Military history

Chapter 10 » THE OPEN FLANK

By the last days of July 1944, the German army in Normandy had been reduced to such a condition that only a few fanatics of the SS still entertained hopes of avoiding defeat, far less of achieving victory. Any faint prospect of replacing the huge casualties in the west vanished in the wake of the Russian offensive against Army Group Centre, which had destroyed 28 German divisions in five weeks, a blow as shattering to Hitler as that which was now befalling him in Normandy. The Allies’ intelligence reports of the German order of battle flattered their opponents – or perhaps themselves by detailing the divisions still before them: Panzer Lehr, 2nd SS Panzer, 12th SS Panzer and so on. In fact, these formations were shattered ruins of their old selves, sustained by a fraction of the men and a tiny fragment of the armour and gun power that they had carried into battle weeks before. Attrition, not manoeuvre, had been decisive in reducing von Kluge’s formations to a state in which they could no longer sustain the sagging line. As the tide poured over the walls of their sandcastle from Bourguébus to Rennes, they lacked both the mobility to race the Allies to the breaches and the fighting power to seal the gaps, even where they could reach these. Von Kluge reported to Hitler:

Whether the enemy can still be stopped at this point is questionable. The enemy air superiority is terrific, and smothers almost every one of our movements . . . Losses in men and equipment are extraordinary. The morale of our troops has suffered very heavily under constant murderous enemy fire, especially since all infantry units consist only of haphazard groups which do not form a strongly coordinated force any longer. In the rear areas of the front terrorists, feeling the end approaching, grow steadily bolder. This fact, and the loss of numerous signal installations, makes an orderly command extremely difficult.1

Wholesale collapses in morale were resulting in the mass surrender of units swamped by the American advance. General Hausser of Seventh Army, a legendarily tough SS commander, reported that 10 of his divisions had disintegrated, leaving scattered bands of demoralized stragglers roaming north-west France without equipment or leadership. Sergeant Hans Stober admitted that even in 17th SS Panzergrenadiers, from mid-July shell-shock – hitherto an almost unrecognized condition in SS units – became a significant problem. ‘By this stage, the whole German army was deteriorating,’ said Lieutenant Langangke of 2nd SS Panzer. ‘We no longer had a chance to do anything big. We could only play foxes, do this or that in a small way. Heim ins Reich – Home to Germany – was the principal thought in many people’s minds.’ It was astonishing that the German east–west front held together at all. Yet the surviving fragments of the old elite units still disputed the Allied advance at every stage.

The reverberations of the bomb explosion on 20 July at Hitler’s headquarters echoed through the upper ranks of his army. ‘At one moment was to be seen a set of men and things which together formed a focal point of world events,’ wrote one of the survivors, Jodl’s Deputy Walter Warlimont. ‘At the next, there was nothing but wounded men groaning, the acrid smell of burning and charred fragments of maps and papers fluttering in the wind.’2 Hitler’s chronic mistrust and scorn for his generals became manic. Throughout the Normandy campaign, he had intervened in their decisions. Now he began to sweep aside the unanimous advice of men as unfailingly loyal to him in the past as Hausser, Eberbach, Dietrich, as well as the wavering von Kluge, and to direct the battle in a fashion that severed all contact with reason or reality. On 30 July Jodl placed before him an order ‘for possible withdrawal from the coastal sector’, which was in effect a blueprint for the evacuation of France.3 Hitler brushed this aside, saying that it was not at present necessary. Jodl anyway telephoned Blumentritt at von Kluge’s headquarters and told him to be prepared to receive such an order when it came. Late on the night of 31 July, Hitler personally briefed Warlimont for the trip he was to make to France, declaring simply: ‘The object remains to keep the enemy confined to the bridgehead and there to inflict serious losses upon him in order to wear him down.’4 When Warlimont received his final orders at the midday conference the next morning, Hitler said irritably, ‘You tell Field-Marshal von Kluge to keep on looking to his front, to keep his eyes on the enemy and not to look over his shoulder.’5 Warlimont was to be Hitler’s personal agent at von Kluge’s headquarters, ensuring that the havering Field-Marshal executed his orders precisely.

The Führer suffered increasingly from self-pity in the days following the assassination attempt. On hearing a recital of the sufferings of his soldiers and of the German people, he remarked crossly: ‘I think it’s pretty obvious that this war is no fun for me. I’ve been cut off from the world for five years. I’ve not been to a theatre, a concert or a film . . .’6 It was a remarkable irony that, at a time when his own faith in his army was crumbling, most of its officers and men in the field were shocked by news of the bomb plot, and were continuing to hold their positions despite intolerable difficulties. Colonel Heinz-Gunther Guderian of 116th Panzer was astonished and disgusted by the news from the rear: ‘We were not part of some South American military junta. We had the constant feeling that there were traitors in our midst.’ Captain Eberhard Wagemann of 21st Panzer staff had long ago concluded, in a discussion with an older officer of the division who was a personal friend of Count von Stauffenberg, that the war could not be won. But like many German officers, he felt that however hopeless the situation, ‘no officer, no soldier had any business to concern himself with treachery.’ Corporal Adolf Hohenstein of 276th Infantry retained no faith in victory, but was thoroughly dismayed by Stauffenberg’s bomb. ‘It cost us thousands of lives at the front,’ he believed. A 21st Army Group intelligence report based upon prisoner interrogation following the bomb plot concluded: ‘The overall effect of the news on the men of fighting units was one of no excitement. One effort to end the war had been frustrated. Therefore everything was as before.’7 The same document came to the conclusion that only 5 per cent of German troops now believed in the possibility of final victory. 10th and 12th SS Panzer were the only divisions in which it could be said that morale was still high.

The principal consequences of the bomb plot among the men in Normandy was to sow an almost poisonous mistrust within the officer corps. It was ironic that many officers whose confused sense of honour had convinced them that they should not be party to the bomb plot, now suffered bitter consequences because that same interpretation of honour had prevented them from betraying the plotters to Hitler. The Wehrmacht found itself deprived of all power or respect within the German state, subjected to the final humiliation of being compelled to adopt the Hitler salute. Relations between the SS and the Heer – the soldiers of the Wehrmacht – were normally good at field level. Now a chasm widened between the fanatical loyalists and those despairing of victory and increasingly weary of defeat. In the hospital where Corporal Werner Kortenhaus of 21st Panzer was recovering from his wounds, a young soldier playing chess said as they talked about news of the bomb plot: ‘He’d be better dead.’ An SS NCO sprang to his feet and caught the speaker a furious slap across the face. Kortenhaus himself, along with most men of the Heer, had no illusions left: ‘We reckoned that the whole game was up.’ The SS were increasingly obsessed by the conviction that the anti-Hitler plotters were contributing directly to their misfortunes on the battlefield. ‘It was obvious to us that there was a lot of treachery,’ said Lieutenant Walter Kruger of 12th SS Panzer. Hitler raged that the lack of Panzerfausten in Normandy was clearly the consequence of sabotage by the Quartermaster-General, Wagner, one of the dead plotters.

After the war, when the names of those concerned with the plot were shown to include such men as Rommel’s Chief of Staff, Hans Speidel, and Graf von Schwerin, commanding 116th Panzer, thousands of their former comrades sought to blame their treachery for the misfortunes that befell the German army in Normandy. Above all, they allowed themselves to be convinced that delays in moving units from the Pas de Calais and in getting ammunition and supplies to the front were the result of sabotage. There will never be conclusive evidence one way or the other. But it remains far more probable that the failures and difficulties were genuine accidents and errors of war. The plotters were guided by a desire to make peace on the best available terms with the western Allies. Nothing could have made this task more difficult than for Hitler’s death to take place at a moment when the German army was in collapse after a shattering defeat. It was very much to the plotters’ advantage that the line in Normandy should be stable when the Führer died. By July, some officers and men were giving less than their best efforts to the war because they were convinced of its futility. But there was a great gulf between passive defeatism of this kind, and an active attempt to sabotage the campaign. By early August, the German army in France was on the edge of catastrophe because of its ruin on the battlefield and the demented strategy of Hitler, not because it had been betrayed from within.

For the Allied armies, the battle now took on a new character. Hitherto, while generalship had naturally been important, the progress of the campaign depended above all upon the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, in the next hedge, beyond the next road. Henceforth, while hard fighting still lay ahead, Normandy became a commanders’ battle. It was the decisions of the generals that determined the manner in which events unfolded in August, their successes and failures which brought about the position that was achieved by September.

Of all the Allied movements of the campaign, few have evoked such widespread post-war criticism as the American ‘right turn’ into Brittany at the beginning of August.8 The German XXV Corps was known to be weak and lacking the mobility to create a major threat to Bradley’s armies. Montgomery anticipated that no more than a single US corps would press on west from Avranches towards Brest and the other Breton ports. In fact, two of Patton’s three corps swept across the bridge at Pontaubault into Brittany, and Bradley was determined to embark on no reckless adventures south-eastwards unless he was certain of holding the Avranches ‘elbow’ in their rear. ‘We can’t risk a loose hinge,’ he said.9 He feared a German counter-attack north-westwards, breaking through to the coast and cutting off Patton’s armoured divisions from their fuel and supplies – with disastrous consequences. Bradley himself later accepted responsibility for the decision, for good or ill, to swing large American forces west into Brittany.

Patton won the admiration of the world for the energy and ruthlessness with which he forced his army through Avranches and into its dash across Brittany. ‘If the greatest study of mankind is man,’ he said, ‘surely the greatest study of war is the road net.’10 He wrote with justified pride of his own direction of the movement:

The passage of Third Army through the corridor at Avranches was an impossible operation. Two roads entered Avranches; only one left it over the bridge. We passed through this corridor 2 infantry and 2 armoured divisions in less than 24 hours. There was no plan because it was impossible to make a plan.11

Yet for all the verve and energy of Patton’s movements, of which so many other American and British commanders were envious, there is considerable force in the remarks of those veterans exasperated by the Patton legend. They declare: ‘He didn’t break out. He walked out.’12 Bradley had no patience with Patton, dismissing one of Montgomery’s wilder flights of strategic fantasy with the adjectives, ‘militarily unsound, Pattonesque’. He wrote of Third Army’s great sweep in early August: ‘Patton blazed through Brittany with armored divisions and motorized infantry. He conquered a lot of real estate and made big headlines, but the Brittany campaign failed to achieve its primary objectives.’13 Bradley referred, of course, to the rapid seizure of the western ports in a usable condition. The true architects of Patton’s rush through Brittany were Collins and the men of his VII Corps who had broken the German line in COBRA – and the British and Canadian armies still facing the bulk of von Kluge’s effective formations. It is essential to emphasize that there was no German front in the west – merely a disorganized jumble of units retreating with all the speed that they could muster into the fortified ports where they were expected to make a stand. When Patton’s army later met serious German resistance, the American divisions under his command fought no better and no worse with his leadership than under that of any other commander. At the beginning of August 1944, the posturing general was the man for the hour, performing feats of movement that probably no other Allied commander could have matched. But it would be absurd to suppose that he discovered a key to the downfall of the German armies which had escaped his peers. It was they who made possible the glory that he now reaped with such relish.

The fruits of the dash into Brittany were intoxicating for the men riding the tanks and trucks – an almost unopposed swing across country already largely in the hands of the French Resistance, gaining for Gerow’s 6th Armored Division 4,000 prisoners at a cost of 130 killed, 400 wounded, 70 missing. Yet most of the Germans in the region were given time to withdraw into Brest, whose garrison swelled to 38,000 men, and whose defences held until 19 September. Far more seriously, the vital turn east towards Mayenne and Alençon, intended to initiate the rolling up of the main German front in Normandy, was delayed by days.

Major-General John ‘P’ Wood of the 4th Armored Division was one of the outstanding American commanders of the campaign. On 2 August, having advanced over 50 miles in four days, Wood and his tanks stood west of Rennes, where he had shrewdly bypassed a 2,000-strong German garrison – too weak to present a serious threat, but possibly strong enough seriously to delay a direct assault. Wood perfectly grasped the urgency of turning east. Late on the afternoon of 3 August, his tanks were more than 30 miles south of Rennes, and had cut seven of the ten major roads to the city. Wood gave initial orders for a move south-east, on Châteaubriant. Then Middleton at VIII Corps intervened. First, he ordered that Wood must not merely cut off Rennes, but capture it. This Wood’s 13th Infantry achieved with a bold push for the heart of the city which prompted the defenders to withdraw during the night of the 3rd. But Middleton’s eyes were still fixed west towards the sea. Quiberon Bay had been a vital Allied objective since D-Day, the intended site of a major artificial port. VIII Corps’ commander drove to see Wood and insist that, rather than pressing east, where the countryside yawned empty of all significant German forces, 4th Armored must make for the coast. Early on the morning of 4 August, Middleton found Wood standing by his vehicles in a field, stripped to the waist, gazing at the maps laid out before him on the grass.

He came over and threw his arms around me. I said, ‘What’s the matter, John, you lost your division?’ He said, ‘Heck no, we’re winning this war the wrong way, we ought to be going toward Paris.’14

‘I protested long, loud and violently,’ Wood said later. He believed that he could have been in Chartres in two days. ‘But no! We were forced to adhere to the original plan – with the only armor available, and ready to cut the enemy to pieces. It was one of the colossally stupid decisions of the war.’15 But Middleton confirmed Wood’s orders, and so also did Patton’s Chief of Staff, Gaffey. Gaffey told Middleton that his general ‘assumes that in addition to locking the roads . . . you are pushing the bulk of the [4th Armored Division] to the west and south-west to the Quiberon area, in accordance with the army plan.’16 Patton, desperately anxious not to become entangled in a wrangle with Bradley when his own position remained that of probationer, had no intention of crossing his wishes. 4th Armored spent 6–10 August standing before Lorient, attempting to induce the German garrison to surrender. It was 15 August before the division was once more pushing east.

There is little doubt that the commitment of major forces in Brittany was ill-judged, when resistance was so slight and – after the example of Cherbourg – the prospect so small of the port being in early use. Bradley lies open to the charge of lack of imagination in failing to adjust the original OVERLORD plan to meet the changed situation and the great new opportunity in the west. If the Germans had now behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed be accused of losing his armies a great prize. But, driven on by Hitler’s delusions, they did nothing of the sort. They prepared a major counter-attack and, even when it failed, were so slow to begin pulling back that Bradley’s divisions had all the time that they needed to reach around behind the German rear. The diversion into Brittany may have been poor strategy, a future source of grief to staff college students. But the ultimate prize at Falaise was as great as it was ever likely to be, whatever course the American had adopted. It is also useful to remember that, while the Channel ports were in Allied hands within a month, making those of Brittany largely unnecessary, Bradley still had too much respect for the German army at the beginning of August to be confident that its collapse was total. Almost every witness at American headquarters to the events of early August agrees that their finality only became apparent later. There was no immediate conviction that the end in France had come, that von Kluge was not merely defeated, but routed. Many officers still expected to be fighting around the Seine – if not further east – come September.

On the night of 6 August, von Funck’s XLVII Panzer Corps launched a major attack against the positions of the 30th Division around Mortain, which had fallen to 1st Division on the 3rd. The Germans advanced without a preparatory artillery bombardment, for they still cherished the illusion of surprise. Armoured columns of 2nd SS Panzer and 17th SS pushed forward from north and south to seize the town, and by noon of the 7th were close to St Hilaire in the south-west. Von Luttwitz’s 2nd Panzer overran two companies of the American 117th Infantry. Elements of 1st SS Panzer were also committed as they arrived on the battlefield. 116th Panzer’s commander pleaded the difficulty of disengaging on his existing front to explain his own formation’s absence from the start-line. But within a few hours, German units were within nine miles of Avranches. If they could break through to the coast, they might cut off the 12 American divisions south of the junction from their lifeline of fuel and supplies.

Yet from the moment on the night of 6 August that Ultra provided a brief warning to Bradley’s headquarters of the Mortain counter-attack, the Americans perfectly understood this as an opportunity, not a threat. The Germans had plunged enfeebled forces into battle against powerful American formations which were not not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them. Bradley told the visiting Henry Morgenthau: ‘This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We are about to destroy an entire German army.’17The veteran US 4th Division, in VII Corps reserve, was deployed to seal the German flanks while 3rd Armored’s CC B went to the aid of the hard-pressed 30th Division. Haislip’s XV Corps was ordered to press on with its push south to Le Pau, then swing north-east to Alençon and Argentan. Third Army’s great sweep was not to be impeded by the Mortain battle. Collins’s VII Corps would handle the business of repelling von Funck’s panzers, with formidable assistance from the Allied air forces.

Hitler had personally dispatched to von Kluge detailed plans for the armoured attack, Operation LUTTICH. ‘We must strike like lightning,’ he declared. ‘When we reach the sea the American spearheads will be cut off. Obviously they are trying all-out for a major decision here, because otherwise they wouldn’t have sent in their best general, Patton . . . We must wheel north like lightning and turn the entire enemy front from the rear.’18 It will remain one of the great enigmas of history, not that the German generals could have accepted the invasion of Poland or the mass murder of the Jews, but that so many sane men could have borne obediently with fantasy such as this. The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B, too weak to reject the plan as absurd, determined that if it was to be launched at all, the armour must move immediately, before the American envelopment had rendered any move impossible. He could not wait, as Hitler demanded, for the full weight of panzer forces to be transferred westwards. Of 1,400 tanks committed to battle in Normandy, 750 had already been lost. The panzer divisions initially committed to the Mortain thrust – 2nd, 1st and 2nd SS – attacked with only 75 Mk IVs, 70 Mk Vs, and 32 self-propelled guns.

From the outset, they ran into difficulties. 2nd Panzer on the right left the start-line on time, at midnight on 6 August, but 1st SS Panzer’s armour was seriously delayed by a fighter-bomber which crashed onto the leading tank in a sunken lane, creating an impassable road block. It was daylight before the SS tank crews had reversed out of the shambles and found a new road to Mortain. After promising early gains beyond the little town of St Barthélémy, 1st SS met CC B of the US 3rd Armored and were quickly in deep trouble. 116th Panzer, which appeared on the scene only late in the afternoon, was stopped dead by an American anti-tank screen. Only 2nd Panzer seemed to be making good progress. ‘Bad weather is what we need,’ said Luttwitz’s operations officer. ‘Then everything will work out alright.’19 But as the early morning mist lifted, out of the sky came the first aircraft of the greatest concentration of fighter-bombers yet deployed in the west, Quesada’s Thunderbolts supported by the RAF’s rocket-firing Typhoons. They caught 2nd Panzer at Le Coudray. The promised Luftwaffe air cover never materialized. Almost every approaching German sortie was intercepted by Allied fighters. The ground attack, begun with little hope even among the most formidable remaining formations of the German army, foundered in disarray and destruction. Far from creating even temporary relief from the threat of encirclement, von Kluge’s divisions had driven themselves deep into the destructive embrace of the Americans.

Yet for the men in the path of von Kluge’s offensive that week in August, it was difficult to view the situation as enthusiastically as did Bradley’s staff. Corporal George Small of 465th Anti-Aircraft Battalion, covering the Pontaubault bridges against the resurgence of Luftwaffe activity, was appalled to find his unit’s triple A A guns being issued with armour-piercing ammunition: ‘Then we were really scared.’ The 30th Division bore the brunt of the. German attack. Most men had been roused from their rest area on the night of the 6th, aware of a German attack but not of its details, and marched forward under the full moon to relieve infantry of the 1st Division. Guides showed them the foxholes and trenches that they were taking over. Then the men of ‘The Big Red One’ padded away into the darkness, leaving the newcomers to meet the enemy, supported by a sprinkling of tanks and tank destroyers. On Hill 317 east of Mortain, 700 Americans of the 2nd/120th Infantry and K Company of the 3rd/120th fought surrounded for five days, supplied by erratic air drops, by the end losing 300 killed and wounded. The four rifle companies were reduced by repeated attacks to 8, 24, 18 and 100 men respectively. Men grubbed in the village gardens for radishes and potatoes when their rations were exhausted. By 3.07 p.m. on the afternoon of 7 August, the 120th’s Regimental CP was reporting German tanks within 200 yards. One of them was knocked out with a bazooka by a telephone operator, Private Joe Shipley. A platoon commander of the 1st Battalion, Lieutenant Lowther, called to a driver from his company standing on the far side of a hedge to join him immediately. ‘I can’t,’ the driver called back unhappily. ‘I’m captured.’ The 2nd Battalion’s aid station was captured by the Germans on the night of the 8th. An SS officer carrying a white flag approached the Americans’ positions on Hill 282 to demand their surrender – without success. Soon afterwards, they were called upon to withstand a fierce attack. Medical supplies were fired into the American positions by artillery shell. Brigadier-General William Harrison, deputy divisional commander, moved from battalion to battalion urging and encouraging his men as he had on the first morning of COBRA. To one of his officers, he seemed to possess ‘the radiant face of a confident shepherd, for that is what he was to us in those difficult, horrible days’. The little stone farmhouse where he had his command post was known to the Americans as ‘Château Nebelwerfer’.

At Abbaye Blanche, 150 men and the company mascot – a tiny dog named Mobile Reserve – held a junction where five roads converged. One private soldier, Robert Vollmer, used a bazooka to demolish in succession an armoured car, a motorcycle, another armoured car and a fuel truck. A soldier named Estervez was wounded by a grenade taking men to the rear in a jeep, but returned for a second journey on which he was killed. The defenders were disturbed to find small-arms fire rattling at them from the rear – a classic German infiltration movement. But they held their ground with the support of a steady trickle of stragglers who found their way into their lines. Some men found a rocky cave beside the road, and took refuge in it when the German shelling became intense. Sometimes as they lay in their foxholes they could hear the sound of German voices. Every few hours there was a grinding of tracks or wheels as a vehicle approached up the road, and a brief exchange of fire as an American tank destroyer or anti-tank gun engaged it – and almost invariably, destroyed it. One man somehow found the means to get himself hopelessly drunk. When another soldier declined to take up an exposed position, the drunk said promptly, ‘Sure, I’ll go,’ and attempted to man a bazooka and a machine-gun simultaneously.

The American command handling of the battle suggested a new maturity and grip within Twelfth Army Group. From beginning to end of the German push, officers at every level responded with vigour and sureness. Hodges’ First Army diary for 7 August reported: ‘The boche is attacking . . . The air went after the enemy armor with a vengeance . . . The general is not too worried over the situation, although there is admittedly the strongest kind of pressure.’ On 8 August, the diary first noted a visit from the actor Edward G. Robinson, then added: ‘The situation appears a bit better tonight . . . 9th Div repulsed several small local enemy counter-attacks . . . The 30th Div was heavily engaged . . . 35th Div advanced against very light resistance.’ Next day, Hodges was greeting Henry Morgenthau, then: ‘Tonight, as before, the General issued orders for all troops to “button up tight” for the night, and be prepared for anything, although it appears to be the General’s feeling that his [von Kluge’s] main effort is over, and that it has been decisively broken.’

On the night of 12 August, the 35th Division at last broke through to relieve the 120th. Lieutenant Sidney Eichen of the 2nd Battalion’s anti-tank platoon felt overcome by a great surge of relief as the files of fresh troops marched through their positions: ‘What a sight they were, coming off the hill.’ War correspondents and photographers swarmed over the positions, eager to interview the tired survivors of the fine American stand. Around the road junction at Abbaye Blanche, they found 24 wrecked German vehicles. As the Americans cleared the Mortain battlefield, they counted over 100 abandoned German tanks.20

Hitler, with his unerring instinct for reinforcing failure, now did so yet again. In the south, where Haislip’s XV Corps was hastening towards the Loire, for 100 miles from Domfront to Angers there was only one panzer and one infantry division in its path, along with a few security battalions. Yet Hitler ignored Hausser’s vehement protests, and ordered the armoured division – 9th Panzer – shifted north for a renewed attack towards Avranches on the 10th. Hausser called this movement ‘A death blow not only to Seventh Army but also to the entire Wehrmacht in the west’. Von Kluge said simply: ‘It is the Führer’s order.’21 But as the new attack was about to be launched, the Caen front also began to buckle. The despairing von Kluge asked Hitler that the panzers might be ‘temporarily transferred from the Mortain area to . . . destroy the enemy spearheads thrusting northwards’.22 Hitler gave his grudging assent on the 11th, but still declined to countenance any general withdrawal. Von Kluge’s weekly situation report declared baldly: ‘The enemy’s first main objective is to outflank and encircle the bulk of the 5th Panzer Army and 7th Army on two sides.’23 As late as 8 or 9 August, von Kluge could readily have executed the only sane movement open to him, a withdrawal to the Seine covered by a sacrificial rearguard. Hitler, and Hitler alone, closed this option to him and presented the Allies with their extraordinary opportunity. The climate within the German high command plumbed new depths of fantasy and grotesque comedy. The Luftwaffe had been lamentably directed for years by Goering, but at last its failure at Mortain drove Hitler to turn upon his old henchman.

‘Goering! The Luftwaffe’s doing nothing.’ [Guderian reported a confrontation that August] ‘It is no longer worthy to be an independent service. And that’s your fault. You’re lazy.’ When the portly Reichsmarschall heard these words, great tears trickled down his cheeks.24

Hitler placed the principal responsibility for failure at Mortain upon von Kluge’s lack of will. Yet he seemed far more depressed by small personal tragedies, such as the death of his former SS orderly, Captain Hans Junge, who was killed by Allied strafing in France. He broke the news personally to the man’s widow, his youngest secretary, Traudl Junge: ‘Ach, child, I am so sorry; your husband had a fine character.’25 When von Choltitz reported to Hitler fresh from the front, he was informed that the Führer was about to hurl the Allies into the sea. The general concluded that ‘the man was mad’.26

The German Panzerfaust was the best hand-held infantry anti-tank weapon of the war, exceptionally useful in Normandy, where the close country made it possible for its operators to reach Allied tanks at the very short ranges for which it was designed. It was a one-shot, throwaway weapon, weighing 11½ pounds. Its hollow charge could penetrate 200 mm of armour at 30 yards, and an improved version, introduced in the summer of 1944, possessed a higher velocity and was effective up to 80 yards. By contrast, the American 2.36 inch ‘bazooka’ fired too light a projectile to be effective against the frontal armour of most German tanks. The British PIAT was moderately useful – it was effective up to 100 yards and could be used as a primitive mortar as well as against tanks. But it was twice as heavy as the Panzerfaust, cumbersome to carry, to cock and to fire.

On 11 August, with Haislip’s XV Corps still pushing east around Alençon, it became Montgomery’s responsibility to consider setting a new boundary between the American, British and Canadian forces, which expected to meet east of the German armies imminently. Despite the changed circumstances, he declined to alter the line he had set near Argentan on 6 August. He believed that XV Corps would meet slow going on its turn north, where it re-entered the bocage, which the Germans could exploit to their advantage. It seemed reasonable to assume that the Canadians, pushing south across reasonably open country, would be in Argentan before Haislip. The new boundary, the point at which XV Corps would halt its advance, was therefore set just south of Argentan. Patton nonetheless warned Haislip to be ready to push up to Falaise, despite the corps commander’s fears that his division would not prove strong enough to hold a trap closed in the face of the wholesale retreat of Army Group B. Patton urgently began to seek reinforcement from XX Corps and from Brittany. Just before midnight on the 12th, Haislip informed Third Army that his 5th Armored Division was just short of Argentan. Did Patton wish him to continue north to meet the Canadians? Patton now telephoned Bradley with his legendary demand: ‘We have elements in Argentan. Shall we continue and drive the British into the sea for another Dunkirk?’27

Despite Bradley’s refusal, Patton anyway ordered Haislip to advance cautiously north of Argentan. Only at 2.15 p.m. on the 13th did XV Corps receive categoric orders to halt at Argentan and recall any units north of the town. Bradley’s staff had consulted 21st Army Group about a possible boundary change, but were refused it. Patton wrangled with Bradley until at last, having taken care to ensure that the circumstances of the order to halt were made a matter of record, he acquiesced. Bradley was always at pains to make it clear that he himself opposed any further push north, irrespective of the opinions of Montgomery. He feared, as Haislip did, the danger of presenting a thin American front to German troops who would have no alternative but to seek to break through it. Throughout the days that followed, he resolutely refused to press Montgomery for a change in the boundaries.

On the ground, the situation was developing imperatives of its own as resistance stiffened in front of Haislip. 116th Panzer – with 15 surviving tanks – and elements of 1st SS and 2nd Panzer – with 55 tanks between them – were now deployed on his front. The Germans had still made no decision to attempt to flee the threat of encirclement. As mopping up around Mortain was concluded and forces of the US First Army became available to move east, Collins’s VII Corps began a rapid advance north-east from Mayenne on the 13th. At 10.00 a.m. that day, Collins telephoned First Army in a characteristically ebullient mood, asking for ‘more territory to take’. First Army’s diary recorded:

1st Div was, in some places, on the very boundary itself, and General Collins felt sure that he could take Falaise and Argentan, close the gap, and ‘do the job’ before the British even started to move. General Hodges immediately called General Bradley, to ask officially for a change in boundaries, but the sad news came back that First Army was to go no further than at first designated, except that a small salient around Ranes would become ours.

Bradley, curiously enough, claimed now to be convinced that the importance of closing the trap at Falaise had diminished, because most of the Germans had already escaped eastwards, a view which neither Ultra nor air reconnaissance confirmed. For whatever reasons, he switched the focus of American strategic energy east, towards the Seine. Haislip, he told Patton, was to take two of his four divisions east, while the remainder, with VII Corps, remained at Argentan. It was almost as if Bradley had lost all interest in the ‘short envelopment’ which he himself had proposed to Montgomery on 8 August. He now seemed determined instead to concentrate upon trapping the Germans against the Seine, the rejected ‘long envelopment’. In these days, an uncharacteristic uncertainty of purpose, a lack of the instinct to deliver the killing stroke against von Kluge’s armies, seemed to overtake Bradley. General Gerow of V Corps, sent to take charge of the situation at Argentan after Haislip’s departure, found the command there almost completely ignorant of the whereabouts of the Germans, or even of his own men.

But now Montgomery and Bradley at last agreed that they would enlarge the scope of the pocket eastwards, and seek to bring about a junction of the Allied armies at Chambois. Their plans had thus evolved into a series of compromises: instead of the ‘short envelopment’ through Argentan–Falaise, Haislip was launched upon the ‘long envelopment’ to the river Seine, while Gerow and the Canadians in the north attempted to complete the trap along a line between them. On the night of 17 August, 90th Division attacked north-east to gain the Le Bourge–St Leonard ridge commanding the approach to Chambois. On their left, the raw 80th Division attempted to move into the centre of Argentan. The commanding officer of their 318th Infantry described his difficulties:

This was our first real fight and I had difficulty in getting the men to move forward. I had to literally kick the men from the ground in order to get the attack started, and to encourage the men I walked across the rd without any cover and showed them a way across. I received no fire from the enemy and it was big boost to the men. A tank, 400 yards to our front, started firing on us and I called up some bazookas to stalk him. However the men opened fire at the tank from too great a range and the tank merely moved to another position. I walked up and down the road about three times, finding crossings for my troops. We advanced about 100 yds across the rd and then the Germans opened up with what seemed like all the bullets and arty in the world. I call up my tanks . . . When my tanks came up we lost the first four with only eight shots from the Germans.28

The Germans held the 90th Division through the night of 18/19 August south of Chambois, and it was only in the morning that the first American elements reached the village. All the next day and night, the 90th’s artillery pounded Germans fleeing east from encirclement. The 80th Division secured Argentan only on the 20th. Bradley’s divisions had effectively stood behind the town for over a week.

Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers at this time hardly understood the enormity of the events unfolding around them. They knew that some days they had moved a little further, some days a little less; that some days they encountered fierce German resistance, and on others it seemed, incredibly, as if the enemy’s will was fading. In a field near Aunay-sur-Odon in the British sector on 14 August, a tank wireless-operator named Austin Baker was camped with his squadron of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards:

We hadn’t been there more than a couple of hours when everybody in the regiment had to blanco up and go over by lorry to the 13/18th Hussars area to hear a lecture by General Horrocks, who had just taken over command of XXX Corps. He was very good, and made us feel quite cheerful. He told us about the Falaise pocket – how the German Seventh Army was practically encircled and how the RAF were beating up the fleeing columns on the roads. He said that very soon we should be breaking out of the bridgehead and swanning off across France. That seemed absolutely incredible to us. We all thought that we should have to fight for every field all the way to Germany. But Horrocks was right.29

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