On 12 August, Major Neave with the 13th/18th Hussars, still pushing forward in the Orne valley, noted in his diary, ‘Very hot - not good fighting weather however - the infantry stream with sweat and dust, and we just roast inside our tanks’. But they consoled themselves that it would soon be over. ‘The bigger picture is terrific, old “Blood and Guts” [Patton] is plugging on towards Paris and here in Normandy the Boche must be very nearly surrounded.’
The Germans, however, were not nearly surrounded. A gap of some twenty miles still existed between Simonds’s Canadian corps north of Falaise and Haislip’s XV Corps round Argentan. Attempts that day by the 59th Division to increase its bridgehead over the Orne near Thury-Harcourt were frustrated by the German 271st Infanterie-Division and the steep wooded hills either side of the river.
The next morning, 13 August, Simonds briefed his formation commanders for a fresh offensive, Operation Tractable. While the main Can-adianforces attackedagain towards Falaise on Montgomery’sinsistence, the Polish 1st Armoured Division on the left flank would head further east towards Trun. Montgomery does not appear to have discussed plans clearly with Bradley, despite a meeting with him that same day. He seems to have reverted to his earlier idea of encircling the Germans on the Seine. Instead of sending the 7th Armoured Division to reinforce the Canadian attack, he dispatched it east towards Lisieux. Montgomery was already starting to lobby Eisenhower to give him all the supplies and support, so that 21st Army Group could charge through to Berlin.
Simonds launched Tractable just at 11.00 hours on the morning of 14 August. Instead of using darkness to avoid losses from the German anti-tank defences, he organized a heavy smokescreen fired by the artillery. Bombers were also used, despite the mishaps during Totalize. This time most of the medium bomber force of 811 aircraft were accurate, although seventy-seven of them dropped their loads on Canadian and Polish troops to the rear, causing 391 casualties.Unbelievably, the same mistake was made of using yellow target markers from the air and yellow smoke grenades on the ground to identify their own troops.
The Canadians soon found that the River Laizon represented a more serious anti-tank ditch than they had imagined. Some of their armoured regiments suffered heavy losses that day. The Poles to their left advanced with great élan, led by their reconnaissance regiment, the 10th Mounted Rifles.
On 14 August, Panzer Group Eberbach received an order from Hitler, passed on over the radio. ‘The attack ordered by me southward past Alençon is to be effected under all conditions immediately as a preparation for an attack on Avranches.’ Eberbach, furious with Hitler’s continuing fantasy, replied with the tank strengths of his divisions: the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had thirty, the 2nd Panzer twenty-five, the 116th Panzer had fifteen and the 9th Panzer was down to a company of panzergrenadiers.
‘The fighting morale of the German troops had cracked,’ wrote Eberbach. ‘They were not just exhausted and weak from hunger. The propaganda promises had all proved false - the invincibility of the Atlantic Wall, the V weapons which would bring Britain to its knees, and the talk of new aircraft and submarines which assured final victory.’ Eberbach became aware of machine guns being thrown away and tanks being abandoned without cause, or even without being blown up. ‘Stragglers without arms were numerous. “Catch lines” to the rear of the front had to be inaugurated [to seize deserters and those fleeing without authorization]. Even the SS was no exception to this rule. The 1st SS Panzer-Division had never before fought so miserably as at that time.’ The Germans also feared an airborne landing in their rear, a plan which the Allies had considered but rejected.
That same day Patton, who had become completely exasperated with the enforced inaction of XV Corps at Argentan, flew to see Bradley. He wanted to drive for the Seine without any further delay. He would send XV Corps to Dreux, XX Corps to Chartres and XII Corps towards Orléans. He was in an exuberant mood by the time he saw Bradley. ‘It is really a great plan, wholly my own,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘and I made Bradley think he thought of it. I am very happy and elated. I got all the corps moving by 20.30 so that if Monty tries to be careful, it will be too late.’ Major General Cook, at his XII Corps command post near Le Mans, received a typically terse message from Patton, delivered by a senior Third Army staff officer: ‘Take Orléans at once.’ Within a few hours, combat command A of the 4th Armored Division had moved out on the road from Saint-Calais to Orléans - a ‘jump of 85 miles’.
Three of Haislip’s divisions, the newly arrived 80th Division, the 90th and the French 2ème DB, were to stay at Argentan while the rest forced east towards Dreux, which lay no more than thirty miles from the Seine. The rapid advance was a huge boost to morale, Patton noted the next day: ‘The number of cases of war-wearies (the new name for cowardice) and self-inflicted wounds have dropped materially since we got moving. People like to play on a winning team.’
The unshaven tank crews of the Third Army had become heroes to the supply troops and others in the rear. ‘A few of the enlisted men even tried to raise beards emulating the combat outfits,’ wrote a doctor with the 2nd Evacuation Hospital, ‘but our commanding officer soon put a stop to that.’
Some people became too carried away by the air of excitement at the apparently unstoppable advance. An American war correspondent, determined to beat his rivals, turned up in Chartres so as to witness the capture of the city. Unfortunately, he was two days early. The German 6th Security Regiment promptly took him prisoner.
Gefreiter Spiekerkötter, still with the pioneer group from the 256th Infanterie-Division which had escaped Avranches, reached Chartres in their battered Citroën. While the garrison troops were organized to defend the town against the approaching Americans, Spiekerkötter and his comrades discovered a Wehrmacht supply depot. It had been abandoned by its staff, but not yet looted. They wandered around, gazing in amazement at the shelves laden with every sort of food, wine, spirits, cigarettes, even electric razors, suede gauntlets and large bottles of eau-de-Cologne: luxuries which the front-line soldier had never seen. ‘We’d have been happy to stay here for the rest of the war,’ Spiekerkötter observed. They loaded the Citroën with tins of food, cigarettes, the suede gloves and a bottle of eau-de-Cologne, and set off to cross the Seine at Melun. They were fortunate not to have been stopped by Feldgendarmerie and forced into a scratch unit to defend the city.
On 15 August, while the Canadians had a tough fight advancing on Falaise, the Poles broke through on the left. Fortunately for them, most of the Luftwaffe 88 mm guns had been withdrawn, but their advance, which took them to the River Dives near Jort, was still an impressive feat. Meanwhile east of Caen, the British I Corps, now part of the First Canadian Army, forced the Germans back to the line of the lower Dives. But as is so often the case in mid-August, the hot weather suddenly ended with heavy thunderstorms and torrential rain. The hard dusty ground turned to ‘a slimy paste’.
Kluge’s headquarters, all too aware of the dangers, wrote that the supply situation was becoming ‘more critical by the hour’. Fifth Panzer Army described their ammunition shortages as ‘catastrophic’. The 85th Infantry Division was reduced to one and a half battalions and the Hitler Jugend had only fifteen tanks left. Yet that day, while the remnants of the German armies in northern France were seeking to escape from the total disaster of encirclement, the end of the Nazi occupation of France was being sealed in the south.
The invasion of southern France, Operation Anvil, had been key to American planning ever since August 1943. Churchill had fought the idea with relentless obstinacy. He did not want to divert troops from the Italian front, mainly because he dreamed of invading Austria and the Balkans to prevent a post-war Soviet frontier running all the way down to the Adriatic.
President Roosevelt, irritated by what he saw as Churchill’s excessive mistrust of Stalin, outmanoeuvred the British at the Teheran Conference in November 1943. Without warning Churchill, he told Stalin about the plan to invade southern France as well as Normandy. The British were appalled. Stalin approved the idea immediately. He even said that the Swiss were ‘swine’, and suggested that they ‘invade the country on [their] way up the Rhône valley’. A lack of shipping and landing craft stopped the invasion of southern France from coinciding with Overlord, as the Americans had wanted, but they would not be blocked from launching it later.
To the exasperation of Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower, the British never stopped trying to divert Anvil, renamed Operation Dragoon, away from southern France. The heated arguments did more to strain the Anglo-American relationship than almost any other disagreement on strategy. Eisenhower also believed that Dragoon, making use of French divisions from Italy and North Africa, would justify the huge American investment and also bring the French in as partners.
Churchill suddenly suggested to Roosevelt on 4 August that Dragoon should be switched to Brittany, even though none of the ports were in operation and the Allied supply system in northern France was stretched to breaking point. ‘I cannot pretend to have worked out the details,’ Churchill added lamely. Roosevelt firmly rejected the idea. Churchill tried again on 5 August when visiting Eisenhower. ‘Ike said no,’ wrote his aide, ‘continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command.’ Eisenhower was ‘practically limp’ by the time Churchill left.
Events proved the Americans resoundingly right. The landings of 151,000 Allied troops along the Côte d’Azur from Nice to Marseilles were practically unopposed, the major port of Marseilles was secured and the invasion provoked a rapid German withdrawal from central and south-western France. Even Hitler was forced to recognize the necessity, wrote General Warlimont, ‘especially when the first paratroop and airborne operations proved immediately successful. This was the only occasion I can recall when Hitler did not hesitate too long before deciding to evacuate territory.’ But the sudden German retreat produced a savage cycle of violence in France.
The Resistance, scenting victory, increased its attacks, and the Germans, especially the SS, responded with cruel and indiscriminate reprisals. Security police and the Gestapo in many places massacred their prisoners before pulling out. Altogether some 600 were shot, including almost all Jews in German custody. In some areas, the Resistance had tried to switch from guerrilla warfare to open insurrection, usually with catastrophic results.
In the Vercors, a high plateau between Grenoble and Valence, a large force of 3,200 maquisards had cleared the area of Germans by the end of June and raised the tricolore. General Cochet in Algiers had failed to tell them to wait for the landings in the south of France. Even so, their attempt to hold ground against regular troops was contrary to every rule of guerrilla warfare. The Americans dropped 1,000 containers of arms by parachute on 14 July, but by then the Germans had surrounded the plateau with 10,000 troops backed by artillery. A week later SS troops were landed by glider and soon the whole area was overrun. The Maquis should have dispersed to fight another day, but despite lacking heavy weapons they attempted to fight a conventional battle against overwhelming numbers. Their desperate heroism ended in a massacre. The reprisals were barbaric, as the British official history of SOE in France recorded: ‘One woman was raped by seventeen men in succession while a German doctor held her pulse, ready to stop the soldiers when she fainted. Another was eviscerated and left to die with her guts round her neck.’
The Resistance targeted the Gestapo and SS wherever they could. On 6 August, Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kepplinger of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division was ambushed at Villiers-Charlemagne, south of Laval. The next day, the head of the Gestapo in Châteauroux was gunned down. On the evening of 10 August, German authorities announced that ‘128 terrorists were eliminated in fighting on French territory’ that day. Three days later at Tourouvre in the Orne, eighteen men were executed and the main street was set on fire, almost certainly by members of the Hitler Jugend. The artillery regiment of the Hitler Jugend Division issued an order stating that ‘reprisals cannot be harsh enough’.
The massacres continued until almost the end of August, even after any hope of holding on to France had gone. Only a savage bitterness remained. In Buchères near Troyes (Aube), an SS uni tkilled sixty-eight civilians, including women, children and infants. On 25 August, following an FFI attack on a Wehrmacht truck in which three German soldiers were wounded, the SS murdered 124 people, including forty-two women and forty-four children, at Maillé (Indre-et-Loire) and the village was destroyed. In the Aisne at Tavaux and Plomion, members of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the Hitler Jugend killed a total of thirty-four civilians, of whom only one was a member of the Resistance. In the twenty-six worst massacres in France during 1944, 1,904 civilians were murdered.66
The breakthrough in Normandy combined with the 15 August landings in the south of France triggered a hasty withdrawal not only by the Germans, but also by Vichy’s hated paramilitary force, the Milice. Over the next few days, Luftwaffe and naval personnel from ports in southern and western France, Organisation Todt officials, supply and clerical personnel from military depots, security police - in fact the whole apparatus of the German occupation built up over the last four years - pulled out. A running battle was fought across France against the Milice. Well aware of their fate if they stayed behind, these criminal paramilitaries sought safety in eastern France and then Germany. Vehicles, bicycles and horses were seized as well as food to help them on their way.
German forces in the south-west ordered their men to escape in ‘march groups’. Few got through. Most succumbed to hunger and exhaustion and were forced to surrender to the FFI or the Americans. The Resistance killed relatively few of their German military prisoners. They handed them over proudly to the Allies or to regular French forces. But hardly any Gestapo, SS or Security Police survived capture.
As part of a scorched-earth policy during the retreat, German detachments were ordered to destroy bridges, telephone systems, railways and ports, as well as any establishments which might help repair them. SOE liaison groups at 21st Army Group and SHAEF advance headquarters passed ‘counter-scorching’ requests to the Resistance, which meant thwarting German attempts to wreck communications behind them.
The collapse of the German occupying power also signalled the collapse of the Vichy regime. In Normandy, a senior Vichy official reported during the American breakthrough that, ‘military events having taken a new direction’, he would withdraw to ‘rejoin French territory according to the orders of the government’. He retreated with the local Feldkommandant, who provided him with fuel for his car. But every time he tried to set up a new préfecture, first at Gavray, then Saint-Pois and then Mortain, the rapidity of the American advance sent him hurrying on. Pierre Laval, Marshal Pétain’s prime minister, tried to persuade the old marshal to seek refuge at Eisenhower’s headquarters.67
The power vacuum in large areas of France, especially in the Dordogne, the Limousin, the Corrèze, the Massif Central and the south-west, meant that the different groups of the Maquis began to settle accounts. They took revenge on genuine collaborators, but also on those class enemies they considered collaborators. This was not hard to foresee once the invasion started. A Vichy report to Paris just after the invasion spoke of ‘regions where hideous civil war will reign’. In July, an agent reported back to London on the situation in the Limousin created by Resistance attacks and ferocious German reprisals: ‘In the face of these barbarous acts, the whole region trembles. The peasants hide in the woods and scouts signal the arrival of any German vehicles. The country experiences at one and the same time the violence of the enemy, of the Maquis, and of the Milice. There is no longer any legal authority.’
There was much to avenge, but the moral outrage of vengeance also concealed a degree of political and personal opportunism. Some private scores were settled and rivals for post-war power done away with. Resistance groups killed some 6,000 people before the German withdrawal. Then, in what became known as the épuration sauvage, or ‘unofficial purges’, at least 14,000 more were killed. A few British and American troops also killed French collaborators, but most preferred to look away, feeling that, having not experienced German occupation, they were in no position to judge. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that in Brittany a third of those killed were women.
French people as well as Allied troops were sickened by the treatment meted out to women accused of ‘collaboration horizontale’ with German soldiers. Some of the victims were prostitutes who had plied their trade with Germans as well as Frenchmen. Some were silly young girls who had associated with German soldiers out of bravado or boredom. Many more were young mothers whose husbands were in German prisoner of war camps. They often had no means of support, and their only hope of obtaining food for themselves and their children in the hunger years had been to accept a liaison with a German soldier. As the German writer Ernst Jünger observed from the luxury of the Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, ‘Food is power.’
After the humiliation of a public head-shaving, the tondues - ‘the shorn women’ - were usually paraded through the streets, occasionally to the sound of a drum, as if France was reliving the Revolution of 1789. Some were daubed with tar, some stripped half naked, some painted with swastikas. In Bayeux, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, recorded his reactions to one such scene: ‘I watched an open lorry drive past, to the accompaniment of boos and cat-calls from the French populace, with a dozen miserable women in the back, every hair on their heads shaved off. They were in tears, hanging their heads in shame. While disgusted by this cruelty, I reflected that we British had known no invasion or occupation for some nine hundred years. So we were not the best judges.’ The American historian Forrest Pogue observed of the victims that ‘their look, in the hands of their tormentors, was that of a hunted animal’. Colonel McHugh near Argentan reported, ‘The French were rounding up collaborators, cutting their hair off and burning it in huge piles, which one could smell miles away. Also women collaborators were forced to run the gauntlet and were really beaten.’
It was indeed ‘an ugly carnival’, as one writer put it, but this had been the pattern since soon after D-Day. Once a city, town or even a village had been liberated by the Allies the shearers would get to work. In mid-June, on the market day following the 101st Airborne’s capture of Carentan, a dozen women were shorn publicly. In Cherbourg on 14 July, a truck-load of young women, most of them teenagers, were driven through the streets. In Villedieu, one of the victims was a woman who had simply been a cleaner in the Kommandantur. In the département of the Manche alone, 621 women were arrested for ‘collaboration sentimentale’. Elsewhere some men who had volunteered to work in German factories had their heads shaved, but that was an exception. Women almost always were the first targets. It was jealousy masquerading as moral outrage. The jealousy was mainly provoked by the food they had received as a result of their conduct.68 Quite simply, these young women were the easiest and most vulnerable scapegoats, particularly for men who wished to hide their own lack of Resistance credentials.
Moral confusion, if not outright hypocrisy, existed on the Allied side too. At his airfield near Bayeux, Jock Colville found it ironic when Montgomery ordered all brothels to be closed. ‘Military police were posted to ensure that the order was obeyed. Undeterred and unabashed, several of the deprived ladies presented themselves in a field adjoining our orchard. Lines of airmen, including, I regret to say, the worthy Roman Catholic French Canadians, queued for their services, clutching such articles as tins of sardines for payment.’ The French, meanwhile, were shocked by the attitude of American soldiers, who seemed to think that when it came to young French women ‘everything can be bought’. After an evening’s drinking, they would knock on farmhouse doors asking if there was a ‘Mademoiselle’ there for them. More enterprising soldiers had learned some French conversation from the language books produced by the army. Supposedly useful gambits were also provided in the daily lessons published by Stars and Stripes, such as the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’
Mutual incomprehension and the clash of very different cultures affected Franco-American relations perhaps even more than the joy of liberation. A woman in a town south-east of Mortain described their ecstasy, waving flags and singing the ‘Marseillaise’ when a column of the American 2nd Armored Division arrived. The French were amused by the Creole accent of Cajuns from Louisiana, but in their turn were taken aback when they found that the Americans ‘clearly considered us to be backward. One of them asked me in English if I had ever seen a cinema.’ She replied that the cinema had been invented in France, and also the motorcar. ‘He was left stunned, and not entirely convinced.’
Many American soldiers, who already saw France as almost an enemy country because of the German occupation, found their prejudices strengthened because so many people reported ‘their neighbours as German sympathizers’. Even members of the OSS and the Counter Intelligence Corps had little grasp of French politics and the ‘guerre franco-française’, which had simmered away ever since the Revolution and had now boiled up again. There was a widespread view, rooted in American history, that the problems of the Old World stemmed from a corrupt aristocracy and the evils of European colonialism.
Such ideas were encouraged by left-wingers in the Resistance who provided them with intelligence, especially the militant Communist-led FTP. They had good reason to loathe the Vichy regime after the executions of Communist Party members as hostages during the Occupation. They also believed that this was the time for a new revolution. So they tried to persuade American officers, often with some success, that the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie were all collaborators. For their own political purposes, they deliberately made no distinction between those people from all classes of society who had supported Marshal Pétain after the débâcle of 1940 and those who had actively helped the Germans.
The task of filtering the tens of thousands of Frenchmen and women arrested for collaboration in the summer of 1944 proved overwhelming for the nascent administration of de Gaulle’s provisional government. That autumn, there were over 300,000 dossiers still outstanding. In Normandy, prisoners were brought to the camp at Sully near Bayeux by the sécurité militaire, the gendarmerie and sometimes by US military police. There were also large numbers of displaced foreigners, Russians, Italians and Spaniards, who were trying to survive by looting from farms.
The range of charges against French citizens was wide and often vague. They included ‘supplying the enemy’, ‘relations with the Germans’, denunciation of members of the Resistance or Allied paratroopers, ‘an anti-national attitude during the Occupation’, ‘pro-German activity’, ‘providing civilian clothes to a German soldier’, ‘pillaging’, even just ‘suspicion from a national point of view’. Almost anybody who had encountered the Germans at any stage could be denounced and arrested.
Tensions between liberators and liberated arose with incidents both large and small. A major source of resentment came with hundreds of road accidents, mainly the killing of livestock but also civilians, due to the constant stream of heavy trucks rushing south to supply the fighting troops. At the other end of the scale, a woman who saw a British soldier give an orange to a German prisoner was furious because French children had never even tasted one. Yet army cooks and others were kind to children, whose eyes opened wide at the slices of white bread cut for them, although they were not quite so keen when they received marmalade sandwiches.
The historian Claude Quétel, then a small boy in Bernières-sur-Mer, remembers the Canadian troops and his astonishment at seeing a black man for the first time in his life among them. The young Claude could not stop himself from asking why he was black. ‘It’s because I don’t wash enough,’ he joked. Claude took him literally. He wanted to repay the generosity he had received from the soldiers, so he dashed home and stole his mother’s precious cake of soap, then ran back to offer it to the black soldier just before they left for the front. On seeing the outstretched hand with the cake of soap, all the soldiers collapsed in laughter. As the column of trucks moved off, Claude was left there sobbing uncontrollably.
Allied troops, however, became exasperated with the constant pilfering of equipment. The French authorities delicately termed it ‘réquisitions irrégulières’. A black market based at first on American and British cigarettes then branched into stolen fuel and tyres. But Allied soldiers were far from innocent when it came to stealing. In Caen, an officer with the civil affairs team wrote that British troops ‘pillaging shops and premises pose quite a problem, but offenders are heavily punished when caught’. In the chaos of war, many soldiers who would never have stolen at home were tempted by what they thought were easy pickings. ‘Our soldiers have done some looting,’ noted Myles Hildyard at 7th Armoured Division headquarters, ‘including two military police of this division who held up two old countesses near here in a château.’ Even British officers pocketed objects when billeted in country houses, prompting an increasing number of French to observe that ‘the Germans were much more correct’.
Yet the greatest weight on Norman hearts was the terrible destruction wreaked upon their towns and countryside. An American doctor described the forests stripped of their leaves by artillery fire, livestock carcasses rotting in the fields and towns reduced to a mass of rubble, ‘with occasionally a cynical touch such as an advertisement for Singer sewing machines stuck to a wall which had not been demolished, or a house whose façade has been blown away in front of the dining room, exposing like a theatre set, with the table and the chairs carefully positioned round it’. When French refugees from the fighting returned to their wrecked homes, some were traumatized by the unrecognizable scene, while others were bitterly resigned to the futile waste. Sometimes a tiny detail brought home to Allied troops the suffering of the French. For one British soldier, it was seeing a little house called ‘Mon Repos’ destroyed by shellfire.
Mines and unexploded shells, despite work by Allied and French teams, would continue to maim farmers and children for several years to come. Any work of reconstruction concentrated on improving supply facilities for the Allied armies. In Caen, 15,000 troops were put to work reopening the inland port at the head of the canal, but few could be spared to re-establish essential services for civilians.
Normandy had indeed been martyred, but its sacrifice saved the rest of France. Paradoxically, as a leading French historian has pointed out, the slowness of the Allied advance in the first two months, grinding down the German army, worked in favour of the French, ‘whose liberation was more rapid and less destructive, outside the Normandy battlefields, than one might have feared’.
The battle for Normandy was reaching its climax. On 14 August, Kluge decided that his troops had to break out in a north-easterly direction, ‘otherwise they must expect the loss of all their forces’. Artillery units lined up their guns and fired off all their remaining shells before retreating. On 16 August, Kluge ordered an immediate withdrawal to the line of the River Orne and the crossing began that night. Flak units were brought in to guard the bridges, but Allied air activity appears to have presented little threat over the next two vital days. No troops were allowed to stop or rest in the area. Vehicles were pushed off the road if they broke down and the Feldgendarmerie exerted a strict traffic discipline. Nothing was allowed to slow the withdrawal. Panzer troops aroused anger among theLandser of the infantry by the way they simply drove over corpses, crushing them flat with their tracks.
On 16 August, the Canadians fought their way into the ruined city of Falaise, where William the Conqueror had been born in the great castle. Again they faced their fanatical opponents in the Hitler Jugend. Sixty of these battle-hardened teenagers held out for three days. The only two taken alive were wounded.69
To the east of Falaise, the Polish 10th Mounted Rifles reconnaissance regiment, supported by the 12th Dragoons in Cromwell tanks, had secured crossings over the Dives on 15 August. Their success was a fitting celebration on the anniversary of their victory over the Red Army in the Battle of the Vistula in 1920. That night the Poles in their bridgehead fought off counter-attacks, while the reconnaissance troops pushed down the road towards Trun. On 16 August, Simonds wanted to send his 4th Armoured Division towards Trun as well, but the whole of the following day was lost as they pulled out and reorganized. Their divisional commander showed little initiative or drive. The consequent lack of support to the exposed Polish armoured division forced it to halt less than eight miles from Trun.
Ultra was still reporting that the Germans intended to counter-attack against the Americans in the south and break through between Argentan and Sées. This confirmed Montgomery in his view that they should revert to an envelopment on the Seine, rather than cut off the Germans south of Trun. As a result he made the mistake of failing to reinforce the Poles with the 7th Armoured Division, which he had ordered to advance on Lisieux. The critical lack of detailed liaison with the Americans at this stage was more Montgomery’s fault than Bradley’s. Between them they had failed to decide clearly where to cut off the Germans. It was only on 16 August that Montgomery decided to revert to sealing the pocket between Trun and Chambois. But by then part of Haislip’s corps had set off towards the Seine.
General Patton was far more interested in developments in that direction. On 16 August, Major General Kenner, SHAEF’s chief medical officer, was invited along for the ride to visit Haislip’s XV Corps, which had just taken Dreux. Patton was on exuberant form. He had just visited two evacuation hospitals that morning and found that ‘for the first time our wounded wanted to go back and fight’.
They set off in two Jeeps, one of which carried a heavy machine gun. Patton’s bodyguard Al had also brought a Browning automatic rifle. Kenner, clearly concerned for Patton’s safety in this dash across wooded country full of retreating Germans, suggested that he should go in front. ‘No, by God,’ came the reply. ‘No one rides in front of me.’ According to Kenner, ‘Haislip nearly had a fit’ when he heard how they had come. He insisted on providing an escort for the return journey, but Patton swore at the idea. In any case, he wanted to see how things were progressing with XX Corps at Chartres.
When they reached the command post of the 7th Armored Division, Patton asked when they were going to take the town.70 He was told that there were still Germans fighting in parts of it and it might take some time. According to Kenner, Patton retorted, ‘There are no Germans. It is now three o’clock. I want Chartres at five or there will be a new commander.’ Kenner was impressed by Patton’s ‘instinct about the enemy’, but Patton was wrong. American intelligence sources had estimated the defenders as only 1,000 strong, but another German security regiment had been rushed into the town the day before.General der Infanterie Kurt von der Chevallerie, the commander-in-chief of the First Army south of the Loire, had been holding a conference there when the 7th Armored’s tanks were sighted advancing on the city.
One task force had managed to clear most of the city three hours before Patton arrived, but the other task force had been compelled to withdraw as the Germans resisted strongly in the outer part of the town. The Americans had brought up artillery, but it was instructed to fire only on targets in direct sight: ‘All effort was made to spare the destruction of historic buildings.’ The battle was, however, completed the following day, when the second task force attacked the Germans who had withdrawn into the wheatfields outside. This unequal battle turned into a massacre. Mortar platoons dropped white phosphorus shells ‘all over the place and as the fields burned, the Germans started running out like rats. While this was going on the tanks were having a field day killing dismounted Germans all over the place,’ 7th Armored Division reported. ‘The entire operation was a huge success: this small force knocking out numerous anti-tank guns, capturing around 400 of the enemy, and killing several thousand of the enemy at a cost of four tanks and 62 casualties of their own.’
In any event Wednesday, 16 August had indeed been a memorable day for Patton. Divisions from his Third Army had entered or captured the major towns of Dreux, Chartres, Châteaudun and Orléans. He was also to have full credit for his exploits after all the secrecy created for Operation Fortitude had been lifted. This security restriction had exasperated the war correspondents, who longed to write about Patton’s exploits. Eisenhower had just publicly stated to a press conference that the drive to the Seine was led by the Third Army commanded by Patton himself. ‘Old blood and guts’ immediately became an international star. And finally on that day, Patton heard that he had been confirmed in the permanent rank of major general, backdated to the previous year.
While Patton’s Third Army raced towards the Seine, the Americans suffered a day’s delay from confusion when reorganizing their forces round Argentan. On the evening of 16 August, General Gerow, the commander of V Corps, received orders from General Hodges of the First US Army to take command of the three divisions - the 80th, the 90th and the 2ème DB - which Haislip had left round Argentan. The Ultra warning of a German counter-attack prompted him to drive through the night to Alençon, where he set up a temporary headquarters at the Hôtel de France. He could not find out where XV Corps headquarters were supposed to be. Finally, he heard from the commander of the 80th Division that Patton had sent his chief of staff, Major General Hugh Gaffey, to command the three divisions. He found Gaffey at a temporary command post north of Sées and the two senior officers hammered out an agreement. Gaffey would carry out the attack north ordered by General Patton for 17 August, then Gerow would take command that evening. But after confusing messages between Hodges and Patton, General Bradley stepped in and told Gerow to take over immediately.
Patton flew to see Bradley on 17 August to sort out the muddle. He had left his Third Army staff with the instructions that the attack north to seal the pocket was to go in straight away under Gerow’s command if he rang through with the phrase ‘Change horses’. At 12.30 hours, Patton called from 12th Army Group headquarters with these words. He then added that once the original objective was taken, the three divisions should continue ‘thence on’. His chief of staff asked what ‘thence on’ meant.
‘Another Dunkirk,’ Patton joked. This typically thoughtless remark was later picked up by war correspondents and reported far too freely as: ‘Let me continue, and I’ll drive the Limeys into the sea.’ In fact the changes of command at this crucial moment succeeded only in allowing the Germans another twenty-four hours to extricate more men and vehicles from the pocket.
By chance on that same day, Thursday, 17 August, stories of Eisenhower and Bedell Smith’s renewed irritation with Montgomery had filtered back to Downing Street and Buckingham Palace. Sir Alan Lascelles, King George VI’s private secretary, had a long talk with general ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill’s military adviser, and recorded his thoughts in his diary: ‘Ismay takes a sane and broad-minded view of the Americans - they have won their spurs, and the days are past when we could treat them as green and untried soldiers; in fact he went so far as to say that we might well have something to learn from them, and that maybe we have been a bit too “staff collegey” in our conduct of the war.’
Tensions were also building up with another ally as American troops approached Paris. After General Philippe Leclerc had heard that the 2ème DB was to stay at Argentan while the rest of XV Corps advanced towards the Seine, he went to protest to Patton. ‘Leclerc of the 2nd French Armored Division came in, very much excited,’ Patton wrote in his diary. ‘He said, among other things, that if he were not allowed to advance on Paris, he would resign. I told him in my best French that he was a baby, and I would not have division commanders tell me where they would fight, and that anyway I had left him in the most dangerous place. We parted friends.’
Leclerc, who got on well with Patton, was far from reassured. Both he and General de Gaulle, who was on his way to France, were deeply concerned that Bradley might want to bypass Paris. They both feared that a rising in the capital by the Resistance would be exploited by the Communists. And in the event of civil strife, the Americans would almost certainly try to enforce their own military government, as President Roosevelt wanted.