18

The Final Battle for Saint-Lô

On 6 July, while the Americans were still bogged down in the general advance south towards Saint-Lô, General George S. Patton arrived in France. He was to command the Third US Army as soon as it was activated on Eisenhower’s order.

Stuck in England for a month since the invasion, he had been ‘awfully restless’. ‘It is Hell to be on the side lines and see all the glory eluding me,’ he had written to his wife on D-Day. He started wearing his shoulder holster ‘so as to get myself into the spirit of the part’, then packed for France even though there was no immediate prospect of being called over. For the time being, he had to play his part as commander-in-chief of the fictitious First US Army Group, that vital part of Plan Fortitude. The Germans were still convinced that he would command a second invasion around the Pas-de-Calais.

Patton was grateful to Eisenhower for having twice given him another chance. The first time was after he had slapped a soldier suffering from combat exhaustion in Sicily, the second being his gaffe in a speech in England, saying that the Americans and the British were destined to rule the world. But he never respected Ike ‘as a soldier’. When he accompanied the supreme commander on a tour of divisions in the south-west of England, he described his friendly manner with the troops as that of ‘an office seeker rather than that of a soldier’. ‘His theory is that by this method one gets on a level with the men. A commander cannot command and be on the same level. At least that is my opinion. I try to arouse fighting emotion - he tries for votes - for what? However he was very pleasant [to me].’

Patton also despised Montgomery, whom he called ‘the little monkey’. But he had felt a certain gratitude on 1 June, just before the invasion, when Montgomery insisted twice to Bradley that ‘Patton should take over for the Brittany, and possibly the Rennes operation’. The next morning, he noted in his diary, ‘I have a better impression of Monty than I had.’ Patton, who followed events in Normandy with intense frustration, felt that Bradley’s attempt to advance on a broad front was wrong. Constant minor attacks to win ground, in his view, led to far more casualties in the long run than a concentrated offensive.

German commanders agreed. ‘I cannot follow the reasoning,’ wrote Generalleutnant Schimpf of the 3rd Paratroop Division, ‘that these tactics were supposed to have helped avoid bloodshed, as I was told by captured American officers. For although losses on the day of attack could be kept comparatively low, on the other hand the total losses suffered through the continuous minor attacks launched over a long period, were surely much heavier than would have been the case if a forceful attack had been conducted.’ Elsewhere he wrote of American battalion attacks: ‘For our troops, this type of defence against continual assaults was an excellent training and acclimatisation to the fighting ways of the enemy.’ With impressive foresight, Patton wrote on 2 July that they should be attacking down the west coast towards Avranches with ‘one or two armored divisions abreast’, supported by air power.

At last on 4 July, his Third Army headquarters began to embark. Patton himself flew over two days later in a C-47 to the landing strip above Omaha beach. His plane was escorted by four P-47 Thunderbolts, the fighter-bomber which would later support his astonishing advance across France. As soon as he reached French soil, Patton was on exuberant form. News of his arrival spread instantly among the soldiers and sailors of Omaha beach command. His presence was supposed to be a closely guarded secret, but they crowded around with cameras, taking photographs as if he were a movie star. Patton stood up in the Jeep sent for him and addressed them in his inimitable style: ‘I’m proud to be here to fight beside you. Now let’s cut the guts out of those Krauts and get the hell on to Berlin. And when we get to Berlin, I am going to personally shoot that paper-hanging son of a bitch, just like I would a snake.’ His audience loved it, cheering and whooping wildly. Patton and Eisenhower were indeed unalike.

The next day he had lunch with Bradley, Montgomery and his chief of staff, the charming General Freddie de Guingand. ‘After lunch, Montgomery, Bradley and I went to the war tent,’ Patton wrote in his diary. ‘Here Montgomery went to great lengths explaining why the British had done nothing.’ Despite his earlier support for Patton, Montgomery now did not want the Third Army to become operational until after Avranches had been captured. This, the Americans suspected, was an attempt to keep Bradley under the command of his own 21st Army Group for longer. Bradley studiously refused to answer. As soon as Patton’s Third Army was activated, he would in practice become independent from Montgomery, since he would then command the US 12th Army Group, with Hodges and Patton as his two army commanders.

Bradley and his staff were beginning to thrash out ideas for Operation Cobra, which became the great breakthrough towards Avranches and Brittany. But in the meantime Bradley insisted on continuing the general advance to take Saint-Lô and the road west to Périers. Lying beyond the Cotentin and Bessin marshlands and bocage, the Saint-Lô- Périers road would provide their start-line for Cobra. But there was still a long and bloody fight in front of them to get there.

At the same time as the Panzer Lehr offensive in the early hours of 11 July, the German 5th and 9th Paratroop Regiments east of the River Vire had attacked the 29th Division and its neighbour, the 2nd Division. But while the Panzer Lehr assault against the 30th Division had disrupted its preparation for the general advance on Saint-Lô, the 35th, the 29th and the 2nd Infantry Divisions were still able to start their operation at 06.00 hours.

The overall American plan consisted of an advance on a broad front. While XIX Corps attacked south with the 30th, the 35th and the 29th Divisions, V Corps to the east was to help by sending the 2nd Infantry Division to take Hill 192, the main feature along the long ridge overlooking the road from Saint-Lô to Bayeux. The topography of rolling countryside, with small fields and orchards, bordered by impenetrable hedgerows and sunkentracks, was horribly familiar to all except replacements and the newly operational 35th Division.

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For the graves registration teams it was a grisly business. A lieutenant reported that they had found seventy bodies along a single hedgerow. ‘I saw US troops who had been mined by the Germans,’ he went on.

‘They put boobytraps in the hollow part of a dead man’s back. We had to blow those cases and that mangled the bodies, but we could still identify them.’ Germans sometimes attached a concealed grenade to the dog-tag chain, so anyone who yanked at an identity disc would detonate it.

Bodies became swollen in the heat. One of the 4th Division teams explained that you had ‘to relieve the body of the gas’ by rolling it on to its front, and apply pressure with a knee in the middle of the back. ‘One develops a strong stomach quickly,’ he remarked. Another observed that the ‘sickening stench’ of ‘human death’ was tough on the cooks, who were used to collect bodies and then had to go back to prepare meat. Perhaps the most gruesome job of all was to remove the unidentifiable remains of tank crews from the insides of a burnt-out turret. ‘As gruesome as it may sound, a mess kit cup and spoon were the tools of the trade.’

The weather was equally familiar in that wet summer. It was overcast, with drizzle and intermittent showers, which once again prevented air support and hindered artillery observation. The 29th Division’s advance picked up after a slow start. Spearheaded by a battalion of the 116th Infantry supported by tanks, it found a gap in the line held by the German 9th Paratroop Regiment and reached Saint-André-de-l’Epine. But the 115th Infantry on its right, astride the Isigny road, was slow off the mark and then came up against well-defended positions, which it found hard to outflank. Major General Gerhardt, the divisional commander, warned General Corlett of XIX Corps that evening that ‘the stuff ahead is pretty stout’. But the 116th had reached part of the Martinville ridge, while the Texans of the neighbouring 2nd Division seized Hill 192 after heavy fighting. This was a great relief to the Americans. Hill 192 had given the Germans a clear view into the rear of the V Corps sector and all the way to the right flank of the British front.

The 2nd Division had been planning this operation since 16 June. On 1 July, taking advantage of the German tendency to withdraw the bulk of its front-line strength at night to avoid casualties from an early-morning bombardment, one of its battalions slipped forward during darkness and occupied all the German trenches. This was a calculated risk, because the Germans always had their own front-line positions registered as mortar and artillery targets. But it proved well worthwhile. This sudden advance provided the division with a good line of departure for the operation which they had been forced to postpone on several occasions. Time had not been wasted during the long wait. Battalions were withdrawn from the line in rotation for intensive tank-infantry training with engineer groups attached. They knew that they needed all the expertise and help they could get. They were up against part of the German 3rd Paratroop Division, which had been honeycombing the hedgerows on the hillside with concealed fire positions, tunnels and earth bunkers. German 50 mm mortars were targeted on every approaching hedgerow and 20 mm anti-aircraft guns commanded the road below. Heavy artillery and tanks to the rear on the south side of the Bayeux road were always ready to provide support.

The 2nd Division put the harsh lessons learned so far in the bocage to good use. Their supporting tanks all had telephones mounted on the rear of the vehicle so that infantry platoon commanders could indicate targets to the crew inside without having to climb on to the turret, exposing themselves dangerously. And the whole attacking force was divided into infantry-armour teams, each with its own engineer explosives group ready to blow holes in the hedgerows. The Shermans would bombard each hedgerow intersection with their 75 mm main armament, then spray the hedges in between with machine-gun fire, while the infantry advanced. All this was combined with a more flexible rolling barrage, which could be adapted to unexpected delays in the rate of advance. Each hedgerow when taken was to be treated as a new line of departure.

Perhaps more than any previous bocage operation, the 2nd Division’s advance went according to plan, but it remained a ‘grim job’. Even when it seemed that a hedgerow system had been thoroughly cleared, German paratroops would again emerge from hidden entrances to shoot at their backs. The western shoulder of Hill 192 was the most fiercely defended and was dubbed ‘Kraut Corner’. It was finally outflanked after an hour and fifteen prisoners were taken. ‘Three enemy paratroopers who still held out were eliminated by a tank dozer which buried them under five feet of dirt.’

Nearby, the hamlet of Cloville was cleared by house-to-house fighting amid the ruins from the artillery bombardment which had failed to destroy an assault gun and a tank supporting the German paratroops. A Sherman managed to knock out the two armoured vehicles to secure the objective. The advance continued shortly before 1200 hours. To avoid being slowed down again, the hamlet of Le Soulaire, half a mile further on, was bypassed, and by 1700 hours the leading platoons began to leapfrog across the Bayeux road in tiny groups. Their tank support could not stay with them because of anti-tank guns still concealed in the rough woodland on the reverse side of Hill 192.

While they were under fire, an unknown senior officer appeared, inspecting their positions. A GI called out to him to get down immediately or he would be killed. ‘Mind your Goddam business, soldier!’ the officer roared back. It was General George Patton, conducting a personal reconnaissance to familiarize himself with the terrain.

In the centre, the Shermans kept up with the infantry. They were even able to enter the woods on the side of the crest because the saturation of white phosphorus shells in the opening bombardment had almost burned it to the ground. They met only ‘scattered opposition’ and advanced down the southern slope. Although unable to cross the Bayeux road by nightfall, they were firmly dug in just north of it.

On the left flank of the attack, the 23rd Infantry had a very hard fight, sustaining many casualties near a re-entrant dubbed ‘Purple Heart Draw’ on the north-eastern slope of the feature. This had proved impassable for tanks, and far too exposed for infantry on their own, because German artillery and mortar batteries had registered every target in the area. Germans in houses a few hundred yards to the left, which should have been hit in the American bombardment, also contributed a withering automatic fire until two Shermans from the 741st Tank Battalion advanced to within thirty yards and blasted the foundations, causing the buildings to collapse on to the German machine-gun teams inside.

Closer in towards the summit, the right-hand company of the battalion perfected a technique of firing fragmentation rifle grenades to explode as airbursts over German machine-gun pits. By the end of the day, the battalion had advanced 1,500 yards and had reached the ridge, but it was still 400 yards short of the Bayeux road. One of the most unexpected achievements of the day’s infantry-tank cooperation had been that not a single Sherman was lost. And on 12 July, the advance continued in the centre and east, so that the 2nd Division held all its objectives north of the Bayeux road. With the capture of Hill 192, the Americans now had observation posts with a clear view over Saint-Lô and its surrounding area.

Just to the east on the 1st Division’s sector south of Caumont, an interesting contrast to the bitter fighting for the Bayeux road had just taken place. The Americans arranged a truce on 9 July with the 2nd Panzer-Division to hand over a second group of German nurses captured in Cherbourg. ‘This second transfer and the chivalrous treatment of these nurses,’ wrote their commander, Generalleutnant Freiherr von Lüttwitz, ‘made at that time a deep impression upon the entire division.’ Lüttwitz informed Rommel, who then decided that this would be the place to make contact with the Americans to negotiate a ceasefire in Normandy should Hitler continue to refuse to end the war. Rommel’s discussions with his commanders on taking unilateral action against the regime was running in parallel, but separately from preparations for the assassination of Hitler at Rastenburg.

The unblooded 35th Division on the east bank of the Vire had to begin the 11 July offensive with a complicated manoeuvre, because of the L-shaped line it was holding. Then, almost immediately, the commander of its leading regiment, the 137th Infantry, was wounded by machine-gun fire. The Germans had fortified both a château and a church near Saint-Gilles in that sector, which held out despite a heavy battering from the divisional artillery. Machine-gun emplacements in the cemetery walls and in the church itself pinned down the battalion trying to attack it. When it was finally stormed the next day after another bombardment, ‘only three prisoners, two of them wounded, were taken on this hotly contested ground’.

Yet according to General Bayerlein, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen was ‘in a poor state and had no will to fight’. Only the paratroopers and the Das Reich Kampfgruppe were dependable. This was perhaps helped by the way a Das Reich commander, Obersturmbahnführer Wisliczeny - ‘a giant, brutal man’, according to Bayerlein - stood behind the line with a stick and beat anyone who tried to run back.

West of the Vire, the 30th Division, recovering from the Panzer Lehr attack, advanced with Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division, supported by the divisional and corps artillery firing 14,000 rounds. They reached the northern edge of Pont-Hébert and Hauts-Vents at the cost of another 367 casualties.

Bradley’s general advance on 11 July extended along almost all of the First US Army front. Towards the Atlantic coast of the Cotentin, in the VIII Corps sector, the 79th Division, aided by heavy air attacks, pushed forward west of La Haye-du-Puits and took the high ground near Montgardon. The 8th Division captured Hill 92 and carried on another mile south.

The 90th Division, having finally taken the Mont Castre ridge the day before, began to clear the forest on its reverse slopes. Its men were terrified of advancing against the well-camouflaged 15th Paratroop Regiment in thick underbrush with no more than ten yards’ visibility. Contact between platoons, even between individuals in the same squad, became very hard. Their officers described it as ‘more like jungle fighting’. The advance progressed only because of the courage of a few individuals outflanking machine-gun positions. The high proportion of dead to wounded showed how most engagements were fought at close quarters. The experience proved a considerable strain for a division which had not yet found its feet. By the next day, one battalion in the 358th Infantry had lost so many men that three companies had to be merged into one. Fortunately, the 90th then found that the German paratroops had slipped away in the night.

German Seventh Army headquarters was already extremely concerned at the situation on that western sector, because General von Choltitz lacked any reserves and the Mahlmann defence line had now been outflanked. Oberstgruppenführer Hausser had spoken to Rommel on the evening of 10 July, insisting that he must shorten that part of the front. Army Group B only gave its agreement late in the afternoon of 11 July. Choltitz ordered a general withdrawal back to the line of the River Ay and the town of Lessay.

‘The population has to evacuate now and it’s a complete mass migration,’ wrote the Obergefreiter in the 91st Luftlande-Division. ‘The fat nuns sweat profusely as they push their carts. It is hard to watch this and to go along with this accursed war. To continue to believe in victory is very hard since the USA is gaining more and more of a foothold.’

Allied fighter-bombers continued to attack not only front-line positions, but also any supply trucks coming up behind with food, ammunition and fuel. The almost total absence of the Luftwaffe to contest the enemy’s air supremacy continued to provoke anger among German troops, although they often resorted to black humour. ‘If you can see silver aircraft, they are American,’ went one joke. ‘If you can see khaki planes, they are British, and if you can’t see any planes, then they’re German.’ The other version of this went, ‘If British planes appear, we duck. If American planes come over, everyone ducks. And if the Luftwaffe appears, nobody ducks.’ American forces had a different problem. Their trigger-happy soldiers were always opening fire at aircraft despite orders not to because they were far more likely to be shooting at an Allied plane than an enemy one.

In the VII Corps sector, the 4th and 83rd Divisions pushed down either side of the Carentan-Périers road, but the 9th Division, severely disrupted by the Panzer Lehr attack, was unable to join in that day. One of their battalion command posts received a direct hit. Convinced that the only possible German observation post was in a church tower, their divisional artillery brought it down. Church towers and steeples were always suspect. A few days later, on the slow advance towards Périers, soldiers from the division claimed to have found a German artillery observation officer dressed as a priest in a church tower with a radio. He was shot. But even in the more experienced 9th Division, officers reported that unnecessary casualties were sustained because their soldiers failed to shoot when advancing. ‘The men said they held their fire because they could not see the enemy.’

General Meindl of II Paratroop Corps was rightly convinced that the Americans would use the Martinville ridge east of Saint-Lô for their assault on the town, but he did not have the strength to retake Hill 192.

With the 2nd Division firmly ensconced south of Hill 192, the main American effort was concentrated in the sector of the 29th Division towards the western part of the ridge. Another assault was launched that night, but it achieved little success in the face of German mortar and artillery fire, and was halted in the evening of 12 July. It was to take the 29th Division another five days at the cost of heavy casualties to clear the ridge and establish positions south of the Bayeux road. Thursday, 13 July, did not see much fighting and the medical staff finally had a rest. The surgeons of the 3rd Armored Division were able to enjoy ‘poker and mint juleps in the evening - until midnight’, as one of them noted in his diary. On 14 July, the weather was so bad that the American attack halted and for the first time the Germans found it ‘possible to relieve units during daylight’. But XIX Corps was planning an attack for the next day. General Corlett called it his ‘Sunday punch’.

Corlett’s XIX Corps headquarters was made more colourful by its British liaison officer, Viscount Weymouth (soon to become the 6th Marquess of Bath), ‘a tall Britisher who had gained a reputation for eccentricity because of some of his trips through the German lines and his habit of leading two ducks around on a leash’.

On 14 July, at nightfall, the funeral took place of Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, who sadly for him had died of a heart attack rather than in battle. Generals Bradley, Hodges, Collins, Patton, Barton and Huebner were the pall-bearers, an eloquent tribute in the middle of an offensive to Roosevelt’s extraordinary courage and popularity. Patton, who had a great taste for military ceremonial, was, however, rather disappointed by the occasion. The guard of honour was too far away and formed up in column, not in line. He was particularly irritated by ‘two preachers of uncertain denominations’, who ‘made orations which they concealed under the form of prayers’. In fact, the only fitting touch in his view came towards the end of the service, when ‘our antiaircraft guns opened on some German planes and gave an appropriate requiem to the funeral of a really gallant man’. Yet even such a solemn occasion could not rest untouched by military prima-donnaship. ‘Brad says he will put me in as soon as he can,’ Patton added in his diary. ‘He could do it now with much benefit to himself, if he had any backbone. Of course, Monty does not want me as he fears I will steal the show, which I will.’

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In the far western sector, the German withdrawal carried out secretly by Choltitz had permitted VIII Corps to advance all the way to the River Ay. Next to it, VII Corps found that its artillery was now finally in range of Périers. The heavy mortars of the chemical battalions concentrated on firing white phosphorus, and more and more German dead were found with terrible burns.

Amid the high hedgerows of the bocage, observing the fall of mortar and artillery rounds was extremely difficult. The Americans learned to use high explosive when opening fire, as it threw up much more dirt. But their greatest advantage lay with their Piper Cub spotter planes and the bravery of their artillery observation pilots correcting bombardments. Airbursts proved very effective in an assault, for it forced the Germans to remain deep in their foxholes while infantry supported by tanks rushed a position. The 83rd Division reported how they trapped many Germans this way and then hauled them out. Occasionally a Landser would shoot himself, refusing to surrender. The spotter pilots could also drop red smoke canisters on a target less than 800 yards in front of their own troops, as a marker for fighter-bombers.

French families who refused to leave their farms remained at great risk during these battles. ‘I remember one poignant scene that hurt all of us there,’ recorded an officer with a chemical battalion. ‘A family came through our position carrying a door on which was the body of a young boy. We did not know how he was killed. The pain on the faces of the innocent family affected each of us and made us feel for the people of the area and what they must be suffering.’

Sometimes French farmers and their families, on finding a dead soldier, would lay the body by a roadside crucifix and place flowers on it, even though they were trapped in an increasingly pitiless battle. Near Périers, a small American patrol was captured. According to a battalion surgeon with the 4th Division, a German officer demanded to know the whereabouts of the nearest American signals unit. Receiving no answer, he shot one of the prisoners in the leg. ‘Then, he shot the commander of the patrol through the head when he refused to talk.’

Occasionally it seems that the Red Cross symbol offered no protection from reprisals. ‘I saw medical aid men and medical officers who had been killed outright by the Germans,’ reported a surgeon with the 2nd Armored Division. ‘One medical man was stripped and hung from rafters and bayoneted in the stomach.’ The Germans, on the other hand, complained that Allied fighters frequently attacked their ambulances despite the Red Cross markings.

In field hospitals well behind the lines, the chief danger was stress. Inevitably some surgeons broke down under the physical and psychological pressure. The screams, the stench of gangrene, the blood, the severed limbs, the terrible burns of armoured troops were bound to have a cumulative effect. What is astonishingly impressive is how the vast majority stayed the course. A captain in the 100th Evacuation Hospital calculated that in three and a half months he performed over 6,000 operations: ‘I got so I can tell from the type of wound whether our troops are advancing, falling back or stationary. I can also detect self-inflicted wounds.’ Green troops were more likely to suffer from booby-traps and mines. ‘Self-inflicted wounds generally roll in just as a battle starts. On the advance it’s mortar, machinegun and small arms. After breakthrough or capture of a position we get mine and booby trap cases. When stationary, all claim it’s an 88 that hit them.’ Yet the chief of the X-Ray department of the 2nd Evacuation Hospital expressed amazement at how uncomplaining the wounded usually were: ‘It’s such a paradox, this war,’ he wrote, ‘which produces the worst in man, and also raises him to the summits of self-sacrifice, self-denial and altruism.’

Psychological injury still constituted a large minority of their case-load. US Army medical services had to deal with 30,000 cases of combat exhaustion in Normandy. By late July, there were two 1,000-bed centres in operation. Doctors had initially been shocked by commanders talking of the need to get green troops ‘blooded’ in action, but a gradual introduction was clearly better than a sudden shock.

Nothing, however, seemed to reduce the flow of cases where men under artillery fire would go ‘wide-eyed and jittery’, or ‘start running around in circles and crying’, or ‘curl up into little balls’, or even wander out in a trance in an open field and start picking flowers as the shells exploded. Others cracked under the strain of patrols, suddenly crying, ‘We’re going to get killed! We’re going to get killed!’ Young officers had to try to deal with ‘men suddenly whimpering, cringing, refusing to get up or get out of a foxhole and go forward under fire’. While some soldiers resorted to self-inflicted wounds, a smaller, unknown number committed suicide.

Military doctors also had to cope with the mundane. Flea bites from farmyards and barns could become infected. Many needless accidents were caused by a combination of exhaustion and raw Calvados, which GIs called ‘applejack’ or sometimes ‘white lightning’ because of its strength. The number of cases of diarrhoea rose alarmingly, but constipation was also a problem, especially among armoured crews. The over-salted contents of K-Rations were hated. Even the lemonade powder with Vitamin C was used instead for cleaning and scouring. A running joke developed that German prisoners of war were claiming that forcing them to eat K-Rations was a breach of the Geneva Convention. Men dreamed of ice cream, hot dogs and milkshakes. Their only hope of such comforts came when they were in reserve and the American Red Cross doughnut wagon turned up, run by young women volunteers. Its appearance also added the promise of a chat with a girl from back home. But when resting, soldiers resorted to more masculine pursuits. Paydays would see every form of gambling, with dice or seven-card stud. And if they had no money, they played for cigarettes, like before when waiting for D-Day.

Personal cleanliness in that humid summer was also hard to maintain when there were few opportunities for washing. Some French women clearly could not restrain their curiosity, to the discomfort of American modesty. ‘I find it a bit hard getting used to women here looking at the men taking a bath,’ wrote a medical officer in his diary. ‘There were scores of GIs bare as the day they were born washing and swimming in the water round the mill house - and two women sat around quite nonchalantly, at times standing, overlooking the scene.’

To preserve anything from the rain that July required ingenuity. A sergeant in the 1st Infantry Division recounted that he always kept a dry pair of socks and some toilet paper in the top of his helmet liner. Soldiers also needed to hang on to their kit, because fascinated children were often trying to make off with their own souvenirs. Little French boys pestered them, requesting ‘cigarettes pour Papa’, only to go off and smoke them themselves. They were constantly hanging around the mess tents in rear areas, despite orders to clear them away. But American soldiers always indulged them: ‘French kids used to come around, with their little tin pails and stand at the mess line, and we always made sure we had extra food to give them.’

A gendarme in Caumont, behind the 1st Division’s lines, was persuaded to try a piece of chewing gum. One of his main tasks was to cope with soldiers searching cellars for wine and Calvados. He and his men had the idea of scrawling ‘Mines’ on the walls by the entrance. But while he was ready to forgive soldiers who felt a desperate need for alcohol, he was deeply shocked, on finding his first dead Allied soldier, to see that someone had already stolen his boots. ‘I know we lack everything, but even so!’ he wrote. Looting by the townsfolk made him look at his fellow citizens afresh. ‘It was a great surprise to find it in all classes of society. The war has awakened atavistic instincts and transformed a number of law-abiding individuals into delinquents.’

While the German Seventh Army feared that Périers would be the immediate focus of the next American offensive, Bradley was still determined to take Saint-Lô from the Martinville ridge, just to the north-east of the town.

German commanders were concerned about the Martinville ridge sector because Schimpf’s 3rd Paratroop Division was being ground down. An Ultra intercept provided Bradley with the information that Meindl’s II Paratroop Corps had lost 6,000 men. Rommel had been left in no doubt about the gravity of the situation when he visited General Meindl at II Paratroop Corps headquarters on the evening of 14 July. (On that day of foul weather, Rommel had been able to drive around without fear of Allied fighters.) Meindl warned him that Hitler’s demand to hold the present front line at all costs could well prove disastrous. Less than a week later, Meindl complained to General Kurt Student, the commander-in-chief of the paratroop army, that two requests for reinforcements had not been answered. Those who arrived were often unfit for battle and became casualties immediately, as both the Americans and British had found. Some of these paratroop replacements had been trainee pilots unable to complete their flying courses back in Germany due to the critical shortage of fuel.

Rommel was well aware of the dangers. He had been warned that the boundary between the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West (which corresponded with the British-American boundary) might well ‘burst a seam’. In fact, reserves were desperately needed all along the line, especially when a full-strength formation, such as the 353rd Infanterie-Division, was reduced to under 700 men after eleven days of fighting. And this had been during a period when the weather had grounded the US Air Force for most of the time.

The Americans were also worried about heavy casualties, as well as the slowness of their advance. Along the east bank of the Vire, the 35th Division had attempted to push forward, while the 30th Division on the far side of the river had also tried to break through with little success. The earlier disruption to the 9th Division, slowing it down, had left the 30th with an exposed right flank. The 30th found that it was also facing groups from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich.

The situation only began to improve on 15 July, the day of Corlett’s ‘Sunday punch’. XIX Corps was at last able to profit from air support with P-47 Thunderbolts strafing and bombing German positions. Unfortunately, a pair of Thunderbolts misidentified a detachment of Combat Command B and knocked out an American tank and a half-track. But the 35th Division, using a well-prepared feint that morning, managed to break the German line and force a retreat. Pressure all along the XIX Corps front, with powerful counter-battery fire from its artillery, had forced the Germans to use up almost all their ammunition. The 30th Division’s commander described the day as a ‘slugfest’.40

All eyes in the American command structure were on the 29th Division, responsible for the sector which was the key to Saint-Lô. Its flamboyant commander, General Gerhardt, was determined to make the most of the opportunity. Gerhardt did not attract universal respect. Bradley Holbrook, a war correspondent from the Baltimore Sun, attached to the 29th Division, had observed Gerhardt’s longing for publicity as the battle for Saint-Lô progressed. ‘I remember going up there one morning where he was standing,’ he recounted later. ‘The casualties were mounting and it just seemed useless as hell to me. And I asked him why are we taking so many casualties when we can just go around this place and go on. And he turned and looked at me and said, “Because that’s a name everybody is going to remember.” And I thought, “Oh, shit, what kind of a war are we fighting?”.’

Gerhardt, like Patton, was also a stickler for correct turnout in the field. He could do little about the unkempt state of his men, because opportunities for shaving came only when a battalion was in reserve. But with more justification, he was exasperated that most soldiers fastened the strap of their steel helmet round the back and not under the chin. This came from the misplaced fear that a nearby explosion would pull their head off if the helmet was securely fastened. Gerhardt himself always wore his steel helmet correctly buckled, and was hardly ever seen in other headgear, apparently because he wished to hide his baldness.

His division’s immediate objective was the hamlet of Martinville on top of the key ridge. It consisted of no more than a handful of Norman stone farmhouses, with walled yards either side of the unpaved road which ran from west to east along the ridge. The hedgerows were as thick and as high as elsewhere in the region, and the densely planted apple orchards provided complete cover for vehicles and enclosed gun pits from air observation. The German paratroops had again dug themselves in deeply and cleverly in bunkers covered with logs and earth, which would survive almost anything except a direct hit from a large-calibre shell or bomb. They had been reinforced with combat engineers as well as other companies from their division, plus remnants of the 30th Mobile Brigade with machine guns and mortars, some remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division and well-camouflaged assault guns sited to fire down hedgerows.

The American attack was supported by thirteen battalions of artillery, together with P-47 Thunderbolts dropping 500-pound bombs on 88 mm batteries. But on almost all axes of advance, German fire inflicted heavy casualties. At 19.30 hours, General Gerhardt ordered another last push before dark, with the call, ‘Fix bayonets! Twenty-nine, let’s go!’ The 116th Infantry struck along the ridge from the east with three battalions almost abreast. After several hours of heavy losses, Gerhardt reluctantly halted them with instructions to dig in and hold the ground they had won. But the order took a long time to reach Major Bingham, commanding the 2nd Battalion. By the time it did and he had rushed forward on foot to catch up with his leading company, they had reached their objective of La Capelle on the Bayeux road. Bingham never considered retreat. He immediately ordered his battalion to dig foxholes in all-round defence. Martinville itself on the ridge above had been cleared, but German paratroops, following their practice, had infiltrated back in again so his force was out on a limb.

Gerhardt was astonished to hear that the 2nd Battalion had got through. He did not want to pull them back, yet they were in a very exposed position with the ridge still partly in German hands. He ordered the 115th Infantry on the right to advance at dawn the next day, 16 July, as rapidly as possible down the road from Isigny to Saint-Lô. If they got through, then the Germans on the ridge would probably be forced to withdraw. But the 115th came up against such heavy fire from mortars, machine guns and assault guns that it was forced to go to ground.

Bingham’s beleaguered force down by the Bayeux road managed to repel a counter-attack, but it was running short of ammunition and supplies. Water was not a problem, as there were two wells, but the battalion had thirty-five wounded and only three inexperienced aid men to tend them. An artillery spotter plane dropped plasma to them, but several men died who would have survived if they could have been evacuated. Bingham’s battalion was nevertheless extremely lucky. Bad communications on the German side meant that their position had not been clearly identified by German artillery, which during that day, to the delight of American observers, had been shelling their own troops almost as much as their enemy.

The 1st Battalion up on the ridge, a quarter of a mile to the east of Martinville, suffered ferocious counter-attacks from German paratroops armed with flame-throwers and supported by three tanks. The American infantrymen emerged from their foxholes to make sure that they shot down the heavily laden flame-thrower teams before they came within range to use their devices. A Company of the 1st Battalion, which was on the right, had lost all its officers on the previous day. It was now commanded by Private Harold E. Peterson, because the survivors had elected him commander. A young lieutenant was sent across to take over, but since he was new to combat, he sensibly did what Peterson told him.

The Germans attacked yet again from Martinville. This sortie had a tank in support, which blasted the hedgerow in which Peterson’s men were concealed. The bazooka team was knocked out and others who took over the weapon were targeted. The survivors had to run for it, dragging wounded men behind them ‘like a sled’. But they rallied under the leadership of Peterson and another soldier, a full-blooded Native American ‘known simply as “Chief”’. Peterson then stalked the tank with rifle grenades, which were hardly armour-piercing. He scored six hits on the exterior, and the noise alone must have convinced the crew of the tank that it was better to turn around and scuttle back to Martinville. Peterson’s skeleton company then reoccupied their positions.

That night, Peterson gave the order that one soldier in each two-man foxhole should stay awake while the other slept. Early next morning, he crept off to check on the other foxholes. In some of those where both men had fallen asleep, he found that their throats had been cut. The enemy raiding party of paratroopers, some fifteen strong, was still nearby and Peterson attacked with grenades. He was forced back, but then managed to site two light machine guns and a bazooka to keep the German paratroops pinned down. In fact their fire cut the enemy, in some cases quite literally, to pieces. Every German was killed. During all of this time, battalion headquarters had no idea that Peterson was in command.

During the night of 15 July, General Gerhardt ordered his deputy, Brigadier General Norman Cota, to assemble a task force ‘on three hours’ notice to complete the occupation of Saint-Lô’. This was perhaps a little premature, considering the ferocious battle on the ridge and the division’s shortage of artillery ammunition. Also that night, 269 replacements arrived, and were instantly sent forward to strengthen the 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry on the ridge. This was a brutally abrupt baptism of fire, contrary to the recommendations of the divisional psychiatrist, but Gerhardt did not want to lose the initiative.

The 3rd Battalion, commanded by Major Thomas D. Howie, was also seriously under-strength, but it received only a handful of new officers. Howie’s battalion was to attack westwards before dawn, along the southern slope of the ridge, to join up with Bingham’s men and then advance together into Saint-Lô. To maintain surprise, he ordered his men to rely on the bayonet. Only two men per platoon were authorized to shoot in an emergency.

Howie’s battalion ‘jumped off’ on 16 July when there was only a pre-dawn glimmer of light. It advanced rapidly in column of companies. They were lucky to be shrouded by an early-morning summer mist, but, presumably reacting to sound, German machine-gunners opened fire in their direction. As instructed, Howie’s soldiers did not fire back. Good discipline and rapid footwork took them through to their objective next to Bingham’s battalion by 06.00 hours. Howie reported to their regimental commander by radio. He was told that their task was to push on immediately to the edge of Saint-Lô, little more than half a mile to the west. ‘Will do,’ he answered. His men rapidly shared their rations with the famished 2nd Battalion, though they could not spare any ammunition. But just after Major Howie gave the order to advance on Saint-Lô, a German mortar shell exploded among his headquarters group. Howie was killed instantly. Captain H. Puntenney, the executive officer, took command and tried to push the attack forward. German artillery and mortar batteries, however, had finally identified their position and also began shelling that stretch of the Bayeux-Saint-Lô road.

The 3rd Battalion dug foxholes rapidly to shelter from the bombardment and prepared to receive a counter-attack. One eventually came in at the end of the afternoon, but they fought it off. German tanks could be heard in the distance, so an air strike was requested before dark fell. The 506th Fighter Bomber Squadron was scrambled and zeroed in on the armour concentration. The results were demoralizing for the Germans, but provided a great boost for American morale. Some of Puntenney’s men discovered a German ammunition dump nearby. This was a relief, as the force had only one bazooka round left. Teller mines were taken and planted along the Bayeux road and on the minor north- south route which crossed the highway at La Madeleine. It was an anxious night. Puntenney felt that they were only holding on through bluff. But the next morning, 17 July, they received a miraculous surprise. An Austrian doctor suddenly appeared, wanting to surrender. He was able to save the lives of several of the wounded by using the plasma dropped the day before.

On the ridge above them, the 1st Battalion continued its attack on Martinville, using a small force with an anti-tank gun and a tank destroyer to take up position on the eastern side of the hamlet. The 29th Division’s other two regiments, the 175th further up the Bayeux road and the 115th still trying to push down the road from Isigny, made little progress that day. One battalion of the 115th managed to veer off to attack the Martinville feature on the north side, but that afternoon it was hit heavily by a German mortar concentration, and many wounded men died that evening without medical attention. The shortage of aid men right along the front had become critical, mainly due to heavy casualties and a lack of trained replacements.

The battalion of the 115th, shaken by its casualties, had begun to dig in that night east of Martinville when the regimental commander arrived. To their disbelief, they were ordered to continue the advance without delay. ‘This order caused great consternation in the battalion,’ remarked their regimental commander. But once the grumbling was over, they moved on again at midnight. To their even greater surprise, they found themselves advancing forward along the western slope of the ridge towards Saint-Lô without encountering heavy resistance. The Germans seemed to have melted away in the night.41

The two battalions, Bingham’s and Puntenney’s, isolated at the bottom of the ridge near La Madeleine, could now be supplied by a lifeline over the saddle from the north. But this supply route remained a hazardous enterprise under the deadly fire from guns sited south of the Bayeux road. Private Peterson’s company was reinforced with eighty-five replacements and a new commander, Captain Rabbitt. New arrivals were mixed in with veterans so that they would not panic. This company then manned the lifeline down from the ridge, with small groups in every field armed with machine guns. To their astonishment, they suddenly sighted a column of German soldiers being marched down in the open past them. The machine guns opened up and they mowed them down.

During the night of 17 July, the Germans evacuated the ridge and the withdrawal proved even more widespread. Outflanked on the Bayeux road and the Martinville ridge, they had to pull back on the sector facing the 35th Division, even abandoning a considerable amount of equipment and weapons. General Corlett told Gerhardt on the morning of 18 July to take Saint-Lô, which American troops now called ‘Stilo’. Brigadier General Cota’s task force, with reconnaissance elements, Shermans, tank destroyers and engineers, was ready to move. ‘Looks like we’re all set,’ Gerhardt reported to Corps headquarters. At 14.30 hours, Cota sent the message, ‘Ready to roll.’ His column began to move down the Isigny road into Saint-Lô, where they were joined by a battalion of the 115th Infantry. After the heavy fighting of the last few weeks, German resistance seemed comparatively light. There was harassing fire from German artillery positions south of Saint-Lô and groups from the 30th Mobile Brigade fought a rearguard action in parts of the town.

Cota’s task force entered ‘a shell of a town’, smashed both by the original Allied bombing of 6 June and by artillery fire during the recent battle. Sky could be seen through the upper windows of the roofless buildings. The streets were blocked with wrecked vehicles and rubble, and this brought most traffic to a halt. Different groups were assigned to seize key points and fight house-to-house battles against the stay-behind groups from the 30th Mobile Brigade. By 19.00 hours, Gerhardt was able to claim that the place was secured. The engineers and dozer tanks got to work clearing streets to allow free movement, but the harassing fire did not stop. A forward controller of the divisional artillery was planning to use one of the twin spires of Saint-Lô’s small cathedral as an observation post, but before he and his men could get into position German artillery had brought down both towers. Brigadier General ‘Dutch’ Cota was wounded by shell fragments, having shown as much disregard for his personal safety as he had on Omaha beach. ‘Cota was hit by a shell fragment in his arm,’ wrote a lieutenant with the cavalry reconnaissance troop. ‘I can remember the blood running from his sleeve and dripping off his fingers. Not a bad wound but he just stood there talking. It didn’t bother him in the least.’

Saint-Lô’s capture provoked a measure of over-confidence. When the 25th Cavalry Squadron relieved the 29th’s reconnaissance troop the next day, they charged ahead, despite warnings of German anti-tank guns, and lost several Jeeps and armoured cars.

The general advance from 7 to 20 July had cost the Americans some 40,000 casualties. But in Bradley’s view, it had finally secured the left flank for Cobra and ground down the German forces to such a point that the breakthrough being planned stood a far greater chance of success. General Gerhardt wished to mark the 29th Division’s victory with a symbolic act. He ordered that the body of Major Howie, the battalion commander killed just before the final assault on the town, should be brought into the ruined city. The corpse, wrapped in an American flag, arrived on a Jeep. It was placed on a pile of rubble by the episcopal church of Notre Dame. Howie became known as the ‘Major of Saint-Lô’. His death came to represent the sacrifice of all those whom General Montgomery, in his tribute, called ‘the magnificent American troops who took Saint-Lô’. Yet German commanders, even after the war, still regarded the huge American effort to take the town as unnecessary. Saint-Lô would have been outflanked immediately once the great American attack, Operation Cobra, opened to the west just over a week later.

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