Normandy and the Closing of the FALAISE GAP
1. Historical Background
The British operation GOODWOOD, on the eastern flank, had previously failed to break through to FALAISE, which despite Montgomery’s denials was clearly his intention. The attack was derailed due to a lack of ‘push’ and unacceptable casualties. German reserves, however, were sucked in. After a slow start the US 1st Army broke out towards AVRANCHES to the west. On August 1st the bulk of Third US Army, under Patton, swung east towards the SEINE. Dempsey’s British 2nd Army were pressing S of CAEN towards the ORNE and Crerar’s Ist Canadian Army further E towards FALAISE; with the Americans advancing from the SW there was thus a chance to trap the Germans between these pincers, at ARGENTAN. Monty left the vital role of driving to meet the Americans at ARGENTAN to Crerar’s Canadians, who had hitherto failed dramatically, needing massive preliminary air and artillery bombardments even when enjoying a 20 to 1 advantage in tanks. The Canadians got bogged down before FALAISE. Monty now agreed to close the Gap on the River DIVES at CHAMBOIS (the ‘short hook’), rather than the more ambitious proposal of trapping more of the enemy by thrusting broader pincers further to the east (the ‘long envelopment’). A strategic manoeuvre on such a huge scale was beyond Allied operational skill.
The Polish defence of the high ground of MONT-ORMEL, just north of CHAMBOIS, where they were isolated and attacked on all sides, was crucial in preventing a German break-out.
It was Hitler’s insane refusal to countenance a withdrawal to the Seine that condemned them to their fate. Despite their betrayal by their C-in-C, German SS and Army divisions performed heroically. They believed - quite rightly – in the excellence of their equipment: the Panther, Tiger 1 and 2 tanks, Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon, 88 mm.AA/anti-tank gun, the MG 42 (Spandau) machine gun, which fired 1200 rpm; Nebelwerfer multi-barrelled mortar. And in the main they believed in their oath to the Führer.
The closing of the Gap signalled defeat for the Wehrmacht in the BATTLE OF NORMANDY. The Battle had cost the German army around 1500 tanks, 3500 guns and 20,000 vehicles; they had lost 450,000 men, 240,000 killed or wounded. More than 40 divisions had been destroyed, a far greater defeat than Stalingrad. The Allies suffered about 200,000 casualties, 40,000 killed. During the preparatory bombing and during the Campaign itself some 28,000 Allied aircrew lost their lives.
2. Tour & Itinerary
FIRST DAY Via p.m. Fast Craft from PORTSMOUTH to CHERBOURG. Thence to Hotel La Villa Gervaiserie (3*) on the beach at Réville along the coast road. Dinner at Au Moine de Saire a short walk away.
To Ste-Marie-Du-Mont where Gen. Maxwell Taylor, commanding the 14000 men of the 101st AB DIV. (‘Screaming Eagles’ – of ‘Band of Brothers’ fame) dropped in darkness on June 6th. Signs around the village describe the action that took place that night.
On to UTAH BEACH (EXIT 2) where the US 4th INF. DIV. came ashore. [UTAH was also the landing place of Patton’s 3rd Army and FF Gen. Leclerc’s 2nd Arm. Div. – Aug. 1].
EXIT 2 (there were 4 designated Exits from the beach area), a causeway across flooded swampland, was secured by 1330 on June 6 by 2nd Batt. 506th PIR, 101st AB, with elements of 82nd who had dropped off target. To the BEACH – cleared of enemy by midday June 6, thanks in part to the leadership of Gen. Roosevelt, 57, who died a month later of a heart attack.
Over the beach that day came 23000 men and 1700 vehicles. Visit the MUSEUM with its panoramic view, built into and around German blockhouse W5, knocked out within half an hour on D-Day.
To Grandcamp-Maisy and the RANGERS [Commandos] MUSEUM (shut between 13.00-15.00). The Rangers took the threatening gun emplacement and batteries of Pointe-du-Hoc nearby. Lunch at La Marée [02 31 21 41 00].
To the Hotel Soleil D’Or* [02 33 39 07 15], in Vimoutiers.
The MEMORIAL is an orientation centre, housing a museum, film and lecture theatre. Guides explain the events of August ’44, and point out crucial battle sites below. From here, and the neighbouring Hill 252 (the two hills were known as ‘The Mace’ after the shape that they formed), Ist. Polish Armoured Div. under Gen Maczek withstood attacks from retreating elements of the two German Armies caught in the corridor – 7th Army and 5th Pz Army – and 2nd Pz Corps counter-attacking from the east (incorporating the remnants of 4 Panzer divisions, including 2nd SS that had fought in Poland in ’39, and murdered its way across France to reach Normandy in late June). 352 Polish soldiers were killed at this place.
To Chambois, where the Gap was closed on Saturday, Aug. 19, although fighting continued on Hill 262 and elsewhere until the 22nd. [Interestingly, the Poles had captured what they thought was their objective on the night of Aug. 17/18 – the village of Champeaux, 5k north – by misunderstanding the French pronunciation of a local guide.] Poles greeted soldiers of US 90th Inf. Div. of Ist US Army (their casual behaviour, particularly towards officers, did not impress the – very correct – Poles). See the Mem. Stone below the ancient keep (where fierce fighting took place) which explains the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.
At St. Lambert-sur-Dives we shall retrace the stages of the 4-day action that was fought here by Canadian troops under Major D. Currie, who won a VC, trying to prevent determined German units from escaping, and to capture the bridges.
To Tournai-sur-Dives, to the SE, the scene of much carnage as German troops were funnelled across its bridges. 350 Allied guns bombarded the vital crossroads and bridges for 57 hours and only ceased on Aug. 21st when 2700 defenders retreated in an orderly fashion towards Chambois. The next morning Canadians of 3rd Inf. Div. met Americans of 80th US Inf. Div. who had just liberated Aubrey-en-Exmes, Ik to the SE.
To Falaise and the shabby but fascinating AUGUST 1944 MUSEUM, housed in an old cheese factory. Excellent video of the bocage battles and the dénouement of the Normandy Campaign. A host of weaponry and guns, the detritus of war in this devastated area.
To Arromanches where we will be able to view the stark remains of MULBERRY from our hotel [Hotel de la Marine** – 02 31 22 34 19] dining room’s window. Before dinner visit the excellent Musée du Débarquement with its model and film about MULBERRY; thence to the cliff above the little seaside town, to the heights that the British 50th. Inf. Div. scaled to take Arromanches below. There is a magnificent view of GOLD BEACH to the east, and the steep cliffs beyond Arromanches - towards OMAHA BEACH – to the west. There is also a most impressive 360° cinema, Arromanches 360, showing a 25 minute documentary of D-Day, in the round.
To Cherbourg (approx. 90 mins. away) and the fast boat to Portsmouth (leaves 12 noon), via the Batteries and Command Post at Longues-sur-Mer nearby, which should not be missed, with its batteries’ guns still in place. These guns threatened the invasion beaches and ships, but they were neutralised by the devastating effects of naval gunfire.