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The Breakout from Normandy

Map of Normandy Breakout

The breakout from Normandy by Bradley’s 12th Army Group at St Lo opened a realm of possibilities for the Allies to defeat the German Army in detail and end the war.  Unfortunately for the Allies the manner that they would exploit their success achieved during Operation COBRA led to their failure to completely destroy the German Army in the west in the late summer of 1944 would ultimately prolong the war.

The Allied and German problem in August 1944 was the sudden change in the nature of the campaign from a nearly static war of attrition in the Norman hedgerows to a campaign of maneuver.  This change brought about a number of opportunities for the Allies to envelope large portions of the German Army in western France as well as in Belgium and southern Holland. Max Hastings notes that the campaign became more of a “commander’s battle” in which 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.”[i] This was a major change as Hastings correctly notes in that prior to the breakout success in the hedgerows had been determined on “the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, the next hedge, beyond the next road.” [ii] In the hedgerows there was not much room for higher level commanders to influence the battle but once the breakout occurred the decisions made by commanders on both sides had greater influence in the following operations. This would become important as the weaknesses in the quality of allied generalship would begin to show, along with logistics management issues and the failure of the Allied High Command to recognize the resiliency of German forces and the resourcefulness of German leaders in their ability to cope with disaster and recover from it.  These were key elements in the campaign that kept the Allies from ending the war by Christmas.[iii]

US M5 Light Tank advancing through Coutances

Early in the campaign it was decided that Bradley’s forces needed to capture the Brittany ports, particularly Brest to alleviate shortages of supplies which all still were being delivered across the beaches.  However, the implications of this decision were strategically short sighted and deprived the Allies of a decisive victory in France.  As Third Army exploited the break out from Normandy into the French interior the preponderance of its forces went west which deprived the Americans of the better part of two army corps as well as the logistical assets needed to trap the major part of the German Army in Normandy.  The campaign in Brittany would prove a diversion which did nothing to help the Allied cause.  The divisions committed, casualties taken and supplies expended in an attempt to capture ports that the Germans destroyed before the Americans could capture them. Russell Weigley points this out as a major mistake by Bradley which did little to help the Allied logistical problems and diverted much needed troops away from the focal point of the action in Normandy.[iv] Max Hastings criticized Bradley’s lack of imagination in the initial stages of the breakout by adhering to the original Overlord plan.[v] This is seconded by Patton’s biographer Carlo D’Este.[vi]

Tiger Tank in Normandy

Patton’s 3rd Army’s weakened eastern push coupled with the continued pressure of the British Army Group toward Falaise put the Germans in a strategic dilemma. With the gate open at Avranches they could attempt to restore the front in Normandy by pinching off the advance or withdraw to the Seine or even further as no “defensive position short of the permanent fortifications of the West Wall on Germany’s frontier offered so many defensive strengths as the Normandy line the Americans had just breached and turned.”[vii] The choice advocated by some senior German commanders was an orderly withdraw to the Seine which would have removed the danger of being enveloped in Normandy as well as make the Allies attack across a major water obstacle defended by still formidable formations.

5th Armored Division Shermans near Argentan

With limited options the Hitler decided on a course of no withdraw and ordered his commanders to marshal their panzer divisions seal the breach and ensnare the allies in the hedgerows.[viii] Hitler and Field Marshal von Kluge disagreed in regard to the offensive which Kluge saw as a limited offensive but which Hitler believed gave the Germans a chance to cut off the American forces in Brittany and possibly even more.  Hitler believed that “once the coast had been reached at Avranches a beginning should be made with rolling up the entire Allied position in Normandy!”[ix] General Eugen Meindl of II Parachute Corps was blunt in his assessment of the attack. Paul Carrel in his book “Invasion! They’re Coming” quotes Meindl speaking with Von Kluge’s son a first lieutenant serving at the front:

“Kindly convey to your father exactly what I’m going to say to you. The time has come when Normandy can no longer be held. It cannot be held because the troops are exhausted. This is the fault mainly of orders to hold out in hopeless positions, but we are still being ordered to hold out even now. The enemy will break through to the west and outflank us. If your father knew what is was to operate against an enemy with downright fabulous command of the air, then he would know that our only hope of doing something useful is by attacking at night. Tomorrow’s tank attack is going to be a failure…and all that’s left for the grenadiers to do is lie down and sacrifice their lives. It’s heartbreaking to have to stand by and watch!”

Grenadiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend”

The German attack, Operation Lüttich was led by XLVII Panzer Corps assisted by elements of 1st SS Panzer Division.  Despite warnings from ULTRA the panzers achieved tactical surprise on the front of the 30th US Division at Mortain on the night of 6-7 August advancing without the customary preparatory artillery bombardment.[x] The Germans initially made progress against the 30th Division which had recently taken over positions at Mortain. However the Americans of the 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry “Old Hickory” Regiment held onto key high ground which enabled them to call artillery fire and air strikes on the German forces attacking toward Avranches which included the elite 2nd, 116th, 2nd SS, and part of the 1st SS Panzer Divisions along with a kampfgruppe cobbled together from the remnants of Panzer Lehr and four battered infantry divisions.[xi] The Americans quickly reinforced 30th Division with elements of 2nd Armored Division, 35th Infantry Division and the veteran 4th Infantry Division to hold the line against the weakened German Panzer divisions.  Bradley and other American commanders viewed Lüttich as “an opportunity, not a threat”[xii] which could enable the Allies to entrap the vast majority of German forces in France.  Bradley was “not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them.”[xiii] Bradley attempted to lure more Germans into the potential trap hoping that the Germans would press their attacks around Mortain.[xiv]

On the German side the ground commanders were furious at the failure of the Luftwaffe to shield them from Allied air attacks which devastated the Panzers.  The Luftwaffe and promised that 300 fighters would support the attack to provide protection from Allied close air support.  However the Luftwaffe squadrons were engaged by British and American fighters and so badly mauled that no Luftwaffe units made a appearance over Mortain.[xv] Thus despite their initial success which had promise of cutting off the advancing American spearheads the German Panzers were turned back by the Americans who did not even halt their eastward movement which further imperiled the German forces in Normandy.

With the German Panzer divisions ensnared at Mortain, the 3rd Army drove east while the Canadian army attacked towards Falaise. Bradley suggested that the Allies attempt a short envelopment of German forces at Falaise in which over 100,000 German troops would be trapped between the Patton’s troops advancing north and the Canadians.  The Canadians opened their TOTALIZE offensive from Caen to Falaise on August 8th but as was the case in every part of the campaign against determined German resistance as the XV Corps of 3rd Army advanced east.  Bradley’s plan ended the deep envelopment by XV Corps of 3rd Army designed to entrap the Germans against the Seine crossings, an operation that might promise “still surer results.”[xvi] Bradley told Treasury Henry Morgenthau that he had “an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy and entire hostile army.”[xvii] Hastings noted that “had the Germans “behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed been accused of losing his armies a great prize.”[xviii]

Wrecked German vehicles near Mortain

The decision by Bradley to turn the better part of 3rd Army west into Brittany had deprived him of forces that could have better accomplished mission of entrapping the Germans.  General Wood of 4th Armored Division to his dying day “remained embittered over the lost opportunity”[xix] when his division was turned back into Brittany rather than being allowed to move east toward the Seine.   Weigley points out an even deeper flaw regarding the Brittany decision.  This was that that the OVERLORD planners “had not thought anything resembling the Avranches breakout and pursuit without pause to the Seine likely… stating that it is among the worst forms of generalship that takes counsel of its fears. Yet that was exactly the condition of OVERLORD logistical planning.”[xx] Weigley’s point is well taken, the Allies had not planned for success nor had they anticipated in the OVERLORD planning the full range of possibilities that might open to them once a breakout had occurred.

12th SS Panzer Division Machine Gun team

The Allies did have a chance to destroy the German 7th Army.  The LXVII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps as well as the remnants of II Parachute Corps and other formations battered in Normandy were attempting to withdraw to the east from Mortain. The remnants of I SS Panzer Corps led by 12 SS Panzer Division and Army Panzer divisions such as the 21st Panzer Division offered determined resistance to the Canadians who were attacking toward Falaise.  To the south only scattered Kampfgruppen of divisions shattered in Normandy opposed Patton’s forces at Argentan. The Germans were aided by a fortuitous decision of the commander of the 2nd French Armored Division to move a combat command along a road needed by the American 5th Armored Division delaying it and allowing the Germans to send a battalion into the Argentan which could have “fallen easily a few hours before.”[xxi] The Allies were bedeviled by several other failures which prevented the short double envelopment from occurring and allowing the remnants of 7th Army to escape to fight again despite grievous losses in men, material, and especially armored fighting vehicles, artillery and motor transport.

Canadians advance in Falaise

The first of these was the Canadian failure to push the Germans out of Falaise despite overwhelming material and air superiority.  The Canadian offensive Operation TOTALIZE was planned by the best of the Canadian generals, General Simonds. Unfortunately Simonds was not in command of the operation.  Totalize was a promising attack but bogged down halfway to Falaise due to a quick counterattack by 12th SS Panzer kampfgruppen, as well as a misguided bombing attack on the attacking forces by Allied air units, and the inexperience of the attacking units.  The Canadian 4th Armored Division and Polish 1st Armored Divisions paused to eliminate strong points rather than bypass them which allowed the Germans to reform their lines.[xxii] The second failure was that of Montgomery who refused to adjust army group boundaries with Americans and instead ordered the Canadians “renew their drive promptly and vigorously.”[xxiii] This refusal held the Americans advance at Argentan while the Canadians battered themselves against far stronger German opposition.  However, General Crerar of Canadian 1st Army was as bad of Army commander as could be found.  Weigley somewhat sarcastically points out that Crerar spent five days “doing what really battlewise generalship could do by regrouping and making diversionary attacks.”[xxiv] It took over 48 hours for Crerar to launch a determined attack to close the gap despite the weakness of German forces. Even a personal phone call by Montgomery to Crerar urging him to “close the gap between First Canadian Army and 3rd U.S. Army” did nothing to move the Canadian general and Crerar’s dawdling allowed many Germans to escape from Normandy to fight again.[xxv] Despite the vice that had closed around them the Germans successfully withdrew experienced battle groups of elite Wermacht and SS Panzer Divisions as well as the Paratroopers of II Parachute Corps to fight again.  General Meindl himself led a battle group of Falschirmjaeger from his Corps during their breakout through the Allied lines.  Despite the loss of 40,000 soldiers in the Falaise Pocket the Germans had saved a substantial part of their Army.

US Infantry advancing near Argentan

General Kurt Meyer of 12th SS Panzer Division faulted the Canadian leadership with a failure to use imaginative planning, and noted that “none of the Canadian attacks showed the genius of a great commander.”[xxvi] American units which Patton had cautiously advanced north of Argentan towards Falaise were recalled after Bradley was unable to convince Montgomery to alter the army-group boundary in light of the new circumstances.[xxvii] Patton recounted that he believed that his units could have “easily entered Falaise and closed the gap” and that the “halt was a great mistake.”[xxviii]

Knocked out Sherman of the Polish Armored Division next to a knocked out Panther

Weigley blames Bradley as much for the halt order as much as Montgomery for “discouraging whatever might have been done to rectify the blunder- even discouraging on August 13th a call from the Supreme Commander to Montgomery about the inter-allied boundary.”[xxix] Thus through a series of Allied mistakes particularly by senior commanders the first opportunity to envelop the Germans passed into history as a great yet incomplete victory.  A victory which though impressive allowed experienced German forces to escape to fight again. As the Germans escaped from Falaise the Allies began a pursuit in conjunction with landings in the south of France that would take them to the borders of Germany.

Polish Soldiers at the Corridor of Death

[i] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.280

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004 p.37.  Hastings comments that “British planners threw away it had learned since 1939 about the speed of reaction of Hitler’s army, its brilliance at improvisation, its dogged skill in defense, its readiness always to punish allied mistakes.”

[iv] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981pp.184-186

[v] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord pp.282-283

[vi] D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995 pp.632-633

[vii] Ibid.  p.195

[viii] Ibid. Also

[ix] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964 pp.449-450.

[x] Ibid pp.195-196. Weigley notes that Montgomery and most other Allied commanders  had been optimistic in not anticipating the German counter attack despite the ULTRA warnings, while Bradley and Patton were cautious in making troop deployments.

[xi] Michael Reynolds in Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy notes that the Americans inflicted “astonishing casualties on the northern thrusts of 2nd SS Panzer and remained undefeated when the Germans withdrew 4 days later.”  Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing, New York, 1997 p.264

[xii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord p.283

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley p.199.

[xv] Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984. p. 249

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley p. 199

[xvii] Ibid. p.200

[xviii] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord. pp.282-283

[xix] Ibid. D’Este. p.631

[xx] Ibid. Weigley. p.286  He also points out that the Brittany diversion could have been “worse had it not been for Montgomery’s influence”  p.288

[xxi] Ibid. p. 202

[xxii] Ibid. p.204

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997. p.320.

[xxvi] Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001 p.290.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord pp.288-289.

[xxviii] Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947. pp.101-102

[xxix] Ibid. Weigley p.209  Weigley quotes Major Hansen, Bradley’s aide in stating that the Falaise halt orde was “the only decision he has ever questioned.”

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