DOWN metalled roads and farm lanes they pounded, columns of jeeps and tanks and deuce-and-a-half trucks snaking through the shot-threshed fields and the orchards heavy with fruit. MP motorcyclists weaved among the ranks, scolding dawdlers. Grenades hung from uniform lapels “like Cartier clips.” Chalky dust powdered their faces and grayed their hair. “War was their business,” wrote the photojournalist Lee Miller, “and they went on in a sloping march.”
On they marched, south, east, and west: past stone barns and mules hauling milk in copper urns, past shops that still peddled perfume and silk scarves, past collaborators with crude swastikas swabbed onto their shaved heads. When the trucks halted for a moment and GIs tumbled out to urinate in squirming echelons on the road shoulders, civilians rushed up to plead for cigarettes with two fingers pressed to the lips, a gesture described by Forrest Pogue as the French national salute. Others offered tricolor nosegays made from blue hydrangeas, red roses, and white asters. “Heep, heep, whoo-ray!” the Frenchmen yelled, repeating phrases learned from doughboys a generation earlier. “I speeg Engless. Jees-Christ, cot-dam!” Soldiers replied in schoolboy French or with handy phrases published in Stars and Stripes, among which was the French for “My wife doesn’t understand me.” A GI shout of “Vive la France!” often elicited jugs of calvados and toasts to the spirit of Lafayette or hissing denunciations of the Boche, also known to the Yanks as Krauts, Jerries, Graybacks, Lice, Huns, and Squareheads.
German tourist posters still hung from schoolhouse walls, and German-language lessons—all umlauts and uppercase nouns—could be seen chalked on blackboards. But for mile after mile the only enemy encountered were prisoners, encouraged to surrender with the GI dialect known as Milwaukee German, or dead men, often buried beneath a makeshift marker with an epitaph reduced to a naked noun, also upper case: “A German.” The Wehrmacht retreat had “a Napoleonic aspect,” an officer in Army Group B conceded. Kluge in early August told his superiors, “No matter how many orders are issued, the troops cannot, are not able to, are not strong enough to defeat the enemy.”
In hasty bivouacs the surging columns halted for the night, choking down cold K rations or heating soup in their helmets over a Sterno flame—the charred crown, with steel burned to a blue sheen, marked veteran troops as surely as a Purple Heart. Evening also was the time for brief memorial services. “One’s life is held in balance by a little piece of metal smaller than a man’s finger,” one soldier wrote. A chaplain who offered a prayer for the dead invoked the Irish poet Charles Wolfe: “We buried him darkly at dead of night.… we left him alone with his glory.”
* * *
SHAEF planners in late July estimated that Germany could be defeated quickly if nine more divisions were added to the seventy-five already allocated to OVERLORD. Unfortunately, with fewer than three dozen divisions now in France, almost no additional British units remaining, and U.S. reinforcements reaching France at a rate of less than one division per week, that war-winning tally of eighty-four would not be available on the Continent until August 1945. Instead, the Allies would have to settle for the arrival on stage of a man described by a reporter as “a warring, roaring comet” and by a West Point classmate as a “pure-bred gamecock with brains.”
The first glimpse of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., for many soldiers came in Avranches, where he leaped from his jeep into an umbrella-covered police box and directed convoy traffic through a congested roundabout for ninety minutes. Assigned by Bradley to oversee VIII Corps’s drive south, Patton had helped shove seven divisions past Avranches in seventy-two hours, cigar smoldering as he snarled at occasional Luftwaffe marauders, “Those goddamned bastards, those rotten sons-of-bitches! We’ll get them.” When a subordinate called to report his position, Patton bellowed, “Hang up and keep going.” In a Norman landscape of smashed vehicles, grass fires, and charred German bodies, he added, “Could anything be more magnificent? Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, how I love it.”
At noon on Tuesday, August 1, his U.S. Third Army officially came into being, with nine divisions under three corps. At the same instant, Bradley ascended to command the new 12th Army Group, complementing 21st Army Group while still subordinate to Montgomery. Bradley’s former deputy, Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, succeeded him as First Army commander. “We are advancing constantly,” Patton told his staff. “From here on out, until we win or die in the attempt, we will always be audacious.” To his diary he confided, “I am very happy.”
“There are apparently two types of successful soldiers,” Patton had recently written his son. “Those who get on by being unobtrusive and those who get on by being obtrusive. I am of the latter type.” True enough, but for nearly a year he had been consigned to near anonymity. Slapping two hospitalized soldiers in Sicily, ostensibly for malingering, nearly cost Patton his stars; he was denied an early role in OVERLORD and a chance to command the army group now led by Bradley, his junior and former subordinate. A minor but foolish indiscretion in April, when he told a British social club that “undoubtedly it is our destiny to rule the world—the Americans, the British, and of course the Russians,” almost lost him Third Army. “Patton has broken out again,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall after that incident. “Apparently he is unable to use reasonably good sense.”
Narrowly pardoned, Patton spent the spring and early summer as a conspicuous decoy to confuse German intelligence about a second Allied landing. He shopped in Britain for hunting guns and saddles, wrote atrocious poetry, played badminton and golf, bought a white bull terrier named Willie, and offered Eisenhower $1,000 for every week in advance he was permitted to leave England for France. A reporter found him “neurotic and bloodthirsty.” To his wife, Bea, who was not only his confidante but a kindred spirit—she once bribed an Egyptian boatman to smuggle her into a tattoo parlor in a failed effort to have a full-rigged clipper ship needled across her chest—Patton had written in early July, “Can’t stand the times between wars.”
He also reflected deeply on generalship and the exploitation juggernaut he would now command. His kit included Edward Augustus Freeman’s six-volume History of the Norman Conquest of England, which Patton studied to understand William the Conqueror’s use of road networks in France. He arrived in France determined not only to redeem his reputation but to find glory. “I’m in the doghouse,” he told Joe Collins. “I’ve got to do something spectacular.” Bradley had bluntly warned him: “You know, George, I didn’t ask for you.” But Bradley soon found himself impressed by a man who seemed more “judicious, reasonable, and likeable than in the Mediterranean.” To his soldiers, Patton promised that the enemy would “raise up on their hind legs and howl, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s the goddamn Third Army and that son-of-a-bitch Patton again.’”
Now here they were, sluicing into Brittany with open flanks and a vulnerable rear. “I had to keep repeating to myself, ‘Do not take counsel of your fears,’” Patton told his diary on August 1. To Bea he wrote that combat “always scares and lures me, like steeple-chasing.” He ordered laminated battle maps of the sort he had carried in Tunisia and Sicily—ten by twenty inches each, with a scale of eight miles to the inch. When the set was delivered, he scowled. “It only goes as far east as Paris,” he complained. “I’m going to Berlin.”
* * *
First he was going to Brest, and no special map was needed to see that Brest lay west while Paris and Berlin lay east. Only the seizure of a Normandy beachhead ranked higher in importance for OVERLORD planners than the capture of Brittany and its ports: St.-Malo, St.-Nazaire, Lorient, Brest, and Quiberon Bay, for which another grandiose artificial harbor was envisioned. Delays in shaking free of Normandy, as well as the cautionary tales of Mulberry A and scorched-earth demolitions at Cherbourg, failed to dampen the ardor of Eisenhower and his logisticians. Patton’s army was to take Brittany.
But the collapse of the German left wing gave Montgomery pause, and as early as July 27 he had suggested that the campaign in Brittany might require only a single corps. Neither Bradley nor Patton took the hint. Patton, whose doghouse status made him leery of challenging Eisenhower’s master plan, wagered Montgomery £5 that GIs would be in Brest by Saturday night, August 5. Claiming “a sixth sense by which I can always know to a moral certainty what the enemy is going to do,” Patton insisted that “there aren’t more than ten thousand Krauts in the entire [Brittany] peninsula.” That was wrong by a factor of at least six. But to his 6th Armored Division, then 150 miles from the objective, he issued a two-word order on August 1: “Take Brest.”
On the same day, Third Army’s other spearhead, the 4th Armored Division, raced forty miles south from Avranches to the outskirts of Rennes, the Breton capital and a nexus for ten trunk roads. Here an epiphany struck Major General John S. Wood, the beetle-browed division commander. Known as P.—for “Professor,” because he had tutored his classmates at West Point—Wood had attended the academy to play football after graduating from the University of Arkansas, where he studied chemistry. A devoted rose gardener and a linguist who had read both De Gaulle and the German panzer mastermind Heinz Guderian in the original, Wood often buzzed above the battlefield in a Piper Cub with red streamers flapping from the wingtips so that his men below could recognize him.
“We’re winning this war the wrong way,” Wood declared. “We ought to be going toward Paris.” The French capital was only sixty miles farther from Rennes than Brest; Brittany was a cul-de-sac, while Paris led to the Reich. Wood ordered two 4th Armored columns to outflank Rennes and cut seven of those ten roads; the city fell on August 4. Proposing to reach Chartres—150 miles east—in two days, Wood radioed Patton, “Dear George … Trust we can turn around and get headed in right direction soon.” Instead he was dispatched west into Brittany for a bloody siege at Lorient.
Bradley belatedly had come around to Montgomery’s view that “the main business lies to the east.” On August 3, he told Patton to clear Brittany with “a minimum of forces.” Patton chose to pivot east with his XV and XX Corps while leaving VIII Corps behind, a splintering of the army that took time and consigned two cutthroat armored divisions, the 4th and 6th, to static siege warfare rather than freeing them to lead the charge across France.
The Brittany campaign soon proved bootless. None of the ports would be especially useful, in part because of their distance from the main battlefield—five hundred miles separated Brest from the German frontier—and in part because Hitler ordered various coastal fortresses held “to the last man, to the last cartridge.” That recalcitrance soon neutered 280,000 German defenders along the European littoral, but it also denied several important ports to Allied logisticians for weeks, if not for the duration. The siege of St.-Malo ensnared twenty thousand GIs for a fortnight and wrecked the harbor; Brest, with seventy-five strongpoints, and walls up to twenty-five-feet thick, proved a particularly hard nut, costing ten thousand casualties among the seventy thousand Americans who would invest the citadel for more than a month in a medieval affair of scaling ladders and grappling hooks. Though Bradley later insisted that the Brest garrison was too dangerous to leave unchallenged in his rear, the diversion of five divisions to Brittany reflected an inflexible adherence to the OVERLORD plan. “We must take Brest in order to maintain the illusion of the fact that the U.S. Army cannot be beaten,” Bradley told Patton, who agreed.
The war ended with not a single cargo ship or troopship having berthed at Brest, which bombs and a half million American shells knocked to rubble. The synthetic harbor at Quiberon Bay was never built. P. Wood, whose 4th Armored Division finally was released from siege duty at Lorient in mid-August to hie toward Nantes and far beyond, considered the Brittany sidestep “one of the colossally stupid decisions of the war.” But with most of Patton’s legions finally baying eastward by mid-August, both the initial swivel to the west and the failure to fulfill the strategic ambitions of the Brittany campaign seemed like small beer. “We have unloosed the shackles that were holding us down,” Montgomery told his lieutenants:
Whatever the enemy may want to do will make no difference to us. We will proceed relentlessly, and rapidly, with our plans for his destruction.… Our general situation is very good; the enemy situation is far from good.… Now is the time to press on boldly and to take great risks.
Montgomery’s plan was a simple, handsome thing: three armies would clobber the Germans straight on while a fourth—Patton’s Third—swung far to the right, toward Paris, to trap the reeling enemy against the Seine before the river bridges could be repaired. As Patton sent his XV Corps toward Le Mans, headquarters of the German Seventh Army, Montgomery heaved the bulk of Allied forces forward on a sixty-mile front from Avranches to Caen. The Canadian First Army on the left and the British Second Army in the center made modest progress against the preponderance of German armor, including two SS panzer corps. Tommies at last overran ruined Villers-Bocage on August 4 and bulled toward Vire, cheek by jowl with the U.S. V Corps of First Army. But here there were no thirty-miles-before-lunch sprints: the 28th Infantry Division, formerly part of the Pennsylvania National Guard, took 750 casualties on its first day in combat, while Loose Reins Gerhardt’s 29th Division suffered another thousand in struggling ten miles toward Vire.
* * *
War, as the historian Bruce Catton once wrote, sometimes “went by a queer script of its own,” putting a jackboot down on some anonymous, unlikely place like Shiloh Church or Kasserine or Anzio or Ste.-Mère-Église. Such a place was Mortain, a village of 1,300, twenty miles east of Avranches amid broken terrain dubbed the Norman Switzerland in a triumph of tourist-bureau ebullience over geography. The town’s name was said to derive from Maurus, a reference to Moors in the Roman army; renowned for cutlery, first of pewter and then of stainless steel, Mortain in recent times also had become a mining and market hub, linking inland communes with the coast. Since June 6, thousands of refugees from the invasion zone had shuffled through, among them children wearing tags with the addresses of relatives to contact should their mothers fall dead.
The last German occupier in Mortain had been gunned down on August 3 by a French policeman armed with a nineteenth-century rifle and one bullet. Hours later, the 1st Infantry Division arrived, only to move along on August 6, supplanted on that warm, luminous Sunday by the 30th Division. Cheering civilians tossed flowers at the newcomers in their grinding trucks as they rumbled past busy cafés and hotels. Known as Old Hickory for its National Guard roots in Tennessee and the Carolinas, the 30th Division still was licking wounds from COBRA, including the fratricidal bombing. Two of the division’s nine infantry battalions had been dispatched elsewhere; the rest now burrowed in across a seven-mile front.
Of keen interest was stony, steep Montjoie, looming over Mortain to the east and so named because from here joyful pilgrims first caught sight of Mont-St.-Michel, twenty-seven miles distant. To GIs the mile-long escarpment was simply Hill 314, after its height in meters; seven hundred men from the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry chuffed to the crest before scratching at the skimpy fieldworks left by the 1st Division. With them was Lieutenant Robert L. Weiss, a short, lean, twenty-one-year-old artillery forward observer who wore the same wool serge shirt his father, a Hungarian immigrant, had worn in World War I. In addition to binoculars on a tripod, Weiss lugged a thirty-five-pound SCR-610 radio in a saddle-soaped leather case; the FM set had a five-mile range, just far enough to reach the howitzer batteries dug in to the west. Recently he had written his mother in Indiana, “I hope I get a chance to do a little shooting on my own the next few days.” His weary comrades hoped only for a little rest.
This they would not get. Montgomery’s assessment that “the enemy situation is far from good” was unarguable, and that very vulnerability made the Germans desperate. From his East Prussian headquarters a thousand miles to the east, Hitler detected “a unique opportunity, which will never return … to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area.” At his direction, a counterattack spearheaded by four panzer divisions was to blast through Mortain to Avranches, cleaving Patton’s Third Army from Hodges’s First Army and, if not cudgeling the invaders back to their ships, at least reimposing the static war of early summer. “Tell Kluge,” Hitler added in a message sent through high command, “that he should keep his eyes riveted to the front and on the enemy without ever looking backward.”
Field Marshal Kluge replied that “such an attack if not immediately successful” would risk envelopment and annihilation. Even if the spearhead reached Avranches, the force would be too weak to hold its gains against Allied air, artillery, and armor. Eight German divisions had already been obliterated during July fighting in and below the Cotentin, plus others written off in Brittany and the isolated Channel Islands. Six replacement divisions had recently arrived on the Norman front from southern France and the Pas de Calais, permitting a reorganization of sorts: Panzer Group West was rechristened Fifth Panzer Army, with a dozen divisions in four corps, and Seventh Army counted sixteen divisions. Yet this host was fragile and dispirited.
Hitler waved away all caviling. The attack would go forward, as ordered, “recklessly to the sea, regardless of the risk.”
* * *
Swirling fog lifted and descended with stage-curtain melodrama in the balmy small hours of August 7. Shortly after one A.M., American pickets reported a spatter of rifle fire, followed by the distinctive growl of panzers on the hunt. Then the attack slammed against the 30th Division front in scalding, scarlet gusts: 26,000 Germans in the first echelon, with 120 tanks crewed by men in black uniforms evocative of the old imperial cavalry. Machine guns cackled, and the percussive boom of tank main guns rippled up and down the line. American howitzers barked back, firing by earshot at bent shadows barely a thousand yards ahead. GIs scrambled among firing positions to simulate greater numbers; pockets here and there were cut off in what one soldier described as “an all-gone feeling.” Wounded men mewed in the night.
Almost nothing went right in the German attack. A stricken Allied fighter-bomber smashed into the lead tank of the 1st SS Panzer Division, blocking the column for hours. Only three of six enemy spearheads surged forward on time. The right wing, anchored by the 116th Panzer Division, hardly budged; the commander would be sacked for “uninspired and negative” leadership. Of three hundred Luftwaffe fighters promised for the battle, not one reached the front.
The German weight fell heaviest on St.-Barthélemy, a crossroads two miles north of Mortain. Aiming at muzzle flashes, U.S. tank destroyer crews here demolished a Panther with a 3-inch slug at fifty yards, then another at thirty yards; both slewed across the road, burning with white fury. GIs at one roadblock let the panzers roll through, then butchered the grenadiers trailing behind. The 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry suffered 350 casualties and retired to a hillside a thousand yards west of St.-Barthélemy, but the German offensive had been delayed six hours, with forty panzers soon crippled. Meanwhile, at the Abbaye Blanche, a twelfth-century stone heap just north of Mortain, a platoon of sixty-six men with bazookas and artillery repelled an SS regiment. GIs stood fast against tanks, flamethrowers, and grenades. More than sixty enemy vehicles would be knocked out hub-to-hub-to-hub.
Dawn, that pitiless revealer of exigencies, unmasked the German predicament. Four armored divisions—from north to south, the 116th Panzer, the 2nd Panzer, and the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer—stood exposed and blinking in the brilliant sunshine once the fog burned off. “First really large concentration of enemy tanks seen since D-Day,” an RAF patrol reported. Typhoon fighter-bombers soon scalded the German ranks with two thousand 60-pound rockets and 20mm cannon rounds the size of tent pegs. Joined by cab ranks of Thunderbolts and Hurricanes, the planes attacked until dusk in a shark-feed frenzy.
“Hundreds of German troops began spilling out into the road to spring for the open fields and hedgerows,” a Typhoon pilot reported. Only a few dozen tanks and trucks were actually demolished from the air, and more than a few sorties mistakenly hit American revetments. But scores of other vehicles were abandoned under the onslaught or were wrecked by field artillery: a dozen battalions—144 tubes—raked the two roads leading west from St.-Barthélemy. A panzer corps headquarters described the attacks as “well-nigh unendurable,” and Seventh Army on August 7 conceded that “the actual attack has been at a standstill since 1300 hours.”
The only exception to the “exceptionally poor start,” as Seventh Army described the offensive, was a narrow advance of four miles by the 2nd Panzer Division in the north, and the successful seizure of Mortain by the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Das Reich had struck at three A.M. on Monday in three columns, overrunning a roadblock to the south, capturing antitank guns to the north, and infiltrating through the 120th Infantry with help from two traitorous French guides. Wraiths in coal-scuttle helmets darted down the village streets, kicking in doors and poking through cellars. Thirty officers and men from the 2nd Battalion command post tiptoed out a back exit of the Hôtel de la Poste to hide in a house four hundred yards away. Most, including the battalion commander and a soldier armed only with an ax, would later be captured by the Germans while trying to creep off, though half a dozen escaped detection for a week, living on garden vegetables and food pilfered from the local hospital larder. A radioed query from the 30th Division headquarters six miles to the west—“What does your situation look like down there?”—drew a spare reply: “Looks like hell.”
It also looked like hell from Hill 314, but at least the view was majestic. Lieutenant Weiss, with his field glasses and Signal Corps radio, had called in his first fire mission at six A.M., shooting only by sound and by map coordinates after sentries reported four hundred enemy troops scrabbling up the east slope. From a stone outcropping on the hill’s southern lip, among scrub pines and the animal fragrance of summer pastures, Weiss soon saw columns of German soldiers threading the plain below, including bicycle troops with rifles slung across their shoulders. Again he murmured incantations into the radio handset. Moments later, rushing shells fell in splashes of fire and the singing fragments that gunners called Big Iron. German mortar and 88mm shells answered, pummeling Montjoie’s rocky shoulders. Late in the afternoon Weiss radioed, “Enemy N, S, E, W.” During a rare lull, one GI later wrote, “No birds were singing. No leaves were moving. No wind was blowing.”
Nor were the Germans advancing. Artillery curtains directed from Hill 314 paralyzed Das Reich, kept the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division from scaling the hill, and prevented a collapse of the 30th Division’s southern flank. White phosphorus forced enemy troops into the open, where they frantically brushed the burning flakes from skin and uniform; high-explosive shells then cut them to scraps. By nightfall, the German offensive had stalled completely; five divisions had been unable to punch through a single American division with fewer than six thousand infantrymen. “If only the Germans will go on attacking at Mortain for a few more days,” Montgomery cabled Brooke that evening, “it seems that they might not be able to get away.”
In this the enemy complied. Positions changed little on Tuesday, August 8, another pellucid day for killing, both on the wing and by observed artillery fire. Guns crashed and heaved around the clock. “Bruised them badly,” Weiss radioed after one fire mission left spiraling smoke columns visible for miles. Although convinced that the offensive had failed, Kluge told his lieutenants, “We have to risk everything.”
For four more days, Hill 314 remained what a German officer called a “thorn in the flesh.” Hitler on August 9 again demanded that “the Allied invasion front be rolled up” with a renewed lunge toward Avranches by an improvised strike force under the Fifth Panzer Army commander, General Heinrich Eberbach. Arriving on the battlefield with little more than a radio truck, Eberbach told Kluge that the task was both impossible and “very unpleasant.” At 6:20 P.M. that Wednesday, an SS officer scrambled up Montjoie under a white flag to demand the Americans capitulate within ninety minutes or be “blown to bits.” Wounded GIs in slit trenches yelled, “No, no, don’t surrender,” and the senior officer on the hill, 1st Lieutenant Ralph A. Kerley, a lanky Texan, sent the envoy packing with a string of profanities. Five artillery battalions shattered a subsequent attack by bellowing Germans who fired machine guns and flicked grenades. Kerley called down one fire mission on his own command post. The field-gray tide receded.
Each night more slain soldiers on Hill 314 were tucked into makeshift morgues among the rocks after their bodies were searched for food and ammunition. Officers hoped that in removing the dead from sight they would bolster morale, but Montjoie reeked of men transformed into carrion. Each day Lieutenant Weiss set his precious radio batteries on a rocky shelf and let the sun recharge them a bit. Foragers filled canteens from a scummy cistern and found turnips, cabbages, and a few rabbits in a hutch. An effort to shoot medical supplies to the hilltop garrison in empty artillery smoke shells failed: G-forces shattered morphine syrettes and plasma bottles, and even crushed surgical tape into flat disks. A dozen C-47s using blue and orange parachutes sprinkled rations and other supplies over the hillcrest at 4:30 P.M. on August 10, but half the bundles drifted beyond the American perimeter into no-man’s-land. On the night of August 11, the frustrated 30th Division chief of staff declared, “I want Mortain demolished.… Burn it up so nothing can live there.” Artillery scourged the village like brimstone.
And then the battle ended. Even Hitler acknowledged futility. “The attack failed,” he said ominously, “because Field Marshal von Kluge wanted it to fail.” Sitting at a table in La Roche–Guyon with a map spread before him, Kluge tapped Avranches with his finger and said, “This is where I lose my reputation as a soldier.” Before dawn on August 12, German columns skulked off to the north and east. A relief regiment from the 35th Division hiked up Hill 314 to carry off 300 dead and wounded; another 370 men walked down, including Lieutenants Weiss and Kerley. The 30th Division alone had suffered 1,800 casualties in the six-day brawl for Mortain, and other units together tallied almost as many.
Survivors would be fed, decorated, and returned to the fight. American artillery had once again displayed the killing prowess that had made it the king of battle since the Boston bookseller Henry Knox turned to gunnery in the Revolution. Here too the U.S. Army had asserted a dominance on the battlefield—with firepower, tenacity, and a credible display of combined arms competence—that would only intensify over the next eight months, as the European campaign grew ever more feverish.
French civilians returning to wrecked Mortain “stood crying and rocking back and forth, as though in prayer,” a witness reported. GIs made puns about whether yet another town had been liberated or “ob-liberated.” Lieutenant Weiss, a dutiful son, sat down and scribbled his mother a letter on August 13. “Not much to write home about from here,” he told her. “You know more about what goes on than we do.”
* * *
Ultra’s big ears had given the Allied high command a clear sense of German intentions since before the onset of the Mortain offensive on August 7. Decrypted enemy radio transmissions were neither timely nor detailed enough to forewarn the 30th Division, but intercepted messages soon disclosed both Kluge’s battle plan and the obstacles to executing it. A decrypt on August 10 revealed that a renewed attack toward Avranches likely would begin the next day. Kluge’s order had carried a plaintive ring: the “decisive thrustmust lead to success.”
Encouraged by Eisenhower, Bradley kept most of Third Army galloping east toward Le Mans, convinced that airpower and Collins’s VII Corps could blunt the German offensive even if the “decisive thrust” squeezed past Mortain. During a press briefing near Colombières, Ernest Hemingway asked Bradley about a rumor that he had wagered Patton $100 on who would reach Paris first. A startled Bradley replied, “I am General Patton’s commanding officer and I don’t think it would be very sporting for me to make such a bet. Besides you can surely understand that we are not talking in terms of Paris yet.”
Certainly they were thinking of it. Allied forces now occupied one-tenth of France’s landmass and straddled the main roads to the French capital from the west. The longer the Germans “obstinated” at Mortain, in Churchill’s expression, the greater the chance to encircle two German field armies comprising more than 100,000 troops. From his left wing on August 7, Montgomery had launched the Canadian First Army in a drive southeast toward Falaise with a strike force that included fifteen hundred bombers and half as many tanks. Bofors gun tracers marked the axis of attack through dust and smoke, and searchlights bouncing off the low clouds created artificial moonlight. The attack purchased nine miles before stalling in confusion halfway to Falaise—“the blind leading the blind,” in one colonel’s assessment. Fifty 88mm antitank guns punished the attacking tanks; more air fratricide inflicted three hundred Allied casualties, many in the new Polish 1st Armored Division. SS troops encouraged German defenders at pistol point with cries of, “Push on, you dogs!”
As this unspooled, Bradley was once again poring over the maps in his trailer, now with mounting excitement. On August 8, during a roadside K-ration lunch near Coutances with Eisenhower, who was touring the battlefield in a Packard Clipper driven by Kay Summersby, Bradley proposed curtailing Patton’s wide envelopment. Instead, both First and Third Armies would wheel to the north; Patton would make a sharp left turn at Le Mans, driving sixty miles through Alençon to Sées. The Canadians would press on for twenty-two miles through Falaise and Argentan to meet their American cousins, cinch the sack, and trap more than twenty German divisions.
An exuberant Eisenhower followed Bradley back to his command post, where a quick telephone call enlisted Montgomery’s support. Patton was dubious, halfheartedly arguing on the phone for continuing east in a more audacious envelopment that would bag the enemy between the rivers Seine at Paris and Loire at Orléans. When Bradley persisted, Patton capitulated, ordering his XV Corps to pivot north from Le Mans. “If I were on my own,” he wrote Bea, “I would take bigger chances than I am now permitted to take.”
Montgomery issued a formal directive, ordering the Canadians to secure Falaise. “This is a first priority, and it should be done quickly.” In a message to inspirit “the United Armies in France,” he asked that the Almighty “make us ministers of Thy chastisement.”
Bradley continued to chortle at German obduracy in Mortain, the “greatest tactical blunder I’ve heard of.” To a visitor he 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.”
* * *
Rarely does a battle follow the tidy arrows that have been sketched on a map or limned in a commander’s imagination. The mighty struggle for the Falaise Pocket was no exception. Several factors prevented the enemy annihilation envisioned by the Allied high command, including miscalculation, confusion, and dull generalship. Not least among the variables was a German reluctance to be annihilated.
In the south, Third Army’s drive began well enough under Major General Wade Haislip’s XV Corps. Two armored divisions abreast led two infantry divisions against fitful resistance. The French 2nd Armored Division, kitted out with U.S. Army tanks, captured intact the bridges at Alençon on August 12. With Argentan as the day’s objective, although it lay a dozen miles inside the British 21st Army Group sector, Haislip ordered the French commander, Major General Jacques Philippe Leclerc, to bend west. That would free the highway north from Sées for the U.S. 5th Armored Division, giving greater heft to the Allied attack. Evincing an attitude of je m’en foutisme—I don’t give a fuck—Leclerc instead fanned out on all available roads, blocking passage of 5th Armored fuel trucks and giving the Germans six hours to rally sixty panzers from Mortain into a sector previously held by a rearguard bakery company.
Patton was peeved but undeterred. With XV Corps sporting three hundred tanks, twenty-two artillery battalions, and complete air domination, he ordered Haislip to bowl through the German blockade, then “push on slowly until you contact our allies” near Falaise. Patton phoned Bradley early Sunday afternoon, August 13, to report his progress. “Shall we continue,” he said with coarse humor, “and drive the British into the sea for another Dunkirk?”
But Bradley had heard things go bump in the night. He now issued the most controversial order of his long career. “Nothing doing,” he told Patton. “Don’t go beyond Argentan. Stop where you are and build up on that shoulder.” The Canadian pincer from the north had made no headway, and Bradley wrongly believed—on the basis of sketchy Ultra reports and faulty intuition—that at least nineteen German divisions had begun stampeding eastward to escape the Allied trap. If that was true, then Haislip’s corps risked destruction by pushing north with an exposed left flank. Montgomery also felt perturbations at the American vulnerability, but as Bradley later wrote, “I did not consult with Montgomery. The decision to stop Patton was mine alone.” Patton argued to no avail, then told his diary that Haislip could “easily advance to Falaise and completely close the gap.… This halt is a great mistake.” A Third Army staff officer noted, “The General is beside himself.”
Canadian difficulties further unstitched the Allied master plan. Not until August 14 did the Canadian First Army finally gather its four divisions for an attack toward Falaise. Montgomery’s contempt for the Canadian army commander, General Harry D. G. Crerar, a chain-smoker with a hacking cough and recurrent dysentery, had only intensified in recent weeks. “I fear he thinks he is a great soldier,” Montgomery had recently written Brooke. “He took over command at 1200 hours on 23 July. He made his first mistake at 1205 hours, and his second after lunch.”
Worse yet, the Germans on August 13 had found detailed battle plans on the body of a Canadian officer killed after blundering into their lines; forewarned, the enemy shifted dozens of antitank guns to the avenue of attack. By Tuesday afternoon, August 15, the assault on Falaise had become “a molten fire bath of battle,” as the Canadian Scottish Regiment war diary recorded. Fratricide once again shredded the ranks: only belatedly did anyone realize that the yellow smoke used by Canadian soldiers to signify friendly positions was the same color used by British Bomber Command to mark targets. “The more the troops burnt yellow flares to show their positions,” the British official history recorded, “the more the errant aircraft bombed them.” The consequent four hundred casualties, plus washboard terrain and “dust like I’ve never seen before,” as one commander lamented, meant the Canadians would not reach Falaise until Wednesday. Even then, thirteen miles separated them from the Americans.
Bradley now made another momentous decision. Perhaps to mollify the restless, sulking Patton, and without consulting Montgomery, he agreed to dispatch more than half of Haislip’s combat power—two divisions and fifteen artillery battalions—toward Dreux, sixty-five miles to the east. In his August 15 order, Bradley wrote:
Due to the delay in closing the gap between Argentan and Falaise, it is believed that many of the German divisions which were in the pocket have now escaped.… In order to take advantage of the confusion existing, the Third Army will now initiate a movement towards the east.
In fact, no German divisions had yet tried to escape; Hitler still would not permit it. To reinforce a wide envelopment toward Paris—Patton’s original proposal—Bradley weakened the shorter envelopment that he personally had designed. Nor was he confident in his course. “For the first and only time during the war,” he later confessed, “I went to bed that evening worrying over a decision I had already made.”
The two most senior Allied field commanders, Montgomery and Bradley, had made a hash of things. Neither recognized that German forces facing the callow Canadians and Poles were more formidable than those facing the Americans, because the latter had been weakened by COBRA and at Mortain. Montgomery failed to reinforce Crerar with the veteran British legions at his disposal; he also made little effort to confirm that he and Bradley fully understood each other. From his command-post menagerie near Vire, atwitter with “squeaking and scuffling” canaries in their cages, Montgomery evinced his usual sangfroid without imparting either urgency or command omniscience. “These are great days,” he wrote a friend on August 14. “Some [Germans] will of course escape, but I do not see how they can stand and fight seriously again this side of the Seine.”
Bradley was quick to fault Montgomery for various sins, including failure to move the army group boundary north of Argentan, as well as neglect in requesting American help to seal the pocket. Yet he had been niggardly in offering that help and slippery in not disclosing his diversion of XV Corps to the east. Having recently read Douglas Southall Freeman’s masterful Lee’s Lieutenants, Bradley professed that “the one quality all the great generals had in common was their understanding.” But such battlefield clairvoyance, which he had occasionally displayed as a corps commander in Tunisia and Sicily, often eluded him as an army group commander. The historian Russell F. Weigley later would lament “the absence of sustained operational forethought and planning on the part of both the principal allies.”
Nor was Eisenhower much help. The supreme commander had proved an indifferent field marshal in Tunisia, on Sicily, and during the planning for Anzio; now at Falaise he continued in that deficiency, watching passively for more than a week without recognizing or rectifying the command shortcomings of his two chief lieutenants. Four armies—British Second, Canadian First, and U.S. First and Third—seemed only loosely hinged together. “Ike [was] fashionably garbed in suntans with Egyptian suede shoes and Kay was similarly dressed, making the rest of us look dull and dirty in comparison,” an officer in Bradley’s headquarters wrote after one mid-August visit. A British general later concluded, with more regret than censure, “He never really got the feel of the battle.”
* * *
Whatever shortcomings vexed the Allied high command, they paled when stacked against the German fiasco. Dozens of tanks, assault guns, and artillery pieces stood immobile for lack of fuel. General Eberbach told Kluge on August 14 that three of his panzer divisions totaled only seventy tanks and that the 9th Panzer Division “has the strength of a company.” Even SS troops were straggling. “Such tiredness,” a German commander said later. “It caused hallucinations.” For every five German casualties in the west since June 6, only one replacement had arrived. Kluge’s headquarters warned the high command: “It is five minutes before midnight.”
Then Kluge vanished. After a conference with Sepp Dietrich near Bernay, the field marshal left in his Horch at ten A.M. on August 15 to meet Eberbach and other field commanders at Nécy, six miles south of Falaise. He never arrived. “Ascertain whereabouts Kluge,” Hitler’s headquarters demanded. “Report results hourly.” Berlin indelicately asked whether the field marshal might have defected.
Shortly before midnight he appeared at Eberbach’s command post west of Argentan, disheveled and filthy. Fighter-bombers had strafed the Horch and two radio cars that morning, leaving him to cower in a ditch until sunset, then wend his way through snarled traffic. Eberbach told him that Hitler wanted another counterattack, a preposterous pipe dream. “The people there live in another world without any idea of the actual situation,” Kluge said, gesturing vaguely toward Berlin. He returned to La Roche–Guyon in a borrowed car and at 2:40 P.M. on Wednesday, August 16, directed Army Group B to begin the retreat from Normandy. Hitler affirmed the decision two hours later.
The order would be Kluge’s last. On Thursday, without warning, a short, jowly officer with a keen tactical eye framed by a monocle arrived at La Roche–Guyon with a letter from Hitler authorizing him to replace Kluge. Field Marshal Walter Model, son of a Royal Prussian music director, fancied himself “Hitler’s fireman”: during three years of service on the Eastern Front he had built a reputation as a soldier who could stabilize the field after defeats and retreats. A caustic, devout Lutheran with an adhesive memory, a taste for French red wine, and a belief in the prodigal use of firing squads for shirkers, Model was bold enough to have once asked a meddler from Berlin, “Who commands the Ninth Army, my Führer, you or I?” His bullying of subordinates led Rundstedt to observe that he had “the makings of a good sergeant.” Even Hitler had muttered, “Did you see those eyes? I wouldn’t like to serve under him.”
Now Model was in command, and no Wehrmacht officer doubted it. His favorite maxims were: “Can’t that be done faster?” and a line from Goethe’s Faust: “Den lieb’ ich, der Unmögliches begehrt”—I love the one who craves the impossible. In a conference at Fifth Panzer Army headquarters in Fontaine-l’Abbé, Model told his commanders, “My intention is to withdraw behind the Seine.” As the retreat accelerated across the Norman front, two SS panzer divisions would swing southwest from the river to shore up an escape corridor near Trun for forces threatened with encirclement at Falaise. Already under blistering artillery and air attack, much of the German host in the west was at risk. For those who craved the impossible, the hour was ripe.
* * *
Legend had it that upon returning from the hunt on a fateful morning in 1027, the seventeen-year-old heir to the Norman duchy, Robert the Magnificent, also known as Robert the Devil, spied a tanner’s beautiful daughter with her skirts hiked as she washed linen in a creek below the castle wall at Falaise. The subsequent assignation produced a son, William the Bastard, who survived various assassination plots to rule Normandy for more than half a century, to extend his reign into England in 1066, and to earn a new sobriquet.
By August 17, 1944, nearly a millennium later, the Conqueror’s hometown had been so roughly handled that Canadian troops could no longer discern where the streets were laid; bulldozers simply carved a strip four meters wide through the drifted rubble. Bullet holes dinged the hoary castle keep, although the equestrian bronze of William stood intact. The last Tigers had rumbled from the cathedral ruins out the southwest corner of town the previous evening, but not until Friday morning, August 18, would sixty 12th SS diehards be exterminated in the École Supérieure. The only survivors were two teenagers, chosen by lot, who crept away to report that the town had fallen.
The eponymous Falaise Pocket by this time extended twenty miles from west to east and was roughly ten miles wide. Ultra had decrypted Kluge’s withdrawal order, correcting Bradley’s delusion that the enemy had already fled, and prompting Montgomery at last to ask the Americans to lunge eight miles northeast from Argentan toward Chambois and Trun, where the Poles and Canadians were bound from the northwest in hopes of severing the two roads remaining to the Germans.
Bradley now confessed that he had sent most of XV Corps gamboling far to the east. He ordered Major General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of V Corps within First Army, to cobble together an attack using divisions left behind by Haislip, who was now racing toward Dreux. With three jeeps, nine officers, and a broken radio, Gerow drove sixty miles through teeming rain to arrive after daybreak on August 17 at his new command post in the Hôtel de France in Alençon. Here he found Major General Hugh J. Gaffey, the Third Army chief of staff, poised to attack in an hour under orders from Patton to form a provisional corps with the precise forces Gerow expected to command. After much confused palaver, Major General Gerow rejected Major General Gaffey’s battle plan and postponed the attack until Friday morning to await more artillery.
Napoleonic it was not. Montgomery told Brooke at eleven P.M. on August 17 that “the gap has now been closed.” That was untrue. He told Churchill, “The enemy cannot escape us.” That too was untrue. To a friend he wrote, “I have some 100,000 Germans almost surrounded in the pocket.” That was truer, but almost would not win the battle, much less the war. Fortunately, even as Allied commanders stumbled about, the reduction of the pocket by soldiers and airmen had begun in earnest. Spitfires, Typhoons, Mustangs, Lightnings, and Thunderbolts flew fifteen hundred to three thousand sorties each day in sanguinary relays from first light to last light. “Since the transports were sometimes jammed together four abreast,” an RAF group captain explained, “it made the subsequent rocket and cannon attacks a comparatively easy business.” A captured Canadian officer who later escaped described what he had seen on August 18: “Everywhere there were vehicle trains, tanks and vehicles towing what they could. The damage was immense, and flaming transport and dead horses were left in the road while the occupants pressed on, afoot.”
Canadian troops on Friday won through to Trun, subsequently described as “an inferno of incandescent ruins.” “Shoot everything,” Montgomery urged them. The next day GIs from the 359th Infantry crept into flaming Chambois, soon dubbed Shambles. An officer reported blood “running in sizeable streams in the gutters.” Fleeing Germans had been transformed into “nothing but charcoal in the forms of men” or “vertebrae attended by flies”; a dead driver perched on an artillery caisson still held reins attached to four horses, also dead. Then the Yanks spied Poles from the 10th Dragoons. “An American captain ran towards me,” a Polish soldier later recalled, “and still running caught hold of me and lifted me in the air as if I had been a child.” Cigarettes and chocolate were shared out, toasts drunk.
With eastbound roads now cut, remnants from nineteen German divisions were largely reduced to cart paths or to slinking cross-country by compass course. Three thousand Allied guns ranged the kill zone, and an artillery battalion commander from the 90th Division told his diary:
The pocket surrounding the Germans is in the shape of a bowl and from the hills our observers have a perfect view of the valley below.… Every living thing or moving vehicle is under constant observation. I can understand why our forward observers have been hysterical. There is so much to shoot at.
With guidance from aerial spotters, gunners walked white phosphorus and high explosives up and down the enemy ranks. “We always hit something,” said one pilot. A German general reported that many of his men were “without headgear, belts, or footwear. Many go barefoot.” A staff officer added, “Heavy firing into the sunken road. A tank immediately reversed and ran over some of our men.… Someone at the rear started to wave a white flag on a stick. We shot him.” That which the gun batteries overlooked, the fighter-bombers found, as pilots squinted for raised dust or the telltale glint of glass beneath the beeches and hornbeams. “I saw a truck crew, sitting on the steps of a farmhouse, dejectedly looking at the burning wreckage of their vehicles in the road,” a Spitfire pilot said. “So I shot them up as well.” A French farmer escaped the carnage to report, “It seemed as though I was on the stage of the last act of the Valkyrie. We were surrounded by fire.”
Two death struggles within the larger apocalypse bore on the battle. At St.-Lambert, a village straddling the river Dives between Trun and Shambles, savage counterattacks by “shouting, grey-clad men” against gutful troops from the Canadian 4th Armored Division raged through Saturday and Sunday, August 19 and 20. Pillars of fire from burning gasoline trucks smudged the heavens; corpses, carcasses, and charred equipment dammed the Dives in “an awful heap” beneath one bitterly contested bridge. “We fired till the machine gun boiled away,” a Canadian gunner reported. Improvised German battle groups shot their way through the cordon southeast of St.-Lambert, extracting not only panzers—with grenadiers clinging to the hulls “like burrs”—but also the Fifth Panzer Army command group and assorted generals, including Eberbach, who soon would be given command of Seventh Army.
Three miles northeast, eighteen hundred men from the Polish 1st Armored Division on Friday afternoon had scaled a looming scarp known as Hill 262 but which they named Maczuga—Mace—for its contours on a map. On Sunday morning, after a productive evening disemboweling a surprised German column plodding toward Vimoutiers on the road below, the Poles caught the brunt of an assault by the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions, summoned by Model from the Seine as his “break-in” force to extricate survivors from the pocket. With low clouds grounding Allied planes for part of the day, Germans swarmed up the wooded slopes “from all the sides in the world,” one Pole recalled. Panthers and Shermans traded fire point-blank as the hereditary enemies slaughtered each other with bayonets and grenades into the night and through the next morning; all the while, escaping Germans streamed past the hill mass. A French-Canadian artillery observer, perched on Maczuga with two radios and two hundred guns in range, built a ring of massed fires around the redoubt, just as Lieutenant Weiss had done at Mortain. By the time the Canadian 4th Armored Division broke through on Monday afternoon, 325 Poles lay dead on Maczuga and more than a thousand others had been wounded. Panzers burned like haystacks across the hill, and SS bodies roasted in the grass fires ignited by tracer rounds.
For another day German stragglers died trying to ford the Dives or sneak through the shadows. Others surrendered, shouting “Merde pour la guerre”—Shit on the war. “It was more of an execution than a battle,” a Canadian gunner said. Several hundred Germans with armored cars and blazing 20mm guns charged through the wheat toward Trun on Monday; a Canadian line of eight Vickers machine guns “shot them down in droves,” one soldier recorded. “It lasts a half hour or so.” The dead were picked clean of Lugers, daggers, watches, and bloody francs, spread in the sun to dry. An old Frenchman pushing a cart poked a dead German with his foot, the reporter Iris Carpenter wrote, then chortled as he urinated on the body “with the greatest care and deliberation, subjecting each feature in the gray face to equally timed proportions of debasement.” Yes, merde pour la guerre.
* * *
At last the guns fell silent, leaving the battlefield to resemble “one of those paintings of Waterloo or Borodino,” wrote Alan Moorehead, who cabled the Daily Express, “I think I see the end of Germany from here.”
Distances may deceive in war, and the German demise was farther off than he and others realized. The pursuit and annihilation of a beaten foe is among the most difficult military skills to master, as demonstrated from Gettysburg to Alamein; and defeats in Russia, North Africa, and Italy had taught the Wehrmacht how to retreat. Precisely a year earlier, 110,000 Germans and Italians had escaped seemingly sure destruction at Messina.
“All German formations that cross the Seine will be incapable of combat during the months to come,” Montgomery promised London. That too was optimistic, and more enemy troops crossed than should have. Alas, no corps de chasse nipped at German heels for the forty miles from Vimoutiers to the river.
After liberating Orléans and Chartres on August 16 and 18, respectively, Third Army was ordered to swing below Paris and cross the Seine east of the capital en route to the German frontier. Fuel shortages already required daily emergency airlifts from England, but Eisenhower had ordered his lieutenants to outrun the enemy as he made for home. Of Patton’s legions, only XV Corps had swiveled north, crossing the Seine on August 20 by boat, raft, treadway bridge, and a narrow footpath atop a dam near Mantes, thirty miles west of Paris. German blocking forces thwarted efforts to sweep downstream along the riverbank, but GIs managed to overrun La Roche–Guyon after firing mortars and rifle grenades into the courtyard; Model and his staff scurried off to Margival, where Rommel, Rundstedt, and Hitler had met two months earlier.
The Allied victory, though extraordinary, was incomplete. Despite “inextricable confusion,” in one German general’s phrase, as well as “shootings, threats, and violent measures” by SS toughs who controlled many of the sixty Seine crossing sites, those who escaped the Falaise Pocket mostly escaped Normandy. Two dozen improvised ferries, hidden by day along the oxbow glades, shuttled 25,000 vehicles to the east bank from August 20 to 24. Soldiers unable to book passage nailed together rafts from cider barrels, or pried doors from their hinges and floated them with empty fuel cans. Others lashed saplings with phone wire or clung to the bloated carcass of a dead cow drifting downstream. British intelligence estimated that 95 percent of German troops who reached the river also made the far bank. Estimates of the number escaping the Falaise trap ranged from thirty thousand to more than a hundred thousand; those who got away included four of five corps commanders, twelve of fifteen division commanders, and many capable staff officers. Tens of thousands more who were never within the pocket now joined the retreat across France.
Yet by any measure the defeat at Falaise was profound. Perhaps ten thousand Germans lay dead and fifty thousand more had been captured. Thunderbolts buzzed the roads, herding men waving white flags into prisoner columns. “Life in the cages is pretty crude,” an American officer told his diary on August 24. “I heard one soldier tell another that water is being sold at 300 francs per canteen.” Among the dead was Marshal Kluge: en route to Berlin after his displacement by Model, he stopped outside Verdun, spread a blanket in the underbrush, and swallowed a cyanide capsule. “When you receive these lines, I shall be no more,” he told Hitler in a valedictory note. “The German people have suffered so unspeakably that it is time to bring the horror to a close.” The Führer composed his epitaph: “Perhaps he couldn’t see any way out.… It’s like a western thriller.”
Allied investigators counted nearly seven hundred tanks and self-propelled guns wrecked or abandoned from Falaise to the river. No Seine ferry could carry a Tiger, and panzers stood scuttled and charred on the docks at Rouen and elsewhere. The tally also included a thousand artillery pieces and twenty-five hundred trucks and cars. Model told Hitler that his panzer and panzer grenadier divisions averaged “five to ten tanks each.” Divisions in the Fifth Panzer Army averaged only three thousand men, with barely one-third of their equipment. Army Group B had been demolished, complementing the destruction of Army Group Center in White Russia in June, although many divisions would display a knack for resurrection. As the historian Raymond Callahan later wrote, “The remarkable resurgence of the German army in the autumn obviously owes something forever unquantifiable to the imperfect Allied victory of Falaise.”
Eisenhower took a quick tour of the pocket, swinging from Falaise to Trun and as far northeast as Vimoutiers. Two miles from Chambois, he climbed from the staff car and walked through the carnage wrought by his armies. “Indescribable horror and destruction,” wrote a lieutenant colonel in his entourage. “German guns and trucks and wagons, bloated dead by the score scattered everywhere.” Some were buried on the road verges, their paybooks tacked to crude crosses. A Canadian chaplain reported five thousand others tossed into a bulldozed mass grave at St.-Lambert. Charred corpses in burned-out panzers were dubbed “coal monuments” by Polish troops. British soldiers fired Sten rounds to evacuate gases from still more corpses before they were burned in a pyre. A German officer sat in the rear of a limousine next to his stylish mistress, both dead from cannon shells through the chest. “It was as if,” one officer wrote, “an avenging angel had swept the area bent on destroying all things German.”
Troops cleansing the pocket wore gas masks to cope with what became known as the “Falaise smell.” Corruption even seeped into Spitfire cockpits at fifteen hundred feet. “Everything is dead,” wrote Ernie Pyle, who had arrived on August 21. “The men, the machines, the animals—and you alone are left alive.” A Canadian executioner with a pistol hiked along a stream bank where dozens of wounded horses “stood patiently waiting to die in the water.” The labor of clearing eight thousand slaughtered horses and countless cows would keep the bulldozers busy until November; Allied administrators declared the Dives an “unhealthy zone,” and drinking water was trucked in for months. Not until 1961 would scrap-metal collectors remove the last battle detritus from the orchards and grain fields.
Norman schoolchildren sang in English to Canadian soldiers, “Thank you for liberating us.” The U.S. stock market tumbled in anticipation of peace and falling corporate profits. Reports from southern France suggested that a Franco-American invasion on the Mediterranean coast had pushed the enemy back on his heels. Many recalled November 1918, when the German army had abruptly disintegrated. “It is,” Montgomery declared, “the beginning of the end of the war.”
That much was true.