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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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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