Friday, August 21, 2015

D-Day +77

Map of German encirclement
By August 22nd 1944, thousands of Germans had been slaughtered during their desperate attempt to escape the tight pocket created by the Allies at Falaise. The end of the German 7th Army in Normandy had been brought about by a well coordinated team effort. What had started hesitantly finally developed into an aggressive and devastating action. Montgomery's 21st Army group which consisted of British, Canadian, and Polish troops had squeezed the Germans from the North and West, while the American forces of Courtenay Hodges' First Army and Patton's Third Army completed the encirclement from the South and East.

Open "Killing Grounds"
General Gerow
Although elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division had attacked the village of Le Bourg-St-Leonard (mentioned in the previous post) and ousted the US 90th Division on August 17th, thus temporarily holding the shoulder of the pocket, the arrival of a new American Corps commander, who was put in charge of the three American Divisions in the area, helped seal the German's fate.

Lieutenant General Leonard Townsend Gerow of Petersburg Virginia, was a tough WWI veteran, a favorite of Eisenhower, and a talented strategist. It was Gerow who tightened the noose around the necks of the retreating Germans. Gerow's V Corps was part of Hodges' 1st army and now here he was taking over elements of Patton's Third Army, unbeknown even to the great general himself, who had already embarked on his lightening dash to the German border.

There were also changes in the German 7th Army command. The despondent Gunther von Kluge was replaced by fervent Nazi Field Marshal Walther Model. Von Kluge, who was loosely suspected of being involved in the July 20th bomb plot against Hitler, was recalled to Germany. He committed suicide en-route.

Escaping on foot
Incredibly, and despite intense Allied pressure, the retreating German forces did not become a disorganized rabble, they continued to receive limited supplies by air and kept trudging on in their typically disciplined way.

Under Gerow's stewardship, the 90th Division re-took Le Bourg-St-Leonard at midnight on August 18th and prepared to advance on Chambois for the final "coup de gras." The Germans put up a strong defense and the American forces were not successful in their initial attempt to overrun the ancient Normand town. Enemy artillery knocked out four shermans, and the Werfer Brigade of the 116th Panzer Division launched barrage after barrage of rockets at the GIs of the 90th Division.

Chambois, signs to Hill 262
Polish and American officers meeting at Chambois

Other Allies were progressing. The Canadians took Falaise, and the important village of Trun was almost within their grasp. Polish forces had attacked in the direction of Mont Ormel which overlooked the whole axis of the German retreat and dominated the one and only remaining escape route. By noon on August 19th, Hill 262, as it became known, was in the hands of a section of the Polish forces, while other units of Poles moved on Chambois at the foot of the hill. They met up with Americans from the 90th Division on the afternoon of August 19th. The scene that greeted these Allies was one of total carnage. The fetid stench of burning flesh, the roads jammed with the detritus of war, and the crumbling ruins of old buildings were but a prelude to what was to be perhaps the most apocalyptic action of the war.

View from Mont Ormel "Hill 262"
With the Poles on Mont Ormel, the Canadians in Trun, and the Americans in Chambois, the pocket was reduced to a few kilometers in width. From the Foret de Gouffern, Germans continued to make the dash towards Mont Ormel and comparative escape.

The small town of St. Lambert sur Dives was the epicenter of this desperate German exodus and one that became famous for it's corridor of death," and a Canadian Major, David Vivian Currie, who was awarded The Victoria Cross for his actions in halting the Germans.

"Corridor of Death"
In addition to the mighty array of Allied tanks, artillery, and infantry zeroing in on the remnants of a once formidable army, RAF fighter bombers, who had absolute control of the skies, were able to patrol at will, firing on vehicles and horse drawn transports, sending them skywards in plumes of flame and smoke.

On August 20th, the Polish forces on Hill 262 came under attack from elements the 2nd SS Panzer Division, who had already escaped the pocket and had returned to clear a way for the remainder of their comrades. This action, together with an attack on the Polish perimeter at the hamlet of Coudehard, which lies just beneath the summit of Hill 262, by paratroopers of General Eugene Meindl's 3rd Parachute Division, had the effect of compressing the Polish perimeter and opening a narrow escape route.

Another view of the carnage
Below the summit of Hill 262, scenes as one might expect to see in Dante's inferno were unfolding. The remnants of thousands of men and horses, disemboweled by artillery and mortar fire littered every lane and hedgerow. Body parts hung from trees and the smouldering wreckage of vehicles filled the skies with acrid smoke. Even the most battle hardened combat veterans had to look away from the abject horror.

View along the "Corridor of Death" towards forest of Gueffern

Moissy Ford 1944
Sherman, top right, moves in to get a look.
In addition to the two bridges over the river Dives at St Lambert, further along the river towards Chambois is Moissy Ford, which offered another possibility for the Germans, but all approaches to this crossing point were open and in full view of Allied tanks and artillery. It was like shooting fish in a barrel and very soon the area was another scene of unmentionable carnage.

Moissy Ford 2011
Meindl, with paratroopers in the pocket
On the ground, responsibility for the final evacuation of the remaining Germans had fallen to two men, Paratroop General Meindl and SS General Paul Hausser, who was known as "Papa" to his men. Hausser cared deeply for the soldiers under his command. He disobeyed a direct order from Model to "get out of there immediately!"

Instead, he remained with his men until the last minute.

Original footbridge in St. Lambert, crossed by Hauser and thousands of soldiers
Knowing the breach in the Polish lines could not be maintained for long, the two Generals decided to move the wounded first. All traffic was stopped and a convoy of vehicles bedecked with Red Cross flags moved off across the main road. Not a single shot was fired and the transports carrying the seriously wounded men were allowed to climb the hill unmolested.

After the convoy has passed, the firing resumed.

Meindl wrote later, "and I can openly acknowledge the feeling of gratitude to the chivalrous enemy. . . ."

Meindl and a substantial group of his men made good their escape that night. Hausser, seriously wounded, was carried out on a surviving tank.

Monument inscription to the Poles
For the Poles on Mont Ormel the situation was dire. They had received no supplies and they were under attack from three sides. They had taken over 800 prisoners and they had more than 300 wounded lying out in the open under enemy fire. By the afternoon of August 21st, the Canadians linked up with the Poles, and supplies arrived in the nick of time. Before the arrival of the Canadians, Stefanowicz commander of the Polish battle group on hill 262 said to his men,

"Gentlemen. Everything is lost. I do not believe the Canadians will manage to help us. We have only 110 men left, with 50 rounds per gun and 5 rounds per tank ... Fight to the end! To surrender to the SS is senseless, you know it well. Gentlemen! Good luck – tonight, we will die for Poland and civilization. We will fight to the last platoon, to the last tank, then to the last man."

After the battle, Polish soldiers survey the scene on the road to Mont Ormel
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. By the evening of the 21st of August 1944, the majority of Germans who were still trapped in the pocket had surrendered. Although as many as 50,000 Germans had escaped, it is estimated that between 80,000 and 150,000 were either killed or taken prisoner. Two days later, Paris was liberated.

View from Coudehard church
The gentle countryside around Mont Ormel was scarred for years and the water courses were poisoned with the toxic effluent produced by decaying flesh. For several years, tankers of water had to be brought in to supply the local population. Even at 2,000 feet, pilots complained of giant black clouds of flies and an unimaginable stench.

General Eisenhower, visiting the area 48 hours after the closing of the pocket, reported,

"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."

Author Martin Blumenson wrote in "Breakout and Pursuit,"

“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….”

The destruction of the German 7th Army in the Falaise pocket sent a clear message to the German High Command, "The Thousand Year Reich will be destroyed."

This was not the end,

but it was the beginning of the end.

Friday, August 14, 2015


  After the Germans were routed at Mortain, some of the enemy divisions continued to make probing attacks towards Avranche in the vain hope of achieving at least a stalemate.
 The other units, battered and bruised, were in headlong retreat towards the town of Argentan in the Orne region of Normandy.
They still had plenty of fight, but that fight would be used in a defensive mode as a means of enabling their escape.

August 12th,16th
Bradley was excited, his forces had thrashed the Germans at Mortain and his confidence was at an all time high. The other Allies were making progress and now he could see a real chance of trapping and annihilating the remainder of the German 7th Army. Montgomery's 21st Army Group, which consisted of British, Canadian and Polish forces, had finally broken out of their beachhead around Caen and were now pressing the German forces from the North, while Bradley's own U.S forces had moved in a wide arc under the retreating Germans. He had initially proposed a much wider encirclement, but now he could see a real opportunity to tighten the noose and trap the enemy in an area between Falaise and Argentan. He had instructed Patton to swing his forces to the left, take the town of Argentan and prepare to close the pocket.

Argentan War memorial
Patton was elated, the opportunity to deliver this knock out blow was just what he wanted to do.

He committed 5 Divisions to the task, including the Free French 2nd Armored Division under General Leclerc, a unit totally equipped by the Americans, but lacking  discipline.

General Leclerc
French 2nd Armored Div. caused many traffic jams.
 Leclerc frequently exceeded his orders, crossed boundary lines, which were forbidden to him, and caused all kinds of foul ups. His forces fought with elan, they were brave and their exuberance was astonishing. Taking part in the long awaited liberation of their country was an emotional experience, one that they prayed for these past 5 years. Patton was a Francophile, he liked Leclerc and he was always prepared to make allowances for him.

Argentan Today
Argentan same view August 1944
 Just as the American Divisions arrived in the Argentan area, Bradley had a change of heart. His initial excitement turned to trepidation, as the prospect of his forces rushing headlong into the guns and aircraft of the other Allies, pushing down from the North, seemed a real possibility. He lost his nerve and with it his ability to annihilate an entire army.

There were of course some concerns at the prospect of further friendly fire incidents, but the Canadians were still miles away from Argentan, so no immediate threat. Patton was horrified and Bradley would come to regret this decision for the rest of his life; although he would continue, in time honored fashion, to pass the blame. His decision would give the Germans an opportunity to hold a defensive shoulder at Argentan, thus allowing thousands of enemy soldiers, complete with their equipment, to escape certain destruction.

French Sherman in Foret d'Ecouvres
South of Argentan, the main obstacle was the Foret d'Ecouvres, the clearing of which was given to Leclerc's 2nd Armored Division. This was achieved effectively and in short order after which, a group of these vengeful Frenchmen entered Argentan on the afternoon of August 13th. The Germans were ready for them and opened fire with tanks and artillery just as the civilian population came out to rejoice at their final liberation. It would be almost a week before this strategic town would be firmly in American hands, by which time it's total destruction would have been well and truly achieved.

Germans panzer grenadiers retreating on foot.
The job of holding the Americans at Argentan had been given to the 1st SS and 2nd panzer Divisions, which had originally been committed to launching an all out attack against the thinly spread American front. As it happens, these units would play a major role in enabling a significant number of their comrades to escape.

5th Armored try a flanking maneuver.
The U.S 5th Armored Division tried a flanking maneuver around Argentan, but well sited German artillery and tanks wrought havoc on the advancing U.S and French Divisions.

Once Bradley's stop order had been received, commanders on the ground halted their advance  and  prepared to attack in another direction, which was yet to be decided. It was perhaps the most serious blunder of the Normandy campaign. The following day, he changed his mind again and split the forces gathered around Argentan. The French 2nd Division and the U.S 90th Division would stay in the Argentan area. They were to be bolstered by the 80th Division moving up in support. Valuable time and considerable momentum had been lost.

A decisive action by the 5 Divisions of 3rd Army could have changed the course of events, but now this strategically timid harassing approach was to lengthen the process, enabling the Germans to fight many 'other days.'

Ancient dungeons in the square of Chambois.
The natural escape point for the Germans centered on the tiny Norman town of Chambois.

Between Argentan and Chambois, lies the Foret de Gouffern, a sprawling mass of forestry, which provided great cover for the retreating Germans. From the Goufferm they were able to make a dash across open terrain to the heights and freedom.

Forest de Gouffern
One escape route centered on the tiny town of le Bourg-St-Leonard, which straddled the Argentan Chambois road.

The 90th Division positioned a roadblock in the town and sited artillery and tank destroyers on the crest of a hill overlooking this German escape route. American forces, although still effective, had lost much of their strength, as more than 50% of their force had been sent away, to attack in another direction.

 Bourg St- Leonard route of German retreat

When the Germans decided to make their dash, it was unlikely that these thinly spread units could hold them. On August 16th, the first group of Germans, well organized and highly motivated, left the sanctuary of the Gouffern Forest and attacked the 90th at le Bourg-St-Leonard. The 90th were beaten back by an enemy who was prepared, remarkably well equipped and determined.

French Monument to the liberation of Le Bourg-St-Leonard

Was it the 'rat in the trap' syndrome, or were these 'supermen' still a force to be reckoned with?

This Tiger 1 escaped the encirclement, then returned to help others before running out of fuel and being destroyed by it's crew. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

D-Day +63

By August 8th, 1944, Patton's 3rd Army had pushed seven divisions across the bridge at Pontaubault, south of Avranches, despite German attempts to bomb it on numerous occasions.
Pontaubault bridge and historical marker - many places have these helpful markers

His forces had made a headlong dash into Brittany (a tactical blunder on the part of the High Command),  only to be told to split his powerful army and make a sweep in the opposite direction towards the Seine,
View of Mont Saint Michel from Avranches

with the purpose of enclosing the Germans in a tight pocket. This should have been his main objective all along, but now he had been forced to split his army, leaving a substantial armored group in Brittany while taking the remainder of his forces on an epic adventure across France in the direction of Le Mans, formerly the HQ of the German 7th Army. He was making spectacular gains, but his left flank was highly exposed in a narrow corridor between Avranches and St Hilaire du Harcouet. All his supplies had to pass through this area and it was vulnerable to counter attack.

Adolf Hitler was shaken by the July 20th Bomb Plot, but he had recovered sufficiently to hatch another daring offensive plan. He had fired his commander in the west, Gert von Rundstedt, for being too defeatist. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel had been injured in an aerial attack on his vehicle, and now Hitler had charged Generalfeldmarshall Gunther von Kluge with carrying out his counter attack codename, 'Operation Luttich.'

Mortain, 1944
Von Kluge and other generals had no stomach for this plan, which called for an attack by four panzer divisions including the 1st SS Leibstandarte 'Adolf Hitler,' which had been moved from the British sector, and the recently decimated 2nd SS 'Das Reich,' only a fraction of which had escaped from the Roncey pocket (covered in the previous post), to attack via the small Normandy town of Mortain.

They were to cover the 24 kms to Avranches with lightening speed and surprise, cutting off Patton's Third Army and Courtenay Hodge's 1st Army. He had also committed 1000 fighters from his Luftwaffe reserve, which had hardly been seen these past weeks.

The German generals favored creating a tactical withdrawal to the river Seine and the creation of a fighting defensive line, but Hitler was adamant. He sent an envoy to von Kluge's HQ on August 2nd, demanding an immediate counter attack.

The town of Mortain had been taken by the U.S 1st Infantry Division on August 3rd, but the Big Red 1 had been relieved by the 30th Infantry Division soon after. The GIs from General Leland Hobbs's 'Old Hickory', were to receive another severe 'blooding', this time at the hands of the enemy.

US 30th Div. Artillery in Mortain
The Germans had cobbled together a force of some three hundred tanks, six below-strength infantry divisions and mixture of assault guns. The plan did not allow for the normal preliminary, artillery bombardment for fear of alerting the Americans.

Allied Intelligence, with the aid of the secret code breaking system, 'Ultra,' had intercepted the orders for 'Luttich' by August 4th, but they arrived at 1st Army HQ too late to do anything other than to prepare hasty defenses. The Germans had a brief element of surprise.

British Typhoon launched rockets
What Ultra did provide however, was the opportunity for both the British and American Air Forces to work closely together in countering this attacking force. The U.S. 9th Air Force was to fly sorties against German airfields, ensuring that the 1000 Luftwaffe fighters could not get airborne, and the British with their rocket firing Typhoons would support the American ground forces. This was to prove a devastating partnership.

Mortain, house-to-house combat
The German attack was launched in the darkness during the night of August 6th. The 2nd SS took the town of Mortain, but house to house fighting continued for four days.

The Battle for Hill 314
On a clear day, the view from Hill 314 extends to the coast.
Abbaye Blance, a nunnery
The SS could not break out of the town because GI's from the 30th Division held a commanding position on what became known as Hill 314. The Americans had also set up an effective roadblock on the main road leading out of Mortain at the Abbaye Blanche.

Foxholes are still seen on Hill 314
Hill 314 is a special story. Men from the 120th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division held onto this commanding position in the face of repeated, massive aerial and artillery bombardments.

Bomb craters also remain visible

The particular significance of Hill 314 is the ability it gave its defenders to report on armor and troop movements and to call in both air and artillery strikes. Nothing could move in the vicinity without being spotted by the observers of the 30th.

The Germans threw wave after wave into the attack, but the tenacious GIs fended them off.

At the summit of the hill is the tiny La Petite Chapelle, a small chapel which remarkably sustained only minor damage.

La Petite Chapelle
There were many stories of extreme courage during this German offensive, but Hill 314 must be recorded as one of the most courageous stands of WWII. Virtually out of ammunition, with no medical supplies, the boys of 'Old Hickory' held off the vicious and determined SS. They refused terms of honorable surrender, and with the guile of a skilled radio operator, Lieutenant Robert Weiss, they brought the fury of rockets from the British Typhoons down on the German armor. August 7th was a field day for WWII's best tank buster, the Typhoon. A 30th Division veteran pays tribute to RAF Typoon pilots.

Monument to the 30th Divison's 'Lost Battalion'
Weiss managed to conserve his batteries during the siege, using the radio only when absolutely necessary. His final transmission from the Hill on August 11th was "Without reinforcements, can maybe hold out until tomorrow." Attempts were made to fire medical supplies by artillery shells and food and ammunition drops by parachute, but to no avail. The morphine perished with the concussion and the supplies fell on the German positions.

The 30th finally broke through to their comrades on August 12th. The hill was littered with the dead and dying. More than three hundred men died on Hill 314.

Although the German offensive failed, one German outfit, the 2nd Panzer Division got within four miles of Avranches before being stopped by the U.S. 35th Infantry Division with a group from the 3rd Armored Division.

Battered Mortain
American casualties were lighter than normal, but by the end of August 7th nearly one thousand men from the 30th Division had died around Mortain alone. Total casualties in fending off the German offensive amounted to three thousand, with many more wounded.

As ever the Allies had seriously underestimated the German's ability to regroup into Kampfgruppe and go on the offensive, but this was to be the Germans' 'Last Hurrah' in Normandy. From here on in it would be a costly, fighting retreat.

Historical actions are documented throughout the Liberty Route in Normandy.