Military history

Chapter 11 » THE ROAD TO FALAISE

Through most of the campaign in north-west Europe, while there were tensions between the American and British high commands and each army possessed a large stock of quizzical jokes about the other, there was no real ill-will between the soldiers. ‘We knew that they were the chaps that mattered,’ said Major John Warner of British 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment about the Americans. ‘We couldn’t possibly win the war without them.’1 But during the weeks between the start of COBRA and the march to the Seine, many men of the British Second Army and the newly-operational Canadian First Army found the blaring headlines about the American breakout, their armoured parade through Brittany and down to the Loire, a bitter pill to swallow. Much more than most armies in most campaigns, they were very conscious of the press. They received newspapers from England only a day or two after publication, and studied avidly the accounts of their own doings in Normandy. They saw photographs of jubilant American infantry, helmets pushed back and weapons slung, waving as they rode their tanks through liberated villages alive with smiling civilians. They studied the sketch maps that revealed their allies controlling tracts of country far greater than their own overcrowded perimeter. Above all, they read of the light opposition that the advance was meeting. An NCO of 6th KOSB asked his commanding officer bitterly, ‘if it was the high command’s intention to wipe out all the British and finish the war with the Americans.’2

For throughout the weeks of COBRA, Brittany, Mortain, almost every day the British and Canadians were pushing slowly forward on their own front with much pain and at heavy cost. The British VIII and XXX Corps were attacking on an axis south-east from Caumont, while the Canadians moved directly south from Caen towards Falaise. Second Army was still in thick country, facing an unbroken German line with far greater armoured strength and Nebelwerfer support than anything the American Third Army encountered. Only immediately before the Mortain counter-attack did the weight of German armour begin to shift dramatically eastwards. Most of Dempsey’s men were very tired by now, above all the infantrymen of 15th Scottish, 43rd Wessex and 50th Northumbrian divisions, who had borne so much of the heaviest fighting, and continued to do so. It was a matter of astonishment to officers of other units that 43rd Division still retained any morale at all. Its commander, Major-General G. I. Thomas, was a ruthless, driving soldier for whose determination Montgomery was grateful, but who had earned the nickname ‘Butcher’ for his supposed insensitivity to losses. The purge in XXX Corps when Montgomery sacked Bucknall, together with Erskine and Hinde of 7th Armoured, dismayed many of the 7th’s men, but did not produce a dramatic improvement in performance.

The episode that prompted the sackings, the fumbling of BLUECOAT, was characterized by many of the misfortunes that befell the British that summer, and deprived them in the eyes of the Americans of the credit that was justly theirs for bearing so thankless a burden on the eastern flank. It began with the usual confident, even cocky, letter from Montgomery to Eisenhower: ‘I have ordered Dempsey to throw all caution overboard and to take any risks he likes, and to accept any casualties, and to step on the gas for Vire.’3 On 30 July, O’Connor’s VIII Corps drove hard for Le Bény Bocage and Vire along the boundary with the American XIX Corps, while on their left XXX Corps made for the 1,100-foot summit of Mont Pinçon. Roberts’s 11th Armoured – by now established as the outstanding British tank division in Normandy – made fast going and seized the high ground of Le Bény Bocage, at the vulnerable junction between Panzer Group West and Seventh Army. Boundaries are critical weak points in all formations in all armies, the seams in the garment of defence. It has been suggested in recent years4 that Montgomery missed a great opportunity by failing to push through here, seize Vire and roll up Seventh Army instead of leaving Vire to the American XIX Corps. When 11th Armoured approached the town before obeying orders to turn south-east on 2 August, it was virtually undefended. But by the time the Americans moved against it the Germans had rushed in troops to plug the gap, mounted vigorous counter-attacks, and were only finally dispossessed on the night of 6 August. Once again, the line had congealed.

But Montgomery and Dempsey’s attention in the first days of August was focused upon the new failure of 7th Armoured. Bucknall was warned to reach Aunay-sur-Odon quickly, or face the consequences. After two days of BLUECOAT he was still five miles short. Montgomery acted at last – belatedly, in the view of much of his staff, particularly his Chief of Staff, de Guingand, who was far more sensitive than his Commander-in-Chief to the prevailing scepticism about the British at SHAEF.

In the days that followed, Second Army continued to push forward south-east of Caumont, gaining a few miles a day by hard labour and hard fighting. Tank and infantry co-operation was now much improved, with the armoured divisions reorganized to integrate tanks and foot-soldiers within their brigades. Since GOODWOOD, it had at last become accepted tactical practice for infantry to ride forward clinging to the tanks when there were suitable opportunities for them to do so. If there was less of the flamboyant spirit of the landings, there was much more professionalism. Most of the Scottish units, which in June so eagerly sent forward their pipers to lead the men into battle, had long ago dispensed with such frivolities by August. Too many pipers would never play another pibroch.

But for the men among the corn and the hedges, each morning seemed to bring only another start-line, another tramp through incessant mortar and shellfire, coated in dust, to another ruined village from which the Germans had to be forced by nerve-racking house-clearing.

The war artist Thomas Hennell wrote late in July of ‘the sense-haunted ground’ the armies left in their wake. ‘The shot-threshed foliage of the apple orchards was fading and just turning rusty, fruit glowed against the sky; there were ashes of burnt metal, yellow splintered wood and charred brown hedge among the shell pits; every few yards a sooty, disintegrated hulk . . .’ The equipment in the hands of von Kluge’s armies was perfectly suited to generating maximum firepower with minimum manpower. The multi-barrelled mortar, employed in powerful concentrations, was a devastating weapon against advancing infantry. By August, British artillery was making intense efforts to grapple with the problem by creating specialist counter-mortar teams. The surviving German tanks were as resistant as ever to Allied penetration. A sergeant-major of the KOSB received a well-earned Military Cross for knocking out an enemy Panther which endured six hits from his PIAT before succumbing. The fields at evening were landmarked with upturned rifles jammed in the earth to mark the dead. The tank crews cursed the ripened apples that cascaded into their turrets as they crashed through orchards, jamming the traverses, while the shock of repeated impacts on banks and ditches threw their radios off net. The Germans had lost none of their skill in rushing forward improvised battle-groups to fill sudden weaknesses that were exposed. Again and again, British scout cars or tanks reported an apparent gap which might be exploited, only to find it filled before an advance in strength could be made. 15th Scottish Division signalled one of its battalions one evening that Guards Armoured had reported a withdrawal by the enemy on their front. The infantry must ensure that they patrolled to avoid losing contact. An acerbic message came back from the company commander on the front line, that since he was at that moment engaged in a fierce close-quarter grenade battle, there was scant need for patrolling to discover where the enemy was. But another German skill, much in evidence in those days, was that of disengagement: fighting hard for a position until the last possible moment, then breaking away through the countryside to create another line a mile or two back, presenting the British yet again with the interminable problems of ground and momentum.

You turn off the main road to Vire at Point 218 and go down a side road to the top of a ridge [Lieutenant Richard Mosse, commanding 1st Welsh Guards Anti-Tank Platoon, described his battalion’s position on 8 August]. ‘Dust means shells’ notices were in great evidence. It was the worst place I have ever been in. Numerous bodies of our predecessors lay in the fields between the companies, with about 25 knocked out vehicles, mostly British. A thick dust covered everything, and over it all hung that sweet sickly smell of death. By day we could not move as we were under observed mortar fire, and going up to the forward companies under machine-gun fire at times . . . August 12 brought news that our guns had opened short again, and Sgt. Lentle and one other had been killed and several wounded. Sgt. Lentle I could ill afford to lose. He was a steady, sensible man. He would not take risks, he had a wife and two boys he adored, but he would obey any order however dangerous. I could always rely on him . . . David Rhys, the mortar platoon commander, was wounded. Hugh, Fred and I were all that was left in the company, so we helped hold a bit of the line. We had advanced some half a mile; our casualties were 122, 35 killed . . . As long as I live that word bocage will haunt me, with memories of ruined countryside, dust, orchards, sunken lanes and the silly little shoots that were all I could find for the guns.

Mosse’s description of his battalion’s predicament is a sober corrective for those who suppose that by the middle days of August, with the German army in Normandy within a week of collapse, the pressure upon their opponents was easing. The pain and the constant drain of losses persisted to the bitter end.

On the night of 7 August, preceded by a massive air attack by Bomber Command, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds launched his II Canadian Corps on a renewed offensive southwards towards Falaise: Operation TOTALIZE. Simonds, who had commanded a division in Sicily, was to prove one of the outstanding Allied corps commanders in Europe, a dour, direct officer who brought unusual imagination to bear on every operational plan for which he was responsible. It was Simonds who now decided to make his attack across open country in darkness, to use 76 converted self-propelled gun-mountings to move his lead infantry, and to employ a sophisticated range of electronics and illuminants to guide his men to their objectives through the night. There was to be no delay in following up the bombers.

Even as the planning for TOTALIZE was being carried out, von Kluge’s redeployment for Mortain was taking place. 9th SS Panzer retired from the British front on 1 August, followed by 1st SS Panzer on the night of the 4th, to be relieved by 89th Infantry. A Yugoslav deserter from the 89th reached the Canadian lines almost immediately, bringing this information to Simonds. For the first time since 7 June, the weight of the German army had been lifted from the eastern flank. On Crerar’s right, 43rd Division had at last cleared the heights of Mont Pinçon in a fine action on 6/7 August, and the 59th Division was across the Orne north of Thury–Harcourt. The Germans’ left front was thus already under heavy pressure when the Canadians moved.

At 11.30 p.m. on 7 August, the assault forces crossed the start-line, led by navigating tanks and flails. They rumbled forward, in four columns of four vehicles abreast, into the great dust cloud raised by the bombing. Bomber Command had done its job, guided by coloured marker shells, with astonishing accuracy – there were no casualties among Allied troops and 3,462 tons of bombs had fallen on the villages in the path of the attack. There was no preliminary artillery bombardment. For the men on the ground, the spectacle was astonishing, with searchlights directed towards the clouds – ‘Monty moonlight’ – being used to improve visibility, and Bofors guns firing tracer to mark the axes of advance. Their early progress was encouraging. Despite collisions and navigation errors, the early objectives had fallen by first light. 51st Highland Division on the left were making good ground, leaving much mopping-up to the follow-up units. German counter-attacks were repulsed, and 2nd TAF’s Typhoons were out in strength, aided by Mustangs and Spitfires flying sweeps over German approach roads. At about 12.50 p.m., the first of 492 Fortresses of 8th Air Force began to launch a new wave of support attacks. The bombing was wild. The Canadians, British and Poles beneath suffered over 300 casualties. The men below on the ground were enraged. ‘We asked – how the hell could they fail to read a map on a clear day like this?’ said Corporal Dick Raymond of 3rd Canadian Division. ‘A lot of our guns opened up on the Fortresses. When they hit one, everybody cheered.’

Now came the familiar, depressing indications of an offensive losing steam. Tilly-la-Campagne still held. As so often throughout the campaign, German positions which had been bypassed, and which it was assumed would quickly collapse when they found themselves cut off, continued to resist fiercely. II Canadian Corps had advanced more than six miles, but Falaise still lay 12 miles ahead. Night attacks by Canadian battle-groups were driven back with substantial loss. The familiar screens of 88mm guns inflicted punishing losses upon advancing armour. Meyer’s battered units of 12th SS Panzer had been under orders to move westwards when TOTALIZE was launched, but were thrown quickly into the line to support 89th Infantry. 12th SS still possessed 48 tanks of its own, and also had 19 Tigers of 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion under its command. Although his formation was out of the line when the Canadian attack began, Meyer had left liaison officers at the front who were able to report to him immediately. Early on 8 August, battle-groups Waldmuller and Krause of 12th SS Panzer – the latter hastily switched from the Thury–Harcourt front – drove into action around the Falaise road. It was in the fierce fighting which now developed that Michael Wittman, the German hero of Villers-Bocage and the greatest tank ace of the war, at last met his end amid concentrated fire from Shermans of ‘A’ squadron, Northamptonshire Yeomanry.

Both the Polish and Canadian armoured divisions spearheading the Allied attacks were in action for the first time, and this undoubtedly worsened their difficulties and hesitations. On the night of 8 August, Simonds ordered the tanks to press on with erations through the darkness. Many units simply ignored him, and withdrew to night harbours in the manner to which they were accustomed. The few elements which pressed on regardless found themselves isolated and unsupported, and were destroyed by the German 88 mm guns. On 9 August, Simonds’s staff were exasperated by the persistent delays that appeared to afflict almost every unit movement, the repeated episodes of troops and tanks firing on each other, the difficulty of getting accurate reports from the front about what was taking place. A fierce German counterattack by a battle-group of 12th SS Panzer completed the chaos. The British Columbia Regiment lost almost its entire strength, 47 tanks in the day, together with 112 casualties. The infantry of the Algonquins, who had been with them, lost 128. The Poles on the left made some progress, getting through to St Sylvain. On the night of the 9th the Canadian 10th Brigade made good progress further west. But after accomplishing little during the day of 10 August, a major night attack on Quesnay woods by 3rd Canadian Division ended in its withdrawal early the following morning.

The Canadians’ enthusiasm was obviously waning; difficulties at higher headquarters compounded uncertainty on the ground. Montgomery had always lacked confidence in Crerar, the Canadian army commander, and much upset the Canadians at the outset of this, their first battle as an army, by sending his own staff officers from 21st Army Group to Canadian headquarters to oversee their performance. Crerar became locked in dispute with the rugged Crocker, the British I Corps commander, whom he attempted to sack on the spot. An impatient Montgomery sought to persuade both men to focus their animosity upon the enemy. ‘The basic cause was Harry. I fear he thinks he is a great soldier, and he was determined to show it the moment he took over command at 1200 on 23 July. He made his first mistake at 1205; and his second after lunch . . .’5 It is an astounding reflection upon the relative weight of forces engaged north of Falaise that by the night of 10 August, the German tank strength was reduced to 35 (15 Mk IV, five Panther, 15 Tiger), while the Canadian II Corps, even after losses, mustered around 700. Yet on 10 August, with some German reinforcements moving onto the front, it was decided that nothing less than a full-scale, set-piece attack with massed bomber preparation would break the Canadians through to Falaise. The defenders had shown their usual skill in shifting such armour and anti-tank guns as they possessed quickly from threatened point to point, presenting strong resistance to each successive Canadian push. It was also evident that the Canadians were not performing well. Because their government, until very late in the war, would ask only volunteers to serve overseas, it had great difficulty in maintaining First Canadian Army at anything like its establishment level. Many men on the battlefield were embittered by the feeling that the Canadian nation as a whole was not sharing their sacrifice. The best of Crerar’s troops were very good indeed. But his army was handicapped by its undermanning, and chronically troubled by leadership problems, which were also the cause of the notorious indiscipline of Canadian aircrew. Even the Canadian official historian ventured the opinion that their army suffered from:

. . . possessing a proportion of regimental officers whose attitude towards training was casual and haphazard rather than urgent and scientific. Analysis of the operations in Normandy seems to support this opinion. Regimental officers of this type, where they existed, were probably the weakest element in the Army. At the top of the command pyramid, Canadian generalship in Normandy does not suffer by comparison with those of the other Allies engaged . . . The Canadian regimental officer at his best . . . had no superior . . . There still remained, however, that proportion of officers who were not fully competent for their appointments, and whose inadequacy appeared in action and sometimes had serious consequences.6

On 11 August, Simonds ordered his armoured divisions to pull out of the line, to be relieved by infantry formations. On the 12th, the US First Army’s diarist recorded sardonically: ‘The British are making some gains, none of them sizeable or of break-through proportions.’ In Paris, the press was reporting triumphant German claims to have destroyed 278 Allied tanks, and Berlin’s assertion that ‘each foot of ground gained is being paid for with enormous losses of men and equipment.’

For Montgomery, the breakdown of TOTALIZE was a disappointment, but there is no evidence that he yet perceived it as a long-term threat to his hopes. It still appeared incredible to many officers that von Kluge could commit such an act of madness as to leave his forces in the closing Allied noose. There remained ample time and space for the Germans to retreat eastwards. Montgomery had always planned to swing the Canadians and the British left from Falaise across to the Seine, while the American Third Army blocked the so-called Paris–Orleans gap between the Loire and the Seine. This was what was known as the ‘long envelopment’, designed to entrap the entire surviving German forces in western France within its grasp. But when Eisenhower telephoned Montgomery from Bradley’s headquarters on the afternoon of 8 August to discuss American proposals for a ‘short hook’, with the arms of Third Army and the Canadians and British meeting somewhere around Argentan to create a much smaller noose, Montgomery was receptive. He signalled to Brooke the next day: ‘There are great possibilities in the present situation. If we can get to Alençon, Argentan and Falaise fairly quickly, we have a good chance of closing the ring around the main German forces, and I am making all plans to drop an airborne division at Gacé about 15 miles east of Argentan in order to complete the block.’7 Montgomery retained some reservations about the ‘short hook’, which were shared, unusually enough, by Patton. Both men feared that too many Germans might escape a trap closed at Argentan. They were attracted by the much more dramatic gains of ground and prisoners that might result from encircling the greater area towards Paris and Orleans. But Montgomery was uncharacteristically indecisive, and Bradley was absolutely determined on Argentan. The British general acceded. He told Brooke: ‘Should the Germans escape us here I shall proceed quickly with the plan outlined in M517’8 – the ‘long envelopment’.

It was now, on 11 August, with the Canadians bogged down north of Falaise, that Montgomery missed probably his last opportunity to conduct a major switch of forces in time to hasten the closing of the German pocket. Had he recognized that the Canadians’ difficulties reflected fundamental shortcomings in unit leadership and fighting power, he might have rushed tested British formations south-eastwards to support them, or even to take over the lead. But this was not Montgomery’s way. Such a course would have been exceedingly ‘untidy’ – the word he most detested in military operations – and would have created genuine, though not insuperable, problems of movement, control and supply. It may also be that he was reluctant to impose new strains upon British divisions which had already suffered so much; or even that he doubted whether they would do any better than the Canadians. For whatever reasons, he merely ordered Dempsey’s Second Army to continue pushing south-east. He left the vital operation – the drive to meet the Americans at Argentan – entirely in the hands of Crerar’s Canadian Army, which had graphically demonstrated its shortcomings in the past four days. From that moment, all that followed on the British-Canadian front was preordained.

Beyond a limited operation by 2nd Canadian Division down the Laize valley on the 12th and 13th, those days were passed entirely in preparations for another big set-piece attack on Falaise, Operation TRACTABLE. It is easy to understand the impatience of the Americans, so conscious of time slipping away. TRACTABLE at last jumped off at 11.42 a.m. on the morning of the 14th, shielded by a smokescreen which Simonds on this occasion substituted for the darkness of TOTALIZE. With the smoke compounded by the great dust cloud thrown up by the advancing armour, the Canadians found navigation difficult. The brigade commander of their leading tanks was mortally wounded in the first hour, causing acute control problems in the actions that followed. More seriously, the Germans had found a copy of Simonds’s orders on the body of a scout car commander killed the day before. They redeployed with exact knowledge of the Canadian lines of advance.

Most of the attack’s early problems resulted from difficulties in finding paths across the little stream of the Laison, which proved a much more formidable anti-tank obstacle than had been expected. More disruptive still, ‘short bombing’ by the RAF’s Bomber Command – much of it, ironically enough, by Canadian squadrons – caused more than 300 casualties among the assault troops. By a tragic error, some ground units ignited their usual yellow identifying smoke, while Bomber Command was employing yellow target indicators. All this seemed to be yet more poisoned fruit of the lack of close liaison and staff planning between the army and the air forces. The Canadians declared that the bombing disaster had a severe effect upon the morale and determination of the troops embarking upon TRACTABLE.

On 15 August, the renewed advance still made poor progress. 4th Armoured Brigade’s chaotic operations broke down after their leading units met a German anti-tank screen. 3rd Canadian Division made some headway, but lost the village of Soulangy to a counter-attack. That evening, 2nd Division reached positions a mile from the edge of Falaise only after the Germans had disengaged and pulled back in front of them. The Canadian and Polish armoured divisions were now ordered to push south-eastwards for Trun, hooking beyond the original ‘Falaise gap’. Meanwhile, 2nd Infantry Division drove on into the shattered town, which they cleared only on the 17th. Some 50 Hitler Jugend fought to the last in the Ecole Supérieure. Only four were reported to have escaped from the blazing building. Two, chosen by lot from among the defenders, had slipped out the previous night to report the situation to Meyer. None surrendered. In many parts of the town, surrounded by rubble, the Canadians found it difficult to judge where the streets had run. It was hours before the bulldozers could clear a path for vehicles.

It was now, for the first time, that large elements of the German army began to retire eastwards out of the shrinking pocket. On the 16th, von Kluge at last issued the order for a full-scale retreat. It was his last act as Commander-in-Chief, almost the last of his life. On the 15th, his car had been shot up by Allied fighter-bombers, his wireless destroyed, and he was cut off from all contact with OKW or with his own forces for some hours. Hitler was convinced, fallaciously, that during his absence the Field-Marshal had been attempting to open negotiations with the Allies. At midday on the 16th, von Kluge declined to execute an order from OKW for a counter-attack, which he declared was utterly impossible. Although a withdrawal was at last authorized by order of the Führer later that afternoon, on the evening of the 17th von Kluge was relieved. On his way back to Germany to explain himself to Hitler, he killed himself. He left behind an extraordinary letter affirming his undying devotion to the Führer, a final testimony to the German officer corps’ obsession with loyalty, its utter inability to grapple with any greater issues of morality, humanity, or the historic interests of the German people. Suicide, for an astonishing procession of German senior officers who failed in Normandy, became the final expression of their own retreat from reason. Von Kluge was succeeded by Field-Marshal Walter Model. The supply of senior officers willing to attempt to implement their master’s deranged will seemed limitless. Model’s first act was to order the immediate escape of Seventh Army and Panzer Group Eberbach, while II SS Panzer Corps (the ruins of 2nd SS, 9th SS, 12th SS and 21st Panzer) held the north against the British and Canadians, and XLVII Panzer Corps (2nd and 116th Panzer) the south against the Americans.

For the Allies, time had now become the critical factor in blocking the German army’s escape. Yet while the Americans stood at Argentan, the Canadian armour edged south towards Trun with agonizing sluggishness. Their 4th Division reach Louvières, two miles north of the village, on the evening of the 17th after delays caused as much by traffic problems in narrow village streets and at little rustic stone bridges across trickling streams, as by enemy action. At 2.45 p.m. that day, Montgomery himself telephoned Crerar’s Chief of Staff to press the urgency of the situation upon him: ‘It is absolutely essential that both the Armoured Divs of 2 Cdn Corps close the gap between First Cdn Army and Third US Army. I Polish Armoured Div must thrust on past Trun to Chambois at all costs, and as quickly as possible.’9

Yet the Poles, too, were slow to move. Their 2nd Armoured Regiment was ordered on the evening of the 17th to push immediately for Chambois, but instead departed only early on the 18th for Les Champeaux, possibly as a result of a misunderstanding with their local French guide, who shortly afterwards disappeared. The gap through which German vehicles and infantry were pouring in headlong retreat had now narrowed to a few thousand yards. Yet the principal labour of destroying the forces within it was being borne by the Allied air force. The fighter-bombers, flying 2–3,000 sorties a day throughout this period, inflicted massive losses. There were still serious problems with identification of ground troops. The British 51st Highland Division reported 40 separate incidents of accidental air attack for 18 August alone, costing its units 51 casualties and 25 vehicles. The Poles, who had lost scores of men in the ‘short bombing’ of the 8th and 14th, the same day lost half their petrol supplies to Allied air attack.

The German Nebelwerfer multi-barrelled mortar was one of the most formidable weapons in Normandy, the object of bitter hatred and cause of a remarkable proportion of casualties among Allied troops – some estimates attributed 75 per cent of infantry losses to German mortaring, even if many of the wounds were slight. In the last phase of the war, the Germans concentrated more and more attention upon the massed use of mortars in preference to artillery, and the Nebelwerfer – or ‘moaning minnie’ as the Allies called it – proved outstandingly useful in generating defensive fire when the shortage of German infantry and guns had become a chronic problem.

On the morning of the 19th, Simonds spoke personally to his four divisional commanders at the headquarters of the 4th east of Morteaux-Couliboeuf. He emphasized that their objective was to ensure that no Germans escaped from the pocket. There was fierce fighting that day in the village of St Lambert, where two Canadian infantry companies fought all morning to gain a foothold in the village, then found themselves unable to go further. They dug in, and for the rest of the day fought off successive counter-attacks as German troops struggled to hold open the road east. Extraordinary sacrificial efforts by Meindl’s survivors of 3rd Parachute Division defended the path east for thousands of their comrades. Canadian units blocked enemy attempts to escape through Trun. Artillery forward observers on the high ground overlooking the gap were calling down massive fire upon every column of vehicles and infantry on the roads and in the fields. That evening, Polish and American units met in Chambois.

Yet still the gap was not closed. Both the Poles and the Canadian 4th Armoured were under ferocious pressure from elements of 2nd SS Panzer, fighting westwards to hold open the retreat of Seventh Army. 1,500 Poles and 80 tanks were cut off from their lines of communication, unable to evacuate their wounded, perilously short of fuel and ammunition. Their battle was fought out with a fury uncommon even by the standards of Normandy. Poles and Germans detested each other with real passion, and each believed that they had much to avenge, the Poles with better reason. Now, from the heights of Mont Ormel, their tank machine-gunners raking the Germans below them, they called down artillery fire on every passing column of vehicles. From their wooded ridge, they could view the battlefield for miles. Meanwhile, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division’s war diary recorded: ‘Due to the heavy fighting, Germans attacking from both the east and the west and the numerous calls made on the div to seal off any German escape routes, the units are all mixed up and it is difficult to define any particular brigade areas.’10 The Canadians merely poured fire into German elements wherever they encountered them. ‘Until about 0800,’ (on the 21st) wrote an officer of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, ‘the machine-gunners fired at whatever they could see. During this time a host of white flags appeared and hundreds of the enemy crowded in to surrender. Many others were unable to give up, for every move towards our lines brought bursts of fire from certain SS troops patrolling the low ground behind them in an armoured half-track.’11 Corporal Dick Raymond, one of the Camerons’ Vickers gunners, said: ‘It was the first time we had ever seen the German army out in the open. We would see a group trying to run across a field from one wood to another, and watch some fall, some run on, some lie moaning in front of us. It was more of an execution than a battle. I remember feeling puzzled that it didn’t upset me more.’

Yet the pocket at Falaise was being closed too late to prevent the escape of a formidable cadre of the German army, including some of its most skilled and dedicated officers, who lived to lead men through many more battles. It was only the most determined who still possessed the will to try the gap. Few, even within the Canadians’ own ranks, disputed that the principal cause of this Allied failure was the feeble performance of First Canadian Army. Characteristically, the British official history describes the advance to Falaise in terms of hard fighting, ‘a gruelling day for the Canadians . . . Germans fighting strongly . . . dogged resistance.’ All this is perfectly true, but it evades the central fact that the ragged remains of two German divisions and a handful of tanks held all Crerar’s army for 13 days, from the opening of TOTALIZE to the closing of the gap at Chambois, a distance of barely 30 miles. The Canadian official historian is far more frank than his British counterpart: ‘A German force far smaller than our own, taking advantage of strong ground and prepared positions, was able to slow our advance to the point where considerable German forces made their escape.’12 General Foulkes of the Canadian 2nd Division said: ‘When we went into battle at Falaise and Caen, we found that when we bumped into battle-experienced German troops, we were no match for them. We would not have been successful had it not been for our air and artillery support.’13 The Canadians had already recognized their difficulties by replacing a long succession of officers commanding brigades and battalions since 6 June. On 21 August, Crerar sacked the commander of his 4th Armoured Division, Major-General Kitching, a ritual sacrifice to his formation’s failure.

The focus of the struggle now concentrated upon a few square miles of fields and little villages in which the wreckage of a half-million-strong army was fighting for survival. Command and control by signal had been almost entirely lost. Such direction as existed was provided by German officers to whatever men they chanced to find around them. Blackened vehicles, blackened corpses, blackened buildings and hedgerows scarred every acre over which the fighter-bombers had passed. The wounded were merely gathered where they might be tended by their captors when the Allies reached them – there were no more drugs and few enough doctors. Men ate what they could find in shattered vehicles or farmhouses – every surviving building was crowded with stragglers hunting food or seeking shelter from the shelling and bombing, or merely rest from the interminable march among the dead. The Allied cordon was a swollen, bulging sac against the walls of which thousands of men were pressing and forcing their bodies in a hundred places, seeking escape and often dying to find it. Amongst a vast mass of despondent Germans who sought only to surrender, there were still some thousands who fought at Falaise with desperate courage, hurling themselves again and again against Allied positions despite ferocious artillery fire and concentrated machine-guns.

Montgomery issued a directive on 20 August urging his forces to greater efforts: ‘There is no time to relax, or to sit back and congratulate ourselves. I call on all commanders for a great effort. Let us finish the business in record time . . . The first task of Canadian army is to keep the Normandy “bottle” securely corked.’14 On the 22nd, it was concluded that all significant German forces west of the Allied lines were dead or in captivity. The ‘cork’, it was concluded, could be removed from the empty bottle. The Allied armies could make free with the ruins of St Lambert and Coudehard, Chambois and Trun, the ghastly killing ground of the Falaise Gap.

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