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France, Liberation of

France, Liberation of (1944–45).Following the invasion of Normandy, the breakout by Omar N. Bradley's U.S. First Army created conditions for mobile warfare that permitted the World War II Allied armies to liberate France by the late summer of 1944. In the aftermath of the American breakthrough of German lines, George S. Patton's newly activated U.S. Third Army swept west through the Brittany peninsula. Meanwhile, British and Canadian armies under Bernard Law Montgomery pushed further into Northern France. On 6 August, the Germans launched a large counterattack at Mortain to defeat the Americans and push them back into the English Channel. But the fighting ability of U.S. ground and air forces, advised of Berlin's plans by ULTRA intelligence, resulted in the German's defeat after two days of fighting.

On 8 August, in bold disregard of the recent threat at Mortain, Bradley devised a plan to cut off the German Army before it could withdraw to the Seine River. He ordered Patton to swing around the German left and cut off the enemy escape route by capturing Argentan. Meanwhile, the Canadian First Army under Henry Crerar was to close the trap from the north by seizing Falaise. Patton's troops moved aggressively, capturing Argentan on 13 August, while the Canadians pressed toward Falaise against stiff German resistance. However, concerns that an unexpected encounter between U.S. and Canadian troops might result in numerous friendly casualties caused a halt in Allied operations and left the pincers' jaws open. The Germans now had an escape route through the Falaise‐Argentan gap. Allied airpower savaged the German ranks, but a considerable portion of the enemy escaped. Still, German losses in the Falaise‐Argentan pocket included 10,000 killed and 50,000 captured. The failure of Allied generals to close the Falaise‐Argentan gap remains one of the great controversies of the war in Western Europe.

On 19 August, Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower modified his pre‐invasion plans. He had originally planned to halt his armies along the Seine River to reorganize and resupply, but the deteriorating enemy situation prompted him to order exploitation to the Seine and beyond. Montgomery now urged the encirclement of the remnants of the German Army. The Allies attempted another large pincer movement south of the Seine, but most of the German infantry escaped and made it over the river. The Allied approach toward Paris caused Free French uprisings on 19 August that soon needed assistance. The U.S. V Corps took Paris on 25 August with the honor of the triumphal entry going to the French 2nd Armored Division. French Gen. Charles de Gaulle entered Paris the same day and installed his government in the French capital.

As the Allies advanced toward the Seine River, a second Allied coalition force landed in southern France. On 15 August, U.S. Gen. Jacob Dever's Sixth Army Group, consisting of the U.S. Seventh and French First Armies, landed in southern France in Operation Dragoon, captured the key port at Marseilles, and began an offensive up the Rhône River valley. The Germans successfully withdrew more than half of their forces from southern France before the Allied armies effected a juncture on 11 September. Dever's army group was then ordered to protect the Allied southern flank during the drive into Germany. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts in clearing the Brittany peninsula to the west came to naught. After a stubborn fight, the Germans finally surrendered Brest on 25 August, but not before destroying nearly all of the port facilities. With the opening of Marseilles in the South, of Cherbourg, and with the imminent capture of other Channel ports, logisticians saw little need for capturing additional harbor facilities in Brittany.

Flushed by the past month's tremendous successes, Montgomery and Bradley argued for a single, bold thrust into Germany launched from their respective sectors. But Eisenhower, concerned that a single drive might be too vulnerable to counterattack, ordered his armies to advance simultaneously on a broad front. To implement the “broad front” strategy, Eisenhower directed that Montgomery's continued attacks in the north be supported by Courtney Hodges's U.S. First Army. Patton's Third Army was to advance only as supplies permitted.

As the Allied armies moved beyond the Seine, logistics began to govern operations. The beach unloading facilities in Normandy were unable to accommodate the large amounts of gasoline, munitions, and other supplies the armies required, and in some cases, advance units were more than 300 miles from the beaches. Despite expedients such as airdrops and the implementation of a truck convoy system called the “Red Ball Express,” supply levels remained inadequate.

To ease the logistics crisis, Eisenhower gave priority of supplies to Montgomery and ordered him to capture the port facilities at Antwerp in Belgium. The British moved rapidly, capturing Brussels on 3 September. Antwerp fell the next day, though continued German resistance did not permit the port's use until late November. Meanwhile, American progress slowed considerably due to lack of gasoline. Patton's Third Army crossed the Meuse River on 30 August but had to halt for lack of fuel. Hodge's First Army captured a large number of Germans near Mons on 3 September, but the advance then ground to a halt. Finally, on 14 September, troops from Hodges's army became the first Allied soldiers to set foot on German soil. Days later, Patton's supply situation improved, and Third Army moved westward to complete the liberation of France.

Adolf Hitler brought in Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt on 5 September to take charge of the German Army in the West. In the face of the Allied advance, Rundstedt consolidated his forces and stabilized a defensive line. A key element of the defense was the West Wall, a dense line of small, mutually supporting pillboxes that stretched the length of the German border. In an abortive effort to outflank the West Wall by capturing a bridgehead across the lower Rhine River at the Dutch town of Arnhem near the German border, Field Marshal Montgomery planned operation “Market‐Garden.” On 17 September 1944, the 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions and 1st British Airborne Division (16,500 paratroopers and 3,500 troopers in gliders), dropped near the Rhine bridges. However, many were blocked by two SS Panzer divisions, whose recent move into the area had been ignored. The British armored column coming by land was delayed by stiff German resistance and bad weather, and eventually prevented from reaching Arnhem, thus losing 6,000 British paratroopers as prisoners of war. The two U.S. airborne divisions held their ground and suffered 3,500 casualties. “Market‐Garden” failed to gain a major bridgehead across the lower Rhine and by diverting sizable forces produced major delays in defeating Germans in the estuaries to open the vital port of Antwerp.

Between 6 June and 14 September, the Allies put 2.1 million soldiers on French soil, severely punished the German Army in the west, liberated the French people, and advanced to the German frontier. Despite the huge, sweeping success, Allied losses were heavy: 40,000 killed, 165,000 wounded, and 20,000 missing. In all, German forces suffered nearly 700,000 casualties. Still, the German Army remained intact, and larger battles loomed on the horizon as Allied forces began the Battle for Germany.

Bibliography

Martin Blumenson , Breakout and Pursuit, 1961; repr. 1977.
Cornelius Ryan , A Bridge Too Far, 1974.
Russell Weigley , Eisenhower's Lieutenants, 1981.
Martin Blumenson , The Battle of the Generals, 1993.
Michael D. Doubler , Closing with the Enemy: How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944–1945, 1994.

Michael D. Doubler

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