THE FALAISE POCKET

The risky counter-attack at Mortain was to hasten the German collapse and the end of the Battle of Normandy. Bradley and Montgomery decided to take advantage of this new situation without delay. By engaging in a wide encircling movement, they would be able to trap the enemy divisions which has recklessly advanced so far westwards.

Instructions were immediately sent out accordingly. The American XV Army Corps, which entered Le Mans on August 9th, received the order to advance rapidly northwards, with General Leclerc’s 2nd French Armoured Division leading the way. The latter, which had landed in the Cotentin at the start of the month, captured Alençon on the 12th, crossing the town amidst general rejoicing, before racing towards Ecouché, then Argentan.

Meanwhile, Montgomery relaunched the offensive south of Caen. Weakened by the departure of some of its armoured forces, which had been dispatched to Mortain, the German front was broken ‑ though not without difficulty, as the retreating enemy was still capable of inflicting terrible blows on its adversaries. It did just this at Estrées-la-Campagne, where a Canadian armoured regiment was given a very rough time. By doggedly following up each attack with another (Operations Totalize 1 and II, and Tractable), the Canadians and the Poles of General Maczeck’s 1st Armoured Division, who had only recently entered the fray, gradually approached Falaise. The town was eventually captured on August 17th. The next task was to join up with the Americans, who had now reached the outskirts of Argentan.

The remnants of the German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army, numbering nearly 150,000 men, were slowly but surely being encircled. On August 16th, Hitler at long last gave the order for a general withdrawal. In actual fact, German units had been falling back, trying to reach the Seine, since the 14th. Their leaders were primarily concerned with saving what was left of their armoured divisions. Most of the infantryonaderless and scattered throughout the bocage, hurried in increasing disorder towards the escape route that was still open between Argentan and Falaise but which was becoming narrower by the day.

Under the combined pressure of the Americans and French to the south, the British to the west and the Canadians and Poles to the north, the net inexorably tightened between Argentan and Trun, where the final act of the tragedy was played out.From every side, Allied artillery pounded an enemy that was trapped and thrown into total confusion. The retreat gradually turned into a desperate flight towards the “corridor of death” between the villages of Chambois, Saint-Lambert, Trun and Tournai-sur-Dives, where they were slaughtered by packs of fighter bombers. As the trap was slow to close, due to a series of misunderstandings between the Allies, several tens of thousands of men nevertheless managed to escape from the pocket. But in the morning of August 21st, it shut for good.

Despite what has often been said, the battle of the Falaise Pocket was not the “Normandy Stalingrad”, as nearly 100,000 Germans succeeded in slipping through the Allied net between August 12th and 20th. They, did, however, have to leave most of their equipment behind them, together with 50,000 prisoners and 6,000 dead. When he visited the battlefield piled high with the bodies of men and animals and the debris of burnt-out vehicles, General Eisenhower was to describe it as “one of the greatest bloodbaths of the war”.