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Workhorses: The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers

The Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers were the most modern cruisers in the US inventory when war broke out in on December 7th 1941.  The ships were built under the provisions of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922.  Displacing 9700 tons to remain within treaty limitations they mounted a powerful armament of fifteen 6” guns mounted in 5 turrets, three forward and two aft.  Their design, especially their armament was designed in response to the large Mogami Class light cruisers of the Imperial Japanese Navy which initially mounted the same main battery before being converted to Heavy Cruisers.  The layout of the main battery in both classes of cruisers was identical.

Pre-war shot of Honolulu, typical of Brooklyn Class

Authorized in by Congress in 1933 the ships were designed with a large transom which housed the aircraft hangar with twin catapults and crane. This was a departure from previous US cruisers which housed the aircraft and their volatile fuels midships which would prove a liability in combat against the Japanese in the Solomons campaign.  The new hangar design was carried forth on all new cruisers and battleships built by the US subsequent to the Brooklyn Class.

There were 9 ships in the class, one of which the Wichita was completed as a Heavy Cruiser mounting nine 8” guns in triple turrets and is considered a separate one ship class.  In addition to their main battery they mounted eight 5” 25 caliber dual purpose guns and a light AA battery which was continuously increased throughout the war. Their steam turbines produced 100,000 shaft horsepower to give the ships an official speed of 32.5 knots which was exceeded by some of the ships.

The ships Brooklyn CL-40, Philadelphia CL-41, Savannah CL-42, Nashville CL-43, Phoenix CL-46, Boise CL-47, Honolulu CL-48, St. Louis CL-49 and Helena CL-50 were involved in some of the most intense combat of the war serving in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.  Of the ships one, the Helena was lost in surface combat and several others taking severe damage without sinking.  Half of the surviving ships of the class would serve in foreign navies for many years following the war a testament to their toughness and utility.

The lead ship of the class the Brooklyn served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean where she engaged Vichy warships during the invasion of North Africa and took part in the landings at Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France where she provided naval gunfire support to troops ashore. Following the war she was decommissioned in January 1947 and transferred to the Chilean Navy in 1951 under the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. She was renamed O’Higgins and served until decommissioned in January 1992 and sold for scrap. She sank while being towed to India for scrapping in November 1992.

Philadelphia had a similar career to Brooklyn. Launched in 1936 and commissioned in 1937 she too served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, Anzio and Southern France.  She was decommissioned in February 1947 and transferred to Brazil in 1951. Renamed Barroso she served until 1973 and sold for scrap.

Late war view of St Louis

Savannah was launched in May 1937 and commissioned in March 1938 and like Brooklyn and Philadelphia served exclusively in the Atlantic and Mediterranean supporting amphibious landings, searching for German commerce raiders and blockade runners and supporting various escort missions. At Salerno she was struck and severely damaged by a German FX-1400 radio guided bomb which struck her number 3 gun turret penetrating to the lower handling room where it exploded tearing a large hole in the ship’s bottom and opening a seam in the ship’s side.  Her crew performed heroically to control the damage and get the ship to Malta but she lost 197 sailors in the attack. Following temporary repairs she returned to the United States for repairs and modernization which were complete in September 1944. She served in a number of capacities in the Atlantic and was decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Navy List in March 1959 and sold for scrapping in January 1966.

Nashville was launched in October 1937 and commissioned in June 1938 initially serving in the Atlantic until her transfer to the Pacific Fleet in February 1942.  While in the Atlantic she took part in the Neutrality Patrols and following the commencement of hostilities continued convoy escort duties.  Her first mission in the Pacific was to escort the Carrier Hornet CV-8 on her mission to launch Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s Army Air Force B-25s on the Tokyo raid.  Nashville sank a scout vessel which had discovered the task force.  On return from the mission she was assigned to the defense of the Aleutians until November 1942.  She then was transferred to the South Pacific where she participated in raids and bombardments of Japanese shore installations until while shelling Vila Airfield on Kolombangara on the night of 12 May 1943, she had an explosion of powder charges in one of her forward turrets, killing 18 and injuring 17.  The damage required her to be sent to Bremerton for repair and modernization and she would return to duty in August to join carrier task forces in raids in the Central Pacific before again moving to the South Pacific where she participated in the New Guinea campaign and as well as other missions until May of 1944.  She took part in the invasion of Leyte and the Battle of Leyte Gulf guarding beachheads and transports and fending off Kamikazes while providing naval gunfire support to troops ashore. While conducting similar operations off Negros Island she was struck by a Kamikaze with two bombs aboard. Nashville was struck on one of her port 5” mounts the bombs exploding above her deck. The blazing aviation fuel and explosions killed 139 crew members and wounded 190.  Following repairs at Bremerton she went back to the Southwest Pacific lending her battery to landings at Brunei Bay, Borneo, and protecting carriers in the Makassar Straits.  She was decommissioned in June of 1946 and sold to Chile in January 1951 where she was renamed Captain Prat where she served until she was decommissioned in May 1982 and sold for scrap in April 1983.

Phoenix was launched in March of 1938 and commissioned in October of the same year. She became part of the growing Pacific Fleet and was the first modern light cruiser assigned in the Pacific. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and would serve throughout the war in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific and was engaged in heavy operations around New Guinea and other islands in the area frequently involved in shore bombardment, amphibious assaults and raids and having to engage attacking Japanese aircraft.  In September 1944 she was assigned to the covering force of old battleships assigned to 7th Fleet for the invasion of the Philippines.  As part of this force under Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf she took part in the destruction of the Japanese Southern Force at the Battle of Surigo Strait where her gunners aided in the sinking of the Japanese battleship Fuso. Phoenix continued operations with 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific supporting shore operations and fighting off swarms of Kamikazes without damage to herself. Following the war she was decommissioned in July 1946 and transferred to the Argentinean Navy in April 1951 where she was renamed 17 de Octubre and later General Belgrano. She received a number of modifications while in Argentine service including ASW helicopters and the Sea Cat Air Defense missile system.  Still in active service at the time of the Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 she was sent to sea with two destroyers.  She was discovered by the British attack submarine HMS Conqueror torpedoed and sunk on May 3rd 1982 with the loss of 323 men, ending a 44 year career of service to the United States and Argentinean Navies.

Boise was launched in December 1936 and commissioned in August 1938. Following her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. On December 7th 1941 she was in the Philippines after having completed a convoy escort mission.  She was sent south to join the rest of the Asiatic Squadron and our Australian, British and Dutch Allies to for the ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australia) task force opposing the southern advance of the Japanese aimed at Java and the Dutch East Indies.  She struck an uncharted shoal on January 29th while conducting operations in the Sape Strait forcing her to return to the United States for repairs. This probably prevented Boise from sharing the fate of most of the rest of the squadron including the HMS Exeter, USS Houston, HMAS Perth and Dutch light cruisers DeRuyter and Java, most of which were sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea in February. After repairs she returned to the South Pacific where she took part in a number of actions including the Battle of Cape Esperance where she helped sink the Japanese Heavy Cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki. She was damaged in this action and returned to Philadelphia for repairs.  Following her repairs she was dispatched to support the landings on Sicily before returning to the Pacific where she served from January 1944 to June of 1945 conducting almost non-stop operations around New Guinea, Borneo and the Philippines. She returned to San Pedro for overhaul and was there when the war ended. She decommissioned in July 1946 and sold to Argentina in January 1951 and commissioned as Nuevo de Julio in 1952.  She served until 1978 when she was decommissioned and was sold for scrap in August 1981.

Honolulu had one of the most active careers while engaged in operations against Japanese Naval units with far less time devoted to gunfire support missions.  She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and following that took part in convoy escort missions until she went north to screen Alaska from Japanese attack in May 1942 a task that she engaged in until November.  She then reported to the South Pacific and was part of operations against the Japanese Fleet in the Solomons. She took part in the Battle of Tassafaronga, the Battle of Kula Gulf where she helped sink a destroyer and the Battle of Kolombangara where she was instrumental in sinking the Sendai class light cruiser Jintsu and a destroyer. She then supported amphibious operations in the Central Pacific including Saipan and Guam and the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines.  While operating off Manus Island she was stuck by an aerial torpedo receiving heavy damage which required her withdraw to the United States for major repairs which were still being completed when the war ended. She decommissioned in February 1947, stricken from the Naval Register in November 1959 and sold for scrap.

St. Louis was launched in April 1938 and commissioned in May 1939. After time conducting neutrality patrols at the onset of the war in the Atlantic she was transferred to the Pacific Fleet in November 1940. She was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and was one of the few major fleet units to get underway and out to sea during the attack.  She supported carrier operations and convoy escort missions until she was sent north to that Aleutians where she operated until October when she returned to the States for a brief overhaul before being assigned to operations in the Solomons. Operating on a nearly nonstop basis against the Tokyo Express she took part in the Battle of Kula Gulf and the Battle of Kolombangara where she received partial credit for the sinking of the Japanese light cruiser Jinstu. During the battle she was torpedoed in the bow and after temporary repairs returned to the Mare Island. Following repairs St. Louis returned to the Solomons in November 1943. She was struck by a bomb which killed 20 crew members on January 14th requiring her to return to Purvis Bay for repairs. The repairs complete she returned to the Solomons until June when she took part in the invasion of the Marshalls at Guam and Saipan. She damaged her number three propeller and had to return to the States for repair following the Guam bombardment.  Upon her return she served at Leyte Gulf until she was hit by two Kamikazes in a short span receiving heavy damage and resulted in the loss of 15 sailors killed, 1 missing and 43 wounded.  She again sailed for repairs and returned to action against the Japanese home islands and Okinawa. Following this she supported operations against Japanese installations on the Asian mainland.  Following the war she took part in the Yangtze River patrol force and then returned to the United States in January 1946.  She was decommissioned in June 1946 and transferred to Brazil in January 1951 being commissioned as Tamandare. She was decommissioned in June 1976 and sold for scrapping in 1980. While being towed to Taiwan for scrapping she sank on August 24th 1980.

Helena firing at Kula Gulf just before being torpedoed and sunk

The Final ship in the class, Helena was launched in August 1939 and commissioned in the following month.  She was at Pearl Harbor and mooed at the 1010 Dock where she was hit by a torpedo and damaged. After repairs she reported to the South Pacific and the Guadalcanal campaign.  She escorted carriers. Helena had the most modern surface search radars and at Battle of Cape Esperance in Iron Bottom Sound, Helena had sunk cruiser Furutaka and destroyer Fubiki.  She then took part in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in which a weaker American force turned back a Japanese force with heavy losses on both sides including the Japanese Battleship Hiei and the American cruisers Atlanta, Juneau and 4 destroyers. Helena continued operations in the Solomons and at the Battle of Kula Gulf was sank by Japanese torpedoes fired by destroyers on July 5th 1943.  168 of her sailors were lost in the action. Helena was the first US Navy ship to be awarded the Naval Unit Commendation.

The General Belgrano ex-USS Phoenix sinking after being torpedoed by HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Falkland Islands

The class found its niche in the war primarily in shore bombardment and Naval Gunfire Support as well as in the sharp surface actions in the South Pacific. Only one, Helena was lost.  Six were transferred to South American Navies making and served for many years in those navies. None survive today but the ships were instrumental in the success of many operations.

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Preparing for D-Day

The planning for the Normandy invasion began in earnest after the QUADRANT conference in Quebec in August 1943 and its timetable 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.[i] Prior to this there had been some planning by both the British and Americans for the eventual invasion initially named ROUNDUP including 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.   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.[ii] Despite this the Americans led by General Marshall pushed for an early invasion of northwest Europe while the 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 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, especially “the maze of troubles awaiting behind the French shore.”[iii]

Operation FORTITUDE: Dummy Sherman Tank

Despite this the Normandy landings planned for in NEPTUNE and OVERLORD moved ahead and with the appointment of Eisenhower as the commander of SHAEF and his major subordinates for Land, Air and Sea which caused consternation on both sides of the Atlantic,[iv] [v]and expanding the operation from the initial 3 division assault on a narrow front to a minimum 5 division assault on a broad front across Normandy[vi] supplemented by a strong airborne force.[vii] 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.”[viii] It is ironic in a sense that the British avoidance of the head on attack was based on their known lack of manpower, especially 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 Germans too faced manpower shortages resulting in smaller divisions and the creation of many “static” divisions manned by elderly or invalid Germans, as well as “volksdeutsch” and foreign “volunteers.”

Germans building anti-landing craft obstacles. Many would be armed with artillery shells or land mines


Prior to the final decision to mount an invasion the Allied planners had first contended with the location of the assault in northwestern France.  The Pas de Calais while providing 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, and the fiasco at Dieppe had provided ample proof of making the assault into a heavily fortified port.  Likewise the mouth of the Seine near Le Harve was rejected because of the number and quantity of landing beaches 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.[ix] This left Normandy which offered access to a sufficient number of ports and offered some protection from the weather and which offered options to advance the campaign toward the “Breton ports or Le Harve as might be convenient.”[x] 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 on Inspection Tour

Once Normandy was selected as the location for the strike Planning was at times contentious especially over the amount and type of amphibious lift that could be provided in particular 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 did have an impact in the Mediterranean and resulted in ANVIL being postponed until later in the summer.

Loading LST’s for D-Day

As part of their preparations the Allies launched a massive deception campaign, Operation FORTITUDE utilizing the fictitious First Army Group under LTG George Patton. Patton still smarting from his relief of command of 7th Army following slapping commanded an “Army Group” incorporating the use of dummy camp sites, dummy tanks, aircraft and vehicles, falsified orders of battle and communications to deceive German intelligence.[xi] The success of this effort which was heightened by the fact that all German Abwehr agents in the U.K. had been neutralized or turned, and the Luftwaffe limited air reconnaissance could only confirmed the pre-invasion build ups throughout England without determining the target of the invasion.[xii] The German intelligence chief in the west, Colonel Baron von Roenne “was deceived by FORTITUDE’s fantasy invasion force for the Pas de Calais.”[xiii] Despite this 7th Army commander 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 January 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.[xiv]Allied intelligence was aided by ULTRA intercepts of coded German wireless transmissions though less so than they were during the African and Italian campaigns as more German communications were sent via secure telephone and telegraph lines vice wireless.[xv] Allied deception efforts were for the most part successful in identifying German forces deployed in Normandy, but were uncertain about the 352nd Infantry Division which had been deployed along OMAHA as it had taken units of the 709th Infantry Division under its command when it moved to the coast.[xvi]

Officers of 2nd Battalion 916th Infatry Regiment 352nd Infantry Division before the invasion

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.[xvii] A more effective effort was led by General Brereton and his Ninth Air Force which was composed of medium bombers and fighters.  His aircraft attacked bridges and rapidly achieved success in crippling German efforts to reinforce Normandy.[xviii] Hastings gives more credit to the American bombing campaign in Germany led by General Spaatz and the 8th Air Force in destroying both German production capacity in oil and petroleum as well as the degradation of the German fighter force achieved in the American daylight raids, which so seriously degraded the German fighter force that it could not mount effective resistance to the invasion.[xix] Weigley too notes that Albert Speer the Reich Armaments Minister said that “it was the oil raids of 1944 that decided the war.”[xx]

Getting Tanks ashore was vital and the Dual Drive Sherman Tanks were integral to the American Plan at Omaha Beach

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.”[xxi] American preparations were thorough and ambitious, but the American assault would go through the most heavily defended sector of German defenses in Normandy with wide beaches 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.”[xxii] Dug in along those bluffs would be the better part of the 352nd Division. Compounding the 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.[xxiii] Weigley believes that the American view of “tanks as instruments of mobility rather than of breakthrough power.” And the fact that American victories in the First World War were won by infantry.[xxiv] In this aspect the Americans were less receptive to utilizing all available technology than the British whose use of the Armor 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.[xxv]

“Czech Hedgehogs” on the Pas De Calais

German preparations for an Allied landing in Normandy were less advanced than the Pas de Calais, although Field Marshal Rommel had 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 he did not get everything that he wanted rather than two Panzer Divisions deployed near the Normandy beaches, only one, 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. [xxvi]

Rommel with gunners of the 21st Panzer Division’s Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment. The SP Guns were locally built by the Division using captured French Tanks and German artillery

Tomorrow: D-Day


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

[ii] Ibid pp. 34-35

[iii] Ibid p.35

[iv] 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

[v] 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.

[vi] 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.

[vii] Ibid. p.37

[viii] 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.

[ix] 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.

[x] Ibid. Weigley, pp. 39-40

[xi] Ibid. p.73

[xii] 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.”

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

[xiv] 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

[xv] Ibid. Weigley pp. 53-54

[xvi] Ibid. p. 67

[xvii] 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.

[xviii] Ibid. p.67-68.

[xix] 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.

[xx] Ibid. Weigley p.69

[xxi] Ibid. p.89

[xxii] Ibid. pp. 88-89

[xxiii] Ibid. p.87

[xxiv] 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

[xxv] 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

[xxvi] 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.  21st Panzer had those duties in Normandy.

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