Normandy and the Closing of the FALAISE GAP

1. Historical Background

Falaise Gap
Falaise Gap, 1944: the Corridor of Death
THE NORMANDY CAMPAIGN reached its climax on August 19, 1944, when Ist Polish Armoured Div. met the Americans advancing from the SW at CHAMBOIS, thus closing the neck of the FALAISE POCKET. The Pocket was sealed but the carnage continued for another three days.

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.

Falaise Gap
The same lane now
The abortive German counter-attack at MORTAIN (Ultra intelligence had forewarned the Allies) on 7 Aug. pushed more German armour deeper into the pocket making the encirclement more likely. However Bradley, Commander of US 12th Army Group, would not permit a quick advance north of ARGENTAN, ostensibly for fear of collision with the Canadians, but probably because he thought that green US infantry troops strung out north/south were no match for 12th (‘Hitler Youth’) SS Pz, under the fanatical Nazi ‘Panzer’ Meyer, and 2nd SS (although the former only themselves fought their first battle on June 7), and that fighter bombers were destroying the enemy anyway. [US infantry divisions, unlike German ones, tended to be of uniform, but poorish, quality, junior leadership being particularly weak; although constituting only 6% of the army, they took 53% of the casualties, not a statistic that encouraged élite recruitment.] Dithering did allow thousands of Germans to stream through the gap between the two Allied forces – FALAISE did not fall until 17 Aug. Allied planning had envisaged a series of broad advances. There was no contingency for a breakout in one sector with no progress in another, and thus the need for close inter-Allied and inter-arm co-operation to effect an encirclement.

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.

Rex Whistler’s grave outside Caen, Normandy
Perhaps 10,000 Germans were killed in the lanes, fields and hedgerows of the narrow pocket. The River DIVES was an obstacle that vehicles had to negotiate via bridges and fords, thus creating vulnerable bottlenecks (in reality, as you will see, it is the merest trickle but its high banks meant it was impassable to tracked and untracked armour and transport). Allied planes strafed and bombed German columns, with their slow-moving horse-drawn wagons, mercilessly. Eisenhower wrote: ‘It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.’

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.

Nicky Bird in a Volkwagen Typ. 166, Kfz 1/20, Vimoutiers, Normandy
SECOND DAY Visit Blockhouse and LIBERTY MUSEUM at Quinéville showing life under the Occupation. Quinéville is on the western edge of the 6 June objective line. It was here in Dec. 1943 that Free French Commandos landed and discovered the main German anti-tank obstacle (‘Element C’). This intelligence proved crucial. The village was taken on 14 June. It lies on the edge of high ground – the Montebourg-Quineville ridge – which the Germans defended stoutly as it protected CHERBOURG. Via the D14, pass the Perrette 365th Fighter Group Memorial (they used a landing strip here from 28 June to 15 Aug.) to ST. MARCOUF BATTERIE, Crisbecq, which has fine views of UTAH BEACH from the top. This powerful naval battery, garrisoned by 300 men, held out until June 12, despite massive air and sea bombardment.

88 mm. barrel of Tiger 1, Vimoutiers, Normandy
Thence to BATTERIE D’AZEVILLE, on the D269, a battery impregnable to artillery fire or from direct assault. On June 9, 2 companies of 1st Batt. 22nd Inf., US 4th Div., found an unguarded approach from the west and it was taken single-handedly by Pvt. Ralph Riley (awarded Silver Star) with a flame-thrower.

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].

German 88 outside Musée Août 44, Falaise, Normandy
To Vimoutiers (90 mins.) via the CWGC Cemetery at Banneville-la-Campagne (N175, SW of Sannerville) where the artist/illustrator Rex Whistler (Lt., 2 Welsh Guards) is buried. Just N of Vimoutiers, on the D579 from Livarot, is the place by the village of Ste. Foy-de-Montgommery where Rommel was attacked in his staff car by Allied fighters and badly wounded. We will reconstruct what happened. Just south of Vimoutiers on the D979 to Gacé is the only TIGER 1 tank still lying where it was disabled.

To the Hotel Soleil D’Or* [02 33 39 07 15], in Vimoutiers.


M4 Sherman on Mont Ormel (the Mace), a ‘Polish Battlefield’, overlooking the killing fields of the Dives Valley
To the impressive POLISH MEMORIAL at Mont-Ormel on Hill 262, which offers a magnificent view of the Dives Valley below, the ‘Corridor of Death’. Across the valley to the south is the wooded ridge of the Forêt de Gouffern. Argentan, which fell on Aug. 21, is beyond the ridge. When the battle was over Sappers of the Royal Canadian Engineers erected a sign on the Hill as a tribute to the bravery of the Poles. It read simply – ‘A Polish Battlefield’.

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.

The Falaise Gap: St. Lambert-sur-Dives, 19 Aug. 1944 - Germans surrendering to Major Currie (hand on hip in middle distance)
We will now drive west along the D13, down which the Germans frantically attempted to escape, travelling east. At Moissy, a tiny hamlet to our left on the D13, is a narrow ford which was one of only three passing places in this valley over the River Dives (the other two being the bridges at St. Lambert-sur-Dives). The carnage along the little lane that leads to the ford was terrible, as can be seen from the photograph. The right fork of the crossroads is the lane that led up to the ‘Mace’ – this is what the Germans called ‘The Corridor of Death’.

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.

Falaise Gap
Lunch nearby in the Restaurant Le Petit Gildasse at the busy junction of Trun [02 33 67 58 62], where staunch SS resistance delayed the town’s capture until Aug. 17. In the École Supérieure 50 Hitler Jugend fought to the last – only 4 survived. Because several roads meet at Trun it was heavily shelled and all but destroyed.

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.

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