The 1st SS Panzer Division fought for its life to escape the closing Falaise Pocket during the weeks after the D-day Invasion.
by Major General Michael Reynolds
On August 11, 1944, the German defense in northern France began to collapse, and Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, commander-in-Chief West, told Berlin he believed the continuation of the Mortain counterattack, launched on Hitler’s order only four days previously, was no longer practicable.
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That afternoon, the Führer gave his approval for the temporary transfer of Panzer Group Eberbach from the Mortain area so that it could be used to destroy the American spearheads thrusting northward into the underbelly of the German Seventh Army.
Holding the Line from la Ferté-Macé to Carrouges
As part of this transfer, SS Maj. Gen. Teddy Wisch, the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH), received orders to defend a line running from la Ferté-Macé to Carrouges. His division had already suffered heavily in the Normandy fighting, but there was to be no respite. The LAH was to hold the southern flank, while behind it the 2nd Panzer Division would defend the west bank of the Orne as far south as Ecouches where the 116th Panzer Division would assume responsibility.
The Leibstandarte’s move began an hour later, at 11 pm. Despite roads choked with traffic and encountering artillery fire on its way through Domfront, the bulk of the LAH was in position by the morning of the 13th. Parts of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment and the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Battalion in armored personnel carriers (SPWs) were in the Carrouges area; other elements of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment were at Rânes, and a hodgepodge of SS Panzergrenadier sub-units were in and around la Fertê-Macé. Wisch’s headquarters was near Rânes, but it had been unable to get orders to two companies of the divisional SS reconnaissance battalion and the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Battalion of the 1st Regiment to the south of Argentan.
Operation Tractable: la Ferté-Macé falls to the Americans
On the 14th, the day the second Canadian operation to take Falaise was launched (Operation Tractable), more Leibstandarte sub-units caught up with the mass of the division, and a form of defense was established in the approximate square perimeter of Lonlay to la Ferté-Macé to Carrouges to Rânes. At least parts of the following LAH companies are known to have been present: 1st, 5th, 7th, and 8th panzer; 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th reconnaissance; 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th of the 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 14th, and 15th of the 2nd; the Headquarters and 1st Company of the 1st SS Pioneer Battalion; parts of the 1st SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion; all the flak batteries; and the 8th Artillery Battery.
La Ferté-Macé fell to the Americans at 4 pm on the 14th, and by midnight the LAH was holding a line running roughly from the Mont d’Hère in the west, through Beauvain, to a point some four kilometers east of la Chaux. It was opposing parts of the American 90th Infantry and French 2nd Armored Divisions and, by a strange quirk of fate, its old adversary from the Mortain counterattack, the U.S. 3rd Armored Division, which was advancing north on the axis Carrouges to Rânes. Two task forces of this division reported meeting strong resistance, which they were unable to break at Rânes on the 14th.
Attacking Toward Fromental
That night, as during the previous one, elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich passed through the LAH on their way to an area east of the river Dives, where they were to form part of a major counterattack force.
In confused fighting on the 15th, Wisch’s men tried to hold a sort of S-shaped defensive line running from Briouze to St. Hilaire to Faverolles and then to Rânes. At the end of the day, the entire U.S. 3rd Armored Division was in a tight position around Rânes; its Combat Command A had tried to reach Fromental, but according to the divisional history, “it could not get much beyond Rânes.”
The next morning, the 3rd Armored launched a coordinated attack toward Fromental and by the afternoon was fighting in the outskirts of the town. The Americans claimed 15 German tanks destroyed and 400 prisoners taken.
By now the Allies were threatening Ecouché and Argentan, and the only way out for the LAH was across the river Orne at Putanges, where the Allied air forces had failed to destroy a bridge capable of carrying the heaviest vehicles.
Launching the Final Retreat
The final retreat to the north began in the early evening of the 16th. Although Wisch had little or no idea about the overall situation, his units held intermediate positions during that night and on the 17th on the prominent ridges at St. André, St. Hilaire, Fromental, and Faverolles. The 3rd Armored division history records that Combat Command A fought its way into Fromental from the east on the 17th.
Task Force 1 of Combat Command B attempted an attack on Fromental from the southwest, but resistance was such that the town itself could not be secured. At about 5 pm, when all but the western part of the town had been cleared of the enemy, several flights of Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter bombers bombed Fromental. This forced Combat Command A to withdraw and allowed small groups of SS men to reoccupy the centre of the town. Task Force 2 of Combat Command B fought against stubborn resistance all day. By 4 pm it had crossed the railroad east of Fromental and seized Hill 216 south of Putanges, but it then halted for the night just to the south of its objective.
Although U.S. aircraft bombed Fromental in the afternoon, foggy weather during the early part of the day had interfered with flying, and this allowed sizeable elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division to cross the Orne bridge at Putanges without interference.
The Continued March Eastwards
After maintaining their positions in St. Hillarie, St. André, and Fromental throughout daylight on the 17th, the remaining elements of the Leibstandarte received permission to pull out at midnight. Wisch had managed to make contact with General Paul Hausser’s Seventh Army command post at Nécy during the afternoon. He had been told that after crossing the Orne the LAH was to assemble in the close and wooded area south of Bissey in order to continue marching eastwards via Trun or Chambois, depending on the circumstances.
The British 11th Armored Division, which had reached Flers on the night of the 16th, could have presented Wisch with a major problem at Putanges if it had not halted each night instead of pushing on hard for the Orne crossing. Actually, it reached Putanges in time to have the bridge blown up in its face at 11:50 am on the 18th.
No Opposition after Putanges
At 12:37 pm advance elements of the American 33rd Armored Regiment, part of the 3rd Armored, reached the outskirts of the town, and it appeared that the German escape route had been closed. The British estimated that at least a battalion of Germans was defending the eastern bank, but at midnight when one of their units finally attacked, there was no opposition—the LAH had gone!
By dawn on August 18, the bulk of the German Seventh Army had managed to cross the Orne, and many support and supply units were already east of the Dives, including most of those of the LAH. But with the remnants of 13 divisions still inside the trap which became known as the Falaise Pocket, the German retreat towards Vimoutiers had yet to reach full flood.