Operation Tractable, 14 August-21 August 1944

Operation Tractable (14-21 August 1944) was a Canadian and Polish attack that finally helped close the Falaise Gap, although not after some fierce battles in the mouth of the gap.

From the start Montgomery’s plan had been for the British and Canadians to pin down as many Germans as possible around Caen, while the Americans prepared to break through the weaker western end of the German line. This played into the German belief that the Caen end of the line was the most dangerous, with the potential for the Allies to break out into ‘good tank country’ and dash towards Paris and the Seine. Once the Americans had broken through the German line they were to push into Brittany to liberate the key Breton ports, and capture Quiberon Bay, where a major artificial port was to be constructed. Only then would the allies turn east, and advance side by side towards the Seine.

While the Americans focused on the capture of Cherbourg, and then pushed south towards St. Lo and the starting point for their planned breakthrough, the British and Canadians launched a series of attacks around Caen. The first attack, Operation Perch (9-14 June 1944) made almost no progress. Next came Operation Epsom (26-27 June 1944), which saw the British capture a bridgehead over the Odon river west of Caen, before fighting off a counterattack led by the freshly arrived II SS Panzer Corps. The northern part of Caen (on the left bank of the Orne) fell during Operation Charnwood (8-9 July 1944). The most controversial attack was Operation Goodwood (18-20 July 1944), which saw three armoured divisions attack east of the city, and with the help of the Canadians on their right (Operation Atlantic) clear the Germans out of the southern and eastern suburbs of Caen (on the right bank of the Orne). However some believed that Montgomery had planned for a breakthrough, and were disappointed with the results. Each of these attacks achieved their main objective, forcing the Germans to commit more and more of their armour on the Caen front.

The American attack finally began on 25 July (Operation Cobra). After a slow start on the first day the Americans broke through the crumbling German line in the west, and by 1 August they had reached Avranches, close to the border between Normandy and Brittany. Patton’s US Third Army was activated, and its mission changed. One corps would invade Brittany, making very rapid progress before being delayed outside St. Malo and Brest. The rest of his army would join the First Army in a dash east behind the German lines. The Americans now began to make such rapid progress that the entire German position in France was threatened. Mayenne was captured on 5 August and le Mans on 8 August. This was the location of the HQ of the German Seventh Army, which was responsible for the western end of the Normandy front, and a sign of the German collapse. The advance continued despite the launch of the German’s attack on Mortain (Operation Luttich), which was meant to see them reach the coast at Avranches, but bogged down soon after it started on 7 August.

The Allies now realised that they had a chance to trap the entire German army in Normandy in a giant pocket, between the existing beachhead in the north and the rapidly advancing Americans in the advance. There were two alternatives – the long envelopment, which would see the two wings meet at the Seine or the short envelopment, which would see the jaws of the trap close much further west, around Falaise to the south of Caen. On 8 August General Bradley suggested changing from the long to the short envelopment. Eisenhower, who was with him at the time, agreed to the new plan, as did Montgomery. The only flaw in the new plan was the choice of a fixed line where the two wings of the attack would meet. As a result the Americans halted their advance north at a key moment, allowing the gap to stay open longer than it might have done.

Even before the decision had been made to try and close the gap at Falaise, Montgomery had decided to launch an attack south from Caen, to disrupt any German retreat towards the Seine. The task was given to the newly activated First Canadian Army, under General Crerar. He came up with an ambitious plan for a night time attack using eight armoured columns to smash through the German front lines, with infantry mopping up behind. The resulting Operation Totalize (8-11 August 1944) was a partial success. The strong German defences just south of Caen were indeed smashed, and a series of villages that had held out against earlier Canadian attacks were cleared, but phase two – the exploitation phase – ran into German reinforcements, and came to a costly halt.

Totalise took place at the same time as the last German offensive in Normandy – Operation Luttich. This was a fatally flawed German attempt to mass their armour in the west to attack the narrow American corridor down the west coast of Normandy. If the attack had succeeded, then Patton’s rampaging army would have been cut off and the Allied armies split in two, but it never had any reach chance of success. The allies had advanced warning from Ultra, and the German attack was repulsed without having any real impact on the American advance. By 12 August the Germans began to withdraw to the east, although it was take a few more days for Hitler to finally give his approval to the move. The Allies still had a chance to catch most of them, but it would require another Canadian attack south to try and close the gap.

On 10 August Montgomery ordered General Crerar to attack towards Trun on the River Dives, to the east of Falaise. Totalize had been a complex plan, with eight separate columns guided by searchlights, radio beams and lines of tracer fire. In contrast Tractable was going to be a simple, blunt force attack. The Canadian’s armour was to be gathered up into two large columns, one provided by the 4th Armoured Division, the other by the 2nd Armoured Brigade supported by the 3rd Infantry Division. The flanks of the attack would be shielded by artillery fire and smokescreen. The attack would take place in daylight, and would rely on surprise and speed to smash the German lines.

The attack would head south-east, with Quenay Wood, where the previous attack had come to a halt, on its right flank. A force of 769 British medium bombers were used to attack the woods hopefully allowing the Canadians to mop up afterwards. During Totalize there had been a friendly fire incident, when the ground troop were using yellow smoke to mark their position and the aircraft were using it for target flares. This time the RAF made exactly the same mistake, and 77 bombers hit the Canadian rear areas, killing 165 Polish and Canadian troops. Simonds’ own armoured car was caught up in the chaos, and amongst its passengers was Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, and one of the men largely responsible for developing the close air support doctrines used by the fighter bombers.

The Tractable Attack

The attack began at 11.42am on 14 August. Progress was rapid until the columns reached the Laizon River, a small watercourse that hadn’t appeared to be an obstacle on maps or in aerial photos, but that turned out to have steep muddy banks that stopped most of the armour. While the tanks were delayed, some of the infantry got out of their Kangaroo APCs and waded across the river, to attack the villages of Rouvres and Montboint (seven miles north of Falaise and twice that distance from the new target of Trun). A few surviving bridges were then found, and the tanks were able to flood across. The attack had hit a part of the front held by two divisions recently transferred from Norway, and these more inexperienced German troops didn’t have the same levels of determination or experience as the veterans of the battle. As a result hundreds of German troops surrendered. By the end of the day the Canadians were within three miles of Falaise. However late in the day Marshal Kluge visited Sepp Dietrich’s Fifth Panzer Army HQ, and realising how bad the situation was committed the 21st Panzer Division to the Falaise front.

On 15 August the survivors from Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend entered the battle, on the Caen-Falaise road. He only had fifteen tanks, but his counterattack slowed down or stopped the advance. The Grenadier Guards and a regiment from British Columbia got close to Versainville, within two miles of Falaise, but were stopped by anti-tank fire. Further west the 21st Panzer Division had to be used to stop a potential breakthrough.

On 16 August Versainville was finally captured, but by now it was clear that the original Tractable plan had failed to achieve the required breakthrough. Simonds ordered the 2nd Division to try and take Falaise from the west, while two divisions were sent to try and close the gap. This time Falaise finally fell – the first Canadian troops entered the town from the north-west on 16 August, and the town was cleared by the end of 17 August.

Closing the Gap

As the Canadians pushed south, the Americans continued to rush east. On 14 August Patton got to Argentan, but this brought him close to the previous agreed boundary between the American and Anglo-Canadian zones. As a result Bradley ordered him to stop, leave enough troops at Argentan to prevent the Germans from taking it back, then dash east for Paris and the Seine. Eisenhower backed Bradley, despites Patton’s attempt to convince him to allow an advance on Falaise. By this point Montgomery was still officially ground force commander, but since Bradley had become an army group commander tended to issue more general orders, and didn’t intervene. This was almost certainly a mistake – if the Americans had pushed north they could have reached Falaise quite easily, advancing through the German rear area. Instead the task was left to the Canadians and Poles coming from the north, and facing an intact German line.

On the German side the situation was greatly simplified when Hitler finally had to admit that the battle was lost and give permission for a full scale retreat. The fighting within the pocket indirectly claimed von Kluge, the German commander in Normandy, who was attacked by Allied aircraft and forced to take shelter for most of a day. While he was missing Hitler decided that he had deserted, and sent Marshal Model to replace him. Von Kluge soon turned up, but committed suicide on the way back to Germany. Model quickly developed a plan to save what he could. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps, which had already escaped, was ordered to turn back to attack the Poles and Canadians attempting to close the gap, while a smaller panzer corps was used to stop any American advance. From inside the pocket the II Parachute Corps was to cross the Dives south of Trun, and the 47th panzer Corps near Chanbois.

On 17 August the Canadian 17th Division finally cleared Falaise. At the same time the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and the 1st Polish Armoured Division began to push south into the gap in response to orders from Montgomery. Their job was to try and close the gap. The Poles were ordered to push past Trun and advance south-east up the Dives to Chambois. The two armoured divisions attacked in parallel, and reached a position two miles north of Trun. On the Canadian left part of the German 86th Corps, which was holding the northern part of the line just outside the pocket, was forced back in the area east of the Dives. On the left they pushed south-west from Falaise. In response the Germans committed the 2nd SS and 9th SS Panzer Divisions from the 2nd SS Panzer Corps to the battle at Trun, thus weakening the southern flank of the pocket.

On 18 August the Americans finally began to push north-east from Argentan towards Chambois, using two American and one Free French division. However by this point the Germans had organised a proper defensive front, so their progress was much slower than it would have been on the 14th. On the same day the 4th Canadian Armoured Division captured Trun, which had been abandoned by the Germans and its advanced elements reached the outskirts of St. Lambert, half way to Chambois. On their left the Poles captured Hordouseaux (north-east of Trun) and Hills 258 and 137, and their leading troops got to within half a mile of Chambois.

The Polish advance began before dawn on 18 August. They cut across the German line of retreat, and in the chaos were even once helped by German traffic controller, who paused the flow of traffic to let them cross a road. One Polish column ended up at Les Champeaux, on the road that ran north-east from Trun to the German exit point at Vimoutiers.

The battle now developed into two largely separate fights. On their right flank the Canadians advanced to the road linking Falaise, Trun and Chambois (now routes D63 then D13), with the job of stopping the Germans attempting to escape to the east. On the left flank the Poles formed a second line, with the task of stopping the 2nd SS Panzer Corps counterattack coming from the east.

On 19 August the Poles split up. One third of the division, led by tanks and reconnaissance vehicles, advanced towards Chambois, where they found the US 90th Division. In theory the Falaise Gap was now closed, but the Germans were determined to re-open it.

The rest of the Polish division moved east towards the Mt. Ormel ridge, capturing Hill 262 at the northern edge of the ridge on the afternoon of 19 August. This blocked the road north from Chambois to Vimoutieres, and overlooked the Trun-Vimoutieres road, which ran through lower ground to the west. They then advanced south along the ridge, destroying a German convoy on the road. However the smoke from the burning vehicles prevented the Poles from taking a second Hill 262 at the southern end of Mt. Ormel.

To the west the Canadians advanced down the road that ran east/ south-east from Falaise to Trun and Chambois), leaving troops from the 9th and 10th Brigades to defend the line of the Dives River. At the southern tip of the advance a squadron from the South Alberta Regiment and a company from the Argyll and Sutherlands, led by Major D.V. Currie, reached St. Lambert (between Trun and Chambois), on the last open road on the German escape route to Vimoutiers. After a battle that lasted for six hours, the Canadians had seized half of the town.

On the German side Model ordered General Eugen Meindl to organise the tanks and battle groups still inside the pocket, while on the outside General Heinrich Eberbach prepared the 2nd SS Panzer Corps for an attack along the Vimoutiers road.

20 August would thus be the key day of the battle. The weather was poor, so there was little or no air support for the Allies. The ‘plug’ of the gap was only very thinly held, and the Germans were determined to reopen the gap. Neither side was able to commit many men to the battle. The Poles on their ridge had 80 tanks and around 1,600 men. At St. Lambert there were around 200 Canadians. At Chambois the Poles were cut off from their own supply chain from the north, but the Americans from the 359th Infantry were in better shape, and the night of 20 August the Poles were able to share in the American supplies.

On the German side several thousand men took part in organised attacks, while many thousands more were simply trying to escape. The 2nd Parachute Corps planned to break through the Allied lines between Trun and Chambois, cross the Dives and capture the high ground around Mt Ormel, three miles to the east. This was the western edge of a line of high ground that ran along the eastern side of the Dive valley. On the right the 47th Panzer Corps would attack around St. Lambert and Chambois. These two corps would then hold the gap open, in an attempt to allow the remaining troops in the pocket to escape. However the Poles already held part of Mt. Ormel, making the German task much harder. 

There were battles at St. Lambert, Trun and Chambois but the most important battle was around the Polish held ridge, which they named ‘Maczuga’ or Mace. On 19 August the Poles had been able to block the road, but by 20 August they were running short of supplies, and were out of touch with the main Allied forces. They came under heavy artillery fire, and were attacked from west and east. During the day around one third of the Poles were killed or wounded, and many of their Shermans were destroyed. The most dangerous attacks came from the north, and were carried out by the 2nd SS Panzer Division of the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, attacking from outside the pocket. They were able to capture a key hill two miles to the north of the Polish position, from which they could shell the Polish position. During the afternoon the Germans attacked from the north and south, but their attacks were uncoordinated. One dangerous moment came at about 1700 when German tanks broke into the Polish position from the north-east, but they were driven out. Another dangerous attack hit the gap between the two Polish infantry divisions on the hill and wasn’t repelled until 1900. The Poles held out against repeated German attacks, but were stopped from blocking the German escape routes past the hill. By the end of the day the Poles were short of ammo and fuel, and had 300 wounded and 800 prisoners within their small perimeter.

The night of 20-21 August was quiet, as the Germans focused on escaping from the pocket, but early on 21 August the Germans launched yet another attack on the ridge, this time from the south-west, on the front closest to the key road. The Poles survived with the help of four anti-aircraft tanks, armed with twin .50in machine guns, and the Germans then focused on moving past them on the road below. Finally, early in the afternoon a force of tanks from the Canadian Grenadier Guards (4th Armoured Brigade) finally reached the road, lifting the siege. By the end of the battle the Poles had suffered 350 casualties, but had taken 1,000 prisoners.

21 August also saw the tiny force at St. Lambert rescued by the 4th Armoured. Despite being massively outnumbered, Currie’s force had destroyed 7 tanks, 12 88mm guns, 40 vehicles, killed 300 Germans, wounded 500 and taken 2,100 prisoner! This was a clear sign that the morale of many German troops had broken – Currie’s men were outnumbered 10-1 by their prisoners by the end of the battle!

Early on 22 August the British 53rd Division joined up with the Canadians around Trun, firmly closing the pocket. The Germans on the outside began a retreat to the Seine, while those inside either surrendered or were killed.

From 8-21 August the three Canadian divisions involved in the battle had lost 1,470 dead, 4,023 wounded and lost 177 prisoners, mainly from the 25,000 men most closely engaged.

On the German sides the exact figures for the Falaise Gap are uncertain. Meyer’s 12th SS Panzer Division had 20,000 men and 150 tanks on D-Day, but after escaping from the gap he only found 300 men and 10 tanks. More of the survivors will have rejoined later, but the tanks were all gone. The 2nd Panzer Division had no guns, no tanks and the equivalent of a single grenadier battalion on 22 August.

Granatstein and Morton, in Bloody Victory, give a figure of 100,000 Germans still in the pocket on 16 August, of whom 10,000 were killed and 40,000 surrendered. More might have been captured if the Americans hadn’t stopped at Argentan on 13 August, and instead followed Patton’s instincts to push north, although the decision to stop was a fairly uncontroversial one when it was made. Even so the victory was a crushing one, and prevented the Germans making a stand anywhere short of the Rhine and the German frontier. By the end of August the Allies had liberated Paris and reached the Seine, and Operation Overlord was officially over, having achieved more than was expected of it, and ahead of schedule.

Stout Hearts: The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944, Ben Kite. Looks in detail at the role of each element in the British and Canadian military machine during the Normandy Campaign, including each aspect of the ground forces from the infantry to the armour, intelligence, reconnaissance and medical services, as well as the air support and the fire power provided by the massive Allied fleets off the Normandy coast. A very useful companion to narrative accounts of the campaign, helping to explain how the British and Canadians managed to overcome the determined German resistance on their front [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 October 2020), Operation Tractable, 14 August-21 August 1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_tractable.html

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