Falaise, Northern France August 18, 1944

Two and a half months had passed since the initial landings of U.S., British, and Cana­dian forces in North­ern France (Opera­tion Over­lord). On the British flank the Cana­dian First Army, Second Divi­sion, II Corps entered Falaise on August 16, 1944 (see map below) and engaged the Germans in bitter street fighting. The next day II Corps com­pleted the cap­ture of the town. The 20‑mile-long corri­dor through which units of the retreating German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army could escape the Allies’ encircle­ment was squeezed to a mini­mum. On this date, August 18, 1944, between Falaise on the north­east­ern edge of the corri­dor and Argen­tan, the town that anchored the south­east­ern edge, II Corps’ Cana­dians and Poles and advance guards of Lt. Gen. George Patton’s newly activated (since August 1) U.S. Third Army, VI Corps, moved to close the so-called Falaise Gap.

One hundred fifty thousand worn-down German soldiers in roughly 21 dimin­ished for­ma­tions ran the Allies’ gaunt­let to escape annihi­la­tion in Normandy. Thirty thou­sand, perhaps as many as fifty thou­sand, broke through the 10‑mile-wide Falaise Gap to form a new German line in front of the Allied advance. But the gaunt­let to rela­tive safety had been a bloody meat grinder, the Allies relying chiefly on relent­less artil­lery (as many as 3,000 pieces) and air­power (1,500–3,000 sorties per day) to blast the fugi­tive enemy and their equip­ment to smith­er­eens so as to avoid, according to one expla­na­tion, the calam­ity of com­min­gling Cana­dian and U.S. ground forces acci­den­tally firing at each other. Thus, German dead and wounded num­bered at least 30,000, and 350 tanks and armored vehi­cles and nearly 1,000 artil­lery pieces of every type were lost. Fifty thou­sand shell-shocked and exhausted fugi­tives were taken cap­tive. Remark­ably, a further 240,000 men and 25,000 vehicles crossed to the north bank of the River Seine between August 19 and 31, fleeing east­wards toward Germany and the Rhine.

Called to Berlin to explain himself to Adolf Hitler, Comman­der-in-Chief in the West Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge—his career laden with succes­ses but marred by his involve­ment in the July 20 attempt on Hitler’s life—com­mitted sui­cide en route. Kluge had been relieved of his com­mand on August 17 by Hitler and tem­po­rarily replaced with the polit­i­cally reli­able Field Marshal Walter Model. Model him­self was a sui­cide eight months later (April 21, 1945) after having been pub­licly denounced as a trai­tor to the Reich the day before for dis­solving his com­mand, Army Group B, which was trapped by two American armies in the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland.

By the end of August 1944 the Falaise Pocket had been cleansed of the enemy. In the Battle of Nor­mandy (June 6, 1944, to August 31, 1944) the Germans had suffered up­wards of 530,000 casual­ties, including 210,000 pri­soners of war and the loss of over 2,100 pre­cious air­craft and between 1,500 and 2,400 tanks and self-propelled guns. Allied casual­ties were less than half that and their equip­ment losses were more easily replaced. French civil­ian casual­ties during the pre-invasion softening up and the Normandy inva­sion num­bered between 25,000 and 39,000. The Allies’ chase now shifted into over­drive. The Germans aban­doned the French capi­tal, Paris, with­out a fight. On August 25 a mixed U.S.-French force landed in the south of France (Oper­a­tion Dra­goon), opening a second inva­sion front in the Rhône River valley. For his part Patton advanced into Lor­raine in East­ern France while Gen. Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery took the Belgian capi­tal, Brussels, and the massive inland port of Antwerp. When on Septem­ber 1 Allied Supreme Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, newly moved to France, assumed com­mand of the inva­sion ground forces hither­to under Mont­gomery’s com­mand, it appeared that victory in Europe would be won before year’s end.

The Falaise Pocket, Cauldron of Death

Falaise Pocket and Gap, August 16-20, 1944

Above: Map of Northern France and the Falaise Pocket and Gap, August 16‑20, 1944. Gen. Mont­go­mery’s Cana­dians and Poles, having taken the tacti­cally impor­tant town of Falaise, almost linked up with Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army at Argen­tan. Enough of a gap between the two French towns was left for Field Marshals Guenther von Kluge and his successor Walter Model to extri­cate some 30,000 men who had been routed from Normandy. Conser­va­tive esti­mates put the number of Germans killed in the pocket at 10,000 and the captured at 50,000, although some esti­mates put total German losses (killed and captured) as high as 200,000. The Battle of the Falaise Pocket, known by Germans as the Falaise Cauldron (Kessel von Falaise), took place between August 12 and 21, 1944. It was the largest encircle­ment on the Western Front during World War II (150,000 men) and is con­sid­ered the deci­sive engage­ment in the Battle of Normandy (June 6 to August 30, 1944), not­with­standing that upwards of 100,000 Wehr­macht troops escaped a trap that should have ensnared them. Map source: Cesare Salmaggi and Alfredo Pallavisini, 2194 Days of War: An Illus­trated Chro­nol­ogy of the Second World War, 1988 ed., p. 575.

Falaise Pocket: 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Jugend service weaponFalaise Pocket: U.S. antitank company fires 57mm gun

Left: Covering the withdrawal of German forces through a gap at Falaise, artillery­men of the 12th SS Panzer Divi­sion “Hitler Jugend” service their weapon. The Germans held des­per­ately to the shoulders of the Falaise Pocket and thousands managed to avoid capture.

Right: An American antitank company of the untested 317th Infan­try Regi­ment, 80th “Blue Ridge” Infan­try Divi­sion, U.S. Third Army, fires it 57mm anti­tank gun at a dis­tant target during action at Falaise. The com­pany was in posi­tion to fire on the Germans as they retreated east from the war-ravaged town of Argentan. The “Blue Ridgers” helped lead Third Army’s dash across France, in the process cap­turing almost 12,000 pri­soners and destroying over 125 tanks.

Falaise Pocket: German POWs, St.-Lambert, August 19, 1944Falaise Pocket: Germans killed in a convoy ambush, mid-August 1944

Left: Germans surrendering to Canadian troops in St.-Lambert-sur-Dives, August 19, 1944, in the closing stages of the Battle of Normandy. The day before the Canadian 4th Armored Divi­sion killed, cap­tured, and wounded over 3,000 enemy sol­diers during their attack on St.-Lambert-sur-Dives. The cap­tives in this photo were likely members of the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divi­sions, employed in a last-ditch effort by Field Marshal Model to keep two remaining escape routes open for Germans trapped in the Falaise Pocket. At mid­night August 20 the exit from the pocket was finally sealed at Cham­bois, a town straddling the Falaise Gap half­way between Falaise and Argen­tan and the meet-up point between Allied armies. At noon on August 21, a German general out­side the pocket reported that the arrival of fugi­tives escaping the pocket had stopped com­pletely. Late that after­noon or early evening German infantry­men, in a cli­mactic suicide attack, ran straight at a Polish machine gun battery. Many more, however, had grown weary after harrowing days of flight and carnage and chose to surrender.

Right: Seen in this photograph taken around August 20 or there­abouts German dead litter an ambushed convoy in Cham­bois. “The floor of the valley was seen to be alive,” wrote one Allied eye­wit­ness, “. . . men marching, cycling and running, columns of horse-drawn trans­port, motor trans­port . . . It was a gunners’ para­dise and every­body took advan­tage of it . . . Away on our left was the famous killing ground, and all day the roar of Typhoons [British fighter-bombers] went on and fresh columns of smoke obscured the horizon . . . the whole mini­a­ture picture of an army in rout.” Quoted in Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, pp. 537–38. Two days after the gap was closed, Eisen­hower visited the Dante-esque killing ground, writing that it was literally possi­ble to walk for hun­dreds of yards at a time stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.

Contemporary Newsreel Account: Encirclement of the German Seventh Army in Falaise Pocket