Road Trip Through History: The Falaise Pocket and The Long Legacy of Battle

The final day of our tour of Normandy was spent on the critical engagement known as the Falaise Pocket or Falaise Gap, Between August 12 and August 21, Allied forces, including exiled Polish forces who had taken refuge in Britain after the Germans invaded Poland, encircled the German Seventh Army in a pocket around the city of Falaise.

Unlike many of the operations of the Battle of Normandy, which are often told in terms of the heroic actions of small groups or individuals in the midst of chaos, the events of the Falaise Pocket lend themselves to clear descriptions of troop movements. Allied troops surrounded 100,000 of Hitler’s best troops in a pincer movement: United States forces moving south and east while British, Canadian, and Polish forces moved in from the North. The delay of American troops created a brief opening, the Falaise gap, through which some 50,000 German troops fought their way free. The two thousand man 1st Polish Armored Division captured Hill 262, in the middle of the bottleneck, and held it against overwhelming odds against German forces for two days and nights until relieved by Canadian troops. It was a thrilling story, even though I am not generally a fan of military history reduced to troop movements.

After driving through the Dives valley where the battle of the Falaise Pocket occurred we stopped at a small private dedicated to, the Mémorial de Montormel, located on a hill overlooking the battlefield. The museum told the story of the battle in three different forms: on a contoured table map with lights representing the various troops movements,* in a brief film, and as a personal narrative told by the museum director while we stood at an enormous picture window looking out over the valley where the battle occurred.

The director’s account brought the battle back to the human level, and reminded us that even liberation leaves horror in its wake. General Eisenhower described the events at Falaise as “one of the greatest killing grounds that any sector of the war has ever experienced… forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap, it was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.” The museum director made it clear that the effects lasted more than forty-eight hours. He described land cloaked first with a layer of black flies and later with a white layer of maggots. It was two years before the people of the Dives Valley could plant crops again because the ground water was polluted with the corpses of dead men and dead horses.** Twenty years later, contractors were still removing scrap metal left from the battle. I can’t say it too often: war is ugly.

*I thought it was excellent. My Own True Love thought it was confusing. Just so you know.
**We tend to think of World War II as highly mechanized, but horses still played an important role and died in battle. More than 10,000 horses were killed in the Falaise Pocket alone.

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Before I abandon the invasion of Normandy for other historical topics, I want to recommend a museum on the other side of the Channel which deals with the invasion from another perspective: the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth. The museum does an excellent job of portraying both preparations for D-Day and the invasion itself, but it is not “just” a military museum.  A significant portion of the exhibit focuses on social history of the period, looking at bombing raids, women in the workforce, black outs, evacuation and rationing as experienced in Portsmouth.  I was particularly taken by the oral history element of the museum: the museum not only provided book after book of first hand accounts for the visitor to read, it also played recordings of those accounts in the relevant sections of the museum. The centerpiece of the museum is the Overlord Embroidery: a 272-foot long embroidery commissioned as an answer to the Bayeux Tapestry. Pretty spectacular.

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