While the American 30th Division fought desperately to hold on to Mortain, the newly constituted First Canadian Army launched another major attack down the road to Falaise. This was Operation Totalize. Montgomery did not think much of its commander, Lieutenant General Henry Crerar, and made it abundantly clear. He saw him as a gunner of the First World War, uninspiring and ponderous. Crerar’s rigidity had not been admired by the Canadian 1st Infantry Division in Italy, who much preferred serving under experienced British commanders from the Eighth Army.
There was also a political dimension. Crerar was determined to defend Canadian interests. Monty saw this as a challenge to his command. Senior Canadian officers detected a supercilious attitude towards them, which was not helped when Montgomery sent some of his staff officers to Crerar’s headquarters to supervise the operation. Montgomery also regarded Major General Rod Keller of the 3rd Canadian Division as ‘quite unfit to command a division’. On the other hand, he greatly admired Lieutenant General Guy Simonds of II Canadian Corps, who planned and commanded Totalize.
Because of the shortage of Canadian troops, First Canadian Army was made up to strength with I British Corps and also the recently arrived 1st Polish Armoured Division. The attack was to begin just before midnight on 7 August. The 51st Highland Division, now returning to their earlier high standard, would advance down the east side of the Caen- Falaise road, while the 2nd Canadian Division advanced on the west side. General Crerar, aware that stories of the SS killing Canadian prisoners had spread to his newly arrived troops, issued a strong order against committing excesses ‘to avenge the death of our comrades’.
Simonds had learned from earlier British mistakes, especially those made during Goodwood. He decided to launch a night attack to reduce losses from the Germans’ vastly superior 88 mm anti-tank guns. He also mounted leading infantry units in armoured vehicles. To obtain a sufficient quantity of carriers for them, the 105 mm artillery guns were removed from self-propelled ‘Priests’, which were dubbed ‘defrocked Priests’. This would help the attacking formations to move forward with infantry immediately the bombers had finished saturating the German front-line positions.
Simonds, however, was misled by information gathered from a Yugoslav deserter who had slipped across the lines from the 89th Infanterie-Division to surrender. This man reported that his division had just replaced the 1st SS Panzer-Division. Simonds, not realizing that the Leibstandarte had been diverted to the Mortain counter-attack, assumed it had simply been withdrawn to stiffen the second line between Saint-Sylvain and Bretteville-sur-Laize. This influenced his view of the battle. He decided that the second phase, led by the Polish and Canadian armoured divisions, should not begin until after another bombing attack at 13.00 hours the following day.
The start-line for Totalize was along the Bourguébus ridge. The Canadians had already lost many men hammering away at the villages of Verrières, Tilly-la-Campagne and La Hogue, where their attack had in fact delayed the departure of the SS Leibstandarte for Mortain. The tank crews of the British 33rd Armoured Brigade with the 51st Highland Division had a ‘last supper’ of bully beef and hard-tack ‘dog’ biscuits, mugs of tea made foul with over-chlorinated water and a rum ration out of a large stoneware bottle. It was a hot night, so tank crews wore little more than a pair of shorts under their denim coveralls. Most felt the usualchill up the spine and an empty feeling in the guts at the prospect of battle.
At 23.00 hours on 7 August, a bombing raid on the flanks of the advance began with 1,000 Lancasters and Halifaxes. Without waiting, the offensive started with seven mobile columns of tanks and Priests carrying the infantry. An artillery bombardment, advancing at ninety yards a minute, preceded them. Each column - three British on the east of the road and four Canadian on the west - proceeded with four tanks abreast. They had practised keeping formation at night. ‘Blimey! Square-bashing in tanks,’ commented a radio operator with the 1st Northants Yeomanry on the left.
To help the tank drivers in the dark, ‘artificial moonlight’ was created by reflecting searchlights off the cloud above and Bofors guns fired green tracer over their heads to point the way. But the pall of dust thrown up by the shelling and bombing, and the craters in their way soon put paid to the column formation. A number of tanks toppled into craters in the dark. Over the uneven ground, the Shermans and Cromwells rolled and dipped like ships in a heavy sea. Flail tanks led the way to explode mines. There was much stopping and starting, with frequent hold-ups usually caused by hedgerows which had to be breached in the dark, with a dismounted crew member directing the driver with the glow of a cigarette tip.
Asordered,the British columns forged on even though heavy fighting continued in their rear for La Hogue and Tilly-la-Campagne. The Canadians also had trouble finding their way in the dark and dust. On the right flank, the Calgary Highlanders encountered well-sited 88s as they advanced on May-sur-Orne, and the Black Watch of Canada also suffered in their attack on Fontenay-le-Marmion. The 2nd Canadian Division’s lack of battle experience contributed to its heavy casualties. The Germans resisted fiercely. They were already under pressure from the British 59th Division, which had just gained bridgeheads across the river to their rear in the Forêt de Grimbosq.
One of the 59th Division’s infantry battalions, the 7th Norfolks, had crossed the Orne, following a very tall officer, Captain Jamieson, who had marched in to see if they could wade across. During the day of 7 August, the 26th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from theHitler Jugend had counter-attacked. Sergeant Courtman of the Norfolks managed to knock out two Panthers and a Mark III Panzer with his anti-tank gun, which had greatly boosted morale. That night in the forest the Norfolks could hear more tanks moving about ahead of them, so they called for artillery support. The rapid fire of twenty-five-pounder batteries convinced many German soldiers that the British had invented an artillery version of the machine gun.
The next morning, the panzergrenadiers launched another counterattack on the Norfolks. Captain Jamieson, wounded in the right eye and left arm, won a Victoria Cross for leading the defence of D Company. As they were about to be overrun, he called down artillery fire on their own position. Fortunately, radio communications were working well and again their artillery support was excellent. It was also sympathetic. ‘The artillery has an awfully easy job compared with the infantry,’ a young gunner officer noted in his diary. A medical officer with the 59th Division described the battle from a hill west of the Orne: ‘A magnificent view of the Orne valley running down to the small town of Thury-Harcourt. There were fires burning in the woods on the far side of the valley caused by shells or mortar bombs.’
The Orne sector continued to be a heavy slog after the capture of Mont Pinçon. ‘Here on the British front,’ wrote Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division headquarters, ‘[the Germans] are slowly being driven back but [they] fight very hard, naturally, or we should encircle them. It is tiring, unexhilarating fighting, but it pins down Germans and kills them.’ Throughout Operation Totalize, soldiers on field punishment from the 5th Wiltshires continued to bury their dead from the battle for Mont Pinçon. ‘During these days, I seemed to be doing nothing but burials,’ their padre wrote. But he was uplifted by the astonishing resilience of French civilians in the face of suffering. ‘The further on we go,’ he wrote, ‘the more wonderful the spirit of the French, for whom “liberation” usually means loss of everything.’
Either side of the Falaise road, most of Simonds’s columns had reached their objectives by dawn on 8 August. East of the road, the 1st Northants Yeomanry and the Black Watch had taken up positions in woods and orchards just south of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. They were very close to Gaumesnil, where Oberführer Kurt Meyer, the commander of the 12th SS Panzer-Division Hitler Jugend, had set up an observation post. This was the critical moment of the whole operation. Simonds, certain that the Germans had established a strong second line with the 1st SS Panzer-Division, had organized a second bombing raid for soon after midday. His two breakthrough armoured divisions were ready to move, but now had to wait for the bombers.
‘Panzer’ Meyer had driven forward, alarmed by inaccurate reports that the 89th Infanterie-Division had collapsed under the onslaught. Standing upright in his Kübelwagen, he was horrified to see soldiers from the 89th fleeing towards Falaise. He claims to have jumped out of his vehicle and stood alone on the road, armed with just a carbine to shame them into turning back to defend Cintheaux. General Eberbach, still commanding the Fifth Panzer Army before handing over to Sepp Dietrich, came forward to meet him. He promised to send in the 85th Infanterie-Division as soon as it arrived, but its leading elements were still a dozen miles away. Meyer had already received news of the 1st Polish Armoured Division on the east side of the road and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to the west. They were halted in their assembly areas, waiting for a new phase of the offensive.
Meyer said that their only hope was to confuse the enemy with a sudden counter-attack. Eberbach agreed. They both knew that if the Canadians and British broke through to Falaise, the Seventh Army, still trying to relaunch the Avranches counter-attack, would be cut off.Meyer decided that he must pull the panzergrenadiers of the Kampfgruppe Wünsche out of the Forêt de Grimbosq to face the Canadians.
Meyerwent to Cintheaux to brief Waldmüller, his other Kampfgruppe commander for the counter-attack, and the panzer ace Wittmann, who was to support him with his Tiger company. Meyer claims that as they were discussing the plan, they saw a single American bomber appear overhead and drop a marker. Knowing what that signified, they ran for their vehicles. If they advanced immediately, they would miss the worst of the bombing to come. From the northern edge of Cintheaux, Meyer watched Wittmann’s Tigers roll forwards as fast as they could go towards Saint-Aignan, even though the Allied artillery had begun its bombardment. Waldmüller’s panzergrenadiers followed rapidly in their half-tracks. A machine-gunner yelled to Meyer, pointing to the north. The American bombing force was approaching. Meyer claims that one of his young SS soldiers, a Berliner, called out, ‘What an honour! Churchill is sending one bomber for each of us!’
Four Shermans from the 1st Northants Yeomanry were well concealed behind hedgerows and in an orchard south of Saint-Aignan. Suddenly they heard their troop leader over the radio. ‘View Hallo! Three Tigers moving north, line ahead.’ The armoured monsters were following a small lane parallel to the main road. The troop leader ordered them to hold their fire. At that range the Sherman’s 75 mm gun against the armour of a fifty-six-ton Tiger ‘would be like a pea-shooter against a concrete wall’. The Shermans needed to wait until the Tigers were closer. The three with 75 mm guns would smother them with fire, while the one Firefly tank with the powerful seventeen-pounder, would try to pick them off.
Knowing the oft-repeated statistic that a single Tiger usually accounted for three Shermans, the tank crews found their throats go dry in fearful anticipation. Each loader checked that they had an armour-piercing shell in the breech, not high explosive. The gunner, peering through the telescopic sight, traversed the motorized turret slowly, following their target which the troop leader had allocated. The first and last Tigers were the immediate priority.
After an unbearable wait, their prey came to within 800 yards. The troop leader gave the order over the radio. Wittmann and his Tiger crews, unable to see their ambushers, were taken by surprise. As they came under fire, the Tigers shot back, but they could not identify the concealed Shermans clearly. The first two Tigers were set ablaze, the third, the one in which Michael Wittmann probably was, blew up completely. The Sharpshooters ambushed at Villers-Bocage had finally been avenged by a fellow yeomanry regiment.
The Sherman tank crews from the Northants Yeomanry could hardly believe that they had managed to knock out three Tigers for no losses.62 But there was no time for jubilation. Mark IV tanks and panzergrenadiers from Kampfgruppe Waldmüller could be seen advancing through the cornfields ahead.
Troops of the Polish Armoured Division, wearing their distinctive berets on the centre of the head, were over to the left of the Northants Yeomanry, awaiting their turn to advance. Similarly, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had moved forward to the west of the Falaise road and halted. There then followed another ‘friendly fire’ disaster as the main American bombing force arrived.
Formations of over 500 B-17 bombers began to attack six target areas across the front. German sources claim that their flak hit one of the lead bombers, which dropped its load short and that others followed suit. A British artillery officer watching also saw the flak break up the bomber formation. ‘Other aircraft could not find their target and dumped their bombs behind Allied lines causing many casualties,’ he wrote. A doctor who had to deal with the casualties recorded in his diary, ‘The American air force has a bad reputation. They are just as likely to mass bomb our own lines as the Jerries - numerous Canadian and Polish casualties as a result.’
The Canadian and Polish troops which found themselves under attack from their own side rapidly threw yellow smoke grenades to mark their positions. But due to an appalling case of bad liaison between ground and air forces, the Americans were using yellow markers for their bombing. As a result, 315 Canadians and Poles were killed or wounded. The Poles, with considerable self-restraint, described the incident as ‘unfortunate support given by own aircraft’. But the blow to morale and the confusion were to slow the second phase of Simonds’s offensive, with fatal effect. The bombing itself had achieved nothing save to handicap the subsequent advance. With the benefit of hindsight, Simonds should have done without it altogether so as to have maintained momentum. He should have sent in his two armoured divisions in the morning, while the Germans were still reeling from the night attack, rather than halting them to wait for the bombers.
Despite the destruction of Wittmann’s group of Tigers, the counterattack by Meyer’s two Kampfgruppen took the two new Allied armoured divisions aback. Their subsequent performance was hesitant to say the least. After one disastrous cavalry charge in tanks, the Poles were cautious because they were very short of men. Most of their men had fought against the German invasion of Poland in 1939, then escaped across Europe in 1940 to defend France, and finally reached England to continue the battle. German soldiers called these exile volunteers ‘the Sikorski tourists’, after their commander-in-chief and their astonishing journeys.
Polish recruiting teams had even been scouring prisoner of war camps to find Wehrmacht soldiers of Polish origin to make up their numbers. Quite a few served as a result on both sides during the Normandy campaign. The Canadians were also short of men, after their very heavy losses south of Caen, especially around Verrières and on the Bourguébus ridge. Unlike the British, they could not produce reinforcements by disbanding a division.
It became clear during the afternoon of 8 August that the immense possibilities opened up by Totalize were rapidly lost. The Canadians to the west of the Falaise road suffered from bad communications and bad map-reading. Simonds became frantic at the lack of drive shown by the 4th Armoured Division, yet despite all his urging, few columns obtained any momentum. He ordered them to continue the advance during the night, but many units simply retired to all-round defence positions to await the next dawn.
The Germans, however, did not yet know how effective Meyer’s counter-attack had been. Eberbach had been out of touch with Meyer since noon. At 21.10 hours that evening, Kluge, already desperate about the failure at Mortain, stated that the situation on the Falaise front was ‘becoming very serious’. He thought that the 89th Infanterie-Division and the Hitler Jugend were ‘practically destroyed’ and that the bulk of the artillery was lost. He warned that a further Allied advance south towards Falaise would mean that their ‘own attack towards Avranches would lose its purpose’. Kluge promised to send a Panther battalion of the 9th Panzer-Division and one from the SS Hohenstaufen, but neither was able to disengage from their own battles.
During the next day, 9 August, the panzergrenadiers of the Hitler Jugend continued to resist fiercely in small groups, holding off vastly superior Allied forces. But the greatest obstacle to the advance of the armoured divisions, as during Goodwood, remained the 88 mm guns, of both the SS and the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe’s III Flak Corps had just moved another forty of them forward to the Falaise front.63
Before dawn, Simonds ordered one column, known as Worthington Force, to advance south beside the Falaise road and seize Hill 195, north-east of Fontaine-le-Pin. This column, consisting of the British Columbia armoured regiment and two companies from the Algonquins, became hopelessly lost. They crossed the Falaise road south of Cintheaux and, instead of switching back to the west side, carried on and occupied Hill 140 instead of their real objective, four miles to the south-west. Convinced that they had seized the right hill, they reported back and waited.
Meyer’s new observation post was just three miles to the south on another hill at La Brèche-au-Diable. As soon as the SS spotted this isolated detachment, Kampfgruppe Waldmüller prepared an attack. Worthington Force was surrounded for the rest of the day. When they called for artillery support, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division presumed that they were on Hill 195, as they claimed, and provided heavy interdiction fire there, which did no good at all. Worthington’s ghastly mistake was discovered only in the afternoon. The Grenadier Guards of Canada, an armoured regiment, was sent to their aid, but they lost twenty-six Shermans in the open. Colonel Worthington was killed and his force virtually wiped out. Some of the survivors managed to slip through to join the Polish armoured division.
On the Orne flank, the German 271st Infanterie-Division received permission that evening from General Eberbach to pull back into the Forêt de Cinglais. Their commander, Generalleutnant Paul Dannhauser, recorded that they had lost half their officers and NCOs. He also noted that because German aircraft were seen so rarely, his own men opened fire at them immediately, assuming them to be Allied.
The British, now south of Mont Pinçon to the west of the River Orne, had encountered the new German defence line either side of Plessis Grimoult. British troops dubbed the place ‘Bloody Village - a second and even worse Stonkville’, because of the Nebelwerfer rockets raining down. Several tank commanders were killed by shellbursts in the crown of a tree.
Despite the pressure on the Orne flank, Kluge received reassuring news during the afternoon of 9 August. The German line forward of Falaise had been re-established far more rapidly than he had dared hope only twenty-four hours before. After a discussion with the OKW, he agreed to relaunch Operation Lüttich, the counter-attack towards Avranches. Eberbach took command of the panzer group on the Mortain front, while Sepp Dietrich replaced him as head of the Fifth Panzer Army.
This decision by the Germans to relaunch the Avranches offensive raises an intriguing but unanswerable question. Did the failure of Operation Totalize turn out to be an advantage for the Allies in the end? If the Canadians had reached Falaise and Kluge had decided to begin his withdrawal from Mortain on 9 August, would much more of the German Seventh Army, or much less, have managed to escape encirclement later?
Simonds, sorely disappointed, still tried to force forward the advance the next day, 10 August. He wanted to break through the woods at Le Quesnay and on across the River Laizon. But although I SS Panzer Corps was reduced to only forty tanks, most of its 88 mm guns were still in action and formed a powerful screen round Potigny. The Poles particularly felt that the ‘crystal-gazers’ had gravely underestimated German anti-tank defences. There was also little support from Typhoon squadrons, due to bad visibility, but the British and Canadians still do not appear to have improved ground-air cooperation to the degree which the Americans had achieved.
That evening, the Hitler Jugend claimed that they had knocked out 192 Allied tanks in the last two days. The OKW communiqué increased the figure to 278 Allied tanks destroyed on both sides of the River Orne. The Allies had in any case lost well over 150 tanks and General Simonds felt obliged to call off the offensive that night. He could only reflect bitterly on the loss of momentum on 8 August. The need to wait for the bombers in the second phase of his plan had given the Germans their chance.
The fight for the Falaise road appears to have been another savage battle. General Crerar’s warning against retaliation does not seem to have had much effect, considering that there were only eight prisoners from the hated Hitler Jugend in the 1,327 prisoners of war taken to the rear by the II Canadian Corps. Of course, the young SS fanatics were the least likely to surrender even when surrounded, but the figure is nevertheless striking.
Unlike Simonds’s forces attacking Falaise, General George Patton’s Third Army, rampaging through the German rear seventy miles to the south, did not have to worry very much about 88 mm anti-tank guns. Patton’s main concern was keeping his army replenished. ‘The forces are so large,’ he wrote, ‘twelve divisions to me alone - that the supply system is colossal.’ According to General John C. H. Lee, the chief of SHAEF’s rear services, Patton tried to ‘appropriate the whole of fuel resupply for his own army’. He flattered the truck drivers, handing them Third US Army patches, and sometimes he even commandeered the trucks to shift his infantry rapidly. This provoked exasperation and admiration in his colleagues.
The United States Army was the most mechanized force that the world had ever seen, but that brought its own problems. A single tank on average consumed 8,000 gallons of fuel a week. The 3rd Armored Division estimated that just following the road, the division required 60,000 gallons a day. If the division had to go across country, the figure soared. (One 3rd Armored quartermaster calculated 125,000 gallons for the whole division to move 100 yards.) On top of the fuel, an armoured division required thirty-five tons of rations per day for 21,000 men, including all those attached to it, and, depending on the intensity of the fighting, a far greater tonnage of ammunition.
The Americans met the challenge with ruthless prioritization. ‘Supply trains’ with fuel and oil received absolute priority. Each M-25 transporter carried 16,000 gallons. They even used ammunition trucks from the artillery to haul more gasoline. Military police and Piper Cubs were employed to monitor the progress of every convoy, and engineers worked round the clock to improve roads and bridges. At Le Mans, they built the biggest Bailey bridge so far in France and called it ‘Miss America’. It was hardly surprising that the Germans were enviously amazed by what they called ‘a rich man’s war’.
On 8 August, while the battle for Mortain and Operation Totalize were at their height, Bradley became taken with the idea of trapping the Germans between Argentan and Falaise. Eisenhower, who was visiting his headquarters at the time, approved. Another visitor that day was Henry Morgenthau, the Secretary of the Treasury. Bradley, excitedly showing him the map, said, ‘This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army.’
Bradley rang Montgomery to outline the plan. Montgomery agreed somewhat hesitantly. He preferred a longer envelopment just short of the Seine. (If Bradley’s idea had been proposed twenty-four hours later, once it was clear that Simonds’s attack had stalled, Montgomery might well have rejected it.) Patton, who also preferred to catch the retreating Germans on the Seine, was even more dubious, but he agreed to divert Haislip’s XV Corps north from Le Mans towards Alençon and Argentan, ready to meet up with the First Canadian Army coming south from Falaise. He felt that he could always set a second trap later.
Meanwhile, Patton’s XX Corps was clearing his southern flank along the Loire valley. As they approached Angers, a company of Shermans cut off a small German convoy and found that they had captured ‘the pay of an entire division’. On 9 August, part of the corps attacked Angers with three battalions abreast. They were held up by a large anti-tank ditch. Engineers with bulldozers filled in sections so that the tanks could cross and soon they were into the town. The three bridges over the River Mayenne had been blown, but the engineers managed to make one useable. On the night of 10 August, the Americans began crossing to the east bank. The 5th Division’s 2nd Infantry Regiment set about clearing the town. ‘The French beat up the collaborators,’ reported one lieutenant, ‘and although we took them away they would take them back and beat them up some more.’
German attempts to defend their southern flank seemed doomed to failure amid the chaos. The 9th Panzer-Division was badly mauled and the 708th Infanterie-Division completely smashed. Only sixty stragglers appeared later.64 The local commander at Le Mans was accused of having ‘lost his nerve’, and faced a court martial.
Kluge and Eberbach had no clear idea where Patton’s spearheads had reached. But on 10 August, the Germans intercepted a radio message of the 5th Armored Division. This confirmed their fears that the left flank of Patton’s Third Army was swinging north towards Alençon, threatening both their rear and their main supply base. Scratch units were made up in the town from ‘supply troops, maintenance platoons, and tanks under repair’ from the remnants of the Panzer Lehr Division. Panzerfaust launchers were distributed to mechanics and cooks alike. But Alençon was doomed.
On 11 August at midday, Eberbach reached LXXXI Corps headquarters north-east of Alençon for a meeting with Kluge and Hausser. They heard that the 9th Panzer-Division had been badly battered and was retreating to the woods north of the town. The 9th Panzer, now reduced to little more than an infantry battalion, an artillery battalion and six tanks, would not be able to hold out much longer. The Americans would overrun the corps headquarters very soon. The senior officers present made preparations for a hurried departure to the east. There was now not even time for Eberbach’s counter-attack on the southern flank with the panzer divisions withdrawn from Mortain. As soon as they arrived, they could do nothing but try to form a defence line. The German military order in France was collapsing around their heads, yet Hitler was still insisting, ‘The counterattack against Avranches must be carried out!’ Eberbach was almost speechless with rage. ‘It was inconceivable that OKW could not see this trap, especially after Stalingrad, Tunis and the Crimea.’
Suddenly, tank guns could be heard nearby. ‘Enemy shellfire began falling in the area,’ wrote Eberbach. ‘All around us smoke clouds were arising from burning cars. Not until darkness were we able to break camp. As we passed through Sées, I noticed a bakery company taking up defensive positions. All the streets were flooded with rear services streaming northwards.’ Feldgendarmerie and roving courts martial to deal with deserters were deployed round road junctions. Most of the stragglers were formed into improvised combat teams.
Next day, on Eberbach’s orders, the 116th Panzer-Division, the first to arrive from the Mortain sector, moved towards Sées, but it blundered into the French 2ème DB, which had just joined Haislip’s corps. That evening, Eberbach heard that the division had been almost wiped out by artillery and tank fire and that the Americans were forcing their way towards Argentan. Eberbach’s small staff escaped again, but it took them six hours to move twenty miles. The narrow roads were jammed with Wehrmacht vehicles which moved at walking pace. The loss of the supply base near Alençon meant that both the Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach had to be supplied by the Fifth Panzer Army, which was itself dangerously short of fuel and ammunition.
News of the destruction of the 9th Panzer-Division had not yet spread among the divisions retreating east from the Mortain sector. They thought the southern flank was now protected. Allied fighter-bombers continued to target soft-skinned vehicles, especially supply trucks. It proved an effective tactic. The lack of fuel forced the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to abandon and destroy a number of its own tanks. Their troops were retreating with any vehicles to hand, usually with an air observer lying back on one of the front mudguards to watch for Allied fighters. One company still had a Fiat bus, spoils of war from Italy, but the tyres were so punctured that they had to be packed with hay instead of air.
Further south, Gefreiter Spiekerkötter and the small group of pioneers who had escaped through Avranches now headed east, just ahead of Patton’s columns. In the back of their Soviet six-wheeler, the soldiers had hidden a small barrel of Calvados among the mines. Their commander, Leutnant Nowack, who found his men again in a small village square, unfortunately also discovered their hidden barrel of spirits. It was not long before he was drunk and making the ironic toast, ‘Calvados still in German hands!’
Using mortar bombs or any other explosive, the pioneers continued to prepare bridges for demolition. In one small town, they had just finished their work when an SS assault gun, acting as rearguard, trundled over the bridge and ripped up all the wires with its tracks. Before the damage could be repaired, a Sherman tank appeared and started to turn on to the bridge. The SS assault gun hit it with the first shot and it burst into flames. The SS commander, an Unteroffizier, urged the pioneers to leave the town. They needed no further encouragement when American artillery shells began to fall a few moments later. By then their Soviet truck had finally broken down, so they seized a Citroën for their escape towards Paris. This may well have helped them avoid the attentions of Allied pilots and the Resistance.
Of the divisions withdrawing from the failed Avranches counter-attack, only General von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzer-Division was in any sense battleworthy. It was given the task of holding the Ecouché sector, where it was to come up against the 2nd French Armoured Division - the 2ème DB - advancing north from Alençon, with the 5th US Armored Division on their right. Soon after dawn on 13 August, the 2ème DB received a shock when several Panthers, probably from the 116th Panzer-Division, blundered into their headquarters. French Shermans dealt with them at close range.
Leclerc’s division continued that day to clear the Forêt d’Ecouves, nearly capturing General von Lüttwitz in the process. One detachment came across two ‘badly disguised’ civilians pushing a cart. On the cart were two sacks filled with their Wehrmacht uniforms. The French soldiers roared with laughter at their prisoners, who seemed to be relieved that the battle was over for them. ‘Guerre kaputt!’ they said.
There was a considerable amount of confusion on the Allied side too as other divisions tried to fight their way north, only to find themselves blocked by a neighbour moving across their front. General Leclerc of the 2ème DB showed a lofty disregard of corps orders in the attack on the Forêt d’Ecouves. When he took over the main route to Argentan allotted to the 5th Armored Division, chaos ensued because it prevented the American division’s fuel trucks getting through.
A deadly game of hide-and-seek developed in this forested area, with neither side clear where the enemy was. American recce groups would take up ambush positions round a crossroads and wait to see what turned up. On one occasion, a senior German officer who was clearly lost halted his staff car and climbed out with his map to study a signpost. The ambushers took great pleasure in making him jump by blowing up his staff car just behind him. When they ambushed a convoy and raked the trucks with fire, they would occasionally get a surprise themselves when one of the vehicles, carrying fuel and ammunition, went up in a massive explosion.
In the confused situation, the FFI and ordinary French civilians helped whenever they could with information. A tank battalion of the 5th Armored was warned just in time by a small boy about an 88 mm anti-tank gun concealed in the village they were about to enter. But the French were also taken aback by the casual manner of some American troops when it came to killing. In one small town, a Frenchwoman asked what she should do about four Germans hiding in her house. ‘There was no one to take care of them,’ reported a lieutenant with the 10th Tank Battalion, ‘so we put them up against a wall and shot them.’
The lead regiment of the newly arrived American 80th Division was held up both by the 2ème DB and then by the 90th Division of Haislip’s corps. Colonel McHugh, its commander, went up in a Piper Cub spotter plane to try to see what was happening. A destroyed bridge proved another obstacle, and he needed to search for an alternative route. ‘A Frenchman came up to me and in perfect English gave me proper directions to a bridge not far distant,’ McHugh reported. ‘I was so impressed that I took him along with me. Later, I found that he was an American serving in our Strategic Services [OSS] branch, and had been in that area for several months.’
McHugh had the usual problems with a green formation in combat. ‘This was our first real fight and I had difficulty in getting the men to move forward. I had to literally kick the men up from the ground in order to get the attack started, and to encourage the men I walked across the road without any cover.’ Then German tanks appeared. ‘The commanding officer of my leading battalion panicked and the battalion took fright from him. It was necessary to replace his entire battalion to restore their nerve.’ The 80th also suffered from the same mistakes in the replacement system. One regiment ‘received seventeen cooks, when they had suffered no casualties in that department’. They could not send them back, so they had to send these unfortunate cooks into battle as infantrymen, despite their lack of training. Three days in action cost the regiment 523 casualties, of whom eighty-four were killed. On 13 August, McHugh, on hearing that part of the French 2ème DB was ‘having a great tank battle near Carrouges’, went up again in the Piper Cub to watch it from above. Armored Group D and the American 90th Division were fighting the 2nd Panzer-Division and part of the Leibstandarte.
Another armoured group of the 2ème DB then attacked a detachment of the 116th Panzer-Division in Ecouché. As the French Shermans entered the town, a priest leaned out of a window and shouted, ‘Vive l’Amérique!’ ‘C’est la France!’ a captain bellowed back to him. The curé came rushing out with a tricolore and yelled, ‘Vive la France!’ The captain then insisted that he should also cry, ‘Vive de Gaulle!’
The 2ème DB had already suffered close to 600 casualties, including 129 from a bombing attack on 8 August before they had even got to grips with the enemy. As a result, they wasted no opportunity to pick recruits from among the hundreds of young Frenchmen who rushed to enlist. At Ecouché the division even enrolled an Alsatian deserter from the Leibstandarte, who ten days later took part in the Liberation of Paris in French uniform.65
On the afternoon of 13 August, a French fighting patrol entered Argentan, but was soon forced back. Another part of the 116th Panzer-Division had arrived, and the town’s defences were now stiffened with the remnants of the 24th Panzer-Regiment, a flak regiment with quadruple 20 mm cannon and some 88 mm guns. The 116th had orders to hold Argentan at all costs to prevent a thrust up the road to Falaise. The 2ème DB remained in place to the south of the town acting as a ‘solid cork’.
The evening before, Patton had just issued orders to Haislip to continue the advance north. ‘Upon capture of Argentan push on slowly direction of Falaise . . . Upon arrival Falaise continue to push on slowly until you contact our Allies.’ He had then spoken to Bradley by telephone from his advance headquarters near Laval, begging to be allowed to close the gap, but Bradley refused. Soon after midday on 13 August, Patton tried again, but was told categorically by Bradley’s headquarters to halt Haislip’s XV Corps at Argentan. ‘This corps could easily advance to Falaise,’ he wrote in his diary on 13 August, ‘and completely close the gap, but we have been ordered to halt because the British sowed the area between with a large number of time bombs. I am sure that this halt is a great mistake as I am sure that the British [sic] will not close on Falaise.’ He later suspected it was due to ‘British jealousy of the Americans or to utter ignorance of the situation or a combination of the two’.
An advance north might not have been quite as easy as Patton believed. The 5th Armored Division, like the 2ème DB, encountered well-sited 88 mm guns and lost many men and vehicles as it probed forward. But Bradley did not want to move his forces into an area allocated to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group. Both he and Eisenhower were extremely concerned about American and Canadian forces bombarding or bombing each other as they advanced from opposite directions.
Bradley also feared that XV Corps was too weak to hold the Falaise- Argentan gap against the German divisions desperate to escape. And he worried about its open left flank towards Hodges’s First Army, the one where Hitler expected Eberbach to launch his counter-attack. All one can say is that the decision to try for a short envelopment between Argentan and Falaise was a mistake. Yet Montgomery afterwards received far more criticism in many quarters for refusing to change the boundary between the British and American army groups to allow Patton to strike north.
The failure of Operation Totalize to take Falaise has generated more debate than almost any other aspect of the battle for Normandy. Montgomery made a major miscalculation when he expected the Canadians to reach Argentan before the Americans. He had assumed that the Germans would switch more formations to defend their southern flank against Patton. He had also underestimated once again the difficulties of sending untried armoured divisions against a strong screen of 88 mm guns. The Allied obsession with Tigers and Panthers obscured the fact, unrecognized at the time, that they lost rather more Shermans and Cromwells to German anti-tank weapons and Jagdpanzer tank destroyers.
Whatever the precise reasons which contributed to the failure to close the Falaise-Argentan gap, the fact remained that the Americans were furious, and none more so than General Patton. A killing ground for the retreating German armies now had to be found further east.