Operation Tractable was part of a number of operations to break out of Normandy after the success of D-Day. Operation Tractable was fought in August 1944 and it had one aim – the capture of Falaise – and it involved Canadian and Polish troops. Operation Tractable was part of a larger operation that included the Americans that was to end with around 150,000 men in the German army being surrounded at the Falaise Pocket.
D-Day had been a spectacular success but the Allies had found it more difficult to break out of Normandy. Caen was taken as a result of Operations Charnwood and Goodwood but the city had suffered a great deal of material damage. D-Day had taken the Germans by surprise, but it had also told them where the Allies were going to concentrate their forces. Hitler ordered that the German forces sent to Normandy were going to be proactive – not holding onto captured land at all costs but going on the offensive again the Allies. This was called Operation Lüttich and it targetd the recapture of Avranches. However, by August 7th 1944, Lüttich had failed. Nazi ground armour fell easy prey to the RAF’s fighter-bomber Typhoons and sabotage done by the Resistance meant that the Germans had great difficulty reinforcing and supplying the men who were already there.
Falaise became a major target for the Allies, as its capture would mean that Germany’s Army Group B would have been cut off. It would have to either surrender or fight to the death. Operation Totalise had been initiated to capture Verrières Ridge, which would have given the Allies a strategic advantage over the Germans. The Canadian II Corps had been tasked to complete this. Despite ferocious fighting the Canadians, having taken the village of Verrières, failed to capture and maintain control of the ridge and the Germans retook it. The Canadians suffered large casualties in the assault on Verrières – the worst for the Canadians since Dieppe in 1942. The capture of Verrières Ridge was considered to be very important for an attack on Falaise.
Operation Tractable was meant to pick up where Operation Totalise had left off. The Canadians were also tasked with this attack. The attack started on August 14th with a daylight-bombing raid on German targets. Unfortunately, some of the bombers were off target and Polish and Canadians troops were accidentally bombed and killed. Under cover of a large smokescreen provided by Canadian artillery, men from the Canadian 4th Armoured Division and the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division advanced on Falaise. Field Marshal Montgomery’s plan was simple – once the Canadians had taken Falaise, they would link up with 10,000 Polish troops to move onto their next target, the village of Trun. At Trun, the Poles and Canadians would move on to link up with the US 3rd Army at Chambois. However, as with so many plans, this one did not have a specific event factored into it – the Germans knew what the Canadians were going to do.
Operation Tractable was scheduled to start on August 14th. On August 13th, a Canadian officer got lost travelling between divisional headquarters. He drove into German lines and was killed. He was found to be carrying documents that had explicit instructions as to what the Canadians were expected to do on August 14th. Lieutenant Colonel Simonds of the Canadian II Corps had written the instructions. Therefore the Germans moved into position men from the 12th SS Division. Tanks and deadly 88 mm guns were included. In particular, the 88’s had proved very effective at ‘tank-busting’ in Normandy. The bocage – hedgerows that surrounded fields – gave the Germans every opportunity to camouflage these guns and they were to destroy many tanks in the Battle for Normandy.
The attack started as planned at 12.00. Montgomery had fully expected that the Canadians would have full control of Falaise by the end of the day. With the advantages that they had, the Germans limited the successes of the Canadians and Poles and the town was not taken by the time fighting subsided on August 14th. The fighting resumed on August 15th but it was only on August 16th that men from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division moved into Falaise. The town was finally captured on August 18th. The Canadians and Poles captured Trun on the same day. By the evening of August 18th, the Poles and Canadians were just four miles from the US V Corps. Once their forces met, the Germans in the Falaise Pocket would be trapped. The Americans, Poles and Canadians linked up on August 19th.
Field Marshal Model commanded the Germans trapped in the Falaise Pocket. His choices were simple. He could recognise the position he was in and surrender or he could order his men to try to breakout of the Falaise Gap. Model chose the latter.
On August 20th, the Germans started a major attack against the Canadians, Poles and Americans. In Model’s favour was the fact that he commanded experienced veterans of the SS Panzer Corps. However, the Allies had near complete supremacy in the air and any chance of supplying his men was nearly non-existent. Model’s men had initial successes but were unable to sustain them. While Model had to fight with restricted supplies in order to breakout, the Allies were able to bring up as many men and equipment as was thought necessary for victory. Accurate Polish artillery fire killed many Germans in what was later called the ‘Corridor of Death’. However, fierce fighting around Mont Ormel did allow 10,000 German soldiers to breakout of Falaise before it was closed again.
On August 21st, it became clear that the Germans could no longer sustain their attacks. Polish troops held firm around Mont Ormel, despite an acute shortage of ammunition. The fighting here against SS troops resulted in the Poles losing around 20% of their men.
By the end of August 21st, most German troops in the Falaise Pocket had surrendered. The fighting in and around Falaise had cost the Germans 70% of its military vehicles, 94% of its tanks and nearly all its artillery. Some Germans had escaped – mainly men from the 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions – but they had left behind nearly all of their vehicles. As a result of the chaos of war, no one is quite sure how many Germans were actually in the Falaise Pocket/Gap but a conservative figure has been put at 50,000 killed, wounded and taken prisoner with nearly all equipment destroyed or captured. However, figures as high as 200,000 have been put forward.
German military capability in Normandy was now greatly weakened and just 2 days later on August 23rd, Allied troops entered Paris.