Military history

Chapter 12 » THE GAP

Some men had already been fortunate enough to achieve their Heim ins Reich before the collapse in Normandy came. Corporal Schickner of 2nd Panzer was in hospital in Germany recovering from a head wound inflicted by an American sniper in July. Lieutenant Schaaf and his gunners of the 1716th Artillery had been sent back to re-equip with new guns when those which they had fired since 6 June were worn out from ceaseless use. Corporal Kortenhaus of 21st Panzer was still in hospital after catching his foot in his tank track. Captain Wagemann of 21st Panzer staff had been posted back to Germany at the end of July. But the mass of the German army in Normandy remained, to endure one of the great nightmares of military history in the Falaise Gap. Pounded by shells from north and south and fighter-bomber strikes from first light to dusk, the long columns of men, horse-drawn carts and the few surviving tanks and vehicles struggled slowly eastwards, past their unburied dead by the roads and in the fields, the stinking carcasses of countless hundreds of horses and cattle, the ruins of Panthers and half-tracks, field cars and trucks, the last hopes of Hitler’s armies in France.

20 August was a beautiful summer’s day. To the straggling clusters and columns of Germans moving painfully eastwards, the weather mocked them as shells searched the roads and tracks, and tore open the meadows in which so many sought safety. The detested Piper Cubs droned busily overhead, directing their destruction. Colonel Heinz-Gunther Guderian sent two officers forward to St Lambert to reconnoitre a route for the vestiges of his division. With the coming of darkness, at the head of a column of 300 men, 50 vehicles and a battery of guns, they edged cautiously forward beneath the Allied positions, moving 100 yards at a time, then halting in silence to listen, then slipping forward again. At last, after hours of desperate tension, they met panzergrenadiers of 2nd SS Panzer holding the eastern line. Guderian and his men sank wearily into oblivion by the roadside, and slept all through the day that followed. Yet his glimpse of safety was illusory. The next morning, he was ordered to take the remnants of the formation south, to stiffen the tenuous line against American pressure. On the road in his Volkswagen field car, he was caught by an Allied fighter-bomber diving out of the sun. Guderian, hit in the shoulder, was still in the vehicle when the petrol tank exploded. He never fought again in France.

Lieutenant Walter Kruger, signals officer of 12th SS Panzer, was wounded by shrapnel as he sat in his truck in a great unmoving press of transport on the Falaise road. ‘Then I saw that the whole column was on fire. Everybody was running.’ He walked for three days, then sat by the roadside near Breteuil among the endless lines of filthy, bloody, exhausted men passing east, looking for survivors of his own unit and collecting them to continue the retreat. His divisional commander, Kurt ‘Panzer’ Meyer, outstanding combat commander and fanatical Nazi, escaped according to his own account ‘guided by a French civilian’. It is not difficult to picture the means of persuasion Meyer brought to bear. Yet even the iron Meyer described later how he climbed out of his vehicle amid the shambles of the Gap, ‘my knees trembling, the sweat pouring down my face, my clothes soaked in perspiration’.1 He and his men represented, at one level, the utmost perversion of national socialism. Yet at another, they command reluctant respect. No formation caused the Allies such deep trouble in Normandy until the end as 12th SS Panzer.

Sergeant Hans Stober of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers encountered no difficulties driving east until he and his handful of surviving men reached the Dives. There they became entangled in the chaos of the retreat. By ruthless determination they forced a way through and found a track north of Mont Ormel that remained open, and slipped past the silent Canadian army positions in darkness, with the men and even a few vehicles. ‘The Poles never closed that pocket for anybody who really wanted to get through,’ claimed Stober scornfully. Eventually they reached a reporting station near Paris, which had been set up to gather and reorganize men arriving from the west. Ten days after passing Mont Ormel they reached the Saar area, where they spent three days resting and regrouping. Then they were sent back into action with the remains of 116th Panzer inKampfengruppe Fick.

General Eugene Meindl of II Parachute Corps spent two hours hidden beneath a wrecked Polish Sherman within yards of the Allied lines, waiting for a moment to make his escape from the pocket. Like so many men in those days of turmoil, he had a succession of extraordinary personal encounters: with his own son; with a general named Eric Straube whom he was disgusted to find bivouacked in comfort with his staff, well supplied with food and wine; with a corps commander whom he did not identify, sitting weeping alone by the roadside. Meindl finally fought his way out at the head of a few score paratroopers and three tanks of 2nd SS Panzer.2 General Hausser of Seventh Army was wounded by shrapnel as he marched amongst his men, and was carried out upon the back of a tank of 1st SS Panzer.

Lieutenant Fritz Langangke of 2nd SS Panzer had been driving since the beginning of August in a hastily-repaired tank with chronic overheating problems. Its collapse on the start-line for the Mortain counter-attack probably saved his life, and the same Panther carried him eastwards as the line crumbled, sustained by petrol drained into a canvas bucket from abandoned vehicles. In the final days of the pocket, the Panther’s engine caught fire for the last time. The crew blew it up and started walking: ‘We just kept going along with the rest of the German army.’ They rejoined the remains of the division around Mont Ormel, finding their tank regiment now under the command of Major Enzerling. Their old commander, the bullet-headed Colonel Tyschen, an officer in the mould of ‘Panzer’ Meyer, had died in the Mortain battle. The spirit of absolute doom was abroad. Enzerling solemnly visited his tank crews to say farewell to each man personally. Just west of the Seine, they were finally compelled to abandon all their vehicles, and each man to seek salvation as best he might. Langangke and eight others reached the river at Elbeuf to find French resistants already all over the town, waving tricolours and shooting at German stragglers. The lieutenant and his group hid in a house, considering their next move. There was no choice open to them save to cross the river. Neither his gunner nor his loader could swim, but they had to try. They drowned. Langangke himself reached the eastern bank clinging to the bloated body of a dead cow which was floating downriver amidst a host of other hapless animals and debris from the battlefield. He rejoined his unit at Huy-on-the-Maas, whence they were withdrawn to retrain and re-equip.

The SS and those men of the German army still determined to fight on were enraged by the wholesale collapse of will that they saw around them in those days. Lieutenant Ernst Krag of 2nd SS Panzer’s assault gun battalion came upon a group of Wehrmacht armoured crews intent upon blowing up a company of new Panthers which they had just brought forward from Germany as replacements. The furious Krag ordered them to hand over the tanks intact to his own men, and they salvaged five. ‘What do you do,’ he demanded bitterly, ‘if even your commanders have begun to work according to the principle of Heim ins Reich?’ Colonel Kurt Kauffmann, the operations officer of Panzer Lehr, who had contributed so much to the recapture of Villers-Bocage in June, walked out of the pocket in the clothes he stood up in, the entire divisional headquarters and its documents having been lost in the American breakthrough. He was posted to the eastern front for speaking openly about the hopelessness of the military situation.

The Hawker Typhoon – the ‘Tiffy’ to all its pilots – was a big, heavy, rugged fighter-bomber which bore the brunt of the RAF’s low-level ground-attack tasks over Normandy, carrying eight 50-pound rockets or 2,000 rounds of bombs. Handling a rocket-equipped Typhoon was a delicate art, since the rails reduced its speed and affected its handling. It was necessary to attack either at very low level – risking heavy punishment from ground fire – or almost vertically, as most pilots preferred. Typhoons were the principal destructors of the retreating German army at Falaise, and became legendary in the last nine months of the war for their effectiveness in the ‘cab rank’ role, circling over advancing troops until directed onto a target by a forward air controller.

Corporal Adolf Hohenstein of 276th Infantry marched eastward out of the pocket with a handful of men, having lost all contact with his unit. A general passed along the column of slow-moving soldiers, telling them that it was every man for himself – they were now encircled. Hohenstein said that this did not trouble him as much as it might, ‘for in Russia we had been surrounded again and again’. He was one of the few who had escaped from the Sixth Army’s disaster at Stalingrad, clinging to the hull of a tank. Now they came upon a château, where they paused to gaze sadly upon the wonderful library, torn open to the elements by shellfire. Around noon on 20 August, they were lying in a field wondering desperately how to cross the flat ground ahead, littered with dead horses, burning vehicles, wounded men, and still under furious shellfire. Suddenly the firing stopped. There was a rumour, probably unfounded, that a local truce had been declared while a German hospital was handed over to the Allies. They seized their moment, and hastened through the smoking chaos, wading the Dives to reach St Lambert. Many men, said Hohenstein, were no longer seeking to escape, but merely lingering in the hope of making a safe surrender. The houses of St Lambert were crowded with Wehrmacht fugitives who had abandoned their weapons and clutched only sheets to assist their efforts to give themselves up. Men said that it was no longer possible to get through to the east.

In the church, Hohenstein found scores of wounded being treated with such pathetic resources as the doctors still possessed, and a cluster of generals. The corporal met a colonel who said that he was going to take a tank through, and if the soldier wished, he could follow with his men. That night, when darkness came, they fell in behind the tank, moving eastwards. But they were deeply uneasy, travelling with the squealing monster that now seemed more a source of danger than security. They decided to separate from it and make their way alone. It started to rain, and the corporal had only a feeble torch to check their bearings. At 5.00 a.m. on the 21st, they approached the village of Coudehard, its houses burning quietly in the early morning light. They heard voices. They strained to discover from the shelter of the trees to which army the men belonged. At last they moved cautiously forward until an unmistakably German accent called ‘Halt!’ They had reached the lines of 10th SS Panzer.

They struggled on eastwards in the days that followed, hastening to remain ahead of the Allies. In the little village of Le Sap near Vimoutiers, they found the entire population gathered around tables laid out with food and wine to greet their liberators. The exhausted, desperate Germans seized what provisions they could carry. Wary of a sudden attack by local résistants, Hohenstein told the frightened Frenchmen: ‘Me and my men just want to get through here in one piece. In a few hours you’ll have a chance to find out if the other army treats you any better than ours.’ They marched the mayor and the curé at pistol point in front of them through the town until they were safe on the road beyond. On 25 August, they crossed the Seine at Elbeuf, sitting on a tank which was carried across on the sole surviving ferry, already under artillery fire. ‘After Normandy,’ said Hohenstein, ‘we had no illusions any more. We knew that we stood with our backs to the wall.’

As the first Allied forces moved into the pocket, gathering up prisoners in their thousands, they were awed by the spectacle that they discovered:

The roads were choked with wreckage and the swollen bodies of men and horses [wrote Group-Captain Desmond Scott]. Bits of uniform were plastered to shattered tanks and trucks and human remains hung in grotesque shapes on the blackened hedgerows. Corpses lay in pools of dried blood, staring into space and as if their eyes were being forced from their sockets. Two grey-clad bodies, both minus their legs, leaned against a clay bank as if in prayer. I stumbled over a typewriter. Paper was scattered around where several mailbags had exploded. I picked up a photograph of a smiling young German recruit standing between his parents, two solemn peasants who stared back at me in accusation . . . Strangely enough it was the fate of the horses that upset me most. Harnessed as they were, it had been impossible for them to escape, and they lay dead in tangled heaps, their large wide eyes crying out to me in anguish. It was a sight that pierced the soul, and I felt as if my heart would burst. We did not linger, but hurried back to the sanctity of our busy airfield near Bayeux.3

Men moved among the bloated bodies firing bursts of sten-gun rounds to empty them of their ghastly gasses before they were burned. ‘Falaise was not the most frightening sight, but the most disgusting of the war,’ said Private Alfred Lee of the Middlesex Regiment. ‘The bodies crawled with blue-grey maggots. The spectacle was unspeakable when tanks drove over them. Many men had to put on their gas masks to endure getting through it.’ With the great burden of fear lifted from them, French civilians began to show much greater warmth and kindness to their deliverers. Trooper Dyson of the RAC, collecting replacement tanks from a depot near Villers-Bocage, was wined and dined with his mate by a French family: ‘They treated us like kings. That village made us feel that we had liberated France all on our own.’ The last shell fell on Caen as late as 17 August. Nicole Ferté, having endured weeks as a refugee in a convent crowded with terrified and wounded civilians, had at last been forced out into the countryside along with thousands of others late in July. She was living with a group of 30 in a barn, and was out scavenging for food one morning when she saw American tanks rolling down the road towards her. A GI sitting on the hull of the leading Sherman leapt down and kissed her, declaring in one of the phrases that the period of Liberation made immortal: ‘You look just like my girlfriend!’ Ironically, on that very day of liberation, the girl was wounded in the foot by shrapnel. But she recovered to work as interpreter to the Town Major of Caen, and to experience the extraordinary life of France amid the Allied armies that summer. She said sardonically: ‘All the Americans thought that everybody would go with them because they had the cigarettes, the stockings, the money.’ Many did.

In a village south of Caen, a platoon commander of 15th Scottish Division sat with his men in their trucks:

An enormous convoy crammed with dishevelled, dusty Wehrmacht prisoners rolls in the opposite direction: ‘The bastards!’, wrenches out my truck driver with a sudden rush of feeling; while a great bearded Frenchman, like a ferocious dog, stands alone in the desolation of a village square, shaking his fist at the vast POW convoy and yelling after them as though his heart would break: ‘Kaput! . . . Kaput! . . .’4

Most Allied soldiers found that now, for the first time in the wake of their own crushing victory, they could spare pity for the defeated enemy. Trooper Dyson watched the lines of prisoners shuffling through the forward area, ‘some of them old men wearing overcoats down to their ankles’. Like so many Allied soldiers, he took a German’s belt for its eagle buckle, then felt ashamed because the man’s trousers fell down. ‘I looked at them all, and somehow it seemed unbelievable that they were the Germans, the enemy – some mother’s sons.’ Jerry Komareks’s battalion of the US 2nd Armored adopted a little blond 14-year-old Russian prisoner as a unit mascot. Pedro, as they called him, was given cut-down American fatigues and a pistol, then rode with them all the way to Berlin. There they were compelled to surrender him, crying bitterly, to the Russians. Presumably he was shot, like so many thousands of others turned over to the Red Army.5

It was only on 21 August that the Falaise Gap could properly be accounted closed, as tanks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division linked with the Poles at Coudehard, and the Canadian 3rd and 4th Divisions secured St Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois. 344 tanks and self-propelled guns, 2,447 soft-skinned vehicles and 252 guns were counted abandoned or destroyed in the northern sector of the pocket alone. The battle for Normandy had cost the German army a total of 1,500 tanks, 3,500 guns and 20,000 vehicles. They had lost around 450,000 men, 240,000 of these killed or wounded. On 22/23 August, Army Group B reported the state of its eight surviving armoured divisions:

2 Pz: 1 infantry battalion, no tanks, no artillery

21 Pz: 4 weak infantry battalions, 10 tanks, artillery unknown

116 Pz: 1 infantry battalion, 12 tanks, approx. two artillery batteries

1st SS Pz: weak infantry elements, no tanks, no artillery

2nd SS Pz: 450 men, 15 tanks, 6 guns

9th SS Pz: 460 men, 20–25 tanks, 20 guns

10th SS Pz: 4 weak infantry battalions, no tanks, no artillery

12th SS Pz: 300 men, 10 tanks, no artillery.

Meyer’s division alone had driven into Normandy with over 20,000 men and 150 tanks. Panzer Lehr had ceased to exist as a formation after COBRA, 9th Panzer was wiped out in the Mortain battle. Of the 100,000 men of First Army, facing the Bay of Biscay, who had been ordered to retire east, some 65,000 crossed the Seine, having lost most of their equipment. Only what was left of Fifteenth Army in the Pas de Calais, and Nineteenth Army, retiring north in the face of the American landings in the south of France which began on 15 August, still possessed any semblance of organization and cohesion. More than 40 German divisions had been destroyed. The Allies had achieved this at a cost of 209,672 casualties, 36,976 of these killed. British and Canadian losses amounted to two-thirds those suffered by the Americans. Some 28,000 Allied aircrew were also lost either over Normandy, during the vast campaign of preparatory bombing of communications and coastal installations, or the execution during 1943–44 of the POINTBLANK programme designed to pave the way for OVERLORD.

Few episodes in the Normandy campaign have provoked such a torrent of words since the war as the Allied failure to close the gap south of Falaise more speedily,6 permitting the escape of a significant fragment of the German army which seemed doomed to absolute destruction, given the military situation around 7 August. Before considering the reasons for the Allied fumbling – if fumbling it was – it seems worth emphasizing that the portion of the German forces which got away was tiny by comparison with that which was destroyed. Only 24 tanks and 60 guns were ferried east across the Seine. Something over 20,000 Germans escaped the pocket, with only the clothes on their backs and personal weapons. Events around the Falaise Gap between the opening of TOTALIZE and 22 August became a source of anger and controversy much more because it appeared that Allied operations had been clumsily handled, than because any such failure cost Montgomery and Bradley important fruits of victory. The Americans were bitter because they considered that, once again, Montgomery had promised to achieve an objective on the battlefield, and failed: namely, to get the Canadians to Argentan before the Germans began to escape east. Montgomery himself implicitly acknowledged the importance of the Canadian failure to reach Falaise in time on 16 August, when he directed elements of the Canadian First Army to bend sharply south-east to Trun and Chambois, and asked Bradley to push American forces there to meet them. He hoped that by creating a wider noose the Germans could still be held within it.

A number of recent writers, including Martin Blumenson and Carlo D’Este, have noted the absurd over-simplification by critics who suggest that if Bradley’s men had been set free to push north to Falaise, they would have closed the gap days earlier.6 In reality, an American south–north line around 17 or 18 August would almost certainly have been broken by the Germans, fighting with the desperation they revealed everywhere at this period. The US division which finally closed the gap at Chambois, the 90th, had shown itself to be one of the least effective formations among the Allied armies in Normandy. Meindl’s paratroopers, and the survivors of 2nd SS and 12th SS Panzer, would almost certainly have cracked the 90th, inflicting an embarrassing and gratuitous setback upon the Americans. This prospect and danger must have occupied Bradley’s thoughts when he declined to allow the move north, and declared that he preferred ‘the strong shoulder’ at Argentan to ‘a broken neck at Falaise’.7 Bradley knew that the fleeing German army was already being devastated by air attack and pounded by artillery. His avowed reason for failing to close the gap – fear of a collision between the Allied armies – scarcely merits serious examination. It seems far more probable that he saw a situation in which the enemy was being mauled almost to death without significant risk to the Allied armies; to slam the trap precipitately shut with ground forces and to close for a death-grapple with the desperate men fighting eastwards, offered a risk of humiliation which could not be justified by any possible tactical or strategic gain. If the man outside the thicket knows that the wounded tiger within it is bleeding to death, he would be foolish to step inside merely to hasten collection of the trophy. If this was indeed Bradley’s reasoning, he was almost certainly correct.

Far too much of the controversy and criticism surrounding the Falaise Gap and other Normandy battles has focused solely upon the generals, as if their making of a decision ensured its effective execution.8 It seems equally important to consider whether a given option was feasible within the limits of the capabilities of the forces concerned. It has been the central theme of this book that the inescapable reality of the battle for Normandy was that when Allied troops met Germans on anything like equal terms, the Germans almost always prevailed. If the campaign is studied as an abstract military exercise, then all manner of possibilities become acceptable: the British could and should have got men into Caen on D-Day; they could and should have broken through at Villers-Bocage on 13 June; EPSOM and GOODWOOD should have led to decisive advances and the collapse of the German defences. As it happened, of course, nowhere did the Allies achieve decisive penetrations against high-quality German formations until these had been worn down by attrition and ruined by air attack. COBRA was a superb example of American dash and movement, but the vast American attacking force met only the shattered remains of Panzer Lehr and a few flanking battle-groups. Even these gave Collins’s men a hard time on the first day. The British began to make significant ground gains in August only when the Germans in front of them were greatly outnumbered and reduced to a few score tanks and guns. It may be argued that any Allied attempt at envelopment before the German forces had been brought to the brink of destruction by attrition would have cost the attackers dear. A British or American breakthrough southwards in June might have been very heavily punished by German counter-attack.

It has become commonplace to assert that the Allies’ basic difficulty was that they devoted too much thought and energy before the landings to the problems of getting ashore, not enough to what must happen thereafter. There is an element of truth in this, applicable to events on the afternoon of D-Day and on 7 and 8 June. Thereafter, however, the Allies’ difficulties lay not in any lack of planning, but in the difference in fighting ability between the opposing forces on the battlefield.

The Allies in Normandy faced the finest fighting army of the war, one of the greatest that the world has ever seen. This is a simple truth that some soldiers and writers have been reluctant to acknowledge, partly for reasons of nationalistic pride, partly because it is a painful concession when the Wehrmacht and SS were fighting for one of the most obnoxious regimes of all time. The quality of the Germans’ weapons – above all tanks – was of immense importance. Their tactics were masterly: stubborn defence; concentrated local firepower from mortars and machine-guns; quick counter-attacks to recover lost ground. Units often fought on even when cut off, which was not a mark of fanaticism, but of sound tactical discipline, when such resistance in the rear did much to reduce the momentum of Allied advances, as in GOODWOOD. German attacks were markedly less skilful, even clumsy. But they adapted at once to the need for infiltration in the bocage, a skill of which few Allied units proved capable, even at the end. Their junior leadership was much superior to that of the Americans, perhaps also to that of the British.

Few American infantry units arrived in Normandy with a grasp of basic tactics – a failure for which many men paid with their lives. The American airborne units showed what was possible on the battlefield, what the American soldier at his best could achieve. But only a handful of other formations proved capable of emulating the 82nd and 101st. The belief that firepower could ultimately save the infantry from the task of hard fighting underlay many difficulties and failures on the ground. It is interesting that Lieutenant Andrew Wilson, who fought as a British tank officer in north-west Europe and worked on occasion with American infantry, visited Vietnam a quarter of a century later as a correspondent, and noted the same carelessness on the battlefield that he had observed in 1944–45. Some more dedicated and skilful infantry fighting earlier in the Normandy campaign might, in the end, have saved a great many American lives. Both British and American commanders sometimes seemed to search for scapegoats rather than causes of poor performance by their men on the battlefield. Some of the generals sacked in Normandy (and elsewhere) were incompetent. But there was a limit to what a corps or divisional commander could achieve with the material he was given. It is striking that when Patton or Collins were given poor-quality divisions with which to gain an objective, they could extract no better performance from these than less competent commanders. The same was true of the British 7th Armoured – none of its successive commanders in north-west Europe could make anything of it. The problems, where there were problems, often descended to regimental and battalion level. There were not nearly sufficient able field officers for any solution to be found in wholesale sackings.

The British were superior to the Americans in regimental leadership and staffwork. But they proved unable to generate the weight of fighting power – combat power, as the Americans call it – to smash through unweakened German defences. Germans who fought in the desert often expressed their surprise at the willingness of the British soldier to do what he believed was expected of him, and then to stop – even to surrender – when ammunition ran low, petrol ran out or he found himself encircled or deprived of officer leadership. Again and again in Normandy, British units fought superbly, with great bravery, only to lack the last ounce of drive or follow-through necessary to carry an objective or withstand a counter-attack. The inexperience of American, British and Canadian formations must be measured against the performance of 12th SS Panzer. This, too, was a ‘green’ division, which had never fought a battle before 7 June. The Canadian official historian wrote: ‘One suspects that the Germans contrived to get more out of their training than we did. Perhaps their attitude towards such matters was less casual than ours.’9

An ethos, a mood, pervades all armies at all times about what is and is not acceptable, what is expected. Within the Allied armies in Normandy in 1944–45, the ethos was that of men committed to doing an unwelcome but necessary job for the cause of democracy. The ethos of the German army, profoundly influenced by the threat from the east, was of a society fighting to the last to escape Götterdämmerung. Lieutenant Langangke was perhaps not exaggerating when he said that as he sat in his Panther, knocking out Shermans one after the other, he felt like Siegfried. Mercifully for the future of western civilization, few men in the Allied armies ever believed for a moment that they were anyone other than Lindley Higgins from Riverdale in the Bronx, or Corporal Brown from Tonbridge. Montgomery wrote to Brooke from the desert: ‘The trouble with our British lads is that they are not killers by nature.’ Each man knew that he was a small cog in the great juggernaut of armed democracy, whose eventual victory was certain. Suicidal, sacrificial acts of courage were admired when performed by individuals and rewarded with decorations. But they were not demanded of whole Allied formations as they were of so many in Hitler’s armies. Even Corporal Hohenstein of that very moderate organization, the 276th Infantry, never allowed himself to be troubled by encirclement because this was an experience that he, like so many others, had often overcome in Russia: they were merely expected to break out of it. The attitude of most Allied soldiers was much influenced by the belief, conscious or unconscious, that they possessed the means to dispense with anything resembling personal fanaticism on the battlefield: their huge weight of firepower. This view was not unjustified. Artillery and air power accomplished much of the killing of Germans that had to be done sooner or later to make a breakthrough possible. But it could not do all of this. It is not that the Allied armies in Normandy were seriously incompetent; merely that the margin of German professional superiority was sufficient to cause the Allies very great difficulties.

All this Montgomery and Bradley understood perfectly well, and they shaped their plans and expectations accordingly. They had not been sent to Normandy to demonstrate the superiority of their fighting men to those of Hitler, but to win the war at tolerable cost – a subtly but importantly different objective. Their business and their difficulty, while acknowledging the difference in mood and spirit between their own soldiers and those of Hitler, was to persuade their armies to do enough – albeit, just enough – to prevail on a given battlefield and in a given action. This they were at last able to do, inflicting an absolute defeat upon their enemies. Overall, it may be said that Montgomery accomplished as much in Normandy as he could with the forces available to him. He is owed a greater debt for his performance than has been recognized in recent years, when his own untruths and boastfulness have been allowed to confuse the issue; and when the root problem of the limited abilities of his troops, and the dynamism of the Germans, has often been ignored.

Much of the criticism emanating from SHAEF, the airmen and Washington was based upon the inability of men lacking direct contact with the battlefield to grasp painful truths. The American and British public had been fed for years upon a necessary diet of propaganda about the superiority of their fighting men to those of the enemy. Even some senior service officers could not now understand the difficulty of fighting the German army. Brooke did, and his awareness lay at the heart of many of his fears about OVERLORD and about the course of the campaign on the continent. He was too big a man to continue to support Montgomery blindly, merely because the Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group was his protégé. He backed Montgomery and sympathized with his disappointments and failures because he understood, perhaps better than any man outside France, the difficulty of arranging matters so that British and American soldiers could defeat German soldiers on the ground. Brooke knew – as surely also did Montgomery in his secret thoughts – that it was the Allies’ superiority of matériel that enabled them to prevail at the last, assisted by competent generalship and a solid performance by most of their men on the battlefield. Patton’s headlong rush around western France was a far less impressive command achievement than the cool, professional response of Bradley and his corps commanders to the Mortain counter-attack. By that first week of August, the balance of psychological advantage had at last shifted decisively. The German thrust lacked conviction – even formations such as 2nd SS Panzer fought half-heartedly. Meanwhile, the Americans had gained a new confidence in their own powers. Isolated infantry units held their ground; headquarters staffs kept their nerve; the American forces dispatched to meet the Germans – with the possible exception of the 35th Division, which seemed slow to achieve the relief of the 30th – drove hard and sure to throw back the panzers.

Normandy was a campaign which perfectly exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of the democracies. The invasion was a product of dazzling organization and staffwork, and marvellous technical ingenuity. Once the armies were ashore, there was no firework display of military brilliance. Instead, for the armies, there was a steady, sometimes clumsy learning process. Each operation profited from the mistakes of the last, used massed firepower to wear down the Germans, absorbed disappointments without trauma. This last was a true reflection of the nature of the struggle: most German commanders, amidst the insuperable difficulties of grappling both with Hitler and the Allies, declined towards a state bordering on hysteria. Among the Allied armies, however, there was sometimes gloom, but never real alarm or nervousness. These symptoms were more in evidence at SHAEF, where the role of impotent spectator taxed some men, even the highest, beyond endurance. Montgomery and Bradley and their staffs and corps commanders merely fought, reconsidered, and fought again until at last their resources granted them victory. Armchair strategists and military historians can find much to look back upon and criticize in Normandy. On 22 August 1944, it is doubtful whether many regrets troubled the Allied army commanders in France.

One lesson from the fighting in Normandy seems important for any future battle that the armies of democracy might be called upon to fight. If a Soviet invasion force swept across Europe from the east, it would be unhelpful if contemporary British or American soldiers were trained and conditioned to believe that the level of endurance and sacrifice displayed by the Allies in Normandy would suffice to defeat the invaders. For an example to follow in the event of a future European battle, it will be necessary to look to the German army; and to the extraordinary defence that its men conducted in Europe in the face of all the odds against them, and in spite of their own demented Führer.

Liddell Hart described Normandy as ‘an operation that eventually went according to plan, but not according to timetable’.10 A good case can be made that the Allies’ disappointments and delays in gaining ground eventually worked to their advantage. Just as in Tunisia, more than a year earlier, Hitler’s obsessive reinforcement of failure caused him to thrust division after division into the cauldron for destruction. By the time the breakout came, no significant forces lay in front of the Allies before the German border. Paris fell on 25 August, Patton crossed the Meuse on 31 August, and was at Metz on the Moselle the next day. The Guards Armoured Division reached Brussels on 3 September, after advancing 75 miles in a single day. 11th Armoured reached Antwerp on the 4th, to find the port intact.

On 1 September, Eisenhower assumed direct control of the Allied armies in the field – to Montgomery’s bitter frustration, disappointment and chagrin. The Commander-in-Chief himself was the only man at 21st Army Group unable to understand the imperative by which American dominance among the armies demanded American command in the field. Williams and de Guingand attempted to explain this reality to him, and the fact that his loss of control was inevitable, ‘even if the Americans thought you the greatest general in the world – which they do not.’11

At this juncture, there were perhaps 100 German tanks on the entire western front against over 2,000 in the Allied spearheads; 570 Luftwaffe aircraft against the Allies’ 14,000. By yet another Herculean feat of organization, Student mobilized 8,000 men of First Parachute Army to cover a 100-mile chasm in the front. The Allies paused to regroup and resolve their immense logistical problems. By mid-September, the German line was thickening everywhere. ‘I left France almost convinced that Germany was through and that the war would end in 1944,’ wrote Gavin of the 82nd Airborne. ‘But many in the division felt more cautious, since the fighting at times had proved to be far more difficult and costly than we had anticipated.’12 The battles in Holland and along the German border so often seem to belong to a different age from those of Normandy that it is startling to reflect that Arnhem was fought less than a month after Falaise; that within weeks of suffering one of the greatest catastrophes of modern war, the Germans found the strength to halt the drive of Horrocks’s XXX Corps in its tracks, and to prolong the war until May 1945. But if this phenomenon reveals the same staggering qualities in Hitler’s armies which had caused the Allies such grief in Normandy, it is also another story.

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