The intentions to document this information are long standing in that they go back some two decades to the early/mid 1990’s, just a few years before the subject of this site, James Kitchener Heath passed away.

As is the case in so many families in which a generation experienced war and all its traumas, certain aspects of service are known, but all too often the details are sketchy and disjointed. Add into this mix the passage of time and the result is invariably a collection of stories and fragments of memories accompanied by a handful of fragile and faded documents (if you are lucky) that represent the sum of information relating to the most extraordinary period in a soldier’s life. This was certainly the case in our family..... and it’s not much to go on.

In February 1995, my Father and I struggled to put together a potted service history to be read by the cleric presiding over my Grandfather’s funeral. At this point I decided to take steps to fill in some of the gaps as best I could.... sadly now without the benefit of first hand testimony.

A well known turn of phrase, ‘written on the back of a fag packet’ is defined by the Collins on-Line dictionary as something ‘composed or formed quickly and without detailed analysis or research’. As far as first hand source material for this history is concerned, no better a description could be made. The details gleaned from my Grandfather in brief (and often emotional) discussions in the 1990’s are summarised as a list of place names written in an old man’s shaky handwriting on the back of a standard envelope! (this will feature later). On the upside, a standard envelope is approximately twice the size of a cigarette packet, which immediately doubles the amount of information to work with!

By my own admission, this site is a little self-indulgent, being of primary interest to myself, my mother, my children and a handful of relatives still living in Staffordshire. In addition, it may be that the information presented here will be read by others outside of the family who have a passing interest in military or family history.

I would welcome any comments/suggestions or dare I say it relevant information to contact me.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Falaise Pocket And The Demise of A German Army

A road in the Falaise Pocket choked with bodies and destroyed vehicles

As the South Staffordshire regiments were coming to terms with the news that the 59th Division and their associated regiments were to be disbanded, the encirclement of German Army Group B was nearing completion.

The last action in which the 5th South Staffordshire Regiment engaged the enemy in the Menil Hermai and Rabodanges area took them  some 9 miles south of Falaise in positions approximately equidistant from Falaise and Argentan, towns near to the mouth of the notorious ‘Falaise Pocket’.

Given the involvement of the 59 (Staffordshire) division in the encirclement, it is appropriate to describe some of the drama that played out in the Falaise-Argentan sector. The Battle of Falaise brought the Battle of Normandy to a conclusion and the liberation of Paris on the 25th August closed Operation Overlord.

The town of Faliase was also an entry on the envelope upon which my Grandfather detailed his passage across north west Europe.

Operation Cobra in July had allowed the huge US forces to breakout of the Normandy bridgehead into Brittany enabling rapid progress to the south and south east by General Patton’s 3rd Army, now unhindered by the Normandy bocage. To the north, the 1st Canadian Army were pressing south east from Caen towards Falaise whilst the 2nd British Army maintained pressure further west.

Location of opposing forces in the area of  Falaise between 8th to 17th August 1944
(image: EyeSerene)

Plans were afoot to trap the German forces to the west of the Seine. The original plan was to execute a long encirclement with 21st Army Group (1st Canadian and 2nd British armies) pivoting to the left from Falaise to reach the Seine whilst US 3rd Army would block a breakout to the south, thereby trapping German Army Group B (the 7th German Army and the 5th Panzer Army) between the rivers Seine and Loire.

The German High Command recognised the risk of encirclement and Hitler responded to the threat by ordering Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge to punch a hole in the US 1st Army front in a major offensive action between Mortain and Avranches.

Of this offensive Hitler wrote 

‘The decision in the Battle of France depends on the success of the Avraches attack. The commander in the west has a unique opportunity, which will never return, to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area and thereby to change the situation completely’.

The offensive was launched on 7th August. The Allies, forewarned by Ultra information, neutralised the attack within 24 hours and the action, known as Operation Lüttich, ceased on 10th August. The intended breakout failed and only served to drive the German armour of Army Group B deeper into the pocket.

In the immediate wake of Operation Lüttich, General Bradley recorded 

‘This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy an entire hostile army and go all the way from here to the German border’.

Operation Totalise and then Operation Tractable took the Canadians into the town of Falaise which was secured by the 17th August. On the same day Hitler relieved von Kluge of his command and replaced him with Feldmarschall Walter Model. Von Kluge, blamed for the failure of the German Army in the west and implicated in the 20th July plot to assassinate Hitler, committed suicide in Metz two days later.

Back in the field, XV US Corps, which formed the lower jaw of the trap reached positions overlooking the town of Argentan. The possibility existed to close the gap with the coming together of the Canadians and Poles from the north and the Americans from the south. However, Patton’s orders to advance beyond Argentan were countermanded by General Bradley. The rationale for this decision has been hotly debated since 1944.

Numerous reasons have been given for the order to stop the XV advance that would close the pocket thereby cutting off the escape route to the east for the remaining forces of the 7th German Army and the 5th Panzer Army.

One explanation proffered by Bradley himself after the war stated that a meeting of the British/Canadian and US units between Falaise and Argentan would have been a ‘dangerous and uncontrollable maneuver’ which in the words of General Eisenhower might have resulted in a ‘calamatous battle between friends’. Alternatively, the delicate politics associated with maintaining the Allied coalition may have lead to a reluctance to order US forces across the international army boundary. A thoroughly feasible reason was a purely military consideration. Four divisions of US XV Corps were extended over a broad front. To further thin the line in order to close the gap posed a considerable risk given that the remnants of no less than nineteen German divisions were poised to ‘stampede’ east to escape the pocket. This could have lead to the annihilation of the Corps. Bradley also said of this decision that he would prefer to have ‘a solid shoulder at Argentan to a broken neck at Falaise’.

Closure of the Pocket 17th to 21st August 1944
(note the position of the 59 (Staffordshire) Division at the base of the Pocket

On 17th August the Allies proceeded to close the gap. On 18th August the 4th Canadian Armoured Division seized the village of Trun whilst formations of the Polish Armoured Division captured Chambois, meeting up with US and French troops coming from the south.

Whilst in a desperate predicament, the German forces continued to show a great tenacity in battle. On 19th August an armoured column of 2nd Panzer Division broke through the line in the Canadian held position at St Lambert. In doing so they facilitated the escape of thousands of troops by keeping the road open for a full six hours until darkness fell. In this time, other units converged in the Dives river which ran across the mouth of the pocket.

On the 19th August, the Poles moved north east from Chambois to take the high ground of Hill 262 from where they could direct accurate artillery fire onto the German armoured columns formed up in the pocket. On the same day, elements of two Panzer divisions launched attacks on the Polish positions from outside of the pocket whilst from the interior further Panzer divisions broke through the Polish lines and opened up a corridor through which an estimated 10,000 further German troops escaped. The linking of Polish and Canadian forces on 21st August finally closed the gap and sealed the pocket.

The encirclement of the remaining forces of German Army Group B was without doubt a decisive and crushing defeat. In the chaos of those August days an accurate determination of the extent of the German losses was not possible and estimates vary widely depending on the source of the information. However, in general terms it is accepted that between 80,000 to 100,000 troops were encircled within the pocket of whom 10,000 to 15,000 were killed, 40,000 to 50,000 were taken prisoner of war and an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 escaped to the east out of the pocket.

On visiting the Falaise area shortly after the conclusion of the action General Eisenhower described the scene thus 

‘The battlefield at Falaise was unquestioningly one of the greatest ‘killing fields’ of any of the war areas. Forty eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh’.

Devastating though the losses to the German army were in terms of men, armour and other essential equipment, the fact that between 20,000 and 50,000 men were able to escape out of the pocket prior to the closure was crucial. Regrouped, these men were to form the basis of the determined and effective resistance that the Allies were to experience as the fighting continued in the direction of Berlin, across Belgium and Holland.

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