APPENDIX V

MONTGOMERY, BLUECOAT, AND THE QUESTION OF VIRE

The aim of ‘Over the Battlefield’ is to present a series of detailed narratives of important battles. Going beyond the straightforward narrative to consider ‘what might have been’ can present difficulties. As a distinguished account of Hitler’s war on Russia pointed out: to the familiar question of whether the Germans might have won that campaign ‘but for a few mistakes’, one should respond that the Russians made mistakes too. To correct one side and not the other seems unfair, but trying to correct both becomes absurd.1 Nevertheless, some careful posing of the question ‘what if?’ can be justified. Part of the job of the historian is to demonstrate how events might have turned out differently (unlike a ‘straightforward’ narrative!). Only with an understanding of the range of outcomes which seemed possible at the time when key decisions were made can the decision makers be fairly judged. A case in point is Montgomery’s order to launch Operation BLUECOAT.

THE CHALLENGE

A respected historian has concluded that ‘Montgomery’s directive of 27 July [to execute BLUECOAT] was a major strategic blunder, perhaps the worst of his career.’2 The argument proposed is that the area south of Caen, and specifically the Route Nationale 158 [still today the RN 158] to Falaise, was the vital point at which British 2nd Army needed to apply pressure to the German front. Consequently, a shift of Montgomery’s principal striking force - three armoured divisions, two armoured brigades, and some of his best infantry - to the opposite end of the front might appear a mistake. Especially as two further, experienced British infantry divisions were simultaneously withdrawn into strategic reserve (and one of these later sent west to reinforce BLUECOAT). Others have queried why, if holding the German armoured divisions in the east was central to Montgomery’s strategy, he first forced the Germans to redeploy armour westward to oppose BLUECOAT, and then left the strategic drive on Falaise to inexperienced Canadian and Polish armoured formations.3

MONTGOMERY AND THE FALAISE ROAD

Sadly, it is widely recognised that Montgomery’s record of his Normandy campaign falls somewhat short of being ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. Nevertheless, certain points gleaned from his account may suggest what was in his mind at key moments.

Montgomery’s confident assertion that by 21 July ‘the situation on the eastern flank was now greatly improved’ glossed-over what was seen by many as an expensive failure of Operation GOODWOOD.4 Looking forward, Montgomery aimed ‘to establish our line’ from the River Dives via Évrecy to Caumont (it was at this time that he had offered to assist the Americans by extending his 2nd Army boundary westward to encompass Caumont). No great change, therefore, beyond some classic Montgomery ‘tidying up’. Ultimately, there would be ‘a major attack by Second Army on Falaise early in August’,5 but in the meantime ‘we still needed more ground in the area between the Odon and the Orne.’ So, the focus was still on ‘facilitating the ultimate operations against Falaise.’ And even this could wait until the following month, no doubt reflecting Montgomery’s assumption of the time it would take American operations in the west to yield major results. Nor did the call to ‘hold in reserve a corps containing at least two armoured divisions’ have any novel significance, since these were intended ‘to strike south from our Orne bridgehead.’ That is, in the direction of Falaise.

By his own admission, Montgomery was unsettled by the ‘false start’ of the American Operation COBRA, aborted on 24 July. The apprehension that surprise had been lost by the postponement ‘caused me considerable anxiety,’ and he feared the enemy would strengthen their defences on the First United States Army front. (Ironically, in doing just that, Panzer-Lehrdivision was to move forces forward into the very area designated for carpet bombing when the bomber fleet returned the following day.) It is clear from Montgomery’s account that this fear lay behind his hastening of the Canadian diversionary attack of 25 July (the lamentable Operation SPRING).6 Nor is it unlikely that his concern over the COBRA offensive going off at half-cock lay behind Montgomery’s 25 July call for an immediate (British) 2nd Army operation with ‘no geographical objective’, simply to ease pressure on the Americans.

Miles Dempsey, having previously sold a reluctant chief on his GOODWOOD concept, was now enthused with the possibility of a direct British contribution to the proposed American breakthrough. He promptly came forward with the BLUECOAT idea.7 Montgomery’s memoirs suggest that his own acceptance of this operation was influenced by two factors: the strength of German opposition south of Caen, as confirmed by the failure of SPRING; and the prospect that a heavy blow on the lightly defended Caumont sector might ‘knock away the hinge’ of a retreating German Seventh Army. Nevertheless, in his account of the campaign, Montgomery continually harks back to the Falaise front where he would ‘maintain the maximum offensive activity’ (27 July); ‘maintain pressure in that area’ (3 August). And even on 4 August, with Mont Pinçon ‘the next key rivet’of the enemy line about to fall, ‘The time had now come to deliver the major attack towards Falaise, which had so long been the fundamental aim of our policy on the eastern flank.’

Sadly, when the time came for this ‘major attack’, the forces available on the ground for the main drive south to Falaise (Operation TOTALIZE) comprised inexperienced Canadian and Polish armoured divisions, exhausted Canadian infantry, and the veteran British 51st (Highland) Infantry - under a cloud, under a new leader, and in the words of their own divisional historian, containing ‘too many men who had crossed the starting line too often.’8

MONTGOMERY AND VIRE

As noted above, one of Montgomery’s stated justifications for BLUECOAT was the seizure of the ‘hinge’ on which a retreating 7. Armee (German Seventh Army) might depend. Montgomery foresaw that 7. Armee would be forced by American breakthrough to relinquish its north-facing stance across the base of the Cotentin peninsula. Falling back eastwards into Normandy, the Germans would be dangerously exposed if their flanks were left open, in ‘mid-air’. They would require a firmly held flank position around which to pivot. An obvious choice of pivot or hinge would be the high ground between Caumont and Vire: rough country, dominated by prominent ridges and in particular by Mont Pinçon, the highest feature in Normandy. In theory, excellent defensive terrain.

Montgomery however appears somewhat vague in recording his geographic expectations for BLUECOAT. His memoir speaks of denying the retreating Germans ‘any attempt to pivot on the River Vire or in the area between Torigni and Caumont.’ This sweeping statement covers a very wide swathe of Normandy countryside, extending over twenty miles south of the BLUECOAT starting positions, and not corresponding with any particular military feature other than the generally dense landscape of the ‘Suisse Normande’. Montgomery’s often-quoted claim to have instructed Dempsey to ‘Throw all caution overboard and... step on the gas for Vire’ is so out of character as to demand scrutiny.9 Was Vire really the objective Montgomery had in mind? It was a vital communications and logistics hub, whose loss would be intolerable to the enemy. But the city of Vire was far ahead of the proposed advance, ‘out on a limb’ and unlikely in the short term to become part of any coherent British front. Significantly, the British Second Army’s stated objective for the operation (reflecting Dempsey’s understanding of his chief’s wishes) was less ambitious: ‘to assist directly the advance of First United States Army by preventing the enemy from forming a pivot in the MONT PINCON area.’10 To say the least, Montgomery’s intentions at the time he authorized BLUECOAT appear ambiguous.11

Perhaps also relevant is the shift in objectives during the first days of the British offensive. The VIII Corps Instruction on which was based Operation Orders for 11th Armoured and 15th (Scottish) Divisions, looked no further than protecting the right flank of XXX Corps while advancing as far south as le Bény-Bocage and exploiting as far west as the Petit Aunay road junction. Corps commander General O’Connor responded to the unforeseen opening up of a back road to le Bény-Bocage by extrapolating beyond these original objectives: to Étouvy and ‘the direction of Vire’. Whether Dempsey was party to O’Connor’s hasty reorientation is uncertain. But such appears unlikely, given both the speed at which it was issued (within hours of the capture of the bridge) and Dempsey’s preoccupation at that time with the lack of progress by XXX Corps. On the following day, 1 August, Montgomery made clear that he had no intention of pushing at an open door to take Vire. Nor on that day was Roberts in any hurry to send his division out on a limb; while O’Connor by this time was more concerned with the slow progress of Adair’s Guards Armoured Division (as was Second Army commander Dempsey with that of XXX Corps).

The conclusion reached is that Montgomery allowed himself to be persuaded by Dempsey’s vision for BLUECOAT. On 24 July, the stuttering failure of COBRA to get off the ground offered little prospect of the success to come. Even optimistic Americans looked to a break-through the German line rather than the strategic break-out from Normandy which was to occur within a week.12 Montgomery’s urgent desire to support the Americans led him to look more favourably on Dempsey’s plan. After all, his forces had already been rebuffed on the Bourguébus-Verrières ridge astride the Falaise road. The enemy held that ground in strength, and could be expected to be preparing even stronger positions further along the all-too-predictable route between Caen and Falaise. The whole idea of alternating hammer blows (‘colossal cracks’) on different parts of the line had hitherto involved different routes east and west around Caen and the Orne River; but the principle could reasonably be applied further afield. And, so long as substantial enemy forces continued to be held in place to the south of Caen, the BLUECOAT plan might not necessarily detract from Montgomery’s fundamental campaign strategy.

In this light, Montgomery’s support for BLUECOAT appears opportunistic rather than integral to his own long-term idea for Normandy; tactical rather than strategic in its intent. Montgomery was not committed to reaching the city of Vire, whether as a communications hub or as an objective in its own right. Montgomery was acceding to an opportunity to have an unexpected crack at the enemy where he appeared weak. It appears quite likely that Montgomery’s aspirations did not extend beyond XXX Corps seizing Mont Pinçon, literally the ‘high ground’ of Normandy; and XII Corps the ruins of Villers-Bocage, which would nicely ‘tidy up’ the 2nd Army front line. But what of the enemy response? As late as 6 August, Montgomery states with remarkable candour, ‘I was still not clear what the enemy intended to do.’

THE ENEMY VIEW

If Montgomery’s memoirs need to be approached with care, still more so those of the surviving German generals. When interviewed by their captors, these tended to salve their professional pride with excuses for military failure; also where possible to exculpate themselves from responsibility for the excesses of the Nazi regime. And in latter years, the situation has been turned on its head as a number of survivors, indignant at the political suppression of their stories, find in old age a new willingness to express pride in their (often considerable) military achievements.

One useful witness exceptionally well placed to comment on German dispositions facing 21st Army Group in Normandy was Hans Eberbach, General der Panzertruppen, commanding Panzergruppe West.13 In Eberbach’s opinion, a strategic counter-offensive in the Caen sector was by July no longer a feasible proposition. So (the name of his formation notwithstanding) he felt it appropriate to transfer the centre of gravity of the Panzer forces west, to 7. Armee, ‘the flexible flank’ where their mobility and offensive capability were required. This did not happen. Eberbach denies any friction between his own Panzergruppe West and 7. Armee, insisting instead that the delays in transfer were due to the slow arrival of infantry divisions needed to take over the line in the Caen sector.

By August, Eberbach’s view had altered substantially. When first two Kampfgruppen (of 10. and 12. SS-Panzerdivisionen) were torn from his grasp to oppose the BLUECOAT offensive, followed by the demand for II. SS-Panzerkorps in its entirety to fill the breach north of Vire, he reported that his weakened front would no longer be able to prevent breakthrough at Falaise for long. Shortly after, he was further ordered to release 1. SS-Panzerdivision, the Leibstandarte, to take part in Hitler’s Lüttich Mortain counter-offensive. This was simply impractical. Since the fall of Avranches and the loss of much of its logistic capability, 7. Armee had been forced to draw heavily on Panzergruppe West for its supplies, an exceptionally difficult task given distance, lack of good roads, lack of fuel and tyres, and the short hours of summer night in which to evade Allied airpower. Eberbach simply could not guarantee to continue logistic support for the Lüttich counter-offensive.

As it happened, the arrival from Norway of the replacement 89. Infanteriedivision was delayed (held up trying to cross the Seine westbound, as so many were soon to be held up travelling the other way on their retreat east). In consequence only a part of the Leibstandarte reached the Lüttichstart line in time for the offensive; an entire Panzergrenadierregiment and Panzerbataillon plus other elements were still held south of Caen up to 7 August. Yet again, élite German armoured divisions, designed to work in coordinated harmony, sacrificed effectiveness as their constituent units were thrown into action piecemeal.

As to II. SS-Panzerkorps, it is probably stretching conjecture too far to assess what it might have contributed to the Mortain counter-offensive. What can be concluded is that during the first week of August, Montgomery found that his entire VIII Corps had a tiger by the tail. On the Perrier Ridge, along the Vire-Vassy road, 11th Armoured and Guards Armoured Divisions were locked in combat with the reinforced II. SS-Panzerkorps (the metaphor all the more apt since the corps was indeed reinforced with a powerful Tiger Abteilung). From this there could be no disengaging. Far from sparing any of VIII Corps’ divisions for the coming Falaise offensive, Montgomery now had to insert the experienced 3rd Infantry (‘Iron’) Division into the struggle. And far from 10. SS-Panzerdivision playing its assigned part in Lüttich, by 7 August the Frundsberg division was a shadow of its former strength, at one point reduced to just five operational tanks. Withdrawn from the Vire battle, it could initially send only its reconnaissance Abteilung south to face the American onrush. On 9 August, when the division formed for an attack on American forces in Barenton, the Frundsberg could muster no more than a dozen Panzer IV and Sturmgeschütze. Intriguingly, this was the division which, had it arrived on time and in strength, was allocated the southern wing of the counter-offensive: the relatively open road through St-Hilaire-du-Harcouët, and so to the bridges south of Avranches on which Patton’s Third Army depended.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

As ever, Montgomery’s true motives are masked by the camouflage of his memoirs. And in the case of BLUECOAT his memoirs say very little. As noted above, the American official history can be forgiven for considering that ‘BLUECOAT had its ambiguous aspects.’ Blumenson goes on to discount the idea of BLUECOAT being intended to ‘fix’ the German armoured divisions in the east, arguing that those destined to oppose COBRA were already on their way. Blumenson further proposes that the ‘final purpose’ of BLUECOAT was to unhinge the German Seventh Army, but for this to succeed would require securing ‘a firm pivot point at the town of Vire.’14 If this ever was the purpose, it was quickly abandoned, went unachieved, and certainly was never acknowledged by Montgomery himself.

This author suggests the following conclusions.

Montgomery’s commitment to BLUECOAT was lukewarm. The operation would be supportive of the vital American offensive, and it would do no harm to Montgomery’s standing with his Commander in Chief to be seen to be taking action on a broad front. It would employ underutilized resources: VIII Corps HQ which was temporarily redundant, 11th Armoured Division exercising with ‘artificial moonlight’, and Guards Armoured Division similarly out of the line. It would reunite 15th (Scottish) Division with former colleagues while blooding the newly-arrived 6th Guards Tank Brigade.

Taking Mont Pinçon and the Bois-du-Homme heights would be symbolic and possibly also useful victories (all the more poignant after the departing Americans’ failure to advance south from Caumont). Taking (re-taking!) Villers-Bocage would look well on situation maps, and opening up the useful east-west highway from Villers-Bocage to Caen would neatly ‘tidy up’ the 21st Army Group front. At a higher level, while there can be little doubt of Montgomery’s overriding concern to support the American breakthrough, he does not appear to have shared Dempsey’s conviction that a truly strategic British breakthrough was on the cards.

All this at a time when the German defence line north of Falaise was known to be held strongly and in depth. Little would seemingly be lost by delaying the serious assault that would eventually be required there. And formations involved in BLUECOAT should be close enough to be hurried back to Caen if eventually required. (The extreme efficiency of the staff work which took them westwards could be taken as proof, if proof were needed, that they might as quickly be returned to the east.)

And yet... while XXX Corps’ initial advance stalled, that of VIII Corps ran away beyond all expectation. Adding yet another crisis to the German situation in Normandy, it attracted onto its battleground II. SS-Panzerkorps, still the single strongest formation in Normandy. Whatever further tasks might have been in Montgomery’s mind for the constituent divisions of VIII Corps, this corps now became inextricable from the battle around the Vire-Vassy road. If Montgomery was to provide extra tanks to the Falaise front, 7th Armoured Division might have been considered, but in the end was not to be called upon.15

Lastly, the greatest ‘what if’ of all: the question of Vire. In his important work of 1981, Major Joe How cited the British failure to seize the (virtually) undefended city on 2 August as a major opportunity lost. ‘The failure to seize the town of Vire was a tactical error of great consequence. Its seizure would have been a knockout blow for the German Seventh Army.’16Certainly, British forces taking possession of the place on that day would have presented a mortal threat to 7. Armee. Beyond that, assessing the outcome of the inevitable German response would take us far into the realm of speculation.

Among those best placed to form an assessment was the commander of 11th Armoured Division, whose troops were instrumental in creating the opportunity to seize Vire. ‘The capture of Vire would have made sense, and we could have done that,’ Pip Roberts later recalled, pointing out the utter chaos that could be inflicted on an enemy by ‘an armoured division thrashing about in his rear areas.’ Nevertheless, on sober reflection, ‘I have looked at Vire several times since the war and have been rather thankful that we were not allowed to take it... I believe we would have been rather thin on the ground to achieve an all round defence.’17 As for Montgomery, if he ever seriously considered Vire as a legitimate objective for the British, his boundary change of 1 August explicitly ruled out that goal. True to form, his memoir made no reference to the matter.

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