While 16 August had been a great day for Patton, Hitler declared that ‘the 15th August was the worst day of my life’. He had become convinced that Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge was entering into secret negotiations with the Allies in Normandy. ‘Hitler suspected that Field Marshal von Kluge was guilty of such treachery,’ General Warlimont recorded. Hitler already regarded Kluge as an accomplice of the July plotters. Now he had become convinced that the stab-in-the-back of the Second World War was coming not from Jews and revolutionaries, as in 1918, but from the aristocrats of the German general staff.
On the afternoon of 14 August, Kluge had left La Roche-Guyon. He spent the night at Fifth Panzer Army rear headquarters in the small château of Fontaine l’Abbé, east of Bernay. Soon after dawn on 15 August, Kluge set off westwards into the Falaise pocket for a meeting with the two army commanders, Generals Hausser and Eberbach. Kluge rode in his Kübelwagen, accompanied by his aide, Oberleutnant Tangermann, another officer on a motorbicycle and a signals vehicle.
This small convoy was soon spotted by RAF Typhoons, which swooped into the attack. Their cannon fire destroyed the signals vehicle, seriously wounding its occupants, one of them mortally. The numbers of Allied fighter-bombers overhead made any further movement by road extremely dangerous. Kluge, already in a state of nervous exhaustion, seems to have suffered some sort of breakdown. He was settled in the shade of a tree to rest. One can only speculate about his state of mind, except to say that he found it hard to accept that his name would forever be associated with the collapse of the German armies in the West. Oberleutnant Tangermann even believed that his venture into the Kessel, or encirclement, was to seek death in the face of the enemy.
When General Jodl telephoned that day from East Prussia to speak to Kluge and heard that he had been out of contact since the morning, Hitler’s distrust flared into open suspicion that he was negotiating surrender terms. Jodl ordered Army Group B and General Eberbach to make every effort to establish Kluge’s whereabouts and to report back every hour. At 21.00 hours, a KR-Blitz teleprinter message, the highest priority, arrived from East Prussia. It stated, ‘The Führer has ordered: so long as Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge cannot be found while away from his command post, I entrust Generaloberst Hausser with the leadership of both the Fifth Panzer Army and Panzer Group Eberbach.’
Only after dark was it possible for Kluge and his surviving companions to continue. They finally reached Eberbach’s command post at 22.00 hours. The fifty-mile journey had taken sixteen hours. Generalfeldmarschall Keitel insisted on speaking to Kluge as soon as he heard of his arrival. It seems that OKW believed Kluge’s account of his movements, but Hitler, who had planned to replace Kluge in any case after the failure of the Avranches counter-attack, immediately ordered Generalfeldmarschall Model to fly to France and take over. Model, ‘one of the harshest and most feared army commanders’, was a devoted follower of Hitler, who had awarded him the Knight’s Cross with Diamonds. Rather like Kluge himself before taking command, Model had been convinced that the disaster in Normandy was entirely due to bad leadership.
Leutnant Dankwart Graf von Arnim, a staff officer in Paris, was woken at 04.30 hours on 17 August to be told that Model had arrived. He was to go at once to the headquarters of Oberkommando West at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The first thing he heard was that Model, finding only a drunken army doctor there, went berserk and had him shot on the spot. Arnim was to accompany Model to La Roche-Guyon. There was an early morning mist as they set off up the Seine valley in a convoy, with an escort troop of self-propelled 20 mm flak guns provided on Hitler’s orders. Arnim was seated next to the driver in Model’s armoured staff car. Model reprimanded him severely for wearing a uniform cap instead of a helmet.
When they drove up to the entrance of the château, Arnim spotted the faces of staff officers peering anxiously from windows. Speidel, the chief of staff, met them on the steps. Behind him was Kluge, who had received notice of his dismissal just an hour before by teleprinter. Model, according to Generalleutnant Bayerlein, who was present at the meeting, announced that the troops in Normandy ‘were a pack of cowards, that it was much easier to fight the western Allies than the Russians, and that he would see that things changed’.
Kluge accepted his fate with dignity. Yet he clearly feared not only that he would be made responsible for all that had gone wrong but, in the atmosphere of suspicion, that he might also face trial and execution like the other senior generals involved in the July plot. He sat down to write a long letter to Hitler, which he asked Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich to deliver later. As well as an explanation of the impossibility of the task he had faced, he wrote, ‘I cannot bear the reproach that I have sealed the fate of the West through faulty strategy, and I have no means of defending myself. I draw a conclusion from that, and am dispatching myself where thousands of my comrades already are.’ The letter was respectful and avoided placing any blame on Hitler. No doubt Kluge wished to save his family from the Sippenhaft vengeance of the Nazis.
He finally argued, like Rommel before him, that with little chance of victory the war should be ended: ‘The German people have borne such untold suffering that it is time to put an end to this frightfulness.’ Although Kluge had finally come to see the terrible folly of this vast conflict, there was still no thought of the suffering they had caused by their invasions. That consideration simply did not register in the German army Weltanschauung, with its fundamental confusion of cause and effect.
A car and escort were sent to bring Kluge back to Berlin. They stopped for a midday break in the woods of the Argonne, just short of Verdun. It was not far from where General von Stülpnagel had so unsuccessfully shot himself. Kluge gave his aide another letter, this one for his brother, then went off behind some bushes where he swallowed a cyanide pill. After Kluge’s suicide, Hitler ordered another investigation into his ‘mysterious disappearance’ in Normandy, but again no evidence could be found of a meeting with American officers.
The Falaise pocket was tightening on 16 August, but it was still far from closed as a result of the delay both by the Canadians and by Gerow’s V Corps round Argentan. Gersdorff, the chief of staff of the Seventh Army, was ‘able to drive by car in both directions that day’ through the gap between Trun and Chambois. One German general observed that the pocket, although much smaller, was disturbingly similar in shape to the battered lozenge at Stalingrad.
The II Panzer Corps was sent into the Forêt de Gouffern north-east of Argentan to defend that corner of the pocket, even though it mustered fewer than forty tanks. The next day, after they were refuelled, the remnants of the two divisions were sent towards Vimoutiers. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser also sent the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich out of the pocket. He wanted a force ready to counter-attack from the rear when the Allied troops attempted to seal the gap. Army officers, however, suspected that this was purely an attempt to save the Waffen-SS. ‘In other words wewere good enough to be left inside the encirclement, ’ was the reaction of General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps when he heard. ‘The SS look after their own.’
Other panzer groups were moved to either side of the neck of the pocket to help keep it open, but with a greatly increased concentration of Allied fighter-bombers overhead, vehicles had to stay hidden during daylight hours in orchards and woods. Near Trun, a local inhabitant watched a small group of tanks concealed under fruit trees. A soldier emerged from his turret with a violin and played some Viennese waltzes. They seemed to sense that this was the calm before the storm.
As the remains of the German Seventh Army pulled back across the River Orne, the British VIII and XXX Corps advanced rapidly west, liberating one town after another. ‘We have had a warm welcome all along the route,’ wrote a British officer, ‘although quite a number of the people still seem dazed and bewildered. The very young do not quite know what is going on. I saw one little boy proudly giving the Nazi salute as though it were the correct greeting and others looking at their mothers to see if it was right to wave.’
In Putanges on the upper Orne, where many Germans had been cut off, the scenes were chaotic. ‘While I was talking to the Brigadier,’ wrote Major Neave in his diary, ‘a German half-track - driven by a Boche - and packed full of Boches passed by. Two civilian French - presumably Maquis - were sitting at the back with Sten guns, and a Frenchman on a motorcycle led the party. The Boche looked extremely unhappy and the French were shrieking with laughter.’
Meanwhile Hodges’s First US Army was advancing from the south-west and the British XII Corps from the north-west. On 17 August, the Polish 1st Armoured Division received orders to push on to Chambois. But as the Poles were nearly five miles ahead of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division, they knew that they were in for a tough fight until support arrived. They reorganized rapidly. General Maczek sent the 24th Lancers and the 10th Dragoons towards Chambois, while the rest of the division took up positions around Mont Ormel. This was one of the dominant features along the high, wooded escarpment which overlooks the River Dives and seals the north-east end of the Falaise plain.
That day, the American 90th Division at Bourg-Saint-Léonard, south of Chambois, received a nasty shock when the Das Reich division and the remnants of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division suddenly attacked, forcing them to withdraw rapidly. General Gerow sent them back that evening to recapture this vital high ground.
Generalfeldmarschall Model called a conference for 09.00 hours on 18 August at Fontaine l’Abbé. Eberbach, who had set out at 03.00 hours, still arrived two hours late because of the blocked roads. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser of the Seventh Army could not get through, so he was represented by Gersdorff, his chief of staff. Model gave them instructions for withdrawal to the line of the Seine. The panzer divisions were to hold open the bottleneck. But halfway through the meeting news came in that the Canadians had indeed taken Trun. Eberbach left immediately to organize a counter-attack by II Panzer Corps, now outside the pocket, but another shortage of fuel would delay them.
On the road to Vimoutiers, Eberbach’s staff car was strafed by Allied fighters and the general had to shelter in a ditch. The RAF and Quesada’s Ninth Tactical Air Force were out in strength on that day and the next. Flying conditions were almost perfect, and with the remains of two German armies packed into an area roughly twelve miles by five, there was no shortage of targets. Successful Typhoon rocket strikes on vehicles were marked by widening columns of oily smoke. ‘The black mushrooms kept appearing,’ wrote General Meindl, ‘a sign that the enemy planes were having good hunting.’ He felt dazed by what he called ‘the flail of a fabulous air superiority’. He was also furious with the drivers, whose desperate attempts to escape sent up more clouds of dust, attracting the attention of fighter-bomber pilots. ‘It was enough to make one tear one’s hair and ask oneself if the drivers had gone off their heads completely and were hastening to place themselves in the view of the enemy planes until they went up in a blaze.’ There was little anti-aircraft fire to deter the Allied aircrew. Few of the self-propelled flak vehicles had survived, and army units, unlike his paratroops, did not believe in using small arms against aircraft.
There was little sense of pity among the Allied pilots. ‘We rippled the rockets,’ wrote an Australian Typhoon pilot, ‘then separately we did cannon attacks into the massed crowds of soldiers. We would commence firing, and then slowly pull the line of cannon fire through the crowd and then pull up and go around again and again until the ammunition ran out. After each run, which resulted in a large vacant path of chopped up soldiers, the space would be almost immediately filled with other escapees.’ General von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division surveyed the scene that day with horror: ‘On the road great heaps of vehicles, dead horses and dead soldiers were to be seen scattered everywhere, and their number increased from hour to hour.’ Gunner Eberhard Beck of the 277th Infantry Division saw a soldier sitting motionless on a rock. He pulled him by the shoulder to get him out of danger, but the man rolled over. He was dead already.
On 18 August alone, the US Ninth Air Force estimated its tally at 400 vehicles, while the RAF claimed 1,159 vehicles destroyed and 1,700 damaged, as well as 124 tanks destroyed and 100 damaged. But these figures were preposterously high. Once again Air Marshal Coningham was furious when he received the Operational Research report later. Their teams had found only thirty-three armoured vehicles which had been destroyed by air attack. The report concluded that the random nature of the Allied air attacks had failed to achieve a decisive degree of destruction.71 On the other hand, the Allied air attacks had once again panicked German crews into abandoning their vehicles, and their destruction of fuel supplies had certainly contributed to the very high number of armoured vehicles which were left behind.
With so many RAF and American squadrons attacking targets at will on the ground, there were countless cases of ‘friendly fire’. The ironic cry, ‘Take cover, boys, they may be ours!’ took on a new urgency. Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters acknowledged that ‘some British armored vehicles had been attacked inadvertently’, but pointed out that British tank crews carried so much kit on the outside that their identifying white stars were often ‘covered with paraphernalia’.
Because of the random air attacks, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division held back from occupying Trun until the afternoon of 18 August. The division was also hampered by the lethargy and incompetence of its commander, Major General George Kitching, and by Simonds’s plan that its armoured brigade was about to break off to lead the advance to the Seine. On the evening of 18 August, a detachment from the division reached Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, halfway between Trun and Chambois, but was too weak to take the village until reinforced.
The Polish battlegroup heading for Chambois made a serious mistake in map-reading and ended up six miles to the north. It was also short on ammunition and running out of fuel. The 10th Mounted Rifles reconnaissance regiment had reached the edge of Chambois, but did not have the strength to take it. Meanwhile, from the south, the American 90th Division, supported by part of Leclerc’s 2ème DB, advanced to within a mile of Chambois. Both Montgomery and the American commanders seemed to think that the battle could be won with air power and artillery. Yet the screen of Canadian, Polish and American troops was far too thin both to hold back the waves of German forces fighting to escape the pocket, and to face the threat of a counter-attack from behind by remnants of the SS panzer formations.
On 19 August, the Polish 10th Dragoons reinforced their reconnaissance regiment outside Trun and met up with the American 90th Division. Americans and Poles shook hands. ‘They were excellent fighters and very cold-blooded,’ an American lieutenant reported later. Chambois, soon known as ‘Shambles’, was in flames from the bombardment and filled with dead Germans and burnt-out vehicles. Reports of the scale of destruction certainly seem to have increased the sense of complacency among Allied commanders. Even the energetic Simonds, commanding the II Canadian Corps, spent the following morning ‘tidying up official correspondence’ instead of forcing forward his divisions.
Conditions within the pocket were, according to German sources, impossible to imagine if you had not seen it. ‘The roads were blocked by two or three shot-up and burned-out vehicles standing side by side,’ an officer with the 21st Panzer Division wrote. ‘Ambulances packed with wounded were carbonized. Ammunition exploded, panzers blazed and horses lay on their backs kicking their legs in their death throes. The same chaos extended in the fields far and wide. Artillery and armour-piercing rounds came from either side into the milling crowd.’
Gunner Beck with the 277th Infanterie-Division saw teenage infantrymen stumble past: ‘In their faces one could read the utter tragedy of this appalling experience, which they could not cope with.’ Many men went to pieces after days without sleep. Some began to hide in the woods, preferring to be captured than continue such a hellish existence. He could not help feeling sorry for the horses, of whom even more was expected: ‘The heads, backs and flanks of the horses were bathed in sweat, foaming white. We roamed around as if in a slaughter-house.’
During the day, men and vehicles hid in woods and orchards from Allied aircraft. At night, exhausted and famished German soldiers stumbled along, cursing their leaders, who became lost in the dark. Many used French two-wheeled handcarts to carry their equipment or heavy weapons. They found themselves mixed up with soldiers from rear services, including cobbler and tailoring detachments, all trying to escape but without any idea of where they were headed. Magnesium flares and ‘Christmas tree’ illuminations, descending slowly on parachutes, lit up the horizon. They revealed the silhouettes of ruined buildings and trees. There was a continual rumble of heavy guns as American and French artillery battalions continued to target the roads with harassing fire.
On 19 August, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser was urged by both General Meindl and Gersdorff to order a breakout that night east across the River Dives, which ran through Trun, Saint-Lambert and Chambois. The order was passed by radio and word of mouth. Hausser also requested II SS Panzer Corps to attack the Poles and Canadians from behind to open the gap.
At 22.00 hours, the remnants of the 277th Infantry Division received the order ‘Fertigmachen zum Abmarsch’ - ‘prepare to move out’. Hausser and the unwounded members of his staff joined the remains of the 3rd Paratroop Division to make the breakthrough on foot. Generalleutnant Schimpf, the commander of the division, who had been badly wounded, was put on the back of a tank along with other wounded. Breakout groups were led by the remaining Tiger and Panther tanks, which could push any vehicles blocking the track out of the way. Ordinary Landser and generals alike clambered on to half-tracks and other armoured vehicles, ready to jump off if needed to go into the attack. One officer claimed to have seen two generals whose divisions had been wiped out put on steel helmets and arm themselves with sub-machine guns.
An attack on Saint-Lambert began soon after midnight. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada were forced back out of the village. Lacking explosives, they had not blown the bridge. German troops were still streaming across after dawn.
General Meindl had assembled two groups of his paratroops during the night. He led them forward to the River Dives and they slipped into the water as silently as possible. The far bank was steep and covered in brambles. On the far side, when they reached the Trun-Chambois road, they could see the silhouettes of Allied tanks and hear the crews chatting. Every time a starshell was fired into the sky they threw themselves flat. They crept past the three tanks they had seen, but a fourth one spotted them and opened fire with its machine gun. Fortunately for them, it fired too high.
Further on, they passed a team of dead draught horses which had been machine-gunned in their traces by Allied fighter-bombers as they towed a broken-down Wehrmacht vehicle. After several hot August days, the swollen bodies gave off a deathly stench. They could hear bursts of firing behind them as other groups tried to break through the cordon. By then, they could see the first glimmer of the false dawn. Another group of paratroops who had also slipped through joined them. They heard tanks coming from the north-east. Meindl felt a surge of hope that they were from II SS Panzer Corps coming ‘from outside’ - from Vimoutiers to break the encirclement. But the profile of turret and hull was unmistakable. They were British Cromwell tanks. Three of them stopped near the dry ditch in which the German paratroops lay hidden by tall weeds. They heard the tank crew talking. After a few moments they realized that they were speaking Polish. ‘So it was the Poles we had to thank!’ Meindl commented ruefully. They had to lie there for an hour and a half, ‘not daring to move a finger’ in case they disturbed the tall weeds. By then it was 07.30 hours on 20 August.
A further disappointment came with the sound of enemy gunfire in the direction they were headed, the heights of Coudehard, the steep escarpment which ran roughly north to south. The mist lifted, the sun came out and, in the ‘hothouse atmosphere’ of their ditch, they steamed gently in their damp, ragged uniforms.
To the despair of the Germans who had not yet managed to cross the Dives and the Trun-Chambois road, the morning of 20 August dawned as ‘clear and serene’ as the previous days. As soon as the morning mist lifted, American artillery opened up and the fighter-bombers appeared overhead, coming in just above tree height with the heart-stopping scream of aero-engines.
Gersdorff, who had been wounded in the leg, arrived at dawn on 20 August in the village of Saint-Lambert in the middle of a convoy which included every sort of vehicle. But those who did not get through in the early-morning mist were soon blocked by American artillery fire and knocked-out vehicles. Improvised working parties tried to clear a way through, although they were under fire from American artillery and from the Canadians who had withdrawn.
Many more, including the last fifteen tanks of the 2nd Panzer Division, tried to cross the Dives by a small bridge between Saint-Lambert and Chambois which also came under heavy fire. ‘People, horses, vehicles had fallen from the bridge into the depths of the Dives, and there formed a terrible heap,’ wrote General von Lüttwitz. ‘Without a break, columns of fire and smoke from burning tanks rose into the sky; ammunition exploded, horses lay all around on the ground, many of them severely wounded.’ Lüttwitz, who had been wounded in the neck and back, led groups out on foot north-eastwards with members of his staff.
Finally,twotanksofthe 2nd Panzer-Division knocked out the American tank destroyers covering the Trun-Chambois road and they managed to get across. ‘This was the signal for a general exploitation of the break ... and a large number of scout cars, tanks, assault guns etc. appeared from every sort of cover.’
The American account of this day’s action, viewed from the high ground to the south of Chambois, gives a slightly different picture. ‘It was a gunner’s dream from daylight to dark,’ the 90th Division artillery reported, ‘and we plastered the road, engaging targets as they appeared.’ ‘The Germans tried a desperate trick to cross this No Man’s Land,’ another American artillery report stated. ‘In an area that was defiladed from our observation they massed their vehicles about six abreast, five or six deep and at a signal moved this square of transport into the open, depending upon speed to carry them through to safety across the zone of fire. It didn’t work. The artillery had a prepared concentration that they could fire on call into the road that the Germans were trying to use. When the artillery observer saw the results of his call, he literally jumped up and down. Again and again the Huns attempted to send vehicles across this hell of fire, and again and again the artillery rained down on them . . . We fired single batteries. We fired battalion concentrations. And when targets looked particularly interesting we dumped the whole division artillery or even the whole corps artillery on them. When evening came, the road was impassable and the fields on both sides of the road were littered with the junk that once was German equipment. Few Huns escaped by this route.’
In fact far more Germans than they believed had already got through in the early hours of the morning. Many others continued to slip across during the day, especially on the Canadian sector, which had not been properly reinforced, despite constant calls for help from those near Saint-Lambert.The 4th Armoured Division was supposed to be preparing to advance towards the Seine, but had not yet been relieved by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. This major flaw in the conduct of the battle again stemmed largely from Montgomery’s indecision on whether to go for a long envelopment on the Seine or to seal the gap on the River Dives.
The main Polish force was by now established on the Mont Ormel escarpment to the north-east of Chambois. Short of fuel and ammunition, they received some supplies by parachute drop. The Poles, not surprisingly, saw the battle as an intensely symbolic contest between their white eagle and the black Nazi eagle. Poland’s proud and tragic history was constantly in their thoughts. The 1st Armoured Division’s insignia was the helmet and Husaria eagle wings worn upright on the shoulders of the Polish knights who saved Vienna from the Turks 300 years earlier. Their commander, General Maczek, declared with poignant pride, ‘The Polish soldier fights for the freedom of other nations, but dies only for Poland.’ Having heard of their compatriots’ uprising in Warsaw as the Red Army approached the city, the Poles were doubly determined to kill as many Germans as possible.
For Maczek, who had commanded the 10th Cavalry Brigade in the defence of Lwow against the German 2nd Panzer-Division in September 1939, it seemed a heaven-sent coincidence that ‘luck gave the 10th Cavalry Brigade the well-deserved revenge of surprising the same division’ in this battle. That day, the 10th Mounted Infantry near Chambois also captured Generalleutnant Otto Elfeldt, the commander of LXXXIV Corps, with twenty-nine staff officers. But the real threat to the main Polish positions around Mont Ormel, as Ultra intercepts had warned, was about to come from the rear, as well as from the improvised battlegroups in front.
The Poles, fighting a desperate battle, also requested support from the Canadian 4th Armoured Division. Kitching’s obstinate and unjustified refusal to help led to Simonds relieving him of his command the following day.
At 04.00 hours that morning, the remains of the Der Führer Regiment of 2nd SS Panzer-Division, which had been defending the line of the River Touques, was ordered south in their half-tracks towards Chambois to break open the pocket. At 10.00 hours, they sighted ten Allied tanks. All their guns were pointed in towards the pocket. Hauptmann Werner, who commanded the III Battalion, had just passed a broken-down Panther tank from another SS panzer division. He returned there rapidly. The soldier working on the tank implied that it could be moved, but added that its commander, an Untersturmführer, was in a house nearby. The Untersturmführer was reluctant to move, but Werner drew his pistol and forced him back to his tank. Werner climbed up on to the engine deck behind the turret and directed him back to where they had seen the Allied tanks. When they were close, Werner went forward on foot to reconnoitre the best firing position. By then the Untersturmführer was showing a good deal more enthusiasm. According to Werner, they took the enemy tanks entirely by surprise, knocking out five of them and damaging several others.72
Elements of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen also counter-attacked from the direction of Vimoutiers, as Eberbach had planned. But their advance did not start until 10.00 hours, because of fuel shortages. A junior staff officer, reconnoitring the way in a motorcycle combination, ran straight into a large detachment of Polish troops. His driver was shot, and the Poles, seeing his SS uniform, were about to execute him. His life was saved by the intervention of a Canadian liaison officer, apparently a White Russian who had escaped to Canada in 1919.
Meindl and his paratroops, meanwhile, had been able to continue on towards the heights of Coudehard and Mont Ormel only after the detachment of Polish tanks set off for a new position. Meindl suddenly spotted another group of paratroops advancing in skirmishing order across an open field. He whistled. Their young commander recognized him and Meindl heard him mutter, ‘Oh, it’s the old man.’ Meindl briefed him rapidly and told him to take all the paratroops with him. The only way to get past the blocking detachments of tanks was by a flanking attack to the north. In return, the young officer told him that Oberstgruppenführer Hausser was not far away.
After a circuitous route, Meindl found the commander-in-chief of the Seventh Army sheltering in a bomb crater with men of the SS Der Führer Regiment. They collected other groups of infantry and two Panther tanks which appeared. Meindl, obsessively proud of his paratroops, was scathing about some of the army personnel who had joined them. Many had abandoned their weapons. He saw ‘fear in their eyes and cowardice in their hearts’ in the desperation to break out of the encirclement, rather than join in the battle to open the breach. ‘Here one saw the communication zone troops from France, who had not known what war was for the past three years. It was a pitiful sight. Dissolution and panic. And in between them my paratroops, with contempt in their eyes, fulfilling their duty in an exemplary way.’ His men, together with a handful from the SS and infantry, were prepared to make the sacrifice for the rest, while the ‘toe-rags’, as he called them, displayed nothing but ‘crass egoism and cowardliness’. ‘For the first time I now understood how war was the worst possible way of breeding the best type of human being . . . how the best blood was lost and the poorest retained.’
The improvised attack went forward, and, ‘as if by a miracle’, they seized the heights of Coudehard at 16.30 hours when the Waffen-SS panzers attacked from the other direction, thus breaking the encirclement and creating a gap nearly two miles wide. The few prisoners they took confirmed that they had been up against the 1st Polish Armoured Division.
In the meantime General Hausser, who had been badly wounded, was evacuated on the back of one of the very few tanks left. Meindl’s main concern that afternoon was to send through the rest of the wounded in a column of clearly marked ambulances. ‘Not a shot was fired at them,’ wrote Meindl, ‘and I recognised, with thankfulness in my heart, the chivalrous attitude of the enemy.’ He waited a full half-hour after the column had disappeared before sending through any fighting troops, ‘so that there should not be the slightest suspicion in the mind of the enemy that we had taken any unfair advantage’.
News had spread behind them that a gap had been opened at Coudehard and that night a mass of stragglers hurried forward to take advantage of the opportunity. Meindl, however, was disgusted to hear from a senior officer who joined him that many more, including officers, had considered escape a hopeless project. As it grew light on 21 August, Meindl decided that they would not be able to hold open the gap for another day. He went round waking his men. It was not an easy task. Having organized a force to cover there treat, he set off on foot eastwards towards the Seine. It began to rain steadily. That at least would help conceal the route of the long snaking column of exhausted men.
Although part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division finally arrived to strengthen the cordon between Trun and Saint-Lambert, small groups of Germans had continued to slip through all day. Some of them joined the SS combat teams fighting to keep open the gap, but a US spotter plane circling above them continued to direct artillery fire on the retreating troops. On the southern shoulder of the gap, a combat team from Leclerc’s 2ème DB had taken up position on a hill, where they found themselves almost next to the main Polish force. And further round to the south-west, the Langlade battlegroup with the American 90th Division fought ‘German attempts, more or less disorganized, to break through between Chambois and the Forêt de Gouffern’.
That day was also a significant one for the citizens of Caen. The very final shell, fired from the line of the River Touques, fell on the city: ‘the sixty-sixth and last day of the martyrdom of Caen’.
On 21 August the Polish armoured division, cut off around Mont Ormel, was finally reinforced and resupplied by Canadian troops.73 The gap was sealed. General Eberbach, accepting that hardly any more men would now escape, ordered the remains of II SS Panzer Corps to pull back to the Seine. The badly wounded Oberstgruppenführer Hausser was taken to the provisional Seventh Army command post at Le Sap, where he told General von Funck to take over. (General Eberbach assumed command two days later.) Staff officers began to collect and reorganize troops. To their surprise, they found that in many cases over 2,000 men per division had escaped, but this figure still seems high.
Those German troops left behind showed little resistance. It was time to round up prisoners. ‘[The] Yanks say they collected hundreds all day,’ Major Julius Neave wrote in his diary. ‘The 6th Durham Light infantry have just reported that they are in a wonderful position and can see hundreds more walking towards them.’ Many units regarded flushing Germans out of the woods as a sport. But there were tragedies too. In Ecouché, the Germans had left hundreds of mines and boobytraps. ‘A boy of about ten years stepped out of the church to meet us,’ reported a young American officer with the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, ‘and was blown up by one of these anti-personnel mines.’ British sappers, who had just arrived, began to clear the town to try to prevent any more accidents. They dealt with 240 mines.
At first it was hard to enter the area of the pocket because the roads were blocked with burnt-out vehicles. Tanks and recovery vehicles had to work round the clock clearing a path. The scenes inside defied belief. ‘The roads were choked with wreckage and the swollen bodies of men and horses,’ wrote the commander of a Typhoon wing, interested in seeing the results of their work. He was clearly shaken. ‘Bits of uniform were plastered to shattered tanks and trunks and human remains hung in grotesque shapes on the blackened hedgerows. Corpses lay in pools of dried blood, staring into space as if their eyes were being forced from their sockets. Two grey-clad bodies, both minus their legs, leaned against a clay bank as if in prayer.’ Amid the skeletons of burnt trees, the detritus of war and of military bureaucracy lay all around, including typewriters and exploded mailbags. ‘I picked up a photograph of a smiling German recruit standing between his parents, two solemn peasants who stared back at me in accusation.’ It was a sharp reminder that ‘each grey-clad body was a mother’s son’.
The writer Kingsley Amis, who also witnessed the scene, was struck by the massive number of draught animals which the Germans had used in their attempts to escape: ‘The horses seemed almost more pitiful, rigid in the shafts with their upper lips drawn above their teeth as if in continuing pain.’
American soldiers were drawn by the prospect of souvenirs to send home. A group from the 6th Engineer Special Brigade came across a whole cossack squadron lying beside their horses, as one of their number described: ‘The Don cossacks, the Terek cossacks, all these wore their original cossack uniforms except for the German emblem on their breast, the eagle and swastika. They had the fur hats, and we found out later that the head of this squadron was named Captain Zagordny. His wife was killed right beside him. She rode along with him when they rode out. The French people I heard were terrified of the Russians.’ The party of engineers eagerly collected up the long Russian sabres, ‘which still had the hammer and sickle on them’. Some men even collected saddles as well as weapons, and they threw everything into the back of their trucks. They were later allowed to take all their booty home, but not the sabres, because they were marked with the Soviet symbol. American military authorities did not want to upset their great ally, who was so sensitive about all the former Red Army soldiers fighting on the German side.
As well as the large numbers of prisoners, there were also several thousand German wounded to look after. During the mopping up, a German field hospital with 250 wounded was discovered, hidden deep in the Forêt de Gouffern. Most of the injured left in the pocket had received no medical care at all.
British and American medical services were soon swamped. Their doctors were helped by hard-working German medical orderlies. ‘On the collapse of the Falaise pocket,’ wrote Lieutenant Colonel Snyder, ‘750 German wounded were brought in. Some of them were lightly wounded German officers, who complained that they had had to walk. One of the German orderlies, overhearing this, called back: “When I was in the German army, you officers told us we should march all day without grumbling”.’
Many Landser, however, were in a pitiful condition, including twenty-five cases of gas gangrene. Two surgical teams operated in separate tents to prevent contamination. They did nothing but amputate gangrenous limbs. They had to keep changing the teams round because the stench from the gas gangrene was so terrible. ‘Medical care during retreat is always difficult for any army,’ Colonel Snyder observed.
British doctors with 6 General Hospital also had to deal with gas gangrene. They were in addition concerned with an epidemic of enteritis and the threat of typhus, when they discovered how many German prisoners were covered in lice: ‘Their blankets have been segregated from the other patients and washed before being used on any other patient.’
The main fear of infection lay in the pocket itself. Dead horses and German corpses were covered in flies, and the plague of mosquitoes continued. The Americans brought in French workers to help deal with the problem. One of them recorded how he had to hold a handkerchief over his nose because of the pestilential stench as he surveyed the carbonized corpses and the grotesque grins of blackened skulls. They dragged bodies, both human and animal, to make funeral pyres, pouring gasoline over them. ‘The air became unbreathable,’ he wrote.
On 21 August, Montgomery issued a declaration to the 21st Army Group: ‘The victory has been definite, complete and decisive. “The Lord mighty in battle” has given us the victory.’ Many, however, did not agree that the victory had been ‘definite, complete and decisive’. General Eberbach estimated that perhaps some 20,000 men, twenty-five tanks and fifty self-propelled guns had escaped the encirclement. ‘The losses of tanks from lack of gasoline were greater than those due to all kinds of enemy armaments put together,’ he wrote later. Gersdorff believed that between 20,000 and 30,000 managed to cross the Seine.74 On the Allied side, Montgomery’s strongest critics were British.
‘One of Monty’s great errors was at Falaise,’ Air Chief Marshal Tedder said after the war. ‘There he imperiously told US troops to stop and leave the British area alone. He didn’t close the gap.’ Predictably, Air Chief Marshal Coningham, who loathed Montgomery, was even harsher: ‘Monty is supposed to have done a great job at Falaise. [But he] really helped the Germans get away. He still wanted to do the job by himself, and kept the Americans from coming up. We closed on Falaise too late.’ Coningham attributed his actions to jealousy of Patton, which is not entirely true.
According to Montgomery’s chief of staff, General Freddie de Guingand, Montgomery had been ‘too tidy’. He thought the Americans should have been allowed to join the Poles at Trun. Monty regarded Bradley as under his command. Monty, said Brigadier Williams of the 21st Army Group, was ‘the high cock on the dungheap’. When Montgomery told Bradley to hold back at Argentan, ‘Bradley was indignant. We were indignant on Bradley’s behalf.’ According to Williams, Montgomery ‘was fundamentally more interested in full envelopment than this inner envelopment. We fell between two stools. He missed his chance of closing at the Seine by doing the envelopment at Falaise. Monty changed his mind and went for a short hook too late, perhaps because he was afraid of the Americans taking all the credit.’
These strictures certainly indicate the frustration which boiled among both British and American officers at the missed opportunity to destroy the German armies in Normandy entirely. They are unfair in some respects. It was Bradley’s decision to allow Patton to split Haislip’s corps at Argentan, not Montgomery’s. But there can be little doubt that Montgomery’s failure to reinforce the Canadians at the crucial moment constituted a major factor in allowing so many German troops, especially those of the SS panzer divisions, to escape. The only chance of catching Model’s battered remnants during the last ten days of August now lay on the River Seine.