August 1944 – The 2nd Armoured Division in Normandy
The Allies landed on the Normandy coast on 6 June 1944 and fought fiercely around Saint-Lô and Caen until 30 July in order to widen their beachhead and achieve a victorious breakthrough.
From 25 July, Operation Cobra enabled the American forces to take Coutances, Vire, Granville and Avranches, notably thanks to their aviation.
On 31 July, the American 3rd Army of the recently arrived US Army Group under General Bradley was concentrated around Carentan.
Leclerc landing at Utah Beach on 1 August 1944. Source: ECPAD
On 1 August, the US 1st and 3rd armies under Generals Hodges and Patton took advantage of an opening in the German front. Patton's Army Corps - the 8th, 12th, 15th and 20th - undertook an encirclement manoeuvre toward Rennes, Angers and Le Mans. On 4 August, the 15th US Army Corps reached Mayenne; the 20th liberated Rennes that same day.
Insignia of the 2nd Armoured Division.
France's 2nd Armoured Division was part of the 15th Corps. Formed in Morocco in August of 1943, before leaving for England in April of 1944, it underwent constant training in view of future operations. With General Leclerc at its head, the 2nd Armoured Division landed in the Utah Beach sector near Carentan on 1 August 1944. It had over 5,000 vehicles and 16,000 men organised into tactical groups and two medical companies (which included women called Rochambelles and Marinettes).
A Sherman tank convoy in the Leclerc Division. Photo: Basse-Normandie Regional Council / National Archives USA
Advancing through Lessay, Isigny-le-Buat (Manche department) and Vitré (Ille-et-Vilaine department), the division joined the fight. On 8 and 9 August, it headed toward Le Mans. The French reached Château-Gontier (Mayenne department). Leclerc set up his Command Post at La Chapelle-Saint-Aubin, 6 km north of Le Mans, where he observed his units as they passed through. The objective was Alençon, with support from the US 5th Armoured Division and the US 79th and 90th Infantry Divisions.
Itinerary of the 2nd Armoured Division. Source: DMPA
The Allies combined their operations to surround the German 5th and 7th Armies in what was known as the Falaise Pocket (Calvados department), closed off to the north by the 21st group of British Armies under General Montgomery. The French tactical groups followed two lines through Ballon toward Coulombiers and Louvigny. On 10 August, fighting broke out at Le Sablon and Doucelles. The French suffered serious losses. The first Sherman tanks were hit by German shells. At Mézières-sur-Ponthouin, components of the 12th Chasseurs d'Afrique came up against the enemy: this fierce engagement killed 17 men and destroyed several tanks and half-tracks.
The next day, La Hutte was reached but the enemy defended a major crossroads there on the Fresnay-Mamers road. Anti-tank guns and Panther tanks engaged the 12th Cuirassier Regiment. The tank Dijon was hit and burnt at the crossroads. In this sector, the tanks Brest, Paimpol, Reims, Chartres and Compiègne were destroyed and set on fire; their crews were killed. Nearly thirty men died. But little by little, the villages of Beaumont, Juillé, Louvigny, Les Mées, Champfleur and Fyé were liberated. The enemy was shaken. Leclerc entered Bourg-le-Roi, coordinating his troops' progress. In the middle of the night, with a patrol, he reached the southern outskirts of Alençon, which he observed before withdrawing to his Command Post by Jeep.
The 2nd Armoured Division joined the fight, its objective being the Ecouves Forest, held by the Germans. Leclerc decided to take the obstacle from the rear. On the 12th, the armoured division crossed Alençon, where the population came out in a joyful celebration. In two days, the G.T. Dio (GTD) Tactical Group pushed to the north-west, reaching Carrouges and surprising the 2nd SS Panzer Division while the G.T. Langlade (GTL) Tactical Group turned off toward Carrouges via Fontenai, Rouperroux and La Roche-Mabile. To their right, the G.T. Billotte (GTB) Tactical Group circled around the forest to the east, reaching Sées, and pushed on through Mortrée, Vrigny and Fleuré, and the 1st Moroccan Spahi regiment headed toward Argentan, through the 116th Panzer Division..
A G.M.C. of the 2nd Armoured Division crossing Alençon. Source: Utah Beach D-Day Museum
At Sées, components of the GTB turned to the west, joining up with the GTL in the forest despite the 9th Panzer Division. Fighting broke out all around. Panther tanks were destroyed at Francheville. The GTD and GTB's Sherman tanks reached Ecouché. The bridge over the Orne was taken, cutting off the enemy columns. Leclerc set up his Command Post at Fleuré. The French held their front firmly, with units of the German 5th and 7th armies passing by on their flank, nearly completely surrounded while withdrawing toward the Eure.
The Franco-American advance pushed the enemy forces to the north, up against the British, into a bottleneck at Trun. Their withdrawal was interrupted on 18 and 19 August in the sector of Chambois, which had turned into a trap with the junction of the Poles and the Canadians, while the French held the Dives. The US 80th Infantry Division had taken Argentan, and the British 11th Armoured Division was at Ecouché. Further off to the south-east, between 15 and 18 August, the Americans liberated Orléans, Chartres and Dreux. On the 21st, they took Mantes-la-Jolie, Fontainebleau and Sens and began crossing the Seine.
The 2nd Armoured Division was close to Argentan. Leclerc was eager to move on to Paris, which had just begun its uprising. On 22 August, General Bradley gave him the go-ahead. From Fleuré, Leclerc launched his ”immediate movement to Paris” which his first tanks reached on the 24 in the evening.