Battle of the Falaise-Argentan Pocket
THE BATTLE OF THE FALAISE-ARGENTAN POCKET
During the first week of August, the completeness of the enemy collapse on his western flank was such that my best hopes were realized and we were presented with the opportunity of operating toward the rear of his forces in Normandy to effect an encirclement. I felt that the chances of delivering a knockout blow there were so favorable that, despite our need for the Brittany ports, I was unwilling to detach for their capture major forces from the main armies fighting in Normandy. Into the ranks of the German Seventh Army and Panzer Group West had been drawn the cream of the enemy forces in western Europe. Our tactics must again be adapted to take advantage of the enemy's reactions. The encirclement and destruction of these armies would afford us complete freedom of action throughout France. Therefore it was decided virtually to turn our backs upon Brittany. The VIII Corps of the Third Army alone would be left with the task of reducing Brittany ports, while the remainder of our troops, supported by the maximum weight of our air effort, could concentrate on the annihilation of the main body of the enemy.
XV Corps of the Third Army, striking south on the left flank of VIII Corps, occupied the towns of Mayenne and Laval on 6 August, and our plan was for this corps to advance thence to the east, supported by XII Corps and XX Corps as these became operational. From Le Mans a spearhead was to turn northward, advancing through Al encon toward Argentan. At the same time the Canadian First Army would continue its thrust on Falaise with a view to an eventual link-up with the Americans at Argentan, thus drawing a net around the bulk of the enemy forces to the west. Meanwhile the British Second Army and U. S. First Army would close in from the north and west respectively.
Our greatest difficulty and danger in the execution of this plan lay in the problem of supply to the Third Army. General Patton's lightning armored thrusts, exploiting the enemy's open flank, had already imposed upon our Services of Supply an immense burden. This was successfully shouldered only by dint of gallant and unceasing efforts by the personnel of the transport columns, the capacity of which was heavily strained. Moreover, because of the enemy's stubborn resistance in the Brittany ports, these supplies had to brought from the beaches and from Cherbourg all the way down the west side of the Cotentin and through our still narrow corridor at Avranches.
It was the precarious nature of this supply route that now dictated the enemy's strategy, a strategy which, while initially it appeared sound, ultimately helped us to accomplish our object of shattering the two German armies in Normandy. As had been shown, the arrival in the Caen sector of infantry reinforcements from east of the Seine at the end of July enabled the enemy to move armor toward the Vire, to prevent an immediate collapse of his entire front when our breakthrough was achieved west of St-Lo. This armor was now massed in the Mortain area and brought under unified command, with the intention of driving westward through Avranches to the coast and thus cutting off the U. S. Third Army from its supply bases. This was the first occasion since the commencement of the campaign two months earlier that the enemy had been able to assemble his armor into a strong striking force of the traditional panzer type; and it was destined to be his last panzer offensive until von Rundstedt launched his desperate thrust from the Siegfried Line against the First Army on ,6 December. The group assembled east of Mortain for the drive on Avranches consisted of the 1st SS, 2d SS, 2d and ,116th Panzer Divisions, with elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, and supporting infantry: a formidable force. The importance which the enemy attached to the operation was shown by the withdrawal of his long-range bombers from night minelaying off the beaches (almost their sole employment since 6 June) for use in support of the ground thrust.
The attack was launched on 7 August, while other elements of the Seventh Army counterattacked at Vire to safeguard the flanks of the armored drive. General Bradley had correctly estimated the enemy intentions, had taken his own dispositions in ample time, and had no concern as to the result. When the blow fell, the 4th, 9th>, and 30th Infantry Divisions, the 3d Armored Division, and part of the 2d Armored Division were near Mortain. In stern defensive battle these units of VII Corps stemmed the attack. Great assistance in smashing the enemy's spearhead was given by the rocket firing Typhoon planes of the Second Tactical Air Force. They dived upon the armored columns, and, with their rocket projectiles, destroyed and damaged many tanks in addition to quantities of "soft-skinned" vehicles. The result of the vigorous reaction by ground and air forces was that the enemy attack was effectively brought to a halt, and a threat was turned into a great victory. For once, the weather was on our side, and conditions were ideal for our air operations. If our planes had been grounded, the enemy might have succeeded in reaching Avranches in his first rush, and this would then have forced us to depend for a time on air supply to our troops south and east of the Avranches corridor, necessarily restricting their capacity to maneuver.
Despite this check and the high losses sustained, the enemy persisted for the time being in his efforts to break through to Avranches, and the battle continued during the following days. The fierce attacks of the panzer divisions were met with stubborn resistance by u. S. VII Corps, while our tactical air forces continued to afford magnificent support in bombing and strafing the enemy concentrations. To maintain the weight of his attack, the enemy brought up further armored reinforcements, and the fighting continued heavy and confused around the hills at Mortain. From there the Germans could look westward over the level plain across which they had hoped to drive to Avranches, and perhaps the fact that they thus had their objective within view contributed to the persistence of their efforts.
It was not until 12 August that the first signs became evident that the enemy had resigned himself to the impossibility of attaining his objective and at last was contemplating a withdrawal. As on former occasions, the fanatical tenacity of the Nazi leaders and the ingrained toughness of their men had led the Germans to cling too long to a position from which military wisdom would have dictated an earlier retreat. Already by 10 August it was difficult to see how the enemy's counterattacks, admitted that they represented a desperate effort to stabilize temporarily a most dangerous general situation, could achieve decisive results.
By 10 August, following a conference at General Bradley's Headquarters, it was decided to seize the opportunity for encirclement offered by the enemy tactics. XV Corps of the Third Army already had pushed eastward to capture Le Mans on 9 August and had thence turned north according to plan to threaten the rear of the armored forces battling at Mortain. At the same time XX Corps drove beyond Chateaubriant toward the Loire and captured Angers on 10 August, thus effectively guarding the southern flank of our encircling movement. On 11 August XV Corps was north of the Sees-Carrouges road, and on the night of 12 August the U.S. 5th Armored Division was in the outskirts of Argentan and the French 2d Armored Division at Ecouche, with the 79th and 90th Infantry Divisions in support.
Meanwhile the U. S. First Army pushed southwest from Vire against stubborn resistance while tile British Second Army forced the enemy from his dominating position on Mont Pincon (south of Aunay-sur-Odon) and on 13 August occupied Thury-Harcourt. Six days earlier, the Second Army had established a bridgehead across the Orne below Thury-Harcourt at Grimbosq, in the teeth of furious opposition. This salient was created in support of the Canadian First Army thrust down me Caen-Falaise road. Still, as ever, the Caen sector remained the most sensitive part of the front in the north, and the Allied progress was slow and dearly bought against the strongest defenses yet encountered in the campaign . The Fifth Panzer Army, replacing Armored Group West, now defended this sector. On 7 August, over 1,000 heavy bombers of the RAF were employed to soften up enemy concentrations between Caen and Bretteville, and on the following day nearly 500 heavies of the Eighth Air Force laid a carpet in front of a Canadian attack which reached Bretteville itself. The enemy fell back to the line of the Laison River between Potigny and Maizieres, where he successfully held the Canadians for several days. Not until 14 August was this line broken, following a further heavy air onslaught, and on 17 August Falaise was finally occupied. From our landings in June until that day, the enemy resistance in this sector had exacted more Allied bloodshed for the ground yielded than in any other part of the campaign. Without the great sacrifices made here by the Anglo-Canadian armies in the series of brutal, slugging battles, first for Caen and then for Falaise, the spectacular advances made elsewhere by the Allied forces could never have come about.
With the Third Army forces at Argentan and the Canadians at Falaise, the stage was set for the "Battle of the Pocket," with the enemy struggling to keep open the gap between the two towns through which to extricate his forces from the west. By 13 August, the withdrawal from Mortain eastward toward Argentan was under way. Infantry reinforcements were being brought hurriedly across the Seine-five divisions crossed during the week preceding 12 August-but it was too late now for them to be able to save the situation. In the pocket, the enemy's strategy was to line the southern lip through Argentan with his armor to defend against the American forces as he extricated what he could through the gap, while a strong defensive 44 barrier against the Canadians was established with the 12th SS Panzer and 21st Panzer Divisions at Falaise. By this means, resisting fiercely, he managed to hold open the jaws of our pincers long enough to enable a portion of his forces to escape. As usual, he concentrated on saving his armor and left the bulk of the infantry to their fate-a subject of bitter comment by prisoners from the latter units who fell into our hands. A considerable part of the 1st SS Panzer, 2d SS Panzer, 9th SS Panzer, 12th SS Panzer, Panzer Lehr, 2d Panzer, 9th Panzer, and 116th Panzer Divisions managed thus to get away; but the 326th, 353d, 363d, 271st, 276th, 277th, 89th, and part of the 331st Infantry Divisions, with some of the 10th SS Panzer and 21St Panzer Divisions, were trapped. Those armored forces which escaped did so at the cost of a great proportion of their equipment.
Until 17 August, there was a steady seep eastward through the gap, but then came a convulsive surge to get out-on the part of all ranks; and the orderliness with which the retreat had hitherto been carried out collapsed suddenly. The 12th SS Panzer Division, aided by the other elements which had managed to escape, counterattacked from outside the pocket to assist the remainder, but as the gap narrowed they were forced to abandon their efforts and look to their own safety as the advance of the Third Army to the Seine threatened a new trap behind them. All became chaos and confusion as the remaining forces in the pocket struggled to get out through the diminishing corridor by Trun, which was all that remained of the escape route. Road discipline among the columns fleeing toward the Seine became nonexistent, and vehicles plunged madly across the open country in an effort to avoid the blocked roads. Our air forces swept down upon the choked masses of transport, and there was no sign of the Luftwaffe to offer any opposition. With the U. S. Third Army on the Seine, the German fighter force had been compelled to retire to airfields in the east of France, too far away for them to be able now to give any assistance to the ground troops in Normandy.
Back inside the pocket, the confusion was still greater, and the destruction assumed immense proportions as our aircraft and artillery combined in pounding the trapped Germans. Allied guns ringed the ever shrinking "killing-ground," and, while the SS elements as usual fought to annihilation, the ordinary German infantry gave themselves up in ever-increasing numbers. By 20 August the gap was finally closed near Chambois, and by 22 August the pocket was eliminated. The lovely, wooded countryside west of Argentan had become the graveyard of the army which, three months earlier, had confidently waited to smash the Allied invasion on the Normandy beaches. What was left of the Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies was in headlong flight toward the Seine, and a further stand west of the river was impossible.