German Recovery After Falaise

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The fallout of the Falaise pocket went beyond 5th Panzer Army and 7th Army. General von Salmuth was relieved of his command of 15th Army by Hitler in late August following the disintegration of the German front line. Infantry General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen, fresh from Italy, replaced him. To add to German woes, in the south of France on 26 August Toulon, followed by Marseilles two days later, was liberated with the loss of several thousand dead and 37,000 troops captured. The Allies secured the region between Nice and Avignon as far north as Briançon via Grenoble to Montelimar, effectively destroying General Wiese’s 19th Army, mainly through artillery and air strikes.

The remains of Wiese’s command streamed north to join Chevallerie’s 1st Army, which was evacuating southwestern France and heading for the Belfort Gap. The latter forms the pass between the Jura and Vosges mountains and the Germans knew that if they lost control of it Strasbourg and all Wurtemberg would be exposed. It did not fall until 25 November. Meanwhile, the retreating Germans conducted delaying actions, notably in the Autun and Dijon regions, but ultimately they were now being driven from the whole of France. On 3 September Lyon was liberated and another 2,000 Germans captured.

The situation on the Western front appeared irretrievable for Hitler and the Third Reich. While the Germans had barely 100 serviceable panzers, the Allies could muster 6,000 medium and 1,700 light tanks. It seemed as if nothing would stop their armoured juggernaut; by 4 September they were 200 miles (320km) east of the Seine and in control of the vital port of Antwerp. They were seven months ahead of their schedule.

The Wehrmacht had lost forty-three divisions by September, roughly thirty-five infantry and eight panzer, two more than were originally stationed in northern France. They suffered a total loss of 450,000 men; 240,000 killed and wounded and 210,000 prisoners, as well as losing most of their equipment: 1,500 panzers, 3,500 pieces of artillery and 20,000 vehicles. Some 58,412 are buried in Normandy in the main German cemeteries at Huisnes-sur-Mer, La Cambe, Lisieux (Saint-Désir), Marigny and Orglandes; the largest is La Cambe, which holds 21,400. For the Allies the price of victory was dear, approximately 84,000 British and Canadian, and 126,000 American casualties, consisting of 36,976 killed and 172,696 wounded.

In total the Germans lost about 1,500 tanks and assault guns from an accumulated strength of 2,248 armoured fighting vehicles deployed to Normandy by mid-August. The latter figure includes all the General Headquarters panzer formations and the armoured fighting vehicles of the Infantry Divisions and the Luffwaffe Field Divisions. From 1 June-31 August the Germans had lost a total of 4,050 panzers and assault guns on all fronts. The exhausted panzer divisions lost all their tanks in northern France; in fact, from an accumulated tank force of 1,804 just eighty-six remained. Similarly, the independent tank battalions and assault brigades, from an accumulated strength of 458, could scrape together forty-four vehicles.

Scrutiny of German panzer losses produces some startling results. In the Roncey pocket 122 tanks were accounted for and another forty-six were lost during the Mortain counterattack. Of the 380 found in the Falaise pocket, eighty per cent had been abandoned or destroyed by their fleeing crews. Another 150 tanks were found west of the Seine. Therefore in total some 638 tanks, tank destroyers and assault guns lost west of the Seine are accounted for. This, though, is far from the total figure; around another 900 were lost in Normandy during June, July and August.

While they remained in range, naval fire support from the Allied warships in the Channel could produce devastating results against the massing panzers. Few members of the German High Command seemed to have fully considered the implications of this; once the effects became apparent Rommel had been swift to call for a withdrawal out of harm’s way, but to no avail. In contrast, the sustained and often very heavy attacks by the Allied bombers and fighter-bombers produced surprisingly mixed results against the armoured fighting vehicles of Panzergruppe West and 7th Army. In fact the bomber raids preceding the Allies’ major offensives often proved more fatal to their own men and hampered the advance because of the damage caused.

Subsequent analysis showed that RAF Typhoon rockets had not caused as much destruction as first thought or indeed claimed. It has been assessed that only about 100 armoured fighting vehicles were actually knocked out by air strikes during the entire campaign; in stark contrast the Allies lost a total of 1,726 aircraft.

According to subsequent British analysis, two of the main causes for the defeat of the Panther tank were abandonment and self-destruction by the panzertruppen. These two categories accounted for nearly half the Panthers left on the battlefield during August and constituted eighty per cent of all the Panthers lost. Air power only accounted for about six per cent of all the lost Panthers investigated.

Rockets and free-fall bombs were highly inaccurate when trying to hit vehicles and the Germans were masters of camouflage. The Allied air forces’ real contribution was the sense of panic their attacks caused, with vehicle crews quickly taking to the fields at the onset of an air strike.

One of the divisions that appeared to have suffered the most was the 2nd Panzer. On 24 August it assembled fifteen tanks near Meaux, east of Paris, four days later less than 1,200 men and five tanks managed to cross the Seine. At the end of August Panzer Lehr, which had also suffered heavy casualties, mustered barely 6,000 men near Fontainbleu and the repair units were able to provide just twenty tanks. The 9th Panzer Division was not encircled at Falaise and was able to muster about 11,000 men, though few, if any, tanks. The 21st Panzer Division was also one of those that suffered heavy losses in Normandy and by late August had just ten combat ready tanks, but also had about 11,000 men available. Similarly about 10,600 men of the 116th escaped along with fifteen tanks, three assault guns and three self-propelled guns.

The 1st SS lost about twenty-five per cent of its manpower and had no combat-ready tanks. Parts of the 10th SS were encircled along with the 1st SS and 2nd Panzer and lost all their armour. The 2nd SS had just six tanks, but it was not surrounded and by the end of September had mustered 12,357 men. Likewise, the 9th SS escaped the trap and was able to muster twenty to twenty-five tanks, though in early September ten of these were handed over to the 11th Panzer Division.

A major element of the 12th SS was outside the Falaise pocket and was able to gather 12,000 men and possibly a handful of tanks. The division received twelve Panzer IVs on 5 September, which had been despatched to it in Normandy but had not arrived in time. Kurt Meyer, their highly-capable commander, having escaped Falaise, was captured at Amiens on 6 September. Likewise the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division had a strength of 16,832 by mid-September.

Remarkable recovery

The panzer divisions’ manpower totalled about 160,000 men during the campaign and they had lost almost 62,000; yet, crucially, 98,000 men were still available to rebuild these formations – all they needed were replacement tanks. The Allies strategic bomber campaign may have severely hampered German armaments production, but it had not brought it to a standstill, nor was it able to completely prevent equipment being shipped to the front.

German industry pulled out all the stops and in August a record number of 869 tanks and 744 assault guns came off the assembly lines. Most notably, in the first week of September the German tank factories churned out sixty Tigers, which were delivered to Field Marshal Model on the morning of 24 September. These were to cause the Allies real problems during Operation Market Garden. The panzer divisions, once fleshed out by new recruits and transferees led by veteran officers and NCOs, were to obstruct the Allies at every turn right until the very end of the war.

Most of the survivors of Panzergruppe West, XLVII and LVIII Panzer Corps and the I SS and II SS Panzer Corps were withdrawn to Germany behind the relative safety of the long-neglected Siegfried Line. The latter had been built in the late 1930s along the pre-war border formed by the Saar River. Some units, however, had to remain behind to help stabilise the front and buy Rundstedt much-needed time.

The tattered remnants of 2nd and 116th Panzer were reformed in Germany, ready for operations on the Western Front. The 9th withdrew to the Aachen area for refit and became embroiled in the attempts to halt the American advance there. Conducting a fighting retreat, the 21st Panzer was engaged in the Saar and Alsace before being shipped to Germany for refit; the division was destined for the Eastern Front. The Panzer Lehr was also sent to the Saar and then on to Paderborn in Germany for rebuilding.

The Waffen-SS panzer divisions were also moved out of harms way for refit. The 1st SS, 2nd SS and 12th SS fell back to the Eifel region in Germany, and in November the 1st SS were refitted in Westphalia and the 12th SS refitted in Bremen. Both the 1st SS and 2nd SS went into reserve near Aachen. The 9th SS and 10th SS were withdrawn to the Netherlands to a place called Arnhem. In September the 12th SS was posted to the Aachen area and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division withdrew to the Metz area.

Panzergruppe West’s smaller armoured formations suffered varying fates. The 503 Schwere Panzer Battalion was refitted and eventually sent to Hungary. The 101 SS and 102 SS Schwere Panzer battalions were re-equipped with Tiger IIs in September and re-designated the 501 and 502 respectively; both were also to end up on the Eastern Front. In contrast, the 506, which had been fighting with Army Group Centre on the Eastern Front, was sent to the West in August for refit.

Panzer Abteilung (Funklenk) 301 suffered heavy casualties during June and July 1944 and was withdrawn for rebuilding. On 19 August it was ordered to reorganize and re-equip as Schwere Panzer Abteilung (Tiger/Fkl) 301. Each of the three companies was to have ten Tiger Is and the HQ was to have two Tiger Is. Ten of these Tiger Is were acquired from an SS-Panzer abteilung. Some thirty-six Borgward IV remote-controllable demolition vehicles were issued to each company. The 301 were swiftly brought back up to strength and received twenty-one Tigers between 25 August and 15 September and another ten from Abteilung 103. The unit reported to LXXXI Corps in November with thirty-one Tigers (four were inoperable) and sixty-six BIV (five of which were inoperable).

The independent Panzer Abteilung 100 and 206, equipped with French tanks lost in the chaos of Normandy, were not rebuilt. Similarly, the majority of Panzerjäger Abteilung 657, armed with a mixture of inadequate French and Czech equipment, was lost in the St Lô area and the survivors were disbanded in mid-October.

In contrast, the assault gun units remained in a salvagable condition. By early October, Sturmgeschütz Brigade 341 had twenty-three assault guns, about half of which were in short-term repair. Sturmgeschütz Brigade 394 lost all but one of its assault guns in the Falaise pocket, but by early September had been despatched to the Aachen area to pick up thirty-one new vehicles. It was soon assisting 9th and 116th Panzer, resisting the Americans.

Sturmgeschütz Abteilung 902 in early September was with 19th Army and had ten assault guns; this number had doubled by the beginning of the following month. Sturmpanzer Abteilung 217, which variously served with the 89th Infantry Division, 12th SS Panzer Division and the 271st Infantry Division during the Normandy campaign, received twenty-four replacement Sturmpanzer IVs in September; however, by 1 October the battalion only had fourteen combat ready with another five in repair.

Not all the panzerjäger battalions of the mauled Infantry Divisions could be retrieved, for example Panzerjüger Abteilung 243’s parent division was disbanded on 12 September. Similarly Panzerjäger Abteilung 352 saw the remnants of its parent division merged with the 581st Volksgrenadier Division in late September to create the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division. The 346th Infantry Division escaped southeast of Falaise and over the Seine with just three of its ten assault guns. Although the 353rd Infantry Division broke out of the Falaise pocket, it is unlikely that it was able to save any of its Marder self-propelled guns or Sturmgeschütz assault guns.

Fighting withdrawal

On 7 September, Rundstedt sent a situation report to Keitel spelling out just how grim the situation was:

All our forces are all involved in battle, badly bruised, partly burned out. They lack artillery and anti-tank weapons. No reserves worthy of the term are available. The numerical superiority of enemy tanks compared to ours is indisputable. At this time, about 100 tanks are combat ready in Army Group B. Enemy air force dominates the battle area and the lines of communication deep into the rear echelon. The pressure of the enemy toward Lüttich (Meuse Valley) with a clear direction of advance via Aachen toward the industrial region of Rhineland-Westphalia has developed into a serious danger. The immediate addition of strong forces (five to ten divisions), as requested several times, seems an urgent necessity to me.… In agreement with Generalfeldmarschall Model, I recognise (near Aachen) the acute danger to the rear of the Westwall connecting toward the south.… Our task is to fight with available forces to gain time, to make the western positions and the Westwall completely capable for defence.… A time period of six weeks is forecast for completion of the western positions. This time has to be won through combat.

The ramifications of the failure to entirely destroy the panzer forces in the west soon became apparent. The 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions remained constant thorns in the side of the advancing Allies’ sides. By 4 September the 116th was northwest of Namur, with orders to enter Charleroi, but American tanks were already there. It had a combat strength of just 600 panzer grenadiers, twelve tanks and ten pieces of artillery. Four days later Count Schwerin reported:

116th Panzer Division and Group Fiebig execute exchange of river banks on 8 September until dawn. The Division takes up position on the east bank of the Meuse at the southern edge of Argenteau-southern edge of St Remy-southern edge of Trembleu, in such a way that expected attack out of Lüttich (Liege) along east bank of Meuse can be repelled.

On 3 September, the 9th SS and 116th Panzer Divisions were ordered to pick up thirty Panzer IVs each from the Luttich area, but in the event the 116th only received fifteen tanks. The 9th and 116th Panzer attempted to fend off an enemy attack at Limbourg on 11 September but were thrown back toward Henri Chapelle. At this stage the 116th only had three battle-worthy tanks, but Henri Chapelle was secured by Sturmgeschütz Brigade 394.

The Americans though were able to exploit a gap between 116th and 9th Panzer forcing them back. On 12 September elements of the French II Corps pushing up from the south of France met the French 2nd Armoured from Patton’s US 3rd Army at Châtillon-sur-Seine thereby linking up the southern and northern invasion forces.

In mid-September the 9th and 116th Panzer Divisions were given responsibility for the defence of Aachen. The 9th, which was bolstered by Sturmgeschütz Brigade 394, destroyed twenty-six American tanks on 13 September, and the following day a penetration south of Aachen was countered by the 116th. By 17/18 September the American 2nd Armored Division had reached the Siegfried Line north of Aachen. However, the attack on the line was postponed because during the Arnhem operation a gap had developed between the British and American Armies. In October, the Tigers of Abteilung 506 took part in the defence of Aachen, having fought at Arnhem.

The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division was to play a key role in denying Metz to the Americans. Elements of the division arrived in the city with just ten assault guns on 1 September. SS-Panzergrenadier Brigades 49 and 51, which had arrived from Denmark and SS-Panzer Brigade ‘Merzig’, reinforced the 17th SS Panzer grenadiers, refitting west of Metz along the Abbeville-Mars La Tour road.

Eight days later the division was engaging French Sherman tanks and the US 5th Infantry Division. The Americans crossed the Mosselle River at Dornot on 8 September and came under immediate counterattack by SS-Panzer grenadiers. The following day American crossings between Noveant and Arnville received a similar reception. Heavy fighting continued throughout October and into November as the 17th SS helped hold up the American advance.

It was not long before the 2nd SS made its presence felt at Wittlich. Both the 2nd SS and Panzer Lehr were to be instrumental in halting Allied thrusts into the Eifel region west of the Rhine. On 14 September the US 4th Infantry Division, attacking the ‘Black Man’ ridge and the hamlet of Brandscheid, which had been incorporated into the Siegfried Line, came up against Kampfgruppe Kuehne. This consisted of young recruits rushed to the front from Wittlich in half-tracks of the 2nd SS.

The Americans were brought to a halt with 800 casualties. To the south, the US 28th Infantry Division attacking out of Luxembourg also came up against elements of the 2nd SS. Although they broke through the Siegfried Line it was at the cost of 1,500 casualties and losses for both divisions were such that the offensive was called off.

At Wallendorf the US 5th Armored Division, crossing the Our and Sauer Rivers, pushed aside a weak company of Panzer IVs from Panzer Lehr and pierced German defences to a depth of six miles (10km). Field Marshal von Rundstedt counterattacked with two Infantry Divisions and the remaining twenty-five tanks of Panzer Lehr. The Americans were driven back with the loss of sixty Sherman tanks, though the last of Panzer Lehr’s tanks were also knocked out. The shaken US 5th Armored withdrew back over the Sauer on 22 September. Thanks to the assistance of the 2nd SS and Panzer Lehr, an entire US Corps had been successfully thrown out of their positions on the Siegfried Line.

To the north, to stop the Allies push across Holland and Belgium, were 80,000 men of General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army, which lacked tanks, and the 18,000 men of Colonel-General Kurt Student’s 1st Parachute Army, equipped with just twenty-five panzers. Once the British were in Antwerp the 15th Army fell back to a bridgehead at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary, thereby blocking the approach to Antwerp. It would take the Allies almost two months of heavy fighting to secure it and the Scheldt estuary, in the meantime much-needed supplies had to rumble across Europe from the French ports.

Although the 2nd, 116th, 9th SS and 10th SS were ordered to replenish in the area of Eindhoven, the combat-worthy elements of these divisions were to remain in continual contact with the enemy. The 1st SS, 2nd SS and 12th SS were to return to Germany for a complete refit. Understandably these plans did not run smoothly.

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