Junction of Americans and Poles in Chambois placed Germans in a desperate position. Even if the pocket was not firmly sealed, since there was no continuous frontline, the neck of the pocket was not more than 5 km wide between Saint Lambert and Chambois. Between theses two cities, it was possible to cross the Dives river or on the bridge in Saint Lambert, or through the ford in Moissy. Moreover, the promiscuity of the pocket placed the Germans under continuous pounding of artillery and bombardment of allied aviation. The very intense concentration of men and equipments offered ideal targets to allied artillerists, pilots and bombers.
In spite of this tragic situation, German attempts to leave the pocket were carried on. During the night from August 19th to 20th, by compact groups, troops from a wide variety of units, moving on foot, in cars, tanks, or horse-drawn carts, often on parallel columns, climbed towards the Polish positions on Maczuga, where they got caught by terrible fire. As the night was coming to an end, some more organised units launched local attacks on Polish positions, trying to overcome the defenders of hill 262. If these attacks failed, they were nevertheless the introduction for this bloody day.
Moissy and Saint Lambert
The first obstacle facing the Germans trying to leave the pocket were the Canadians at the entrance of Saint Lambert. From the bell-tower of the church, Gen. Von Luttwitz and his officers tried to organize the passage of the various units, while wounded were assembling in the nave, converted into a field hospital. Before dawn, the 2.000 survivors of 2nd Falschirmjäger Korps, commanded by Meindl, managed to overcome Canadian outposts and slipped towards Coudehard. Soon in the morning, a series of attacks, however poorly coordinated and lacking artillery support, did not manage to dislodge Canadians from hill 117.
However, since their continuous pressure prevented South Alberta Regiment and Lincoln and Welland Highlanders from reaching and closing the road leading to hill 262 and approaching the bridge, several more or less organized groups managed to escape towards east. Around midday, units of 10th SS-PzD and the 116th PzD, followed by the remainders of the 12th SS-PzD, managed to cross the Dives by hustling Canadians who were approaching the bridge again.
In the afternoon, Canadians received reinforcements in the form of one additional squadron of South Alberta, which allowed them to launch a new attack towards the bridges with the night falling. Once more, they were stopped short of their objective, as organised offensive was hard to lead in an environment where Germans were infiltrating from everywhere. This delay offered to several thousands of Germans the last opportunity to escape. It was their last chance: from now on, firmly installed inside Saint-Lambert, Canadians will hammer all exits towards the Polish slopes, and only isolated groups will be able to escape.
In Moissy, Germans benefited from a ford which, as the bridge in Saint-Lambert, became gradually jammed by traffic caused by thousands of wheelcarts, cars, tanks, guns, lorries, etc… From this ford, once the crossing carried out, Germans were to engage on narrow and sinuous dirt track slowly leading to Coudehard, immediately under hill 262. This path, permanently bombed, shelled, machine-guned, became soon encumbered with wrecks of all kind of german equipment, its ditches mixing wounded horses and agonyzing soldiers, offered such a tragic spectacle that it was soon called the “Corridor of Death”.
Intense german attacks on Chambois prevented american or polish patrols from reaching the ford. Hence, many organised units, such as the remains of 47th Panzer Korps commanded by von Funck, managed to pass the Dives, accompanied by a crowd by soldiers issued from disparate units. However, the main threat for the fugitives was, remotely dominating this area, the 10th PSK entrenched on hill 113. All this day, it led several raids, endengering or cutting the Corridor of Death. While trying to repeat the successful exit of Von Funck, the survivors of the 84th Korps, led by Gen. Elfeld, were captured after having exhausted their last rounds.
Polish then American units entering Chambois found the town weakly defended, except for some local strongholds. First skirmishes developped then sporadically during the evening of August 19th, as German units, being unaware of the junction operated here between Poles and Americans, were entering the city while seeking to benefit from the bridge. On their side, the allied defenders, conscious of the precariousness of their situation, organized a circular defense of the city. It associated the 10th dragoons and the 24th lancers covering northeast, and the 2nd battalion of 359th IR covering south. A major asset for the Poles was that they could at least be supplied in amunitions by the Americans, even if caliber was not always the same…
In the morning of August 20th, Germans resumed their attacks. This time, their efforts were aimed at taking again control of the city in order to capture an additional bridge on the Dives. If the achievement of this objective occurred to be beyond reach, attacks should at least keep the Allies far from the ford in Moissy. Attacks were carried out all the day, and stubborn Germans succeeded in one occasion to hustle American lines and to penetrate in the defensive perimeter, before being driven out of it by a vigorous counter-strike of tanks of 24th lancers. Later, 10th dragoons regiment was endangered by better organised attack, supported by artillery fire and at least one Panther tank; this attack also failed when dragoons succeeded in destroying the Panther with a PIAT rocket launcher.
Gradually, during the afternoon, organised attacks were turning into desperate assaults involving less motivated units. Most enemies were now rather seeking to escape by avoiding the city than trying to overcome allied defences; entire units choose to surrender rather than to continue a fight that appeared now largely lost in advance. These prisoners piled up until completely filling the marketplace, where they were exposed to fire from both antagonists.
Understanding that they were the ultimate obstacle between the fugitives and their freedom, the soldiers of Maczek entrenched the best they could in order to face assaults that would come – southwest, Podhale rifle battalion; south, 9th rifle battalion; northeast, 8th rifle battalion. First armoured regiment covered southern approaches, whereas 2nd covered north. From the entire Falaise battlefield, Maczuga was to be the place of the most terrible onslaught.
German assaults began shortly before dawn. In the vicinity of the church of Coudehard, some companies of Podhale rifles already running short on ammunition had to repel a more aggressive attack with their bayonets. At around 8 AM, 2nd SS-PzKorps launched its attack :
- Regiment Der Führer of 2nd SS-PzD “Das Reich”, supported by heavy mortars, was aiming the western salient of polish positions around Boisjos manor.
- Meanwhile, a secondary attack of the same division was focused east, at the narrow pass between northern and southern summits of the 262 plateau,
- 9th SS-PzD “Hohenstauffen” kept the right flank of German attack by blocking advanced units of 4th Canadian armoured division on hill 240.
Near Boisjos, the first attack of regiment Der Fuhrer stalled after a one hour fight in front of heavy fire provided by rifle battalions and supporting artillery; however, it forced infantry to use its precious ammunition. Soon after, a single Panther positioned on hill 239 took polish tankers by surprise. In two minutes, no less than five Shermans were burning in the wide meadow which overhangs the manor of Boisjos. It was the time chosen by 3rd parachute division to launch its attack from inside the pocket. Supported by Sturmgechutz of 1st SS-PzD, This attack was also repulsed, as divisional artillery (supported by Canadian 4th medium gun rgt) massacred German waves closing on polish positions. In desperation, some parachutists launched bayonet attacks, but their attempts met stubborn defence of Podhale rifles who faced them with fixed bayonets.
As the attack of the parachutists was progressively abating, 2nd SS-PzD resumed its previous assault. This time, Poles were focused on their southern flank and SS infantry managed to drive them from the field. At noon, parachutists and SS finally met, opening the pocket and allowing the first trapped units to withdraw in direction of Vimoutiers, under the nose of polish troops. Soon after, 9th SS-PzD once again repelled on hill 239 Canadian shy attempts to help Poles, whose situation was now looking grim.
On the eastern slope of hill 262, the secondary German attack was initially less successful, as 8th rifle battalion kept its ground. However, as 2nd free French armored division limited its involvement on southern hill 262, German 353rd infantry division, after having met 2nd SS-PzD, soon opened there a second way out of the pocket. Beginning of the afternoon, Germans were benefiting hence two roads to flee the pocket, which allowed tens of thousands of them to escape.
Despite having been hustled by the coordinated attacks of SS and parachutists units, Poles were still holding the high ground over the roads which allowed Germans to escape. Having suffered heavy losses and lacking ammunition to launch a counterattack, they were however harassing enemy by directing an accurate and deadly artillery fire on all important troop movements. Annoyed, Hauser, commanding 2nd SS-PzKorps, ordered his troops to get rid of these still dangerous units.
As a result, a massive attack associates troops from Das Reich division, 353rd ID and units coming from inside the pocket, including several tanks, developed during afternoon on the eastern flank. Its violence allowed Germans to engulf between 8th and 9th rifle battalions, then to infiltrate between isolated tank squadrons. Fighting was so harsh that the hull MGs of the tanks and their main gun in turret were often firing in opposite directions, as Germans were attacking from everywhere. Finally, it is less than 100 meters from Boisjos that the German leading tanks were demolished at point blank range by an AT gun manned by 8th battalion crew. The destruction of these tanks gave the signal of polish counter-attack. Despite running critically low on ammunition, they threw the enemy back to its starting positions, forcing 353rd ID to evacuate southern hill 262. From now on, only isolated German units will be able to leave pocket through the eastern pass.
At 7 PM, a 20 mn truce allowed Germans to evacuate a long convoy of red-cross marked vehicles, then fighting resumed immediately afterwards with a redoubled violence. Nevertheless, situation was going to a stalemate: Germans did not manage to dislodge the Poles; this latter, exhausted and with critical level of ammunition, had to powerlessly watch 47th PzKorps leaving the pocket, hardly about fifty meters from their positions. Artillery was now playing the major part, as Poles directed its fire on every enemy movement they could observe.
At dusk, despite fighting abated sensibly, situation among polish defenders of Maczuga was desperate. The words of Stefanowicz, commander of polish battle group, who had been wounded during this ferocious day, provide a reliable image. Speaking to his officers in the evening, he told: “Gentlemen. Everything is lost. I do not believe Canadians will manage to help us. We have only 110 men left, with 50 rounds per gun and 5 rounds per tank… Fight to the end! To surrender to the SS is senseless, you know it well. Gentlemen! Good luck – tonight, we will die for Poland and civilization. We will fight to the last platoon, to the last tank, then to the last man”.