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Operation Cobra - Breakout

On 30 July, when the 4th Armored Division was in striking distance of Avranches, Montgomery launched Operation Bluecoat. He did not usually mount an offensive in such a hurry. It seems that, once again, the initiative had come from Dempsey, but that did not stop Montgomery from implying that it was his plan. He sent a signal to Eisenhower: ‘I have ordered Dempsey to throw all caution overboard and to take any risks he likes, and to accept any casualties, and to step on the gas for Vire.’

The 13th/18th Hussars were in reserve, carrying out some much needed maintenance work on their tanks, when their brigade commander ‘grinds to a halt in his jeep’ and tells one of their officers that the regiment is due to take part in a battle on Sunday morning. They were to move out at 06.00 hours the next morning. Their tank engines were all in bits and they had to start reassembling them frantically. Some units received only thirty-six hours’ warning.

To move two corps from the Caen front to attack in the far west of the British sector in less than forty-eight hours was a nightmare with the narrow roads. Many units received their operational orders only as they were approaching their start-lines. One of the 13th/18th’s squadron leaders heard a rumour from headquarters and recorded it in his diary: ‘Monty is determined to make us catch up on the Yanks who are doing magnificently. The only difference between us is (a) that their army is twice as big and (b) that we have double the opposition against us.’ Although the proportions were a little exaggerated, British and Canadian troops felt with some justification that they had been fighting the war of attrition against the panzer divisions and now the Americans were getting all the glory in the newspapers.

Bluecoat took place south of Caumont, where the British had taken over a part of the front from the Americans. One of the reasons for choosing this sector was that there were no SS panzer divisions there. O’Connor’s VIII Corps was to be led by the 15th (Scottish) Division and the Guards 6th Tank Brigade. The 11th Armoured and the Guards Armoured Divisions were behind them, ready to break through. On their left, Bucknall’s XXX Corps with the 7th Armoured Division was ordered to take Aunay-sur-Odon and then the Mont Pinçon massif. The idea was to seize the high ground there so as to control the roads to the south of the ridge, which the Germans would need for their retreat.

Sunday, 30 July was such a sweltering day that the infantry were allowed to attack in shirt-sleeve order, but at least the skies were clear for air support. Bluecoat was preceded by another bombing attack and a heavy artillery bombardment. The 15th Scottish got off to a good start, attacking on a narrow front. When their advance was slowed by the German 326th Infanterie-Division, the supporting tanks of the 4th Coldstream and the 3rd Scots Guards pushed on through. Their commanders told the infantry to follow their tracks. This was against British Army doctrine, but the commanders of the 6th Guards Brigade and the 15th Scottish had agreed before the battle to do this if necessary.

The steeply wooded slopes of the ridge would have defeated most tanks, but the Churchill, despite all its faults as a fighting machine, managed extraordinarily well. The Germans, not expecting British armour to get through, had no heavy anti-tank guns in their front line. They had kept their battalion of assault guns well back. As a result the Coldstream tanks reached their objective of Hill 309 by 16.00 hours. They had penetrated five miles behind the German lines. On their right the Scots Guards tanks had charged towards Hill 226 through hedgerows and orchards: ‘The crews were shaken and bruised, commanders struck by low branches and pelted with small, hard cider apples which accumulated on the floors of tank turrets.’ That evening, the Scottish battalions caught up with the two Guards tank battalions and prepared their hilltops for defence.

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The Germans were unusually slow to react. When Eberbach finally recognized the threat, he ordered the 21st Panzer-Division to cross the Orne and join the battle. In the meantime, the 326th Infanterie-Division mounted desperate counter-attacks on the two hills and their commander, Generalmajor von Drabich-Wächter, was killed. They pushed the Coldstream and the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders off the hill at one point, but the British retook it in a counter-attack soon afterwards.

The failure of XXX Corps to advance on the left when blocked by a stream with steep banks left VIII Corps with a very exposed flank. This was what Eberbach wanted to attack, but by the time Oberst Oppeln-Bronikowski had assembled the 21st Panzer, their counterattack was too late. It went in at 06.00 hours on 1 August, with three panzergrenadier battalions, each down to 200 men, the last 14 Mark IV tanks of the 1st Battalion of its panzer regiment and the last eight Tigers of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion. The British counter-attacked, reaching the 21st Panzer’s divisional command post. The headquarters staff had to flee, abandoning all their vehicles. The 21st Panzer withdrew, having lost almost a third of its strength. A furious row ensued at their corps headquarters over the failure.

British armour-infantry cooperation had improved greatly since Goodwood, but their Churchill and Cromwell tanks still stood little chance against the Tigers of the 503rd and the 502nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, as well as huge Ferdinand Jagdpanzer assault guns. One of the 3rd Scots Guards squadrons, having reached their objective after a wild ride across country, encountered three Ferdinands, which within moments knocked out twelve of their sixteen tanks. One of the Ferdinands passed close by a British artillery officer. He had a clear view of its commander, ‘wearing only a vest presumably because of the heat, and laughing’. The II SS Panzer Corps was also diverted to block the British advance.

While the 15th Scottish and the 6th Guards Tank Brigade fought their battles, the Guards Armoured Division attacked Saint-Martindes-Besaces, a large village from which roads extended in all directions. But the Germans defended it furiously, supported by assault guns.

On the right, the 11th Armoured Division had a stroke of luck, which it wasted no time in exploiting. On 31 July, an armoured car troop of the 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment managed to slip through German lines in the Forêt de l’Evêque. Six miles further on, they found that the bridge over the River Souleuvre was intact. They rapidly disposed of the only sentry. The bridge lay on the boundary between the German 326th Infanterie-Division and the 3rd Paratroop Division, which is probably why neither had taken proper responsibility for it. When they radioed through their discovery, the Household Cavalry commanding officer could hardly believe it and asked them to reconfirm their position. He immediately informed Major General ‘Pip’ Roberts of the 11th Armoured Division. Although the route lay to the west of their line of advance and in the American V Corps sector, Roberts sent the 29th Armoured Brigade at full speed, with infantry mounted on the tanks, to secure the crossing. It was already known as ‘Dickie’s Bridge’, after the troop leader, Lieutenant D. B. Powle, who had taken it. Roberts subsequently sought O’Connor’s approval to change his axis. This dramatic advance, which took 11th Armoured all the way to the high ground round Le Bény-Bocage, forced General Meindl to withdraw his 3rd Paratroop Division.

Just over thirty miles to the south-west, the first tanks from Wood’s 4th Armored Division entered Avranches, the gateway to Brittany and central France, shortly before dusk on 30 July. The town was in chaos. On the west coast, the remaining German forces knew they were in a race to escape encirclement. The naval coastal battery near Granville had destroyed its guns and set off south behind the American spearhead. Oberst von Aulock and his Kampfgruppe were also trying to escape south through Avranches. Kluge was still hoping to hold on to this key position, but as the Americans advanced with four armoured divisions abreast - the 6th, 4th, 5th and 2nd - he had no reserves left to hold them.

Although American tanks were already in Avranches, groups of German stragglers were still trying to get through the town. A small pioneer detachment from the 256th Infanterie-Division sat for a long moment on the cliffs in their Soviet truck, captured on the eastern front, gazing at the ‘unforgettable sight’. ‘Below us the tidal shallows with Mont Saint-Michel in moonlight and in front of us Avranches in flames,’ wrote Gefreiter Spiekerkötter. ‘The Americans were already there and wanted to prevent us from breaking out. How we got through and over the bridge, I still do not know. I remember only that two [German] officers with drawn pistols tried to seize our truck from us.’

At 01.00 hours on 31 July, Feldmarschall von Kluge received a call from Generalleutnant Speidel, the chief of staff of Army Group B. Speidel warned the Commander-in-Chief West that the LXXXIV Corps had fallen back towards Villedieu, but they could not contact them: ‘The situation is extraordinarily serious. The fighting strength of the troops has declined considerably.’ The High Command, he added, should be informed that the left flank had collapsed. The threat to Brittany and the west coast ports was all too clear. Many officers and soldiers would have put it more strongly. They described the sense of disaster as ‘Weltuntergangsstimmung’ - a feeling that their whole world was collapsing. On the left flank of the breakthrough, American divisions were forcing the Germans back over the River Vire.

Thirty-five minutes later, Kluge spoke to General Farmbacher, the commander of XXV Corps in the Brittany peninsula. Farmbacher told him of the scratch units he was trying to get together and requested ‘a most forceful order to the Navy, whose co-operation is insufficient’. Kluge also rang Eberbach to ask whether Panzer Group West was in a position to hand over any more formations to the Seventh Army. He replied that it was impossible. The British double attack on Vire and towards Aunay-sur-Odon had begun. If any more panzer divisions were transferred, the British would at last break through to Falaise and Argentan, thus cutting off the whole of the Seventh Army as well.

At 02.00 Kluge issued an order that ‘under all circumstances the Pontaubault bridge [south of Avranches] must remain in our hands. Avranches must be retaken.’ Kluge was still furious with Hausser because the ‘fatal decision of the Seventh Army to break out to the south-east has led to the collapse of the front’.

Although the 3rd Armored Division was criticized for its slow advance, Task Force X, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leander L. Doane, made an extraordinary dash forward. His column left the high ground south of Gavray at 16.07 hours, heading for Villedieu-les-Poêles. The weather was ‘clear as a bell’, and the twenty P-47 Thunderbolts flying air support for the column took out any German columns flushed out by Doane’s rapid advance. Doane was in direct radio communication with them and could direct the pilots on to any target ahead. The soldiers in the armoured vehicles below were fascinated by the spray of empty cartridge cases as the Thunderbolts roared over them, strafing likely positions.

At 18.00 hours, they reached the edge of Villedieu. Despite having advanced ten miles in under two hours, Colonel Doane received the order, ‘Do not stop on initial objective. Proceed to Sée river before halting for the night. Corps commander directs you to move with greater speed.’ The Sée was just beyond Brécey, another sixteen miles further south. Doane ordered his men to bypass Villedieu and carry on at top speed. He also asked the Thunderbolts overhead to reconnoitre the road ahead.

The support from the P-47s was so close that one pilot radioed to Doane that he was going to bomb a German tank only fifty yards to his left and that he had better take cover. Air-tank cooperation could not have been closer. Another Thunderbolt pilot flying shotgun over Task Force Z ‘facetiously suggested’ to its commander ‘that he had better draw in his antenna’, because he was attacking right over their heads.

As they came to the outskirts of Brécey, Doane, who was in the lead tank, told the Thunderbolts to hold off, since there seemed to be no enemy present. But as his Sherman turned the corner into the main street of the town he saw ‘crowds of German soldiers lounging along the curb’. Unable to fire at that moment because his radio operator was in the gunner’s seat, Doane began taking potshots at the German infantry with his Colt .45 pistol. It was ‘practically a Hollywood entry’, the report stated. The following tanks, however, traversed their turrets left and right, raking the street and houses with machine-gun fire.

The main bridge over the Sée had been destroyed, so the column turned east to try another bridge just outside the town. They spotted a group of German infantry lying around in an orchard and sprayed them with machine-gun fire too. But when they reached the crossing, they found that the bridge there had also been destroyed. Doane radioed back and soon the engineer platoon came forward. Its commander decided that his men could construct a ford nearby, using one of the tank dozers. Crews dismounted to carry stones to give some sort of basis to the soft bed of the river, but only a few vehicles managed to get across before it became impassable.

Meanwhile the rear part of the column was approaching Brécey, but the German infantry had reorganized and was providing strong opposition. Doane pushed on with his leading tanks and reached the northern side of Hill 242 as night fell. In Brécey, the fighting was extremely confused. Captain Carlton Parish Russell of the 36th Armored Infantry left his half-track to stride back down the column to find out what was going on. He saw some Jeeps with their camouflage netting on fire. Then he saw a soldier trying to rip the burning material away. He shouted at him that if he did not get out of that camouflage uniform, he would be taken for a German. The man turned and he saw that he really was part of the Waffen-SS. This German detachment, which had been cut off, was trying to seize the vehicles they had ambushed for their escape. The SS soldier knocked the pistol from his hand and was bringing up his rifle when Russell seized it from him and knocked him out. He used it in the ensuing firefight with the Germans in the middle of the village.

Task Force Z, driving south from Gavray towards Avranches on 31 July, faced much more resistance, encountering roadblocks covered by tanks and anti-tank guns. But they also caught a German column in the open trying to escape across their route. They inflicted heavy damage on reconnaissance vehicles and half-tracks. General Doyle O. Hickey, in a command half-track near the front of the task force, saw one of his self-propelled 105 mm guns blast one of the half-tracks to pieces at a range of less than fifty yards.

When another column of the 3rd Armored Division also reached Avranches, Ernest Hemingway was just behind the spearhead. His accompanying officer, Lieutenant Stevenson, remarked that staying close to Hemingway was ‘more dangerous than being [Brigadier General] Roosevelt’s aide’. Hemingway, who had attached himself to General Barton’s 4th Infantry Division, persuaded Stevenson to accompany him on risky trips in either a Mercedes convertible or a motorcycle with sidecar, both abandoned in the German retreat. He wrote to his next-in-line wife, Mary Welsh, describing ‘a very jolly and gay life full of deads, German loot, much shooting, much fighting, hedges, small hills, dusty roads, green country, wheatfields, dead cows, dead horses, tanks, 88s, Kraftwagens, dead US guys’. He was soon joined by Robert Capa and nearly got him killed as well when they lost their way and ran into a German anti-tank gun. Hemingway, who had to shelter in a ditch under fire, afterwards accused Capa of failing to help in a crisis so that he could ‘take the first picture of the famous writer’s dead body’.

Behind the ill-defined lines of the front, the American breakthrough caused chaos of a different sort. In Granville, locals had begun to pillage the houses abandoned by the Germans. Even the most respectable of citizens were making off with furniture, from dining chairs to a cradle. A lynch mob of 300 to 400 people wanted to string up a collaborator. The police had a difficult time persuading them to calm down and hand over their prisoner for a proper trial. During the next few days, they also had to round up German stragglers attempting to hide, often dressed in civilian clothes which they had stolen. One woman on the Villedieu road had taken pity on a German soldier and hidden him herself. She was arrested and held at the local fire station, while her young children were handed over for safekeeping to Madame Roy, the keeper of the public gardens.

An elderly German Unteroffizier was captured in civilian clothes, hiding in a farm near Avranches. ‘Ah, Monsieur,’ he said to the farmer who had called an American patrol to take him away, ‘it’s a great sadness for me. I am here and my son is a soldier in the American Army.’ The farmer, who had heard that many young German emigrants were serving in the US forces, was inclined to believe him.

The 6th Armored Division was also pushing on ahead through the Avranches gap. In their first actions, the tank crews had been trigger-happy on spotting any group of Germans, however small. But when thirty Germans popped up from behind a hedge with their hands up, they had to take them with them, as they could not spare any men. They made them sit on the hoods of half-tracks and Jeeps. ‘Our boys got their souvenirs that day,’ an officer remarked. Their advance guard consisted of a company of tanks, a company of infantry in half-tracks, a battery of field artillery, a company of tank destroyers, a section of engineers in half-tracks ready to deal with mines, and a reconnaissance section. They moved at a steady fifteen mph and at times they would overtake ‘unsuspecting Jerries bicycling or walking’. The Sherman crews loaded everything that was not essential on the outside of the tank so that they could stow ‘150 rounds of 75s and 12,000 rounds of .30 calibre’, twice the normal load of ammunition.

To compound their problems, the Germans were suffering from increasingly audacious attacks by the Resistance further south. A train with sixty-nine wagons bringing urgently needed artillery ammunition had just been blown up in the Landes, while an armoured train was derailed in a tunnel north of Souillac. The British intercepted a signal calling for a construction train ‘under strong military escort’.

On the evening of 31 July, Patton drove to the VIII Corps command post to see Middleton. Middleton’s 4th Armored Division had secured the line of the River Sélune south of Avranches, as ordered, but he could not get in touch with Bradley to see what he should do next. Patton, apparently controlling his exasperation, told him that ‘throughout history it had always been fatal not to cross a river’. Although he did not take over command officially until noon the next day, he made it very clear that VIII Corps was to cross immediately. Soon afterwards, a message came in to say that the bridge at Pontaubault had been captured. It was damaged but passable. Patton told Middleton to send the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions across as fast as possible.

South of Pontaubault, the road divided. One route led south and west towards Rennes and Brest. The other headed east towards the Seine and Paris. Patton went to bed at one in the morning of 1 August knowing that, eleven hours later, the Third Army would be fully operational under his command with four army corps, Middleton’s VIII Corps, Haislip’s XV Corps, Walker’s XX Corps and Cook’s XII Corps. The XV Corps immediately issued to its three divisions a warning order which clearly revealed the Patton style: ‘As many troops as possible to be motorized and tanks to lead throughout.’ Also at midday on 1 August, Bradley became commander-in-chief of 12th Army Group, with General Hodges taking over the First Army, which would continue the attack towards the line of the Vire and then on to Mortain.

On 1 August, Kluge was at Seventh Army forward headquarters with Hausser and his new chief of staff, Oberst von Gersdorff, when they heard of the American seizure of Avranches. According to his aide, Oberleutnant Tangermann, he said, ‘Gentlemen, this breakthrough means for us and the German people the beginning of a decisive and bitter end. I see no remaining possibility of halting this ongoing attack.’ Some of his colleagues felt that the effects of his serious car crash in Russia the year before had started to show. He was losing the determination he had shown when he took over from Rundstedt.

As soon as the news reached the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, Hitler issued an order to Kluge: ‘The enemy is not under any circumstances to break out into the open. Army Group B will prepare a counter-attack with all panzer units to thrust as far as Avranches, cut off the units that have broken through and destroy them. All available panzer forces are to be released from their present positions without replacement and employed for this purpose under the command of General der Panzertruppen Eberbach. The future of the campaign in France depends upon this counter-attack.’

Kluge warned that the withdrawal of panzer divisions would lead to a collapse of the whole front, including the British sector. He proposed instead that German forces should be withdrawn behind the Seine, abandoning western France entirely. The panzer divisions could protect the retreat of the infantry divisions without motor transport. Hitler rejected this furiously and insisted that if his orders were carried out there would be ‘certain victory in the end’. Kluge sensed that this would be a catastrophic decision, but there was nothing he could do. Hitler, obsessed with his maps but with no idea of the reality on the ground, had begun to plan Operation Lüttich, the great counter-attack from Mortain towards Avranches. But the enemy was breaking out into the open. By noon, the American 4th Armored Division was across the Sélune and ‘round the corner into Brittany’.

The Americans found German resistance much tougher on the left, with heavy fighting round Percy and Villedieu, which the 3rd Armored Division had bypassed. The 4th Infantry Division called up four battalions of artillery to deal with German positions. The 155 mm ‘Long Toms’ fired a total of three ‘serenades’, the most intense bombardment on offer, and finally the German guns fell silent. Late in the afternoon, the 4th Division’s reconnaissance squadron entered Villedieu.

Tessy was also captured that day after heavy and bitter fighting. The Germans in retreat could resort to the brutality of the eastern front. According to Lieutenant Colonel Teague, commanding the 3rd Battalion of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, ‘One of our trucks (an ambulance) was sent up the road north from the aid station near La Tilandière toward Villebaudon. The Jerries, attacking toward the highway, captured the truck, shot six wounded men in it, and made a road block out of the truck.’

Front-line troops adopted a very dismissive attitude towards the large numbers of prisoners they were taking. Middleton’s VIII Corps had taken 7,000 prisoners in just three days, out of the whole First Army’s bag of 20,000 in six days. When a battalion of the 8th Infantry Division captured a couple of hundred Germans, they sent them back with just one guard. Sometimes they returned weapons to Polish and Russian prisoners and told them to escort the Germans, which may well have led to several of the latter failing to reach the stockade alive. Empty supply trucks going back north were also used. ‘We passed columns of prisoners, on foot and in trucks, but all under guard,’ noted an officer with the 29th Infantry Division near Percy. ‘They seemed low-spirited as to the older ones. The only defiant ones were the young.’ Over-optimistic rumours had meanwhile begun to spread in German units that they were to be withdrawn behind the Seine.

On 2 August, fighting continued in the southern part of Villedieu after most of the town was cleared. American tanks drove a group of German infantry armed with Panzerfaust launchers into the railway station. The Shermans fired at the building with their 75 mm main armament until they had demolished the whole structure on top of them.

On the road towards the Forêt de Saint-Sever, where many German units were reorganizing, heavy fighting continued on the hills either side, especially Hill 213. Lieutenant Colonel Johnson was taking his battalion round the side of the ridge to outflank the Germans on the summit. ‘As we came over the crest and saw the road I rubbed my eyes,’ he wrote. ‘I thought we must have got our directions mixed. The whole road was jammed with traffic of the 3rd Armored Division bumper to bumper - tanks, trucks, Jeeps and ambulances. I looked across the road and saw a medical station.’ Nobody seemed to realize that a major battle was going on just 500 yards away. The 12th Infantry, one of their other officers observed, was ‘so tired they could hardly walk up the hill, let alone attack up it’. German artillery fire from the Forêt de Saint-Sever to their east was very heavy and caused many casualties. This, combined with Luftwaffe attacks at night, kept men ‘in a state of jitters’, resulting in an increased rate of combat fatigue.

While some Germans fought ruthlessly in retreat, others respected the rules of war. Captain Ware, the battalion surgeon, reported that two men hit on patrol had not been found. Four medics, led by Corporal Baylor, set out in a Jeep with a large red cross flag to find them. ‘One man stood on the hood and held the flag open so it could not be overlooked. The jeep rounded the bend of the road [and] reached the first casualty. He was dead. As the aid man was examining him the Germans fired a machinegun which hit Cpl Baylor in the chest. The other three crawled back under fire dragging the wounded man and leaving the two bodies and the jeep.’ Captain Ware decided to abandon the attempt. ‘But just as this decision was reached a German wearing a Geneva [Red Cross] brassard and carrying a white flag came round the bend of the road walking toward them. He was promptly covered. All the American weapons present were pointed at him but fortunately no shot was fired. As the German came up we could see that he was sweating profusely. But he did not falter. He handed me the attached note which no one present could read. A German speaking soldier of the anti-tank platoon was sent for. The German told him that he had been sent by his lieutenant to apologize for his soldiers firing on the American medics. The German was still sweating [and] kept removing his helmet to mop his brow. He said he had volunteered for this mission. He also told us that both the American casualties were dead. The German said that the note from his Lieutenant assured us that we might return and remove our casualties as well as the jeep and that the Germans would not fire again. We asked the German if he would like to stay with us now that he was across the lines. He laughed and said he supposed it made no difference which side he stayed with, but he pointed out that if he did stay it would look bad for the Americans since the Germans would think he had been detained by force.’

The American advance was still slowed by traffic jams on the narrow country roads and also by attacks from groups of German stragglers. ‘The small number of Germans are causing us difficulty out of all proportion to their numbers,’ the headquarters of the 4th Infantry Division recorded. ‘However it is probably part of the plan to leave the enemy in position on our left flank in the hope of an encirclement.’

This assessment of Eisenhower’s and Bradley’s thinking was premature, but close to the mark. The original plan was to storm through the Avranches gap and seize ports in Brittany to speed the Allied supply lines for the advance to the Seine. But now a huge opening lay between the German Seventh Army and the Loire. On 3 August, Major General John Wood’s 4th Armored Division swung round the west side of Rennes to the south. He was low on fuel and ammunition, so could not seize the city, but he had now sealed off the whole of the Brittany peninsula. Facing east, he sensed that the Germans had no reserves to block a charge straight towards Paris and the Seine. Eisenhower and Bradley both came to a similar conclusion. It offered an opportunity rare in war. German generals saw the implications with horror. The news that an American armoured division had reached Rennes, wrote Bayerlein, ‘had a shattering effect, like a bomb-burst, upon us’.

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