THE FALAISE POCKET AND THE DEEP ENCIRCLEMENT III

Patton displayed greater operational vision than his army group commander. He was quick to recognize the error of committing too strong a force to Brittany in pursuit of the outdated Overlord plan. Instead, he (like Montgomery) envisaged a long envelopment to destroy the enemy on the Seine. He believed in a concentrated effort and was frustrated by Bradley’s insistence on guarding against illusory threats at the expense of the main effort. He was less convinced than Bradley about the wisdom of going for a short hook in the changed circumstances of the German defeat at Mortain; if the Germans had reacted more quickly and initiated an earlier withdrawal, too many would have escaped. However, Patton threw himself boldly into the new maneuver. Whether the envelopment was short or long, the key to its success would be speed in execution to keep the enemy off balance, in a reactive posture, and always a step behind. He saw that speed, and the surprise it engendered, could be used as a weapon in maneuver warfare. When Bradley terminated XV Corps’ drive north but allowed much of XV, XX, and XII Corps to thrust eastward to the Dreux-Chartres-Orléans line, Patton renewed the suggestion of a wheel down the river to seal German exits from Normandy over the Seine. In doing so, Patton was keeping the operational aim firmly in mind: destruction of the enemy, rather than the mere conquest of territory. The same is true of his 23 August suggestion for yet another envelopment, this time on the Beauvais axis. It was not Patton’s fault that Bradley fumbled the opportunity to complete both the short envelopment and then the long one.

Patton has often been criticized for his reckless conduct of offensive operations. This accusation, leveled by those who were still thinking in terms of the tempo achievable by infantrymen on foot, was unfounded in Normandy. Although he saw that speed in the advance would be the main protection for open flanks, he employed forces where necessary (the minimum possible). For instance, on 2 August he dispatched 5 Armored Division to protect the flanks of both VIII and VII Corps during the breakout into Brittany. When XV Corps was moving alone into the enemy flank on the Le Mans–Argentan thrust, he sought security by having the corps advance two-up, with two divisions trailing and thus ready to drive into the flank of any enemy attempting to exploit the first echelon’s flank. (This was his favorite operational formation.) He also had 80 Infantry Division deploy in a screening role between Mayenne and Le Mans, and before the halt order led to a change in operational focus, he had intended to commit XX Corps into the gap—offensively, of course. When his army’s main thrust was redirected toward the Seine after the short hook was stopped, the axes of his corps’ advance were within mutually supporting reach. However, Patton deprecated overinsurance, as he rightly interpreted Bradley’s demand for ground forces on the Loire flank and the overly long retention of 6 Armored Division in Brittany; sufficient security could be derived from demolished bridges covered by FFI elements and IX Tactical Air Command and Ultra’s early warning. In general, he thought that Bradley, like Hodges, was too cautious, too conservative, insufficiently appreciative of the fact that flanks could look after themselves if the enemy was unbalanced, and thus unable to exploit theoretical vulnerabilities.

Patton was unique among Eisenhower’s principal subordinates in being prepared to accept, even welcome, the chaos of a fast-moving war. Others attempted to impose order and tidiness on the battlefield and were continuously concerned about operational security. Patton preferred to remind himself of his own maxim not to take counsel of his fears; he always pondered what he could do to the enemy, not what the enemy could do to him. This sangfroid stemmed from an unusually keen, instinctive understanding of and feel for the battlefield, as well as his grasp of the devastating potential of maneuver and speed in the advance. It also reflected his grasp of another demand of generalship at the operational level. He was concerned not with how to beat the enemy tactically—that was the task of his subordinates—but with where to beat him in order to gain positional and temporal advantage. Patton was not one to pore over the large-scale maps so beloved by his fellow army commanders.

Army Group and Theatre Level

The first of August brought two major changes to the Normandy campaign. Montgomery’s operational idea of fixing the enemy on the left and breaking through on the right finally came to fruition. Third Army was out of the Cotentin Peninsula and the bocage and was free to advance west, south, or east with no immediate, organized opposition to overcome. And with the activation of 12 Army Group, the Americans were no longer directly under Montgomery’s command. While he remained the temporary head of the land forces (a position Eisenhower intended to assume himself on 1 September), he was in practice only a primus inter pares. Bradley was now a fellow army group commander, with a larger and still growing force under him and a much closer relationship with the Supreme Commander. Bradley’s view of the relationship was clear:

I had not [earlier] asked to be freed from Montgomery’s British Group command. He had neither limited our authority nor had he given us directives that might have caused us to chafe. As long as Montgomery permitted this latitude in US operations, we were content to remain under his command until the tactical situation necessitated a change. . . . Until SHAEF was permanently established in France Eisenhower directed that Monty would act as his agent, exercising temporary operational control over the US Army Group. The Briton’s authority would be limited primarily to coordination and the settlement of boundaries between our Groups. Despite this delegation of powers to Monty, Eisenhower would captain the team. . . . After having granted me so free a hand as an army commander, there was no reason to believe that Monty would now curtail me at Army Group.

The sudden collapse of the German western flank took the Allied commanders by surprise. How should they continue the campaign, now that the original plan had suddenly become obsolete? There was now no need for a plodding expansion of the Overlord lodgment area south to the Loire and east to the Seine, no need to open the ports in Brittany, and no need for an operational pause to allow a steady logistic and force buildup for the next stage, the march on Germany. The stated aim of theatre strategy remained the destruction of the German armed forces and an advance into the heart of Germany. How should this be achieved in the light of these changed operational circumstances (including the successful Allied attack on the enemy’s southern flank, which began on 15 August with landings on the French Riviera)? Where should the main effort now lie? Which offensive action should be supporting, and where should economy of force be practiced? How could surprise continue to be achieved and prolonged to keep the enemy wrong-footed? What security measures would be necessary during exploitation to ensure that the enemy could not recover the initiative? What steps would be needed to obtain close cooperation among armies, army groups, and air forces and ensure that their combined achievements were more than the sum of their individual parts? How could logistic sustainability be ensured for weeks and months to come, now that the operational pause originally envisaged to allow for a buildup would no longer take place? Senior operational commanders and staffs would have to address all these questions in August if the campaign were to come to a rapid, complete, and triumphal conclusion. The opportunity was there. How well did Montgomery, Bradley, and Eisenhower grasp it?

21 Army Group and Land Forces Command: General Montgomery. Montgomery was the first senior commander to appreciate that the suddenness and completeness of the breakthrough had changed the operational calculus of the campaign. Completion of the Overlord lodgment west to Brittany’s shores, south to the Loire, and east to the Seine could be done concurrently rather than consecutively because Brittany was now largely defenseless, having been denuded of troops to feed the battle for Normandy. The contingency foreseen in SHAEF’s Lucky Strike option had come to pass, and its concept could be adopted. On 1 August, after discussing the situation with Bradley and Dempsey, Montgomery directed the former to limit operations in the province to a single corps (he would have sent a smaller force, but SHAEF logisticians insisted that the ports would still be needed). Bradley was to make Third Army’s main effort a wheel toward Paris; this would be aided by an airborne operation in the Chartres area to cut the enemy’s line of retreat. The success of this long envelopment, an idea already mooted by 21 Army Group planners as early as 10 July, would clearly depend on fixing the bulk of the enemy forces and preventing them from establishing a viable fallback line of defense. Montgomery was already setting these conditions. US First Army was ordered to swing eastward, Second Army was already knocking away the hinge of one potential line on the Le Bény-Bocage–Mt. Pinçon ridge, and the Canadians would soon deal with another in their attack on Falaise, ordered on 3 August.

Montgomery formalized and elaborated his ideas in his M516 directive of 4 August, promulgated after discussion with Eisenhower and Bradley. Correctly, he wrote that the enemy front was “in such a state that it could be made to disintegrate completely.” If the Germans devoted sufficient forces to holding firmly on their right flank in the Caen sector, they would be unable to restore their left wing (now open for about 130 km [80 miles] from Mortain to the Loire). If they attempted to build up their left, they would find their right collapsed by the upcoming Canadian attack toward Falaise (to be mounted no later than 8 August); this attack would preclude an enemy delaying action on the substantial obstacle of the Orne and might trap significant elements. The only course open to the enemy, he opined, was to execute “an orderly, staged withdrawal to the River Seine.” Montgomery wanted to ensure that the withdrawal was neither orderly nor deliberate. If possible, he wanted to convert retreat into rout, giving the enemy no opportunity to carry out a scorched-earth policy in the vacated area and, especially, preventing the same type of destruction of the Seine ports that had left Cherbourg handling only 80 percent of its planned capacity as late as 4 August (thirty-five days after its surrender). Accordingly, minimal forces would be devoted to Brittany, as “the main business lies to the east.” The whole Allied force would press the Germans back to the Seine, with Patton’s army exploiting their open flank to conduct a long envelopment to expedite the process. The enemy would be crushed on the obstacle.

Montgomery’s appreciation was logical—but wrong. As happens so often in war, the enemy chose the one course of action that had not been considered—on this occasion, because of its likely disastrous consequences for the Germans. The Allies were fashioning a noose, and the enemy, obligingly, placed his head in it by mounting the Avranches counterattack. After discussing the matter with Eisenhower, Bradley proposed the short hook on 8 August as a variant on Montgomery’s operational idea. The latter willingly adopted it, at least provisionally, with the proviso that the long envelopment option be retained in case a speedy junction could not be achieved in the Falaise-Argentan area.

In the early days of August, Montgomery displayed sound operational judgment and, at the same time, flexibility in his approach. He kept the principal aim firmly in mind: destruction of the enemy’s main forces. Territorial gains, even those that were central to the Overlord plan, such as the Brittany ports, were secondary considerations; they would be achieved, sooner or later, with the enemy’s elimination. The implied gamble—that sufficient Channel port capacity could be taken quickly—was worthwhile, given that delay in taking the ports would be no worse than waiting for the Brittany alternatives, and at least the Channel ports were considerably nearer to Germany. Relentless offensive action was to be maintained, with an emphasis on hitting the enemy where he was most vulnerable, on his weak flank. This would retain the initiative, prolong the effects of surprise, and keep the enemy off balance. It was, however, debatable whether there was a sufficiently clear delineation of main and supporting efforts, both within the land forces as a whole and within 21 Army Group, and the consequent requirements for concentration. It is, of course, arguable that such distinctions carried less weight during pursuit, when attacking all along the front is more justified than when the enemy is balanced and in the possession of reserves. An economy of force approach was obviously intended for Brittany.

Unfortunately, Montgomery appeared to lose some focus and clarity of purpose as the month wore on. By unexpectedly switching 21 Army Group’s attack from the left to right flank at the end of July, he had achieved surprise and sufficient concentration to make gains on an axis and at a time that greatly helped the development of the Americans’ Cobra offensive. However, Second Army’s attack had definitely culminated by 11 August at the latest, despite its reinforcement by an infantry division and an armored brigade a week before. Moreover, with the adoption of the short encirclement, the main effort clearly should have shifted back to the east. If Canadian First Army’s attack to close the pocket at Argentan from the north were to succeed quickly, it needed weight. This point was emphasized when Operation Totalize ran out of steam by 10 August, when it was still more than 30 km (18 miles) short of the town. It would be renewed under the new designation Tractable on 14 August, a day after XV Corps reached Argentan (and six days after the German effort at Mortain failed). That day, too, Montgomery directed that in addition to taking Falaise, the offensive would be extended almost 20 km (12 miles) to the east to include Trun. The next day, offensive action would also be mounted by I Corps, which was to attack toward Lisieux, 40 km (25 miles) due east of Caen. Thus, First Canadian Army would be responsible for approximately 60 km (40 miles) of frontage and attacks on two divergent axes.

The preponderance of 21 Army Group’s strength still lay with Second Army, even though it had only about half the frontage of First Canadian Army and its attacks, if effective, would drive the enemy out of the trap being set by the latter. In the middle of the month, Dempsey had six infantry and three armored divisions and four independent armored brigades; Crerar had four infantry, a small airborne, and two armored divisions and three brigades. Not until 15 August was one division sent from Dempsey’s Second to Crerar’s First Canadian, and that was the sum total of the shift of emphasis (even though two other divisions were out of the line, resting). Montgomery told Dempsey to move his main effort to his left flank, to support XII Corps’ drive on Falaise, but that was an inadequate response to the problem, given the nature of the terrain it had to cross and the limited number of routes and deployment room. First Canadian Army was plainly overtasked, and the limited help it received from its right was barely a palliative.

Montgomery must therefore take considerable responsibility for the failure to seal the Falaise pocket in good time and in adequate strength, whether in the Falaise-Argentan area or the Trun area. Crerar could have made good use of another corps HQ and four to five divisions or brigades to widen and accelerate his offensive southward. It is possible, of course, that Montgomery never really believed in the short hook idea or that he became disillusioned by the slow, halting nature of the Canadian advance and was therefore unwilling to invest heavily in it. It is noticeable that, when meeting with Bradley and Dempsey on 11 August, he did not suggest an alternative method of closing the pocket—shifting the army group boundary northward and calling for a reinforced US First Army effort in an attack north from Argentan. His M518 of that date certainly suggested doubts about the short encirclement and a renewed interest in the long envelopment, “should it appear likely that the enemy may escape us here.”

If he had really given up on the short hook, he should have put more combat power into the northern wing of the deep envelopment on a general Mezidon-Lisieux-Rouen axis to play his part in sealing German exits over the Seine. The very weak and increasingly overextended LXXXVI Corps would not have been able seriously to delay a force more than twice as strong as the I Corps drive. Moreover, he could have contemplated an airborne operation on the east bank of the Seine to interrupt Fifth Panzer Army’s resupply and escape routes and establish bridgeheads for a subsequent advance to the north. Montgomery failed to recognize that, even before the middle of August, Second Army had become an operational backwater, and decisive effect could be achieved only on 21 Army Group’s left. This failure to assess priorities correctly was a serious lapse in judgment.

It is, of course, appropriate for a land forces or army group commander to be less concerned with current operations than with the big picture and the development of optimal concepts for the next one or even two operations. Thus, from his 17 August conference with Bradley until the end of the month, Montgomery was increasingly preoccupied with shaping the post-Normandy campaign according to his preferred course of action. Already afflicted with “victory disease”—the belief that whatever the Germans salvaged from the wreck of Army Group B would be of no future significance—he regarded the ongoing battle as having a foregone conclusion that required no further input from him. In lobbying to get his way in the next round of the game, he took his eye off the ball in the current round. Given his subordinates’ dependence on his guidance—a reliance he had assiduously fostered—this proved unfortunate. His armies pursued territorial gains, not the destruction of the enemy, and they did so with habitual caution and only a moderate expenditure of effort (and therefore casualties). Similarly, he allowed the air forces to lose the correct focus for their activities; interdiction on the Seine was largely dropped in favor of deeper missions, allowing the Germans to carry out crossings in broad daylight. The long envelopment fell short of annihilating the enemy.

Most of the desirable attributes of command are evident in Montgomery’s handling of the climax of the Normandy campaign. However, his character prevented him from being a good coalition commander or, in many ways, even a good subordinate. He had a natural talent for getting people’s backs up, especially the Americans’. He did make an effort to deal with his US ally with more sensitivity and less arrogance than a year or even a month or two earlier (i.e., before his prestige, and with it his security of tenure, had been shaken by the Goodwood failure). This, for instance, was apparently the cause of his sudden and arbitrary change of the inter–army group boundary on 1 August, preventing VIII British Corps from taking the important and defenseless town of Vire. Later he handled Bradley with admirable tact, consulting him before issuing directives, and he exhibited patience and discretion in view of Bradley’s vacillations. Montgomery was also reasonably patient with and supportive of Crerar, although the latter had no doubt that his army group commander wanted to replace him, ideally with Simonds. Certainly Montgomery had small faith in Crerar’s abilities and reposed much greater trust in Dempsey. Alas, it was impossible to erase the negative perceptions built up since the campaign in Tunisia eighteen months before. Most Americans, including his Supreme Commander and especially his fellow army group commander, had developed a strong distaste for Montgomery’s arrogance, his refusal to admit error, and his style of discussion, which always sounded didactic at best and insufferably patronizing at worst. Characteristically, he did not understand the antipathy generated by his manner and dogmatism until post-Normandy operations were well under way. This failure would have unfortunate repercussions.

It is possible that his distrust of Crerar dissuaded Montgomery from reinforcing First Canadian Army to the level required by its necessarily enhanced role beginning on 8 August. If that is the case, then he allowed prejudice to distort his understanding of the operational situation (including the unfortunate truth that a less experienced or less able subordinate often needs more resources to accomplish a mission than a more gifted colleague would require). Certainly, his insight, professional judgment, and flexibility were deficient in the critical last three weeks of August.

Montgomery was frequently criticized by Americans for his excessive caution. Though he was generally risk averse (and not without reason), this criticism was not wholly justified. It is perhaps easy to note the deliberate, often plodding tactical methods favored by the British and extrapolate an equal lack of operational imagination and risk taking (as there had been in North Africa and Italy). However, Montgomery’s early modification of the Overlord plan was audacious, especially logistically, as well as decisive and perceptive. So, to an extent, was the concept of the long envelopment, and he always approved of Patton’s bold, sweeping advances, whereas Bradley expressed concern and suggested the desirability of pauses. In September Montgomery would display a daring that the uncharitable could describe as rash, but other than that, he rarely departed from the tried, tested, and conventional. It can be argued, of course, that, given the Allies’ overwhelming strength, there was no need for risk taking—but that would overlook the fact that greater operational daring might have brought an earlier victory at less cost and with a more advantageous postwar political situation.

12 Army Group: Lieutenant General Bradley. Bradley’s elevation to command of the newly activated army group could not have come at a more promising or challenging time. The development of Operation Cobra had created the longed-for breakout, ending weeks of semistalemate, and Third Army was about to enter the fray to exploit. Bradley was not as quick as Montgomery to conclude that Brittany was now a less critical objective and, in fact, one that was unlikely to pay a worthwhile dividend if the Cherbourg experience was any guide. By 3 August, though, the ease with which 79 Division had executed its flank-defensive deployment to Fougères had convinced him that XV Corps could push southeast to the Mayenne River. He was soon receptive to the idea of only a minimal deployment into Brittany and a Third Army drive on the Seine, as propounded in Montgomery’s M516.

There is little doubt that Patton could have closed on the Seine in plenty of time to seal the river against retreating German forces. After all, XV Corps could have advanced from Le Mans to reach Mantes-Gassicourt in a mere six days or less, had it not been diverted north and thereafter received two stop orders. From Mantes it could have turned north up the east bank, perhaps to link up with an airborne corps drop on its lower stretch (north of Louviers or Elbeuf). The rest of Third Army, reinforced at the expense of First Army, would form the inner southern wing of encirclement and strike into the flank of the retreating Germans. Any attempted breakout would be unlikely to succeed in the face of superior American mobility, armored strength, and airpower, not to mention British and First Army pressure to fix the defenders. While First Army would lose a corps to Third Army in this scenario, it could have assumed control of VIII Corps operations in Brittany as a replacement.

The concept of the short hook, born of the Germans’ colossal error of judgment when they attacked at Mortain, also had some merit. It was a “shallower and surer move,” as Bradley described it, and it would not strain the logistic system as much as the long one would. It was undoubtedly less radical than the envelopment at the Seine and perhaps more likely to fail. If the enemy perceived his peril in good time and reacted expeditiously (which was likely), he might well succeed in pulling most of his forces the 60 km (40 miles) back over the Orne before XV Corps could advance the 80 km (50 miles) from Le Mans to Argentan—assuming I SS Panzer Corps could prevent a reasonably brisk Canadian advance of 50 km (30 miles) from Caen to Argentan. This plan also ignored the fact that the continuing attacks by First and Second Armies would, if successful, drive the enemy out of the pocket before it was fully formed. In the event, however, the Germans, thanks to Hitler, were very slow to respond to the threatened encirclement; this failure was offset by the poor progress of the Canadians, who took nine days to advance just under 30 km (18 miles). Many Americans unfairly blamed Montgomery’s perennial caution, but Patton was convinced, correctly, that XV Corps could have pressed on to Falaise to close the pocket if it had not been denied permission to do so by Bradley. The latter produced various unconvincing rationalizations for his 13 August stop order: the sacrosanct nature of the army group boundary (which had already been crossed and was clearly negotiable); reluctance to take Falaise for fearing of offending British sensibilities (risible); the fear of a fratricidal meeting between Americans and their allies (avoidable with good staff cooperation, Phantom patrols, and special liaison officers and, in practice, a nonproblem at Chambois and later on the Seine); and, contradictorily, the idea that too many German formations had already escaped (not what most intelligence was reporting at the time). The true reason was his preference “for a solid shoulder at Argentan to the possibility of a broken neck at Falaise. . . . Nineteen German divisions [sic] were now stampeding to escape the trap,” and Haislip’s corps would not have been able to hold them. XV Corps would transition to the defense, relinquishing the role of hammer for one of anvil while waiting for the Canadians to turn up. If the encirclement failed, it would not be Bradley’s fault.

The fact that XV Corps was somewhat out on a limb actually was Bradley’s fault. His short hook scheme of maneuver was not part of a holistic army group plan. It merely involved a change of axis for some of Third Army. He should have ordered First Army to ease up on its frontal attacks to create a new attack grouping, based on 1 Infantry and 3 Armored Divisions, which were already in the Mayenne area; this grouping then should have attacked as Four early as possible on the la Ferté axis to close the gap with Haislip, strengthen his flank, and broaden the threat to the enemy’s. This was not done in a timely fashion, and Bradley would not yet countenance the release of 4 and 6 Armored from Brittany or the early return of 35 Division to Patton. Worse, he dispatched the two pinched-out infantry divisions of V Corps to besiege Brest, more than 300 km (185 miles) to the west, despite previously acknowledging the greatly reduced relevance of Brittany operations and the need to concentrate on destroying the enemy in Normandy.

Actually, by 13 August, VII Corps was belatedly advancing from Mayenne and meeting so little resistance that its progress was rapid; by the next day, it would close the gap to a mere 10 km (6 miles). This ought to have caused Bradley to rethink the stop order. So too should have the available intelligence, most of which indicated that the enemy had not begun a major withdrawal. The Germans had been contemplating a counterattack to the southeast, but their command and control was patchy, their logistic situation was dire, their every daylight move was subject to air attack, and their armored strength was reduced to fewer than eighty tanks and SP guns, all of which Bradley knew. With well over 500 tanks and tank destroyers, superior artillery, and abundant air support, not to mention elements of XX Corps behind it and VII Corps coming up fast on its left, was XV Corps really in mortal danger of being “trampled . . . in the onrush”?

In vetoing a further offensive American role in the short hook, Bradley was, as Patton would have put it, “taking counsel of his fears.” Whether or not the judgment was correct, it was surely wrong of Bradley not to discuss one of the most critical decisions of the Normandy campaign and its implications and alternative courses of action with his land forces commander when he met with Montgomery and Dempsey just after noon on 13 August. Instead, prompted by a frustrated Patton, he plumped the next day for a reversion to the march on the Seine by half of XV Corps and all of XX and XII Corps. Their six divisions set off at ninety degrees to the northerly axis agreed on with Montgomery, and by 16 August, Patton had four divisions in the Dreux-Chartres area and another two approaching Orléans. Bradley was presumably embarrassed when, on 15 August, Montgomery proposed a new junction for the Canadians and Americans at Trun, as well as continuing with the long hook. By this time, only three divisions were left in the Argentan area. In implementing his part of this renewed attack, Bradley so confused the arrangements for command and control that it went in only on 18 August—five days after a stronger blow could have been delivered against a weaker enemy, and two days after the Germans had been allowed to begin a full-scale retreat (untroubled, since 17 August, by Allied air attack, now that the pocket was too small to allow the drawing of bomb lines).

Bradley seemingly alternated between boldness and doubt, between force-oriented and terrain goals. His vacillation resulted in a dispersal of effort, with no clear operational focus. At the decisive place in mid-August—the Argentan area—there were only three divisions out of his immediately available eighteen, and only one of these managed to advance far enough to link up with the Canadians. Bradley’s hasty, poorly thought-out improvisations had dissipated his forces and thus condemned his own proposal—the short hook—to at least partial failure as enemy forces belatedly flooded through the open neck of the pocket.