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The Longest Day and Afterwards: D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, an Introduction

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing or rewriting a total of five articles.

Since we are now about to begin a time of major repairs to our home due to flooding from an plugged air conditioning condensation drains I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight, actually posting it on Sunday night for publication today, and hope to follow it up with some more articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.        The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

USAAF B-17 Bombers and others helped isolate German forces in Normandy by bombing railroads, bridges, and supply lines

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

The Devastated town of St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

Notes 

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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D-Day at 70 Years and Forever: Courage, Sacrifice and Reconciliation…

d-day-opener1Omaha Beach

“We are on this Earth for only a moment in time.  And fewer of us have parents and grandparents to tell us about what the veterans of D-Day did here 70 years ago.  As I was landing on Marine One, I told my staff, I don’t think there’s a time where I miss my grandfather more, where I’d be more happy to have him here, than this day.  So we have to tell their stories for them.  We have to do our best to uphold in our own lives the values that they were prepared to die for.  We have to honor those who carry forward that legacy, recognizing that people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.” President Barack Obama at the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings, June 6th 2014

Seventy years ago the liberation of France began on the beaches of Normandy.  Soldiers from 6 Allied Infantry and 3 Airborne Divisions supported by an Armada of over 5000 ships and landing craft and several thousand aircraft braved weather, heavy seas and in places fierce German resistance to gain the foothold on beaches named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword and Juno.  Over the next seven weeks the Allied soldiers advanced yard by yard through the hedgerows and villages of Normandy against ferocious German resistance before they were able to break out of the lodgement area and begin the drive across France.

dday371

The fighting was bloody, most American, British and Canadian infantry battalions and regiments suffered nearly 100% casualty rates in Normandy.  Replacements were fed in at a cyclic rate to make up the losses even as fresh divisions flowed ashore, but the losses were terrible.  By the time the landings took place, the British having been at war for nearly five years were bled out.  They had little left to replace their losses.  From Normandy on the British were losing combat power at a rate that they could not make up.

For the Americans there was another problem.  The US High command decided to limit the Army to 90 Divisions.  Many of these were committed to the Pacific and Mediterranean theaters.   Likewise, American Infantry units were generally made up of the lowest caliber of recruits, led often by the poorest officers, the best went to either the Air Corps or technical branches of the Army.

Now this is not to criticize veterans, but it is a factor in the campaign.  Most US Infantry Divisions with the exceptions of those previously blooded in North Africa and Sicily often performed badly in action.  Some, after being manhandled by the Germans had their leadership replaced and became excellent combat units.  However, every new division that arrived in France after D-Day always got the worst of their initial engagement against German forces.

While performance suffered there was another problem for the Americans.  With the limitation in number of divisions, they stopped building infantry divisions, upon whom the bulk of the campaign depended. Thus they had little in the way of trained infantry replacements to make up heavy losses in Normandy.  By late 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge the American infantry crisis was so bad that 30,000 Air Corps candidates were trained as infantry and soldiers support units such as Ant-Aircraft battalions were used to bolster infantry units.

tiger2falaise16hh1

Had the Germans been able to hold out and had they not been bled white by the Red Army on the Easter Front, had they not lost the nearly their entire Army Group Center in the Red Army offensive of 1944 it is conceivable that the British and American offensive in the West would have ground to a halt for lank of infantry in 1945.  In spite of this there was no lack of individual courage among the troops engaged; the courage and sacrifice of all who fought there should not be forgotten.

caen_ruins1The Ruins of Caen

The human toll among the combatants both Allied and German, as well as the local populace was especially traumatic.  While the American, Canadian and British people are keen to remember the sacrifices made by our soldiers we often forget the toll among the French civilian population of Normandy as well as the German soldiers, mostly conscripts, sacrificed by the Nazi regime.  Normandy suffered more than any part of France during the liberation.  In the months leading up to D-Day Allied Air Forces unleashed hell on Normandy to attempt to lessen potential German resistance.  The Allied Naval bombardment added to the carnage ashore and once the campaign began the combined fires of both Allied and German forces devastated the region.  Whole cites such as Caen were destroyed by Allied Air forces and an estimated 30,000 French civilians were killed during the Normandy campaign, 3000 on D-Day alone.  I think it can be said that the blood of the civilians of Normandy was shed for the freedom of all of France.

Normandie, Fallschirmjäger mit MG 42

The campaign in Normandy was one of the most viciously contested in western military history.  German forces, especially Paratroops of the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 6th Fallschirmjager Divisions, German Army Panzer Divisions such as the 2nd, 21st, 116th and Panzer Lehr and those of the Waffen-SS, especially the 1st, 2nd and 12th SS Panzer Divisions held the line against ever increasing Allied forces.  As they sacrificed themselves Hitler refused to commit more forces to Normandy and insisted that his Army contest every meter of ground.  He forbade his commanders to withdraw to more defensible positions along the Seine.

Hitler’s decisions actually shortened the campaign.  Whatever the crimes of the Hitler Regime and Nazism, which were among the most heinous in history, one can never question the valor, courage and sacrifice of ordinary German soldiers.  For those Americans who lump all Germans who fought in World War II with the evil of the Nazi regime, please do not forget this fact:  There are those today, even in this country that make the same charge against Americans who have fought in Iraq and those at home and abroad who have labeled the US as an aggressor nation.  When you judge others, know that the same standard will be applied to you someday. It is as Justice Robert Jackson who served as the Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal wrote:

“If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Normandy was a near run thing for the Allies.  First the weather almost delayed it by 2 to 4 weeks.  Had that happened the Germans might have been even better prepared to meet the invasion.  Likewise, the Red Army’s devastating offensive which annihilated Army Group Center in June kept the Germans from transferring additional forces from the Russian Front to Normandy.  On D-Day itself there were a number of times where Lady Luck, or maybe the Deity Herself, saved the Allies from disaster.

Any person who has seen Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day or Band of Brothers knows a little bit about how close Overlord came to failure.  Allied Airborne units were dispersed throughout the region after they drooped.  Many units were not fully operational for more than a day as they sought to organize themselves and gather their troops.  At Omaha Beach the Americans had not counted on the presence of the first rate German 352nd Infantry Division.  This division, despite being pounded by naval and air forces almost cause General Bradley to withdraw from Omaha.  At Utah the soldiers of the 4th Infantry division escaped a similar mauling by landing on the wrong beach.  Had they landed at the planned beaches they would have ran into the same kind of resistance from well dug in German forces.  At Gold Juno and Sword British forces benefited from confusion in the German command which kept the 21st Panzer Division from descending on the British forces and quite possibly splitting the British zones.

The Allies benefited from the absence of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B who because of the ad weather assumed no invasion was possible and traveled to German to celebrate his wife’s birthday.  Finally, and perhaps most important they benefited by Hitler’s refusal to immediately commit forces, including his Panzer reserve to defeat the invasion at the beachhead.

For those who fought in Normandy and those civilians who lived through it the memories are still vivid. Many suffer the effects of PTSD, grief and other wounds, physical, emotional and spiritual.  When one is exposed to the danger and destruction of war, the smell of death, the sight of burned out cities, vehicles and the suffering of the wounded and dying, it makes for a lifetime of often painful memories.

For some of the German, British and American veterans, the struggle in Normandy has given way to long lasting friendships.  Many of those who fought against the Allied onslaught became fast friends after the war. Those who fought against each other were soon allies as part of NATO and soldiers of nations which were once bitter enemies serve together in harm’s way in Afghanistan.  The generation that fought at Normandy is rapidly passing away, their numbers ever dwindling they remain a witness to courage, sacrifice and reconciliation.

In the end it is reconciliation and healing that matters. Some scars of war never pass away; some memories are far too painful to release.  Yet we strive to reconcile.  In 2002 while deployed at sea for Operation Enduring Freedom I was an advisor to a boarding team from my ship.  It was our job to make sure that impounded ships which were breaking the UN embargo on Iraq were not in danger of sinking, and that their crews had food, water and medical care.  Since many of these ships remained at anchor for 2-4 weeks in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, this was important.

The delays imposed by UN rules sometimes meant that the sailors of these ships grew resentful.  It was my job to spend time with the Master’s of these ships to keep things calm and work out any issues that arose.  On one of these ships I met an Iraqi merchant skipper.  The man was well traveled, educated in the U.K. in the 1960s and in his career a frequent visitor to the US. In 1990 he was the senior captain of the Kuwaiti shipping line.  Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  As a result of this when Kuwait was liberated he lost his job.  His nation was an international pariah.  Since his life was the sea he took up the only job possible to support his family, what he knew best, captaining ships.  He was most apologetic for the trouble that he and others like him caused us.  We shared much during those visits.   One of his daughters was in medical school and other children in university.  He longed for the day when Iraq would be free.  On our last talk before his ship was released he remarked to me “I hope one day we will meet again.  Maybe someday like the American, British and German soldiers after the war, we can meet in a pub, share a drink and be friends.” 

dinner-w-bg-sabah1Me with Iraqi General Sabah in his Quarters in Ramadi 2007

I too pray for that, especially after my tour in Al Anbar five years after I encountered that Iraqi Merchant Captain.  Maybe someday we will. I thought of him almost every day that I was in Iraq. I only hope that he and his family have survived the war, the continuing violence in Iraq and are doing well. There is hardly a day that goes by that I do not think of this man or the Iraqis that I had the honor of serving alongside in Al Anbar in 2007 and 2008.

President Obama remarked in Normandy last week about the veterans of the 9-11 Generation of service members, of which I and so many others like me are part:

“And this generation — this 9/11 Generation of service members — they, too, felt something.  They answered some call; they said “I will go.”  They, too, chose to serve a cause that’s greater than self — many even after they knew they’d be sent into harm’s way.  And for more than a decade, they have endured tour after tour.”

God bless all those who fought at Normandy and give your peace to all who have served since then. Be with our troops as they serve in Afghanistan. Heal the wounds of war and bring your peace to the nations. Amen

Peace, Steve+

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The Battleships of D-Day

The 14″ Guns of USS Nevada in action at Normandy

On June 6th 1944 Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. Six American, British and Canadian Infantry Divisions, three Airborne Divisions and numerous supporting units came ashore in landing craft or were airdropped into Normandy. Backing them was an immense Naval Task Force which provided naval gunfire support, screened the force from German U-Boat or surface naval forces and transported the massive ground force.  It was an amazing armada.

HMS Rodney bombarding German positions off Caen

It was an armada that also is forgotten by many who read about Normandy or whose only exposure to the landings are films such as Saving Private Ryan. Today I think it is fitting to remember Battleships that served at Normandy, USS Arkansas, USS Texas, USS Nevada, HMS Warspite, HMS Ramillies and HMS Rodney.

USS Arkansas off Omaha Beach

The naval gunfire support force included Battleships, Cruisers and Destroyers as well as specialized gunfire support ships.  The largest and most powerful ships were the six American and British Battleships.  These ships were important in providing the heavy firepower needed to destroy the strongest fortifications and shore batteries and to fire at targets far beyond the shoreline that were vital for German reinforcements.

However the ships involved were not the modern behemoths which were built in the 1930s and since the beginning of the war but rather among the oldest ships still active in either the United States or the British Royal Navy. At one time they had all been the hearts for their navies but now old, slow and with less than modern armament and fire control systems they were regulated to supporting amphibious forces or escorting convoys.

USS Arkansas BB-33

The oldest of these venerable ships was the USS Arkansas BB-33 which was commissioned in 1912. A Wyoming Class Battleship she mounted twelve 12” guns in six twin turrets, two forward, two aft and two midships. She displaced just over 27,000 tons. She had spent most of the war escorting convoys in the Atlantic before being assigned to the Normandy landings. She stood off Omaha Beach dueling with German shore batteries and pounding the German troops who were making Omaha a living hell for the men of the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions.  She would continue her valuable service off of Normandy and would do the same in to support the landings in Southern France before steaming to the Pacific where she would do the same at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

USS Texas BB-35

The USS Texas, BB-35 of the New York class had been in commission since 1914. She mounted ten 14” guns in 5 twin turrets, two forward, two aft and one midships and was slightly larger than the Arkansas.  More modern she was more extensively modernized between the wars than was Arkansas and was one of the first US ships to carry experimental radar sets.  She also conducted convoy operations but was used to bombard Vichy French troops and positions during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion  of North Africa.  At D-day she was in the western sector of Omaha and bombarded Point Du Hoc and cruised to within 3000 yards of the beach to clear the western exits of the beach near Vierville.  She remained in the area a number of days and would subsequently support the attack on Cherbourg, the invasion of South France and then serve in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

USS Nevada BB-36

The USS Nevada BB-36 was the first of a new class of battleships which set the basic pattern of US Battleship design through the ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty. Her main battery of ten 14” guns was mounted in four turrets, mounted fore and aft two triple and 2 twin turrets.  She was he powered by oil fired boilers as opposed to coal and   was designed with a longer cruising radius to meet the demands of War Plan Orange.  Nevada received major upgrades between the wars and on December 7th 1941 was moored on Battleship Row when Peal Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. The only Battleship to get underway during the attack Nevada was set upon by Japanese aircraft as she steamed toward the harbor entrance. Heavily damaged she was grounded off Hospital Point. She was re-floated and sailed to the United States where she was heavily modernized with a modern AA battery of twin 5” 38 caliber guns, and fire direction radars. She was modernized to the point that she no longer resembled the ship sunk at Pearl Harbor. After her repair and modernization she participated in the invasion of Attu Island and did convoy escort duty before reporting for the invasion of Normandy. Nevada supported the US 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach and subsequently served with Texas and Arkansas in South France before going to the Pacific to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Had the war continued she would have been involved in the invasion of the Japanese Mainland.

HMS Warspite

The Royal Navy Battleships of D-Day were also elderly veterans. The eldest was the heroic HMS Warsipte commissioned in 1915 and a veteran of the Battle of Jutland and numerous actions during the Second World War including the slaughter of the German Destroyers at Narvik, the Battle of Cape Matapan and the invasion of Sicily and Italy.  The Queen Elizabeth Class Battleship mounted eight 15” guns in twin turrets and was extensively modernized between the wars. At Salerno Warspite was hit by three of the earliest guided missiles, the Fritz-X type launched by Luftwaffe Aircraft. She was heavily damaged and required major repairs before returning to service at Normandy. She supported British troops at Sword Beach and later Gold Beach. She again was heavily damaged by a magnetic mine and received temporary repairs to allow her to continue bombardment duties against German positions France and Belgium before being placed in reserve in January 1945.

HMS Ramillies

The HMS Ramillies was a Revenge Class Battleship commissioned in 1917. These ships were a compromise design that was smaller, slower and cheaper than the Queen Elizabeth Class but had the same main battery of eight 15” guns.  The compromises prevented them from receiving significant upgrades between the wars and limited their employment. Ramillies operated as a convoy escort and was also involved in action in  the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. She participated in the hunt for the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee and shielded Convoy HX-106 from the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and later took part in the hunt for the Bismarck. However she but was not engaged against any of the German ships but her presence prevented Admiral Lutjens from risking Scharnhorst and Gneisenau to attack the convoy. She took part in the initial battle between the Royal Navy and the Italians at the Battle of Cape Spartivento getting off several salvos before her slow speed forced her out of the action. She was heavily damaged by a torpedo from a Japanese mini-submarine in Diego Suarez harbor during the invasion of Madagascar in May 1942. Following repairs and the addition of extra deck armor and modern anti-aircraft guns she returned to action at Normandy were she supported British troops ashore and drove off an attack by German Destroyers. She stayed in action firing over 1000 shells at Normandy before supporting the invasion of Southern France. Too slow to be of use in the Pacific she was placed in Reserve in January 1945.

HMS Rodney

The youngest of the Battlewagons at Normandy on June 6th was the HMS Rodney which was commissioned in 1927. She and her sister ship HMS Nelson were to be the first of the post WWI super battleships and was designed as a larger and more powerful ship. With the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty the ships were “cut down” and reduced in size and speed. Her armament made her one of the most powerful battleships of period but her engineering plant was not always reliable. Since she was relatively modern she did not receive any major refits before the war and apart from a repairs to her engines in Boston in 1941 (before the US entry into the war) and a brief refit in 1942 she received no further refits during the war. With the HMS King George V she helped sink the Bismarck and would escort convoys and participate in the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Salerno before being assigned to the Normandy invasion force attacking targets near Caen.  Her sister HMS Nelson was held in reserve and joined the battle on June 10th but she was not present on D-Day.

Warspite aground and Rodney being scrapped (below)

Despite their age and limitations all of these ships and their performed heroically during the war. The post war period was not as kind to the ships. Arkansas and Nevada were used in the Atomic Bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. Nevada survived and was expended as a target in 1948. All of the British ships were scrapped following the war due to their age, wear and damage incurred during the war. Warspite was being towed to the breakers when she broke a tow line and went aground. She ended up being partially scrapped in place.  Mementos of all these ships remain including a gun from Ramillies at the Imperial War Museum. The lone survivor was the USS Texas which became a museum ship and memorial at the San Jacinto battlefield in 1948. She is the last of the Dreadnought ships remaining. Other more modern US Battleships have been preserved but only Texas remains from those ships that at one time ruled the waves and pounded the Germans at Normandy.

The author aboard USS Texas in March 2011

The fire support provided by these proud ships and their consorts ensured the success of the Normandy landings. Without them it is very possible that the landings would not have succeeded and many more Allied soldiers would have died and the war extended.

To these great ships and all their heroic crews…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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An Introduction to D-Day and the Normandy Campaign

The author with Marines at Point du Hoc, Normandy in 2004

Every year about this time I try to write about D-Day. Last year I posted several articles as I had in 2009 as well.  This year I spent more time on the Battle of Midway writing three articles. Today I have been on the road much of the day and as I drove back to my Island Hermitage I began to think about what I wanted to do this year. When I have decided to do is to re-post a short research paper that I did for one of my Master’s degree courses tonight and follow it with some articles over the week on specific aspects and personalities of the campaign.  What I hope is that people that are not familiar with the campaign as well as those that are can use this as a portal to other resources on the web and in print.

I have visited Normandy once in 2004 on a trip with the Marines of the Marine Security Force Company Europe that took me to Belleau Wood as well as Normandy.  In both places I had the good fortune to be able to explain aspects of both battles, at Normandy discussing the invasion from the German side of the fence.  The Normandy battlefields are well worth visiting.  Hopefully in the next few years I will get a chance to go back and do some serious exploring.

Introduction

General Dwight D Eisenhower Commander in Chief Allied Forces Europe

The American landings on Omaha Beach were critical to the success of the Allied invasion northwestern Europe in the overall Overlord plan.  Without success at Omaha there would have been a strong chance that the German 7th Army and Panzer Group West could have isolated the remaining beachheads, and even if unsuccessful at throwing the Allies into the sea could have produced a stalemate that would have bled the Allies white.  This quite possibly could have led to a political and military debacle for the western allies which would have certainly changed the course of World War II and maybe the course of history.[i] This is not to say the Germans would have won the war, but merely to state that a defeat on Omaha could have changed the outcomes of the war significantly.   Subsequent to the successful landing there were opportunities both for the Allies and the Germans to change the way that the campaign unfolded, thus the battles leading up to the breakout at Avranches are critical to its development and the subsequent campaign in France.

OVERLORD: The Preparations

Eisenhower’s Key Lieutenants: Patton, Bradley and Montgomery

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943.  The timetable for the operation was established at the Tehran conference where Stalin sided with the Americans on the need for an invasion of France in the spring of 1944.[ii] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP.  These preparations and plans included a large scale raid at Dieppe in 1942 which ended in disaster but which provided needed experience in what not to do in an amphibious assault on a heavily defended beach.        The failure at Dieppe also darkened the mood of the Allies, the British in particular to the success of such operations, bringing to mind the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 as well as the opposed landings at Salerno and the USMC experience at Tarawa.[iii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe. Churchill and the British due to their weakness in land power pushed for land operations in the Mediterranean, and even in Norway as an option to the assault in France. The conflicted mindset of the Allies left them in the position of planning almost exclusively for the success of the initial landings and build up to the near exclusion of planning for the subsequent campaign once they landed. This especially included what one writer described as “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iv]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of Army Group B

Despite conflicts between the Americans and British political and military leadership the planning for the Normandy landings detailed in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead.  General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed as the commander of SHAEF with his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic.[v] [vi] The planned operation was expanded from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vii]supplemented by a strong airborne force.[viii] Overall the plan as it developed reflected a distinctly “American willingness to confront the enemy head-on in a collision which Britain’s leaders had sought for so long to defer.”[ix] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower.  Britain had few infantry reserves to sustain the war effort and the Americans only late recognized their own deficiency in both quantity and quality of infantry forces on which their strategy depended.  That the western allies, so rich in material and natural resources would be so deficient in infantry manpower was a key constraint on the subsequent campaign in France and Germany.  The shortage of infantry forces would cause great consternation among the Allies as the campaign in France wore on.

German Beach Obstacles

The Germans too faced manpower shortages due to the immense losses sustained on the Eastern front, those lost in Africa and those tied down in Italy, the Balkans and Norway as well as the drain caused by Luftwaffe Field Divisions and troops diverted into the Waffen-SS.   The German Army resorted to smaller divisions and the created many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans to plug the gaps along the Atlantic wall. The Germans were also forced to recruit “Volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers” to fill out both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations.

German fortifications at the Pas de Calais

Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais provided a direct route was rejected because it was where the Germans would expect the strike to occur and because it was where the German defenses were strongest.  The fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of what could happen when making an assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the few beaches suitable for landing and because the forces would be split on both sides of the river.  Brittany was excluded due to its distance from the campaigns objectives in Germany.[x]This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather. Normandy offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[xi] Omaha beach, situated on the center right of the strike would be crucial to the success of the assault situated to the left of UTAH and the right of the British beaches.

Rommel inspecting beach obstacles

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike by the Allies, the planning sessions remained contentious.  This was especially true when the Allies debated the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided for the landings, particularly the larger types of landing ships and craft to support the Normandy invasion and the planned invasion of southern France, Operation ANVIL.  The increase in OVERLORD requirements for landing craft had an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

“Dummy” Sherman Tank: The Allies created a fictional Army Group to deceive German planners

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE.  This operation utilized the fictitious First Army Group under the “command” of General George Patton. Patton was still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” which incorporated the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xii] The success of this effort was heightened by the fact that all German intelligence agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned by the British secret service.  Additionally the Luftwaffe’s limited air reconnaissance could only confirm the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xiii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiv] Despite this Commander of the 7thArmy recognized by 1943 that Normandy was a likely Allied target and efforts were made to shift 7th Army’s center of gravity from Brittany to Normandy.  The one potential German success in getting wind of when the Allied landings would occur was lost when German intelligence discovered two lines of Verlaine’s “Chason d’ Automme” in June 1944 which were to alert the French Resistance of the invasion.  The security section of 15th Army heard them transmitted on the afternoon of 5 June and notified General Jodl at OKW, but no action was taken to alert forces on the coast.[xv] Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions. However this was less of a factor than during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xvi] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy. However they were uncertain about the location of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA and taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvii]

 

US Army Air Corps B-17s were part of the strategic air campaign to isolate the German beach defenses

The Allied air campaign leading up to the invasion was based on attempting to isolate the invasion site from German reinforcements. Leigh-Mallory the Air Chief developed the “TRANSPORTATION PLAN” which focused efforts on destroying the French railroad infrastructure.[xviii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  Brereton’s aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xix] Max Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany to crippling the German defense in the west. General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force destroyed German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degraded the German fighter force.  The American daylight raids so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xx] Russell Weigley also notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xxi]

 

US Navy LST’s being loaded for the invasion

Planning and preparations for OMAHA were based around getting the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions ashore and them securing a beachhead “twenty-five kilometers wide and eight or nine kilometers deep.”[xxii] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy.  The landing beaches were wide and bordered by dunes which were nearly impassable to vehicles and “scrub covered bluffs thirty to fifty meters high…rough and impassable to vehicles even to tracked vehicles except at a few places.  The exits were unimproved roads running through four or five draws that cut the bluffs.”[xxiii] Dug in along those bluffs was the better part of the 352nd Division. The Americans compounded their selection of a difficult and heavily defended landing zone the Americans failed to take advantage of many of the “gadgets” that were offered by the British which in hindsight could have aided the Americans greatly.  The Americans made use of two battalions of DD (Dual Drive) tanks but turned down the offer of flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and engineer tanks, the “funnies” developed by General Hobart and the British 79th Armored Division.[xxiv]

Dual Drive amphibious tanks were included as part of the US invasion package

Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” Likewise the Americans victories in the First World War were won by infantry with little tank support.[xxv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology to support their landings, something that when considering the fact that Americans were great lovers of gadgets and technology. The British use of the Armor, including the “Funnies” on the beaches to provide direct fire into German strong points lessened their infantry casualties on D-Day. Due to this lack of armor support on the beach American forces on OMAHA had little opportunity to exercise true combined arms operations during the initial landings.[xxvi]

 

Rommel with Artillerymen of the 21st Panzer Division in Normandy

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais.  However they had made great strides since late 1943. Field Marshal Rommel greatly increased defensive preparations along the front, including the Normandy beaches.  One of Rommel’s initiatives was to deploy Panzer Divisions near the coast where they could rapidly respond to an invasion.  However Rommel did not get everything that he wanted.  The OKW only allotted him two Panzer Divisions to be deployed near the Normandy beaches.  Only one of these the 21st Panzer Division was deployed near Caen in the British sector.  One wonders the result had the 12th SS Panzer Division been deployed behind OMAHA. [xxvii]

OMAHA: The Landings

The venerable USS Nevada, resurrected from the mud of Pearl Harbor bombarding German positions at Utah Beach

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th U.S. Infantry Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American XII Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was under the command of General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps led by the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control during the invasion was exercised from sea as in the Pacific, although General Officers were to go ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[xxviii] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month.[xxix] The assumption that no invasion was possible ensured that a number of key senior German leaders, including Rommel were absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[xxx]

US Troops ride a LCVP toward Omaha 

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  The beaches are wide with bluffs overlooking them and a seawall between the beaches and the bluffs.  Additionally several small towns dot the beach. To the west of the town of Vierville, a prominent height overlooked the entire beachhead.  Named Pont du Hoc, it was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade the OMAHA landing zones.  The Americans assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion to make a seaborne assault to land, scale the cliffs and take the battery.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced.  The Rangers took heavy casualties and held their isolated beachhead against German counterattacks until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[xxxi]

Landing craft passing the USS Augusta in heavy seas heading toward Omaha Beach

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVP landing craft 16-20 kilometers from the beach.  The result was a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore and they carried loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[xxxii] The Armor support was one battalion of DD tanks, the 741stArmored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry Regiment of 1st Infantry Division. These were also launched too far out and nearly all of the tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[xxxiii] Other American support units needed to provide firepower on the beach were equally unfortunate. Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[xxxiv] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

Bloody Omaha

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[xxxv] With the Americans pinned down on the beach unable to advance, the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared.  This was in large part due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[xxxvi] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide naval gunfire support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches.  Yet German strongpoint’s were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[xxxvii]

 

US Infantry struggles ashore at Omaha

Soldiers ashore discovered that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the veteran 352nd Division as well.[xxxviii] Only the leadership and actions of Brigadier General Norman Cota the 29th Division’s Deputy Commander and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry kept the situation from complete collapse.  They were able to rally their troops. Under their leadership small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as elements of the 16th and 18th Infantry Regiments began to move forward.  Surviving junior leaders began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear.  A mid-day break in the weather allowed some close tactical air support giving the troops badly needed support.

US 1st Infantry Division Troops at the Omaha sea wall

With the situation desperate General Bradley considered the evacuation of OMAHA.  At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xxxix]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xl] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xli]

German Fallschirmjaeger Trüppen in Normandy, the German Parachute forces fighting in an infantry role were very effective in the Normandy campaign

The landings at OMAHA succeeded at a cost of over 2000 casualties.  Critical to the success of the landings were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach.  Likewise the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself kept the Germans from driving the Americans back into the Channel. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division composed of second rate troops melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting casualties.[xlii]Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex.  Since the forces on the various beachheads had not linked up the beaches would have been extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations as they had at Salerno.

Major Battles to the Breakout at Avranches

Securing the Beachheads

P-47 firing rockets at a ground target. Close air support was vital to Allied forces in Normandy

It took the V and VII Corps nearly a week to secure the beachheads. German forces including the stalwart 352nd Division resisted stubbornly and mounted sharp local counterattacks which kept the Americans off balance.  Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division began to push inland and to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division and elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership.  As the Americans tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country the defensive skill of the Germans cost many American lives and delayed the joining of the beachheads. On the 13th the link up was solid enough to enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

A Panther tank of the Panzer Lehr Division in Normandy

In some American divisions the hard fighting triggered a leadership crisis.  The lack of success of the 90th Division led General “Lightening Joe” Collins of VII Corps relieve the division commander and two regimental commanders of command, a portent of things to come with other American units.[xliii] As the V and VII corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and massive Naval gunfire support and facing the weakened 352nd, 91st and the 6thParachute Regiment and other less than quality formations, survivors of the static divisions, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they moved off the beachhead and into the Bocage.[xliv]

The Capture of Cherbourg

US Soldiers of the 29th Division surrender to German Fallschirmjaeger in Normandy

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. Cherbourg was the major naval port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin.  D-Day planners counted on its swift capture and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces. The 9th Division drove south to the coast near Barneville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[xlv] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[xlvi] The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered around the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps, whose commander General Marcks one of the best German Generals was killed in action on 12 June.[xlvii] The U.S. VII Corps under Collins with the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm the week prior. The port of Cherbourg was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port.[xlviii]

The Battle of Caumont Gap

Panzer IV Tank in Normandy

V Corps under Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.   After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[xlix] The possibility existed that a strong push against the weak German line could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. This was a missed opportunity that in part led to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[l]

British efforts around Caen

German Panzer Ace Waffen SS Captain Michale Wittman single handedly destroyed a British Battalion at Villers Bocage in his Tiger Tank

Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British plans for this were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans and the activities of 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions.  A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks led by the legendary Waffen SS Panzer commander Captain Michael Wittman whose tanks devastated a British Armored battalion.[li]

Wreckage of a British Battalion at Villers Bocage

A series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) strongly supported by air strikes and Naval gunfire finally succeeded in taking that unfortunate city on July 18th but failed to take the heights beyond the town.[lii]

British operations like Operation Epsom met setback after setback against dug in German forces outside of Caen

Against crack well dug in German forces the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry seriously straining their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[liii] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[liv]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearing the Bocage: The Battle of the Cotentin Plain

US M-5 Light Tank in Normandy

Other German forces arrived, and reinforced the Caumont gap which no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps.” [lv] Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[lvi] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.  American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they dueled the Germans at close range.  In the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[lvii]

St. Lo

US Tanks advancing with German prisoners moving back to US lines at St Lo

St. Lo was a key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His Army had to capture it and the roads leading out of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to GEROW’S V Corps and Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Parachute Division of II Parachute Corps.  The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers again with high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry to secure St. Lo on 18 July.[lviii] They finally had cleared the hedgerows.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.  Hard fighting but outnumbered German troops in excellent defensive country exacted a terrible price in American blood despite the Allied control of the skies.[lix]

Operation COBRA

US 155mm Howitzers in Normandy, the Germans had profound respect for American Artillery, a respect that they did not share for American Infantry or Armor forces

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins they realized that the better terrain, road networks favored a breakout.  American preparations included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows. This was the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on 3 of every 5 First Army Tanks for the operation.[lx] VII Corps was to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made. A massive air bombardment would precede the attack along with an artillery barrage by Collins corps artillery which was reinforced by additional battalions.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the American troops being hit with heavy casualties and a postponement of the attack until the 25th.[lxi] The following day the attack commenced.  Another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[lxii] but VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of the survivors of Panzer Lehr and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

St Lo 

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation down the coastal highway to Coutances.  On the 27th General Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rdArmy.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push.[lxiii] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.

Avranches and Beyond

US Forces advance through the ruins of St Lo

As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the newly activated 3rd Army. By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[lxiv] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[lxv]

Conclusion

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels. Heavy casualties among infantry formations would lead to problems later in the campaign. Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies would show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[lxvi]

[i] See the alternative history of by Peter Tsouras Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, Greenhill Books, London 1994. Tsouras describes the defeat of the Omaha landings and the effect on the course of the campaign leading to the overthrow of Hitler and a negotiated armistice in the west.  While this outcome could be rigorously debated other outcomes could have led to the fall of the Roosevelt and Churchill governments and their replacement by those not committed to unconditional surrender or a continuation of the war that brought about more German missile attacks on the U.K. and the introduction of other advanced German weapons that could have forced such a settlement. Another option could have led to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on a German city vice Hiroshima.

[ii] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981 p.33

[iii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iv] Ibid p.35

[v] General Montgomery 21st Army group and Land Forces, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey as Allied Naval Expeditionary Force and Air Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory as Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Weigley p.43

[vi] Max Hastings in Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984, comments that many in Britain wondered if Eisenhower with the lack of actual battle experience could be a effective commander and that Eisenhower was disappointed in the appointment of Leigh-Mallory and Ramsey, and had preferred Alexander over Montgomery, pp. 28-29.

[vii] Ibid. Weigley p.40.  Montgomery was the first to object to the 3 division narrow front invasion rightly recognizing that seizing Caen with its road junctions could provide a springboard for the campaign into open country.

[viii] Ibid. p.37

[ix] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.29  Hastings finds the irony in the selection of the British officers to execute the plan that reflected the American way of thinking.

[x] The Germans agreed with this in their planning leaving Brittany very lightly defended.  See  Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” p.27 The report of General Blumentritt, Chief of Staff OB West noted that only 3 divisions were assigned to Brittany.

[xi] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xii] Ibid. p.73

[xiii] See Isby p. 69.  General Max Pemsel of 7th Army noted that “During  the spring of 1944, Seventh Army received only tow good photographs of British southern ports, which showed large concentrations of landing craft.”

[xiv] Ibid. Hastings p.63.  Hastings comments also about the success of using the turned Abwehr agents.

[xv] Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Pp.422-423

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvii] Ibid. p. 67

[xviii] Ibid. pp.57-64  Weigley spends a great deal of time on the wrangling between Eisenhower, Leigh Mallory and Spaatz on the nature of the plan, the allocation of forces both strategic and tactical assigned to carry it out and its success, or in the light of postwar analysis the lack of effect that it had on German operations.

[xix] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xx] Ibid. Hastings pp. 43-44 In large part due to the long range P-51 Mustang which accompanied the American bombing raids beginning in 1943.  Another comment is that the campaign drew the German fighters home to defend Germany proper and prevented their use in any appreciable numbers over the invasion beaches.

[xxi] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxii] Ibid. p.89

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiv] Ibid. p.87

[xxv] Ibid. Weigley also talks about the rejection of General Corlett’s ideas to use Amtracks used by the Marines in the Pacific to land on less desirable, but less defended beaches to lessen casualties on the beaches and the need for additional support equipment even on smooth beaches.  One of Corlett’s criticisms was that too little ammunition was allotted to supporting the landings and not enough supporting equipment was provided. pp. 46-47

[xxvi] Hastings notes that with the strength and firepower of the German forces on OMAHA that many of these vehicles had they been employed would like have ended up destroyed further cluttering the beachhead. “Overlord” p.102

[xxvii] The battle over the deployment of the Panzer Divisions is covered by numerous historians.  The source of the conflict was between Rommel who desired to place the Panzer Divisions on the Coast under his command due to the fear that Allied air superiority would prevent the traditional Panzer counterthrust, General Gyer von Schweppenburg commander of Panzer Group West (Later the 5th Panzer Army) and Field Marshal Von Rundstedt who desired to deploy the divisions order the command of Rundstedt for a counter attack once the invasion had been launched, a strategy which was standard on the Eastern Front, and Hitler who held most of the Panzer reserve including the SS Panzer Divisions under his control at OKW.  Hitler would negotiate a compromise that gave Rommel the satisfaction of having three Panzer Divisions deployed behind coast areas in the Army Group B area of responsibility.  21stPanzer had those duties in Normandy.

[xxviii] Ibid. p.74-75

[xxix] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[xxx] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[xxxi] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[xxxii] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[xxxiii] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[xxxvii] Ibid. p.99

[xxxviii] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xxxix] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xl] Ibid. p.99

[xli] Ibid. Weigleyp.95

[xlii] Ibid. p.94

[xliii] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[xliv] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[xlv] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[xlvi] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[xlvii] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[xlviii] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[xlix] Ibid. p.111-112.

[l] Ibid.

[li] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[lii] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[liii] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[liv] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[lv] Ibid. p.122

[lvi] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[lvii] Ibid. 134

[lviii] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[lix] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[lx] Ibid. p.149

[lxi] Ibid. p. 152

[lxii] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[lxiii] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[lxiv] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[lxv] Ibid. p.172

[lxvi] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,”Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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The Breakout from Normandy

Map of Normandy Breakout

The breakout from Normandy by Bradley’s 12th Army Group at St Lo opened a realm of possibilities for the Allies to defeat the German Army in detail and end the war.  Unfortunately for the Allies the manner that they would exploit their success achieved during Operation COBRA led to their failure to completely destroy the German Army in the west in the late summer of 1944 would ultimately prolong the war.

The Allied and German problem in August 1944 was the sudden change in the nature of the campaign from a nearly static war of attrition in the Norman hedgerows to a campaign of maneuver.  This change brought about a number of opportunities for the Allies to envelope large portions of the German Army in western France as well as in Belgium and southern Holland. Max Hastings notes that the campaign became more of a “commander’s battle” in which it was “the decisions of the generals that determined the manner in which events unfolded in August, their successes and failures which brought about the position that was achieved by September.”[i] This was a major change as Hastings correctly notes in that prior to the breakout success in the hedgerows had been determined on “the ability of British, American and Canadian units to seize ground from their German opponents on the next ridge, the next hedge, beyond the next road.” [ii] In the hedgerows there was not much room for higher level commanders to influence the battle but once the breakout occurred the decisions made by commanders on both sides had greater influence in the following operations. This would become important as the weaknesses in the quality of allied generalship would begin to show, along with logistics management issues and the failure of the Allied High Command to recognize the resiliency of German forces and the resourcefulness of German leaders in their ability to cope with disaster and recover from it.  These were key elements in the campaign that kept the Allies from ending the war by Christmas.[iii]

US M5 Light Tank advancing through Coutances

Early in the campaign it was decided that Bradley’s forces needed to capture the Brittany ports, particularly Brest to alleviate shortages of supplies which all still were being delivered across the beaches.  However, the implications of this decision were strategically short sighted and deprived the Allies of a decisive victory in France.  As Third Army exploited the break out from Normandy into the French interior the preponderance of its forces went west which deprived the Americans of the better part of two army corps as well as the logistical assets needed to trap the major part of the German Army in Normandy.  The campaign in Brittany would prove a diversion which did nothing to help the Allied cause.  The divisions committed, casualties taken and supplies expended in an attempt to capture ports that the Germans destroyed before the Americans could capture them. Russell Weigley points this out as a major mistake by Bradley which did little to help the Allied logistical problems and diverted much needed troops away from the focal point of the action in Normandy.[iv] Max Hastings criticized Bradley’s lack of imagination in the initial stages of the breakout by adhering to the original Overlord plan.[v] This is seconded by Patton’s biographer Carlo D’Este.[vi]

Tiger Tank in Normandy

Patton’s 3rd Army’s weakened eastern push coupled with the continued pressure of the British Army Group toward Falaise put the Germans in a strategic dilemma. With the gate open at Avranches they could attempt to restore the front in Normandy by pinching off the advance or withdraw to the Seine or even further as no “defensive position short of the permanent fortifications of the West Wall on Germany’s frontier offered so many defensive strengths as the Normandy line the Americans had just breached and turned.”[vii] The choice advocated by some senior German commanders was an orderly withdraw to the Seine which would have removed the danger of being enveloped in Normandy as well as make the Allies attack across a major water obstacle defended by still formidable formations.

5th Armored Division Shermans near Argentan

With limited options the Hitler decided on a course of no withdraw and ordered his commanders to marshal their panzer divisions seal the breach and ensnare the allies in the hedgerows.[viii] Hitler and Field Marshal von Kluge disagreed in regard to the offensive which Kluge saw as a limited offensive but which Hitler believed gave the Germans a chance to cut off the American forces in Brittany and possibly even more.  Hitler believed that “once the coast had been reached at Avranches a beginning should be made with rolling up the entire Allied position in Normandy!”[ix] General Eugen Meindl of II Parachute Corps was blunt in his assessment of the attack. Paul Carrel in his book “Invasion! They’re Coming” quotes Meindl speaking with Von Kluge’s son a first lieutenant serving at the front:

“Kindly convey to your father exactly what I’m going to say to you. The time has come when Normandy can no longer be held. It cannot be held because the troops are exhausted. This is the fault mainly of orders to hold out in hopeless positions, but we are still being ordered to hold out even now. The enemy will break through to the west and outflank us. If your father knew what is was to operate against an enemy with downright fabulous command of the air, then he would know that our only hope of doing something useful is by attacking at night. Tomorrow’s tank attack is going to be a failure…and all that’s left for the grenadiers to do is lie down and sacrifice their lives. It’s heartbreaking to have to stand by and watch!”

Grenadiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Jugend”

The German attack, Operation Lüttich was led by XLVII Panzer Corps assisted by elements of 1st SS Panzer Division.  Despite warnings from ULTRA the panzers achieved tactical surprise on the front of the 30th US Division at Mortain on the night of 6-7 August advancing without the customary preparatory artillery bombardment.[x] The Germans initially made progress against the 30th Division which had recently taken over positions at Mortain. However the Americans of the 2nd Battalion 120th Infantry “Old Hickory” Regiment held onto key high ground which enabled them to call artillery fire and air strikes on the German forces attacking toward Avranches which included the elite 2nd, 116th, 2nd SS, and part of the 1st SS Panzer Divisions along with a kampfgruppe cobbled together from the remnants of Panzer Lehr and four battered infantry divisions.[xi] The Americans quickly reinforced 30th Division with elements of 2nd Armored Division, 35th Infantry Division and the veteran 4th Infantry Division to hold the line against the weakened German Panzer divisions.  Bradley and other American commanders viewed Lüttich as “an opportunity, not a threat”[xii] which could enable the Allies to entrap the vast majority of German forces in France.  Bradley was “not merely confident of withstanding them, but expected to destroy them.”[xiii] Bradley attempted to lure more Germans into the potential trap hoping that the Germans would press their attacks around Mortain.[xiv]

On the German side the ground commanders were furious at the failure of the Luftwaffe to shield them from Allied air attacks which devastated the Panzers.  The Luftwaffe and promised that 300 fighters would support the attack to provide protection from Allied close air support.  However the Luftwaffe squadrons were engaged by British and American fighters and so badly mauled that no Luftwaffe units made a appearance over Mortain.[xv] Thus despite their initial success which had promise of cutting off the advancing American spearheads the German Panzers were turned back by the Americans who did not even halt their eastward movement which further imperiled the German forces in Normandy.

With the German Panzer divisions ensnared at Mortain, the 3rd Army drove east while the Canadian army attacked towards Falaise. Bradley suggested that the Allies attempt a short envelopment of German forces at Falaise in which over 100,000 German troops would be trapped between the Patton’s troops advancing north and the Canadians.  The Canadians opened their TOTALIZE offensive from Caen to Falaise on August 8th but as was the case in every part of the campaign against determined German resistance as the XV Corps of 3rd Army advanced east.  Bradley’s plan ended the deep envelopment by XV Corps of 3rd Army designed to entrap the Germans against the Seine crossings, an operation that might promise “still surer results.”[xvi] Bradley told Treasury Henry Morgenthau that he had “an opportunity that comes to a commander not more than once in a century. We’re about to destroy and entire hostile army.”[xvii] Hastings noted that “had the Germans “behaved rationally, recognized the threat of envelopment to their entire front and begun a full-scale retreat east, then Bradley could indeed been accused of losing his armies a great prize.”[xviii]

Wrecked German vehicles near Mortain

The decision by Bradley to turn the better part of 3rd Army west into Brittany had deprived him of forces that could have better accomplished mission of entrapping the Germans.  General Wood of 4th Armored Division to his dying day “remained embittered over the lost opportunity”[xix] when his division was turned back into Brittany rather than being allowed to move east toward the Seine.   Weigley points out an even deeper flaw regarding the Brittany decision.  This was that that the OVERLORD planners “had not thought anything resembling the Avranches breakout and pursuit without pause to the Seine likely… stating that it is among the worst forms of generalship that takes counsel of its fears. Yet that was exactly the condition of OVERLORD logistical planning.”[xx] Weigley’s point is well taken, the Allies had not planned for success nor had they anticipated in the OVERLORD planning the full range of possibilities that might open to them once a breakout had occurred.

12th SS Panzer Division Machine Gun team

The Allies did have a chance to destroy the German 7th Army.  The LXVII Panzer Corps and II SS Panzer Corps as well as the remnants of II Parachute Corps and other formations battered in Normandy were attempting to withdraw to the east from Mortain. The remnants of I SS Panzer Corps led by 12 SS Panzer Division and Army Panzer divisions such as the 21st Panzer Division offered determined resistance to the Canadians who were attacking toward Falaise.  To the south only scattered Kampfgruppen of divisions shattered in Normandy opposed Patton’s forces at Argentan. The Germans were aided by a fortuitous decision of the commander of the 2nd French Armored Division to move a combat command along a road needed by the American 5th Armored Division delaying it and allowing the Germans to send a battalion into the Argentan which could have “fallen easily a few hours before.”[xxi] The Allies were bedeviled by several other failures which prevented the short double envelopment from occurring and allowing the remnants of 7th Army to escape to fight again despite grievous losses in men, material, and especially armored fighting vehicles, artillery and motor transport.

Canadians advance in Falaise

The first of these was the Canadian failure to push the Germans out of Falaise despite overwhelming material and air superiority.  The Canadian offensive Operation TOTALIZE was planned by the best of the Canadian generals, General Simonds. Unfortunately Simonds was not in command of the operation.  Totalize was a promising attack but bogged down halfway to Falaise due to a quick counterattack by 12th SS Panzer kampfgruppen, as well as a misguided bombing attack on the attacking forces by Allied air units, and the inexperience of the attacking units.  The Canadian 4th Armored Division and Polish 1st Armored Divisions paused to eliminate strong points rather than bypass them which allowed the Germans to reform their lines.[xxii] The second failure was that of Montgomery who refused to adjust army group boundaries with Americans and instead ordered the Canadians “renew their drive promptly and vigorously.”[xxiii] This refusal held the Americans advance at Argentan while the Canadians battered themselves against far stronger German opposition.  However, General Crerar of Canadian 1st Army was as bad of Army commander as could be found.  Weigley somewhat sarcastically points out that Crerar spent five days “doing what really battlewise generalship could do by regrouping and making diversionary attacks.”[xxiv] It took over 48 hours for Crerar to launch a determined attack to close the gap despite the weakness of German forces. Even a personal phone call by Montgomery to Crerar urging him to “close the gap between First Canadian Army and 3rd U.S. Army” did nothing to move the Canadian general and Crerar’s dawdling allowed many Germans to escape from Normandy to fight again.[xxv] Despite the vice that had closed around them the Germans successfully withdrew experienced battle groups of elite Wermacht and SS Panzer Divisions as well as the Paratroopers of II Parachute Corps to fight again.  General Meindl himself led a battle group of Falschirmjaeger from his Corps during their breakout through the Allied lines.  Despite the loss of 40,000 soldiers in the Falaise Pocket the Germans had saved a substantial part of their Army.

US Infantry advancing near Argentan

General Kurt Meyer of 12th SS Panzer Division faulted the Canadian leadership with a failure to use imaginative planning, and noted that “none of the Canadian attacks showed the genius of a great commander.”[xxvi] American units which Patton had cautiously advanced north of Argentan towards Falaise were recalled after Bradley was unable to convince Montgomery to alter the army-group boundary in light of the new circumstances.[xxvii] Patton recounted that he believed that his units could have “easily entered Falaise and closed the gap” and that the “halt was a great mistake.”[xxviii]

Knocked out Sherman of the Polish Armored Division next to a knocked out Panther

Weigley blames Bradley as much for the halt order as much as Montgomery for “discouraging whatever might have been done to rectify the blunder- even discouraging on August 13th a call from the Supreme Commander to Montgomery about the inter-allied boundary.”[xxix] Thus through a series of Allied mistakes particularly by senior commanders the first opportunity to envelop the Germans passed into history as a great yet incomplete victory.  A victory which though impressive allowed experienced German forces to escape to fight again. As the Germans escaped from Falaise the Allies began a pursuit in conjunction with landings in the south of France that would take them to the borders of Germany.

Polish Soldiers at the Corridor of Death


[i] Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984 p.280

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945 Alfred a Knopf, New York, 2004 p.37.  Hastings comments that “British planners threw away it had learned since 1939 about the speed of reaction of Hitler’s army, its brilliance at improvisation, its dogged skill in defense, its readiness always to punish allied mistakes.”

[iv] Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981pp.184-186

[v] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord pp.282-283

[vi] D’Este,  Carlo. Patton: A Genius for War. Harper Collins Publishers New York, 1995 pp.632-633

[vii] Ibid.  p.195

[viii] Ibid. Also

[ix] Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 Presidio Press, Novato CA 1964 pp.449-450.

[x] Ibid pp.195-196. Weigley notes that Montgomery and most other Allied commanders  had been optimistic in not anticipating the German counter attack despite the ULTRA warnings, while Bradley and Patton were cautious in making troop deployments.

[xi] Michael Reynolds in Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy notes that the Americans inflicted “astonishing casualties on the northern thrusts of 2nd SS Panzer and remained undefeated when the Germans withdrew 4 days later.”  Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: The 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing, New York, 1997 p.264

[xii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord p.283

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley p.199.

[xv] Carrell, Paul. Invasion! They’re Coming!” Trans. E. Osers, Originally published as Sie Kommen! Gerhard Stalling Verlag 1960, Bantam Books New York, 1964, 5th Printing June 1984. p. 249

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley p. 199

[xvii] Ibid. p.200

[xviii] Ibid. Hastings. Overlord. pp.282-283

[xix] Ibid. D’Este. p.631

[xx] Ibid. Weigley. p.286  He also points out that the Brittany diversion could have been “worse had it not been for Montgomery’s influence”  p.288

[xxi] Ibid. p. 202

[xxii] Ibid. p.204

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Reynolds, Michael Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy Dell Publishing New York, 1997. p.320.

[xxvi] Meyer, Kurt Grenadiers trans. By  Michael Mende and Robert J.  Edwards, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Inc. Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada 2001 p.290.

[xxvii] Ibid. Hastings Overlord pp.288-289.

[xxviii] Patton, George S. War As I Knew It Bantam Books NY  published 1980, originally published by Houghton Mifflin Company 1947. pp.101-102

[xxix] Ibid. Weigley p.209  Weigley quotes Major Hansen, Bradley’s aide in stating that the Falaise halt orde was “the only decision he has ever questioned.”

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D-Day and After: Battling Through the Bocage

US 155mm Howitzer in Normandy. The American artillery was considered the best branch of the American combat arms by the German commanders

It took nearly a week for the American V and VII Corps on Omaha Beach and Utah Beach to link up with each other and secure their beachheads against fierce German resistance.    Elements of the 29th Division and the 90th Division pushed inland from OMAHA to expand the beachhead toward UTAH. Opposed by the 352nd Division, elements of the 91st Airlanding Division and other non-divisional units the American divisions took heavy casualties.  The fighting revealed the inexperience of the American infantry formations and the uneven quality of their leadership as they tackled the Germans in the labyrinth of the Bocage country. However by June13th the link up was solid enabling the Americans to conduct the follow up operations needed to expand the beachhead, secure Cherbourg and clear the Cotentin.

German Falschirmjaeger with 81mm mortar. This simple weapon was one of the most lethal in the German arsenal and accounted for a large number of Allied infantry casualties

The lack of success of the 90th Division, led the VII Corps commander General “Lightening Joe” Collins to relieve the division commander and two of his regimental commanders.   This was a portent of things to come with other American units as they took heavy casualties despite having a vast superiority in firepower over the Germans.[i] As the two corps pushed into the “Bocage” they were followed by a massive build up of troops and equipment delivered to the beaches and to the artificial “Mulberry” harbors.  Despite their numeric superiority, air supremacy and available Naval gunfire support and facing few units of high quality save the 352nd, 91st and the 6th Parachute Regiment, the Americans made painfully slow progress as they expanded the beachhead.[ii]

Poor training and leadership caused many US infantry casualties and many GIs to be captured. Here a Falschirmjaeger accepts a cigarette from a GI of the 29th Infantry Division

Once the beachheads had been consolidated the Americans turned their attention toward Cherbourg. This was the major Naval Port at the far northwest tip of the Cotentin and considered vital to the resupply of the Allied forces as they pushed into the heart of France.  D-Day planners counted on the swift capture of Cherbourg and rehabilitation to serve as a supply port for the Allied forces to lessen the dependency on the artificial Mulberry harbors. The first task was to isolate Cherbourg and to do this the 9th Division drove south from the beaches to the coast near Barneville.  The corps captured Barnville on the 18th of June cutting off the German forces covering the approaches to Cherbourg.[iii] This put the Germans in a bind as the 7th Army “had to split its forces in the peninsula in order to hold the fortress a little longer and thus to gain time for the establishment of the southern front on the Cotentin peninsula.[iv]

General Erich Marcks a one legged veteran of the Eastern Front led a spirited defense until he was killed in action

The German forces arrayed before Cherbourg waged a desperate defense centered on the 243rd Infantry Division and other assorted battle groups of LXXXIV Corps. During the fighting the LXXXIV Corps commander General Marcks was killed in action on 12 June.[v] This was a tough loss for the Germans as Marcks was a resourceful planner and resolute leader and considered one of the best German commanders in Normandy.

Once Cherbourg was cut off from German support Collins and the U.S. VII Corps composed of the 9th, 4th and 79th Divisions pushed up the peninsula capturing Cherbourg on June 29th.  Bradley pushed hard for the capture of the port as the Mulberries had been ravaged by a severe Channel storm greatly diminishing the over the beach logistics support. Cherbourg’s port was thoroughly demolished by German engineers and would not be fully operational for months. The loss of the Mulberries and delay in Cherbourg’s availability meant that few supplies were landed on the beaches.  This would “hinder the escape from the constricting land of the hedgerows into which the Americans had come in search of a port” [vi] and was a setback to allied planning.

US 1st Infantry Division soldiers pause during operations in Normandy

To the east of VII Corps the V Corps under Major General Leonard Gerow made a cautious advance by phase lines toward Caumont, St Lo and Carentan.  The deliberate advance by the Corps toward a line weakly held by the Reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was directed by Bradley who did not want to divert attention from the effort against Cherbourg.  A more aggressive commander might have tried to push further to expand the beachhead but caution was a hallmark of the American campaign in Normandy up to Operation COBRA.  After capturing Caumont V Corps halted and continued aggressive patrolling to deceive the Germans while digging in.[vii] Bradley’s decision to err on the side of caution had an effect on the broader campaign in Normandy.   Had Bradley directed a strong push against the weak German line it could have led to an opportunity to envelope the German line west of Caen. The opportunity lost through caution helped lead to the bloody and controversial campaign to capture Caen.[viii] Throughout the campaign in the Bocage American units were badly handled by their commanders, especially at lower levels and the experience and initiative shown by German battle groups and small unit leaders constantly stymied to American advance.

German Panzergrenadiers on Hill 112 awaiting a British attack beyond Caen

The Americans were not alone in their struggle against the Germans. Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery had ambitious plans to break out of Normandy by capturing Caen on D-Day and driving toward Falaise and Argentan.  The British failed to capture Caen and their plans were frustrated by the rapid reinforcement of the sector by the Germans.   The 21st Panzer, Panzer Lehr, and the 12th SS Panzer Divisions skillfully defended the area taking a fearful toll on the British and Canadians arrayed against Caen.

Captain Michael Wittmann of the 101st SchwererPanzer Battalion (Heavy Tank Battalion) in Normandy

A flanking maneuver at Villers-Bocage was frustrated by a few Tiger tanks of SS Heavy Tank Battalion under the command of Captain Michael Wittmann that destroyed 14 tanks and 15 personnel carriers of the British 7th Armoured Divsion along with 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes. [ix]

Vehicles Destroyed by Wittmann’s detachment at Villers-Bocage

Likewise a series of disastrous attacks toward Caen (EPSOM, CHARNWOOD and GOODWOOD) which were strongly supported by air strikes and naval gunfire were mauled by German forces and only finally succeeded in taking the unfortunate city of Caen on July 18th.

British Ammo Carrier goes up in flames after being hit by German fire during Operation Epsom

However the British failed to take the heights beyond the town[x] which led to more attacks against crack well dug in German forces.  In the campaign to take Caen and the hills beyond it the British took heavy casualties in tanks and infantry which seriously strained their ability to conduct high intensity combat operations in the future.[xi] The one benefit, which Montgomery would claim after the war as his original plan was that German forces were fixed before Caen and ground down so they could not be used against Bradley’s breakout in the west at St Lo.[xii]

US M-10 Tank Destroyer firing at German positions in Normandy

The Caumont gap no longer “yawned invitingly in front of V Corps;”[xiii] as the Germans had reinforced the sector while the Americans dug in, yet now Bradley wished to push forward rapidly to achieve a breakthrough in the American sector.[xiv] Facing the most difficult terrain in France amid the Bocage and swamps that limited avenues of approach to the American divisions committed to the offensive.  The Americans now faced their old foe the 352nd division as well various elements of elite II Parachute Corps, the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Lehr Divisions.

German Falschirmjaeger in Normandy

American tanks and infantry made slow progress and incurred high losses as they fought the Germans yard by yard in the Bocage.  The Americans incurred high numbers of casualties and in the VIII Corps sector alone the attack “consumed twelve days and 10,000 casualties to cross eleven kilometers of the Bocage…the achievements of the VII and XIX Corps were no better than comparable.[xv] Such losses incurred so early during the campaign would have far reaching effects when the Americans reached the Alsace-Lorraine and the German border.

M-8 Gun carrier of a reconnaissance battalion advancing in Normandy

In order to break out of the Bocage the town of St Lo had to be captured.  It lay at a vital road juncture and its capture would help open the way into the French interior, thus St. Lo was key to Bradley’s breakout efforts.  His First Army had to capture it and the roads leading of it to launch Operation COBRA along the coast.  The task of capturing St. Lo was assigned to Gerow’s V Corps and Charles “Cowboy Pete” Corlett’s XIX Corps.  They faced opposition from the tough paratroops of the German 3rd Falschirmjaeger (Parachute) Division of II Parachute Corps commanded by General Eugen Meindl a tough veteran paratrooper and resourceful commander who had been shot through the chest at Crete.

General Eugen Meindl of II Falschirmjaeger Corps decorating troops. In contrast to many Allied commanders many senior German officers like Meindl led following the doctrine of “Auftragstaktik” from the front sharing the hardships and dangers of their soldiers

The 2nd, 29th, 30th and 83rd Divisions of XIX Corps fought a tough battle advancing eleven kilometers against the German defenders again taking high numbers of casualties especially among the infantry.  However they were successful and secured St. Lo on 18 July.[xvi]

US Vehicles advancing through the shattered city of St Lo

With St Lo in their possession the Americans had finally cleared the hedgerows of the Bocage and now looked at the open country of the French interior.  St Lo epitomized the struggle that the American Army had to overcome in the Bocage.

B-24’s Bombing St Lo on July 25th an attack that went awry killing many US soldiers near the front

Americans faced hard fighting against heavily outnumbered but superiorly led German troops that occupied excellent defensive country that inflicted heavy casualties on the Americans for every yard of ground given up. The Germans for all of their disadvantages exacted a terrible price in American blood between D-Day and the capture of St Lo despite the Allied control of the skies and the numerical superiority of the American Army.[xvii]

A Panzer IV camouflaged in a Normandy town

With the Bocage behind him Bradley desired to push the Germans hard and moved from a cautious to bold strategy to break the German line.  COBRA was his plan to break out of Normandy.  Bradley ably assisted by Collins realized that the better terrain, road networks past St Lo favored a decisive breakout.  American preparations for the attack included a technical advance that allowed tanks to plow through hedgerows, the “Rhino” device fashioned by American troops which was installed on three of every five First Army Tanks participating in the operation.[xviii] The Rhino device allowed the American Tanks to cut through the thick earthen hedgerows instead of being forced to climb them and expose their unprotected bellies to German anti-tank weapons or limit their movement to the constricted road net.

Sherman Tank equipped with the Rhinoceros device

As the Americans prepared the Germans continued to conduct a spirited active defense but were hampered by a lack of reinforcements.  As it happened they did not receive reinforcements in anywhere close to the numbers needed as the German Replacement Army was hoarding vast numbers of troops in Germany in anticipation of the plot to assassinate Hitler of which several high ranking members of the Replacement Army were leading conspirators. The Germans at the front were being starved of replacement divisions even as the Allies continued to build up their own forces in Normandy.

GI inspecting a knocked out Panzer IV

VII Corps was designated to lead the attack which was to begin on July 24th. American planning, reflecting more experience against the Germans was more advanced than in past operations.  Collins and Bradley planned for exploitation operations once the breakthrough had been made as part of the overall operational plan.  The aircraft of the 8th and 9th Air Forces were designated to conduct a massive air bombardment that would precede the attack. Division, Corps and additional artillery battalions were allotted to pulverize German positions to assist in the breakthrough.   A mistake by the heavy bombers in the 24th resulted in the heavy casualties to forward units which led to a postponement of the attack until the 25th of July.[xix]

German Panzers and Panzer Grenadiers advancing in Normandy

The attack commenced on the 25th and yet another mistake by the bombers led to more American casualties[xx] and the dead included Lieutenant General Leslie McNair.  McNair was the Commander of Army Ground Forces, a position from which he directed the organization and training of American ground forces.

Men of Co D 117th Infantry being dug out after being bomber by “friendly” US Bombers at St Lo

Many of McNair’s decisions were responsible for the lack of adequate training received by American soldiers as individuals and units which had a direct correlation to the less than stellar performance of many American divisions in the European campaign. However the effect of the bombardment on the German forces was profound as men, equipment and fortifications were blasted by a barrage that the Germans had not yet encountered on the western front.  VII Corps units pressed forward against the determined resistance of Panzer Lehr survivors and the remnants of units that had fought the Americans since the invasion began.  Although it was a “slow go” on the 25th Bradley and his commanders were already planning for and beginning to execute the breakout before the Germans could move up reinforcements.  The 26th of June brought renewed attacks accompanied by massive air strikes.

Infantry of the 30th Infantry Division

While not much progress was made on the 26th, the Americans discovered on the 27th that the German forces were retreating.  The capture of Marigny allowed VIII Corps to begin exploitation operations down the coastal highway to Coutances and for the first time since the invasion the campaign entered a phase of maneuver warfare where the mechanization and motorization of US Army forces gave them an advantage that they did not have in the Bocage.

General George S Patton, Omar Bradley and Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery in Normandy, in Patton the Allies found a senior officer that understood the importance of strategic maneuver

On the 27th General George S Patton was authorized to take immediate command of VIII Corps a precursor to the activation of his 3rd Army.  COBRA ripped a hole in the German line and inflicted such heavy casualties on the already depleted German 7th Army that it could do little to stop the American push despite heroic performances by many units which were operating at 50% or below of their authorized strength.[xxi] As the American forces pushed forward they reinforced their left flank absorbing the local German counterattacks which were hampered by the Allied close air support.  As the breakthrough was exploited the command of the forces leading it shifted to Patton and the 3rd Army.

German prisoners being escorted to the rear past a Sherman

By the 28th VIII Corps led by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions had reached Avranches and established bridgeheads over the See River with additional bridges being captured intact on the 30th.[xxii] The capture of Avranches allowed the Americans to begin exploitation operations into Brittany and east toward the Seine. Weigley notes that for the first time in the campaign that in Patton the Americans finally had a commander who understood strategic maneuver and would use it to great effect.[xxiii]

The American campaign in Normandy cost the U.S. Army a great deal. It revealed weaknesses in the infantry, the inferiority of the M4 Sherman tank to most German types, problems in tank-infantry cooperation and also deficiencies in leadership at senior, mid-grade and junior levels.  Numerous officers were relieved including Division and Regimental commanders.  Nonetheless during the campaign the Americans grew in their ability to coordinate air and ground forces and adapt to the conditions imposed on them by their placement in the Cotentin.  The deficiencies in training and leadership would continue to show up in later battles but the American Army learned its trade even impressing some of the German commanders on the ground in Normandy.[xxiv]


[i] Ibid. p.99 Both Weigley and Hastings make note of the failure of both the Americans and British to train their troops to fight in the bocage once they had left the beaches.

[ii] Ibid. Hastings. pp.152-153

[iii] Ibid. Weigley p.101

[iv] Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London,  2001.  p.143

[v] Ibid. Hastings p.173 Allied fighter bombers exacted a fearful toll among German commanders. The Commanders of the 243rd and 77th Divisions fighting in the Cotentin were also killed by air attacks on the 17th and 18th.   Further east facing the British the commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, Fritz Witt on the 17th.

[vi] Ibid. Weigley. p.108

[vii] Ibid. p.111-112.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] The efforts of the 51st Highland Division and 7th Armored Division were turned aside by the Germans in the area and were dramatized by the destruction of  a British armored battalion by SS Captain Michael Wittman and his platoon of Tiger tanks.  See Hastings pp.131-135.

[x] The British 8th Corps under General O’Connor lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on 18 July attempting to crack the German gun line on the ridge beyond Caen. Weigley, pp.145-146.

[xi] Hastings comments about the critical British manpower shortage and the pressures on Montgomery to not take heavy casualties that could not be replaced. Overlord. pp.241-242.

[xii] Ibid. Weigley pp.116-120

[xiii] Ibid. p.122

[xiv] Ibid. p121 Bradley told Eisenhower “when we hit the enemy this time we will hit him with such power that we can keep going and cause a major disaster.”

[xv] Ibid. 134

[xvi] Ibid. Weigley. pp. 138-143.  Weigley notes of 40,000 U.S. casualties in Normandy up to the capture of St. Lo that 90% were concentrated among the infantry.

[xvii] Weigley quotes the 329th Regiment, 83rd Division historian “We won the battle of Normandy, [but] considering the high price in American lives we lost. P.143. This is actually a provocative statement that reflects America’s aversion to massive casualties in any war.

[xviii] Ibid. p.149

[xix] Ibid. p. 152

[xx] Ibid. pp. 152-153.  Among the casualties were the command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd Battalion 47th Infantry and General Leslie McNair who had come to observe the assault.

[xxi] Ibid. pp.161-169. Weigley notes the advances in U.S. tactical air support, the employment of massive numbers of U.S. divisions against the depleted German LXXXIV Corps, and the advantage that the “Rhino” device gave to American tanks by giving them the ability to maneuver off the roads for the first time.

[xxii] Ibid. pp.172-173.

[xxiii] Ibid. p.172

[xxiv] Ibid. Isby, David C. “Fighting in Normandy,” p.184, an officer of the 352nd Division referred to the American soldier “was to prove himself a in this terrain an agile and superior fighter.”

Bibliography

Carell, Paul. “Invasion: They’re Coming!” Translated from the German by E. Osers, Bantam, New York 1964.

Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy Vintage Books, New York, 1984

Isby, David C. Ed. “The German Army at D-Day: Fighting the Invasion.” Greenhill Books, London 2004

Isby, David C., Ed. “Fighting in Normandy: The German Army from D-Day to Villers-Bocage.” Greenhill Books, London, 2001.

Ryan, Cornelius, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959

Tsouras, Peter. “Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944,” Greenhill Books, London 1994.

Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989

Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd. Warlimont, Walter. “Inside Hitler’s Headquarters: 1939-1945.” Translated from theGerman by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novao CA, English Edition Copyright 1964 Wiedenfeld and Nicholson Ltd.

Weigley, Russell F. Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944-1945, Indiana University Press, Bloomington IN, 1981

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D-Day: Omaha Beach

LCVP’s pass USS Augusta

Like the rest of the Allied invasion forces the 1st and 29th Divisions set sail from their embarkation ports with the intent of landing on June 5th.  General Bradley, commanding the First Army until the American Army Group would be activated accompanied the invasion force.  The OMAHA landing was placed under General Gerow and his V Corps while VII Corps landed the 4th Infantry Division landed at Utah supported by airdrops of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions inland.  American command and control was exercised from sea although General Officers went ashore with each of the American divisions.  A severe channel storm disrupted the plan to land on the 5th and Eisenhower delayed the invasion one day catching a break in the weather and electing to go on the 6th.[i] This delay while uncomfortable for the embarked troops caused the Germans to believe that no invasion would take place until the next favorable tide and moon cycle later in the month[ii] a break which caused a number of senior German leaders, including Rommel to be absent from the invasion front when the Allies landed.[iii]

US Soldier struggling in surf at Omaha Beach

The landing beaches at OMAHA stretched about 6500 meters from Colleville-Sur-Mer to Vierville-Sur-Mere in the west.  A further objective to the west of Vierville; Pont du Hoc, was believed to house a 150mm battery sighted where it could enfilade OMAHA and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion.  Companies from this battalion made a heroic landing and scaled the cliffs to capture the strongpoint only to discover that the guns had not been emplaced and held their isolated beachhead until relieved by the 29th Division on the morning of June 8th.[iv]

H-Hour for OMAHA was 0630.  Unfortunately the assault troops were transferred to their LCVPs 16-20 kilometers from the beach resulting in a long and dangerous ride in the small craft for the infantry.  Most of the infantry were completely soaked in sea spay and seasick before going ashore carrying loads far above what they normally would carry into battle.[v] One battalion of DD tanks, the 741st Armored Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry of 1st Infantry Division was launched too far out and nearly all of its tanks were swamped and lost before firing a shot in anger.[vi] Weigley notes that at OMAHA “at least 10 of the LCVPs sank” as did “the craft carrying almost all of the 105mm howitzers that were to be the first artillery ashore after the tanks.”[vii] The losses would cripple the assault on OMAHA and nearly cause its abandonment.

As the soldiers of the American divisions on OMAHA came ashore they faced German defenders of the 352nd, 716th and a regiment of the 709th Infantry Division, the latter under the tactical command of the 352nd.   Without the bulk of their tanks artillery and lacking close air support the Americans struggled across the beaches and were cut down in large numbers before being pinned down behind the sea wall.[viii] As the Americans pinned down on the beach failed to advance the time tables for the reinforcing waves became snarled amid the German beach obstacles which had not been cleared due to 40% casualties among the Combat Engineers and the loss of all but five bulldozers.[ix] Naval officers were frustrated in their attempts to provide support by the lack of identifiable targets on the beaches but strongpoints were “knocked out by either by superbly directed vigorous gunfire from destroyers steaming as close as 800 yards offshore, or by determined action from Rangers or infantry.[x]

Grenadiers of 352nd Infantry Division move to counter-attack

Soldiers ashore discovered the truth that they were not facing the static 716th Division but the 352nd Division as well.[xi] But for the leadership of Brigadier General Norman Cota, assistant division commander of 29th Infantry Division and Colonel Charles Canham of the 116th Infantry who were able to rally their troops and just enough leaders and small units from the 116th which had its linage back to the “Stonewall Brigade” as well as units of the 1st Divisions’ 16th and 18th Regiments  who kept their heads and began to lead survivors through the dunes and up the bluffs to attack German defenders of the roads leading up from the beach from the flank and rear as well as a mid-day break in the weather which allowed some close tactical air support General Bradley may have ordered the evacuation of OMAHA.

Omaha Beach rescue of wounded from surf

At sea events were as confused as Bradley and his staff attempted to make sense of what was going on.  Even later in the evening there was discussion of diverting all further reinforcements from OMAHA to the British beaches.[xii]At 1330 hours “Gerow signaled Bradley: “Troops formerly pinned down on beaches…advancing up heights behind beaches.”[xiii] By the end of the day Bradley’s aid Major Hansen noted Bradley’s comments to Collins: “They are digging in on Omaha beach with their fingernails. I hope they can push in and get some stuff ashore.”  And Montgomery: “Someday I’ll tell Gen[eral] Eisenhower just how close it was for a few hours.”[xiv]

Omaha Beach Wreckage

The landings at OMAHA did succeed at a cost of over 2000 casualties, critical to their success were the German inability to reinforce their defending troops on the beach and the weakness of the units available to mount the standard counterattack that was critical to German defensive plans on D-Day itself. The 352nd Division fought superbly under the full weight of V Corps and the British XXX Corps on its right suffering heavy casualties as they contested every inch of ground.  The 716th Division units melted under the onslaught.  Allied air supremacy played a key role as sorties by the 8th and 9th Air Forces helped keep German reinforcements from arriving and interdicted counter attacks inland.  Weigley credits the Allied air superiority with the success of the landings and with limiting the cost of allied lives.[xv] Von Rundstedt and other German commanders in France were limited by the delay and refusal of Hitler and OKW to release Panzer reserves when needed most early on June 6th.  By the close of D-Day allied forces had secured the five invasion beaches but not achieved their objectives of taking Caen and Bayuex and forces had not linked up leaving the beaches extremely vulnerable had the Germans been able to mount a rapid counterattack by Panzers and strong infantry formations.

The author lecturing at Pont du Hoc Omaha Beach 2004


[i] Ibid. p.74-75

[ii] Von Luck, Hans.  “Panzer Commander“ Dell Publishing, New York, 1989 pp. 169-170.  Von Luck a regiment commander in 21st Panzer noted that General Marcks of 84th Corps had predicted a 5 June invasion at a conference May 30th.

[iii] Almost every D-Day historian talks about the weather factor and its effect on the German high command’s reaction to the invasion.  Rommel was visiting his wife for her birthday and planned to make a call on Hitler. Others including commanders of key divisions such as the 91st Airlanding Division were off to a war game in Rennes and the 21st Panzer Division to Paris.

[iv] Ibid. Weigley p. 96

[v] See Cornelius Ryan, “The Longest Day” Popular Library Edition, New York 1959. pp. 189-193 for a vivid description of the challenges faced by soldiers going from ship to landing craft and their ride in to the beaches.

[vi] Ibid. Weigley. p.78 Weigley talks about the order for the tanks to be carried ashore on their LCTs that did not get transmitted to the 741st.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid. Weigley  p. 87 The weather prevented the aerial bombardment from being effective. Because the bombers could not see their targets they dropped their bomb loads further inland, depriving the infantry of support that they were expecting.  Naval gunfire support had some effect but had to be lifted as the troops hit the beach leaving much of that support to come from Destroyers and specially equipped landing craft which mounted rockets and guns.

[ix] Ibid. Hastings. pp. 90-91.

[x] Ibid. p.99

[xi] Ibid. Weigley p.80

[xii] Ibid. p.101  Also see Weigley p.80

[xiii] Ibid. p.99

[xiv] Ibid. Weigley. p.95

[xv] Ibid. p.94

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