ON JULY 24, seven weeks after D-Day, US First Army was holding an east-west line from Caumont to St. Lo to Lessay on the Channel. Pre-DDay projections had put the Americans on this line on D-Day plus five.
Disappointing as that was, Bradley could see opportunities for his army. The enemy was sadly deficient in supplies and badly worn down. One of Bradley's chief problems was that he had not enough room to bring the divisions waiting in England into the battle-not to mention Patton. For the Germans the problem was the opposite-no significant reinforcements were available. A favourable factor for Bradley: six of the eight German panzer divisions in Normandy faced the British and Canadians around Caen.
Bradley was also encouraged by aerial photographs showing that behind the German lines the roads were empty. Behind American lines the roads were nose-to-tail armour, transport convoys, and troops. Huge supply dumps dotted the fields, with no need for camouflage. These were among the fruits of air superiority.
The Ninth Tactical Air Force had a dozen airstrips in Normandy by this time. Pilots could be over their targets in a matter of minutes. They were daredevil youngsters, some of them only nineteen years of age. (It was generally felt that by the time he reached his mid-twenties, a man was too sensible to take the chances required of a P-47 pilot.) They made up to five sorties per day. They dominated the sky and brought destruction to the Germans below.
Another plus for Bradley: his men were tactically much better equipped than they had been when the campaign began. By July 24 three of five First Army tanks had been fitted with a rhino. Ground-air communications were improving daily. Bradley had ruthlessly relieved incompetent division commanders. The frontline soldiers were a mix of veterans and replacements, with relatively good morale, although, like the Germans, badly worn down.
First Army had reached the limits of the worst of the hedgerows. Beyond lay rolling countryside. Roads were more numerous; many were tarred; a few were even four-lane. The front line ran close to the St. LoPeriers road, which was an east-west paved highway, the N-800. Here the Panzer Lehr Division held the line for the Germans. Facing them were the American 9th, 4th, and 30th divisions.
Bradley decided he could use the St. Lo-Periers road as a marker for the strategic air forces and lay a carpet of bombs on Panzer Lehr by having the bombers fly parallel to the road-a landmark they couldn't miss. The area to be obliterated was six kilometres along the road and two kilometres south of it. Massed artillery would come after the bombardment, followed by a tank-infantry assault three divisions strong. If it worked, the Americans would break out of the hedgerow country and uncover the entire German left wing in Normandy, with Patton's Third Army ready to come in and exploit a breakthrough. Bradley gave the operation the code name Cobra.
On July 24 the weather appeared acceptable, and an order to go went out to the airfields, only to be rescinded after a third of the bombers had taken off. By the time the recall signal had gone out, one flight of B17s had crossed the coast and released its load of 500-pound bombs through cloud cover. Most of the bombs fell short, causing casualties in the American 30th Division and leaving the infantrymen madder than hell.
Worse, the bombers had come in perpendicular to the line, not parallel. The airmen argued that they couldn't funnel all the bombers through the narrow corridor created by using a single marker. It would take hours for them to pass over the target-all the time exposed to antiaircraft fire from the 88s. By coming in perpendicular, spread out, the bombers would only be taking flak during the seconds it took to cross the line and jdrop the bombs. Bradley still wanted a parallel approach, but the airmen convinced him that it was too late to change the plan.
July 25 was clear. At 0938 some 550 fighter-bombers were guided in by radio messages from air controllers riding in tanks at the head of armoured columns. P-47s fired rockets and machine guns on German positions just south of the road and dropped 500-pound bombs that could be placed within 300 metres of the American lines.
Reporter Ernie Pyle wrote, "The dive bombers hit it just right. We stood in the barnyard of a French farm and watched them barrel nearly straight down out of the sky. They were bombing less than a half-a-mile ahead of where we stood. They came in groups, diving from every direction, perfectly timed, one after another."
After twenty minutes the P-47s gave way to 1,800 B-17s. Their appearance left men groping for words to describe it. Pyle did it this way: "A new sound gradually droned into our ears-a gigantic faraway surge of doomlike sound. It was the heavies. They came on in flights of twelve, three flights to a group and in groups stretched out across the sky. Their march across the sky was slow and studied. I've never known anything that had about it the aura of such a ghastly relentlessness."
They were 12,000 feet high. Captain Belton Cooper was on the ground.
"Once they started, it was like some giant prehistoric dragon snake forming a long great continuum across the sky with its tail extended over the horizon." For a full hour their strike saturated the area just south of the road to a depth of 2,500 metres. The results for the Germans were near-catastrophic.
The bombed area looked like the surface of the moon. Entire hedgerows were blasted away. German general Fritz Bayerlein reported that he lost "at least seventy per cent of my troops, out of action-dead, wounded, crazed, or numbed."
During the second half hour of the bombardment the bombline moved north. Dust and debris raised by the first waves were drifting on a south wind. The CO of Company B, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, described what happened: "The dive bombers came in beautifully, dropped their bombs right in front of us just where they belonged. Then the first group of heavies dropped theirs. The next wave came in closer, the next one closer, still closer. Then they came right on top of us. The shock was awful."
There were 111 GIs killed and 490 wounded by the shorts. Among the dead was General Lesley McNair, chief of the army ground forces, who was in the front line to witness the attack.
This bombardment was supplemented by artillery fire-1,000 guns in all. The gunners' initial task was to suppress German antiaircraft fire. When the first wave of bombers appeared, 88s knocked three of them out of the sky. But little Piper Cubs were flying near enough to the German lines to spot the flashes and call in German positions to American artillery.
When the shells started coming down on them, the German artillerymen dove into their bunkers and the antiaircraft fire ceased. Then, in a general hour-long barrage, the GIs fired 50,000 artillery shells. Overhead, as the B-17s departed, 350 P-47s swooped in for another twenty-minute strike against the narrow strip just south of the road, dropping napalmfilled drums. Their departure was the signal for the infantry and tanks to begin the ground attack. As they did so, 396 Marauders hit the rear of the German front line.
Altogether some 16,000 tons of bombs hit the Germans, supplemented by the artillery barrage. It was the greatest expenditure of explosives for a single attack in the army's history. Private Herbert Meier, a radioman, recalled, "So many planes over so little space, and the bombs rained down. I saw the bombs being released, and the way they shone in the sun for a moment, then fell to earth so fast that one could not see them. The explosions sent great geysers of earth into the air. I ran from hole to hole like a rabbit."
Everywhere there was death and destruction. Men not hit by shrapnel were bleeding from the nose, ears, mouth. The world seemed to be coming to an end. For Major Joachim Barth, CO of a German antitank battalion, it almost had. "When the shelling finally stopped," he recalled,
"I looked out of my bunker. The world had changed. There were no leaves on the trees. It was much harder to get around. We had wounded. We needed medics, but no ambulances could come forward."
The Americans had suffered, too, and when Bradley got the news of the shorts, he wrote that at his headquarters "dejection settled over us like a wet fog." But he remained determined to take immediate advantage of the shock to the Germans. He sent his energy down the line: Let's go!
The company CO of the 4th Division, who asked for a delay so that he could reorganize his shattered troops, was told, "No. Push off. Jump off immediately."
Lieutenant Sidney Eichen of the 30th Division had a similar experience. "My outfit was decimated," he reported, "our anti-tank guns blown apart. I saw one of our truck drivers, Jesse Ivy, lying split down the middle. Captain Bell was buried in a crater." But Eichen's regimental commander ran from company to company shouting,
"You've gotta get going, get going!" So, Eichen said, "halfheartedly, we started to move."
On the German side, Major Joachim Barth remembered that as the shelling stopped, he told his men, "Get ready!" They were "digging people out, digging out the guns and righting them. Get ready! Get ready! Prepare your positions. They'll soon be here. Everyone knew what he had to do."
The first advancing GIs passed disabled German vehicles, shattered corpses, and disoriented survivors-but they also found veterans of Panzer Lehr "doing business at the same old stand with the same old merchandise-dug-in tanks and infantry," Captain Belton Cooper said. Private Gtinter Feldmann of Panzer Lehr later recalled that "the first words I heard from an American were 'Goddamn it all, the bastards are still there!' He meant my division."
German artillery fire on the GIs was also heavy, as some of the dug-in German artillery survived. As darkness came on July 25, little or no gain had resulted from the air strike. Cobra looked to be another Goodwood.
BUT IF THE GIs and their generals were discouraged. General Bayerlein of the 12th SS Panzer Division was in despair. When an officer came from army headquarters conveying Field Marshal von Kluge's order that the St. Lo-Periers line must be held, that not a single man should leave his position, Bayerlein replied, "Out in front every one is holding out. Every one. My grenadiers and my engineers and my tank crews-they're all holding their ground. Not a single man is leaving his post. They are lying silent in their foxholes, for they are dead. The Panzer Lehr Division is annihilated."
July 26 was a day of suspense. The Americans attacked; the Germans held. On July 27 the thin crust of Panzer Lehr disintegrated.
First Army had accomplished the breakthrough, in the process developing an air ground team unmatched in the world. Now, along with Third Army, it was finally going to get into a campaign for which it had been trained and equipped. Now the most mobile army in the world could capitalize on its mobility.
WITH AN OPEN road to Paris, Patton was activated, and all his pentup energy turned loose. He had come over in time for Cobra, to set up Third Army headquarters. He took command of one corps in Normandy and had other divisions coming in from England. Meanwhile, General Courtney Hodges succeeded Bradley as First Army commander, while Bradley moved up to command Twelfth Army Group (First and Third armies). First Army pressed south as German resistance collapsed.
The Wehrmacht was out of the hedgerows, trying desperately to get away. Patton's tanks mauled them; the Jabos terrorized them. Destroyed German tanks, trucks, wagons, and artillery pieces, along with dead and wounded horses and men, covered the landscape.
Captain Belton Cooper described the Allied air-ground teamwork. When two Panther tanks threatened his maintenance company from across a hedgerow, the liaison officer in a Sherman got on its radio to give the coordinates to any Jabos in the area. "Within less than forty-five seconds, two P-47s appeared right over the treetops travelling like hell at three hundred feet." They let go their bombs 1,000 feet short of Cooper's location: he and his men dived into their foxholes.
The bombs went screaming over. The P-47s came screaming in right behind them, firing their eight .50-calibre machine guns. The bombs hit a German ammunition dump. "The blast was awesome," Cooper said.
"Flames and debris shot some five hundred feet into the air. There were wheels, tank tracks, helmets, backpacks and rifles flying in all directions. The tops of trees were sheared off and a tremendous amount of debris came down on us."
"I have been to two church socials and a county fair," said one P-47 pilot, "but I never saw anything like this before!"
THE RETREAT was turning into a rout, and a historic opportunity presented itself. As the British and Canadians picked up their attack, Patton had open roads ahead, inviting his fast-moving armoured columns to cut across the rear of the Germans-whose horse-drawn artillery and transport precluded rapid movement encircle them and destroy the German army in France, then end the war with a triumphal unopposed march across the Rhine and on to Berlin.
Patton lusted to seize that opportunity. He had trained and equipped Third Army for just this moment: straight east to Paris, then northwest along the Seine to seize the crossings, and the Allies would complete an encirclement that would leave the Germans defenceless in the west. Patton could cut off German divisions in northern France, Belgium, and Holland as he drove for the Rhine. That was the big solution. But neither Eisenhower nor Bradley was bold enough to risk it. They worried about Patton's flanks; he insisted that the Jabos could protect them. They worried about Patton's fuel and other supplies; he insisted that in an emergency they could be airlifted to him. But Ike and Bradley picked the safer alternative, the small solution. They wanted the ports of Brittany, so they insisted that Patton stay with the pre-D-Day plan with modifications. It had called for Patton to turn the whole of Third Army into Brittany: when he protested that he wanted to attack towards Germany, not away from it, Eisenhower and Bradley relented to the extent that they gave him permission to reduce the Brittany attack to one corps, leaving two corps to head east.
An entire corps of well-trained, well-equipped tankers, infantrymen, and artillery had been wasted at a critical moment. To Patton it was outrageous that his superiors wouldn't turn him loose. In the boxing analogy, Patton wanted to throw a roundhouse right and get the bout over; his superiors ordered him to throw a short right hook to knock the enemy off-balance. But the enemy already was staggering. He should have been knocked out.
HITLER KNEW his army was staggering. Should it fall back? Get out of Normandy and across the Seine while the getting was good? That was what his generals wanted to do because it made obvious military sense.
But Hitler hated to retreat and loved to take risks. Where his generals saw the jaws of a trap closing on them, he saw a once-only opportunity to go for the American jugular.
As Patton began his short right hook, swinging his divisions north, a glance at the map showed Hitler that the corridor through which Third Army received its supplies was exceedingly narrow (about 30 kilometres) and thus vulnerable. By bringing down more infantry and tankers from north of the Seine, Hitler told Kluge that he would have ample troops to cut that corridor. With these fresh troops Kluge could mount a full-scale counteroffensive. It would start at Mortain, objective Avranches. Once the line had been cut, Patton could be destroyed in place. The Germans could force the fighting back into the hedgerow country, perhaps even drive the Americans back into the sea.
Kluge and every soldier involved thought it madness. Beyond the problems of the Jabos and American artillery, these new divisions were not well equipped-few Panthers or Tigers-and anyway they were not fresh troops. Major Heinz-Giinter Guderian was with the 116th Panzer Division. He recalled, "Most of our people were old soldiers from the Eastern Front. Many of our wounded had returned. We also received parts of a training division, teenagers who had just been inducted and were not trained. To begin an attack with the idea that it is without hope is not a good idea. We did not have this hope." Hitler ordered it done.
Because Hitler mistrusted his generals, he took control of the battle, which forced him to use the radio, allowing Ultra-the British deciphering device-to reveal both the general plan and some of the details. So on August 5 Eisenhower knew what was coming: six German armoured divisions. Between them and Avranches stood one American infantry division-the 30th.
Despite the numbers, no one in the American high command doubted that the 30th, supported by Thunderbolts and British Typhoons and American artillery, could hold. Eisenhower told Patton to keep moving. In Elsenhower's view the Germans were sticking their heads in a noose. On the morning of August 7 he flew to Normandy and met with Bradley, who agreed to hold Mortain with minimal forces while rushing every available division south, through the corridor and out into the interior.
THE GERMAN attack had begun before dawn, tanks rolling forward through the night without artillery preparation. It had achieved tactical surprise and by noon was in Mortain. But the Germans could not dislodge the 700 men of the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Division, from an isolated bluff. Hill 317, just east of the town. The GIs on the hill had a perfect view of the surrounding countryside, and forward observers with a radio system that allowed them to call in artillery and Jabos. The Germans had to take that hill before driving on to the coast.
Before dawn on the next day, August 8, one of the forward observers, Lieutenant Robert Weiss, heard, more than he saw, a concentration of German tanks milling around at a roadblock set up by the GIs the previous night. He had the coordinates already fixed and called in a barrage. "That kept them away," Weiss reported, "except for one tank which came through into our company territory, sniffing the dark like a nearsighted dragon. Our guys lay motionless, not a breath, not a sound. In the dark the tank found nobody to fight. It turned and went back to its lair."
With daylight German 88s began shelling the hill. At the top there was a rocky ridgeline. Weiss crawled up to it and lifted his head. He had a panoramic view, but there was the great danger that the Germans would spot him as he spotted them, especially as the sun was coming up and there was a reflection off his binoculars. He sucked in his breath, called his radio operator forward, and started crawling to the top of the crag. "We had to be quick," Weiss said. "The fire missions had to come with almost the speed of the shooting in a quick-draw western-and with comparable accuracy."
Sergeant Joe Sasser, tucked into the reverse slope, set up his radio:
"Ready, Lieutenant." Weiss called Sergeant John Corn to move up beside him before scrambling up the precipice to the top. The sun glared. Head low, body flattened, elbows stretched far apart and resting on the ground, binoculars up to his face, Weiss searched and waited.
The Germans began firing-88s and mortars. "Smoke from the muzzles of the German guns wreathed their position like smoke rings from a cigar," Weiss remembered. He called out to Sergeant Corn, "Fire Mission. Enemy battery," and gave the coordinates. Corn passed it on down to Sasser, who radioed in the coordinates.
Weiss could only wait in apprehension. Sasser called up softly, "On the way."
"A freight train roared by from the left side," Weiss said. "Almost instantly clouds of smoke broke near the German position. I shouted an adjusting command to Corn who passed it quickly to Sasser and on to battalion. The next salvos were right on target." That German battery was out of action.
Shells came in from the left from six enemy self-propelled guns. Weiss repeated the sequence with similar satisfactory results. Then a single tank and yet another battery fired on Hill 317. Weiss called in a barrage on the tank that set it ablaze, then turned his attention to the battery. The follow-up rounds were on target. "The enemy," Weiss noted with satisfaction, "had been neutralized."
Weiss called for some thirty fire missions that day, scrambling up the ridge each time the Germans began firing. Some half-dozen other observers were doing similar work that day.
EVEN AS THE Mortain offensive began, Patton's forces had overrun Le Mans and turned northwest, towards Argentan. Montgomery and Bradley agreed that the Americans should halt outside Argentan to await the Canadians (with the Polish 1st Armoured Division in the lead) coming down from Falaise. When they met, the entire German army in Normandy would be encircled.
The men of the 2nd Battalion of the 30th Division were on their own. By not reinforcing Hill 317, Bradley tempted the Germans to keep on pushing west. But how long could the men on the hill hold out? For five days the hill was surrounded. While the Americans and Canadians were closing the envelopment behind them, the Germans continued the offensive. They threw tank columns into the attack: American artillery, responding to Lieutenant Weiss and the other observers, broke them up.
On August 9, German light tanks tried again. There were five attacks in the first hour that morning. Weiss, who had not eaten or slept for 48 hours, was operating on adrenaline. He was 21 years old and filled with the wonderful feeling that he was making a difference in a crucial battle. The frantic activity-shooting up tanks, troops, guns, and vehicles-cut through his fatigue and masked it. He was exhilarated. On the third day, still without rest, he sent this message: "As sleepy, tired and hungry as I am, I never felt so good as I feel right now."
The observers were calling up to P-47s and British Typhoons whenever they saw German tanks on the road. Meanwhile, elements of the 4th, 9th, and 35th divisions hammered the German flanks. As on Hill 317, forward observers on high ground called in fire missions. Eighteen-yearold Private Robert Baldridge was in the 34th Field Artillery Battalion, 9th Division. He recalled, "The visibility from the top of this hill was excellent. What a change it was from the narrow confines of the hedgerows. We saw some twenty miles distant, even the spires of MontSt. Michel."
That day the leading elements of the American forces got into Alengon. Argentan was but 40 kilometres to the northwest. But the GIs were meeting stouter resistance because the Germans were awakening to their danger. Major Charles Cawthorn, an infantry battalion CO in Patton's army, recalled that this was not "a game of Allied hounds coursing the German hare," as the press was reporting it, but rather the hunt after "a wounded tiger into the bush; the tiger turning now and again to slash at its tormentors, each slash drawing blood." Kluge, meanwhile, was pleading with Hitler to allow him to retreat to the east while the gap was still open.
ON HILL 317 the position was precarious-no food, ammunition running low, and worst of all, the radio batteries were dying. Sergeant Sasser retrieved discarded batteries and set them out on rocks. The sun restored some life. He switched batteries several times a day, restoring one set while using another. Even so, by the end of the fourth day, it was doubtful that he could keep them going.
The GIs had long since cleaned out the chicken coops and rabbit pens around the half-dozen farms on the hill, along with the fruit and vegetable cellars, and were eating raw vegetables gathered from the gardens-when they got anything to eat. Medical supplies had long since run out. After the fourth day Weiss reported, "We could see no end." Incoming radio messages told the 2nd Battalion to hold on, help was coming. But when?
Lieutenant Ralph Kerley commanded E Company of the 2nd. After four days and nights of fighting, he was exhausted, discombobulated, but he kept at his work. At midmorning of the fifth day, studying the panorama below him through binoculars, he spotted a German mortar crew served by a half-dozen men.
"Sergeant," he called out to the leader of his own mortar team, "how many rounds do you have left?" "One, sir."
Kerley paused, thought about what relief it would bring if he could put that mortar out of action, thought about the danger he would be in if he was out of shells. "Do you think you can hit the son of a bitch?"
"Yes, sir. I reckon I can."
"Then blow his ass off."
The sergeant gathered up his crew and brought the 60-mm mortar assembly forward. Kerley watched the enemy mortar crew loafing, lying around, sunbathing, laughing. Occasionally one man would stroll back into the bushes and emerge with a shell, drop it down the tube, and shortly thereafter the shell would explode to the right or left, showering Kerley with rocks and dirt.
Kerley studied his map, turned to the sergeant, pointed, and said, "Put it right here."
The sergeant made his own survey with his binoculars. A private, his Ml slung across his back, clutched the sole remaining mortar shell for dear life against his belly. Kerley and the sergeant talked quietly about wind, distance, elevation, made adjustments on the elevating screw. One last consultation, one minor adjustment.
Satisfied, the sergeant turned to the rifleman with the mortar shell. The private stretched his hands out to the sergeant as if passing off a newborn baby. The sergeant took the shell, kissed it, dropped it in, ducked, and called out, "On the way." Kerley steadied his glasses, peering intently, holding his breath.
Klaboom! The shell exploded less than ten metres from the enemy mortar team. Two of the men leapt up and dashed away. Two others grabbed their mortar and ran. Kerley started breathing again. "Nice work, Sergeant," he called out.
ON AUGUST 11 Kluge finally got Hitler's permission to break off the attack at Mortain and begin the retreat through the Falaise gap. It was a momentous, if inevitable, decision, because once the retreat began, there was no place to stop, turn, and defend short of the Siegfried Line at the German border. The line of the Seine could not be defended: there were too many bends in the river, too many potential crossing places to defend. Once the retreat began, the Battle of France had been won.
At 1430 on the fifth day of the siege of Hill 317, August 12, the 35th Division broke through the German lines and relieved the 2nd Battalion on Hill 317. Of the 700 GIs on the hill, some 300 were dead (including Sergeant Corn) or wounded. Lieutenant Weiss had called in 193 fire missions while the battalion had been surrounded. After eating and getting some sleep, he wrote his after action report on a typewriter, hunting and pecking. It was ten pages long. Summing up what he had learned from his five-day ordeal, Weiss wrote: "Although quite often beat back and silenced, at the slightest carelessness in exposing ourselves thereafter, the enemy would strike back at us. He doesn't quit. His aggressiveness demands a twenty-four-hour observation."
Then Weiss wrote a letter to his father: "Not much to write about from here."
THE SPECTACULAR performance by 2nd Battalion, aided by the remainder of the 30th Division, had stopped the German thrust to the coast. Altogether the Germans lost more than 80 per cent of the tanks and vehicles they had thrown into the Mortain attack. Now their entire army in Normandy was threatened. The rush to get out, to get over the Seine and back to Germany, was on.
By no means did all the Germans participate. Slackers, defeatists, realists seized their opportunity to surrender, convinced that becoming a POW in British or American hands was their best chance of survival. Captain John Colby remembered: "One dark night we pulled off the road. One of our guys lay down to sleep beside an already sleeping German soldier who had become separated from his comrades and had lain down here for the night. When the German awoke the next morning he shook the American to arouse him and then surrendered to him."
But by no means were all the Germans surrendering. The toughest units and the most fanatical Nazis-panzer and Waffen SS troops-were determined to get out so as to fight another day.
On August 14 Eisenhower issued a rare order of the day (he sent out only ten in the course of the war), exhorting the Allied soldiers: "If everyone does his job, we can make this week a momentous one in the history of this war-a brilliant and fruitful week for us, a fateful one for the ambitions of the Nazi tyrants." The order of the day was broadcast over BBC and distributed to the troops in mimeographed form.
The following day Eisenhower held a press conference. There was great excitement among the reporters, who had earlier been gloomy about the stalemate in Normandy and were now optimistic about what lay ahead, as evidenced by the first question Eisenhower received: "How many weeks to the end of the war?"
Eisenhower, disturbed by the excessive optimism, exploded. He said such thoughts were "crazy." The Germans were not going to collapse. He predicted that the end would come only when Hitler hanged himself, but warned that before he did, he would "fight to the bitter end," and most of his troops would fight with him.
IF NOT MOST, enough. The Canadians did not get to Falaise until August 17 and then failed to close the gap between Falaise and Argentan. The German army still had an escape route open. For sheer ghastliness in World War II nothing exceeded the experience of the Germans caught in the Falaise gap. They were in a state of total fear day and night. They seldom slept. They dodged from bomb crater to bomb crater. "It was complete chaos," Private Herbert Meier remembered. "That's when I thought. This is the end of the world."
German army, corps, and division headquarters got out first and headed towards the Siegfried Line. Most junior officers felt like the enlisted men-it was every man for himself.
"It was terrible," Lieutenant Giinter Materne recalled, "especially for those lying there in pain. It was terrible to see men screaming 'Mother!' or
'Take me with you; don't leave me here! I have a wife and child at home. I'm bleeding to death!'"
Lieutenant Walter Padberg explained: "Honestly said, you did not stop to consider whether you could help this person when you were running for your life. One thought only of oneself."
"All shared a single idea," according to Corporal Friedrich Bertenrath of the 2nd Panzer Division. "Out! Out! Out!"
All this time, bombs, rockets, mortars, and machine-gun fire came down on the Germans. Along the roads and in the fields dead cows, horses, and .soldiers swelled in the hot August sun, their mouths agape, filled with flies. Maggots crawled through their wounds. Tanks drove over men in the way-dead or alive. Human and animal intestines made the roads slippery.
Lieutenant George Wilson of the 4th Division was astonished to discover that the Wehrmacht was a horse-drawn army, but impressed by the equipment. He had been raised on a farm and "was amazed at such superb draughthorses and accoutrements. The leather was highly polished, and all the brass rivets and hardware shone brightly. The horses had been groomed, with tails bobbed, as though for a parade." His men mercifully shot the wounded animals.
By August 18 the 1st Polish Armoured Division had moved south, almost to the point of linking up with the US 90th Division to close the gap. Still. Germans escaped. One of them was Lieutenant Padberg.
"When we made it out of the pocket," he recalled, "we were of the opinion that we had left hell behind us." He quickly discovered that the boundaries of hel! were not so constricted. Once beyond the gap, Padberg ran into an SS colonel.
"Line up!" the colonel bellowed. "Everyone is now under my command!
We are going to launch a counterattack." There were twenty or so men. The others shuffled into something like a line, Padberg said, "but unfortunately, I had to go behind a bush to relieve myself and missed joining the group behind the colonel."
Even in the bloody chaos of Falaise, a humane spirit could come over the young men sc far from home. Lieutenant Hans-Heinrich Dibbern, of Panzer Grenadier Regiment 902, set up a roadblock outside Argentan.
"From the direction of the American line came an ambulance driving towards us," he remembered. "The driver was obviously lost. When he noticed that he was behind German lines, he slammed on the brakes." Dibbern went to the ambulance. "The driver's face was completely white. He had wounded men he was responsible for. But we told him, 'Back out of here and get going. We don't attack the Red Cross.' He quickly disappeared."
An hour or so later, "here comes another Red Cross truck. It pulls up right in front of us. The driver got out, opened the back, and took out a crate. He set it down on the street and drove away. We feared a bomb, but nothing happened. We opened the box and it was filled with Chesterfield cigarettes."
ON AUGUST 20, at Chambois, the linkup of the Americans and Polish troops finally occurred. Captain Laughlin Waters recorded that over the next couple of days "the Germans attacked with all of the fury they could bring to bear, fuelled by their desperation to escape." Others were trying to surrender, many of them successfully-too many, in fact. Neither the Poles nor the Americans had the facilities to deal with them. Waters established a POW pen in Chambois. but it was badly overcrowded.
On August 23 the SHAEF G-2 summary declared, "The enemy in the West has had it. Two and a half months of bitter fighting have brought the end of the war in Europe within sight, almost within reach." Two days later American forces liberated Paris. General Charles de Gaulle was already there, along with elements of the French 2nd Armoured Division. Paris was overrun by reporters, led by Ernest Hemingway, and over the next few days had one of the great parties of the war.
THE BATTLE of Normandy had lasted seventy-five days. It cost the Allies 209,672 casualties, 39,976 dead. Two thirds of the losses were American. It cost the Germans around 450,000 men, 240,000 of them killed or wounded.
But between 20,000 and 40,000 Wehrmacht and SS soldiers got out. They had but a single thought: get home. Home meant Germany, prepared defensive positions in the Siegfried Line, fresh supplies, reinforcements. They had taken a terrible pounding, but they were not so sure as SHAEF
G-2 that they had "had it."