Aftermath

The aftermath of the Battle of Normandy

The Battle of the Falaise Pocket ended the Battle of Normandy with a decisive German defeat. Hitler’s involvement had been damaging from the first, with his insistence on hopelessly unrealistic counter-offensives, micro-management of generals, and refusal to countenance withdrawal, when his armies were threatened with annihilation. More than forty German divisions were destroyed during the Battle of Normandy. No exact figures are available but historians estimate that the battle cost the German forces 450,000 men, of whom 240,000 were killed or wounded. The Allies had achieved victory at a cost of 209,672 casualties among the ground forces, including 36,976 killed and 19,221 missing. The Allied air forces lost 16,714 airmen killed or missing in connection with Operation Overlord. The final battle of Operation Overlord, the Liberation of Paris, followed on August 25 and Overlord ended by August 30, with the retreat of the last German unit across the Seine.

The area in which the pocket had formed was full of the remains of battle. Villages had been destroyed and derelict equipment made some roads impassable. Corpses of soldiers and civilians littered the area along with thousands of dead cattle and horses. In the hot August weather, maggots crawled over the bodies and hordes of flies descended on the area. Pilots reported being able to smell the stench of the battlefield hundreds of feet above it. General Eisenhower recorded that:

‘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.‘

Fear of infection from the rancid conditions led the Allies to declare the area an “unhealthy zone”. Clearing the area was a low priority though and went on until well into November. Many swollen bodies had to be shot to expunge gasses within them before they could be burnt and bulldozers were used to clear the area of dead animals.

Disappointed that a significant portion of the 7th Army had escaped from the pocket, many Allied commanders, particularly among the Americans, were critical of what they perceived as Montgomery’s lack of urgency in closing the pocket. Writing shortly after the war, Ralph Ingersoll—a prominent peacetime journalist, who had served as a planner on Eisenhower’s staff—expressed the prevailing American view at the time:
‘The international army boundary arbitrarily divided the British and American battlefields just beyond Argentan, on the Falaise side of it. Patton’s troops, who thought they had the mission of closing the gap, took Argentan in their stride and crossed the international boundary without stopping. Montgomery, who was still nominally in charge of all ground forces, now chose to exercise his authority and ordered Patton back to his side of the international boundary line. … For ten days, however, the beaten but still coherently organized German Army retreated through the Falaise gap.’

Some historians agree that the gap could have been closed earlier. Wilmot wrote that despite having British divisions in reserve, Montgomery did not reinforce Simonds and that the Canadian drive on Trun and Chambois was not “vigorous and venturesome” as the situation demanded. Hastings wrote that Montgomery, having witnessed what he called a poor Canadian performance during Totalize, should have brought up veteran British divisions to take the lead. D’Este and Blumenson wrote that Montgomery and Crerar might have done more to impart momentum to the British and Canadians. Patton’s post-battle claim that the Americans could have prevented the German escape, had Bradley not ordered him to stop at Argentan, was “absurd over-simplification”.

General Eisenhower at Chambois
General Eisenhower reviews damage (including a wrecked Tiger II) in the pocket at Chambois

Wilmot wrote that “contrary to contemporary reports, the Americans did not capture Argentan until August 20, the day after the link up at Chambois”. The American unit that closed the gap between Argentan and Chambois, the 90th Division, was according to Hastings, one of the least effective of any Allied army in Normandy. He speculated that the real reason Bradley halted Patton, was not fears over accidental clashes with the British but knowledge that, with powerful German formations still in existence, the Americans lacked the means to defend an early blocking position and would have suffered an “embarrassing and gratuitous setback”, at the hands of the retreating Fallschirmjäger and 2nd and 12th SS-Panzer divisions. Bradley wrote after the war that:

‘Although Patton might have spun a line across the narrow neck, I doubted his ability to hold it. Nineteen German divisions were now stampeding to escape the trap. Meanwhile, with four divisions George was already blocking three principal escape routes through Alencon, Sees and Argentan. Had he stretched that line to include Falaise, he would have extended his roadblock a distance of 40 miles (64 km). The enemy could not only have broken through, but he might have trampled Patton’s position in the onrush. I much preferred a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise.’

Casualties

By August 22, all German forces west of the Allied lines were dead or in captivity. Historians differ in their estimates of German losses in the pocket. The majority state that from 80,000–100,000 troops were caught in the encirclement of whom 10,000–15,000 were killed, 40,000–50,000 were taken prisoner, and 20,000–50,000 escaped.

In the northern sector, German losses included 344 tanks, self-propelled guns and other light armoured vehicles, as well as 2,447 soft-skinned vehicles and 252 guns abandoned or destroyed. In the fighting around Hill 262, German losses totalled 2,000 men killed, 5,000 taken prisoner and 55 tanks, 44 guns and 152 other armoured vehicles destroyed. The 12th SS-Panzer Division had lost 94% of its armour, nearly all of its artillery and 70% of its vehicles. With close to 20,000 men and 150 tanks before the Normandy campaign, after Falaise it was reduced to 300 men and 10 tanks. Although elements of several German formations had managed to escape to the east, even these had left behind most of their equipment. After the battle, Allied investigators estimated that the Germans lost around 500 tanks and assault guns in the pocket and that little of the extricated equipment survived the retreat across the Seine.

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