6. the Liberation of France Breakout Sweeps Allies to Paris and Beyond

Article excerpt

In August 1944, the United States Army came of age.

To this day, the breakout from Normandy and the dash across France lodge in the Army's institutional memory. That month's combat remains the way the Army wants to fight its battles - horsepower plus firepower, overdrive and overkill, a Desert Storm on the horizon of history.

That battle in '44 ended before the Army wanted it to. The Germans got a breathing spell because the Allies quite literally ran out of gas.

But while the battle flowed, what a wonder it was. As Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. wrote home on Aug. 6, 1944:

"We are having one of the loveliest battles you ever saw. It is a typical cavalry action in which, to quote the words of the old story, `The soldier went out and charged in all directions at the same time, with a pistol in each hand and a sabre in the other.' "

***** Punching Through the Crust

Adolf Hitler had ordered his generals in Normandy to hold at all costs. The cost turned out to be most of his army in the West; when the hard-pressed Germans finally broke, they broke wide open.

The Americans jammed in the wedge. Heavy bombers blew open a hole, and the Sherman tanks poured through, heading south. When the tanks hit the bottom corner of the Brittany Peninsula, they turned east and stomped on the gas. They didn't stop until they hit the German border.

As the arrows traced the southward path of the tanks, the German generals saw disaster. Hitler saw opportunity. He ordered his generals to roll their own tanks against the stretched-out American flank.

There was a time when it might have worked, but that time had passed. The Allies had won the battle of the buildup; now, they had more than enough men and material to win the battle of France. Still, Hitler persisted in his folly. German tanks lurched toward the Atlantic.

They got no farther than Mortain, where doughty riflemen of the 30th Infantry Division stopped them cold. Now, Hitler had his tanks stretched out - and now, the Allies saw an opportunity.

If the Allies could snap the door shut behind the Germans, they could trap most of the enemy's military power. They tried. The Canadians formed the upper half of a jaw closing on a town called Falaise, with the Americans grinding up as the bottom row of teeth.

Alas, the only thing bloodier than losing to a German army is surrounding one.

With desperate violence, the Germans held the door open at Falaise just long enough for key staff officers and a cadre of soldiers to scoot. To the frustration of the Americans, the Canadians just couldn't shut that door.

Some historians insist that if the Allies could have trapped the Germans, the war in the West would have ended right then and there. At the time, the Allies shrugged it off: Tough luck, but we'll get 'em down the road.

Down the road was the Franco-German border, where the escapees caught their breath, dug in and prolonged the war until the following spring. …