As Major Wladyslaw Zgorzelski, YOU must lead your men to close the Falaise Gap and trap German 7th Army.
On September 1, 1939, World War II in Europe erupted when Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s German armies invaded Poland. (See Battlefield Leader p. 24.) In a campaign that lasted slightly over a month, they defeated Poland’s armed forces and then subjected the country to a brutal occupation by Germany and Hitler’s then ally, Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yet this was far from the end of the struggle for tens of thousands of Polish soldiers and airmen who escaped occupied Poland to fight for the Allies for the remainder of the war. Polish airmen formed fighter squadrons in Britain’s Royal Air Force, while Polish ground combat units fought as part of the Red Army on the Eastern Front and with the Western Allied armies in Italy, France, Belgium, Holland and Germany.
In August 1944, one of these units was 1st Polish Armored Division, commanded by General Stanislaw Maczek. The 16,000 troops, 380 tanks and 470 artillery guns of the division, which was formed in Britain in 1942, began arriving in France in late July 1944 and by early August were assigned to 1st Canadian Army in British General Bernard Montgomery’s 21 Army Group. As 1st Polish Armored Division entered combat in mid-August, battlefield fortunes had swung dramatically in the Allies’ favor.
After six weeks of brutal fighting in Normandy’s daunting bocage terrain following the June 6 D-Day landings, Allied forces finally broke through German defenses in late July. Upon defeating a weeklong German counterattack at Mortain on August 13, British, Canadian and American armies swept forward, driving the battered German 7th Army into an ever-shrinking pocket between Falaise and Argentan. Yet to trap the German forces – 15 divisions containing 100,000 troops – the Allies had to close the pocket’s eastern gap. Maczek’s Poles, eager to fight the Germans and well positioned on the northeast corner of the Falaise Pocket, received this vitally important mission.
Armchair General® takes you back to August 19, 1944, near Chambois, France, where you will assume the role of Major Wladyslaw Zgorzelski, commander of 10th Dragoons (Motorized Rifle Battalion), 1st Polish Armored Division. Your mission is to capture the town and link up with American units advancing from the south, thereby closing the Falaise Gap. Although German forces are fleeing and disorganized, they will put up a desperate fight to keep open their only escape route to the east. Moreover, since much of Chambois has been reduced to rubble by airstrikes and artillery bombardments, your soldiers will be required to endure brutal street fighting and close-quarter urban combat to capture the strategically located town. Regardless, your men must succeed and close the trap on German 7th Army to clear the way for Allied armies to advance eastward and liberate France.
Chambois is a crossroads town at the intersection of major roads, the most important of which is D16. Running northeast out of town, it is the main escape route for German forces fleeing the Falaise Pocket. D113 provides access to the town from the west, while D13 provides access from the north and south. Most of Chambois’ buildings are made of stone, and almost all have suffered extensive damage from Allied artillery fire and fighter-bomber attacks. The streets, therefore, are strewn with debris and clogged with destroyed and abandoned equipment. The surrounding countryside is mainly composed of open fields with a few scattered copses of trees. The fields are bounded by hedgerows and crossed by several narrow dirt lanes.
Chambois is strategically important not only because it is on the Falaise Pocket’s eastern gap but also because it is the site of one of only three remaining bridges over the Dives River, which runs generally northwest-southeast across the gap. Although the Dives is not very wide (infantrymen can swim across or wade through at fords), its banks are steep; bridges are the only means by which panzers and heavy equipment can cross. Therefore, any attack plan you devise for capturing Chambois also must include a provision for seizing the town’s bridge.
Division intelligence reports that the enemy forces defending Chambois consist of 75-100 fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) and about the same number of German infantrymen. Many of the fallschirmjäger are armed with MP40 submachine guns, while the remainder, as well as the regular German infantrymen, carry Mauser K98 boltaction rifles. Support weapons include up to a half-dozen MG42 machine guns plus panzerfaust and panzerschreck anti-tank weapons. Recent aerial reconnaissance photos reveal a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun dug in around Chambois’ northern outskirts, one PzKw V Panther tank positioned across the Dives River southwest of town, and a 105 mm self-propelled assault gun emplaced where route D13 enters Chambois from the southeast. Additionally, an abundance of abandoned equipment, weapons, ammunition and vehicles has been left lying around Chambois by German troops escaping to the northeast, so the defenders will not lack for weapons or ammunition.
Your 10th Dragoons is a motorized rifle battalion whose principal maneuver elements are 1st Company, led by Captain Giera; 2d Company, under Captain Kintzi; and 3d Company, led by Captain Bielawski. Each company (called a “squadron” by the Poles) contains 90 infantrymen mounted in seven U.S. M5 armored personnel carriers, or halftracks. (See M5 image.) The M5s are for transportation only; in combat the men dismount and engage the enemy on foot. Your infantrymen are armed with a mix of 9 mm Sten submachine guns and .303-caliber Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. Support weapons within each company include four .303-caliber Bren light machine guns, two Projector Infantry Anti-tank (PIAT) weapons, and a mortar section with one 2- inch and one 3-inch mortar. Each company also has a reconnaissance section mounted in four Bren gun carriers.
In addition to the three maneuver companies, you have 4th Company, a motorized support unit with six 6-pounder (57 mm) towed anti-tank guns and four Vickers .303- caliber medium machine guns. Led by Captain Bojanowski, the company uses Bren gun carriers to tow weapons and transport crews. Rounding out your force is your squad-sized battalion command element. Riding in an M5, this unit includes you, your adjutant, a radioman, a forward observer, three administrative staff members and a five-man security team.
MISSION: CLOSE THE GAP
Late yesterday evening, August 18, General Maczek met with you and gave your 10th Dragoons the mission to capture Chambois. Once you seize the town and the Dives River bridge, the German escape route out of the Falaise Pocket will be closed upon U.S. 90th Infantry Division’s arrival from the south.
After leaving Maczek, you spent the next several hours meeting with the division’s staff officers. The intelligence officer provided the latest information about Chambois gleaned from photoreconnaissance and from civilians who recently fled the region. The operations officer detailed the recognition signals (smoke, flares, etc.) coordinated with the Americans to prevent “friendly fire” incidents when 90th Infantry Division arrives. He also briefed you on the location, planned operations and unit boundaries of other division maneuver battalions, particularly those operating on your sector’s immediate flanks. One of your most important meetings was with the division logistics officer, who assured you that your vehicle refueling and ammunition resupply would begin promptly at daybreak.
The seemingly endless coordination left you no time for sleep, but it was crucial to ensuring your attack has the greatest chance for success. As you drove back to your battalion headquarters several miles northeast of Chambois, you felt confident that you had done all you could do to prepare 10th Dragoons for the impending attack.
Now, just before daybreak on August 19, you gather your staff and company commanders at your command post to brief them on three courses of action you are considering for the mission. Since there is no time to waste, you immediately launch into an explanation of your plans.
COURSE OF ACTION ONE: SINGLE THRUST
“The first course of action under consideration,” you begin, “capitalizes on speed as we push all our men straight down route D16 in a single thrust to overpower the German defenders as quickly as possible. The battalion will advance in column of companies with 1st Company in the lead, followed by 2d Company, 4th Company (support unit), my headquarters element, and then 3d Company at the rear. Once we are near the town’s outskirts, the infantrymen will dismount to attack and 4th Company will set up its weapons to deliver fire support. The 1st and 2d companies will move on our right flank to assault Chambois from the north and west; the latter’s objective is the Dives River bridge, southwest of town. Simultaneously, 3d Company will move on our left flank to attack Chambois from the southeast, near the cheese factory.”
Captain Giera, commander of 1st Company, is the first to offer his input. “Major, I agree that D16 seems the best high-speed approach to Chambois, but it is also the enemy’s main escape route and therefore likely to be clogged with German troops, vehicles and possibly panzers. I fear that by limiting the battalion’s advance to a single thrust along this main highway, we are at risk of becoming bogged down. Our attack could fall apart before we even get near Chambois.”
“I disagree,” says Captain Bielawski, commander of 3d Company. “Although we will sweep down D16 in a single column, our infantrymen dismount to maneuver and engage the enemy. Even if our vehicles get bogged down on the highway before reaching the town’s outskirts, we can still begin our infantry attack.”
COURSE OF ACTION TWO: BROAD FRONT
“My second course of action,” you continue, “is to advance on Chambois along a broad front. This plan forces the Germans to fragment and widely spread their defenses as our battalion approaches the town along multiple axes. In the center, 1st Company, followed by my headquarters element and the support company, will attack along route D16. Simultaneously, 3d Company on our right flank and 2d Company on our left flank will advance cross-country through the fields and orchards. Once all units are within a few hundred yards of Chambois, the infantrymen will dismount and execute a three-pronged attack: 3d Company will strike from the northwest, with the objective of capturing the bridge; 1st Company will attack in the center, along route D16; and 2d Company will advance from the southeast. Meanwhile, 4th Company will provide general fire support from a central location near D16.”
Captain Giera responds, “I believe this is a much better plan, Major, as it spreads the enemy’s defenses to the breaking point. The Germans will be forced to try to defeat three separate attacks and therefore will be unable to concentrate their defensive fire on a single avenue of approach.”
Captain Bojanowski, commander of 4th Company, however, sounds skeptical. “Major, although this plan fragments German defenses, it also fragments my company’s ability to accomplish its assigned role. I can’t guarantee prompt, continuous fire support to three widely spaced infantry attacks at the same time.”
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: FLANK ATTACK
“The final option under consideration,” you conclude, “is a flank attack by the entire battalion that strikes Chambois from the northwest, along route D13. Under this plan, we will hit the enemy from an unexpected direction and ensure the capture of the bridge by concentrating our full strength in that section of town. The battalion will advance from well north of Chambois in column of companies using the same order of march employed in Course of Action One. Once we reach the cemetery, the infantrymen will dismount and use route D13 as the central axis of attack. The main objective for 1st Company is the bridge, while 2d and 3d companies’ job is to capture the town. Meanwhile, 4th Company will provide fire support from the field near the cemetery.”
Captain Kintzi, commander of 2d Company, interjects, “Sir, in my opinion, the chief advantage of the first two courses of action is that in both plans we attack from the northeast. Simply by being in that position, we block the Germans’ withdrawal route even if we fail to capture the town. However, with this third plan, if we are not completely successful, we risk leaving the ‘gate’ open for the enemy forces to escape the Allies’ trap.”
You allow Captain Bielawski to have the last word. “As I see it,” he says, “the key to closing the gap is capturing the bridge. Although the German infantrymen can cross the Dives River at numerous locations, including those miles from Chambois, only a bridge will allow them to bring along their heavy weapons, vehicles and panzers – their very means of waging war. Since this plan puts us in the best position to take the town’s bridge, I support it.”
You will now carefully consider the remarks of your company commanders as you decide on a final course of action. You have no time to waste since with each passing hour more German soldiers escape the pocket to fight again. You must choose a plan and execute it at once.
What is your decision, Major Zgorzelski?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Armchair General.