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The corridor of death

The Falaise pocket

Dead German horses and devastated vehicles covering the road after the battle (Photo: IWM)

The D-Day landings on June 6, 1944 and the operations that immediately followed managed to establish an Allied beachhead in Europe. The war, however, was far from won. Strong German forces managed to keep the Allies on and near the beaches, and getting further inland was the next challenge to overcome. The next stage of liberating Europe was to defeat the German force preventing progress; this was accomplished by trapping them in the Falaise pocket with a series of operations that concluded on August 21, 1944, 77 years and a bit more than a week ago.
 
The German efforts to contain the Allies centered around two locations: the cities of Caen and Saint-Lô. To the east, Caen lay to the south of Sword Beach, and was blocking British and Canadian forces. To the west, Saint-Lô was to the south of Omaha, and in the way of American troops. Overly optimistic Allied plans called for the liberation of Caen on D-Day, and that of Saint-Lô on the day after. Stiff German resistance, however, quickly showed that this plan had no basis in reality. In fact, even July was coming to a close, and both cities were still in German hands and preventing further ingress into France. The bulk of the German defenders was near the town of Falaise, located to the south of Caen, a safe location from where they could reinforce their lines wherever the Allies tried to break through.

German officers near Saint-Lô, one of the German-held cities keeping the Allies on the beaches (Photo: ritterkreuztraeger.blogspot.com)
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Allied leaders suspected that von Kluge, commander of the German Army Group B, will eventually try to withdraw to the east to fight in the more easily defended forests and mountains along the Belgian and French borders. They intended to prevent this by encircling the German forces, cutting off all avenues of escape and forcing their surrender.
 
Field Marshal Montgomery drew up an ambitious plan for a "long envelopment". He wanted British and Canadian forces to capture Caen, then turn east and head toward the Seine River, while the Americans advanced south to the area between the Seine and the Loire. This would have encircled a massive territory, trapping all German defenders of Western France. Though he had his differences with the British commander, General Patton, commander of the U.S. Third Army, also agreed with this plan.
 
One man who didn't agree was Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. Based on reports from General Omar Bradley, he wanted the Allied forces to encircle a much smaller territory (a "short envelopment") around the Germans, cutting off their eastern escape route by securing the villages and towns of Trun, Chambois, Argentan and Alençon. This plan involved capturing much less territory and could be done quicker, but it was also riskier: if the Germans could retreat east a dozen miles or so before the Allies could get there, they would slip the noose.
From left to right: Generals Patton, Bradley and Montgomery in Normandy, early July, 1944 (Photo: Sgt. Morris, No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit)

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Of course, as of mid-July, there was no noose to slip yet, since the Allies were still trapped near the beaches. The first step in establishing the envelopment was a combined Commonwealth-American one-two-punch.
 
The quick jab was Operation Goodwood on July 18-20. In the east, British and Canadian forces started advancing on and around Caen. The attack began with massive aerial and artillery bombardment of German positions, which neutralized most defenses, leaving the survivors "dazed and incoherent". German reinforcements eventually managed to stop the Allied advance after three days of fighting, but the operation had reached its purpose: a large part of the German armored reserves were committed in the east, leaving the defenders open for the American follow-up punch in the west.
 
That punch, named Operation Cobra, came on July 25 at Saint-Lô. Like Goodwood, it started with an aerial bombardment that knocked a whole in German lines. Unfortunately, some of the bombers dropped their ordnance early, killing or wounding 600 American soldiers. Though the bombardment did not eliminate German defenses completely, it greatly aided the advance on the ground. On August 1, Patton’s Third Army was activated. Patton swept through the freshly opened passage, opening the way to Brittany and the rest of France. He then turned east and started seizing ground to the south of the German forces, further building up the envelopment.

U.S. infantry and tanks passing through the town of Coutances during Operation Cobra (Photo: U.S. National Archives)
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By the middle of August, the Germans were surrounded on three of four sides. To their north, British and Canadian troops have captured Caen. To their west, Americans have secured the passage inland. To their south was Patton. The only way to escape was to the east, and the only reason Field Marshal von Kluge, commander of the German forces, had not taken that route yet was because of Hitler's demands to stand and fight to the last man.
 
The Allies started to close off that final avenue of retreat on August 14, with the launch of Operation Tractable, a push toward the town of Falaise by Canadian and Polish troops. The plan for Tractable was based on an earlier successful push, which combined an advance by mechanized infantry with tactical bombing by heavy bombers. That earlier advance was performed at night; Tractable was going to begin in the morning, but a heavy smoke cover laid down by artillery was to simulate the cover of darkness.
 
Unfortunately, a Canadian officer carrying a copy of his orders got lost the night before the attack, drove into German lines, and was promptly killed. The Germans found his orders and became aware of the impending battle, which gave them time to maneuver their forces in place.
 
Like previous attacks, this too began with an aerial bombardment, and like Operation Cobra, this too suffered from friendly fire. Canadian troops incorrectly used yellow smoke to mark their position to the bombers above. This was a problem, since the Royal Air Force used smoke of the same color to mark enemy positions, and responded to the smoke signals accordingly. The spoiling of the surprise attack, as well as effective German anti-tank fire despite the smoke screen, greatly slowed down the offensive, preventing the liberation of Falaise on the first day. Meanwhile, the situation started to change on the German side as well.

A Canadian Humber scout car receiving orders inside Falaise during Operation Tractable (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)
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Back on July 20, even as the Allies were maneuvering in Normandy, a group of German officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg tried to assassinate Hitler and failed (Read our earlier article). Kluge knew about the plan and even offered to support it if and when Hitler was killed, but withdrew his support when he learned the Führer was alive. On August 15, Kluge fell out of contact with his troops for several hours after his car was damaged by Allied bombs. What happened next is hard to determine, but there are two conflicting accounts. According to one, Hitler interpreted Kluge's temporary disappearance as an attempt to negotiate surrender with the Allies behind his back, and removed him from command two days later, recalling him to Germany. Kluge supposedly believed that Hitler learned about his involvement in the coup and committed suicide. The other version is that Hitler received clear evidence of Kluge's complicity in Operation Valkyrie and had a loyal SS officer execute the Field Marshal.

Günther von Kluge (on the right in the first row) in France, June 1944 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Either way, Kluge died and was replaced by Field Marshal Walter Model. Model was an excellent defensive commander who had earned a reputation by slowing down the Soviet juggernaut on the Eastern Front time and time again, and one of the few officers who could get away with ordering a retreat even despite Hitler's orders. His first order in his new command was to retreat. He understood that staying in place would allow the Allies to fully encircle and destroy his forces, while a successful withdrawal would still give him the chance to fight later. His job was made even more difficult when Allied forces landed on the southern coast of France on August 15 in Operation Dragoon (Read our earlier article).

Model (third from left) in Aachen, Germany, in October 1944, 2 months after escaping the Falaise pocket (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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While the Canadians and the Poles were trying to cut off the eastern escape route and the Germans were getting their act together, Patton finished securing routes to the south of the German forces and wanted to turn north. This way, the Canadian-Polish advance from the north and Patton's own advance from the south would have met somewhere halfway, completing the encirclement. Much to Patton's chagrin, however, General Bradley ordered him to stop the advance and concentrate on securing his position. This kept the gap in the east open for longer than necessary, allowing many German soldiers to escape.
 
There has been much debate over Bradley's decision to stop Patton's advance. One of these focuses on the boundary line between American and Commonwealth forces: the area was divided into a northern and a southern part, and no force was supposed to enter the other half. British Field Marshal Montgomery planned this to avoid friendly fire incidents between U.S. and Commonwealth forces, who otherwise might have stumbled upon each other unexpectedly. For his part, Bradley later wrote that he was afraid of Patton stretching himself too thin. He had four divisions against 19 German ones, and was already blocking three escape routes. Had he reached for more, it's possible the Germans could have used a local superiority in numbers to break through in one spot, causing the Third Army heavy casualties. We'll never know what would have happened had Patton been allowed to advance and try to close the eastern gap.

The situation on August 17. Note the escape route to the east through the Trun-Chambois line. Mont-Ormel (read on for more information) is just northeast of Coudehard, marked 262N. (Photo: Wikipedia)

But let's abandon hypotheticals and get back to historical facts. With Model ordering a retreat and Canadian and Polish forces still trying to head south to close off the escape route between Trun and Chambois, the situation turned into a race. Canadian armor liberated and secured Trun on August 18; Polish battlegroups freed Chambois on the 19th. Meanwhile, German tanks broke through newly established and still thin Allied lines in several places and headed toward Mont-Ormel, a hill to the east. Two Polish battlegroups that have just liberated Chambois moved on to the same hill, which they nicknamed "the mace" (“Maczuga” in Polish) due to its shape on the map. The fate of German troops in Normandy was to be decided on the slopes of Mont-Ormel, named "Hill 262" on Allied maps.

Major-General Stanislaw Maczek, commander of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, leader of the Polish forces in the area (Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

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The first Polish soldiers already reached the northern hilltop of the Ormel ridge in the early afternoon of the 19th, and immediately set about attacking the columns of Panther tanks driving past the hill. The Germans, who thought they were home free after breaking through the Allied lines, were at first surprised to face this last line of defense, but were quick to adapt to the situation. They realized that the only way for the retreat to proceed successfully was to eliminate the Polish defenders on the hill. Around 2,000 Poles faced 100,000 retreating Germans. The Germans launched assault after assault against the Poles on the 19th, all day through the 20th and in the morning of the 21st, driving them further and further back, up to the summit, gradually destroying Polish tanks and depleting their ammunition. Some German units have already made it to safety beyond the Ormel ridge, only to turn around and attack Polish positions from behind. In between German assaults, the Poles called in directions for artillery strikes on the German tank and vehicle columns that were rolling past their positions, turning the roads into deathtraps blocked by all the wreckage.
 
In a typical Polish gesture, the defenders offered Polish-born ethnic German POWs the chance to change sides and fight alongside them. On the other hand, any SS men or soldiers who participated in the invasion of Poland were dealt with mercilessly.

Wrecked German vehicles and dead soldier on a road in the Falaise gap. (Photo: Flight Officer N. S. Clark, Royal Air Force photographer)

By the end of the 20th, the Poles were down to their last reserves, and German attempts to overrun them did not seem to wane. Lieutenant Colonel Aleksander Stefanowitz, the Polish battlegroup commander on site, took stock of their situation in a short speech he delivered to his remaining troops on the evening of the 20th:
 
"Gentlemen, all is lost. I do not think that the Canadians can come to our rescue. We have only about 110 able-bodied men left. Five shells per [tank] gun and 50 bullets per man. That's very little, but fight all the same. Surrender to the S.S. is futile; you know that. I thank you. You have fought well. Good luck, gentlemen. Tonight we shall die for Poland and for civilization! . . . each tank will fight independently, and eventually each man for himself."

The situation at Hill 262 on the morning of August 21. Note the corridor across Allied lines which is "plugged" by the hill. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Salvation for the Poles came almost literally in the eleventh hour. After a final German assault that commenced at 11:00 a.m., Allied reinforcements reached the hill's defenders at noon. Alas, the defenders mistook the friendly reconnaissance regiment for yet more Germans and destroyed two British-made Cromwell tanks crewed by Polish tankers before the misunderstanding was cleared up.

It is hard to determine exactly how many German soldiers were trapped at Falaise and how many escaped before the gap was fully closed. Most historians believe that around 80,000 to 100,000 Germans were caught in the Falaise pocket, half of whom managed to escape, while everyone else was either killed or captured. A significant number of German tanks and artillery pieces were also destroyed. Even with 40,000 to 50,000 German soldiers living to fight another day, the envelopment significantly hampered Germany's ability to put up a fight on the Western Front for the rest of the war. Field Marshal Montgomery told the Poles: “The Germans were trapped as if in a bottle; you were the cork in that bottle.”

Exhausted Polish soldiers after closing the Falaise pocket (Photo: IWM)

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Even with so many Germans escaping, the retreat route past Mont-Ormel became a ghastly killing ground. Removing the dead bodies was a low priority for the Allies, and the job went on until November. In the meantime, the area was declared an "unhealthy zone" to keep people away. Eisenhower wrote the following after his visit to the battlefield:
 
"The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest "killing fields" of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh."

Eisenhower inspecting a destroyed Tiger II in the pocket, near Chambois (Photo: U.S. military)

A memorial and museum dedicated to the closing of the Falaise pocket stands on Mont-Ormel today, and offers a view of the low-lying killing grounds where the German defenders of Normandy tried to escape. In recognition of the bravery and sacrifice of the Polish soldiers who fought on the spot, a statue dedicated to Polish commander Major-General Maczek and a sign were erected there after the battle. The sign simply reads "A Polish battlefield."

A view on the former battlefield from the Mont-Ormel memorial (Photo: Author’s own)
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