The town of Falaise and its surrounding area have gone down in the history of World War Two as the region where a complete German army was destroyed. Falaise had been targeted by the Allies as the place where British, Canadians and Polish forces would meet up with American forces in a pincer movement that planned to trap the Germans in and around Falaise. The plan worked exceptionally well.
After D-Day (June 6th 1944) the Allies found themselves unable to push too far off the beachheads that had been established. The loss of the Mulberry Harbour had not helped with regards to supplies. But the major reason why the Allies could not push into Normandy was the strong resistance put up by the Germans. D-Day in Normandy had taken the Germans by surprise. Hitler had become convinced that it would be in the Pays de Calais and he ordered that a great deal of men and equipment should be kept there in preparation for the invasion. Once it became clear where the invasion was taking place these men were transferred to Normandy. While on four out of the five D-Day beaches, German resistance had been swiftly pushed aside, the planned for move inland had not materialised. Montgomery as commander of ground forces in Normandy had hoped that his men would be in Caen by the evening of June 6th. It was not to be the case.
The drive out of Normandy carried on through July and August. The Allied campaign was spilt in two. British, Polish and Canadian units were to push south via Caen to Falaise. The Americans would push along the Normandy coast (Operation Cobra) to Brittany, liberate the major cities and towns there before moving south towards Brest. However, Omar Bradley believed he could spare some of his men to push inland towards Falaise. He believed it was possible to trap the Germans around Falaise if his men pushed from the south and Montgomery’s men pushed from the north before meeting up at Falaise. At Falaise the Allied forces would surround Marshal Kluge’s Normandy army if the plan worked.
The American advance went well. Rennes was liberated on August 3rd and Le Mans on August 8th. While the US 8th and 15th Corps continued into Brittany, the US 30th, 5th, 7th and 19th Corps turned back on themselves and moved inland to the rear of Falaise as Bradley had envisaged. Once Caen had been secured by the Allies, as well as Verrières Ridge, three miles to the south of the city, the British, Polish and Canadians continued their push to Falaise. By mid-August 1944, the German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army were on the verge of being trapped. If these could be quickly neutralised, German military power in Normandy would have been effectively destroyed and crossing the River Seine and then Paris would have been the next obvious targets. If there were any delays, it would have given the Germans an opportunity to bring up troops from southern France. Speed, therefore, was of the essence.
On August 6th, Montgomery pressed his commanders in the field to push for Falaise. On August 7th, the Germans launched a counter-attack against American forces near Avranches. Hitler had ordered the attack and Marshal Kluge was expected to carry it out. Hitler wrote: “The decision in the Battle of France depends on the success of the Avranches attack. The commander in the west has a unique opportunity, which will never return, to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area and thereby to change the situation completely.”
The start of the attack went well but initial successes were not sustained. By the evening of August 7th, Kluge concluded that the counter-attack had failed. German troops who had not been captured or killed prepared to withdraw to Falaise where the local commander had asked for more men to protect the approaches to the town. However, Hitler forbade any such move as he had concluded that the counter-attack had been carelessly planned. He ordered another attack that would be “prosecuted daringly regardless of the risks”. Kluge told a junior officer that if this attack, scheduled for August 9th, failed, it would lead to the collapse of German power in Normandy.
A concerted attack on Falaise started on August 7th at 23.00. Over 1000 Allied bombers dropped 5,000 tons of bombs on German positions on the approaches to Falaise. Over 700 artillery guns supplemented the attack. Behind the artillery’s rolling barrage, 600 Allied tanks advanced as part of Operation Totalise. The Allies had to cover 15 miles to get to Falaise and by August 8th they had covered 8 miles, constantly pushing back the Germans. As a result of this success, Kluge postponed the counter-attack against Avranches until August 11th with Hitler’s agreement. While the Germans were being pushed back in the north, they were also being pushed back in the south by the Americans. They were effectively being driven into a pocket – hence the term ‘Falaise Pocket’.
While Canadians and British forces had been slowed down north of Falaise, American troops were sweeping back east across France. On the day that Allied forces came to a halt seven miles north of Falaise, the Americans had liberated Le Mans and by August 13th Argentan. This put the US 15th Corps about 15 miles from Falaise to the south. With British, Polish and Canadian forces to the north and US forces to the south and west, Kluge realised that the Germans were in the real danger of being surrounded. Only a move east gave Kluge some chance of escape. Kluge put to one side any idea of a counter-attack against Avranches. Even Hitler admitted that the developments around Falaise should take priority. If Kluge could only withdraw east, he also only had one major road that could be used by his vehicles. His greatest fear was that the Allies would shut down any eastwards movement by closing the pocket which would leave his army trapped. Montgomery was fully aware of this and ordered General Crerar of the Canadian 1st Army to push through to the American lines as soon as was possible.
The Germans put up a stiff resistance to ensure that the ‘Falaise Gap’ stayed open. Eisenhower wrote that he was impressed by the “extraordinary measures” taken by the Germans to stop their encirclement and he recognised that as a result of these “measures” the Allies were not going to take as many POW’s as they had anticipated. Hitler blamed the situation around Falaise on Kluge’s failure to take Avranches as he had ordered. However, on August 16th, Kluge was given permission to withdraw his men east via the still unplugged Falaise Gap. Seven German divisions along with their equipment were trapped in the ‘Gap’. Those men nearest to Trun and Chambois had the greatest chance of escape as they had less distance to travel to safety. However, some units were 40 miles away from these two villages as they were in the most westerly point of the ‘Pocket’. Kluge estimated that it would take four days to get all of his men through the ‘Gap’.
US General Omar Bradley ordered US forces to plug the gap with two specific targets – the villages of Trun and Chambois. Montgomery also ordered Crerar to press harder from the north and Trun was captured on August 18th. Their success was such that Kluge had to instruct his officers that they only had three days to withdraw, not the expected four. The Germans were under constant and accurate artillery fire – the result of the Americans holding St. Leonard’s Ridge, which gave them an unrivalled observation point. The Germans were also very short of fuel and had to destroy tanks and other vehicles during their withdrawal. Those vehicles that could be used had to travel on heavily congested roads.
Hitler relieved Kluge of his command and replaced him with General Walter Model. On his journey back to Germany, Kluge committed suicide as he knew that he would be blamed for the defeat in Normandy. Model himself quickly realised that his military position was extremely grim.
By the end of August 18th, the ‘Gap’ had been greatly reduced though the Germans found gaps around Chambois through which they could pass. By now the ‘Falaise Pocket’ had shrunk to six miles deep and seven miles wide. The night of August 18th gave the Germans some hope as a dense fog fell to cover their withdrawal. When it lifted early next morning the Allies had a clear view of extended German armoured columns on the Dives river plain. They were easy targets for Allied artillery units.
On August 20th, the Falaise Gap was finally closed. No one is quite sure how many Germans escaped from the ‘Pocket’. However, a great deal of equipment was left behind; one German officer who escaped said: “Even the number of rescued machine-guns was insignificant.”
“The carnage wrought (in the Pocket) in the final days was perhaps the greatest of the war. The roads and fields were littered with thousands of enemy dead and wounded, wrecked and burning vehicles, smashed artillery pieces, carts laden with the loot of France overturned and smouldering, dead horses and cattle swelling in the summer’s heat….” (Martin Blumenson)
The Allies captured about 50,000 men and counted about 10,000 dead in the Falaise Pocket.