Normandy to Falaise
A Critique of Allied Operational Planning in 19441
Russell F. Weigley
American and British military thought before World War II neglected the operational art to focus instead on strategy and tactics. It is almost certainly not coincidental that the Anglo-American campaign in France in 1944 conspicuously fell short of achieving all it might have because of a series of controversial command decisions on the operational level.
The Americans and British won spectacular victories, from their landing in France on 6 June 1944 to their arrival at the western frontier of Germany in the late summer and early autumn. But the victories were less spectacular than the Allies had hoped they might be, because they failed to accomplish the complete defeat of Germany before the end of 1944. The hope that Germany might surrender unconditionally before 1945 was by no means unrealistic. It was a hope that might have been fulfilled, with the consequent saving of thousands of lives on both sides and the shortening of the Holocaust - had Allied operational decision-making been more effective.
The planning for Operation OVERLORD encompassed the Anglo-American invasion of northwest France, from the amphibious and airborne assault of the Normandy beaches through the occupation of a lodgment area comprising the rough rectangle west and north of the Rivers Seine and Loire. (See Map 14.) The amphibious assault phase of OVERLORD, code named NEPTUNE, became the most spectacular of all the Allied successes of the 1944 campaign in France. It was so impressive a success largely because a great deal of fear of failure had shadowed the planning for it.
The Gallipoli fiasco of 25 April–20 December 1915, during World War I, had engendered a belief among most of the armed forces of the world - the United States Marine Corps for reasons of service self-preservation excepted - that in modern war against modern defenses, amphibious assaults cannot succeed. This belief persisted throughout the interwar period. It emphasized that amphibious assaults must be essen-
tially like the innumerable failed frontal assaults on the Western Front of 1914–1918, because inherently an amphibious assault must be a head-on attack and not a flanking maneuver. An amphibious assault would be yet more hopeless than attacks on the old Western Front because of the necessity to attack out of the water, with soldiers’ movement impeded and even minor wounds likely to lead to death by drowning. Moreover, there was the necessity to reinforce and resupply by transshipment out of the water. When the planning for the cross-Channel invasion of 1944 began in earnest during the winter of 1943–1944, the Gallipoli syndrome had not yet been exorcised to the extent that we may now imagine. The only amphibious assaults of that time in World War II that had contended against serious resistance on the beaches were Salerno in Italy on 9 September and Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific on 20 November 1943; both had brushed uncomfortably close to failure. Neither Salerno nor Tarawa had presented defenses nearly so formidable as those with which the Germans would guard the northwest coast of France by the spring of 1944.
Finally, fear clouded the NEPTUNE planning. An Anglo-American defeat on the Normandy beaches so late in the war might produce incalculably grave effects upon the whole remaining course of World War II, particularly upon the resolve of war-weary Great Britain and the fate of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s government. For the very reason that the fears were so deep-rooted and severe, to overcome them NEPTUNE became the most meticulously planned endeavor in all military history.
Fortunately for the Allies, NEPTUNE - translated into action on D-Day, 6 June 1944 - rewarded the care of its planners by proceeding so smoothly and effectively that the D-Day invasion was almost an anticlimax. The losses in the invading force that day, somewhat over 10,000 in total with about 2,000 dead,2 were obviously not inconsiderable, but they were certainly fewer than most of the Allied planners and commanders had anticipated. On four of the five assault beaches, there was never any question following the first waves of the landing force that the invasion would stay and would not be pushed back into the water. Even on the Americans’ OMAHA Beach, the only place where during the morning there seemed to be danger of a reversal, doubts were resolved by noon.
But the NEPTUNE planning had been tactical and technological rather than operational. D-Day had been almost anticlimactic in its success because there had been intricately detailed calculation of such tactically important minutiae as considerations of the proper timing of the first landings in relation to tidal conditions - preferably at midpoint on a rising tide so that landing vessels disembarking troops and cargo could readily be re-floated. This also meant that troops would not have to advance the excessive distance across open beaches under enemy fire that would result from landings at low tide. At the same time, the enemy’s beach ob-
stacles were being built from high tide outward and would not yet have advanced far enough to interfere seriously with disembarkation. There were considerations of the appropriate hour of the day for the first landings - about an hour after dawn, so that aerial bombardment and naval gunfire support could have a last go at the enemy during daylight. Thus, the first wave had to go ashore on a day when midpoint of a rising tide occurred about an hour after dawn. There also was reliance on a full or near-full moon during the night before the amphibious landings, so there would be enough light for predawn airborne assaults on both flanks of the landing sites. Therefore, the invasion could occur only when the phase of the moon and the timing of the tides all fitted together like the pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle.3 The technological aspects of the NEPTUNE planning included development of duplex drive (DD) amphibious tanks and other specially fitted tanks for the assault out of the water.4
While NEPTUNE received such exceptionally careful tactical planning, certainly OVERLORD had been the object of the most searching strategic scrutiny. The cross-Channel invasion, a direct strategic thrust against the strongest bulwarks of Germany’s European conquests in the west as the most effective strategy toward the rapid and complete defeat of Germany, had gained British as well as American acceptance as the centerpiece of Allied strategy only after debates in the highest Allied military councils. This had gone on continually from the ARCADIA Conference of American and British leaders in Washington 24 December 1941 to 14 January 1942.5 But there was no consideration of the operational implications of OVERLORD and NEPTUNE comparable in care and scale to the tactical and strategic planning.
Operations in Normandy after D-Day: The Deadlock
Consideration of the operational implications should have begun with the issue of operational exploitation of a hoped-for tactical success in the landings on the Normandy beaches. Pre-invasion planning discussions had included a certain amount of more or less casual speculation about the possibility of a rapid drive inland, particularly by General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, whose command of 21st Army Group made him de facto commander of Allied ground forces throughout the early phases of OVERLORD. Montgomery spoke of pressing from the British beaches on through Caen and toward Falaise in the first few days.6 In spite of the success of the landings, nothing of the sort occurred, and Caen was not cleared until 18–21 July.7
Operations inland from the beaches would entail overcoming the defensive advantages accorded the Germans by the geography of the bocage region of Normandy. There had been good reason to choose Normandy as the invasion target. The province offered the major port of Cherbourg to
logisticians who believed that the early capture of a large seaport would be vital to winning the battle of the logistical buildup against the enemy. Normandy also was within the combat radius from English bases of all the aircraft required for aerial support, including the relatively short-ranging Supermarine Spitfire. Indeed, Allied planners choosing the invasion site had long since concluded that there was no practical alternative to Normandy.8
But going to Normandy meant, especially in the American zone to the west of the British, at the base of the Cotentin or Cherbourg Peninsula and just east of there, the necessity to press from the beaches into the hedgerows of the bocage. The hedgerows divided the Norman countryside into innumerable separate earthen-walled enclosures, some about as large as an American football field, most considerably smaller. The hedgerows were often as much as two meters thick at the base and two to three meters high. Hawthorn bushes and other vegetation springing out from them might reach as much as four meters above the ground. All but the most important roads through the hedgerow country tended to be sunken lanes, worn down by centuries of wagon traffic to make the adjacent hedgerows more commanding still, with foliage overarching the lanes. In this terrain the Allies’ strong suit of mobility could not be appropriately exploited. Truck and even tank movement could be too readily blocked. Tanks could not break through the hedgerows. The enemy could shelter himself against artillery fire. Combat would tend to resolve itself into a series of field-by-field infantry battles, the foot soldiers having to fight for each hedgerow in turn, then having to move across the exposed intervening ground to reach the next hedgerow.9
On the right of the American sector, around the base of the Cotentin or Cherbourg Peninsula, the hedgerows gave way to different but equally difficult obstacles of terrain. Here, low-lying land could be and in the event was readily inundated by the German defenders, so that only occasional causeways afforded dry passage across flooded prairies. An entire division might have to advance on a front not much more than one tank wide.10
The OVERLORD planners gave almost no thought to the terrain obstacles of the bocage, and only slightly more to the inundated prairies. Certainly the obstacles were visible in aerial photographs. There were occasional references to them in preinvasion discussions, especially by British planners who had traveled in Normandy before the war. But there was no effective operational planning to cope with Norman geography. Allied ground commanders were left to improvise responses to the bocage after the invasion began to press inland from the beaches. Indeed, not only operational but also tactical and technological responses were left to be tinkered out under the pressures of costly and nearly stalemated combat. Only after the hedgerows had frustrated attempts to break through with ordinary tanks did the troops in the field improvise
devices to mount on their prows to undercut and uproot the earthen walls. Then, such devices could not be fashioned and distributed rapidly enough to prevent their absence from contributing to a costly deadlock of seven weeks’ duration disturbingly reminiscent of the Western Front of World War I.11 Under such conditions, the 90th Infantry Division in its first six weeks in combat suffered nearly 90 percent casualties among its combat riflemen and nearly 150 percent casualties among its company grade officers.12 The casualty rates in other divisions could not have been much lower.13
On the operational level, one possible way in which the Allied planners might conceivably have confronted the problems of the hedgerows and of the flooded base of the Cotentin Peninsula would have involved allocation of Allied armor and potential for mobility. The American buildup in Normandy soon included greater armored strength than the British.14 Sufficient armored divisions were available in the U.S. Army to have accelerated the American buildup still more. The American forces had mobility superior to the British in trucks of greater ruggedness and durability, as well as more plentiful stream-crossing and bridging equipment. Yet the American forces, the more mobile of the Allies, had to cope with the worst of the hedgerows and the inundations, while the British faced somewhat less difficult terrain but with an inferior capacity to exploit such an advantage. The Allies helped undercut their own trump card of American mobility.
The Americans were on the Allied right, coping with the harsher terrain obstacles, and the British were on the left, in another situation to which the planners had never given adequate forethought. It had simply been taken for granted that because American resources came to Europe from the west, the Americans should occupy the Allies’ western flank; while as the advance across France should proceed eastward, the British would be on the left, hugging the Channel coast and their lifeline to England, as they had done in both 1914–1918 and 1939–1940. This alignment gave the British the more favorable terrain not only in Normandy but also throughout the coming campaigns across France, the Low Countries, and Germany. It may well be that logistics made the alignment inevitable. But the operational implications of penalizing the more mobile of the Allied armies surely deserved consideration when OVERLORD received so much strategic and tactical preparation.15
For seven weeks from 6 June until late July, the battle for Normandy was a brutal slugging match fought for painfully gradual, daily gains forward along the causeways, from one hedgerow to the next, from one block of rubble to the next in the towns. Little opportunity for the exer-
cise of operational imagination offered itself until the Americans had not only struggled through the worst of the bocage but carried their front, between the towns of St. Lô and Périers, to a stretch of Route Nationale 800 that ran for some 23 kilometers from east-southeast to west-northwest as straight as an arrow. This highway feature presented the American command with an uncommonly apt invitation to exploit another Allied trump card, superior airpower, in support of the ground battle. The straight road could serve as a landmark readily enough visible from the air. While American troops gathered, poised for assault, just north of the highway, aircraft including heavy bombers could saturation-bomb an area just south of the road so thoroughly that the defenders might be pulverized or stunned into helplessness and the possibility thus be opened to rupture the German lines.
Upon this tactical conception the American command built an ambitious operational design, the work largely of Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, commanding the First U.S. Army (as well as the 12th Army Group, not yet fully operational), and Maj. Gen. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, commanding the VII Corps. These formations were to have three infantry divisions - from right to left, the 9th, 4th, and 30th - deployed and ready to assail the German defenders in the area of the saturation bombing, a rectangle 7,000 yards wide and 2,500 yards deep (approximately the same dimensions in meters) immediately after the bombardment. Behind the three assaulting infantry divisions waited three mechanized divisions: the 1st Infantry Division, motorized for the occasion, with Combat Command B of the 2d Armored Division attached; the remainder of the 2d Armored Division; and the 3d Armored Division with the 22d Infantry attached. Once the three forward divisions had punched a hole in the German lines, the mechanized divisions were to exploit the breakthrough into a breakout that would end the near deadlock persisting since D-Day. This was to be Operation COBRA.16
It was, incidentally, one of the few occasions during the European campaign when the Americans, inclined by their consciousness of bountiful overall strength to attack on broad fronts, acted in recognition of the value of concentration.
Tragedy, however, twice stained the launching of COBRA. The operation was scheduled to begin on 24 July but had to be postponed because of bad weather. Before word of the postponement could reach the headquarters of all the relevant air commands of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, the heavy bombers had commenced their bombing runs, and enough bombs fell short of their targets to kill 25 men and wound 131 infantrymen attached to the 30th Division. The short bombing was the result partly of the bombers making their approach perpendicular to the target area and thus over the heads of the American infantry, although Bradley thought that the air chieftains had assured him that the bomb-
ers would fly parallel to the Périers–St. Lô road. Now an irate Bradley learned that for various technical reasons the airmen were unwilling to make their approach in any way except perpendicular to the road. The ground commanders reluctantly and angrily acquiesced in their proposition, whereupon when COBRA got off to a new start on 25 July, the bombers killed another 111 American troops and wounded another 490 while hitting all three assault divisions.17
Moreover, those divisions made slow progress in spite of advancing into a desolated landscape and against obviously shocked and shaken enemy troops. By nightfall of 25 July the breaking of the deadlock seemed decidedly uncertain. At this juncture General Collins intervened with a decision that helped stamp him as the most capable American corps commander in the European theater of operations. With the intuition essential to a great commander, he had sensed that the appearance of the events and reports of 25 July were misleading, and that the German resistance in his front was ready to collapse. During the afternoon, therefore, he had decided to commit the 1st Infantry and the 2d and 3d Armored Divisions on the morning of 26 July. His intuition was sound. The mechanized divisions not only broke quickly through the remaining enemy defensive crust, but they promptly transformed the breakthrough into a breakout, beginning to race deep behind the German lines.18
But now the failure to plan adequately in operational terms - to fully explore the operational implications of an excellent tactical plan - proved to undermine in part that very excellence.
The Brittany Diversion
The mechanized columns breaking out into open country south of the Périers–St. Lô road, and the growing numbers that followed them, spread out west and east.
Strong columns moved south and then turned the westward corner from Normandy into Brittany. They did so because the OVERLORD planners, always deeply concerned about gaining sufficient port capacity to win the battle of the logistical buildup, consistently kept their eyes on the wealth of ports in Brittany, particularly Brest near the western tip of the peninsula and largely undeveloped Quiberon Bay on the south coast, but indeed dotted all along the shore. Therefore, Bradley followed up the COBRA breakout by informally activating Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.’s U.S. Third Army. When the activation became formal at noon on 1 August, Bradley’s 12th Army Group headquarters also became fully activated, and Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges assumed command of the First Army; Patton was to thrust into Brittany with an oversized corps, Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton’s VIII. It was oversized in that it contained two
armored divisions, the 4th and the 6th, rather than one such division as usually assigned to an American corps.19
General Montgomery was to remain Allied ground commander through his 21st Army Group headquarters until General Eisenhower set up headquarters on the Continent and assumed direct ground command. This transition occurred at noon on 1 September, whereupon Bradley’s army group passed altogether from Montgomery’s control (the British government compensated Montgomery by promoting him to field marshal as of that date).20 Meanwhile, however, Montgomery believed that for reasons of diplomacy he must hold the reins much more loosely when he dealt with American rather than British subordinates. Wisely, Montgomery perceived that the breakout went far toward negating the need for the Breton ports. With Allied forces now able to drive rapidly eastward, other ports could be secured much closer to the main front; by the time the Breton ports were captured and cleared of the predictable German demolitions, better logistical facilities would be available. Thus Montgomery deemed the commitment of an exceptionally large corps to Brittany a misuse of scarce resources.21
Contrary to the American impression of Montgomery as an inveterately cautious commander, he was willing to take risks where Brittany was concerned for the sake of a more powerful drive east toward Berlin and, it could be hoped, a prompt end to the war. Bradley and the principal American commanders were unwilling to take those risks. The OVERLORD plan, developed when a breakout could not be counted on, called for the westward turn from Normandy into Brittany, and the Americans remained locked into the plan. They failed to develop the operational possibilities of their own tactical success with COBRA.
As Montgomery feared, the Breton ports ended up having little relevance to the campaign eastward, particularly because a tenacious German defense held Brest until 20 September. The consequences were serious. One of the two armored divisions in Brittany, the 4th, turned back eastward after pressing only about halfway into the Peninsula, but in the meantime it contributed to the Brittany offensive’s heavy consumption for dubious purposes of supplies that would soon become desperately scarce elsewhere. This description applies particularly to fuel. The Allied drive across France unleashed by the COBRA breakout was destined to halt at about the borders of Germany and the Low Countries, because there it ran out of fuel. The Allies had to pause, and the pause lasted just long enough to permit the Germans to regroup in their Westwall defenses and to impose a new deadlock upon the Allies in the autumn. Even relatively small additional amounts of gasoline, certainly those amounts that powered the VIII Corps drive across Brittany, might conceivably have provided enough additional impetus to the Allies to deny the enemy the respite he needed after his flight from France.22
Meanwhile, another flaw in the operational followup to COBRA contributed yet more substantially to preventing the complete defeat of Germany before the end of 1944.
The Argentan-Falaise Pocket
It was implicit in the desire that COBRA should produce not only a breakthrough, rupturing the German lines, but a breakout from Normandy deep into France. Then the breakout forces could fan out widely, east toward Germany, as well as, more dubiously, west into Brittany. But while the American high command meticulously planned the tactical problem of breaking through and out, once more they did not explore as they might have the operational implications of the tactical plan: how best to exploit the prospect of pushing fast and far into the interior of France.
As the breakout developed, and American spearheads indeed ranged swiftly eastward, improvisation in response to opportunity led to a design to trap the bulk of the German forces, the Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army, in northwest France. (See Map 15.) The design might well have been better conceived and better executed. By neglecting operational thinking and planning beforehand, the opportunities that COBRA ought to have opened were not grasped, and a genuine chance to end the war in a matter of weeks was lost.
If American forces breaking out from Normandy were in part to race toward the east, the planners might well have pondered the evident prospects they might seize if those rapidly moving forces should at some point turn north to become a hammer smashing the enemy in their path against the anvil of Montgomery’s British Second and Canadian First Armies in the eastern sector of Normandy. Such a northward turn posed also the prospect of enveloping a large portion of the German forces still fighting farther west, as many were bound to be doing because of the relative immobility of the German Army as compared with the American, and because of the impediments to movement imposed upon the Germans by Allied air power as well as by defeat.
The COBRA planners could not have foreseen that the German Führer, Adolf Hitler, would enhance the latter opportunity, but they should have contemplated more clearly than they did that the opportunity would be presented to them in some form. As events actually developed, Hitler’s effort to repair the disaster of the American breakout took the form of a strong counterattack aimed at the inevitably narrow passageway through which for a time the Americans had to advance south along the southwest coast of Normandy, through Avranches, before turning west into Brittany or east toward Germany. Hitler hoped to drive across that narrow corridor from Mortain through Avranches to the sea and thus to cut off those Americans south of his thrust. The true effect of his scheme, how-
ever, was to push more German troops more deeply into a noose that an American northward turn to meet the British in eastern Normandy might then close.
It was observation of the Germans’ enhancing Allied opportunity that especially stimulated the American command to improvise an envelopment design. The fact that the Americans never clearly settled on a choice between a short or a long envelopment demonstrates the improvisational nature of this operational plan, however. Military planning should never grow so rigid, of course, that it arbitrarily closes off promising options. We are dealing here with a situation in which the Americans were so far from having explored their options through foresighted operational thinking, and so far from making up their minds, that they did not pursue either the short or the long envelopment idea purposefully enough to succeed as much as they might have.
The short envelopment involved turning the Americans’ easterly spearheads north toward Argentan, there to meet an offensive by Montgomery advancing south through Falaise. The long envelopment envisaged instead an American left turn down the River Seine to meet the British along its lower reaches. The willingness of the enemy to thrust himself deep into a westward noose encouraged an initial preference for the short envelopment.23
Either envelopment plan involved risks, particularly the risk that the Germans might succeed in pushing through Avranches. But Allied signals intelligence, the ULTRA interception, and decrypting of German wireless communications informed the American command just enough about enemy intentions and strength that, while not quite looking over Hitler’s shoulder at the cards in his hand, Bradley and his subordinates could feel reasonably comfortable about holding at Mortain with minimum strength while continuing to move most of his forces into Brittany and toward Argentan. Stout defensive fighting by the 30th Infantry Division at Mortain on 6–8 August vindicated accepting the risk.24
Meanwhile Maj. Gen. Wade H. Haislip’s XV Corps of Patton’s Third Army led the race toward Argentan. On 13 August, however, the corps encountered unexpectedly strong resistance just south of that place, and Bradley decided to halt its advance for the time being. This decision proved to be a critical turning point in the evolution of the short envelopment into the battle of the Argentan-Falaise Pocket.
Two considerations overtly shaped Bradley’s halt order. First, the Germans by now were responding to the danger of envelopment through the closing of Allied pincers between Argentan and Falaise. Having failed at Mortain, they were hastening their eastward withdrawal. Because the XV Corps was well in advance of the American center of gravity, Bradley feared that the German columns on the march eastward might break through the exposed American left flank stretching south and west from
near Argentan. He preferred to pause to consolidate along that shoulder. Second, when the short envelopment began, the Canadians to the north had been much closer to Argentan than the Americans, so the boundary between the 12th and 21st Army Groups lay just over ten kilometers south of that town. To advance farther, Haislip would have to press into the zone of the British army group, and Bradley feared a costly collision between Allied troops.
Behind the latter two overt reasons for Bradley’s halting the XV Corps lay factors of personality of the sort that can readily inject elements of irrationality into otherwise rational planning - factors not reflected on neat maps displaying combat formations as orderly rectangles. Montgomery was a vain and egotistical man, continually attempting to appropriate to himself as much credit as possible for everything that went well in his vicinity, whether or not the credit rightly belonged to him. He was not widely liked, even among his fellow British officers (although he had created a bond of rapport with his British soldiers - he got along much better with those separated from him by a wide gap in rank and age than with his peers or his immediate subordinates). Among the Americans, the distance occasioned by his headline-hunting and by his vanity and acerbity more generally was aggravated by the condescension he affected toward those with less combat experience than himself and his countrymen (which was largely experience in losing, the cynical might respond).
Patton had come to loathe Montgomery when they commanded the U.S. Seventh and British Eighth Armies, respectively, in Sicily and raced each other for the port of Messina. Notwithstanding Montgomery’s forbearance in handling the Americans since D-Day in Normandy, numerous points of friction had exacerbated bad feelings, with Bradley as well as with Patton. The latter two, estranged over Patton’s soldier-slapping escapades in Sicily and other indications of his instability of character, had renewed their friendship in no small degree on the basis of their shared aversion to Montgomery. By August 1944 Patton was playing upon and encouraging Bradley’s preference for keeping his distance from Montgomery.
Under the command structure prevailing in August, Bradley would have needed Montgomery’s permission to alter the interarmy group boundary to facilitate an American advance through Argentan and beyond. But Bradley would not pick up the telephone to ask Montgomery for the change, so wide a chasm had opened between the senior American and British field commanders. Nor would General Dwight D. Eisenhower intervene: His conception of his and his subordinates’ command responsibilities required that matters of direct concern to the army groups be left to the heads of the army groups - probably excessive self-denial on the part of the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. This interplay of personalities among the generals may well do more to
explain the events of the Argentan-Falaise Pocket than Bradley’s overt reasons for halting.
In any event, the American halt south of Argentan proved to be the first and crucial step toward a failure to close the Argentan-Falaise gap promptly enough to entrap the main German forces with a completeness that could have broken the back of the enemy’s power in the west. The halt was also the first and crucial symptom of the lack of adequate operational planning to exploit COBRA. Forethought could have averted Bradley’s making a hasty decision based at least in part on his personal feelings toward Montgomery. Bradley was later to blame Montgomery for the incomplete grasping of opportunity, pointing out that the advance of the First Canadian Army through Falaise and on toward Argentan was much slower than the Third Army’s progress nearly as far as Argentan. Such criticism of Montgomery overlooked, however, the much tougher resistance of the Germans who faced the Canadians as compared with those confronting the Americans. The difference in strength of resistance was predictable, because it was inherent in the fact that the enemy front opposite the 21st Army Group had never been broken, unlike the front before the Americans. Appropriate forethought would have included this predictable circumstance in developing the operational design.25
Without such forethought, the halt south of Argentan led in turn to Bradley’s reaching a second crucial and highly consequential hasty decision. On the next day, 14 August, he shifted his sights from the short toward the long envelopment. He decided to keep only two divisions of the XV Corps near Argentan while moving the other two east toward the Seine and the longer turning maneuver. Significantly, he made this important decision and ordered it into effect without consulting Montgomery.26 Again, furthermore, Bradley’s decision coincided with the inclinations of his newly restored friend, General Patton, not only because of their attitudes toward Montgomery, but also because Patton, a cavalryman by training and temperament with the cavalryman’s thirst for continual movement, was always impatient of delays like that around Argentan and eager to sidestep them for the sake of moving again.
Informed of Bradley’s new decision by telephone, Patton sent Haislip and his corps headquarters east with the two divisions on his right, the 5th Armored and the 79th Infantry. Bradley’s and Patton’s use of these divisions was at odds with Bradley’s professed fear of a German onslaught against the left shoulder of the Argentan front, but it accorded with the real situation, which in turn was at least by now at odds with Bradley’s first overt explanation for the halt. Collins’ VII Corps of the First Army had sufficiently bolstered the shoulder, and the Germans were sufficiently and obviously intent on merely escaping the pocket, that fear for the shoulder could be discarded.27
On 16 August Montgomery belatedly took the initiative to restore the short envelopment. His belatedness underlines once more the absence of sustained operational forethought and planning, on the part of both the principal Allies, the British as well as the Americans. Montgomery telephoned Bradley - note the direction of the call - to suggest a renewed push to close the encirclement of the Germans remaining in the Falaise- Argentan Pocket by closing the pincers between Falaise and Argentan. To this end the British command took the initiative also in suggesting a revised interarmy group boundary, so that the Americans would meet the Canadians about eleven kilometers northeast of Argentan, near Trun and Chambois.28 (See Map 15.)
Unfortunately for the Allies, because the Germans were rushing to escape from the pocket they were now in considerably greater strength between the Allied pincers than they would have been if the Americans had persisted in the attack on the thirteenth or fourteenth. Bradley accepted Montgomery’s suggestion, but German resistance was a good deal stiffer than it would have been likely to be a few days earlier. The departure of General Haislip compelled the Americans to shuffle their command structure around Argentan, which caused further delay. On 16 August Patton created a provisional corps under his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Hugh J. Gaffey, to take over the French 2ème Division Blindée and the American 90th Infantry Division from the XV Corps, along with the 80th Infantry Division. Gaffey ordered his troops to be ready to attack by 1000 hours on 17 August, but before the effort could get under way, Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow arrived by Bradley’s orders with his V Corps headquarters of the First Army to take over from Gaffey and Patton the three divisions scheduled to make the Argentan drive. Gerow took command by daybreak on the seventeenth, but his desire for an improved line of departure postponed the main attack until the early hours of 18 August.29
The Falaise-Argentan pincers closed at last the next day, 19 August, near Chambois. The closing sealed, after all, an impressive Allied victory. Some 50,000 Germans were caught in the envelopment and became prisoners. About 10,000 German dead lay within the encirclement area. As the pocket had narrowed, Allied tactical air power had battered the enemy’s equipment within it mercilessly, and the tanks, self-propelled guns, and other heavy materiel not wrecked from the air largely had to be abandoned as the last Germans fled through the closing jaws. The German defeat was complete enough that the long envelopment on the Seine, on which Patton’s Third Army embarked after the shift from Argentan, produced far less spectacular results, because the spectacular prizes were no longer available.30
Nevertheless, the enemy was able to extricate nearly all his army, corps, and division headquarters staffs, which meant that he retained the
cadres around which to rebuild his shattered formations. As the Allies did not yet quite realize, the Germans possessed a remarkable capacity for such rebuilding. Given the skeleton of a formation, they could restore the formation itself within a few weeks. It was particularly for this reason that the consequences of the Allies’ faulty operational planning for the Falaise-Argentan Pocket were to prove tragic. By September, along the German frontier, the cadres that had escaped the pocket had become the nuclei of a restored German resistance. Given respite when the Americans and British had to halt near the frontier after their fuel tanks ran dry - a problem worsened by the faulty operational planning that perpetrated the large commitment to Brittany - the resistance in the Westwall of the German formations that had fled past Argentan, rebuilt and augmented by new formations, imposed on the Allies the costly autumn stalemate of 1944: the legacy of the faulty operational planning behind the short and long envelopments.31
When the Allies landed in Normandy on 6 June, they hoped for an end to the war against Germany before winter closed in. The hope was not unrealistic. Foresighted operational planning - as well as the tactical and technological triumph of D-Day - could well have shortened the seven weeks’ stalemate in Normandy, so that the Allies might have reached the German frontier before the close of summer and good campaigning weather. Foresighted operational planning to exploit the tactical triumph of COBRA could well have denied the Germans much of their ability to extract from France the cadres upon which to build the defense of their western frontier. Although the possibilities were more limited, foresighted operational planning might also have found ways to minimize the fuel crisis that obliged the Allied pursuit across France to halt as it approached the Westwall.
The tragedy in all these circumstances lay especially in the strong likelihood that the prolongation of the war through the winter of 1944– 1945 and into the spring of 1945 was unnecessary. Consequently, many thousands died who might have lived, not only among the soldiers of both sides but among the civilian victims of the war’s last harsh winter, as well as among the targets of the last frenzied workings of the death camps that perpetrated the Holocaust.
The Allied, mainly American, strategy that had focused on the cross- Channel invasion as the most expeditious means of confronting and then overthrowing Germany’s main strength in the West to swiftly end World War II was an eminently sound strategy. While Allied tactics were not always so sound as the cross-Channel invasion strategy, the executions of D-Day and of COBRA both demonstrated an admirable tactical prowess. The principal shortcomings of the American and British forces in the 1944 campaign in northwest Europe lay not surprisingly in the intermediate area between strategy and tactics that prewar military thought in
the West had neglected, in the area of the operational art. Here, repeated failures to exploit tactical advantages as fully as possible to implement the strategic design for the destruction of German power in the West, failures to link tactics to strategy by way of a refined, thoughtful, coherent operational art, probably prolonged World War II. The Allied campaign in northwest Europe in 1944 was a triumphant military endeavor on a grand scale, and its commanders and soldiers merit the heroic stature that history has usually accorded them. But the triumph could have been more complete.
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