The Rouen bridgehead 1944

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Victory-20

The Germans were fully aware that they had suffered a catastrophe at Falaise, St Lambert, Chambois and Trun, but there was no time to reflect as they had much more pressing matters. Once the Falaise gap was closed, British I Corps, under the command of the Canadian 1st Army, pushed along the coast to Honfleur, while on its flank the Canadian II Corps headed for Rouen and the Seine River.

Model, Dietrich and Eberbach knew they must hold the west bank stretching north from Paris, through Rouen to the coast and Le Havre, in order to allow their retreating forces to escape over the river. This would provide a new main line of resistance, or, if it came to the worst, as seemed likely, they could withdraw behind the Somme. Providing a fighting screen for the retiring forces meant no rest for the shattered panzer divisions, which Model described as little more than `torsos’.

While the destruction of the Falaise pocket seemed a deathblow from which the German Army could never recover, numerous units had not been caught. On the Allies’ immediate eastern flank were elements of the 85th, 272nd, 331st, 346th and 711th Infantry Divisions, numbering about 32,450 men. Behind them were another nine Infantry and parachute divisions, eight of which had come from von Salmuth’s 15th Army.

In fact there were an estimated 250,000 German troops and 250 panzers still west of the Seine, consisting of men outside the pocket, those who had escaped the pocket and units withdrawing from Army Group G’s area. In mid-August Hitler, finally grasping the gravity of the situation developing in Normandy, had ordered all non-combatant troops under Army Group G in western and southern France to commence withdrawing beyond the Seine.

The staff of 5th Panzer Army found that from each of the panzer divisions on average 3,000 men had escape the shambles of Falaise, while each of the infantry divisions could only muster up to 2,000 men. It took command of the entire sector west of the Seine, ordering that Elbeuf, laying on a huge west-facing loop in the river south of Rouen, should be held. This was the nearest crossing point for those troops fleeing from Falaise and represented their primary escape route. In the meantime, the exhausted staffs of 7th Army, no longer capable of directing anything, were ordered to collect all available infantry units beyond the Seine.

The Americans achieved a bridgehead over the river north of Paris at Mantes-Gassicourt, just south of Army Group B’s HQ at La Roche Guy on, on the 19th, posing a threat to 5th Panzer Army’s left wing. If Patton had been instructed to exploit this with a rapid thrust north along the east bank instead of the west, fewer Germans would have escaped.

Model instructed Dietrich to counterattack with four of his panzer divisions. Four days later a few weak panzergrenadier units and about thirty panzers were launched into a feeble attack that was swiftly halted. This was repeated on the 24th, with similar results.

Further north, the remnants of three panzer divisions, 2nd SS, 21st and 116th Panzer, were melded into Group Schwerin, with about twenty battle-worthy tanks and assault guns. On the night of 23rd/24th, 21st Panzer and 2nd SS moved to reinforce the eastern flank of 5th Panzer Army between the Seine and the Risle in an effort to protect the Seine crossings near Rouen. The 21st Panzer was subordinate to 116th Panzer, while 2nd SS were to hold blocking positions south and southeast of Elbeuf. By the evening of the 24th a line had been established between Elbeuf and the Risle north of Brionne. The withdrawing 9th SS were also ordered to join Group Schwerin.

The Germans did all they could to hold up the US 2nd Armored Division attempting to cross the River Avre at Verneuil. Suffering heavy casualties, the Americans crossed upstream, swinging north toward Elbeuf. They penetrated the town on 24 August but were expelled by the 2nd SS the following morning. German resistance was so aggressive that one American column attacking from the southeast was cut off for two days and nights. Holding the high ground on the east bank opposite Elbeuf was the 17th Luftwaffe Field Division, blocking the crossing and the way to Rouen.

Further north, Kuntzen’s LXXXI Corps also soon found themselves at risk, necessitating moving the 9th SS to the Montfort area on the 25th. East of Rouen the British 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division crossed at Vernon and three days later the 11th Armoured Division was over and swinging northward toward Amiens and the Somme.

Withdrawal across the Seine now became an imperative and Model gave the order. Priority of crossing was armoured fighting vehicles, motorised transport and then horse-drawn. By 25 August, as the retreat got underway, 5th Panzer Army was able to muster just 18,000 men, forty-two tanks and assault guns and 314 guns, essentially a single panzer division. These forces were pulled back to the Seine bridgehead, formed by three large river loops, to protect the crossings at Caudebec-en-Caux, Duclair, Elbeuf and Rouen.

Those who escaped the Allied encirclement still had to get over the river. Now that the frontline had vanished, for the retreating troops there was a constant air of uncertainty, driving through villages unsure if they would bump into enemy patrols, hostile Maquis or simply in different locals, and with the ever-present fighter-bombers circling menacingly overhead. One anonymous German soldier writing home recalled that even after escaping the Falaise pocket his ordeal was far from over, as it became a case of everyman for himself:

I was in the Argentan-Falaise pocket and I still don’t know how I got out of it. We were running in wild fiery circles with artillery and aerial bombs dropping around us. After I got out of there I had to fight partisans and our own soldiers to get on the ferry across the Seine.

The retreating Germans made for the crossings at Elbeuf, Oissel and Rouen, which were under constant air attack. The main crossing point was at Rouen, so holding the wooded river bulge became vital, though with the river unfordable and with all the bridges down they had to rely on boats and rafts. The pontoon bridge at Rouen could only take wheeled vehicles and the bridge at Oissel, having been brought down in May, was likewise makeshift. Many surviving tanks and other vehicles that had been so painstakingly coaxed eastward were abandoned on the dockside. On the 25th bombers attacked the German transport massed on the quayside twice; the following day the fires were still burning both sides of the river.

Outside Rouen, Will Fey and his comrades from Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 102 witnessed the fate of the surviving panzers:

All the panzers and artillery had to remain on the west bank of the Seine. They were driven out of the columns, and some were blown up. Some of the Panzers that were still mobile were driven into the stream and sunk or blown up in the woods. We had dragged the panzers, artillery, and valuable equipment away from the front for days across long distances to this river; then we had to leave them there. The crews drifted across the river without panzers and guns. But we could not leave our panzer so easily.

Driving their Tiger into the docks, a boat came to Fey’s rescue:

Just then a navy barge came put-putting across the Seine to solve our problems and take our Tiger to the other shore. Our Tiger with the 001 on the turret, ready for action, rolled onto the barge without problems, and we set out. Was it the 001, the number of the command Panzer, that helped us get across? We were sitting on our Tiger with anticipation and had almost reached the shore when a formation of two fighter-bombers firing from all barrels, came lying at us across the Seine. This meant that all possible speed was needed, and our driver started the engine before the barge reached the shore. The navy men were jumping off to secure the boat when the next attack by the fighter-bombers began. Full cover was the Only answer to the well-aimed fire from a low-level attack. Before the ropes were fully fastened, the Tiger set out slowly and the tracks were already getting a hold on the harbour wall when the sixty tons of our panzer pushed the barge away from the wall. Our 001 rolled from the deck into the Seine. The stern of the barge stuck out of the water, and there was just enough time for the crew to jump off before Tiger 001 sank into the waters of Rouen Harbour like a submarine.

The lacklustre 116th Panzer scored a minor success at Bourgtheroulde, briefly driving the Americans back on the 26th with a combination of tanks and artillery. On the night of 26th/27th the 116th’s Panzergrenadier Regiments 60 and 156 were deployed along the Seine loop near Moulineaux to the north and the Foret de la Londe in the centre respectively, with 2nd SS holding the left wing near Orival, thereby blocking off the approaches to Rouen. The three self-propelled guns of I Battery, Panzer Artillery Regiment 146, 116th Panzer, rendered inoperable after air attack were pulled out of the line and withdrawn over the Seine on the night of 26th.

The 116th Panzer and a kampfgruppe from the 2nd SS were given the task of holding the Americans at bay at Elbeuf, but on the 26th 2nd Armoured overran the town’s southern outskirts. Having pinned down the Americans, the 116th withdrew at midnight under the cover of fog and rain. Members of the 2nd SS, including Fritz Langanke, escaped by swimming across the river. At daybreak the Americans mopped up resistance and handed the town over to the Canadians.

Some surviving Tigers of Panzer Abteilung 102 reached Elbeuf on 25 August only to find the bridge down, so headed for Oissel to the northeast. There the crews found the area clogged with an estimated 5,000-7,000 vehicles all waiting to cross. Reluctantly the order was given for the remaining panzers to be destroyed. Panzer Abteilung 503 is believed to have lost the last of its Tigers west of the Seine near Rouen at la Bouille. There were no ferries that could take their massive weight and they had to be abandoned. The 10th SS crossed at Oissel on 25-27 August by means of two bridges they had seized, selfishly fending off attempts by other retreating units to use them until all their own troops had crossed.

A withdrawal to the three Seine loops south of Caudebec-en-Caux, south of Duclair and south of Rouen was ordered on the night of the 27th/28th, with the 331st Infantry Division taking over the Duclair and Rouen loops and the dense forest in between.

While the Canadian 3rd Armoured Division crossed at Elbeuf, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was required to push through Foret de la Londe, whose wooded hills stretched northward all the way to Rouen. They suffered almost 600 casualties in three days of bitter fighting. By nightfall on the 28th the Canadian 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions had taken possession of the hills about a mile inland from Elbeuf, having put the 17th Luftwaffe Field Division to light. The Polish 1st Armoured Division also crossed at Elbeuf on the 29th.

SS-Flak Abteilung 17 crossed the Seine on the 27th, upstream from Portejoie, and made its way to Metz to join the rest of the 17th SS. The battalion’s I Battery at Saumur, although lacking transport, managed to commandeer local vehicles and headed for Tours on the 24th. After defending the bridge there and covering stragglers, the unit finally reached Metz on 20 September.

The remaining survivors of 2nd Panzer managed to cross the Seine on 28 August. Ironically, Otto Meyer, commander of SS-Panzer Regiment 9, having survived all the fighting in Normandy, was killed on 30 August crossing at Duclair. In the early hours that Day the 331st Infantry, acting as rearguard, finally pulled back across the river and the Canadian 3rd and 4th Armoured liberated Rouen.

Model decided that 7th Army would cover the withdrawal of 5th Panzer Army toward Arras, northeast of Amiens and behind the safety of the Somme, where it could be refitted. At Amiens, Dietrich was supposed to hand command of 5th Panzer Army back to Eberbach on the afternoon of the 31st. Dietrich left early and Eberbach, commanding 7th Army in Hausser’s absence, and his staff were surprised by British tanks rumbling into their midst and compelled to surrender. His Chief of Staff, von Gersdorff, escaped but 5th Panzer Army’s guard company, drawn from 116th Panzer, were not so lucky. Eberbach’s only reserves were just five Tiger tanks and they could achieve little in the face of the British 11th Armoured Division. The last remaining operational unit of Panzer Abteilung 503, III Kompanie, finally lost its Tiger IIs near Amiens.

This drove a wedge between 15th Army west of Amiens and 5th Panzer Army to the east. Any hopes Model had of holding the Somme as a main line of resistance were dashed. He was now forced to retreat yet again and the British were soon pushing on Brussels and Antwerp. In the meantime, Dietrich made his way to Model’s Army Group B HQ at Havrin court and was briefly appointed commander of 7th Army.

Also on the 31st a team of panzertruppen, including Will Fey, bravely slipped back across the Seine to destroy the abandoned Tiger tanks on the dockside, as he relates:

Our VW took us into the city and to the harbour, and a boat of the pioneers took us across. A wild chaos awaited us at the crossing point. It was covered with burning and smoking wrecks of vehicles. We comforted the moaning and begging wounded. We spotted the first three Tigers, undamaged, very close to our crossing point. They had been abandoned by their crews.

We pushed the explosive charges, which every panzer carried in case they were needed, into the breech of the 8.8cm gun, poured gasoline from a jerry can into the interior, activated the detonator charge, and threw a hand grenade into the engine compartment to set the fuel on fire. Then we jumped off and took full cover. The explosion followed. All this took only a few seconds, and one Tiger after the other burned with bright flames.

Then, using panzerfausts, they took out two Panthers commandeered by the local Maquis who were trying to operate them, before escaping back over the Seine in a rowboat.

There had been no second Falaise pocket. Frustratingly for the Allies, the bulk of those German forces west of the Seine, some 240,000 troops, 30,000 vehicles and 135 panzers, escaped over the river. German armoured vehicle losses were modest considering the rapidity of the Allied advance, only sixty panzers and 250 other armoured vehicles being left on the west bank. About 10,000 troops seem to have been caught. The surviving staffs of 5th Panzer Army and LVIII Panzer Corps were pulled out of the line and responsibility assumed by 7th Army once more.

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