Falaise Pocket

August 21 1944

The Falaise Pocket or Battle of the Falaise Pocket (August 12–21 1944) was the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War. A pocket was formed around Falaise, Calvados in which the German Army Group B, with the 7th Army and the Fifth Panzer Army (formerly Panzergruppe West) were encircled by the Western Allies. The battle is also referred to as the Battle of the Falaise Gap, after the corridor which the Germans sought to maintain to allow their escape. The battle resulted in the destruction of most of Army Group B west of the Seine river, which opened the way to Paris and the German border for the Allied armies.

falaise pocketMap showing the course of the battle from August 8–17 1944

Following Operation Cobra, the American breakout from the Normandy beachhead, rapid advances were made to the south and south-east by the Third U.S. Army under the command of General George Patton. Despite lacking the resources to defeat the U.S. breakthrough and simultaneous British and Canadian offensives south of Caumont and Caen, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, the commander of Army Group B, was not permitted by Adolf Hitler to withdraw but was ordered to conduct a counter-offensive at Mortain against the U.S. breakthrough. Four depleted panzer divisions were not enough to defeat the First U.S. Army. Operation Lüttich was a disaster, which drove the Germans deeper into the Allied envelopment.

German counter-attacks against Canadian-Polish positions on 20 August 1944German counter-attacks against Canadian-Polish positions on August 20 1944

On August 8, the Allied ground forces commander, General Bernard Montgomery, ordered the Allied armies to converge on the Falaise–Chambois area to envelop Army Group B, the First U.S. Army forming the southern arm, the British Second Army the base and the First Canadian Army the northern arm of the encirclement.

By August 17 the encirclement was incomplete. The 1st Polish Armoured Division, part of the First Canadian Army, was divided into three battlegroups and ordered to make a wide sweep to the south-east, to meet American troops at Chambois. Trun fell to the 4th Canadian Armoured Division on August 18. Having captured Champeaux on August 19, the Polish battlegroups converged on Chambois and with reinforcements from the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the Poles secured the town and linked up with the U.S. 90th and French 2nd Armoured divisions by evening. The Allies were not yet astride the 7th Army escape route in any great strength and their positions were attacked by German troops inside the pocket. An armoured column of the 2nd Panzer Division broke through the Canadians in St. Lambert, took half the village and kept a road open for six hours until nightfall. Many Germans escaped and small parties made their way through to the Dives during the night.

Having taken Chambois, two of the Polish battlegroups drove north-east and established themselves on part of Hill 262 (Mont Ormel ridge), spending the night of August 19 digging in. The following morning, Model ordered elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division and 9th SS Panzer Division to attack from outside the pocket towards the Polish positions.

Around midday, several units of the 10th SS Panzer Division, 12th SS Panzer Division and 116th Panzer Division managed to break through the Polish lines and open a corridor, while the 9th SS Panzer Division, prevented the Canadians from intervening. By mid-afternoon, about 10,000 German troops had passed out of the pocket.

Polish infantry on Hill 262 20 August 1944
Polish infantry moving towards cover on Hill 262, August 20 1944

The Poles held on to Hill 262 (The Mace) and were able from their vantage point, to direct artillery fire on to the retreating Germans. Hausser the 7th Army commander, ordered that the Polish positions be “eliminated”. The remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division and several battle groups from the 2nd SS Panzer Division, inflicted many casualties on the 8th and 9th battalions of the Polish Division but the assault was eventually repulsed at the cost of nearly all of their ammunition and the Poles watched as the remnants of the XLVII Panzer Corps escaped. During the night there was sporadic fighting and the Poles called for frequent artillery bombardments, to disrupt the German retreat from the sector.

German attacks resumed the next morning but the Poles retained their foothold on the ridge. At about 11:00, a final attempt on the positions of the 9th Battalion was launched by nearby SS troops, which was defeated at close quarters. Soon after midday, the Canadian Grenadier Guards reached Mont Ormel and by late afternoon, the remainder of the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions had begun their retreat to the Seine.

Germans surrendering in St. Lambert 19 August 1944
German forces surrendering in St. Lambert on August 19 1944

The Polish casualties at Mont Ormel were 351 killed and wounded, with eleven tanks lost. For the Falaise Pocket operation, the 1st Polish Armoured Division listed 1,441 casualties including 466 killed. German losses in their assaults on the ridge were c. 500 dead and 1,000 men taken prisoner, most from the 12th SS-Panzer Division. Scores of Tiger, Panther and Panzer IV tanks were destroyed, along with many artillery pieces. By the evening of August 21, tanks of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division had inked with Polish forces at Coudehard and the 3rd and 4th Canadian Infantry divisions had secured St. Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois; the Falaise pocket had been sealed. Approximately 20–50,000 German troops minus heavy equipment, escaped through the gap and were reorganized and rearmed, in time to slow the Allied advance into The Netherlands and Germany.

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