Chapter 17


In mid-August the long suffering German army group in Normandy began at last to implode.


On 12 August, Hausser confessed to Meindl the extent of the failure of Operation Lüttich.

‘Our own attack on Avranches did not win through. On the left wing of our troops the enemy has now complete freedom to move into Brittany and the plains of France. How long sizeable villages will hold out under the “fighting commanders” is uncertain... An attempt must therefore be made in collaboration with our neighbours to avoid encirclement by a strong retreat movement in depth carried out at night. Our first destination will be east of the Orne. How far do you think the II. Paratroop Corps can be expected to get in one night?’1

Meindl might well have reminded his army commander of advice he had given only days earlier, when Hausser had stopped by for an update on the general situation. Informed of the forthcoming Mortain counter-attack, Meindl later claimed that his response to his superior had been derisive:


SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser.

‘I really could not help it. I had to laugh... “You surely don’t believe that would succeed.” An attack, with the enemy enjoying such complete air superiority could not penetrate very far.’

Whether these comments were truly prophetic or recounted with benefit of later hindsight, there can be little doubt of Meindl’s true feelings during the first week of August. For too long his beloved Fallschirmjäger had been skilfully holding sections of the line while formations to either side withered away and left them exposed in forward positions, their flanks at risk until they executed hasty (and often unauthorized) withdrawals.

Then, Meindl had proposed that 7. Armee be saved by gathering all available tanks, assault guns, anti-aircraft and motorized units into a deeply echeloned defence, covering the withdrawal to safety of all heavier elements, ‘but above all the footsloggers’, in long forced marches to the Seine. Now, in the second week of August, he acceded gratefully to the permission (encouragement!) to begin moving his corps to safety. The retreat itself would present no difficulties, he affirmed: given the fuel and spare tyres urgently required if vehicles were to move; and given clearly defined paths of retreat, ‘because we are now getting a bit cramped for space.’ Meindl hoped in vain. Some fuel was forthcoming; replacement tyres, that unwarlike yet essential aid to a mobile army, were never received. Worst of all, as 7. Armee collapsed into an ever smaller pocket, movement of any sort became difficult; once east of the Orne River, more difficult still.


‘We managed to get the units of the II. Paratroop Corps behind the Orne with great difficulty. After that the whole plan went to pieces. The batteries were then unable even to change their position, the supplies promised by the 7. Army failed to appear; they couldn’t be brought up in the daytime on account of the enemy fliers, and in the night the roads were so congested that it was impossible then too... The chaos on the roads was already eloquent of the coming catastrophe... Even the ambulances and gasoline trucks could hardly move through the undisciplined stream of “semi-soldiers” ... I discerned already the first signs of an overall panic.’


On 14 August, General Eisenhower issued an order-of-the-day calling upon every man in the Allied armies to take full advantage of a fleeting opportunity to achieve decisive victory in France. BBC Reporter Robert Barr recalled,

‘He sent it to the field commanders to be forwarded and read to the men in the front line – the troops in the field, to pilots on the air strips, and to naval units on patrol at sea... Here at his command post this morning it was decided to flash the order of the day to London, and to have it broadcast immediately and to have it broadcast again and again.’2

The 15th Scottish heard the news in their encampments around St-Pierre-Tarentain. ‘There was no elation. The price had been high, and all were too tired to rejoice.’3 At VIII Corps headquarters there was downright disappointment. To their east, XXX Corps was now on the move towards Condé-sur-Noireau, and thenceforth through Falaise and on to the Seine. To their south, American V Corps was advancing on Argentan. VIII Corps was ‘pinched out’. Already on 14 August, 11th Armoured Division passed to XXX Corps – the clearest sign of all as to where priorities lay. But VIII Corps had reason to be proud of its achievements. Its historian concluded that these,

‘were of the highest importance to the whole Allied plan, and in particular to the break-through of the American Armies... the breaching of the Seventh Army lines south of Caumont in the centre of the Allied front came as a complete surprise to the enemy at a moment when his attention was focused on its limits.’4

The commander of 11th Armoured Division had little doubt as to what had been achieved:

‘Our advance south from the Bény Bocage ridge had drawn and held the only German reserves, to the great advantage of Patton’s army.’5 A Guards chronicler concurred: ‘As General Eisenhower afterwards acknowledged, it was the unceasing British pressure which prevented the Germans from massing their armour to launch an effective attack.’ Nevertheless, as that same commentator ruefully admitted, ‘The eyes of the world were fixed on the spectacular American advances farther west. Nobody, except the Germans, paid much attention to the two British armoured divisions whose unexpected presence and unannounced deaths in obscure Norman orchards had made these advances possible.’

The success of Operation BLUECOAT was not destined to be afforded the limelight in histories of the campaign.6

For many soldiers, the end of the battle for Normandy was a time for relaxation as well as reflection. 6th Guards Tank Brigade found time for tank maintenance and clothes washing. Then arrived soft rations in place of the fourteen-man Compo boxes (so awkward to divide between a five-man crew). Footballs emerged from battalion stores buried deep in the Echelon lorries, and matches were organized. ENSA concerts were held, including one starring George Formby. Parties went off to bathe in the Souleuvre.

The Guards Armoured Division ended the month of August in relaxed mood. 3rd Irish, ‘had completely forgotten there was a war on.’ A children’s party was organized and the local mayor and priest invited to send thirty children. The entire juvenile population turned up – 110 hungry young people, accompanied by solemn parents embarrassing Guardsmen with demonstrations of affectionate gratitude. ‘The battalion now understood why most of the French they had seen so far were so well dressed – the French always put on their best clothes to be liberated.’7 The battalion left the tranquillity of this welcoming village on 29 August; the next day they crossed the Seine at Vernon, and September found them on the open road to Brussels.

As for the tanks, the 2nd Irish Guards also rested, celebrating their reversion to 5th Guards Brigade and the return of Brigadier Gwatkin, now sporting ‘a small becoming scar on his cheek.’ General Montgomery visited the battalion, accompanied by the Secretary of State for War, and delivering the message that, ‘We have nothing to fear from the Tiger and the Panther tanks; they are unreliable mechanically, and the Panther is very vulnerable from the flanks. Our 17-pdr. will go right through them.’ Some tank commanders reflected that this was all very well so long as one was prepared to lose six Sherman tanks for every one German.8 On 28 August, with the tanks sitting idle on transporters, a demonstration was given of the new ‘Rhino’ attachment: iron prongs designed to punch through bocage hedgerows. These were considered a great success, the only pity being that they arrived too late. The battalion carried a lorry load into Holland, only dumping them at Christmas time, ‘as they were no use for canals.’

Even for those still fighting, there were moments of light relief made possible by the rapidity of the enemy withdrawal.

‘A fire-plan of vast proportions, employing a huge number of medium guns, was worked out. When everything was ready and the total destruction of Tinchebray had become a regrettable certainty, the most forward troops were shocked to see one of the Norfolk’s water trucks motoring back up the road from the doomed town... where he [the lone driver] had found no-one except the excited populace whom he therefore liberated.’9


Many years after the war, a former officer of the Ayrshire Yeomanry revisited Normandy.

On his return, ‘Back home in England it was agreeable to report to Lieutenant-Colonel Powle, MC, that “the bridge at 637436 is clear of enemy and still intact”.’ 10

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