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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.”


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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


Filed under History, Military, world war two in europe