21

Operation Cobra - Breakthrough

On 21 July, the Germans intercepted a radio message summoning American commanders for an orders group. This confirmed their suspicions that the US First Army was preparing a large-scale offensive, but they still did not know where. After the heavy fighting for Saint-Lô, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser expected a thrust south-westwards down the Vire valley from Saint-Lô to Torigni. Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge, on the other hand, was convinced that the main attack in Normandy would again come from the British on the Caen front. In the shadow world of signal intercepts, the Allies enjoyed a vast advantage. General Bradley knew from Ultra that the overstretched German forces were close to collapse. The moment for the breakthrough had at last arrived.

Bradley’s forces had finally reached the long, straight road running from Lessay on the west coast via Périers to Saint-Lô, the line from which Operation Cobra was to be launched. The only problems were in the Lessay sector. On 22 July, the Germans had launched a sudden attack and the hapless American 90th Division, which had continued its downward spiral due to officer casualties, received the brunt of it. ‘One unit surrendered to the enemy,’ the report stated, ‘and most of the rest broke and withdrew in disorder.’ Patton wrote in his diary that ‘a battalion of the 90th Division behaved very shamefully today’, and the divisional commander would have to be relieved.

Operation Cobra was delayed for several days because of the heavy rain which began on 20 July, followed by low cloud which lingered. The downpours had been so intense that the K-Ration boxes which soldiers used to line their foxholes disintegrated into a soggy mess. Like the British and Canadians, they too were tormented by mosquitoes. The delays weighed heavily on many. An officer in the 3rd Armored Division was more philosophical. ‘War is about 90% waiting,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘which is not so bad as long as the reading material holds out.’ But Brigadier General Maurice Rose, who proved to be one of the very finest armoured commanders in the US Army, did not waste the days of bad weather. He used them instead for intensive training of his tank infantry teams.

Bradley needed good visibility. He was determined to smash open the front with heavy bombers, but he wanted to avoid the great mistake made during Goodwood, when the advance had not followed rapidly enough to exploit the shock effect. Bradley flew back to England on 19 July to discuss the bombing plan with the air force commanders. He wanted only light bombs, to avoid deep craters which might slow his armoured forces. The target area for saturation bombing was to be a rectangle along the south side of the Périers-Saint-Lô road.

The air chiefs agreed with Bradley’s requests, but they made it clear that they could not attack following the line of the road.53 They would have to come in from the north over the waiting army, rather as they had at Omaha. They also felt that withdrawing the front-line troops by only half a mile, as Bradley suggested to ensure rapid exploitation, would not provide a sufficient safety margin. The army and the air force haggled over this and settled on 1,200 yards. Meteorological reports indicated that the sky would be sufficiently clear by midday on 24 July, and 13.00 hours was chosen as H-Hour.

Air Marshal Leigh-Mallory had flown out to Normandy to observe the operation in person. The skies had not cleared by midday as predicted. Leigh-Mallory then decided that visibility was not good enough. He sent a signal back to England to postpone the attack until the next day, but the bombers were already on their way. An order went out to abort the mission, but most of the troops waiting to attack were not told. Journalists and officers from Allied armies, including the Red Army, had been invited to forward command posts to watch the show. ‘The observers hung around, fidgeted, cracked jokes, and waited,’ an officer with the 4th Infantry Division noted.

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Most aircraft received the order in time and turned back. Some dropped their bombs south of the road as planned, but in the lead aircraft of one formation, a bombardier who had trouble with the release mechanism, accidentally dropped his load a mile north of the Périers- Saint-Lô road. The rest of the formation, taking this to be the signal, promptly released theirs as well. The soldiers of the 30th Division right below were not in foxholes. Standing around or sitting on vehicles, they had been watching the bombers overhead. Then they heard that ‘peculiar rustling in the sky’ which signified that large numbers of bombs had been released. They ran in all directions, trying to find cover. Twenty-five men were killed and 131 were wounded. General Bradley was furious. He had convinced himself that the air chiefs would come round to his demand that the attack should be along the line of the road, not perpendicular to the target. A rapid decision had to be made if Cobra was to be launched the following day. The air force commanders insisted that they had to follow the same approach, otherwise there would be a delay. Bradley felt he had no choice but to agree.

An even larger number of observers gathered at Collins’s VII Corps headquarters to watch ‘the big show’. Journalists jostled impatiently as they waited. The Soviet war correspondent Colonel Kraminov, who had a spiteful word for almost everyone, described Ernest Hemingway, looking over everyone’s head. ‘The flamboyant, red-headed Knickerbocker, ’ he added, ‘was recounting anecdotes as tedious as his numerous and superficial pieces.’ After General Bradley briefed the correspondents, staff officers went further: ‘This is no limited objective drive. This is it. This is the big breakthrough.’ There was no mention of the casualties from their own bombs.

A Soviet military mission from London was also visiting the First US Army at this time. General Hodges arrived at Gerow’s V Corps with a group of Soviet officers in red striped trousers and gold shoulder-boards. The Red Army officers were interested in all that they saw and asked about the enemy soldiers captured. They ‘stiffened perceptibly’, however, when one of Gerow’s staff replied, ‘They weren’t very good; they were Poles and Russians.’ It was probably not so much the slight against their martial qualities which upset them, but this reminder of the fact that around a million former Red Army soldiers served in Wehrmacht uniform under varying degrees of duress.54

Lieutenant General Leslie J. McNair, the commander of ground forces, was another observer. His visit to the front had been kept highly secret, because he was to take over from Patton as the commander-in-chief of the fictitious 1st US Army Group, threatening the Pas-de-Calais. 55 McNair was at the headquarters of the 30th Division, then decided to go forward to the 120th Infantry Regiment to watch the bombing from the front line.

A sinister omen took place just before the attack. The Germans suddenly fired one of their short, sharp artillery salvoes. Two American soldiers in the 30th Division, who ran from different directions to leap into the same foxhole, bayoneted each other. An aid man rushed to help them and bandaged their wounds. Shortly afterwards, General McNair, who had heard of this freak accident, sought out the aid man to question him about the story. But this misfortune was about to be repeated on a far larger scale.

On that morning of 25 July, with H-Hour now set for 11.00 hours, the bombing process was repeated. The first fighter-bombers screamed in at 09.40 hours, right on time. Over the next twenty minutes waves consisting of a squadron at a time hit their targets between the front line and the Saint-Lô-Périers road with great accuracy. The soldiers sitting and standing on their vehicles waved and cheered. Then, even before the sound of the Thunderbolts’ engines had died away, the steady roar of heavy bombers could be heard coming from behind, as more than a thousand B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators approached in formation.

Nobody seemed to have imagined that things could go wrong a second time. General McNair had left his command car behind a tank and went forward on foot to see better. There was a breeze blowing from the south, whose effect had not been taken into account. The first bombs were dropped on target, but the wind blew the smoke and dust north across the Périers-Saint-Lô road, so subsequent waves began to drop their loads short. The forward companies, realizing the danger, threw orange smoke grenades as a warning, but the quantity of drifting smoke and dirt covered them. There was no radio link between the ground and heavy bombers.

Tank crews jumped back into their vehicles and closed the hatches, but the infantry and General McNair were left in the open. In the forward infantry regiments a total of 101 men were killed and 463 wounded. One of the medics who went to help was astonished to find that ‘the faces of the dead were still pink’. This was presumably because they had been killed by blast rather than by shrapnel penetration.

McNair was one of those killed. His body was taken back to a field hospital and all the personnel there sworn to secrecy. Apart from the casualties, the effect on the men about to attack was devastating. A lieutenant recorded how his men were buried in their foxholes: ‘Many of them only got an arm or leg up through the dirt and had to be dug out.’ The 4th Infantry Division reported that ‘all men and officers who were under the bombing testify to the terrific shock effect. A great number of the men were in a daze for a while, just staring blankly and unable to understand when spoken to.’ In the 30th Division, 164 men were evacuated suffering from combat exhaustion as a result.

Companies hit by the bombing expected H-Hour to be postponed after what had happened, but Bradley insisted that the operation should start immediately. This was optimistic in the circumstances. Apart from the shock, the tanks due to accompany the advancing infantry had pulled back during the bombing and lost contact with them.

The Germans, who had received the full force of the bombing, were in a far worse state. Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division and the 275th Infanterie-Division were at the centre of the storm. Panzer Lehr had been hit hard the day before, even by the limited bombing, and the German artillery had used up a large proportion of their reduced supply of ammunition, assuming it was the main attack. Bayerlein had pulled back the bulk of his forces, which placed them right in the target area for 25 July. Some German commanders even believed that they had managed to repel the aborted attack the day before, so the postponement by a day had in fact confused the Germans and not revealed the American plan. Kluge thought that the bombing on 24 July might have been a diversion to conceal a major British offensive. He immediately visited the front of Panzer Group West and discussed the situation with General Eberbach.

His suspicions seemed to have been confirmed, because Montgomery, with perfect timing, launched Operation Spring the following dawn, just four hours before Cobra began in earnest. This was the attempt by II Canadian Corps to seize the Verrières ridge beside the Caen-Falaise road. Although the offensive failed dismally, the result could hardly have been better. Kluge became even more certain that Falaise was the key Allied objective. As a result, he did not agree to the transfer of two panzer divisions from the British to the American sector until over twenty-four hours after the launch of Cobra and they did not reach the front in strength for another two days.56 Goodwood and Spring had thus achieved Montgomery’s principal objective, even though they both failed to make a breakthrough.57

The full bombing on 25 July had a devastating effect on both German soldiers and vehicles. ‘The whole place looked like a moon landscape; everything was burned and blasted,’ wrote Bayerlein. ‘It was impossible to bring up vehicles or recover the ones that were damaged. The survivors were like madmen and could not be used for anything. I don’t believe hell could be as bad as what we experienced.’ Bayerlein, who was prone to exaggeration, initially claimed that Panzer Lehr had lost thirty-five tanks, fifteen assault guns and 2,000 men. He later revised this to twenty-five tanks, ten assault guns and just under 1,000 men. A paratroop regiment in his sector was also annihilated. In any case, the shock effect cannot be doubted. An American doctor noted in his diary that ‘many of [the prisoners taken] were actually babbling, knocked silly’.

An American infantry officer, advancing through the target area, observed, ‘At the end of this great bombing action the earth was as if it had been plowed. Within an area of many square miles, scarcely a human being or an animal was alive and all kinds of trucks, guns and machines of every type were in twisted disorder over the deeply-scarred soil.’ In some cases, Panther tanks had been flipped over on to their backs like turtles. Several days after the breakthrough, Patton flew over the Cobra sector at 300 feet in a spotter plane. Even at that altitude, he found the stench of dead cows overpowering.

Not all resistance had been eliminated, however. The 4th Infantry Division advanced while still waiting for their tanks to come up. After the first 700 yards, they came up against German positions, supported by tanks concealed in a sunken track between hedgerows. Bazooka teams knocked out the tanks, which may have been disabled already, and they shot up a group of Germans that came along the hedgerow just in front of them. ‘The rest huddled in a corner of the hedgerow and yelled “Kamerad!”. One of the squad leaders stepped forward and motioned for them to come over. As he did so he was shot. The other squad leader stepped forward but they got him with a grenade. We could not see what part of the enemy position this fire was coming from and we couldn’t risk anyone else so we shot down the Germans who wanted to surrender.’

The 4th Infantry Division did not manage to advance more than about a mile and a half. ‘The result for the first day hardly constituted a real breakthrough,’ its headquarters acknowledged. The 9th Division on their right and the 30th Division on their left did not achieve much more. A general feeling arose that the results of the bombing had been deeply disappointing. But both commanders and troops were being over-cautious, partly as a result of the weeks of bocage fighting. Their corps commander, General Collins, then made a bold decision. He decidedon 26 July to throw in the armoured divisions ahead of schedule.

That day, the Germans sent their last remaining reserves towards La Chapelle-en-Juger, but they were hit by fighter-bomber attacks. Soon it became clear that the sector between the 4th and 9th Divisions lay virtually open. Choltitz and Hausser did not comprehend the full extent of the danger, mainly because the bombing had destroyed so many landlines.

In the centre, the 4th Infantry Division now advanced well. ‘The effectiveness of the bombardment was still evident,’ the division reported. ‘Even though it was a day later many of the Germans still looked very shaky. A good many prisoners were taken and they looked beaten to a frazzle.’ In one case, three Panther tanks were surrounded by infantry and their crews surrendered. One platoon was amused to discover in a tank abandoned by the Panzer Lehr ‘quite a collection of women’s clothes including silk stockings and step-ins’. The 30th Division on the east flank, having recovered remarkably well from the accidental bombing, faced hard fighting round Hébécrevon just north-west of Saint-Lô. But then German resistance began to collapse rapidly.

On that morning of 26 July, Collins had ordered the 1st Division with a combat command of the 3rd Armored Division to break through on the right. Meanwhile Brigadier General Rose’s combat command of the 2nd Armored Division was to attack on the left, first with the 30th Division, then pushing on alone due south towards Saint-Gilles. Rose’s intensive training beforehand to ‘marry up’ infantry and armour in combined tactics paid off. He had the 22nd Infantry from the 4th Division riding the tanks, eight men to a Sherman and four to a light tank. Their third battalion followed behind in trucks. Roads cratered by bombing and shelling held them up at times, and whenever they encountered resistance, the infantry dismounted. They would creep forward to locate any panzers, a task made easier by the German practice of keeping their engines running. The infantry would then indicate their position to their own tanks, which proceeded to engage them. Rose, well aware that the main problem would be resupply, had ordered extra rations, grenades and bandoliers of rifle ammunition for the infantry to be loaded on to the tanks.

The 2nd Armored Division, proudly known as ‘Hell on Wheels’, had been shaped by General Patton himself. It prided itself as a hard-drinking, hard-fighting formation. These ‘tankers’ were patronizing towards the infantry, whom they called the ‘doughs’, and the Patton spirit of recklessness was also reflected in their taste for gambling. One officer acknowledged that they went in for ‘a lot of looting’. Tank troops in all armies tend to be the worst looters, if only because they are there first with the infantry, but have better opportunities to stow their booty. Another officer observed, however, that few of their men ran out of control in battle. ‘The number of kill-lusty people is fortunately, very small,’ he wrote. ‘They are treacherous, unskillful and dangerous to have around.’ In any case, the professionalism and the gung-ho attitude of the 2nd Armored were exactly what was needed in exploiting the opportunity provided by Operation Cobra.

Slowed by hedgerows and craters, the tanks with infantry mounted averaged only a mile an hour, but it was still an incomparably faster advance than those made during the previous periods of bocage fighting. The 22nd Infantry Regiment dismounted to clear the small town of Saint-Gilles, on the Coutances-Saint-Lô road. As the tanks moved on south out of the town, they passed ‘Private De Castro, lying by the roadside badly wounded. His right foot had been nearly cut off above the ankle, and was just hanging by the tendon. He had a terrible gash on his right shoulder. As we passed, he tried to raise up a little, waved his good left arm, and said “Go get ’em, boys!”.’

Once Rose’s armoured column was out of the bombed area and past Saint-Gilles, the rate of advance increased, even though night had fallen. Rose saw no reason to halt during the hours of darkness. His armour bypassed German positions. Some German vehicles, thinking that the column must be one of their own units retreating, joined it and were promptly captured. On the road south to Canisy, Rose’s Shermans blasted German half-tracks which had nothing heavier than a machine gun for defence.

Canisy was in flames, having been bombed by P-47 Thunderbolts. The armoured column took time to get through the rubble. In the local château, they found a German field hospital, where they captured wounded soldiers, doctors and nurses. Rose did not want to waste time. He pushed his men on towards Le Mesnil-Herman, over seven miles south of Saint-Lô.

On the right flank, the 1st Infantry Division and combat command A ofthe 3rd Armored Division, under Brigadier General Doyle O.Hickey, attacked south. They spotted an assault gun and a Mark IV tank at Montreuil-sur-Lozon. They radioed a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolts, which came in low and destroyed the assault gun. The crew of the tank leaped out and ran away.

Each combat command had an air support party riding in tanks provided on Bradley’s orders for air force liaison officers. An exceptionally effective working relationship had been established with Lieutenant General Elwood R. Quesada, the chief of IX Tactical Air Command. The forty-year-old ‘Pete’ Quesada, unlike most airmen, had a real enthusiasm for the ground-attack role. This was to provide the basis for ‘armored column cover’, in which fighter-bomber squadrons, working in relays, were constantly on hand to provide support, like the cab-rank system of Typhoons operating with the British Second Army. That day, Quesada’s fighter-bombers were out in force. One German commander complained bitterly that they were ‘overhead like hawks watching for any movement on the ground then swooping into the attack’.

Hickey’s combat command and the 1st Division pushed on south to Marigny, nearly four miles beyond the Périers-Saint-Lô road. At 13.00 hours on 26 July, a Piper Cub pilot reported ‘friendly tanks’ in Marigny. But the town did not fall immediately. Roads were blocked with rubble and the walls of burning houses collapsed. The Americans took nearly 200 German prisoners, many of them replacements who had just arrived from training battalions. ‘An old soldier,’ remarked Leutnant Schneider, who was taken with them, ‘is one who has been in this sector since Sunday.’ By nightfall, Marigny was completely secured. American casualties had been verylight.One battalion reported only a dozen wounded for the whole day.

Fortunately for American tank units, the Germans had begun to run out of 88 mm shells, as an Ultra intercept early on 26 July revealed. Another Ultra intercept that day showed that the Germans still believed that the main thrust would come from the Caen front and not in the west down the Atlantic coast. Choltitz, rather closer to the crisis, began to pull back his forces between Périers and the coast. Only a light screen was left behind, but it could do little as the American 6th Armored Division entered Lessay. ‘We were riding along with people waving and throwing flowers at us,’ reported a tank platoon commander, when the Germans opened up with machine guns and machine pistols. The 6th Armored pushed on through down the coast road, leaving the infantry to clean up behind them.

General Patton, waiting impatiently for his Third Army to become operational, received a call from Bradley, asking him to come to dinner wearing ‘good clothes’. Patton was slightly taken aback. ‘I always do,’ commented the stickler for turnout. In fact, Bradley had not wanted to tell him the true reason for the summons over the telephone. They were to bury General McNair in total secrecy.

The decisive American breakthrough had a marked effect on German morale. Soldiers began speaking among themselves in a way they would not have dared before. A senior medical Unteroffizier called Klein described the night of 26 July, when they were told to abandon their dressing station south of Saint-Lô with seventy-eight severely wounded men, and fall back towards Vire. He recorded the conversation of the walking wounded.

A corporal with the German Cross in Gold for having destroyed five tanks on the eastern front said to him, ‘I tell you one thing, Sani, this is no longer a war here in Normandy. The enemy is superior in men and materiel. We are simply being sent to our deaths with insufficient weapons. Our Highest Command [Hitler and the OKW] doesn’t do anything to help us. No airplanes, not enough ammunition for the artillery . . . Well, for me the war is over.’

An infantryman wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel said, ‘This piece of iron which hit me, should have hit the Führer’s head on 20 July, and the war would be over already.’ Another soldier who helped Klein carry the wounded said, ‘I am beyond caring. Two of my brothers were sacrificed in Stalingrad and it was quite useless. And here we have the same.’ Younger casualties asked ‘whether their wound was sufficient’. They wanted to know if they were to be sent home or simply transferred to the main dressing station. The lightly wounded, such as those who had lost a finger or been shot through the leg without breaking a bone, were sent back to the front within five days.

At noon on 27 July, Bradley issued new orders. Cobra was going so well that he wanted a full-out advance to Avranches, the gateway to Brittany. The commander of British airborne forces, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning, had tried to sell Bradley the idea of a paratroop drop on Avranches in the German rear. But Bradley rejected the idea. An air drop would greatly reduce the flexibility he needed in this type of operation, because it would create a moral imperative to relieve the airborne force before anything else.

Bradley decided to give Patton unofficial command over VIII Corps in the west, even though the Third Army would not become operational until 1 August. ‘Felt much happier over the war,’ Patton noted in his diary. ‘May get in yet.’ Following firm Patton precepts, Wood’s 4th Armored Division and Grow’s 6th Armored Division became double spearheads for VIII Corps.

German commanders suddenly comprehended the enormity of the disaster which they faced. Their reactions had been slow largely due to the American tactic of cutting all cables and telephone lines. In many places, German troops had no idea that a breakthrough had occurred. They were often astonished when they found American troops far behind what they thought was the front line. Some officers in a VW Kübelwagen nearly crashed into one column, and on several occasions German motorcyclists drove up to American vehicles to discover what was happening, only to be shot down.

General Meindl signalled that II Paratroop Corps south of Saint-Lô in the Vire valley was now reduced to 3,400 men. ‘Because of heavy losses [they were] no longer able to stand up to serious Allied pressure.’ Kluge was finally forced to accept that the American offensive constituted the chief danger. He agreed to the panic-stricken request for panzer reinforcements from Hausser and ordered the transfer of the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions from the British front.

On the evening of 26 July, Lüttwitz went ahead to visit Meindl’s headquarters, where he found ‘a rather confused situation’. Meindl himself wrote that ‘the din of shell-fire and tank engines was so great that it was impossible to talk over the telephone at all’. His command post was concealed in heaps of rubble, which at least provided good camouflage from American fighter-bombers. Meindl, who was irritated to find that Lüttwitz was not under his direct command, said that it was madness to launch an attack, especially during daylight. Things were so bad that they could barely hold on as it was.

‘What are you thinking?’ Lüttwitz retorted. ‘All I want you to do is to see that my right flank is properly secured during the attack.’ Meindl replied that they would hold the flank, but they could not keep up with the panzers.

Lüttwitz was then summoned to Hausser’s Seventh Army command post, ten miles south of Percy. There he was briefed by his new corps commander, General von Funck. He was to cross the Vire around Tessy, then advance north-westward to block the road from Saint-Lô down to Percy. This was the route down which Brigadier General Rose’s column was advancing. He would be followed by the 116th Panzer-Division as soon as it arrived.

Meindl, who was still feeling put out, decided to talk to General von Funck himself. So, even though his corps was in the middle of a desperate battle, he climbed into his Kübelwagen, which he had nicknamed his ‘Jaboflitzer’, or ‘fighter-bomber dodger’, and followed Lüttwitz to the Seventh Army command post to protest that the 2nd Panzer-Division had not been placed under his orders. The visit did him little good. During the journey back, he had to halt on several occasions and throw himself in the ditch as American fighters attacked.

On his return, he found Oberstleutnant von Kluge, the son of the field marshal, waiting impatiently at his headquarters along with Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, the new chief of the general staff. Kluge sent his son ‘from staff to staff as what he called a “front traveller”,’ wrote Meindl, ‘but what we in our manner of speaking called a spy, to collect his impressions for the old man’. Meindl, in a black mood, told the younger Kluge to inform his father that it was no longer possible to hold on in Normandy and that the attack by the two panzer divisions would achieve nothing. Instead the panzers should be used to build up an anti-tank defence, ‘instead of throwing them away on imaginary goals as if in tank manoeuvres on a map’.

Meindl did not hide his disdain for panzer commanders - ‘these superior people’. They never got out of their ‘gasoline wagons’ to reconnoitre on foot, because ‘it was not pleasant going into the firing zone. It was much safer to bob down and close the lid. Only a few of the tank commanders had the insight to see - or could be convinced in discussion - that the moment of the great tank battles for us was past! They now had to wake up from a beautiful dream!’

Meindl went on, ‘Those up at the top were apparently still waiting for a miracle to happen. In addition our propaganda announced the attempt of 20 July and its consequences. So it was up to us as paratroopers to see that our honour was not besmirched! The world was set on our destruction. Good! We would hold on to our blunderbusses.’

Although 27 July was overcast, which saved the 2nd Panzer-Division from air attack on their approach march to the Vire, they did not begin to cross the river at Tessy until that night, sixty hours after the start of Operation Cobra. By then they were far too late to stop the American advance.

On the west coast, when the 6th Armored Division reached Coutances on 27 July, they found that their reconnaissance unit had already taken the town. They bivouacked there that night, then ‘just rushed on through’, heading for Granville. German infantry were hiding in the hedgerows either side, so 6th Armored’s light tanks advanced down the road at fifteen mph, spraying machine-gun fire right and left. Brigadier General Hickey’s column of the 3rd Armored Division was also heading for Coutances. But General Collins, as well as Colonel Luckett of the 12th Infantry attached to it, criticized the 3rd Armored for advancing too cautiously.

The advance was more difficulton 27 July for the American formations in the centre of the breakthrough. Armoured divisions were delayed by the density of military traffic on the roads, with columns stretching back fifteen miles or so. The obstructions were usually due to knocked-out German vehicles blocking roads. Bradley, who had foreseen these problems, had assembled 15,000 engineers for Cobra. Their main task was ‘opening and maintaining main supply routes’ through the gap. This meant filling craters in roads, clearing wrecked German vehicles and even building bypasses round towns which had been destroyed.

On 28 July, visibility was better, to the relief of American commanders. Lüttwitz’s attack with the 2nd Panzer-Division west of the River Vire was rapidly broken up by air attacks. The 116th Panzer-Division fared little better. In the west, Choltitz’s Corps was in danger of encirclement and Seventh Army headquarters ordered it to pull back towards the centre near Roncey. Obersturmbannführer Tychsen, the new commander of the Das Reich, was killed near his command post by a US reconnaissance unit. And that evening, Standartenführer Baum of the 17thSS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen took command of the remnants of both divisions.

The American advance accelerated down the coast road. With the sea on their right, the 6th Armored Division advanced nearly thirty miles. Whenever they reached a road block, the air liaison officer in his tank or half-track simply called in a squadron of P-47 Thunderbolts and the defensive position would be destroyed, usually within fifteen minutes.

The Germans suffered the downward spiral of sudden retreat and smashed communications. Few commanders knew where their troops were. Divisions were fragmented and there was chaos on the roads. Ammunition and fuel supplies could not get through, so panzers and vehicles had to be abandoned. Resistance was maintained only by small groups of soldiers, with an anti-tank gun or assault gun in support. Panzer Lehr Division reported that it had ‘no forces fit for battle’. Its remnants were sent back towards Percy. On the same day, the headquarters of II Paratroop Corps reported that ‘neither light nor medium field howitzer ammunition was available’.

Heavy fighting continued near Cerisy-la-Salle in the centre, but this was really a desperate attempt by a trapped German force to fight its way out, not a last-ditch stand. American field artillery and anti-aircraft guns were ‘used to fire point-blank at the attackers’. P-47 Thunderbolts also screamed into the attack, but an unexpected sortie of Messerschmitt 109s also appeared, strafing American troops.

Part of the Kampfgruppe Heintz made its way behind hedges and avoiding villages to find a gap in the encirclement. Some of the men suggested that they should surrender, but their officers refused. ‘For five days,’ an Unteroffizier wrote, ‘we had nothing to eat but unripe fruit and the iron rations we took from our dead comrades. Once more the Army was sacrificed in order to save the SS units from being made prisoners . . . we had to leave behind 178 wounded.’ Surrendering was not always a safe option. An American officer with the 9th Division noted that‘when other elements of the enemy, such as Poles, tried to surrender, the SS shot them’. During the night marches to escape, morale began to deteriorate rapidly and tempers exploded. The paratroops blamed the SS for their predicament and the SS in turn blamed them. Some officers collapsed from nervous strain and exhaustion.

On the eastern side of the breakthrough in the Vire valley, the 2nd Armored Division was beyond Villebaudon, level with Tessy. Rose’s combat command was heading for Saint-Sever-Calvados, on the Villedieu-Vire road. Seventh Army headquarters suddenly feared that Choltitz’s corps in the west would be completely isolated. Choltitz received an order from Generalmajor Pemsel, the chief of staff of Seventh Army, to counter-attack towards Percy to cut off the American spearhead. Choltitz knew that this would cause chaos and expose them to fighter-bomber attacks once dawn came. It would also leave the coastal route open all the way down to Avranches. But Hausser insisted that the order be obeyed.

That evening, when Kluge at La Roche-Guyon heard of the Seventh Army’s decision to break out to the south-east, he lost his temper. He telephoned Oberstgruppenführer Hausser and ordered him to revoke the order immediately. Hausser replied that it was probably too late, but he would try. A message sent by an officer on a motorcycle finally reached Choltitz at midnight, but he had no communications with his divisions. They continued their attack towards the south-east, away from the coast.

Kluge, fearing to sack Hausser for this mistake because he belonged to the Waffen-SS, ordered that Pemsel should be replaced. General von Choltitz, who was summoned back to take over as commander of the Parisian region, was to hand over LXXXIV Corps to General Elfeldt. Hitler was also furious to hear that the road to Avranches, and thus to Brittany, lay exposed. OKW issued orders for a counter-attack immediately. Kluge demanded urgent reinforcements. He asked for the 9th Panzer-Division in the south of France and more infantry divisions. OKW accepted this request with unusual speed.

With many of the retreating German troops concentrated round Roncey, combat command B of the 2nd Armored Division started to establish blocking points along a line to the south. But during that night of 28 July, the US Army became a victim of its own profligate mechanization. Routes further north were so blocked in the breakthrough corridor that advance elements of the 4th Infantry Division’s headquarters were ‘on the road all night’. Bottlenecks were caused in each case by ‘a knocked out enemy vehicle standing partially across the road at a bad muddy spot’. Engineers could not find a way past to clear the obstacles. In one case, a staff officer commandeered a bulldozer and shifted a burnt-out vehicle himself. Some French, working furiously to help fill in craters, refused to accept any pay, insisting ‘that they did it to help us shoot more Boches’.

Major General Huebner of 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, was determined not to allow anything to slow his advance. He insisted that ‘only one-way traffic would prevail’ along the narrow Norman roads. Not even ambulances would be allowed to return: ‘Casualties would have to be cared for as best they could along the route of advance.’ The armoured infantry of the 3rd Armored Division climbed on to the tanks so that their half-tracks could be filled with cans of gasoline, ammunition and other supplies. The 6th Armored Division on the coast had also decided that this was no time for supply dumps or distributing rations in bivouac areas. ‘Hell, within a couple of days,’ one officer remarked, ‘we were passing out rations like Santa Claus on his sleigh, with both giver and receiver on the move.’ The Sherman crews seldom halted to cook or relieve themselves. They kept going on boiled eggs and instant coffee. A medical officer said of their pudding-basin tank helmets, ‘they crapped in them and cooked in them’. Another medical officer with the 2nd Armored Division noted an additional advantage of the rapid advance. There were very few casualties from mines and booby-traps. The Germans had had little time to leave behind any of their nasty surprises.

On 29 July, Rose’s combat command A from the 2nd Armored Division had a hard fight on the road south to Villebaudon. They came up against a Kampfgruppe of Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzer-Division at the crossroads of La Denisière, with nearly twenty tanks and two companies of panzergrenadiers in half-tracks. Lüttwitz’s division and the newly arrived 116th Panzer-Division had been ordered to strike west to cut off the American advance, joining up with the amalgamated SS Division. But Lüttwitz perceived that this was impossible. He decided that it was more important to protect the flank along the River Vire, which was under pressure from the American 30th Infantry Division. American tank destroyers knocked out several panzers and forced the rest to withdraw eastwards to Moyon, where a much tougher battle took place.

A column of tanks from Rose’s combat command, with their attached infantry from the 4th Infantry Division, advanced into the small town of Moyon, while Captain Reid led a patrol from his company round the east side. Reid’s men shot down an anti-tank gun crew, then found themselves being fired at by a German tank. Private Sharkey, a ‘bazooka hound’, stalked it from the far side of a hedgerow and knocked it out with their second-last round. Another tank appeared close to the first one and began firing its machine gun. Captain Reid crept back along the hedgerow, stood up and lobbed a white phosphorus grenade on to the top of the tank and another underneath it. The tank was soon ablaze.

In Moyon itself, however, another German tank knocked out one of the Shermans. The tank battalion commander decided to pull out of the town and shell the place with high-explosive rounds. He told the infantry platoons in front to withdraw too. Just before they pulled back, Private Sharkey fired their last bazooka round at another German tank, the lead vehicle in a column with infantry approaching the town. He scored a direct hit on the turret ring. Captain Reid called out, ‘Let’s get out of here before they zero in on us!’ But Sharkey’s blood was clearly up. He remained standing at the hedgerow, firing with his carbine at the German infantry. A burst of machine-gun fire from one of the other tanks ripped off the side of his face, but Sharkey was able to retreat with the others, ‘the flesh hanging down over his chest’. He walked standing upright, while the others crawled back.

They were cut off by another German column led by tanks. Reid had only two white phosphorus grenades left, but he managed to set the lead tank ablaze. The smoke acted as a screen and the patrol slipped back across the road. Sharkey collapsed from his terrible wound, but recovered after a rest and rejoined the rest of the company a little later, holding his two fingers up in a victory salute. ‘Sharkey made the greatest display of guts I’ve ever seen,’ Reid said later.

The infantry battalion commander, Major Latimer, heard about the tank commander’s decision to pull out of the town too late to stop it. He was horrified for tactical reasons and also because of the effect on morale. It was one thing for tanks to pull back and have another go, but he believed that once infantry had moved in, they should hold what they had occupied. The German panzergrenadiers, who had been taken unawares by the initial assault, rapidly infiltrated back into the town. They brought up more tanks and artillery in addition to the column Reid’s men had seen.

‘A duel developed between the German tanks and ours with the infantry in between,’ stated the report on the action. ‘It was a terrible experience and losses were very high. Our forces were also under a great deal of artillery fire. In addition to the heavy physical casualties, both infantry and armor had a number of men who cracked up under the strain.’ The task force was relieved late in the day by part of the 30th Division. The only satisfaction as they withdrew was to see German bombers come in and attack their own ground forces by mistake.

Further to the west, during that afternoon of 29 July, P-47 Thunderbolts of the 405th Fighter Group spotted a huge jam of German vehicles on the road east of Roncey. For six and a half hours they bombed and strafed in relays. The pilots claimed sixty-six tanks, 204 vehicles and eleven guns destroyed, as well as fifty-six tanks and fifty-five vehicles damaged. This was wildly optimistic, but the carnage was in any case considerable. The US Army also requested support from the RAF Typhoons of 121 Wing. They attacked another column south of Roncey and claimed seventeen tanks destroyed and another twenty-seven damaged. In fact operational research later showed that only four tanks and five half-tracks had been hit. Most vehicles had been abandoned and destroyed by their own crews. Nevertheless, the Typhoon’s lack of precision was more than compensated by the psychological effect it had on German panzer crews.

Mean while combat command B of the 2nd Armored Division finished preparing their roadblocks and ambushes in the area of Grimesnil. The Germans in the Roncey pocket, under heavy pressure from the 3rd Armored Division to the north, were bound to try to escape past them.

Near Saint-Denis-le-Gast, a mile from Grimesnil, the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion set up a block covered by anti-tank guns and the 92nd Field Artillery Battalion. They saw a column of vehicles approaching led by a couple of American armoured cars, but these had been captured and were being used as a ruse de guerre. As they passed, an anti-tank gunner spotted a German half-track immediately behind them and opened fire. The artillery also reacted quickly, firing over open sights, and the German column was destroyed.

Soon afterwards, the command post of the 2nd Armored’s reserve was nearly overrun in a surprise attack, but the defenders, mostly clerks and rear-echelon personnel, held their nerve. With the help of a bright moon and the light from burning vehicles, they picked their targets at short range as the German infantry charged. This was clearly demonstrated later that morning when officers went out to examine the corpses of the attackers. The Germans had been killed ‘by single rifle shots rather than machinegun bursts’.

Another report cited the bravery of Sergeant Bishop, whose body was found with seven dead Germans around him, and Staff Sergeant Barnes, who cut the throats of three German attackers with a trench knife. ‘Action during the fight was so mixed up that an aid man looked up to find a German aid man sharing his slit trench. For a few minutes both men frantically pointed at their Red Cross armbands, then frisked each other for possible weapons.’

The same night, a couple of miles to the south-east, two companies of armoured infantry in the process of setting up a roadblock were taken by surprise when the Germans rolled ‘their vehicles down the hill toward the Grimesnil road, with their engines off’. In the desperate fighting in the dark, the armoured infantry suffered heavy casualties not just from enemy fire, but also from their own artillery and tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Crowley arrived at 07.00 hours on 30 July with the reserve company of his battalion, the battle was virtually over. The whole area was littered with burning vehicles. The roadblock itself had been overrun and Crowley could not contact one of the attacked companies by radio. But the Germans were exhausted and cowed by the artillery. His men picked up 300 prisoners in the area. The worst part of that morning was to be under consistent fire from the 4th Armored Division to their west: ‘Even the use of yellow smoke failed to stop them until Colonel Crowley established radio communication with them.’

There were two main German columns trying to escape that night, one of which contained ninety-six vehicles, including ‘tanks, 150 mm and 170 mm guns - towed and self-propelled - half-tracks, staff cars, motorcycles and trucks’. The troops came from three divisions, the 275th Infanterie-Division, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division and the reconnaissance battalion of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich. ‘The mortars set the vehicles on fire, then the artillery of the 62nd and 78th [Armored Field Artillery] started firing at the crossroads, and without registering, continued to fire all the way down the road’.

A badly damaged M-10 tank destroyer had come to a halt by the side of the road from Saint-Denis to Lengronne. The crew inside played possum as the German column passed, then, as soon as the last half-track had gone by, they brought their three-inch gun to bear and began knocking them out, one by one, firing twenty-eight rounds altogether.

The main force at the crossroads had to pull back to higher ground, where infantry could protect the Shermans from German foot soldiers trying to stalk them with Panzerfaust launchers. The first vehicle in the German column, a Mark IV tank towing an 88 mm gun, advanced towards the defensive position and was destroyed by a tank shell. ‘Then the organized slaughter started,’ an officer reported. The mortar platoon began rapid fire down the line of the convoy, ‘a ratio of one white phosphorus to three high explosive’. The vehicles set ablaze by the white phosphorus lit up the scene, aiding the tank gunners and mortar crews, who dropped high-explosive rounds into the open backs of the German half-tracks. While their gunners continued to engage targets, tank commanders were having to fight off German infantry with the .50 machine gun mounted over their hatch.

One officer recorded that ‘as daylight broke, about 300 German infantrymen tried to advance through a swamp to the north of the Grimesnil road . . . the tanks went after them and killed nearly all. Close to 300 bodies were found in and around this swamp.’ Another 600 dead were found along the road which had been shelled - ‘a bloody mass of arms and legs and heads, [and] cremated corpses . . . at least three German women were found in various stages of decapitation’. One of them had been driving a major general’s staff car.‘The major general was identified by his uniform, but when battalion officers returned later they found that souvenir hunters had taken all his clothes.’58

The American graves registration service retrieved 1,150 German dead from the convoy of ninety-six vehicles. ‘The whole area was raw meat splattered on burned and ruined vehicles,’ observed one officer. Another report stated that ‘prisoners were coming in so fast that it became impossible to count them. Many stated that they had not eaten for two or three days.’ Meanwhile the 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion slipped south to seize bridges over the River Sienne.

Brigadier General Hickey’s combat command from the 3rd Armored Division, following the German retreat, found in Roncey that ‘German equipment, abandoned and broken, cluttered the road to such an extent that progress through the main street was impossible, and the task force had to go through the back streets to get out of the town’. A tank dozer had to be brought up to clear the main road. So many German soldiers were surrendering that they had to send them to the rear without a guard. When the 3rd Armored reached the area of Grimesnil and Saint-Denis-le-Gast, a medical officer noted in his diary ‘Carnage gruesome. Includes enemy dead smashed flat by our tanks.’

Generalmajor Rudolph-Christoff Freiherr von Gersdorff, the new chief of staff of the Seventh Army, who had reached their advanced command post three miles north-east of Avranches on the afternoon of 29 July, found a disastrous situation.59 Nobody had issued orders to blow any of the bridges and no landline communications existed. As a result of the German retreat away from the coast, which had so infuriated Kluge, the American 6th and 4th Armored Divisions were now virtually unopposed.

In Granville, on the coast, the Germans began blowing up the port installations at 01.00 hours and it continued for five hours. The local commissariat de police reported that German soldiers were looting and stealing every vehicle they could find to make their escape south. One American tank platoon even passed within 100 yards of the Seventh Army command post without spotting it. At midnight, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser and his staff pulled out to withdraw east to Mortain.

There was consternation at La Roche-Guyon and at the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. General Warlimont at Führer headquarters recorded that Kluge was given ‘urgent orders to prevent any penetration into Avranches. Everybody saw that the whole front in Normandy was breaking up.’ Hitler was also concerned about the fate of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen, which appeared to have been ‘virtually swallowed up’ during the retreat. ‘Nobody ever knew or could figure out what happened to it, despite frantic enquiries. Naturally we were especially interested in this division because the subject of the fighting qualities of an SS division was a “hot iron” - something you could not touch. Hitler was inclined to believe everything which was favourable about his SS troops. He never permitted any reproach against his “black guards”.’

The bulk of the German forces had withdrawn in the direction of Percy. An American reconnaissance troop, trying to find an undefended route to Percy, searched the side roads, but found they were all blocked. On one small country lane, the sergeant in the lead Jeep spotted some German soldiers creeping behind a hedgerow. ‘Pour it to them!’ he yelled to the soldier standing in the back, manning the .50 machine gun. The gunner swept the line, killing most of them with ‘incinerator’ (tracer) bullets. He joked afterwards that the bullets were humane, as they sterilized the wound going in and the one going out the other side. Many soldiers saw it as payback time after all the hard fighting in the bocage.

The Germans had virtually no forces left to defend the coast road. A field replacement battalion on the south side of the River Sienne had rounded up stragglers who had managed to slip through the American screen. The 6th and 4th Armored Divisions, already under Patton’s direction, were well on their way to Avranches. Patton did not accept any excuse for delay. ‘The thing to do is to rush them off their feet before they get set,’ he wrote in his diary on 29 July. He was in an exuberant mood. Breakthrough had been achieved. The breakout, which he felt belonged to him by divine right, was about to begin.

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