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
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
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
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
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. …