Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Falaise-Argentan Pocket (August 1944)

Military opportunity in France in which Allied forces failed to trap a significant portion of retreating German forces. In July 1944, U.S. Operation cobra broke the monthlong stalemate in Normandy and shattered the German defensive lines, creating a war of movement. Third Army commander Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. envisaged a drive on the Seine River and the liberation of Paris, but a politically less dramatic and strategically more important opportunity soon developed: trapping German forces west of the Seine. If this could be accomplished, the Allied advance east to Germany would be greatly eased and the war shortened.

On 7 August, German forces counterattacked with elements of four panzer divisions at the express order of Adolf Hitler and over the opposition of Field Marshal Günther Hans von Kluge, commander of Army Group B and commander in chief west. Kluge was convinced the attack was doomed from the start. It would drive German forces into the heart of the planned Allied envelopment. Unfortunately for the Allies, it did slow the Canadian push to Falaise.

At this point, however, Allied planning began to break down. Patton suggested a deeper envelopment that would net all the Germans west of the Seine. However, his superior, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of 12th Army Group, rejected this and insisted on a shorter hook. On 10 August, Patton then turned units north from Le Mans, and by 12 August he had taken Alençon. The speed of Patton's movements surprised all concerned. The opportunity to close the Falaise pocket seemed in the offing.

Excluding forces in the Brittany peninsula, there were then some 350,000 German troops west of the Seine. About half were caught in the Falaise pocket, their only route of escape the 15-mile-wide Falaise gap. If American forces could close this, the envelopment would be complete.

At this point, with success apparently in hand, the cautious Bradley ordered Patton to hold at Argentan. Officially, this was to avoid a chance head-on meeting between the two converging Allied armies. but Bradley was clearly concerned about Patton's willingness to leave his flanks open. Patton regarded the risk as both limited and worth taking. Continued slow movement by British and Canadian forces from the north left the pocket open. Allied ineptness, more than German courage and skill, was the primary reason the trap was not closed in time.

Primary responsibility for this failure rests with Bradley, 21st Army Group commander General Bernard L. Montgomery, and Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Bradley wanted to take no chances, and Eisenhower preferred to let his subordinates work out strategic and tactical decisions on their own. Eisenhower failed to step in and bring the three competing generals—Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton—to consensus or to order a common plan. Montgomery failed to push his subordinate commanders hard enough, but there were also logistical problems. Other Allied military leaders, including commander of the British Second Army Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, Canadian First Army commander Lieutenant General Henry Crerar, and Free French 2nd Armored Division commander Major General Jacques Leclerc contributed to the disjointed nature of the Allied operation. A subsequent proposal by Patton to turn from his drive to the east and make a deeper envelopment was slow to reach Bradley, who ultimately rejected it.

In the Falaise pocket, the Germans lost approximately 200 tanks, 300 heavy guns, 700 artillery pieces, 5,000 vehicles, and a great many carts and horses. But the personnel losses were considerably less than hoped for—no more than 10,000 Germans killed and 50,000 captured. Some 115,000 well-trained German troops escaped the pocket. In all, 240,000 German soldiers crossed the Seine in the last week of August and established a solid defensive line protecting the western approaches to Germany. In September, the Allied Operation market-garden, a combined-arms assault to cross the lower Rhine River into Germany, was stymied by German units that had escaped from Normandy.

Fred R. van Hartesveldt and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Blumenson, Martin. The Battle of the Generals: The Untold Story of the Falaise Pocket: The Campaign That Should Have Won World War II. New York: William Morrow, 1993.; Hamilton, Nigel. Monty: The Battles of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. New York: Random House, 1994.; Keegan, John. Six Armies in Normandy: From D-Day to the Liberation of Paris. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.; Lucas, James, and James Barker. The Killing Ground: The Battle of the Falaise Gap, August 1944. London: Batsford, 1978.; Whitaker, W. Denis. Victory at Falaise: The Soldiers' Story. Toronto, Canada: HarperCollins, 2000.

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