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Chapter 11:

Falaise Kessel

The defeat of the German armies in Normandy.

While Kurt Meyer’s panzer crews were duelling with Montgomery’s tanks on the road out of Caen, the German front in Normandy was in the process of collapsing. Everywhere Allied spearheads were probing forward and meeting ever-weaker resistance. South of Caen the Canadians and Poles were pushing towards Falaise, facing the remnants of the Fifth Panzer Army, now under the command of “Sepp” Dietrich. In the centre of the Allied line, the British Second Army was continuing to follow up Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps through Vire. To the east of Mortain, the depleted German forces that had tried to break through to Avranches were staging a fighting retreat under the command of Paul Hausser’s Seventh Army. Patton’s Third Army was racing eastwards past Le Mans and on 8 August it turned northwards, aiming for Argentan. Five days later, American tanks were outside the town, barely 32km (20 miles) away from the Canadians at Falaise.

Hans von Kluge, the commander of Army Group B, was pleading with Hitler to allow a withdrawal of the 400,000 troops which were now threatened with encirclement. The Führer ordered Kluge to stand and fight. The German armies were now being pressed into an ever-smaller area between Falaise and Argentan, and relentlessly pounded with artillery and air strikes. Kluge drove to visit Dietrich’s headquarters on 15 August, and got stuck in the maelstrom for several hours after his convoy was strafed by Allied fighters and his radio truck destroyed. Suspicious that Kluge had been trying to negotiate a surrender with the Allies during the time he was out of radio contact, Hitler ordered him back to Berlin. Fearful of his fate once he was away from his headquarters, Kluge bit on a cyanide capsule and was dead in seconds. The next most senior general in Normandy was Hausser, so he was appointed to command all the troops trapped in the Falaise Kessel (or kettle). This was the German term for encircled troops and was apt. With every hour the Allies were increasing the pressure on the trapped troops until it was reaching boiling point.

No matter what orders Hitler issued from his East Prussian bunker, the commanders and troops on the ground in France were starting to take matters into their own hands. Kluge’s replacement, Field Marshal Walther Model, reluctantly agreed to order a withdrawal on the 16th to set up a new line on the Dives River, but the senior Waffen-SS officers, who now held all the important commands in the Kessel, had been pulling back for five days. They had realized that the battle was lost and that every effort had to be made to get as many troops out of the Kessel as possible.

The Leibstandarte, Das Reich and 17th SS Divisions east of Mortain had been the shoot up the rest of them with their rockets and cannon. When they had finished, Spitfires would dive down to strafe the remains.

Chaos in the Kessel

Elements of 23 German divisions were in the Kessel. Command and control was breaking down; the frontline was being held by only small determined groups of men formed into ad hoc Kampfgruppen. The Allied pincers were closing in and, late on 18 August, a corridor only a few kilometres wide remained open. Hitler now tried to pretend that a new front should be established on the Seine. All that the German commanders in the pocket were worried about was getting out alive.

Hausser ordered the II SS Panzer Corps and Das Reich, which were now outside the Kessel, to hold open a corridor for the remainder of the troops trapped inside. During the afternoon of 19 August, escape orders were issued at an impromptu conference in a quarry. Hausser, Meyer, Teddy Wisch of the Leibstandarte and the three senior army officers left in the Kessel worked out the plan.

The last remaining tanks were put at the head of columns and the breakout began. The now wounded Meyer himself led one column, riding in the turret of a Panzer IV, tank accompanied by his chief of staff, SS-Sturmbannfürhrer Hubert Meyer. Eventually, the Hitlerjugend command group was forced to make their way on foot through the night until they reached German lines.

During the early hours of 20 August, Das Reich scraped together its last 20 tanks to launch a final attack to keep the escape route open. All day the Waffen-SS men battled to keep the Polish 1st Armoured Division at bay, thereby allowing the trapped Hitlerjugend and Leibstandarte Kampfgruppen to reach safety. Inside one of their armoured halftracks was the badly wounded Hausser, who had lost an eye during an artillery strike. It took the Allies two days to clean up the remnants of resistance inside the Kessel, taking 50,000 prisoners and finding 10,000 dead Germans in the carnage. More than 3000 vehicles had been left behind, including 187 tanks, 252 artillery pieces, 157 light armoured vehicles, 1778 trucks and 669 staff cars.

Waffen-SS casualties controversy

Controversy surrounds the casualties inflicted on the Waffen-SS divisions during this terrible ordeal, with some sources trying to claim they were reduced to little more than a few thousand men each. The Hitlerjugend reported its strength on 22 August as 12,500 men; Leibstandarte got away with 17,000 men; and Das Reich also reported being only 7000 men short, giving it a strength of 14–15,000 men. The two divisions of II SS Panzer Corps suffered a similar level of losses, around 5000 men each, for the whole Normandy campaign. By far the heaviest losses in the Normandy campaign were suffered by the 17th SS Division, which lost nearly 8000 men. The misreporting of the losses is due to two factors. Firstly, lightly wounded casualties were kept with divisions and returned to duty as soon as possible. Secondly, divisional commanders often only reported their “frontline” strength, rather than total manpower strength, as a means to pressure higher commanders to give them reinforcements. It is clear that the vast majority of the corps-level and divisional Waffen-SS administrative, supply and maintenance units escaped from the Falaise Kessel long before the Allied pincers snapped shut.

Decimated panzer regiments

All the Waffen-SS panzer regiments were crippled during the Falaise battles. Few got away with more than 20 tanks, and Bittrich’s corps reported on 21 August it had no operational tanks at all. More importantly, many vehicles under repair had to be abandoned in the pocket, meaning no replacement tanks could be returned to action. They would have to wait until they reached Germany to receive new vehicles.

Far more damage was done during the retreat across France to the German border in the last week of August and first two weeks of September. Allied air attacks and ambushes by French and Belgian resistance fighters inflicted a steady stream of losses on the German convoys.

Hitler’s idea of forming a new line on the Seine was a non-starter. Paris fell on 25 August following an uprising by the French resistance. Dietrich tried to form another line on the Somme with the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Hitlerjugend Divisions a couple of days later, but it was soon outflanked and the divisions retreated back to Germany through the Ardennes region of Belgium.

Resistance fighters ambushed a number of their convoys, including one carrying Kurt Meyer on 6 September. The Hitlerjugend’s famous commander was captured and, realizing the value of their prize, the Belgians kept him alive and handed him over to the Allies.

map 13

The Falaise Pocket: 15–17 August, 1944

II SS Panzer Corps fought a stiff rearguard action against the Americans near Cambrai on 2 September. The Hohenstaufen’s remaining 88mm guns were deployed to blunt a tank attack and allow the rest of the corps to break free. The division’s 32-year-old commander, SS-Obersturmbannführer Walther Harzer, remained behind to control the battle from his command halftrack. Harzer had taken over from the wounded Sylvester Stadler a few days earlier, and he was determined to make the Americans pay a heavy price for getting past his small Kampfgruppe. More than 200 Shermans appeared later on in the morning. Harzer’s gunners engaged them at their maximum range of 3000m (3280yd) in order to inflict the maximum delay on the American pursuit. It worked.

It took the US GIs all day to get past the Waffen-SS lines, and they lost 40 tanks in the process. His mission accomplished, Harzer ordered a withdrawal, but found his small command group was cut off. For three days it was behind Allied lines, dodging between British tank columns and stealing petrol and other supplies until it made contact with German troops who were retreating through Brussels.

The battered and tired remnants of the Waffen-SS panzers divisions were not welcomed back to Germany as heroes and given a well-earned rest. They were immediately told to get their units ready for action. Hitler was determined to continue fighting. Ad hoc Kampfgruppen were formed and sent to bolster the defences along the Third Reich’s western frontier. The front was barely held together at all by the 24 infantry and 11 panzer “divisions” that Model had under his command on 29 August.

The Wehrmacht which was stationed in the West was now a shadow of the force Rommel had used in his attempt to beat back the Allied invasion in June. During the 10 weeks of fighting since the Allies had landed in Normandy, the German forces had lost 23,109 dead, 67,240 wounded and 198,616 missing or taken prisoner. Almost 1500 of the 2248 tanks sent to Normandy had been destroyed, decimated or captured by the Allies.

Materiel superiority

Allied losses during this period had been as grim as those incurred by the Germans. They numbered 36,976 dead out of a total of 209,672 casualties. The Germans forces, in particular the Waffen-SS, had made the Allies pay dearly for their victory.

Nevertheless, ultimately the tactical skill and fighting spirit of men like Meyer and Wittmann had not been able to compensate for the overwhelming materiel superiority of the Allies.

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