*** World War II liberation of France, Allied sweep north

The Liberation of France: Allied Sweep North (August 1944)

liberation of France
Figure 1.--The Germans entered France behind victorios Panzer spearheads. They left France anyway they could, a rag-tag defeated army. Many German soldiets got back to the Reich, but they left their armor and heavy weaponry behind. Scenes like this occurred all over France during mid- and late-August as the Allied armies swept north pursuing the retreating Germans. Unfortunately the city here is not identified and the wire service caption is lost. The photograph is dated August 30, but this could be when it was received and not when it was taken. Notice how the little boy has a privlidged seat beyond the cordon created by the firemen. We suspect this may have been part of some kind of celebration a few days after the Allied tanks entered the town.

The Allies after closing the Falaise pocket were intent on persuing the retreating Wehrmacht. The major Allied concern was to ensure that the Wehrmacht was unable to resestablish a defensive line at the Seine. Here the German Mortain Offensive and the defeat at Falaise had caused considerable losses and stripped the Germans of much of their armor. This mnean that France was lost to them. The Germans were no longer capable of resisting the Allies in France, even at the Seine. Every city in France had its own liberation as the Allies moved north. And every story is diffrent Of course the liberation of Paris got all the headlines, but the liberation of their cities was an emotional climax for the French public as the Germans desperately attempted to get back to the Reich. There was intense fighting until the collapse of the Falaise pocket abnd the fall of Paris. Then except in the rugged northeast, German resistance collapsed until the Allied Armies approaced the West Wall (Siefgried Line). While every city has its own story, it was Paris which dominated the focus of the world press. Paris at the time was not a major target for the Allies. The U.S. 4th Infantry Divsion was, however, just to the West of Paris and the Resistance in Paris decided to rise against the Germans. The Germans had left only a small force in Paris, wihout heavy weapons. Even so, the Resistance fighters although numerous were outgunned and had little amunition. They broadcasted pleas for assistance. General DeGualle and Leclerec pleaded with Gereral Bradely who finally authorized the drive on Paris.

Falaise (August 9-21)

The final battle of the Normandy campaign occurred at Falaise. There the Allies attempted to surround an entire German army. Hitler's counter to Operation Cobra was an iladvise counter-attack at Mortain. Bradley and Montgomery agreed this presented an opportunity to capture an entire German field army. The objective was the German 7th Army and the Fifth Panzer Army. This was the principal German force in France and numbered about 150,000 men. Montgomery was to drive south from Calais and the Bradley was to execute a sweeping encirclement to bag the Germans who Hitler had demanded drive east just as the Allies were breaking out from the Normandy pocket. The goal was to isolate the Americans whowhad broken out. In the end the Germans no longer had the strength to accomplish this, in part beause of the total lack of Luftwaffe support to stave off aggressive Allied air attacks. Montgomery organized the northern Allied pincer. He organized an offensive south of Caen. There the German defensives had been weakened by Hitler's deployment of much of the German armor for the disatrous Mortain offensive. Thus Montgomery finally broke out, but the fighting was very difficult. Canadian armor received a shock at Estrées-la-Campagne. Montgomery relentlessly drove south, launching a series of offensives (Operations Totalize 1 and II, and Tractable) using mostly Canadian units. The Canadians were reinforced with General Maczeck's 1st Polish Armored Division. Bradley entrusted the southern pincer to the American XV Army Corps which had just entered Le Mans (August 9). They were order to change their course and drive north toward Falaise. The southern pincer was led by General Leclerc's 2nd French Armoured Division. The French took Alenéon (August 12) and then attacked toward Ecouch� and Argentan. Even after the reversal at Mortain, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht stand and fight, although many units had begun to retreat (August 14). They were trying to reach the Seine which was a potential defensive line for the Germans. As a result of Hitler's orders, the Allies had almost completed their encirlement maneuver. Hitler finally realizing the futility of further resistance south of the Seine, order a general retreat (August 16). The next day Montgomery took Falaise (August 17). The Wehrmacht wanted to save what remained of their armor. German infantry units were by now largely disorganized, but attempted to eascape through the narrowing gap between Faliaise and Argentan. Closing the Falaise pocket was a truly Allied effort. British units attacked from the west. The Canadians and Poles attacked from the north. The French and Americans attacked from the south. Vicious fighting occurred between Argentan and Trun. SS units managed to hold a narrow corridor open, but the fleeing Germans were pounded by both artillery and air attacks. The Germans fled through 'corridor of death' between the villages of Chambois, Saint-Lambert, Trun and Tournai-sur-Dives. American airpower wreked havoc on the retreating Germans. Finally the northern and southern pincer closed (August 21). The Allies failed to capture the entire German force. About two-thirds of the Germans or about 100,000 men escaped the Falaise pocket between August 12-20. They had, however, to abandon their heavy equipment. About 6,000 Germans were killed and 50,000 taken prisoner. The battle for Falaise was an enormous Allied victory leading to the liberation of France. While much of the German force escaped, without their armor and heavy weapons and the Germans were no longer capable of even attempting a stand at the Seine. Much recrimination, however, followed the failure to capture the entire German force. Had they done so, the Allies might have been able to enter Germany in 1944. The Americans in particularl blamed Montgomery, charging a lack of aggressiveness. The British countered that ghey faced the toughest German resistance. This debate has never been resolved by military historians.

Chartres (August 18)

Chartres is located southeat of Paris. It is an ancient Roman town and one of the most aclaimed cathedral cities of the medieval period. The city itseld was built on a hill on the left bank of the Eure River. Its renowned medieval cathedral was built on top of the hill and thus its famous two spires are visible from miles away across the flat surrounding farm lands. The plain of Beauce, the "granary of France", streaches to the southeast. Many condider Chartres to be the most beautiful of the many medieval gothic cathedrals. Chartres was not damaged in the battle for France as French authorities declared Paris an open city ad surrendered soon after (June 1940). The city was subsequentlt damaged by Allied bombing. Allied units stuck outside the city, wanted the Cathedral destroyed. American officer, Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr., doubted the need to destroy the magnificent Cathedral. He volnteered to surepticiously go into the German-occupied city and determine if the Germans were using the Cathedral spires as an observation post. He mnanaged to confirm that the Germans were not using the Cathedral. [Nordlinger] The Allies entered the city (August 18). Col. Griffith was killed two days earlier as the Allies liberated the nearby town of Leves (August 16). As part of the liberation, the city population went after collaborators. The fall of Chartres further opened the roads north and to Paris.

Crossing the Seine (August 18-25)

The Seine is one of France's great rivers. It and its tributries rise in north central France and winds its way northeast through Paris to the sea at La Harve. It is is 483 miles long. It is a major geographic barrier. The Seine was the key French river crossing running through France west to east and straight through Paris. The Frenchin 1940 considered making a stand, but did not have the strength. The Germans considered the same in 1944, but after Mortain and Fajaise did not have the strength. The Seine was, however, still a major obstracle. The libertion of France after the Normandy breakout required crossing the Seine. The Allies had three field armies liberating France. The 12th Army Group was the American field army to the east of Paris. The 21st Army Group was the British field army to the west of Oaris. These were the two field armies breaking out of the Normandy beach head. Further east was the 6th Army Group (an American-French formation), racing up the Rhone Valley from the Mediterranean codst. To the east of Paris, after the breakout from Normady, American armored columns raced through French villages largely abandoned by the Germans. They were met by jubilent throngs of French people finally freed from the German grip. The American drive to the Seine began (August 2). Gen. Bradley instructed Gen. Patton commanding the Third Army to secure the north-south line of the river Mayenne, clear the area west of the Mayenne as far south as the Loire, and protect the 12th Army Group's flank. The American drive veered eastward as planned by Eisenhower. Patton ordered the XX Corps to cross the river Mayenne. The Americans then headed to the Seine. The crossing at Mantes-Gassicourt was the first Allied bridgehead across the Seine River which allowed the Allies to engage in the Liberation of Paris. There were two days of the bridge crossing (August 18-20). The Germans attempted to stop them, but just did not have the strength. There was a rare appearance of the Luftwffe in France. The Americans shot down nearly 50 Luftwaffe aircraft. To the east of Paris the British British 21st Army Group moved toward the Seine. The drive was led by the British 43rd (Wessex) Division. The Wessex Division was battle-hardened and well equipped and it faced a relatuvely weak German division formed of mixed nationalities. The Seine is, however, a major river and twider in the British sector than the Anmerican sector. The Germans had the advantage of a major natural obstacle to buttress their defenive position. With the Resistance uprising in Paris, the British need to cross the Seine vgot badded impetus. A British historian writes, "At XXX Corps HQ near Moulins-sur-Orne on the evening of 22 August, Major-General Thomas [division commander] arrived to be given orders for the operation. He was instructed 'to force a crosing of the Seine on or about the 25 August [the day Paris would be liberated]. To cover the construction of a Class 9, a Class 40 and a Class 7 bridge. To form a bridgehead of sufficient depth to allow passage through of thr remainder of the Corps." [Ford] The operation called for Thomas to plan and undertake an assaut crossing of a wide river against an enemy-held shore, in broad daylight after an advance of over 120 miles (193 km), all within the space of three days. It was a tall order. The Seine was the last major obstacle geographic obstacle in France and the Falaise fighting had seriously smashed the German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army. These were the major German formations in France which had held the llies in Normandy. German soldiers escaped the pocket, but their heavy weapons were dedstroyed or left behind behind (some 500 tanks and assault guns). Within a week of crossing the Seine, the Allies were approahing the Belgan frontier.

Paris (August 25)

Hitler had ordered the German commander in Paris to destroy the city rather than surrender it. Charges were placed on bridges, major buildings, and historic monuments. The Paris Ressistance rose up against the German occupation forces as Allied armour divisions raced to cross the Seine. French Forces of the Interior (FFI) attacked Germans retreating through the city. The Germans were pulling out of the city, but still had heavy weapons. There was intense fighting in the city. About 2,000 civiliands were killed, mostly the result of snipers. At first the Allies were going to bypass the city. Plees from out-gunned resistance fighters caused Eisenhower to change his mind. General Bradley gave the Free French Division commnded by Leclerec the honor of liberating the city. Leclerec raced north to join the resistance fighting in the city. Hitler as the Allies approached ordered the city to be destroyed. The German commander refused to carry out the orders. He was concerned that the SS might arrest him before he could surrender to the Allies. Allied forces entered the city (August 25). The city was in chaos. Celebrations were occuring on one corner and a block away fighting was raging.

Champaign Campaign (August 18-September 10)

The Allies landed on the Mediterranean coast in the siouth (August 15). In onlyn3 days they began thevdrivev nirth uo the Rhone. Valley The southern campaign is sometimes referred to as the Champaign Campaign because they did not meet the tenanous resistance encountered at Normandy. Rather they rolled north through villges with no Germans and a jubilent French population. The Germans by August were broken and withdrawing back to the Reich and the defenses of the West Wall to fight the final battles. Their primary concern was not to get cuf off by the Allied forces moving out of the Normandy Bridgehead. All thoughts of making a stand at the Seine were abandoned. The advancing Dragoon Force encountered German covering forces, but few heavy units. Blaskowitz staged a skillful retreat with the forces he commanded. He managed to get substantial forces back to the protection of the Vosges Mountains near the Rhine, but in the process the advancing Allies gutted Army Group G. Devers was informed of German intentions to withdraw north rather than fighting it out oin the south thanks to Ultra intercepts. He ordered mobile units to attack to cut off Army Group G's retreat. The Allies reached reached Digne (August 18). The German 157th Infantry Division abandoned Grenoble (August 21). This opening a gap on the German left flank. Blaskowitz skillfully used the Rhone River to shield his retreat north. He ordered the depleted 11th Panzer Division to attack toward Aix-en-Provence. This teporarily the Allied drive. Devers and Patch reacted to the gap on the German left. They put together a mobile force -- Task Force Butler. This Force and the 36th Infantry Division drive through the gap trying to cut off Army Groupo G at Montélimar. Blaskowitz noved 11th Panzer Division to plug the gap (August 24). The Germans organizing their largest assault of the campaign (August 25). This created a mometary statemate. The Germans were unable to dislodge the Americans, but the American forces lacked the manpower and supplies to immeduately continue the advance. This enabled a substantial part of Army Group G to escape the American attempt to cut them off before the Americans could continue the advance (August 28). The Americans took Montélimar (August 29). Devers ordered VI Corps and the French II Corps to pursue Blaskowitz and Armny Group G. The result was a series of running battles as the Army Group G retired north. Lyon was liberated (September 3).


Ford, Ken. Assault Crossing: The River Seine 1944 (2012).

Nordlinger, Jay. "A Colonel at Chartres". The Corner. NationalReview.com. (2011).


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Created: 7:11 PM 9/4/2012
Last updated: 2:51 PM 12/30/2021