable to hold a connected front. The 85th Division, for example, had reported as its strength on 15 August a battalion and a half of infantry and two guns. The LXXIV Corps had lost contact with the adjacent I SS Panzer Corps on its right flank. Yet special bridge commanders had regulated traffic strictly. Troops moved well in widely dispersed formations. Despite steep river banks, heavy Allied artillery fire, and daylight surveillance by "countless numbers" of
Allied planes that pursued even individual vehicles, the Seventh Army maintained discipline. Two circumstances, German commanders recalled later, aided them in their river crossing: in their opinion, the British "did not follow up very vigorously from the west," and Allied planes concentrated their attacks on Trun, Chambois, and Vimoutiers rather than farther to the west over the Orne.6
Enter Model, Exit Kluge
Early on 18 August, at 0600, Field Marshal Model, the OB WEST and Army Group B commander-designate, drove to the Fifth Panzer Army command post near Lisieux to confer with Dietrich, Eberbach, and Hausser. Since Hausser was unwilling to leave his troops at that critical time, his chief of staff, Generalmajor Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, represented him at the conference. All the conferees were in general agreement on the measures that needed to be taken.
Above all, a front had to be re-established, either one west of the Seine River or one along it, according to the way the situation developed. The first attempt to stabilize the front was to be made along the Touques River. The Seventh Army, with Panzer Group Eberbach subordinated to it for the withdrawal operation, was to get out of the pocket as quickly as possible. The Seventh Army had to be behind the Dives River on 20 August and behind the Touques two days later. Panzer Group Eberbach was to be responsible for protecting the northern flank with the II SS Panzer Corps (2d SS, 9th SS, 12th SS, and 21st Panzer Divisions) and the southern flank with the XLVII Panzer Corps (2d and 116th Panzer Divisions).7
Returning to his headquarters that afternoon, Model reported his views to Jodl and requested their immediate referral to the Fuehrer. Model's appraisal of the situation and discussion with his commanders led him to make four main points. First, the outcome of the withdrawal operation and the prospect of supplying the troops depended heavily on reducing the absolute air supremacy of the Allies for the next few days Second, hard fighting on the ground would be necessary during the withdrawal, but Model hoped to accomplish the withdrawal according to the following timetable: during the night of 18 August, to the Falaise-Argentan road; during the night of 19 August, behind the Dives River; during the night of 20 August, to the Touques River-Laigle line. He hoped also to be able to release certain armored units and headquarters for assembly near the Seine. Third, upon completion of the withdrawal, the Seventh Army was to take command of the sector from the sea to Laigle, inclusive; the Fifth Panzer Army, under Eberbach, was to assume responsibility for the sector between Laigle and Paris. The First Army, moving northeastward from the Atlantic coast of France, was to take charge of the Paris sector and the upper Seine River. Fourth, the troops were spent; no combat performance of any kind could be
expected from them unless certain minimum requirements were fulfilled.
Model listed the minimum requirements. He needed without delay 20 replacement battalions--4 for panzer divisions, 6 for SS panzer divisions, and 10 for infantry divisions--plus 5 army engineer battalions. As an example of how depleted his units were, he planned to form four kampfgruppen from remnants of ten divisions--one kampfgruppe consisting of what remained of the 84th, 85th, 89th, and 271st Divisions and comprising 1,200 men and 8 artillery batteries; another kampfgruppe consisting of the 276th, 277th, 326th, and 363d Divisions and totaling 1,300 men and 8 batteries; a third of the 3d Parachute Division, 1,500 men and 8 batteries; and a fourth of the 353d Division, 2,000 men and 6 batteries.
He also needed immediate mat&ecute;riel replacements: at least 270 tanks or assault guns to provide each armored division with about 30; 9 artillery battalions of 108-mm. howitzers to replace guns lost by the panzer divisions; and as many 180-mm. howitzers as possible. He required a 9,000-ton capacity transportation facility to expedite the delivery of essential supplies and the movement of reserve units to the front. And, finally, he requested that 6 panzer brigades in the process of activation in Germany be dispatched to the Western Front.8
Meanwhile, the situation on the Army Group B front had again deteriorated on 18 August. The army group reported the left flank of the LXXXVI Corps pushed behind the Vie River, still out of contact with the I SS Panzer Corps. Deep penetrations had occurred east and west of the Dives. East of the river the Canadians were in possession of Trun and had advanced to the vicinity of St. Lambert, while a British thrust along the Falaise-Argentan highway reached a point about halfway between the two towns. The pressure from the south was generally contained, but along the eastern edge of the woodland east of Argentan American forces had unhinged the southern shoulder and threatened Chambois. By the end of the day, the gap on the eastern end of the pocket appeared closed, though presumably as yet only with weak forces.9
The most significant development had occurred on the north flank in the zone of the 2d Canadian Corps. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division took Trun, and reconnaissance elements advanced to the edge of St. Lambert. Beside it, the Polish division secured the area around Hordouseaux and Hills 258 and 137, while a reinforced reconnaissance troop probed to within half a mile north of Chambois. The result denied the Germans one of their two main escape routes.10
On the southern shoulder of the gap, General Gerow's V Corps had launched its attack on 18 August. Gerow had instructed the 2d French Armored Division on the left to hold firmly to the Ecouche--Argentan line, in order to
prevent the Germans from breaking out of the impending trap, and assist the corps attack by fire. In the center, between Argentan and le Bourg-St.-Léonard, the 8oth Division was to commit the 318th Infantry in a thrust designed to bypass Argentan on the east, cut the Argentan--Trun road, and enter Argentan from the northeast.11 On the right, from a line between le Bourg-St.-Léonard and Exmes, the 90th Division was to drive north to capture high ground near Chambois. Fifteen artillery battalions were to lend support.12
The 318th Infantry, 80th Division, made no progress against strong German resistance. Occupying rising ground and possessing superior observation, the Germans knocked out four Sherman tanks with their first few antitank shells. Their artillery and machine gun fire inflicted severe casualties on the infantry. General McBride called off the attack and requested the artillery fire of seven supporting battalions in an attempt to reduce the German defenses before trying to advance again.13
The 90th Division had more, but not complete, success. Moving cross-country, American infantrymen outflanked resistance astride the le Bourg-St.-Léonard-Chambois road, then cut the road about half way to Chambois.14 Morning mist rising from patches of damp and densely thicketed forests hampered the troops at first. Later, thick smoke from smoldering timber set afire by white phosphorus shells obscured their vision. This, plus German fire (particularly of the 8th Werfer (Rocket) Brigade) and defensive action by the 116th Panzer Division, prevented the 90th from attaining its objective.
The gap on the eastern end of the pocket remained open, and through it that night German headquarters and units escaped. The 116th Panzer Division, for example, sent trains and artillery through the Trun--Chambois gap. The LVIII Panzer Corps headquarters, having fulfilled its mission of regulating traffic over the Orne bridges, moved across the Dives to safety.
Yet the Germans had ample cause for concern. The pocket had been further compressed. "Practically speaking," according to German commanders, "the pocket was closed." With the exception of a narrow belt of woodland running along the watershed between the Orne and Dives River valleys, the terrain offered little cover. The roads were like chalk marks on a billiard table, in plain view of Allied aircraft and artillery observers. During the night of 18 August intense artillery fire suddenly descended on the pocket from all sides in unprecedented volume, and it continued throughout the following day.15
Outside the Army Group B perspective,
events in the west were also having their effect on higher levels, and on 18 August Hitler issued an order to amplify his instructions of the 16th, instructions that applied to the situation in southern France. On 16 August, a day after the Allied invasion of southern France, Hitler had ordered all noncombat troops of Army Group G west of the line Orléans-Clermont-Ferrand-Montpellier to begin moving northeastward to the Seine-Yonne River line. This order affected neither the combat troops of the Nineteenth Army opposing the Allied Mediterranean landings nor the fortress troops on the Atlantic coast. On 18 August, because developments in the Army Group B sector foreshadowed the possibility that the Nineteenth Army might be cut off in the near future, Hitler ordered Army Group G to disengage its forces in southern France--with the exception of troops at Toulon and Marseille. Army Group G was to move to gain contact with the southern flank of Army Group B and begin at once to organize a rallying position along a line from Sens through Dijon to the Swiss border. Firm rear-guard action on predetermined lines of resistance was to insure the orderly withdrawal of all troops from southeastern France. The 11th Panzer Division was to be left in the Rhone River valley as protection against Allied airborne landings and later was to form the rear guard of the Nineteenth Army. The progress of pursuing Allied forces was to be impeded to the utmost by demolition and destruction--"not one locomotive, bridge, power station, or repair shop shall fall into enemy hands undestroyed." Fortress areas on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France were to be defended to the last man, Marseille and Toulon by a division each.16
With Army Groups B and G withdrawing from northwest and southern France by 18 August, Model at midnight, after a day of inspection and conference in the west, assumed command of OB WEST and Army Group B.17 His predecessor, Kluge, departed for Germany by automobile.
Shortly before Model's arrival in the west, Kluge had told a colleague, "You may rest assured that I shall talk with him [Hitler] again tonight without mincing any words. Something has to happen. I owe this to the troops and to the German people. One way or another."18 Relieved of command before he could do so, Kluge nevertheless fulfilled his promise by writing a frank letter to Hitler before his departure. On the road to Metz he then committed suicide, taking potassium cyanide. Hitler at first repressed news of Kluge's death, but soon after he received Kluge's letter he informed important party officials and military authorities of Kluge's suicide.19 Hitler also advised them that Kluge had admitted his guilt for the defeat in the west. Kluge was buried quietly at home without the public acclamation later accorded Rommel, who, unlike Kluge, was to be forced to take his own life.
Kluge's letter to Hitler contained neither bitterness nor reproach:
When you receive these lines, I shall be no more. I cannot bear the accusation that I sealed the fate of the West by taking wrong measures. . . . I have never feared death. Life for me, who am already included on the list of war criminals to be surrendered, has no more meaning.
I have been relieved of command. . . . The evident reason is the failure of the armored units in their push to Avranches and the consequent impossibility of closing the gap to the sea. As responsible commander, my "guilt" is thereby affirmed. Allow me, my Fuehrer, to state my position in all deference.
Because of previous combat, Kluge declared, the armored units that had launched the attack toward Avranches had been far too weak to assure success, and even with increased striking power, they would never have regained the sea. Assuming, nevertheless, that Avranches had through some miracle been recaptured, the danger to the army group would have only been postponed, not eliminated. The order to drive to the north from Avranches in an attempt to change the strategic situation in the west had been "completely out of the question. . . . Your order, therefore, presupposed a state of affairs that did not exist." The grand and daring operational concept enunciated by Hitler, unfortunately, had been impracticable in execution.
Conceding that it probably would have been better to delay the attack for one day, Kluge contended that such a postponement would not have basically changed the course of events. The units in the west had been forced to become self-sufficient in men and mat&ecute;riel because the crisis on the Eastern Front had not permitted adequate replacement. Not the failure of the Avranches counterattack but the rapid decline in the number of available tanks and antitank weapons, the insufficient supplies and equipment, and personnel attrition had produced the situation that had culminated in the Argentan-Falaise pocket.
Both Rommel and I, and probably all the leaders here in the West, who have experienced the struggle with the English and Americans and [witnessed] their wealth in mat&ecute;riel, foresaw the development that has now appeared. . . . Our views were not dictated by pessimism but by sober recognition of the facts.
Hoping that Model would master the situation, Kluge concluded:
Should the new weapons in which you place so much hope, especially those of the air force, not bring success--then, my Fuehrer, make up your mind to end the war. The German people have suffered so unspeakably that it is time to bring the horror to a close.
I have steadfastly stood in awe of your greatness, your bearing in this gigantic struggle, and your iron will. . . . If Fate is stronger than your will and your genius, that is Destiny. You have made an honorable and tremendous fight. History will testify this for you. Show now that greatness that will be necessary if it comes to the point of ending a struggle which has become hopeless.
I depart from you, my Fuehrer, having stood closer to you in spirit than you perhaps dreamed, in the consciousness of having done my duty to the utmost.20
Neither the letter nor Kluge's suicide affected the course of events. Nor did they bring comfort to Hitler, whose forces in the west were undergoing the destruction incident to defeat.
The Pocket Closed
During the night of 18 August and throughout the next day the Seventh Army, with Panzer Group Eberbach attached, fell back behind the railroad east of the Falaise-Argentan highway. The pocket was then approximately six miles deep and seven miles wide. Inside were the headquarters of the Seventh Army, Panzer Group Eberbach, and the LXXIV and LXXXIV Corps, the II Parachute and XLVII Panzer Corps; the remnants of six infantry divisions still operating as entities: the 84th, 276th, 277th, 326th, 353d, and 363d; one parachute division, the 3d; three panzer divisions, the 12th SS, 2d, and 116th; perhaps two more panzer divisions, the 1st SS and 10th SS; a number of splinter groups of divisions that had ceased to exist as tactical units and that had been absorbed by other divisions or amalgamated into kampfgruppen; and a mass of stragglers, service elements, and trains--all compressed within an area that lay entirely under the watchful eye and effective fire of Allied artillery and air.21
Getting across the Dives River was the next step in the withdrawal operation, but with the exit from the pocket in imminent danger of being closed by Allied pincers at Trun and Chambois, Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, came to the conclusion that he would have to fight his way across the Dives and out of the pocket that night--not an easy matter.22 Daylight movements were extremely costly. All the roads leading to the Dives were clogged with the wreckage of vehicles and armament of every kind. Though distances separating headquarters were short, chaotic conditions made communications precarious. For example, the LXXIV Corps, which was holding the northwestern sector of the pocket, was out of touch with army headquarters. At 1130 on 19 August the corps dispatched a radio message reporting its dispositions, requesting urgently information on the general situation and its own combat mission, and stating that it was out of contact with two of its divisions (the 84th and 363d, still west of the railroad early that morning, about six miles from the corps command post). This message reached the army headquarters by some roundabout way two hours later, even though the straight-line distance between the corps and army command posts was little
more than three miles.23 Handicapped by communications difficulties, Hausser tried to give his instructions on the forthcoming operation personally to his corps commanders. On that day he was able to visit three of his four corps headquarters.
The Dives River itself was not considered a serious obstacle, but the main Allied opposition was expected to be met along the east bank. According to fragmentary intelligence available inside the pocket, a small opening on the eastern edge of the pocket was supposed to exist along the river south of Trun; farther south toward Chambois the situation was not at all clear.
Hausser intended to break out of the encirclement by means of a two-corps attack. The II Parachute Corps was to thrust across the Dives River south of Trun, the XLVII Panzer Corps to cross farther south near Chambois. The II SS Panzer Corps was to render assistance from outside the pocket by launching a supporting attack with two divisions from Vimoutiers toward the Trun-Chambois area, thereby opening a path for the Seventh Army escape. The II SS Panzer Corps attack had originally been planned for 19 August, but Allied fighter-bombers prevented the air delivery of necessary supplies, and the attack was postponed until the morning of 20 August.24 Thus Hausser's forces would be on their own in the initial stage of the breakout scheduled for the night of 19 August.
The preparations for the effort took all day. About 0700 that morning Hausser had arrived at the II Parachute Corps headquarters. Meindl, the corps commander, interpreted such an early visit as a bad omen, and he greeted Hausser with: "I presume the lid is on [the kettle--the German word for pocket in the military sense] and we shall probably have to try to break out." Hausser replied that that indeed was the matter he had come to discuss.
After Hausser indicated his ideas, Meindl formulated his II Parachute Corps plan. With his two divisions, the 3d Parachute and 353d, he proposed to break through the Allied lines between Trun and Chambois, secure the Mt. Ormel hill mass three to four miles the other side of the Dives, turn about on that dominating ground, and, facing west, keep the breach open for troops following. From a line of departure near la Londe and starting at 2230, the four regiments of the 3d Parachute Division were to advance cross-country on compass azimuths toward Coudehard and the Mt. Ormel hill mass, seven miles away. The paratroopers were to move on two axes, with two regiments on the left, one on the right, and the fourth covering the rear. They were to cross the Dives south of Magny, then move to seize the northern part of the Ormel ridge. Exploiting the cover of darkness to the utmost, the paratroopers were to advance "Indian fashion," as noiselessly as possible. No fire was to be opened before dawn. Because of gasoline shortages, artillerymen were to expend their remaining ammunition during the day, then destroy their pieces. A few antitank and 88-mm. antiaircraft guns, provided with gasoline, were to accompany the troops. Similarly, the 353d Division
on the right was to break out across the Dives near St. Lambert and Chambois, then seize the southern portion of Mt. Ormel.
Hausser approved Meindl's plan. He also issued his order for the XLVII Panzer Corps attack. To give the II Parachute Corps' penetration by stealth a better chance of success, Hausser instructed the XLVII Panzer Corps to start its attack no earlier than midnight--this would serve to keep from arousing prematurely Allied vigilance and countermeasures. The XLVII Panzer Corps was to assemble the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions (perhaps also remnants of the 10th SS Panzer Division) in the Fôret de Gouffern, and break out in the St. Lambert-Chambois area. The 116th Panzer Division, holding the line along the Argentan--Chambois road, was to cover the rear and, on order, follow the other divisions out.25
The LXXIV Corps, holding the northwestern part of the pocket perimeter with five divisions (the 277th, 276th, 326th, 84th, and 363d--the latter two still west of the railroad), had the mission of protecting the rear of the breakout operation in its sector. The corps was then to move through the breach and out.
The LXXXIV Corps, having passed its last division, the 353d, to the control of the II Parachute Corps on the previous
day, had neither units nor a mission on the morning of 19 August. Shortly before noon Elfeldt, the corps commander, received the order to break through the Allied lines near Trun with the few remaining elements of the 12th SS Panzer and 277th Divisions, which were to be pulled out of the front. Convinced that unfavorable terrain and strong concentrations of Allied forces around Trun precluded success, Elfeldt, with Meindl's support, obtained a change in mission. With remnants of only the 12th SS Panzer Division under his command, he was to protect the north flank of Meindl's II Parachute Corps, then move behind the paratroopers across the Dives River. The LXXIV Corps was to follow.
Because of communications difficulties, it took the better part of the day, and in some instances most of the night, for all orders to reach subordinate units.
As darkness fell on 19 August, the pocket contracted still more. The units along the railroad pulled back to the forests of Feuillet and Gouffern. The 84th and 363d Divisions, which had held the most western positions during the day, moved through the new rear-guard outposts and into the Bois de Feuillet, there to assemble and make ready to follow the forces charged with making the breakout.
Meanwhile, British troops crossed the Orne River and moved eastward to within a few miles of the Falaise--Argentan highway.
While the Germans inside the pocket readied themselves for what was to be the last act of the Argentan-Falaise drama, the deterioration of the situation on the Fifth Panzer Army front approached a climax on 19 August. The LXXXVI Corps line was breached in two places, and Livarot on the extreme left flank was lost. Farther south, that part of the greatly weakened I 55 Panzer Corps still east of the Dives River was unable to check the advance of the two armored divisions of the 2d Canadian Corps.
These divisions, one Canadian, the other Polish, continued to raise havoc with the Germans. Some elements of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division at Trun crossed to the west bank of the Dives River. In the northeastern part of St. Lambert, a small force of about 175 men, 15 tanks, and 4 self-propelled antitank guns held doggedly against repeated attacks by German units that tried desperately to keep the escape route through St. Lambert open. Reconnaissance elements advanced to the vicinity of Moissy, and an armored brigade was present in the Hordouseaux--Ecorches area.
To strengthen the northern jaw of the closing pincers, the 3d Canadian Infantry Division deployed along the eastern bank of the Dives River between Beauvais and Trun, while an infantry brigade of the 4th Armoured Division closed to the Trun-Vimoutiers highway between Trun and Hordouseaux.
Meanwhile, the 1st Polish Armored Division was advancing on two axes over difficult tank terrain infested with enemy troops. The bulk of the division, on the left, moved from the area around Hill 258 toward Mt. Ormel. This prominent ridge about two miles long straddles the Chambois-Vimoutiers highway and dominates the countryside for miles. By noon of 19 August the forward units were approaching the northern extremity of the ridge, Hill 262. After a short fight they occupied it.
Moving southward along the ridge, Polish tanks surprised a long column of German vehicles and armor moving bumper to bumper on the Chambois-Vimoutiers highway. The Poles opened fire and destroyed the column. Dense smoke from the burning vehicles spread over a large area in the dusk and reduced visibility to such an extent that further advance that day to the next objective--another Hill 262 on the southern end of the ridge--was impossible. By midnight two Polish armored regiments and three battalions of motorized infantry were concentrated on the northern end of the Mt. Ormel ridge and were making ready to resume the advance the next morning. Thus, when Meindl's breakout attack got under way, an important part of his objective was already in Polish hands.
On the Polish right, two armored regiments reinforced with a troop of antitank guns had started about 1100 from the vicinity of Ecorches toward Chambois. After reaching a hill less than a mile north of Chambois, and after being joined in the afternoon by the division reconnaissance regiment, the group launched an attack on the town from the northeast--astride the Vimoutiers-Chambois highway. The approaches to Chambois were littered and the streets literally choked by the debris of German wreckage, which proved a greater obstruction to progress than did enemy resistance. A small detachment working its way into Chambois from the south finally reached the main intersection of the town late in the afternoon. There it met Company G of the 90th Division's 359th Infantry, which had entered the town from the southwest.
The American troops had reached Chambois on the second day of Gerow's V Corps attack on the southern shoulder of the gap between Argentan and Exmes. General Gerow had released his corps reserve, the 317th Infantry, to its parent unit, the 80th Division, and General McBride had committed it with the 318th. Though still unable to enter Argentan, 80th Division troops cut the Argentan-Trun road. On the corps right General McLain's 90th Division, reinforced by French tankers, continued to drive toward Chambois, an objective reached in late afternoon. The village was in flames, and everywhere there was an unbearable stench of death and burned flesh, an unbelievable clutter of dead Germans, dead horses, and destroyed equipment.26
While Americans and Poles cleaned out the last defenders of Chambois, commanders of the Polish group and the American 2d Battalion, 359th Infantry, met and worked out a plan for the common defense of the town. The Poles handed over to the Americans about 1,300 prisoners as well as their own wounded because they lacked facilities for them. Tired, short of ammunition and supplies, the Polish units in Chambois were cut off from their rear.
Thus the long-sought juncture of Allied forces to close the pocket occurred. The closure, however, was of the most tenuous sort. Trun and Chambois were both firmly in Allied hands, and a small Canadian force held part of
A Polish Soldier (left) and an American officer confer near Chambois.
St. Lambert, almost midway between Trun and Chambois, but the rest of the river line between Trun and Chambois was covered only by a few outposts and some roving patrols of Canadian and Polish reconnaissance units.
Two main highways run to the northeast from the river, one from Trun, the other from Chambois--both leading to Vimoutiers. The highway from Trun was definitely in Allied hands. The other, from Chambois across the Mt. Ormel ridge, was blocked by Allied troops at two places--at Chambois and at Mt. Ormel. Between the highways coming together at Vimoutiers are many smaller roads and country lanes. Several of these secondary routes converge near Coudehard, a village on the western slope of Mt. Ormel.
Not far from Coudehard, on the northern eminence of Mt. Ormel, is the fifteenth-century Château Boisjos, which had witnessed a decisive battle during the Hundred Years' War.27 It was about to witness the climactic action in the battle of Normandy.
The German Breakout
Hausser, Seventh Army commander and in charge of the encircled forces, arrived with a small staff after dark on 19 August at the II Parachute Corps command post.28 There Meindl, the corps commander, was making his final preparations for the breakout. In order to be able to handle the situation promptly as it developed, Meindl chose his place behind the forward elements of the left column of the 3d Parachute Division. Hausser also elected to break out with the paratroopers.
Unit commanders and noncommissioned officers of the division had been thoroughly briefed. The men had slept for a few hours and had eaten. No one underestimated the difficulty of the undertaking, but weariness seemed to have vanished and the troops appeared in good spirits.
The forward elements moved from the line of departure at la Londe at 2230. Forty-five minutes later Meindl's column drew fire from a tank near the Trun-Argentan highway. Two more encounters with Allied outposts occurred before the paratroopers, around 0030 on 20
August, reached the Dives River. Because the division commander, Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf, was seriously wounded in the last encounter, Meindl himself assumed command of the 3d Parachute Division.29
Bypassing Allied-held points had delayed progress and broken contact among units and along the chain of command. Thus when Meindl reached the Dives somewhere between Magny and St. Lambert, he had with him only twenty paratroopers and Hausser's small command group. As he searched for a suitable crossing site, Meindl came upon one of his regimental commanders, who told him of a ford, about a mile southeast of Magny, where the water was about five feet deep.
To move a large body of men across the river and maintain silence in close proximity to enemy forces was no easy task. The opposite bank was covered with dense underbrush, and it rose steeply toward a hill, where three enemy tanks stood silhouetted against the sky. There was no time to lose if the troops were to get out of the pocket before daylight. Having gathered a larger group about him, Meindl took the lead and set off to the southeast, crossed the river about half a mile downstream from St. Lambert, went around the hill crowned by tanks, and ran head on into machine gun fire from a concealed tank thirty yards away. Meindl and the few men around him hit the ground, while those in the immediate rear rushed to the protection of the dead angle of the hill. Aroused by the commotion, other tanks in the vicinity opened fire. Trajectories were high, and none of the paratroopers was hurt. At about the same time wild musketry fire flared up on the right rear near St. Lambert, where the 353d Division was supposed to be crossing the river.
According to Meindl, the liberal use of tracer bullets by the Allies was quite helpful in revealing gaps in their lines through which the paratroopers were able to infiltrate. On the other hand, the Very lights were a great nuisance. Drifting leisurely to the ground, they illuminated large areas, froze all movement, and delayed progress considerably.
Meindl's group, reduced to about fifteen men, worked its way out of the field of tank fire by crawling along a furrow in the ground. The men continued eastward, deflected from time to time by hostile tanks. As the sky began to pale, they were still only half way to their objective, the hill mass of Mt. Ormel near Coudehard. The fire fight at St. Lambert had subsided, but another broke out in the left rear, in the direction of Neauphe-sur-Dives, where Meindl thought his rear-guard regiment was likely to be. A drizzling rain set in. The dim diffused morning light seemed oppressive. The exertion of the past hours suddenly began to tell. The men felt very tired.
They continued nevertheless to work their way eastward, picking up stragglers
and small groups of men along the way. By the time there was enough light to distinguish the main features of the landscape, they found themselves less than a mile west of the northern hill of the Mt. Ormel ridge. This was Meindl's objective, but it was not long before he realized that it was already in Allied hands and that the encircling ring was much deeper than he had anticipated.30
The Allied troops on Mt. Ormel were that part of the 1st Polish Armored Division that had advanced to the ridge on 19 August and by nightfall had occupied a defensive perimeter on the northern extremity, Hill 262 just north of the Chambois-Vimoutiers highway.31 Two infantry battalions and a tank regiment deployed along the ridge line facing westward; the third infantry battalion and the other tank regiment guarded the approaches to the hill from the north and east. There were about 1,500 infantrymen, approximately 80 tanks.
No supplies had reached the Poles by evening of 19 August and at 0200, 20 August, it was established that Germans were astride the roads to their rear. Throughout the night they heard the rumble of traffic moving toward Vimoutiers; reconnaissance reported Germans digging in along the Chambois--Vimoutiers road. Nevertheless, apart from a few concentrations of harassing mortar fire on the southern part of the perimeter, the night passed uneventfully.
In the morning a task force moved out to secure the southern part of the Ormel ridge, a move that soon had to be canceled as heavy enemy pressure began to develop against the northern sector of the Polish perimeter.
When the morning mist lifted, almost the whole plain to the west came into Polish view. The ground was covered with German columns moving to the northeast in dispersed formations on the roads and cross-country.
While Polish guns were taking profitable targets under fire, a German attack, the first of several that day, struck the northeastern part of the perimeter at 0900. The attack was beaten off by 1030. In the meantime, German tanks had been observed around 1000 moving from the direction of Champosoult toward Hill 239, less than two miles north of the Polish perimeter. A detachment dispatched to deny the Germans possession of the hill, from which they could enfilade the Polish position, was unable to accomplish its mission. About an hour later gun fire from the direction of Hill 239 struck the Poles on Hill 262. Very quickly the Poles lost five tanks and a number of killed and wounded.
The German units involved in both of these actions belonged to the 2d SS Panzer Division of the II SS Panzer Corps. T he mission of the corps, which had earlier assembled in the Vimoutiers area, was to assist the Seventh Army breakout by an attack with two divisions in a southeasterly direction toward the Trun-Chambois line. The 9th SS Panzer Division on the right advanced toward Trun, the 2d SS on the left toward Chambois. Both divisions had been "utterly torn asunder" by previous night marches and air attacks. Together they had perhaps twenty tanks; their infantry
consisted of about the equivalent of three battalions. They had few communications facilities. Roads were "so packed with burned out vehicles" that tanks had "to clear an alley before passing." Yet Allied aircraft were not overhead, for the weather was bad, just as the meteorologists had predicted for this day, the date that Eberbach so long ago had thought he could attack again toward Avranches. The 9th SS Panzer Division bogged down near Champosoult and played a passive role for the rest of the day, but the 2d SS actively engaged the Poles on Mt. Ormel and thereby made a significant contribution to the Seventh Army breakout.32
When the first German attack struck the Polish perimeter, Meindl was northwest of Coudehard, not far from the place he had reached at dawn. He was immobilized there for a considerable time, first by an encounter with Polish tanks, later by a heavy concentration of Allied fire on the entire Coudehard area. Around 0900, Meindl saw behind him a paratroop unit charging headlong into Polish fire from Hill 262. He stopped the attack, admonished the captain in command for his reckless behavior, oriented him on the situation around Hill 262, and pointed out the possibility of outflanking the hill from the north. Learning from the captain the whereabouts of Hausser, Meindl turned over to the captain's command the men who had joined him during the night, a considerable number by then, and set out to find Hausser.
Retracing his steps to the west, then turning south, then east, chased by artillery fire part of the way, Meindl found the army commander southwest of Coudehard about noontime. In an old bomb crater--the area was under artillery fire--they discussed the situation. Meindl reported his intention of attacking Hill 262 from the north and learned from Hausser that a panzer division had reached the Mt. Ormel area and was preparing to attack the ridge. Hausser intended to join this division for the final breakout. He told Meindl to make every effort to open the way for the remaining divisions. Despite the extreme exhaustion of his men, Meindl expressed confidence that they would make it, though probably not before evening. By this time a large number of troops and two tanks had joined his attack force.
While Meindl was conferring with Hausser, an impressive volume of German artillery and mortar fire, especially the latter, began to fall on the Polish positions on Mt. Ormel. About two hours later the Germans launched a series of determined, but apparently uncoordinated, attacks against the perimeter. Lasting through the afternoon, the attacks struck for the most part against the northern and southern sectors of the Polish positions. The climax of the battle came about 1700, when German infantry supported by tanks broke into the northeastern part of the perimeter. The attack was finally beaten off by the combined efforts of infantrymen, tankers, and men of a mortar platoon acting as riflemen after they had expended their mortar ammunition. Another deep penetration occurred at the junction of two Polish infantry battalions
near the Chambois--Vimoutiers highway. Not until about 1900 was this last German thrust contained and the penetration sealed off.
These attacks, by elements of the 2d SS Panzer Division, Meindl's paratroopers, and unidentifiable units, had the apparent effect by late afternoon of 20 August of compressing the Polish perimeter to the extent where the Poles were no longer able to control some of the vital German escape roads in the vicinity of Hill 262.33
With the road to Champosoult opened, Meindl's next concern was to get the seriously wounded to safety. He organized a column of vehicles loaded with wounded and marked with Red Cross flags. To make the appearance of this column conspicuous and to convey his intention to the Allies, Meindl stopped all traffic on the road for fifteen minutes. Then the vehicles carrying the wounded moved out in close formation. The Allies understood the message. As the Red Cross convoy emerged on the road all artillery fire ceased. "Not a shot was fired on the column," Meindl wrote later, "and I can openly acknowledge the feeling of gratitude to the chivalrous enemy. . . ." Half an hour later, after the Red Cross flags had disappeared into the distance, traffic resumed and Allied artillery fire opened up once more.
News of the breakthrough at Coudehard spread to the rear like wildfire and a multitude of stragglers poured through the opening until late into the night. Meindl established a command post near a crossroad on the Coudehard-Champosoult road, not far from the nose of Hill 262. Shortly after midnight part of the rear-guard regiment of the 3d Parachute Division arrived, and Meindl passed to the regimental commander the other elements of the division nearby. Meanwhile, a heavy rain had begun to fall. Traffic on the road gradually thinned out, then ceased completely. Finally, an armored reconnaissance battalion, the rear guard of a panzer division, came by and reported nothing was following behind it.
Estimating that he could not keep the breach open during the coming day, Meindl decided to start before dawn of 21 August. Anxious to insure movement at the proper time, he kept vigil while his exhausted men slept despite the heavy rainfall--except a few outposts that Meindl thought "could also have been asleep."
After the fury of the German attacks had subsided, the Poles remained in firm control of Hill 262, but their situation was serious. Shortages of ammunition and gasoline were becoming acute. About 300 wounded were lying in the open under enemy fire without adequate medical care. The presence of some 800 prisoners inside the small perimeter was a problem. Hope that 4th Canadian Armoured Division elements would bring badly needed supplies and open the road to the rear so that the wounded and prisoners could be evacuated was not fulfilled. The Canadians themselves were busily engaged a few miles to the northwest. No help reached the Poles
that day, and when night came their perimeter formed a small island in a broad stream of escaping Germans.
Meindl's leadership was without doubt one of the significant actions of the German breakout, perhaps the focal incident. Other commanders and other units had also contributed to the final, though only partially successful, outcome of the operation. Their activities during the twenty-four hours following the arrival of darkness on 19 August were diverse, illustrating clearly the nature and the complexity of the event.
The 353d Division, under Generalleutnant Paul Mahlmann, had also executed a breakout attack as part of the II Parachute Corps effort. Assembled on the evening of 19 August in woods near Vorche, six miles west of the Dives, the division started its movement at nightfall. Meindl had instructed Mahlmann to make his main effort at St. Lambert on the left, while sending his vehicles through Chambois. A little later Mahlmann received information that both localities were in Allied hands. He therefore decided to make his main thrust across the Dives in the Chambois area to try to save his vehicles.
At Tournai-sur-Dives, about halfway to the river, the division came to a halt. The village was burning and its streets were blocked by wrecked vehicles, dead horses, and abandoned tanks. The terrain around Tournai did not permit bypassing the village, so a passage had to be cleared. This took three hours. Though the area lay under harassing artillery fire, the division suffered no losses from it.
Shortly before dawn Mahlmann, in the column on the right, was approaching Chambois. He made contact with a group of tanks, which, according to the officer in charge, had the mission of cleaning the enemy out of the Chambois area. But because this appeared impossible, the tank commander decided to cross the Dives River at Moissy. The tanks moved out around daybreak. Mahlmann and his column, along with stragglers from other units who had joined, followed them closely across the river. The tanks continued through Moissy and disappeared into the distance. Shortly afterward Allied tanks appeared in the vicinity and closed the gap. Their appearance was followed by an intense concentration of Allied artillery fire on the village jammed with German troops. Losses were high, and all semblance of organization vanished.
Mahlmann finally succeeded in bringing some order out of chaos. He organized a breakout attempt with the help of two stray tanks found in the village. The tanks had barely left the village when Allied fire knocked them out. Again, disorganization and apathy set in--spent, dispirited, resigned to their fate, men huddled under whatever cover they could find.
Taking a dozen stouthearted fellows, Mahlmann reconnoitred a concealed road leading to the east, receiving a light head wound in the process. The road enabled Mahlmann to get at least part of the men in Moissy out. Most of the wounded had to be left. All guns and vehicles, except two or three amphibious jeeps, along with part of the division staff, were lost.
Mahlmann headed for the southern eminence of Mt. Ormel, and that afternoon
he and those who accompanied him began to climb the western slope of the hill. The whole area seemed covered with an amorphous mass of German soldiers hastening toward the ridge. An American observation plane circled leisurely, seeming to hang in the sky, as it directed artillery fire on the retreating troops.
As he approached his objective, Mahlmann faced a situation quite different from that which had confronted the 3d Parachute Division on his left. German pressure on the northern part of Ormel had forced the Poles to call off their advance to Hill 262 (south) in the morning. Thus Mahlmann was able to occupy his objective without opposition.
There Mahlmann organized three combat groups and deployed them along the ridge line facing west, one composed of SS men on the right, another of men of his own division on the left, and the third of paratroopers in reserve. His efforts to establish contact with units on the flanks and with higher headquarters were unsuccessful.
Late in the afternoon, when the SS group reported hostile reconnaissance units on the north flank, Mahlmann decided to fall back three miles to the east to a new line behind the Vie River. He accomplished his withdrawal without undue interference, and that evening infantrymen and paratroopers occupied the new position. The SS group, disobeying orders, continued to move eastward and vanished.
Soon afterward Mahlmann made personal contact with Seventh Army headquarters and received instructions to remain on the Vie until the next day, when his division would be pulled back and sent to the rear for rehabilitation.34
Like Meindl's paratroop corps for the north flank, the XLVII Panzer Corps had the task of opening the way for the surrounded forces on the southern flank.35 Funck's XLVII Panzer Corps had the 1st SS and 2d Panzer Divisions (probably the 10th SS Panzer Division also) assembled in the Fôret de Gouffern, the 116th Panzer Division holding a long thin line practically from Argentan to the Dives. The corps was to cross the river in the St. Lambert--Chambois area, with the 116th covering the rear.
The corps breakout order did not reach the 2d Panzer Division commander, Generalleutnant Freiherr Heinrich von Luettwitz, until around 1900, 19 August. Because reconnaissance revealed the roads so clogged with wreckage as to make night movement impossible, Luettwitz decided to hold off his attack until 0400, 20 August. He placed all of his tanks (about fifteen) and his armored vehicles at the head of his column, left an infantry regiment reinforced with several antitank guns as a rear guard, and ordered what remained of his artillery to support his advance.
A dense fog hung over the area that morning, and the 2d Panzer Division was not the only unit moving toward St. Lambert. Columns composed of all sorts of components streamed through the fog, sometimes eight abreast. When the fog lifted, a "hurricane" of Allied artillery fire descended. Vehicles dashed toward the Dives, Luettwitz later remembered,
"turned around, circled, got entangled, stopped, and were destroyed. Tall pillars of flame from burning gasoline tanks leaped into the sky, ammunition exploded, and wild horses, some severely wounded, raced" in aimless terror. Effective control was impossible.
Only the armored elements and part of an armored infantry regiment reached St. Lambert in an orderly manner about 1000. Luettwitz led an attack across the river into the village. Incredibly, the bridge across the Dives still stood despite the bombs and shells that had fallen nearby. "The crossing of the Dives bridge," Luettwitz recalled later, "was particularly horrible, the bodies of killed men, dead horses, vehicles, and other equipment having been hurled from the bridge into the river to form there a gruesome tangled mass."
On the east bank of the river, Luettwitz organized and dispatched combat troops for passage through the hail of Allied fire. Wounded that afternoon, he finally departed around 2100, reaching Orville and safety early on 21 August.36
Meanwhile the XLVII Panzer Corps headquarters and the 1st SS Panzer Division had probably fought across the Dives River in the St. Lambert-Chambois area early on the morning of 20 August. More than likely they completed their breakout that afternoon.37
Covering the XLVII Panzer Corps rear, the 116th Panzer Division had deployed in two groups on the evening of 19 August. One was in the Argentan area, the other north of the Fôret de Gouffern near Bon-Ménil. About 0900, 20 August, the division lost radio communication with the corps headquarters. In the afternoon, when heavy Allied pressure developed against the Argentan group, it pulled back to positions north of the forest.
The pressure was exerted by the 80th Division, which finally took Argentan that day.38 On the same day British troops approaching from the west moved to the Falaise-Argentan road.
Both groups of the 116th Panzer Division remained in place during the rest of the day. When the division commander, Col. Gerhard Mueller, learned around 1800 that the corps headquarters was east of the Dives, he prepared to break out during the night at St. Lambert.
Mueller sent a reconnaissance party to St. Lambert after nightfall. Allied artillery fire on the village indicated it was not yet in Allied hands. After strenuous efforts, the troops cleared a narrow passage through the wreckage in the streets. During a two-hour period around midnight, 20 August, the division staff, remnants of the infantry regiment, 5 artillery pieces, and about 50 combat vehicles passed through the village without significant losses. They continued to Coudehard, then to Orville and safety. The Argentan group-about 8 tanks, 10 20-mm. antiaircraft guns, and about 80 Engineer troops--lost its way in the darkness, tried to break out near Trun, and was taken prisoner.39
Hausser's breakout attack by the II
Parachute and XLVII Panzer Corps had thus succeeded in large measure. But success did not make it possible for the rest of the troops simply to follow out of the pocket. They too had to fight to get across the Dives River.
The missions of the two remaining corps, the LXXXIV and the LXXIV, were to cover, respectively, the northern flank and the rear of the breakout operation. Both were then to move across the Dives in the wake of the paratroopers and tankers.
The LXXXIV Corps had only remnants of the 12th SS Panzer Division under its command. Because of the chaotic conditions on the roads and the complete disruption of communications, the division organized its units into two groups for better control. The motorized elements, including what remained of the artillery and the division radio section, were to follow the 1st SS Panzer Division across the river at Chambois. The rest of the division, mostly infantry, subdivided into task forces for independent action if necessary, was to follow the 3d Parachute Division through St. Lambert. Four or five tanks or tank destroyers were to cover the rear. General Elfeldt, the corps commander, and Lt. Col. Hubert Meyer, the division commander, accompanied the infantry group.
Around midnight of 19 August, Meyer sent a liaison patrol to the 3d Parachute Division to obtain word on the outcome of the breakout. The patrol did not return. As all remained quiet along the Dives River, Meyer assumed that the paratroopers' penetration by stealth had succeeded. Therefore, in the very early hours of 20 August, he ordered the infantry group to move out.
At daybreak the group came into contact with several tanks of the 1st SS Panzer Division preparing to attack through Chambois. The armored infantrymen joined the tanks, but intense Allied artillery, tank, and antitank fire from high ground south of Chambois soon stalled the attack. Because the German armor was drawing the Allied fire, the infantry detached itself and in small groups began to cross the river between Chambois and St. Lambert. Some troops of other units were advancing toward the Allied positions and waving white handkerchiefs and flags.40
The two commanders became separated. Elfeldt and his staff took part in an action near St. Lambert with a hastily assembled group of soldiers. Meeting strong opposition and "having literally spent his last cartridge," Elfeldt, the LXXXIV Corps commander, surrendered. Meyer, having crossed the Dives, took command of a group of soldiers and led them on foot across the plain toward the southern spur of Mt. Ormel. Using whatever natural concealment was available, they reached safety. Some of the motorized elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division also escaped that afternoon. Most of the artillery was lost.
The LXXIV Corps, designated the covering force in the rear of the breakout attack, had, on 19 August, three of its five infantry divisions (276th, 277th, and 326th) along the northwestern perimeter of the pocket, the other two (84th and 363d) assembled in the Bois de
Feuillet. The two latter divisions were ready to cross the Dives River in the wake of the LXXXIV Corps, the other three were to follow on order.
Communications were practically nonexistent. Orders from corps to division could be transmitted only by staff officers. There was no liaison with the II Parachute Corps--General der Infanterie Erich Straube, the LXXIV Corps commander, had no knowledge of the time set for the breakout attack. All efforts to establish contact with the Seventh Army failed.41
The state of affairs in the LXXIV Corps sector was therefore somewhat chaotic. The 277th Division on the corps right was in contact with two corps headquarters, its own and the LXXXIV, and for a while received contradictory orders from both. The two divisions farther to the south, the 276th and 326th, were out of touch with corps headquarters throughout the day, and both division commanders pondered the problem of whether they should continue to wait for orders or act on their own initiative.
In the early hours of 20 August, after the 12th SS Panzer Division pulled out of the line on the 277th Division right, the 277th fell back to a position along a curved line facing west and northwest-- about one and a half miles from Villedieu-les-Bailleul. There the division remained for the rest of the day. Around 2300, still without orders from the corps, his men exhausted, and short ammunition even for the infantry weapons, the division commander, Colonel Wilhelm Viebig, decided to break out that night. The remnants of the division, about 900 men, moved from their positions to a previously reconnoitred crossing site on the Dives northwest of St. Lambert. The noise of the crossing brought Allied artillery and machine gun fire, and in the ensuing confusion Viebig lost control. Nevertheless, small groups screened by heavy rain continued to move, and what remained of the division reached the II SS Panzer Corps lines on the morning of 21 August. A few days later, when Viebig assembled his command--combat units, administrative elements, stragglers, hospital returnees-he had about 2,500 men, of whom approximately 1,000 were combat troops.42
Generalleutnant Curt Badinski's 276th Division, on the 277th left, received its first order from corps about 0300, 20 August: the division was to fall back, apparently in conjunction with the 277th withdrawal, to a line just west of Vorche and on the Trun-Occagnes road. Not long after carrying out this move, Badinski received his second and last order from the corps. He was to break out of the pocket south of Trun, starting from his positions at 0830, 20 August.
Soon after his units got under way, it appeared to Badinski that an attempt to break out in broad daylight was bound to fail. Every movement was detected by Allied observation planes and immediately subjected to a heavy concentration of artillery fire. Badinski therefore halted the movement, hoping to renew the attempt after darkness, but before the day was over his command post on the edge of the Fôret de Gouffern was surrounded by Allied tanks, and Badinski and his small staff were taken prisoner. Most of the division
remnants shared their fate. Only a few men escaped during the stormy night.43 The 326th Division received its order to break out during the night of 19 August. The division was to assemble at nightfall, 20 August, near St. Lambert, from there to make its way to Coudehard. Learning that an improvised group of infantry and tanks of the 1st and 10th SS Panzer Divisions had crossed successfully at St. Lambert during the afternoon of 20 August, the 326th Division arranged with elements of the 116th Panzer Division to make a concerted break that night. The plan worked well. The armor crossed the St. Lambert bridge, miraculously still intact despite the continuous and heavy shelling, and the infantry went over an emergency footbridge nearby. From the river the men marched in a seemingly endless single file column on azimuth toward Coudehard. Despite some inevitable confusion and an occasional burst of fire from Allied outposts, the column reached a road near Coudehard, where the tanks were waiting. Closing behind the tanks, the infantry resumed its advance and, bypassing Coudehard, reached the positions of the 2d SS Panzer Division at dawn.44
The other two divisions under LXXIV Corps, the 84th and 363d, had been assembled in the Bois de Feuillet ready to follow the LXXXIV Corps across the Dives. The 84th Division commander, Generalleutnant Irwin Menny, was captured; elements of at least one regiment apparently escaped through St. Lambert on 20 August.45
The 363d Division had had its mission changed early on 20 August by what turned out to be its last order from LXXIV Corps. Instead of following the LXXXIV Corps across the Dives, the 363d was to occupy and hold a line from Bailleul to Bon-Ménil, north of the Fôret de Gouffern. Generalleutnant Augustus Dettling, the commander, carried out the order but, subjected to heavy Allied pressure during the day, was forced to give up some ground With no instructions from corps, Dettling decided to break out at nightfall. Organized into three kampfgruppen, the division was across the Dives at St. Lambert by 2200, then moved on azimuth toward Coudehard. It sustained considerable losses in killed, wounded, and captured; it lost the bulk of its heavy weapons, all of its artillery, and most of its vehicles. About 2,500 men reached Champosoult and safety the next morning.46
The commander of the LXXIV Corps, Straube, and part of his staff crossed the Dives during the afternoon of 20 August at St. Lambert, where Straube met Luettwitz, who commanded the 2d Panzer Division. Together, they worked out measures for holding the crossing site open and organized the men of all arms converging on St. Lambert into kampfgruppen for the completion of the breakout. In the evening Straube departed with one such group of several hundred men and a few tanks. He reached Meindl's command post near Coudehard around midnight, then completed his breakout with the paratroopers.47
While the battle had raged around the Poles on Mt. Ormel, the Polish and American troops in Chambois were also subjected to considerable pressure. Desperate German efforts launched against Chambois on 20 August to open an escape route through the town made the situation so tense that there were moments when Poles and Americans wondered whether they could retain possession of the town.
For the Polish armored group, it was the second day of heavy action without resupply. That evening American supplies came forward, and the Poles received a share of the ammunition, gasoline, and rations.48
On that day the 90th Division Artillery was operating with observation later described as an "artilleryman's dream." Five battalions pulverized columns driving toward the Dives. American soldiers cheered when German horses, carts, trucks, Volkswagens, tanks, vehicles, and weapons went flying into the air, disintegrating in flashes of fire and puffs of smoke.49
Near Chambois several German tanks and perhaps a company of infantrymen would have escaped but for Sgt. John D. Hawk of the 359th Infantry, who manned a light machine gun. A tank shell disabled Hawk's gun and wounded him, but he secured a bazooka and with a companion kept the tanks in a small wood until two American tank destroyers arrived. Their shelling was ineffective until Hawk climbed to an exposed position to act as a human aiming stake. The subsequent fire of the tank destroyers knocked out two German tanks and forced the remaining Germans into the open to surrender.50
The heavy rain that set in around midnight of 20 August helped thousands of Germans to escape to safety. At 0230, 21 August, Meindl began to wake up the men around him near Coudehard. It took some time to get a man on his feet and make him understand what was going on. By 0345, Meindl's troops were assembled along the road in march formation, and the head of the column started to move eastward in the drenching rain. Meindl himself, with two tanks and a small group as the rear guard, departed around 0500. Two hours afterwards, they were within the lines of the 2d SS Panzer Division near Champosoult.
Later that day Meindl learned that some of his paratroopers had escaped by a route southeast of Coudehard, that a tank unit had brought the seriously wounded Seventh Army commander, Hausser, safely out of the pocket, and that he, Meindl, was to move his II Parachute Corps to the Seine River south of Rouen. He estimated that between 2,500 and 3,500 paratroopers had escaped; their combat strength did not exceed 600. Of the two regiments of the 353d Division that broke out at St. Lambert, only remnants of one later rejoined
Truckloads of Prisoners Headed for Prisoner of War Camps
the division, the rear-guard regiment having been completely lost.
Only small isolated groups were able to slip across the Dives during the early morning hours of 21 August. Fighting along the river subsided gradually, and by noon, with all of St. Lambert firmly in Canadian hands, the escape route was closed. Rounding up the remnants of the Seventh Army trapped west of the Dives began. Allied troops accepted German surrenders, in mass and in small groups, and gathered up stragglers "who had been living in holes in the ground in the forest since separating from their units." It was not uncommon for an
Allied division to collect prisoners from as many as twenty divisional units in a single day. "We very much enjoyed going into the woods," a regimental commander later recalled. "One of my lieutenants and I got nineteen [prisoners] on one trip."51
Meanwhile, a sizable number of men and vehicles, the tail end of the forces that had succeeded in getting across the Dives during the night, were still moving toward the Mt. Ormel ridge on the
morning of 21 August. Shortly before noon the Poles on Hill 262 had their hands full repelling German attacks on the southwestern part of their perimeter, that part closest to the Chambois-Vimoutiers road. The culmination came around noon with a suicidal attack of German infantry straight up the hill from the area around the Coudehard church. The massed fires of Polish machine guns smashed it.
Canadian troops advanced and finally made contact with the Polish perimeter that afternoon. Supplies arrived about 1400; evacuation of the wounded and the prisoners began. About that time enemy activity ceased, and what the Poles called the Battle of Maczuga came to an end. Having captured approximately 1,000 Germans, the Poles had lost about 350 men; 11 tanks were damaged or destroyed.52
Beyond Mt. Ormel, German soldiers, singly and in groups, had continued to pass through the lines of the II SS Panzer Corps throughout the morning of 21 August. The movement thinned out in the afternoon and by 1600 ceased altogether. At dusk the corps moved back its two divisions to an assembly area near Orbec, thirteen miles northeast of Vimoutiers.
Army Group B praised the action of the II SS Panzer Corps in the highest terms, for it considered the corps had been a major factor making possible the escape of much of the Seventh Army.53 In reality, the corps contribution to the breakout operation, though noteworthy considering its skeleton forces, was not so spectacular as the army group believed. The II SS Panzer Corps had accomplished three things: it tied up elements of Canadian and Polish armor on the outer edge of the encircling ring; it helped to open the Coudehard-Champosoult road; and it provided a rallying position for troops that were able to escape the pocket. The major factor deciding the outcome of the breakout operation was the determination and the will to fight of the units inside the pocket.
How many Germans escaped? No one knew. At the end of 20 August Army Group B reported that "approximately from 40 to 50 percent of the encircled units succeeded in breaking out and joining hands with the II SS Panzer Corps." This was an optimistic assessment. By the end of the following day, the strength of six of seven armored divisions that had escaped the pocket totaled, as reported at that time, no more than 2,000 men, 62 tanks, and 26 artillery pieces.54
Later estimates of the total number of Germans escaping varied between 20,000 and 40,000 men, but combat troops formed by far the smaller proportion of these troops. The average combat strength of divisions was no more than a few hundred men, even
The Pocket Deserted
though the over-all strength of some divisions came close to 3,000. The explanation lay in the fact that a partial exodus had begun at least two or three days before the breakout attack--when shortages of ammunition, gasoline, and other supplies had already become acute.55
Some divisions acting on their own initiative, others with the approval of corps, had started to send to the rear, in some instances as far east as the Seine River, all nonessential personnel and vehicles, as well as artillery pieces that could not be supplied with ammunition. Ironically, on 18 August, the day after the 271st Division ceased to exist as a fighting unit, the division commander, Generalleutnant Paul Danhauser, discovered large stocks of artillery ammunition of all calibers in the Bois de Feuillet, stocks that had been forgotten, overlooked, or simply abandoned. "The shock of this discovery," Danhauser later wrote, "brought tears to the eyes of the commander of the artillery regiment whose batteries had expended their last rounds some days ago."56
The few batteries sent out of the pocket before the final few days were saved. The rest of the artillery, heavy weapons, and other equipment remaining inside the pocket was almost completely lost--destroyed by Allied fire, by the Germans themselves, or abandoned. One commander estimated, probably with some exaggeration, that not many more than 50 artillery pieces and perhaps that many tanks reached safety. Radios, vehicles, trains, supplies were lost; "even the number of rescued machine guns was insignificant."57 "The losses in material are very high," Army Group B reported, ". . . set on fire by enemy fighter-bombers . . . and by
massed fires of heavy artillery. All radio stations were silenced, and the army was deprived of its means of command. Yet the performance of the men who fought the breakout battle in the face of overwhelming odds merits the highest praise."58
The severe ordeal to which the Germans were subjected for many days-constant air and artillery pounding, exhausting night marches on clogged roads after a day's fighting, shortages of ammunition and supplies--could not be endured indefinitely without affecting troop morale. Many "unpretty pictures" were witnessed by German commanders--incredible disorder on the roads where often the right of the strongest prevailed (tankers and paratroopers being the chief offenders); the panic, men with hands up surrendering in droves; at least one case of outright mutiny when a sergeant shot and killed his commanding officer because the commander refused to consent to surrender.
But the units that were under the firm control of their commanders fought to the limit of their physical and moral endurance and thereby made the escape of a sizable part of the encircled troops possible. One such unit, a paratroop outfit, made quite an impression on men of an SS panzer division when, emerging from the pocket, the paratroopers passed through the tankers smartly, in road formation, singing.59
Behind the men who had fought their way out of the pocket lay an inferno of destruction.
The carnage wrought during the final days as the artillery of two Allied armies and the massed air forces pounded the ever-shrinking pocket was perhaps the greatest of the war. The roads and fields were littered with thousands of enemy dead and wounded, wrecked and burning vehicles, smashed artillery pieces, carts laden with the loot of France overturned and smoldering, dead horses and cattle swelling in the summer's heat.60
Of the higher staffs, only the LXXXIV Corps headquarters was missing. Most of the higher commanders, including Hausser, were wounded. When Hausser was evacuated, Funck, the XLVII Panzer Corps commander, took temporary command of the Seventh Army, which was subordinated to the Fifth Panzer Army.61
The Allies did not know exactly how many prisoners they took. From 13 through 17 August it was possible to count them accurately--British and Canadians reported daily figures in excess of a total of 6,000, the First U.S. Army 2,500 for 15 August alone. After 17 August the figures were approximate-- for example, the First Army estimated more than 9,000 on 21 August.62 All together, the Americans probably took about 25,000 prisoners, British and Canadians an equal number. Among the captives were three general officers. In addition to the 50,000 men captured,
approximately 10,000 dead were found on the field.63
As examples of the extent of German losses, the 2d French Armored Division captured 8,800 prisoners and claimed the destruction or capture of more than 100 tanks, over 100 artillery pieces, and 700 vehicles. The 90th Division in four days took over 13,000 prisoners and 1,000 horses; an incomplete inventory of destruction revealed that in addition to 1,800 horses that were dead, 220 tanks, 160 self-propelled artillery pieces, 700 towed artillery pieces, 130 antiaircraft guns, 130 half-track vehicles, 5,000 motor vehicles, and 2,000 wagons had been destroyed or damaged; high-power radio and cryptographic sets, mobile ordnance shops, medical laboratories, and surgical installations had been abandoned.64
An officer who had observed the destruction of the Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne battlefields in World War I and had seen the destruction in London and at St. Lo in World War II, wrote:
None of these compared in the effect upon the imagination with what I saw yesterday southwest of Trun. . . . The grass and trees were vividly green as in all Normandy and a surprising number of houses [were] . . . untouched. That rather peaceful setting framed a picture of destruction so great that it cannot be described. It was as if an avenging angel had swept the area bent on destroying all things German. . . .
I stood on a lane, surrounded by 20 or 30 dead horses or parts of horses, most of them still hitched to their wagons and carts. . . . As far as my eye could reach (about 200 yards) on every line of sight, there were . . . vehicles, wagons, tanks, guns, prime movers, sedans, rolling kitchens, etc., in various stages of destruction. . . .
I stepped over hundreds of rifles in the mud and saw hundreds more stacked along sheds. . . . I walked through a mile or more of lanes where the vehicles had been caught closely packed. . . . I saw probably 300 field pieces and tanks, mounting large caliber guns, that were apparently undamaged.
I saw no foxholes or any other type of shelter or field fortifications. The Germans were trying to run and had no place to run. They were probably too exhausted to dig. . . . They were probably too tired even to surrender.
I left this area rather regretting I'd seen it. . . . Under such conditions there are no supermen--all men become rabbits looking for a hole.65
Despite the devastating defeat the Germans had suffered, a surprising number of troops had escaped the pocket. Yet those who had escaped had still to reckon with another crisis--this one at the Seine.
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