|Part of Operation Overlord, Battle of Normandy|
Map showing the course of the battle from 8–17 August 1944; Allied attacks are shown in blue and the German Mortain offensive and subsequent counterattacks in red.
| United States
|Commanders and leaders|
| Bernard Montgomery
| Günther von Kluge
|up to 17 divisions[nb 1]||14–15 divisions
Up to 100,000 men[nb 2]
|Casualties and losses|
|Total casualties unavailable but significant[nb 3]||~60,000 casualties[nb 4]|
The battle of the Falaise pocket, fought during the Second World War from 12–21 August 1944, was the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy. Taking its name from the pocket around the town of Falaise within which Army Group B, consisting of the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies became encircled by the advancing Western Allies, the battle is also referred to as the Falaise Gap after the corridor which the Germans sought to maintain to allow their escape.[nb 5] The battle resulted in the destruction of the bulk of Germany's forces west of the River Seine and opened the way to Paris and the German border.
Following Operation Cobra, the American breakout from the Normandy beachhead, rapid advances were made to the south and south-east by General George Patton's Third Army. Despite lacking the resources to cope with both the U.S. penetration and simultaneous British and Canadian offensives south of Caen, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge—in overall command of Army Group B on the Western Front—was not permitted by Adolf Hitler to withdraw; instead, he was ordered to counterattack the Americans around Mortain. The remnants of four panzer divisions—which was all that von Kluge could scrape together—were not strong enough to make any impression on the U.S. First Army, and Operation Lüttich was a disaster that merely served to drive the Germans deeper into the Allied lines, leaving them in a highly dangerous position.
Seizing the opportunity to envelop von Kluge's entire force, on 8 August the Allied ground forces commander General Bernard Montgomery ordered his armies to converge on the Falaise-Chambois area. With the U.S. First Army forming the southern arm, the British Second Army the base, and the Canadian First Army the northern arm of the encirclement, the Germans fought hard to keep an escape route open, although their withdrawal did not begin until 17 August. On 19 August, the Allies linked up in Chambois but in insufficient strength to seal the pocket. Gaps were forced in the Allied lines by desperate German assaults, the most significant and hard-fought being a corridor past elements of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, who had established a commanding position in the mouth of the pocket.
By the evening of 21 August, the pocket was closed for the last time, with around 50,000 Germans trapped inside. Although it is estimated that significant numbers managed to escape, German losses in both men and materiel were huge, and the Allies had achieved a decisive victory. Two days later Paris was liberated, and by 30 August the last German remnants had retreated across the Seine, effectively ending Operation Overlord.
Early Allied objectives in the wake of the successful D-Day invasion of German-occupied France included both the deep water port of Cherbourg and the area surrounding the historic Normandy town of Caen. Attempts to rapidly expand the Allied lodgement areas met fierce opposition, however, and bad weather conditions in the English Channel delayed the build-up of supplies and reinforcements. Cherbourg was able to hold out until 27 June, when it fell to the U.S. VII Corps, and Caen resisted a number of offensives until 20 July, when it was taken by the British and Canadians during Operations Goodwood and Atlantic.
The Allied ground forces commander—General Bernard Montgomery—had envisaged a theatre strategy of drawing German forces away from the U.S. front to the British and Canadian sector, thus preparing the way for a U.S. breakout. On 25 July, while German attention was fixed firmly on the area around Caen, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley launched Operation Cobra. The U.S. First Army ruptured the thin German lines screening Brittany and by the end of the third day had advanced 15 mi (24 km) south of its start line at several points. On 30 July, Avranches—at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula—was captured; the German left flank was now wide open, and within 24 hours Patton's VIII Corps swept across the bridge at Pontaubault into Brittany and continued south and west through open country, almost without opposition.
The U.S. advance was extraordinarily rapid, and by 8 August the city of Le Mans—the former headquarters of the German Seventh Army—was in U.S. hands. In the aftermath of Cobra, and concurrent British and Canadian offensives, the German army in Normandy was reduced to such a poor condition that, as historian Max Hastings observes, "only a few SS fanatics still entertained hopes of avoiding defeat". In the east, the Soviet Union's summer offensive—Operation Bagration—was underway, and with this cataclysm engulfing Army Group Centre there was no likelihood of reinforcements coming west. Instead of ordering his remaining forces in Normandy to withdraw to the Seine River, however, Adolf Hitler sent a directive to Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge's Army Group B ordering "an immediate counterattack between Mortain and Avranches" to "annihilate" the enemy and make contact with the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula.
Hitler demanded that eight of von Kluge's nine available Panzer divisions be used in the attack, but only four (one incomplete) could be relieved from their defensive duties and made ready in time. The German commanders protested that such an operation was beyond the reach of their resources, but these warnings were ignored and the counter-offensive, codenamed Operation Lüttich, commenced on 7 August around Mortain. Initially committed to the thrust were the 2nd, 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich; they attacked with only 75 Panzer IVs, 70 Panthers and 32 self-propelled guns between them. Forewarned through Ultra signals intercepts, the Allies were ready and, although fighting continued until 13 August, Operation Lüttich was essentially over within 24 hours. Instead of relieving the German predicament, the Mortain counterattack had driven them deeper into the Allied embrace, and with the most formidable of von Kluge's remaining forces now destroyed by the U.S. First Army the entire Normandy front was on the verge of collapse—a possibility anticipated by Allied command. Bradley declared: "This is an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We're about to destroy an entire hostile army and go all the way from here to the German border".
To precipitate the German collapse and menace the escape route of the forces fighting the British and Americans further west, the high ground north of the town of Falaise became the target of First Canadian Army. General Harry Crerar—commanding the newly inaugurated army—and Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds of II Canadian Corps planned an Anglo-Canadian offensive code-named Operation Totalize. This relied on accurate preparation by heavy bombers and an innovative night attack using Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers. Preceded by a massive aerial bombardment by RAF Bomber Command, Totalize was launched on the night of 7 August; 76 converted self-propelled gun platforms transported the lead infantry, guided by electronic aids and illuminants. Fighting to hold the 14 km (8.7 mi) front was Kurt Meyer's 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, supported by tanks from the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion and the remnants of the 89th Infantry Division. Despite initial gains on Verrières Ridge and near Cintheaux, on 9 August the momentum of the assault slowed; strong German resistance and poor Canadian unit leadership and fighting power resulted in heavy casualties for both the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions. By 10 August, Anglo-Canadian forces had reached Hill 195 north of Falaise but were unable to get into the town. The following day, Simonds pulled his battered armoured divisions out of the line and relieved them with infantry formations, ending the offensive.
Still expecting von Kluge to withdraw his forces from the tightening Allied noose Montgomery had for some time been planning a "long envelopment", by which the British and Canadians would pivot left from Falaise toward the River Seine while the U.S. Third Army blocked the escape route between the Seine and Loire rivers, trapping all surviving German forces in western France. In a telephone conversation on 8 August, however, the Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower recommended an American proposal for a shorter envelopment centred around Argentan. Although Montgomery acknowledged the possibilities, both he and Patton had misgivings; if the Allies did not take Argentan, Alençon, and Falaise quickly, a large proportion of von Kluge's force might escape. Believing he could always fall back on the original plan if necessary, Montgomery gave in to Bradley's enthusiastic urging and the American proposal was adopted.
Patton's Third Army—moving up from the south to form one arm of the encirclement—made good initial progress. On 12 August, Alençon was captured, and despite von Kluge's commitment of a force he had been trying to gather for a counterattack, the next day the U.S. Fifth Armored Division of Major General Wade H. Haislip's XV Corps of the U.S. Third Army advanced 35 mi (56 km) and strongly established itself around Argentan, although the town itself remained in German hands. Concerned that American armoured forces might cause friendly fire casualties if they ran head-on into British forces advancing from the north-west, on 13 August 1944 General Bradley over-rode Patton's orders for a further push north towards Falaise from Argentan using the rapidly-advancing U.S. 5th Armored Division. Bradley's order specified that General Haislip's XV Corps cease its advance and "concentrate for operations in another direction".[nb 6] Any American troops in the vicinity of Argentan were ordered to be withdrawn, bringing to an end the pincer movement by Haislip's corps. Although Patton vehemently protested the order he obeyed, leaving an exit—a "trap with a gap"—for the remaining German forces. Bradley later received much of the blame for failing to exploit this early opportunity to complete the envelopment of German Army Group B,[nb 7] although at least one historian has claimed that the order originated with Montgomery.
With the Americans on the southern flank halted (and now heavily engaged with Panzer Group Eberbach) and the British pressing in from the north-west, it fell to the Canadian First Army, incorporating the Polish 1st Armoured Division, to close the trap. Save for a limited operation by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division down the Laize valley on 12–13 August, most of the days following Totalize were spent preparing a major set-piece attack on Falaise, codenamed Operation Tractable. Tractable commenced at 11:42 on the morning of 14 August, covered by an artillery-delivered smokescreen that mimicked the darkness of Operation Totalize. A series of attacks by the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions forced a passage over the Laison River, but limited access to the crossing points over the Dives River facilitated counterattacks by the German SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 102. Mainly due to navigation difficulties and poor coordination between the ground and air forces,[nb 8] the first day's progress was slower than expected.
On 15 August, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions—with the support of the 2nd Canadian (Armoured) Brigade—renewed their drive south, but progress remained slow. The 4th Armoured Division captured Soulangy after harsh fighting and having weathered several German counter-attacks, although strong German resistance prevented an outright breakthrough to Trun and the day's gains were minimal. The following day, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division broke into Falaise, encountering minor opposition from Waffen SS units and scattered pockets of German infantry, and by 17 August had secured the town.
At midday on the 16 August, von Kluge had declined Hitler's demand for another counterattack, declaring it was utterly impossible. A withdrawal was at last authorized later that afternoon, but believing von Kluge intended to surrender to the Allies, on the evening of 17 August Hitler relieved him of command and recalled him to Germany; von Kluge committed suicide en route. He was succeeded by Feldmarshal Walter Model, whose first act was to order the immediate retreat of the Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army, while II SS Panzer Corps' (composed of the remnants of four armoured divisions) held the north of the escape route against the British and Canadians and XLVII Panzer Corps (the remnants of two armoured divisions) held the south against the Americans.
Closing the gap
For the Allies, time was the critical factor in blocking the German army's escape, but with the Americans held at Argentan and the Canadian advance towards Trun proceeding slowly, by 17 August the encirclement was incomplete. General Stanisław Maczek's Polish 1st Armoured Division, part of the First Canadian Army, was broken into three battlegroups and ordered to make a wide sweep to the south-east to join up with the Americans at Chambois. Trun fell to the Canadian 4th Armoured Division on 18 August. Having captured Champeaux, on 19 August the Polish battlegroups converged on Chambois and, reinforced by the 4th Armoured, by evening the Poles had secured the town and linked up with the U.S. 90th and French 2nd Armoured Divisions. The arms of the encirclement were in contact but the Allies were not yet astride Seventh Army's escape route in any great strength and their positions came under frenzied assault. During the day, an armoured column from the 2nd Panzer Division broke through the Canadians in St. Lambert, taking half the village and keeping a road open for six hours until it was closed again toward nightfall. Many Germans escaped along this route, and numerous small parties infiltrated through to the Dives during the night.
Having taken Chambois, two of the Polish battlegroups drove north-east and established themselves on part of Hill 262 (Mont Ormel ridge), spending the night of 19 August entrenching the lines of approach to their positions. The following morning Field Marshal Model renewed his attempts to force open an egress, ordering elements of the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions to attack from outside the pocket towards the Polish positions. Around midday several units of the 10th SS, 12th SS, and 116th Panzer Divisions managed to break through the weak Polish lines and open a corridor, while the 9th SS Panzer Division prevented the Canadians from intervening. By mid-afternoon, about 10,000 German troops had passed out of the pocket.
Despite being isolated and coming under further strong attacks the Poles clung on to Hill 262, which they referred to as "The Mace". Although they lacked the fighting power to close the corridor, they were able from their vantage point to direct artillery fire on to the retreating Germans, exacting a deadly toll. Exasperated by the losses to his men, Colonel General Paul Hausser—commanding the Seventh Army—ordered that the Polish positions be "eliminated". Substantial forces—including the remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division and several battle groups from the 2nd SS Panzer Division—inflicted heavy casualties on the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Polish 1st Armoured Division, but the assault was eventually beaten off. Their stand cost the Poles almost all of their ammunition and left them in a precarious position; lacking the means to intervene, they were forced to watch as the remnants of the XLVII Panzer Corps escaped the pocket. After the brutality of the day's combat, nightfall was welcomed by both sides. With contact being avoided, fighting during the night was sporadic, although the Poles continued to call down frequent artillery strikes to disrupt the German retreat from the sector.
German attacks resumed the next morning; although the Poles took further casualties and some were taken prisoner, they retained their foothold on the ridge. At approximately 11:00, a final attempt on the positions of the 9th Battalion was launched by nearby SS remnants, which was defeated at close quarters. Soon after midday, the Canadian Grenadier Guards reached Mont Ormel's defenders, and by late afternoon, the remainder of the 2nd and 9th SS Panzer Divisions had begun their retreat to the Seine.
The Polish losses on the Mont Ormel ridge were 351 killed and wounded, with 11 tanks lost. For the entire operation to close the Falaise pocket, the 1st Polish Armoured Division's operational report lists 1,441 casualties including 466 killed in action. German losses in their assaults on the ridge are estimated at around 500 dead with a further 1,000 taken prisoner, most of these from the 12th SS Panzer Division. Additionally, scores of Tiger, Panther and Panzer IV tanks were destroyed, as well as a significant quantity of artillery pieces.
By evening of 21 August, tanks of the Canadian 4th Armoured Division had linked with Polish forces at Coudehard, while the Canadian 3rd and 4th Infantry Divisions had secured St. Lambert and the northern passage to Chambois. The Falaise pocket had finally been sealed. Around 20–50,000 German troops (leaving almost all of their heavy equipment) escaped through the gap, avoiding encirclement and almost certain destruction. They would later be reorganized and rearmed in time to slow the Allied advance into the Netherlands and Germany.
By 22 August, all German forces west of the Allied lines were dead or in captivity. Historians differ in their estimates of German losses in the pocket. The majority state that between 80,000 and 100,000 troops were caught in the encirclement of which 10,000–15,000 were killed, 40,000–50,000 taken prisoner, and 20,000–50,000 escaped.[nb 9] In the northern sector alone, German material losses included 344 tanks, self-propelled guns and other light armoured vehicles as well as 2,447 soft-skinned vehicles and 252 guns abandoned or destroyed. In the fighting around Hill 262, German losses totalled 2,000 killed and 5,000 taken prisoner, in addition to 55 tanks, 44 guns and 152 other armoured vehicles. The once-powerful 12th SS Panzer Division had lost 94% of its armour, nearly all of its artillery, and 70% of its vehicles. Mustering close to 20,000 men and 150 tanks before the Normandy campaign, after Falaise it was reduced to 300 men and 10 tanks. Although elements of several German formations had managed to escape to the east, even these had left behind most of their equipment. After the battle, Allied investigators estimated that the Germans lost around 500 tanks and assault guns in the pocket, and very little of the equipment that was extricated survived the general retreat across the Seine.
The area in which the pocket had formed was full of the remains of battle. Whole villages had been destroyed and ruined and abandoned equipment made some roads totally impassable. Corpses littered the area—not only those of soldiers, but civilians and thousands of dead cattle and horses. In the hot August weather, maggots crawled over the bodies and hordes of flies descended on the area. Pilots reported being able to smell the stench of the battlefield hundreds of feet above it. General Eisenhower recorded that:
The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest 'killing fields' of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.
Fear of infection from the rancid conditions led the Allies to declare the area an "unhealthy zone". Clearing the area was a low priority though and went on until well into November. Many swollen bodies had to be shot to expunge gasses within them before they could be burnt, and bulldozers were used to clear the area of dead animals.
Disappointed that a significant portion of Seventh Army had eluded them, many in the Allied higher echelons, particularly among the Americans, were bitterly disappointed with what they perceived as Montgomery's lack of urgency in closing the pocket. Writing shortly after the war, Ralph Ingersoll—a prominent peacetime journalist who served as a planner on Eisenhower's staff—expressed the prevailing American view at the time:
The international army boundary arbitrarily divided the British and American battlefields just beyond Argentan, on the Falaise side of it. Patton's troops, who thought they had the mission of closing the gap, took Argentan in their stride and crossed the international boundary without stopping. Montgomery, who was still nominally in charge of all ground forces, now chose to exercise his authority and ordered Patton back to his side of the international boundary line. … For ten days, however, the beaten but still coherently organized German Army retreated through the Falaise gap.
Some historians agree that the gap could have been closed earlier; Wilmot notes that despite having British divisions in reserve Montgomery did not reinforce Simonds, and neither was the Canadian drive on Trun and Chambois as "vigorous and venturesome" as the situation demanded. Hastings writes that Montgomery—having witnessed what he characterises as a poor Canadian performance during Totalize—should have brought up veteran British divisions to take the lead. However, while acknowledging that Montgomery and Crerar might have done more to impart momentum to the British and Canadians, these and others such as D'Este and Blumenson dismiss as "absurd over-simplification" Patton's post-battle claim that the Americans could have prevented the German escape had Bradley not ordered him to stop at Argentan.
Wilmot states that "contrary to contemporary reports, the Americans did not capture Argentan until 20 August, the day after the link up at Chambois". The American unit that closed the gap between Argentan and Chambois, the 90th Division, was according to Hastings one of the least effective of any Allied army in Normandy. He speculates that the real reason Bradley halted Patton was not fears over accidental clashes with the British but an appreciation that with powerful German formations still effective at that stage of the battle, the Americans lacked the means to defend an early blocking position and would have suffered an "embarrassing and gratuitous setback" at the hands of the retreating Fallschirmjäger and 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions.
The battle of the Falaise Pocket marked the closing phase of the Battle of Normandy with a decisive German defeat. Hitler's personal involvement had been damaging from the first, with his insistence on hopelessly optimistic counter-offensives, his micro-management of his generals, and his refusal to countenance a withdrawal when his armies were threatened with annihilation. More than 40 German divisions were destroyed during the Battle of Normandy. No exact figures are available, but historians estimate that the battle cost the German forces a total of around 450,000 men, of whom 240,000 were killed or wounded. The Allies had achieved this blow at a cost of 209,672 casualties among the ground forces, including 36,976 killed and 19,221 missing. In addition, 16,714 Allied airmen were killed or went missing in direct connection with Operation Overlord. The final battle of Operation Overlord, the Liberation of Paris, followed on 25 August, and Overlord reached its end by 30 August with the retreat of the last German unit across the Seine.
- Terry Copp shows the following divisions based around the Falaise pocket on 16 August 1944, but does not state if they all took an active role in the battle.
First Canadian Army: 1st Polish Armoured Division, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 4th Canadian Armoured Division.
Second British Army: British 3rd Infantry Division, 11th Armoured Division, 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division, 59th (Staffordshire) Infantry Division.
First American Army: 1st Infantry Division, 3rd Armored Division, 9th Infantry Division, 28th Infantry Division, 30th Infantry Division.
Third American Army: 2nd French Armored Division, 90th Infantry Division.
- Historians Carlo D'Este and Milton Shulman state that 80,000 German soldiers were caught in the Falaise pocket. Terry Copp and Chester Wilmot claim that at least 100,000 Germans were trapped.
- The Canadians suffered around 5,500 casualties during Operations Totalize and Tractable while the Polish suffered 1,441 casualties; in their move against Chambois and Mont Ormel the Poles place their losses at 325 killed, 1,002 wounded, and 114 missing. Before the Chambois and Ormel actions on 14–18 August they lost 263 men. This puts the total Polish casualties for Operation Tractable at 1,704 casualties, of which 588 were fatal.
- Around 10,000 killed and up to 50,000 captured.
- The engagement is also sometimes referred to as the Chambois pocket, the Falaise-Chambois pocket, the Argentan-Falaise pocket, or the Trun-Chambois gap.
- Bradley was supported in his decision by General Eisenhower.
- German General Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff of Army Group B, stated that Army Group B would have been completely eliminated if the U.S. 5th Armored Division had been allowed to continue its advance to Falaise, sealing off German exit avenues.
- Some Canadian ground forces were using yellow smoke markers to identify their positions, while RAF Bomber Command was using the same colour markers to identify its targets.
- Shulman, Wilmot and Ellis estimate the remnants of up to 14–15 divisions were in the pocket. D'Este gives 80,000 troops trapped of which 10,000 were killed, 50,000 captured, and 20,000 escaped. Shulman gives almost 80,000 trapped; 10–15,000 killed, and 45,000 captured. Wilmot gives 100,000 trapped; 10,000 killed, and 50,000 captured. Williams agrees with these casualty figures but estimates that perhaps 100,000 German troops escaped. Tamelander estimates that 50,000 were caught of which 10,000 were killed and 40,000 taken prisoners, while perhaps another 50,000 escaped.
- Hastings, p. 306
- Williams, p. 204
- Copp (2003), p. 234
- Shulman, p. 180
- Ellis, p. 440
- Wilmot, p. 422
- D'Este, p. 430–431
- Copp (2003), p. 233
- Jarymowycz, p. 203
- McGilvray, p. 55
- Jarymowycz, p. 195
- Reynolds, p. 89
- Wilmot, p. 424
- Keegan, p. 136
- Ellis, p. 448
- Van der Vat, p. 110
- Williams, p. 114
- Griess, pp. 308–310
- Hastings, p. 165
- Trew, p. 48
- Hart, p.38
- Wilmot, pp. 390–392
- Hastings, p.257
- Wilmot, p. 393
- Williams, p. 185
- Wilmot, p. 394
- Hastings, p. 280
- Williams, p. 194
- Hastings, p. 277
- D'Este, p. 414
- Williams, p. 196
- Wilmot, p. 401
- Hastings, p. 283
- Hastings, p. 285
- Messenger, pp. 213–217
- Bennett 1979, pp. 112–119.
- Hastings, p. 286
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- Hastings, p. 299
- Hastings, p. 301
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- Bercuson, p. 231
- Hastings, p. 354
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- Hastings, p. 313
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- Shulman, pp. 180, 184
- Wilmot, pp. 422, 424
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Falaise Pocket.|
- Bridge, Arthur. "In the eye of the storm: A recollection of three days in the Falaise gap 19–21 August 1944".
- British Broadcasting Corporation. "Account of the Polish battle on hill 262".
- "Canada at War: Canadians in the Falaise Gap".
- "Canada at War: The Battle of Hill 195".
- "Canada at War: The Battle at St. Lambert-Sur-dives".
- Richard, Duda; Steven, Duda. "Captain Kazimierz DUDA - 1st Polish Armoured Division".
- Stacey, Colonel Charles Perry; Bond, Major C.C.J. (1960). "Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War: Volume III. The Victory Campaign: The operations in North-West Europe 1944–1945" (PDF). The Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery Ottawa. Retrieved 2008-08-20.
- Wiacek, Jacques. "Closing of the Falaise Pocket".
- "Film footage of the battle".