This week marks 75 years since the German Army’s last offensive in France, Operation Luttich, or the Battle of Mortain. Hitler personally ordered the surprise panzer attack on August 7 for the purpose of regaining the initiative in the West. The Germans tried to slice through the flank of the American breakout and drive to the Normandy coast. They hoped to cut off Patton’s Third Army and push the Allies back to the beaches. It failed miserably. The panzers only made local penetrations then spent days holding off American counterattacks. By the time they gave up, Patton’s army had circled behind them in a bold sweeping maneuver. As a result, the Allies slaughtered much of the German Seventh and Fifth Panzer Armies as they retreated through the Falaise-Argentan Gap. General Omar Bradley called the German decision to attack Mortain, “The greatest tactical blunder I’ve ever heard of.”
In retrospect, the attack at Mortain looks like a hopeless, forlorn misadventure. First, gathering the panzer divisions to form the strike force robbed the rest of the western front of the resources necessary to hold their defense together. Second, even with the collected panzers, they lacked the strength to achieve a breakthrough at Mortain. Third, after the initial attack stalled, the Germans sent more forces “into the lion’s mouth.” Fourth, they stayed too long and let the Allies crush their armies in Normandy. Fifth, the huge losses forced the Germans to abandon France rather than fight a delaying action. Most historians agree with General Bradley. The Battle of Mortain was a foolish military debacle that caused the collapse of the German western front. It serves as another example of Hitler’s poor military judgment.
From a tactical perspective, I agree. Mortain was a disaster for the Germans. However, Hitler’s decision makes more sense when viewed from a strategic point of view.
Within a few days of the Normandy Landings, the Allies held a firm lodgment in France. The German high command had a choice. They could draw forces from the eastern front to crush the Allied foothold in Normandy or contain it with the troops they had. They chose the latter. Hitler focused on the eastern front. As long as the Allies could be stalemated in hedgerow country, he wasn’t worried.
The July breakout, code name Operation Cobra, changed the strategic situation. The Allies forced their way out of Normandy and moved boldly into central France. Suddenly, Hitler and the German high command perceived the strategic threat of a true second front forming in the west.
Looking at the narrow breakout between Avranches and Mortain, Hitler saw an opportunity to restore the strategic situation. A powerful panzer thrust might sever the Allied penetration and choke off Patton’s Army. The German commander in the west, Field Marshal von Kluge, warned about risking everything on an iffy attack. The rest of the western front could give way while the Germans committed their panzers at Mortain. Always a gambler, Hitler went all in. If it worked, the second front would be contained, once again. If it failed, the Germans would have to abandon France, something they would have to do anyway.
Hitler’s mistake was launching such a panzer attack in 1944 and expecting the results of 1940. The German armored thrust at Mortain had no chance of success. The Allied armies amassed too much firepower to simply charge through with panzers. The four panzer divisions were not strong enough to break through the single American infantry division defending Mortain. Allied dominance of the air prevented any major movement during daylight. Furthermore, the Americans had plenty of tanks in the vicinity to blunt any German penetration. In the end, General Bradley allowed Patton to continue his sweep while he drove back the Germans with infantry divisions.
Books on Mortain
I wrote extensively about the 12th Infantry Regiment's involvement in the American counterattack at Mortain in my book Battle Hardened. The entire battle is described in depth by Mark J. Reardon's Victory at Mortain.
I believe historians have misread the Battle of Mortain. They have concentrated on German tactical failures and the disastrous results that followed. Bradley and others have written the battle off as a huge blunder. In truth, Mortain was Hitler’s last effort at retrieving a crumbling strategic situation with another desperate gamble.