Today, the narrow lanes around the village of Moissy in France’s Dives Valley are peaceful. It’s hard to believe that in the summer of 1944 they witnessed unthinkable destruction during the conclusive battle of the Normandy campaign, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.
By mid-July of that year, the Allies had established a foothold in Europe but were yet to break through German lines in Normandy. They planned to do so in two steps.
On 18 July the British launched Operation Goodwood, an offensive to complete the capture of Caen, which was an outstanding objective of the D-Day operation. The action around Caen drew German armour east, away from the Americans at Saint-Lo.
The US operation, Cobra, began on 25 July. It opened with an intense Allied aerial bombardment of a section of the German line west of Saint-Lo. With supplies running low and their armoured reserves tied down at Caen, the German defence crumbled and the Americans were able to punch through the resulting gap.
The Germans fell back in both areas. The Americans spilled south and east, while the British and Canadians pushed south.
Despite a chronic shortage of resources and low morale amid the German troops, Hitler insisted on a new counter offensive in Normandy. Commander of the German Army’s Group B, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, acquiesced to the Nazi leader’s demands despite protests from his officers.
Operation Luttich launched on 7 August with the aim of splitting the Allies apart. In places, the Germans pushed several miles into American lines but, after six days and heavy Allied air attacks, the offensive stalled.
German casualties were high. Worse still, the Germans had buried themselves even deeper behind Allied lines in a pocket around the area of Falaise. This left them vulnerable to envelopment.
A plan for envelopment
An opportunity for such an envelopment to take place soon presented itself to the Allies. On 8 August, Allied commander Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery ordered British and Canadian forces, who were by then pressing on Falaise, to push south-east toward Trun and Chambois in the Dives Valley.
The Americans, meanwhile, were to head for Argentan. Between them, they would envelop German Army Group B.
On 16 August, Hitler ordered a withdrawal but it was too late. At that point, the only available escape route – between Chambois and St Lambert – measured just two miles.
The Polish cork
The 1st Polish Armoured Division, which arrived in Normandy in early August, was attached to the Canadian Army during the operations around Falaise.
On 19 August, as thousands of German soldiers from Army Group B were escaping through the Chambois-St Lambert gap, the Poles captured Hill 262, a ridge overlooking the escape route.
Cut off from reinforcements, and short of ammunition, 1,500 Poles now faced 100,000 desperate retreating German soldiers. For two days they held out against furious German assaults until they were finally reinforced by the Canadians.
Addressing the Polish forces, who lost 350 men at Hill 262, Montgomery said:
“The Germans were trapped as if in a bottle; you were the cork in that bottle.”
The pocket is sealed
On 21 August, the Falaise Pocket was sealed. Around 60,000 soldiers of Army Group B were trapped inside, 50,000 of whom were taken prisoner. In the region of 10,000 were killed by artillery or air strikes inside the pocket.
The narrow lanes that formed the final escape route were littered with human and animal corpses and burnt-out vehicles. Two days after the battle, US General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the site:
“The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest ‘killing fields’ of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante.”