trap gap

Trap with a gap

Two months after D-Day, the Allies were poised to capture two German armies near Falaise, France—if they could just cut through British-American red tape.

by Brian John Murphy

General Dwight David Eisenhower had never seen combat. But this day in Normandy, the effects of combat and the results of the arduous Normandy campaign were plain to see. The ground was covered with dead German soldiers. They lay in the roads, charred in the burned-out hulks of their vehicles, in ditches, in fields, some bloated and blackened in the August sun. Parts of German soldiers, blasted to pieces by artillery and aerial bombs, lay everywhere. Some hung in macabre fashion from tree limbs. There were even dead horses, hundreds of them, a testimony to the German army’s inferior technology compared to that of the motor-obsessed Americans. Many of these fallen beasts of burden lay in the traces of the wagons and guns they had pulled, contorted by their death agonies.

In the final days of the Normandy battle, the pocket of survivors of the German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army was jammed with men, vehicles, and equipment of all kinds. Beside horse-drawn wagons and artillery, there were Panthers, Panzer IVs, and Tiger tanks in shambles, and weapons and vehicles that lay deserted, burned, or blown to bits.

Everywhere, permeating the air for miles around, was the sweet-sick stench of putrefying corpses. Artillery spotter pilots and airmen on low-level reconnaissance flights 2,000 feet above the fields of slaughter could smell the vile odor thickly filling their cockpits. Some pilots vomited.

Everywhere for a stunned Eisenhower to see was proof that German Army Group B, which had contested Operation Overlord, the Allied Normandy invasion, had been effectively destroyed or dissolved. The survivors of this unprecedented carnage were, at this very moment, hurrying for Germany and the security of its fortified Siegfried Line.

Yet this was a flawed victory. The possibility had existed to bag the entire enemy German army group, yet tens of thousands of survivors had escaped east across the Seine and back to Germany to fight again. Indecision at the highest levels of command had led to this incomplete victory in the battle of the so-called Falaise pocket. Because of this command failure, the promise of an early end to the war through a victory of annihilation in France went unrealized. There would be many more months of combat—the most intense fighting the Allies would see in Europe.

But there in the Falaise pocket, Eisenhower had proof that the Germans had suffered a defeat from which they could not recover.

Planning and deception

As American, British, and Canadian forces moved inland from Overlord’s D-Day landings on June 6, 1944, they had immediately collided with the uniquely uncooperative terrain of Normandy. Locally called bocage, the countryside was divided up into thousands of small pastures, fields, and apple orchards bounded by hedgerows of prodigious height, antiquity, and toughness. The hedges formed natural fortresses and ambushes that the Germans could defend easily. The Americans, operating under a doctrine of mobile war, found their armored strength almost neutralized. Their advance immediately bogged down as the Germans made maximum use of the terrain.

Despite this, the US First Army, under General Omar Bradley, successfully cut off the Cotentin peninsula and captured Cherbourg. The British and Canadians, under Field Marshall Ber-nard Montgomery, who had defeated the Germans in El Alamein, Egypt, were also bogged down in the face of determined resistance by the Germans, who had two armies in Normandy: the Fifth Panzer Army and the Seventh Army, which together formed Army Group B.

As bad as it was, the situation could have been much worse for the Allies if not for Operation Fortitude, an elaborate deception. The Germans had reserves in the center of France and 15 crack infantry and Panzer divisions at Calais, sitting on their hands waiting for an expected main invasion there. Adolf Hitler and his generals had been fooled into believing a second invasion was coming by Fortitude’s bogus radio traffic, inflatable tanks and trucks that looked like the real thing to German reconnaissance pilots, and the vivid presence of Lieutenant General George Patton as commander of the fictitious First US Army Group. Fearing Patton and FUSAG, Hitler kept his forces around Calais on station through all the vital moments of the Normandy campaign.

With the help of an overwhelming and almost unchallenged superiority in the air, the Allies made minor advances in opening up their beachheads. The bocage imposed a kind of warfare reminiscent of World War I, where daily gains of a few hundred yards or even a mile in a day or two of combat qualified as major victories. The slow progress, little better than a stalemate, continued through June and most of July. The Americans expanded their sector of control to the south and west, approaching the road junctions at the small city of Saint–Lô. The British and Canadians struggled to take Caen, aiming beyond it for the ancient medieval city of Falaise, where William the Conqueror was born.

In the latter part of July, an event in Germany changed the way the war would be fought on the German side. On July 20, at Hitler’s eastern front headquarters in East Prussia, a bomb exploded during a conference with the Führer and his top staff officers. Some were killed and others gravely wounded, but Hitler emerged with only a burst eardrum and cuts and bruises. He was able to greet visiting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini later that day and put down a coup d’état engineered by dissident officers in Berlin that night.

Hitler’s gratitude for surviving gave way to a deep and violent suspicion of the German army’s professional officers. Hitler believed—not unrealistically—that the aristocratic officer corps despised him. The brutal but effective Gestapo investigation of the July 20 conspiracy revealed that more than 1,000 high-ranking officers were either aware of the plot or were active participants.

One of the officers tangentially involved in the coup attempt was the commander of the western front, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge. The former commander of an army group in Russia, Kluge was not entirely happy commanding Army Group B in Normandy. He had the advantage of terrain, but attrition was whittling down his forces, and reinforcements were scarce due to the Fortitude deception. Kluge was also partially cut off from supplies by Allied air power, and this tied his hands. For instance, he could authorize the expenditure of 4,500 artillery shells a day, while the British alone fired 80,000 a day.

After July 20, Hitler took greater responsibility for the day-to-day operations of all major German commands. Kluge could neither attack nor retreat without Hitler’s express permission. Hitler’s standing orders were to yield not an inch of ground and to fight to the last man. It was only with great caution that Kluge would seek to deviate from those orders.

Breakout

The fall of Cherbourg allowed Bradley to turn his attention back to the other US First Army front, near Saint–Lô. As July came to a close, the fighting at Saint–Lô turned in favor of the Americans. Even before the city fell, Bradley was planning the next step, an assault to break the German line west and south of the city.

Codenamed Cobra, the plan envisioned using heavy bombers—B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators—to carpet-bomb a narrow corridor of the German front line. Medium bombers and fighter-bombers would also hit the area. Promptly after the air strikes, a heavy concentration of US infantry and armor would assault the narrow front. In all, 15 First Army divisions were earmarked for Cobra. Once a gap had been blown in the German line, some divisions would be diverted to hold the corridor’s flanks. Then, following the vanguard of the First Army, the Third Army, under Patton, would stream through the gap and explode into open country to seize Brittany and its ports. Both US armies would then constitute the 12th Army Group, under Bradley’s overall command.

The Cobra air strike got off to a shaky start on July 24 as clouds closed in on the target area. Bradley called off the ground attack and ordered the air missions aborted. Some planes simply remained on the ground, but others, already en route, did not receive the abort order. Heading into the target area from north to south over friendly lines, and finding the German lines obscured by clouds, some groups held onto their bombs. Others released their ordnance. Some of the bombs fell on the German lines, but some fell on Americans, killing or wounding 150 of them.

Bradley had expected the bombers would fly parallel to the US lines and had left an air planning meeting for Cobra in England believing that. But the air commanders balked at the parallel path, which would expose their planes to more anti-aircraft fire, and settled on flying perpendicular to the US and German lines. This was explained to Bradley after the July 24 debacle, and he finally accepted the plan, along with the fact that some troops would fall to friendly fire.

The next day, minus the element of surprise, the Eighth Air Force heavy bombers and the IX Tactical Air Command’s medium bombers and fighter-bombers took flight and plastered the German front lines. Parts of the American front were bombed, too, and some 500 Americans were wounded and 111 killed.

Enough bombs fell on the German lines to turn the assault zone into a cratered moonscape. But the ensuing infantry assault by the First Army’s VII and VIII Corps hit unexpectedly stiff resistance. Alerted by the abortive air assault of the previous day, the Germans were hunkered down in trenches and shelters, not sticking up their heads until the last aircraft droned away. Even so, about a third of the German combat force in the sector had been killed or scattered. The remaining troops fought the American advance hard, but the Yanks gained ground that first day.

The VII Corps shattered the crust of the German defense the next day. Kluge moved a Panzer division west to try to shore up the line, but by the next day, the 27th, the Americans were four miles or more south of their start line and breaking out of the bocage into the clear, where they could maneuver. The VIII Corps moved down the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula. To the east the VII Corps moved on Coutances. By the 28th the Americans had advanced as much as 12 miles in the face of disintegrating German resistance. Overhead, enjoying sunny weather, the IX Tactical Air Command’s P-47 Thunderbolt fighters provided air support for the advancing front line and made the Germans miserable behind their own lines.

By the end of July 28, the Americans had captured Coutances and nearly encircled four German divisions, including the feared SS Division Das Reich. The German withdrawal from that pocket was complicated the next day by the Thunderbolts, which caught up with the enemy near the village of Roncy, between Coutances and the Sienne River. The fighter-bombers, nicknamed Jabos by the Germans, destroyed 400 tanks and other vehicles.

The LXXXIV Corps of the German Seventh Army was rendered ineffective by the American onslaught by the morning of July 30. All of Cobra’s geographic objectives had been reached and the Sienne River had been crossed. Bradley did not pause the offensive, deciding instead to sustain the momentum and keep the Germans off balance. While the British Second Army attacked the German line east of Saint–Lô, pinning down any possible reinforcements for the LXXXIV Corps, Combat Command B of the US 4th Armored Division drove for Avranches on the west coast. In the process they scattered the forward headquarters of the German 7th Army, obliging the commander, SS General Paul Hausser, to flee east on foot with his men toward the town of Mortain.

Combat Command B took Avranches by nightfall and successfully defended it the following day against German troops who had been flushed out of Granville, a coastal town to the north. Combat Command A of the 4th Armored moved out from Avranches on July 31 and secured a bridgehead across the next obstacle to the south, the See River. Command A then pushed on to capture a vital crossing further south across the Selune River. The capture of that crossing set the stage for an explosion of American might into Brittany.

Patton

The US Third Army was officially activated on August 1, 1944. The headquarters had actually been in Normandy for some time and the commander, Patton, had closely watched the Cobra events. Job one for Patton was to take the Brittany peninsula, as envisioned in the original Overlord plan. Patton designated his VIII Corps, under Major General Troy Middleton, for the task.

Middleton acted swiftly. Outside of its port cities, Brittany was almost devoid of German forces, with the exception of Rennes, where the 4th Armored met stiff resistance. Spearheads of Patton’s westward advance had nonetheless traveled about 40 miles from their start point near Avranches by the end of August 2. On August 5, Middleton had cut off the entire Breton peninsula from the rest of the German 7th Army and had taken the lightly defended port city of Vannes on Quiberon Bay after a dash of 70 miles in seven hours.

Hitler was displeased with the turn of events in France. Reading the maps carefully, however, he had an inspiration. The Americans were funneling troops and supplies to the Third Army through a narrow coastal corridor centered on Avranches. One way of looking at the situation was to say the Americans had split the Seventh Army and outflanked Army Group B. Or, Hitler reasoned, you could look at that narrow corridor as an opportunity. A determined westward offensive to capture Avranches would cut the US Third Army off from the rest of Bradley’s 12th Army Group and restore the German line in Normandy. Hitler ordered Kluge to mount an all-out offensive along the line of Mortain to Avranches. Kluge would much rather have begun extricating his army group from Normandy to make a stand on the other side of the Seine, but orders being orders, he arranged for the counterattack.

The offensive, dubbed Operation Lüttich (German for Liège, France, where a similar tactic succeeded in World War I) began with elements of the XLVII Panzer Corps assembling at the start point east of Mortain on the night of August 6. The offensive began without artillery preparation just after midnight on the 7th. The Germans surprised the Americans, with the 2nd Panzer Division making the deepest westward penetration and the 2nd SS Panzer Division hitting the US First Army’s 30th Division, driving it out of Mortain. The Germans secured the town, but missed securing the heights just east of Mortain. About a battalion’s worth of Americans—elements of three rifle companies—took refuge on Hill 314 (so named because it rose 314 meters above sea level). Meanwhile the Germans recaptured Mortain and points west of the city.

Bradley, who knew an attack was imminent thanks to decryptions of German messages, rushed armored reinforcements to halt the enemy tide. Due to determined American resistance, the enemy offensive petered out 16 miles short of its goal, Avranches.

First light on the 7th treated the Americans on Hill 314 to a grand and disturbing sight: all around the hill flowed the traffic of the Lüttich counterattack—troops, tanks, trucks, and artillery. One of the Americans atop the hill was 2nd Lieutenant Robert Weiss, a forward artillery spotter with a radio and four-man crew. He immediately began radioing fire missions to the American artillery. By the time the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was tasked with taking the hill, the artillery spotters were already making a severe nuisance of themselves. Weiss’s battery-operated radio was arguably the most important piece of signal equipment in Europe, and the Germans wanted it shut down.

The defense of Hill 314 turned out to be an epic of American arms. The so-called Lost Battalion held out against repeated and determined German assaults. Over and over, Weiss called down the artillery on the advancing Germans, breaking up their assaults. The Germans returned the compliment by plastering the American positions with fire from tanks, 88mm guns, and other artillery.

Even before Lüttich had gotten under way, Patton was already devising and then launching his masterstroke of the war. The VIII Corps battle for Brittany was a relic of the Overlord plan. It was time to adapt strategy to the evolving reality of the battlefield. The real opportunity for the Third Army, according to Patton and Bradley, was an end run to the east, around the rear of German Army Group B.

Patton ordered Major General Wade Haislip’s XV Corps and Major General Walton Walker’s XX Corps to head east with the eventual goal of reaching Le Mans and making a giant encirclement of the enemy via Paris and the Ile de France region. This entailed fast armored movement and the capture of terrain ideal for establishing tactical air bases. By the day of the Lüttich attack, elements of the Third Army had moved south to the Loire River, poised for a massive sweep east. Haislip’s XV Corps made a brilliant dash from Mayenne east to Le Mans.

On August 10, elements of the Fifth Panzer Army were reorganized into a strike force to reinvigorate the stalled Lüttich operation. Designated Panzer Group Eberbach after its commander, Major General Heinrich Eberbach, the strike force was given the job of breaking through to Avranches. Meanwhile, the Fifth Panzer Army came under the command of Colonel General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich, an old-time Nazi comrade and street fighter.

Eberbach had difficulty pulling his strike force together, so he petitioned Hitler for permission to delay his offensive against Avranches until August 20. Meanwhile Kluge was looking at the maps and noting the Third Army’s wide sweep across his rear. It was beginning to look like the Americans meant to encircle Army Group B. Cut off from reinforcement and supplies, such encirclement would mean the destruction of Kluge’s command. Rather than pressing on to the west against ever-stiffening resistance by the US First Army, Kluge thought it was a good time to withdraw from Normandy and make a stand east of the Seine River.

Hitler would have none of it. He demanded that the assault on Avranches be renewed. But on August 11 Kluge, Hausser, and Eberbach again asked Hitler to call off the Avranches thrust—but only to preserve troops for future offensive operations. Their wording appeased Hitler’s aggressive instinct. The Führer assented.

Bradley and Eisenhower looked at the same situation maps that Kluge studied and found a new opportunity: if strong elements of Patton’s Third Army turned north at Le Mans and moved aggressively toward the city of Alençon, they could link up with the Canadians and British, who were attacking south toward Falaise. This would block all the roads out of Normandy and trap Army Group B.

Bradley saw this as a once-in-a-century opportunity to fight a major battle of annihilation. Victory would mean the path to the German border would be clear of enemies; the war might end earlier than anyone had dreamed. Bradley issued the order, and on August 11 Patton began to implement it, sending Haislip’s XV Corps north.

On August 12, the 1st Battalion of the 320th Infantry Regiment, under Major Bill Gillis, fought its way through the 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers to relieve the survivors of the Lost Battalion, who still held out atop Hill 314. This marked the effective end of the Operation Lüttich  battle. The US First Army would switch to the offensive as Patton’s tanks and infantry streamed north to rendezvous with the Canadian First Army at the city of Argentan.

Haislip’s XV Corps was given the job of making that rendezvous. The corps included the 79th and 90th Infantry divisions. Spearheading the advance were the tanks of the US 5th Armored Division and the 2nd French Armored Division under Major General Jacques Leclerc. Their opposition, in the vicinity of Argentan would be Panzer Group Eberbach, which Kluge was reinforcing as Haislip advanced.

The halt order

On August 13 Haislip’s XV Corps was just outside Argentan, the proposed rendezvous point with the Canadian First Army. But the Canadians were still making slow progress in the vicinity of Falaise. About 20 miles separated the Canadians from the XV Corps. Patton proposed to order Haislip to drive further north and meet the Canadians. It would mean crossing the boundary between the US 12th Army Group area of operations and entering Montgomery’s 21st Army Group area.

Bradley said no. He told Patton on August 13 to keep the XV Corps at Argentan, the agreed-upon rendezvous. This would prove to be one of the most controversial decisions made by an Allied general in the European theater. Haislip could sidestep the Germans in the city of Argentan and quickly close off the roads leading out of the Falaise pocket—the trap in which German Army Group B was quickly finding itself enclosed. The roads were already filling with German staff and support troops, the first to escape through the Falaise gap—the space between Haislip and the Canadians. Without consulting Montgomery (who was still the ground commander of all Allied forces in northern France), Bradley determined that meeting the Canadians at an unplanned location could lead to friendly fire incidents. He also worried about running into time-delay aerial bombs dropped on the gap by the British. Finally, he did not want to violate the boundary between the 12th and 21st Army groups. This decision would haunt Bradley for the rest of his life. He would always wonder if he had done the right thing by ordering the XV Corps to stop at Argentan.

About this time, Bradley received a decrypted German message stating that the Germans planned to attack the elongated and exposed left flank of Haislip’s XV Corps. Bradley ordered the US First Army’s VII Corps to link up with Haislip’s left flank, protecting it from the anticipated attack.

All around the pocket the British and Canadian armies and the US First Army put pressure on the Germans. This may not have been a good idea. The Allies were squeezing the pocket like a toothpaste tube with the Germans being pushed out of the opening at the Falaise gap. With Patton’s forces halted at Argentan, it was up to the Canadians to break through the German line and close the gap. Until that happened the Germans would continue to leak out of the pocket.

By August 14, the traffic eastward out of the pocket was heavy. With Allied Jabos—US Thunderbolts and British Typhoons—making daytime movement extremely hazardous, much of the movement was necessarily made by night. But as the days passed and the encirclement got tighter, the Germans collectively realized they would have to move night and day to escape. The roads filled with foot and vehicle traffic, and the Jabos pounced, claiming a savage toll of men and materiel.

Kluge became a personal eyewitness to the ferocity of the Allied Jabos on August 15. He was en route from Dietrich’s 5th Panzer Army headquarters to inspect elements of the Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach when the road was attacked by flights of Allied Jabos. Kluge was obliged to spend most of the day in a ditch while the Allied fighter-bombers worked over his men and equipment on the road.

It seemed that Kluge had disappeared off the face of the earth, and for most of the day, confusion reigned in the upper ranks of Army Group B. Word of Kluge’s disappearance reached Hitler, who came to the immediate conclusion that the field marshal was going out on his own to negotiate the surrender of his army group to the Allies. General Günther Blumentritt, Kluge’s chief of staff at western front headquarters, took this opportunity to underline for Hitler the severity of Army Group B’s predicament in Normandy. Safe from Hitler’s basilisk stare, for this was a phone conference, Blumentritt told his leader that the only offensive action Army Group B could undertake was an attack to break out of the developing Allied encirclement. The German armored units were depleted, and all the forces in Normandy were running low on basic supplies, especially food and ammunition. Escape to the east was the only option. Hitler gave permission for the withdrawal.

Later that night, at 10 p.m., Kluge finally turned up back at Dietrich’s headquarters. The overall situation had already deteriorated rapidly. The Falaise pocket was 40 miles from west to east and 10 to 15 miles in width. Some 100,000 German soldiers were packed in that space. Their communications were breaking down, unit cohesiveness was declining as units intermingled, ammunition was low, and food was scarce. Once-mighty divisions were shrunk to mere handfuls of soldiers. Crammed with men and machines, the Falaise pocket was relentlessly attacked from the air in daylight and shelled night and day, with virtually every inch coming within range of Allied artillery.

While Kluge planned for withdrawal, the rest of Patton’s army was headed east again, targeting Orleans and Chartres. Patton had Bradley’s permission to sweep far to the east of the Normandy battlefield. What Patton had in mind was a bigger encirclement that would head off the surviving Germans in the vicinity of the Seine River. Patton’s forces captured Orleans and the major Luftwaffe base there, and the 7th Armored Division arrived at the outskirts of Chartres by the end of August 15. And there the troops stopped, for Bradley had issued another stop order, directing that for now, Patton would not go past the line Chartres-Druges-Orleans. This put an end to the possibility of a second and bigger envelopment of the enemy along the banks of the Seine.

On August 16 and 17, the Canadian First Army and the Polish 1st Armored Division entered and captured Falaise at long last. While this was happening, on the night of the 16th, the Germans skillfully disengaged from the US First Army at the western extreme of the pocket to begin its getaway.

The next day Bradley had a change of heart. With the Canadians and Poles on the move south from Falaise, he authorized the XV Corps at Argentan to move north to meet the Allied advance and close the gap. By this time, the major portion of Patton’s XV Corps had been reoriented for an eventual move to the east. With the corps momentarily unable to execute the order, Bradley tapped the First Army’s V Corps under Major General Leonard Gerow to prepare to advance.

Patton, uninformed of the action, put together a provisional force of three divisions under Major General Hugh Gaffey for the advance north. On August 17, Gaffey and Gerow met in Alençon, where they exchanged details of their parallel assignments. After a long impasse over who it was who commanded the upcoming advance, Gaffney integrated his divisions into Gerow’s V Corps, settling the confusion. But a day had been wasted, and thousands of Germans had taken advantage of the respite by funneling east through the gap and out of the pocket.

On August 18, the hammer fell for Kluge. He received orders relieving him of theater command and calling him home to Germany—and presumably a trial for treason in the plot to assassinate Hitler on July 20 and a visit with the hangman. Kluge set out for Germany, but committed suicide along the way. Replacing him in top command in the west was General Field Marshal Walther Model, one of Hitler’s most reliable problem-solvers.

The problem of the Falaise gap was to have no happy solution. As the Americans moved north, the Canadian First Army closed half the distance of the gap by the end of the 18th.

The US 90th Infantry was advancing north and the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armored divisions were moving south to meet them. In the middle was the II Parachute Corps. They intended to take strategically placed Mt. Ormel in the center of the gap, but on August 20 the Poles beat them to it. The Poles dug in and used the vantage point to call down artillery and air strikes on the masses of escaping Germans plainly visible from Mt. Ormel. To do so they had to resist repeated attacks from all directions by the Germans. The Poles held their position.

Moving north out of Argentan early on August 18, the 90th Infantry recaptured Le Bourg-St Léonard, situated on a ridge taken some time before in a German counterattack. The ridge became an artillery observation post with a panoramic view of the German escape route. The artillery poured it on the Germans, as many as 15 batteries concentrating on a single area. Over-head, Piper Cub spotting planes called in fire missions and corrected the aim of the big guns. (One officer remarked that the little Cubs improved the effectiveness of the American artillery by as much as 40 percent.) Geography dictated that the Germans had to pass through specific points to transit the gap, so artillery coordinates remained the same as new Germans replaced old passing through the fixed kill boxes.

By the end of August 19, the 90th Infantry was a mile short of Chambois, where its officers expected to link up with the Canadian First Army. Now American units were within rifle range of most of the German exits. The enemy was blown down like targets in a shooting gallery by direct tank fire, machine guns, and rifles. Hundreds of Germans simply gave up and walked to the American lines with hands raised. Hundreds more simply kept on walking east, almost oblivious to the hail of small arms, artillery, and aerial firepower deluging their ranks.

Chambois was to be taken by the 359th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Division’s 2nd Battalion. Captain Leland Waters, commanding G Company, was one of the first men to approach the village on August 19. Sighting a man in a British uniform, Waters approached him. The man was no Briton but a Pole, Major Wladyslaw Zgorzelski of the 1st Polish Armored Division’s 10th Dragoons Regiment. The two officers shook hands. The Falaise gap was closed.

But the agony was not over. Germans continued to slip through the thin Allied lines. More Americans arrived to bolster the line, linking up with advance elements of the British First Army on August 20. By 4 p.m. on August 21, the barrier across the gap was so tight that no more Germans could escape. The Canadians relieved the Poles atop Mt. Ormel that day. The Poles had defeated all attempts to take their position during their two-day defense—at a cost of 325 killed and 111 wounded.

About 20,000 Germans had beaten the odds, getting through the gap over the previous three days. In these final days the Allies took 50,000 Germans prisoner, with the 90th US Infantry Division accounting for 13,000 of that total. Another 10,000 Germans had been killed trying to escape.

Six Panzer divisions had made it out of the pocket, but they were ghosts of their former selves, with only 2,000 men and 62 tanks after the battle. By itself, the 90th Infantry Division had bagged 220 tanks of all varieties, about 1,000 artillery pieces, 2,000 horse-drawn wagons, and 5,000 trucks and motor vehicles of various descriptions.

Bradley’s August 13 order halting the XV Corps when it was poised to close the gap had allowed the better part of a week to pass before the link-up of the 21st and 12th Army groups—days that would allow significant numbers of Germans to escape the Falaise pocket, cross the Seine, and reach Germany, where they would be used again as combat soldiers. They would be used effectively, too. At Arnheim, in the Huertgen Forest and the Ardennes, and along the Siegfried Line, the survivors of Army Group B would exact a heavy price from Allies attempting to pierce the Reich.

Nonetheless, the dissolution of Army Group B was a catastrophe as great, in terms of the western front, as Stalingrad had been for Germany in the east. The Seventh Army was destroyed and the Fifth Panzer Army was in little better shape. During the campaign, 50,000 Germans escaped from Normandy. The Falaise battle claimed at least 15,000 German lives as well as nearly all their vehicles, guns, and tanks. Another 50,000 men surrendered or were captured, adding to Germany’s total of 400,000 men killed or captured since D-Day. The Germans lost 22,000 combat vehicles in Normandy, including tanks.

The Allies had paid a price for their victory: since D-Day, 209,703 Allied soldiers had been killed, wounded, or captured—125,847 Americans. For this terrible toll the Allies and the world gained the invaluable knowledge that Germany could not end the war on its own terms. It was no longer a matter of if Germany and Nazism would fall, but when.

Brian John Murphy, a contributing editor of America in WWII who lives in Fairfield, Connecticut, has written frequently for America in WWII, beginning with its first issue. This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of the magazine. Order a copy of this issue now.

 

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