By Mike Phifer
After almost two months of bloody and desperate fighting, the Allies had failed to break through the German defenses that had been limiting their hold on Normandy since D-Day. On July 25, 1944, the situation changed when the American Army launched Operation Cobra. With surprising suddenness, the VII Corps of the U.S. First Army smashed through the German line along the Periers-St. Lo highway. The breakthrough quickly widened as the VIII Corps liberated Avranches on July 31. The following day, the U.S. Third Army under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton swept into the Brittany peninsula and southern Normandy. The breakthrough had quickly turned into a breakout.
A Canadian Offense Toward Falaise
Since the landings in early June, the British and Canadian forces to the left of the Americans had been fighting and pinning down the bulk of the German panzer divisions in Normandy. With the breakout of the American forces, the Germans had trouble finding reinforcements and began shifting away troops that had been facing the British and Canadians. On July 30, the British launched Operation Bluecoat on the American left flank, moving toward Vire and Mount Pincon. General Sir Bernard Montgomery, operational commander of Allied forces in Normandy, believed that the Germans would have to pivot their lines eastward due to the American breakout and that the British needed to do all they could to support the operations of the American forces west of St. Lo.
Two days later, Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds, commander of the Canadian II Corps, presented his written plans on breaking through the German defenses south of Caen to Lt. Gen. Henry D.G. Crerar, commander of the newly arrived Canadian First Army, which had only become operational on the 23rd. At 41, Simonds was a tough, intelligent, hard-bitten commander who had already seen action in Sicily and Italy. The object, Simonds explained to Crerar, was to pierce the German defenses along the main road that ran from Caen to Falaise, halting north of the city. This was strategically crucial ground for the Germans—the area south of Caen served as a hinge that they would need to swing their retreating units back into line.
Word came on August 4 to put the plans into operation. Montgomery wrote to Crerar: “The situation is very good. The enemy front is now in such a state that it could be made to disintegrate completely.” Montgomery wanted the Canadians to smash the German defenses south and southeast of Caen and push on toward Falaise, cutting off the enemy facing the British Second Army and driving them back to the Seine River. The heavy attack was to be launched no later than the 8th and preferably the day before.
The country south of Caen through which the Canadian First Army was to attack was ideal for the German defenders. The terrain was mostly open, with a series of ridges allowing the Germans’ concealed long-range guns such as the deadly 88mms to play havoc on advancing tanks. Fields of corn and wheat, small woodlots, and haystacks provided cover to German armor, machine guns, and infantry, as did the small Norman villages in the area, which had been turned into stone fortresses by the Nazi defenders. Experts at defense, the Germans had turned the countryside into a veritable death trap.
Defending the area was the 89th Infantry, which had replaced the 1st SS Panzer Division on August 4. Bolstering their defense were a couple of motorized artillery battalions and the 3rd Luftwaffe Flak Corps. When Simonds drew up the plans for what was called Operation Totalize, intelligence reported that the 1st and 9th SS Panzer Divisions were holding the forward line. Counterattacks were expected from the 12th SS Panzer Division, which was thought to be southwest of the front line. The Canadians knew only too well that this unit was comprised of fanatical young soldiers (most of them 17 or 18 years old) led by Eastern Front veteran NCOs and officers. Bloody battles had raged between the 12th SS and the 3rd Canadian Division since June 7. The fighting intensified after the 12th SS reportedly murdered a number of Canadian prisoners.
Advancing in Kangaroos
Although Simonds altered his original plan somewhat when he was informed that the 89th was taking over the front-line defenses, the fundamentals of the plan remained the same. Since the lay of the land favored the defenders, Simonds decided on a night attack, with attacking columns streaming down either side of the Caen-Falaise highway and ramming a hole through the enemy line. This phase of the operation was to consist of two armored brigades and two infantry divisions, with some of the foot soldiers traveling in armored vehicles at the same pace as the tanks. To carry the troops, it was decided to convert the M7 self-propelled 105mm guns commonly called “Priests,” on loan to the Canadians from the Americans, into armored personnel carriers. Canadian and British engineers put in 18-hour days to remove the guns and weld on armor, some of which was scavenged from beached landing craft—much to the chagrin of the Navy. In three days the engineers had constructed 72 “Kangaroos,” as the improvised carriers were nicknamed. Each carrier could hold 12 men. Besides the Kangaroos, other vehicles were put to use, including half-tracks, Universal carriers, and armored trucks.
Moving men and armor through the darkness on unfamiliar ground would not be easy—Simonds had to come up with imaginative ways to keep the attacking columns on target. Artificial moonlight, which consisted of bouncing beams of light from large searchlights off low-lying clouds, would be used to help the troops find their objectives. Bofors antiaircraft guns firing tracers would help identify the boundaries of the columns. Two radio signals beaming dots and dashes would be directed at the advancing columns and picked up on the tank radios. As long as the radioman heard a series of dots and dashes, he would know that they were on the right path; if he heard just dashes or just dots then he would know that they were veering too far to the east or west. If worse came to worst, there were always maps.
After some negotiating, air support was obtained to bomb along the flanks of the Canadian First Army just before it launched the assault. When the bombing stopped, the artillery was to lay down a heavy rolling barrage as the advance got under way. While 720 guns were allotted to the operation, only half would be used in the first phase. Most of the support would come from heavy bombers unleashing a massive strike on the German defenses. Two more armored divisions would then smash the German line, opening the way to Falaise or moving into position to race northeast for the Seine.
An Attack in the Night
On August 7, the Germans counterattacked the Americans at Mortain. Scrapping together what panzer units he could, Field Marshal Gunther Hans von Kluge, supreme German commander in the west, launched Operation Luttich with the hope of recapturing Avranches and cutting off Patton’s Third Army. That same night Operation Totalize was launched as well. While 1,019 RAF bombers flew overhead, the tanks of the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade and the troops of the 4th Brigade of the Canadian 2nd Division in armored vehicles divided up into columns four vehicles wide and waited on the west side of the Caen-Falaise highway for orders to move out. On the east side of the highway, also waiting in columns, were tanks from the 33rd Armoured Brigade and troops in armored vehicles from the 154th Highland Brigade of the 51st Highland Division. This division had recently been assigned to the British I Corps, which was part of the Canadian First Army and temporarily under Simonds’s command for the operation. The rest of the brigades were to travel on foot, seizing German positions bypassed by the armored columns.
With red smoke shells and green flares to identify their targets, Halifax and Lancaster bombers began to bomb five targets on either flank around 11:30 pm. Dust and smoke clouding the targets prevented the bombers from dropping all of their bombs. Despite the obstructions, some 3,462 tons of bombs were unleashed on the German position with mixed results—some of the bombs barely touched their targets. When the bombing ended, the artillery began laying down a barrage while the Bofors guns opened with tracer fire to help guide the armored columns that had begun rolling forward. Dust clouds seriously hampered visibility, making navigation through enemy territory difficult. The artificial moonlight was not proving to be as effective as hoped due to all the dust and smoke. Staying on course became even more difficult when the tanks and armored vehicles had to detour around newly created bomb craters. Despite the various impediments, most of the armored vehicles and tanks managed to reach their objectives.
Some tanks were set on fire and a few Priests were hit by German fire as the Highland columns pushed forward throughout the night. The 1st Black Watch of the 154th Brigade dispersed from their carriers as artillery fire slammed into the village of St. Aignan. Tanks from the 1st Northampton- shire Yeomanry added their fire to the village as well. When the fire lifted, the troops took the village and prepared for an expected German counterattack. To the right of the 1st Black Watch, the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 144th Royal Armour Corps seized Cramesnil around 7am. An hour and half earlier, the 7th Black Watch and the 148th Royal Armour Corps had taken Garcelles-Secqueville north of the other two regiments.
Securing More Objectives
The other infantry objectives were proving more difficult, especially Tilly-la-Campagne, located a mile south of the starting line. The 2nd Seaforth Highlanders of the 152nd Highland Brigade was given the task of clearing the bypassed village. The attack was halted by the German defenders. A company from the 5th Seaforth Highlanders was sent in as reinforcement, but after suffering heavy casualties, the Seaforths were pulled back from Tilly to allow the artillery to rain down shells on the town. The rest of 5th Seaforth Highlanders were now assigned to take the town at first light, but a heavy mist delayed the attack. A squadron from the 148th Royal Armour Corps was ordered back from Garcelles-Secqueville to help the Seaforths. With the added assistance of the tanks, the village was finally taken.
The village of Lorguichon, which straddled the Caen-Falaise highway, was seized by 5th Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of the 152nd Brigade. The 51st Division and 33rd Armoured Brigade had now taken their objectives. Meanwhile, the Canadian 2nd Division and the 2nd Canadian Amoured Brigade pushing through the dust and smoke on the west side of the Caen-Falaise highway encountered heavy German fire that claimed some of their tanks. One column veered far to the east and rolled toward the German-held town of Rocquancourt. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry of the 4th Brigade in their armored vehicles managed to drive right through town and reached their objective, while the Essex Scottish of the same brigade was not so fortunate—a number of their half-tracks were knocked out by an antitank gun. Held up by the Germans, it would be noon before the Essex Scottish reached their objective. The Royal Regiment of Canada of the 4th Brigade, meanwhile, missed their objective in the dark and disembarked from the armored vehicles north of Point 122.
Behind the armored columns came the 6th Brigade on foot, heading for their objectives. Following close behind the opening barrage, the South Saskatchewan Regiment swept through Rocquancourt, forcing the Germans to keep their heads down. The town was quickly captured, and around 4:30 am, a German patrol returning to Rocquancourt was captured as well. The Fusiliers Mont-Royal had the job of taking Marie-sur-Orne on the western flank of the Canadian advance. Heavy bombing was supposed to take care of any serious German resistance. Unfortunately for the Fusiliers, the bombs missed most of the village, and heavy fire prevented them from taking the town. Artillery support was called in, and a second attack was ordered around 4:30 am. This flanking attack proved to be unsuccessful as well. The village finally fell later in the afternoon when Crocodile-Churchill tanks spewing flames were sent to support the infantry.
To the southeast of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, the attack by the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders on Fontenay-le-Marmion ran into trouble as well. The bombing on the German-occupied village was largely ineffective. Enduring artillery and heavy machine-gun fire, the Camerons managed to seize the north part of the village and beat off enemy counterattacks all morning. With the help of a couple of companies of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and a squadron of tanks, the area was secured, and a large number of German prisoners were taken. The Canadians and Highlanders in the first phase of Operation Totalize had pushed almost 6,000 yards behind the German lines. The men quickly began to dig in and consolidate their position. More counterattacks would be coming soon.
The Death of a Panzer Ace
Watching the heavy bombing late on August 7, Standartenführer Kurt Meyer, commander of the 12th SS Division, knew that an Allied attack was about to get under way. He quickly began to prepare his force, which was reduced in strength to one battle group as the rest of the division was in action elsewhere. The division had been ordered west to reinforce the fighting at Mortain, but the move was canceled with the opening of Operation Totalize. Meyer drove to the front early on August 8 to see for himself what was going on. What he saw was startling—the Canadian Army was on the verge of a breakthrough. It would have to be checked until the 85th Infantry Division arrived and set up a defensive position north of the Laison River.
Meyer spotted some panicked soldiers from the 89th retreating down the road to escape the bombing. Lighting a cigar, Meyer casually stood in the middle of the road to meet them and asked them if they were to going to leave him to face the British alone. After turning the soldiers around, Meyer moved on to the 89th headquarters, where he met with the division’s commander and the 5th Panzer Army’s leader to explain his plans for a counterattack. Not wanting to wait for the other two 12th SS battle groups to return from the Caen-Falaise sector, Meyer ordered Battle Group Waldmuller into action. Meyer’s attacking force consisted of Tiger and Mark IV tanks, self-propelled guns, and an infantry battalion. It was around noon when Meyer got his force moving north. More Allied bombers were spotted. Meyer ordered his tanks and men to get as close to the enemy as they could in hopes of avoiding the bombing.
The bulk of Meyer’s attack fell against the Scottish position near St. Aignan-de-Cramesnil. German tank ace Michael Wittmann, leading the Tigers, took his men, along with Mark IVs, Jagdpanzers, and other self-propelled guns following, into action. With British and Canadian tanks from the Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 144th Royal Armour Corps, and Sherbrooke Fusiliers on three sides, Wittmann’s attack was repulsed. Five Tigers were knocked out, including Wittmann’s, and Wittmann himself was killed. The German armor attack continued. Shermans and Mark IVs blasted away at each other until finally the fighting broke off around 1:45 pm. Then about 200 German infantry attacked. They were hit hard by artillery and machine-gun fire from British tanks, which doomed the attack. In the end, the Germans lost 15 tanks, the British lost 20.
Allied Airpower: A Mixed Blessing
While the German attack was blunted, the second phase of Operation Totalize was underway. Some 678 B-17 Flying Fortresses from the U.S. 8th Army Air Force began a new bombing mission. Coming in from the west in two waves and enduring heavy German anti-aircraft fire, the bombers unleashed their loads along the Canadian 1st Army’s front. Flak, smoke, and low clouds prevented 180 of the B-17s from dropping their bombs; 12 other bombers swung north toward Caen, where they bombed friendly troops by mistake. Another 12 bombers did the same thing shortly afterward, causing more casualties in the Canadian 3rd Division, an ammunition dump, artillery regiments, and a Polish antiaircraft regiment. Making matters worse, the bombs unleashed on the Germans failed to smash the enemy’s defenses.
With the bombing over, the Polish 1st Armored Division, serving in the Canadian First Army, roared southeast past the Scottish troops at St. Aignan-de-Cramesnil. They would not get far. German antitank guns and armor in the woods a mile southeast of St. Aignan blunted the Polish advance, knocking out 40 tanks. To the west of the Caen-Falaise highway, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division was having difficulty moving past Gaumesnil because of nearby German anti-tank guns. The problem was finally solved when the Canadian Grenadiers Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment circled to the west and cleared the enemy guns from an orchard north of Cintheaux. The village was secured with a tank squadron from the South Alberta Regiment and soldiers from the Argyll and Sutherland Regiment. Two companies pushed on and captured the village of Hautmesnil. This was as far south as the Canadians would advance on August 8.
The Germans were alarmed by the depth of the Canadian advance. They knew that if the Canadians achieved a breakthrough, the Seventh Army fighting further to the west and part of Fifth Panzer Army could be cut off. That night the remnants of the 89th and 12th SS Divisions were ordered to establish a new defensive line north of Potigny. Meanwhile, Simonds urged his 4th Armored Division to press on. Bretteville-le-Rabet, Hautmesnil Quarry, and Langannerie fell to combined infantry and tank attacks during the afternoon of the August 9, bagging numerous prisoners. Not all went well with the advance, however. Lt. Col. Don Worthington was ordered to take his armored unit, the British Columbia Regiment, and a supporting infantry unit, the Algonquin Regiment, and capture Point 195, located west of the Caen-Falaise highway northwest of Potigny. Enemy fire and darkness separated part of Worthington’s battle group as they pushed into enemy territory. Worthington’s reduced force got lost and ended up on the east side of the highway and finally at Point 140, which they believed was Point 195. Taking up a position among some hedges and trees with his tanks and two infantry companies, Worthington reported back to brigade headquarters that they were on their objective.
The Germans were alerted to Worthington’s presence and began to take action. For most of the day, the Canadians, with the aid of two Typhoons overhead, beat back the German attacks. Polish armor, which had taken Robertmesnil and was pushing south and southeast with one of their objectives being Point 140, attempted to break through to Worthington, but was repulsed by the Germans. With most of his tanks destroyed, Worthington ordered his remaining eight tanks to make a break for it. They made it safely to the Polish troops. The infantry continued to hang on, but with casualties mounting—including Worthington, who was killed by a mortar bomb— the situation was looking grimmer. By late evening, with the Germans closing in for another assault, the surviving Canadians made a break for the Polish lines. August 9 had been bloody for the British Columbia Regiment, which had 116 men killed, wounded, or missing and 47 tanks lost. The Algonquin Regiment suffered 128 casualties.
The End of Operation Totalize
The Governor General’s Foot Guards, along with a company from the Algonquin Regiment, was ordered to move on Point 195 and aid Worthington. The Foot Guards ran into trouble at Quesany Woods, about 2,000 yards north of Potigny, which was held by a 12th SS battle group. At the cost of 26 tanks, they were unable to clear the woods and take up a defensive position. Simonds demanded that Point 195 be taken. The task of taking it fell to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, while the Lincoln and Welland Regiment was to seize Point 180 northwest of the Argylls. Both regiments decided to take their objective in a night attack. Daylight on August 10 found the Argylls on their objective and dug in. The Lincs also took their objective, but not before one company stumbled into Germans in a nearby village and a wicked firefight broke out.
With Point 195 in Canadian hands, the Grenadier Guards were able to push their tanks past the infantry onto Point 206, which was rumored to be bristling with 88mms. At noon, a 12th SS battle group attacked first. They were repulsed, but any further thought of taking Point 206 was scrapped. Meanwhile, the Polish 1st Armored Division was ordered to take Point 140 and then push across the Laison River and capture Point 168, a few miles north of Falaise. German counterattacks limited the Poles’ advance, and they were not able to meet their objectives. The German stronghold at Quesnay Woods was hampering their movement, and Simonds wanted it taken quickly before the German 85th Infantry Division, which was beginning to arrive, had a chance to reinforce the elements of the 12th SS still holding it. The Canadian 3rd Division was given the task of clearing the woods. Two regiments from the 8th Infantry Brigade, the Queen’s Own Rifles, and the North Shore Regiment, were sent in with artillery support. Fighting lasted into the night, but the Canadians were unable to take the woods. When the fighting died out so did Operation Totalize, which had driven nine miles into German lines and inflicted about 3,000 casualties.
With the German offense against Mortain being repulsed by the U.S. 30th Division, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding the new U.S. Twelfth Army Group, saw an opportunity to trap the German Seventh Army at Falaise and Argentan. Montgomery agreed and ordered Crerar on August 11 not only to take Falaise but also to push farther southeast toward Argentan and hook up with the XV Corps of the U.S. Third Army, thereby blocking the only retreat route the German could use to escape the encircling Allied armies. Pushing north, the XV Corps was stopped just outside Argentan on August 12 but seized control of the east-west highway, from which it could bring down artillery fire on the Germans.
Only 15 miles now separated the Americans from Falaise. Patton wanted the XV Corps to push on toward Falaise, but Bradley ordered him to halt at the edge of Argentan. Allied intelligence had reported that Germans were massing a counterattack against the XV Corps, and Bradley would say later that he wanted “a solid shoulder at Argentan” rather than “a broken neck at Falaise.” He also said he was afraid the Canadian and the American forces might collide with each other and inflict heavy friendly casualties.
Besides ordering Crerar to take Falaise, Montgomery also ordered Lt. Gen. Miles Dempsey to push his British Second Army toward the town as well. To aid the British XII Corps in their advance, the Canadian 2nd Division was dispatched to assist. By August 13, Clair Trizon fell to the Canadians, and during the night they crossed the Laize River and took Point 176. After beating off a counterattack by a 12th SS battle group, the Canadian 6th Infantry Brigade was about six miles northwest of Falaise.
The long-term objectives of Simonds’s new plan, called Operation Tractable, were to break through German defenses, take Falaise and the high ground northeast of the town, and swing southeast toward the village of Trun. What Simonds had in mind was similar to Operation Totalize. The German defenses were to be blasted by RAF bombers and then broken with armored columns, while the infantry mopped up resistance the tanks and armored vehicles had bypassed. The new operation would be launched during the day with the cover of smoke instead of darkness.
Holding the German defenses north of the Laison River was the newly arrived 85th Division, remnants of the 89th Division, along with 88mms from the Flak Corps bolstered by a 12th SS battle group. Another 12th SS battle group was positioned in the rear near Trun, while the third was in action against the British and Canadian advance. Shortly before Operation Tractable was launched, an officer carrying plans of the operation accidentally ended up behind enemy lines and was killed. The Germans now had a copy of the plans.
In August 14, at 11:40 am, Canadian tanks and armored vehicles roared forward as artillery lay down smoke shells to cover their advance. Just before the assault was launched, more than 800 Halifaxes, Lancasters, and Mosquitoes unleashed their bombs on five target areas. Unfortunately, 77 bombers mistakenly bombed their own troops near Potigny. The army was using yellow flares to identify themselves as friendly troops, but tragically the Air Force was using similarly colored target indicators. More than 390 Canadians and Poles were injured, including 150 killed. Tanks and armored cars from the Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade rolled forward through the smoke. The Fort Garry Horse and the First Hussars, both of the 2nd Armoured Brigade, endured antitank fire as they made their way to the Laison River. The First Hussars pushed through fierce resistance on the north side of the river and crossed over.
By 11:30 pm, the Fort Garry Horse had reached their first objective as well, but not before losing a third of their tanks. Suffering even heavier casualties, the First Hussars also reached their objective. To the north of the 2nd Amoured Brigade was the 4th Canadian Amoured Brigade. The Canadians ran into trouble at Point 140 from enemy antitank guns, tanks, and mines. While one tank regiment engaged the Germans, the other two tank regiments rolled on, fighting their way across the Laison and pushing on to their objectives, but not before the brigade commander was killed. Behind the tanks, the 8th and 9th Infantry Brigades of the Canadian 3rd Division, packed in the Kangaroos and other armored vehicles, dealt with the enemy bypassed by the armored brigades. The Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highland- ers of the 9th Brigade moved toward a fortified chateau near the river that was held by elements of the German 85th Regiment supported by Tiger tanks. A six-pounder antitank gun took care of one the German tanks, while a “Wasp,” a Bren gun carrier equipped with a flamethrower, smashed the machine-gun nests. As the Glens consolidated their hard-won position, an M10 moved up to support them. The tank destroyer soon dispatched any remaining enemy Tigers.
Besides taking a large number of prisoners on the first day of Operation Tractable, the Canadians were across the Laison River and Falaise was in their grasp. German resistance would stiffen as they desperately attempted to keep the gap open between the Americans and Canadians. August 15 saw the 4th Armoured Division pushing northeast of Falaise for Point 159. The division’s 4th Armoured Brigade, leading the way, was stopped by fierce 88mm antitank fire and was unable to reach its objective. Meanwhile, the 3rd Division, moving down the Caen-Falaise highway, was ordered to make an attempt on the point. The village of Soulangy, bristling with 89th and 12th SS troops and Tigers, lay in the way. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles of the 7th Infantry Brigade suffered 50 percent casualties in a failed attempt to capture the village. The Canadian Scottish Regiment of the same brigade, along with tank support from the 1st Hussars, swung east and headed for Point 159. German antitank fire stopped them in their tracks. The infantry pushed on alone, enduring heavy mortaring. The Canadians slugged it out with troops from the 12th SS and finally took their objective. The Germans quickly counterattacked with Tigers and armored cars. In desperate fighting, the Canadians held on dearly to their objective and drove off the enemy. By nightfall, the regiment had suffered 130 casualties.
While the Canadians struggled for Point 159, the Polish 1st Armored Division was ordered to move east and take Jort along the River Dives. This they did, capturing 120 prisoners and knocking out a number of Panzer tanks and antitank guns. The Poles were now in a position to advance on Trun.
Withdrawing from the Pocket
Kluge finally got permission on August 16 from Adolf Hitler to withdraw from the “kettle,” as the Germans were calling the pocket they were crowded into, through the Falaise-Argentan gap. The situation worsened for the Germans when American and French troops came ashore in southern France. Kluge would see little of the withdrawal, as he was recalled by a suspicious Hitler, who feared that he was negotiating with the Allies. In reality, Kluge had spent a good part of the day hugging the ground in a ditch as Allied fighters harassed his staff car and other vehicles in his convoy while he was making an inspection tour of the front. Field Marshal Walter Model was ordered to replace Kluge, who bit down on a cyanide pill and died en route back to Germany.
The 6th Infantry Brigade of the Canadian 2nd Division entered Falaise on the 16th and, after fierce fighting, secured the town the following day. While the Canadians battled it out with SS troop in Falaise, Simonds shifted the rest of his forces in preparation for a final push on Trun. Polish armor was already rolling toward the village and halted eight miles away for the night. The day before, Montgomery had met with Bradley and assured him that once the Canadians had taken Falaise he would order Simonds to head toward Trun to link up with the Americans. Bradley informed Montgomery that the area around Argentan was now held by a French armored division and the American 90th Division. He had sent the rest of the XV Corps to strike east for the Seine. The American 80th Division was close by at Alençon for needed support.
With Falaise, the “corner pillar” of the German escape route, now in Canadian hands, the Germans shifted their defense farther east to hold open the gap. They attacked the American 90th Division on the high ground at Le Bourg-St-Leonard, near Argentan, hoping to deny them the key position overlooking their escape route. The Americans were thrown back, but regrouped and recaptured the ridge. Meanwhile, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division began its advance on Trun, but was soon thrown into confusion when it came under heavy enemy artillery fire. The Canadians altered their route for Morteaux-Coulibouef, on the Ante River and continued their advance. At nightfall they were two miles north of Trun. The Poles, meanwhile, continued to push back the Germans, halting for the night near the highway northeast of Trun.
The noose was tightening around the Germans. The American 90th Division was ordered to take Chambois, four miles southeast of Trun. The Poles advanced on the village as well, and the two Allied forces linked up to close the gap. On August 18, the Poles moved out toward Chambois. The commander of the Polish force, Maj. Gen. Stanislaw Maczek, decided to split his division. Part of his force was to continue toward Chambois, while the other half was to take a ridge north of the Dives River dominating a road that ran from Chambois to Vimoutiers. The Polish called the place Maczuga, a Polish word meaning mace, because of the shape of the ridge. Meanwhile, the Canadian 4th Armoured Division headed for Trun, which it took. Overhead Spitfires, Typhoons, Mustangs, and other aircraft pummeled the retreating Germans in the ever-shrinking Falaise pocket.
At the same time, the American 80th and 90th Divisions, along with artillery support from a French armored division, began to close the gap from their side. The 80th attack toward Trun stalled, but the 90th pushed to within three miles of Chambois before the attack was halted. With Trun in Canadian hands and the Poles on the verge taking Chambois, the South Alberta Regiment from the 4th Canadian Armored Division, along with a company of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was ordered to take St. Lambert-sur-Dives between Chambois and Trun. Commanding the Canadian force, which consisted of 15 tanks and 55 infantrymen, was Major David Currie. Their task would not be easy, as their object lay in the center of the German escape route. With the situation getting more and more desperate, the Germans were massing to break through the ever-closing gap. The 2nd Panzer Corps, which had earlier escaped from the pocket, was ordered back into the gap by Model while German paratroopers and other SS units attacked from inside the pocket.
The Fight for St. Lambert
At 6 pm, Currie’s little force moved out for St. Lambert. After enduring friendly fire from the Poles, a tank was knocked out by an enemy 88mm. Two RAF Spitfires then attacked the tank column, setting Currie’s tank on fire. He was almost killed while attempting to put out the fire when the Spitfires returned to strafe the tanks. After taking care of the wounded, Currie ordered his tanks to remain where they were, near St. Lambert. With darkness falling, he scouted the town to determine where the 88mm fire was coming from. Once back with his force, Currie ordered his lead tanks to fall back and cover the town while the infantry and most of the tank crews dealt with the enemy. The next morning Currie attacked. A tank was knocked out as they entered the village, but the culprits, enemy Tiger and Mark IV tanks, were spotted. Currie’s tank knocked out the Mark IV, while the infantry took out the Tiger by shooting a couple of its crew members and putting a grenade down the turret. The Canadians then proceeded to take St. Lambert and capture a number of prisoners.
That afternoon, hordes of Germans attempting to retreat attacked the Canadians. St. Lambert was the key to the Germans’ escape plan, as there was a stone bridge over the Dives in the town that could support the weight of their retreating armor. A second smaller bridge was just outside of town. Fighting intensified as the Germans attacked and swarmed the tanks.
Currie called in an artillery barrage on his own position, after warning his men to take cover. The barrage crushed the German attack. Around 6, two understrength companies, one from the Lincoln and Welland Regiment and the other from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, arrived to reinforce Currie. Even with his small force of reinforcements, Currie was forced at nightfall to pull in his men for mutual protection.
Keeping the Pocket Closed
While Currie hung on to St. Lambert, the Poles and Americans met at Chambois. The Falaise gap was closed, but holding it closed would prove difficult. The Canadian 3rd Division arrived in time to block the Germans’ desperate breakout attempt. August 20 was a day of fierce fighting as SS troops and paratroopers fanatically attacked the pocket. The situation at St. Lambert became desperate, and Currie’s small force was forced into the western part of town. Still they held out, keeping heavy fire on the swarms of Germans. The Polish forces at Maczuga north of the Trun-Chambois line fought courageously against the SS troops attempting to rush their isolated position. With forward observation officers calling down artillery fire, the remaining tanks and machine guns blazed away on the enemy and every man who could hold a rifle rushed to the front. The Poles suffered over 1,400 casualties—about a third of their fighting force. After beating back the last attack around noon on August 21, the Canadian 4th Armoured Brigade reached the Poles in mid-afternoon. On the same day Currie, whose force had taken around 2,100 prisoners and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, was finally relieved. For his part in the fight at St. Lambert, Currie would be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Falaise Gap was closed. About 50,000 German soldiers were captured in the pocket, while another 10,000 were killed. Although 20,000 Germans managed to escape, much of their armor and vehicles was destroyed or left behind. The Canadian First Army had suffered almost 5,500 casualties, including 1,470 killed and 177 captured, since the beginning of Operation Totalize. Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower, touring Falaise two days after the fighting, reported that he encountered “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.” Still, in the overall scheme of things, it was well worth it. The Germans were on the run, and they would not stop running until they reached the Rhine.
Join The Conversation
View All Comments