Advancing rapidly through the Pays d’Auge, the British liberated Lisieux on August 25th. The town had suffered badly during the bombardment and a thousand of its inhabitants had been killed. Further north, Colonel Piron’s Belgian Brigade and the “Princess Irene” Dutch Brigade, working in tandem with the 6th British Airborne Division, liberated Cabourg, Dives, Deauville, Trouville and finally Honfleur. To the south, the Canadians had reached Bernay, while the Americans had taken Evreux, Louviers and Elbeuf.
Despite being sandwiched between the Allied advance and the Seine, the Germans nevertheless managed to escape, even though all the bridges across the river had been destroyed. An attempt to trap them in a fresh pocket failed, and they made their getaway on rafts, in ferryboats, amphibious vehicles and rowing boats, some even swimming across.
In all, according to an official British report, the Germans performed the incredible feat of moving 240,000 men, 30,000 vehicles and just under 150 tanks across. Their losses of equipment amounted to roughly 4,000 vehicles and fifty or so tanks, which had either been destroyed by the air force or had simply run out of petrol.
Once they reached the other side, however, they were incapable of offering any further resistance and the remnants of the depleted army had no solution but to withdraw rapidly towards the borders of the Reich without looking back.
The garrison in Le Havre, with 11,000 men, remained firmly where it was. The Germans did not intend to give in without a fight, and turned the town into a formidable entrenched camp, spiked with heavy guns and crammed with concrete pillboxes. The fortress was protected on three sides by the sea, the Seine and a flooded valley. The only access road, to the north, was protected by an impressive and extensive system of defences, including a huge anti-tank trench and tens of thousands of mines.
Montgomery gave I Corps the mission of taking the city, while he raced on towards Brussels, arriving there on September 4th. The assault on Le Havre threatened to be a bloody one, so the RAF was called in to help, with the result that the 60,000 people still in the city went through hell on September 5th and 6th, when the central districts were razed to the ground by explosive and incendiary bombs.
In the evening of September 10th, the Astonia offensive began. Preceded by special tanks, two British infantry divisions and three armoured brigades moved forward, behind a tumultuous barrage of artillery fire. The attack was one of legendary speed and precision. The “flail” tanks opened up breaches in the minefields, while the terrifying “Crocodile” flame throwers sowed terror into the hearts of the defenders. On September 12th Le Havre was liberated, but 85% of the city has been razed and 2,000 civilians had perished in its ruins. Freedom has exacted a heavy price indeed.