Military history

Chapter 5 » THE AMERICANS BEFORE CHERBOURG

The bocage

Something between a week and a month of intense action suffices to transform most infantrymen from novices – unable to discern the source of firing, uncertain of the scale of danger, unconvinced of the need to dig deep – into veterans or casualties. In the days following 6 June, the American forces in Normandy faced few German opponents of the quality and determination of those who were already moving into battle against the British Second Army. But for the men of Bradley’s divisions, fighting first to unite their beachheads, then to expand these and secure Cherbourg and the Cotentin Peninsula, the first encounters with the enemy in the close confinement of the Norman bocage proved a testing experience. ‘Although there had been some talk in the UK before D-Day about the hedgerows,’ wrote Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, ‘none of us had really anticipated how difficult they would be.’1 The huge earthen walls, thickly woven with tree and brush roots, that bordered every field were impenetrable to tanks; each one was a natural line of fortification. In the Cotentin, the difficulties of the ground were compounded by wide areas of reclaimed marshland likewise impassable to armour, which was thus restricted to the roads. Gerow’s V Corps, which had endured so much to secure Omaha beach, was fortunate during the next phase of their advance inland in meeting few German reinforcements – only the 30th Mobile Brigade began to arrive on 7 June to support the badly mauled 352nd Division. The American 29th Division, which had revealed its lack of experience on D-Day, made slow work of its move westward to link up with the survivors of the Ranger companies still holding out on Pointe du Hoc.

‘Those goddam Bosch just won’t stop fighting,’ Huebner of 1st Division complained to Bradley, when the latter hitched a lift ashore in a DUKW on the morning of the 7th.2 But the 18th and 26th Regiments of 1st Division pushed forward to link up with the British XXX Corps across the river Drome on 8 June, and Isigny was cleared on the night of 7/8 June. The redoubtable Brigadier-General Cota of 29th Division was one of the first men into the ruined town, where the Americans found only the acrid smell of burning and the crackle of flames from buildings ignited by shells and bombs lighting up the darkness.

‘Hell, they didn’t even blow the bridge’, Cota yelled to Col. Gill as he walked across the sturdy stone span [related the divisional after-action narrative]. Everyone was on edge waiting for sniper fire, and it was fortunate for the few prisoners that dribbled out of the ruins that they did not get shot. One of them offered to lead our men to a place where 14 of his comrades were hiding. He said they’d give up but were afraid to come out. A patrol was hastily organised, and under the prisoner’s direction, rounded up his fellow soldiers.3

Cota dispatched a liaison officer, Lieutenant Delcazel, to report to the division that Isigny was clear. Less than a mile along the road to the division CP, his jeep was surrounded by armed men who disarmed the lieutenant and his driver and took them back to their positions. It emerged that these were not Germans, but a hodgepodge of Poles, Serbs and Russians whose officers and NCOs had fled, and who were chiefly concerned to find the means to surrender safely. They were mortally frightened of being intercepted by nearby German troops, who would shoot them at once if their intentions became apparent. After much discussion with the captured Americans, on the morning of 10 June they marched fully armed down the road towards Maisy until they encountered an astonished American half-track driver. Delcazel ran forward shouting, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! They want to surrender.’ 75 men walked forward and laid down their weapons. A squadron of impeccably-attired White Russian cavalrymen in astrakhan hats, who surrendered a few days later, sent forward a deputation to an American reconnaissance troop to demand its strength. They declared that they were eager to give up, but could only do so in the face of a substantial force. The Americans convinced them that they were in sufficient strength for honour to be served. In those first days after the landings, First Army found the quality of their opposition extraordinarily uneven: at one moment a handful of GIs were receiving wholesale enemy surrenders; at the next, an entire division was being held up by the stubborn resistance of a company of Germans with a detachment of anti-tank guns.

Following the capture of Isigny and the link-up of Omaha and Utah, the eastern American flank gave the Allied high command little anxiety in the aftermath of its troubled landings. All attention was focused north-westwards, upon the struggle of General Collins’s VII Corps to secure the Cotentin. Montgomery was eager that V Corps should press on southwards while Collins moved west and north, but Bradley told his commanders: ‘Nobody’s going anywhere until Joe gets Cherbourg. I want to see Pete and Gee dug in solidly on their fronts. The other fellow might still hit them, and we’re not going to risk his busting through to Omaha beach . . .’4

The German forces in the peninsula lacked the mobility and cohesion to mount a large-scale counter-attack against the Utah beachhead. But they could still defend the hedgerows and causeways with bitter tenacity, and launch a succession of local assaults in battalion or regimental strength which, at times, caused the American command much anxiety. 7 June found the airborne divisions still fighting hard to concentrate their scattered companies, and to gain the elusive passages through the floods which alone could promise Collins’s corps a breakout from the beaches. Bradley told Collins to pour all the air power he wished onto Carentan, ‘and take the city apart. Then rush it and you’ll get in.’5 It quickly emerged that by no means all the American units coming ashore could match the paratroopers’ determination or skill on the battlefield. Jittery leading elements of the 90th Division moving forward from Utah encountered an approaching column of German prisoners, and opened fire upon them with every weapon they possessed. When the 325th Glider-borne Infantry were shown by Gavin and his tired soldiers where they were to make their attack, their battalion commander declared that he did not feel well, and had to be relieved. When the unit finally advanced in the face of German fire, on this first encounter with the enemy, they halted and could not be persuaded to move. Gavin was compelled to signal his paratroopers to pass through and seize the objective themselves. The airborne divisions had expected early relief after carrying out their D-Day missions – withdrawal to England to prepare for a new parachute operation. Yet because of a serious shortage of determined and competent American infantry, they were now to be called upon to fight through to the end of the battle for the Cotentin. Their experience and their achievement, lightly armed and having borne the brunt of the first fighting for the peninsula without armoured support, proved that an elite American force could match the troops of any army in Normandy. But those of them who had experienced little action before found the process of learning as painful as any line infantryman.

Private Richardson of the 82nd Airborne – who unlike most of his comrades had not seen action – was last seen asleep in a field in the midst of the Cotentin on the evening of 6 June. By the night of the 7th, he was dug into a hedgerow looking out across a field to a wood, amid the machine-gun platoon of his battalion:

Someplace far off in the distance beyond the woods I began to hear a squeaking noise. It was the sound of a rusty wheel that needed grease, the sound of an old farm wagon I’d often heard around my farming village home. Some French farmer hauling goods? That seemed unlikely with two armies poised with uneasy fingers on the triggers of a thousand guns. Germans? That too seemed unlikely. If the Germans were moving through territory where we might be, wouldn’t they be silent? Wouldn’t they creep practically on tiptoe? I dismissed the idea that this distance noise meant anything dangerous, or tried to. The trouble was the noise, the only noise in the whole night around me, was coming our way. For a time there was a silence, then I heard someone shout ‘HALT!’ and immediately a burst of fire – sub-machine gun, German. What was happening? Why wasn’t the machine-gun platoon doing something? Finally there was firing from one of our machine-guns, the slower dat-dat-dat, tracer bullets though instead of being aimed were going up into the sky in a crazy wavering arc. I finally woke Johnson up and we sat there staring at the tracers flying around the sky. When the shooting stopped we could hear the Germans running around yelling and gradually moving back towards the road near the house. Then the house was on fire, and after a time the vehicle that made the squeaking noise started up again, but this time it headed down the road away from us.6

The Germans resumed their attack on the paratroopers’ position early the following afternoon. Richardson fired only one round from the MI rifle he had picked up before it jammed, and he understood why its original owner had thrown it away. Feeling helpless and nervous, he began to shoot single rounds towards the woods from which the enemy fire seemed to be coming, pausing after each shot to ram home the sticking bolt. As a small boy, he had read a series of splendid children’s adventure stories entitled American Boys Over There, which had planted a vivid image in his mind of big-bellied, heavy-booted ‘nuns’ or ‘bosch’ charging across a field in spiked helmets against American doughboys, who eventually prevailed. Now, at each warning of a new German assault, he saw this picture more clearly. And at last, it became a reality. A solitary tank began to rattle slowly across the field towards the Americans, who could confront it only with fierce machine-gun fire. To their astonishment and delight, suddenly it halted. A plume of smoke rose from its turret. This was no Panther or Tiger, but some French-built makeweight. The paratroopers cheered, ‘like kids at a football game when their team scores’. The tank turned about and lumbered away into the woods. But the defenders’ exhilaration was stillborn. Moments later, very accurate mortar fire began to fall among them. ‘Men I had just lain shoulder to shoulder with began screaming in pain, screaming for help, hysterical helpless screams that made my stomach tighten. Because of the apparent protection of the hedgerow and our greenness, we had not realized the necessity of digging in and few of us had holes which would have saved us from all but a direct hit.’7

Richardson remembered vividly a photograph that he had seen in a magazine, of a Russian soldier who was captioned as the only survivor of his company. Now, the young American felt that he shared the man’s sensation. When his unit, and the other survivors of the airborne divisions, were withdrawn from the battle at the beginning of July, after 33 days in action, his company numbered 19 men. His division had suffered 46 per cent casualties. Lieutenant Sidney Eichen of the 30th Division’s 120th Infantry was one of the men who relieved the 82nd Airborne. The green, unblooded newcomers gazed in shock and awe at the paratroopers they were to succeed:

We asked them: ‘Where are your officers?’, and they answered: ‘All dead.’ We asked: ‘Who’s in charge, then?’, and some sergeant said: ‘I am.’ I looked at the unshaven, red-eyed GIs, the dirty clothes and the droop in their walk, and I wondered: is this how we are going to look after a few days of combat?8

The 29th Division’s difficulties continued throughout the first weeks in Normandy. They called for all the leadership and driving power of Brigadier Cota and a handful of other officers to keep the men moving on their push south from the beaches. In the early hours of 10 June, Cota was at the command post of the 175th Regiment in a field at Lison, when three soldiers walked in from the east and announced they were from the 2nd Battalion, which had been surrounded and wiped out. Despite the Brigadier’s scepticism and efforts to calm them, the sergeant with them insisted that they were the only survivors.

We’d just gotten into our bivouac area when it all started [the sergeant described their collapse in the after-action narrative]. All of a sudden flares went up and burp guns started to fire into the big field where most of the battalion was located. We could hear the Germans yelling. Sometimes they’d yell ‘Surrender! Surrender!’ in English. We tried to fight back but we didn’t have any firing positions. Every time we tried to move the Germans would see the movement in the bushes for flares lit up the whole field, and they’d let loose with machine gun fire. They kept shooting mortars into the field all the time. There were seven or eight of us in the little group near me. We figured a way to get out, but a couple of the boys were hit as they tried to make it.9

In the hours that followed, more stragglers from the battalion, including its chaplain, arrived and confirmed the NCO’s story. Later in the day, Cota talked forcefully to some hundred men of the battalion who had now been reassembled.

The members of this group were visibly shaken from their experiences of the night before. One medical aid man called ‘Skippy’ just kept repeating over and over, ‘That bayonet charge, that goddam bayonet charge.’ Cota told the group that they were under the wrong impression – that the battalion had by no means been wiped out. General Gerhardt had already appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Sheppe, who had been acting as regimental executive, to take over command. He told them that they would have an opportunity to rest, be re-equipped and would be able to go back and fight the Germans. At the moment this proposition was not accepted too warmly.10

The 29th Division’s narrative of an action south of Lison on 11 June, when two companies of the 175th Infantry advanced across the Vire, perfectly reflects the experience of scores of units in those painful, bitter weeks in the bocage when every yard of ground was gained with such painful slowness:

It was with difficulty that Major Miller managed to get his heavy machine-guns up to a base-of-fire position to sweep the hedges of the suspected road. Radio channels within the company were not functioning, and the ‘pass-it-back’ method of requesting the weapons to come forward was slow. The entire command weight of the company at this point rested upon small unit leadership. Could the sergeant make his men do what he wanted? Was the sergeant a leader? Some exemplified all the finer qualities, about one-third fell down in this respect. All were handicapped by a general lack of understanding of the situation that confronted them. The enemy never presented himself as a target in this phase, and the fire of the company had, seemingly, little effect on him. On Gen. Cota’s insistence the other weapon of the infantry – movement – paid off well. Our troops continued to move into the fire by rushes, by creeping, by crawling, by ever moving forward. Result – enemy fire diminished and then stopped.

. . . Cota had advanced only 25 yards when the crisis broke. One or two burp guns, which seemed to be located behind the high hedge that bordered the left side of the road, opened up with their excited chattering. The column on both sides of the road immediately dropped into the ditch – but this ditch was a shallow affair, about 4 or 5 inches deep, and offered no natural concealment of any kind. The suddenness with which the fire started, after the intense quiet of the last 20 minutes, stunned every member of the company. They dropped there and lay still. Several men were hit by the bullets spraying along, ricocheting off the road and nipping the shrubbery. Someone yelled ‘Return the fire! Shoot back at the bastards!’ At intervals men would rise from the ditch and try to escape from the entrapment by either scurrying to the rear, or trying to vault over the hedges. One man attempting to cross the left hedge received a blast of burp gun fire that shoved him crashing back into the road – dead . . . Shea [Cota’s aide] worked his way back through the culvert to the road. Gen. Cota was standing in the shelter of a corner of the hedgerow at the road junction opposite the culvert. He was smiling. ‘What’s this, “Cota’s Last Stand”?’ he quipped. ‘One minute I’m surrounded by a rifle company – those birds started to shoot – and I looked around to find myself all alone.’11

Most or all of the German 243rd, 709th, and 91st Divisions were in the Cotentin, reinforced by the 6th Parachute Regiment, the 206th Panzer Battalion, and the Seventh Army Storm Battalion. Despite the vast weight of Allied air power interdicting communications, the 77th Division was also able to reach the area virtually unscathed, and VII Corps was in consequence obliged to pay dearly to enlarge the Utah perimeter across the swamp-ridden ground northwards. Major Harry Herman, executive officer of the 9th Division’s 2nd/39th Infantry, described the struggle to overcome the huge concrete casemates of Fort St Marcouf, even after it had been subjected to heavy air attack:

Not a shot is fired taking our first objective. We walk upright into the bunker through one of the doors of twisted steel, throw in a hand grenade just for luck, and rush in on the ready to be greeted only by dead jerries strewn around inside 20-foot-thick concrete walls like so many loaves of bread – concussion. It feels rather strange and eerie, all very quiet, the sea beyond the fort looking cool and green. Have the Germans pulled out? Where is the 4th division? Where is our heavy weapons company? We worm our way to the top of the bunker, get careless, stand up, loll around, planning the next jump.

While we are discussing this possibility, the entire party is suddenly lifted up and sat down hard by a blast that wounds Colonel Lockett in the head and arm. It is direct frontal fire, amazing because it gives no whistle and you find yourself out in the open with a tight expression around the eyes when the thing hits. At dusk, we open up: a tremendous sight. The entire strip of beach being combed and raked by sixteen cannon, 3 and 4 inch naval guns, 8 mortars, 16 machine-guns for fifteen minutes. Then we jump off, being greeted with very heavy enfilade fire on our 15-foot wide front. The 155 mm barrage had only bounced off the fort. I send G Company on a flanking mission to the left in an effort to either divert or knock out the resistance there which is preventing any forward movement. G reports that they are up to their chests in water and can go no further. We, the remainder of E Company, start forward again after laying in that damn water for a day and a half. We inch up the road along with a tank destroyer while the first battalion is engaged in heavy rifle fire. It seemed that we would finally get to the church which was our first phase line, but sweeping machine-fire tears the road. Men will not move and finally we have to withdraw. We have taken a beating.

Several hours later, we start out again, this time with no barrage. We meet the first battalion which, in spite of mines and heavy fire, is coming up the beach. Walking ‘at the ready’ behind our TDs, they absorb most of the hail of fire that greets us. We get to the first bunker, Sergeant Hickey with a crowbar forces open the vent and we plant a 5 lb TNT block inside, which opens a hole about the size of a man’s body. Through this the TD fires 5 rounds of HE. That was that. Like killing flies with a sledgehammer. We have lost only 14 men, but the first battalion is in trouble. They lost Colonel Tinley who was first hit by a rifle bullet in the chest then while being carried on a stretcher, the litter bearers stepped on a mine. So he was buried later at St Mère Eglise. We gain the front part of the church, but jerry has the rear part and the cloisters. It is point-blank firing for a good hour until we have to get out because they got up in the rear and threw potato mashers down the belfry onto the altar where we are entrenched.12

The Americans gained the fort at last after blasting their way inch by inch through the defences in the manner described by Herman. The 9th Division found such fighting tolerable after all their experience in North Africa and Sicily, but already other, greener American formations were proving sluggish in action. Herman and his men watched the first actions of the 79th Division with deep dismay: ‘They were almost a cruel laugh. They had one regiment attacking through our assembly area whose commander could not read a map, and they lost more men than I’ve ever seen through damn recruit tricks. It is quite evident that they are not prepared for combat – a shameful waste of good American lives.’13 Major Randall Bryant, executive officer of the 1st Battalion of the 9th Division’s 47th Regiment, found his unit summoned into action to relieve the 90th Division, a formation whose record was almost disastrously unsatisfactory throughout the Normandy campaign. Bryant and his men marched past the 90th’s infantry, lying by the roadside behind the line: ‘They looked awful – unshaven, dirty, pitiful.’14

Carentan fell only on 12 June, and it was the 13th before the two American beachheads were at last in firm contact across the great flat sweep of wetlands dividing them. That day, Taylor’s paratroopers fought off a determined counter-attack by 17th SS Panzergrenadiers. Ultra intercepts had provided Bradley with warning of this German movement. Without explanation, he ordered Gerow immediately to move elements of 2nd Armored Division into the area in time to support the Airborne, and subsequently to push back the SS. In the two weeks that followed, although Gerow’s V Corps progressively pushed its perimeter southwards to Caumont, American attention focused squarely upon the drive for Cherbourg, the critical OVERLORD objective of gaining the Allies a major port. Already, the American commanders were profoundly conscious that time was slipping away, that more and more German forces were arriving on the battlefield, that ground was only slowly being gained. There was concern about the quality of infantry leadership. A forceful directive from First Army reminded all officers that they must wear badges of rank. Many had removed them, for fear of snipers. When on 14 June Gerow of V Corps told General Hodges, with some satisfaction, that his men had achieved all their objectives, Hodges reminded him with a quiet smile: ‘Gee, the objective of Berlin.’15 Yet the chronic shortage of supplies – above all, of artillery ammunition – was such that First Army could sustain only one major thrust at a time.16

Despite Collins’s eagerness to strike hard and fast for Cherbourg, Bradley concluded that the risk would be intolerable unless the peninsula was first cut, to isolate the port from German reinforcements. In the first days after 6 June, the American airborne divisions fought their way forward inch by inch to consolidate the tenuous footholds they had gained in their drop, and to defeat dangerous German counter-attacks such as that on 7 June against Ste Mère Eglise. Then, led by the 9th and 90th Divisions and elements of 82nd Airborne, V Corps launched its drive westward, completed at the little coastal holiday resort of Barneville on 18 June. For many of the Americans, it was an exhilarating dash, infantry clinging to the hulls of the Shermans and tank destroyers as they bucketed across the countryside, meeting only isolated pockets of resistance. Parties of fugitive Germans or half-hearted counter-attacks on American positions were ruthlessly cut down, although 1,500 men of the German 77th Division were able to escape southwards across country, surprising men of the 90th Division guarding a bridge over the river Olande, and taking more than 100 prisoners. The 77th was one of the few formations of reasonable quality in the Cotentin. Most of the German static units were undertrained, poorly-equipped, demoralized. Hodges’s First Army diary for 16 June recorded that, ‘the Boche artillery extremely weak, and G-2 [intelligence] reports an increasing demoralisation because of lack of ammunition and supply.’ Such tanks as the Germans possessed were almost invariably captured French or Czech models. ‘We knew that we were not facing the top panzers,’ said Corporal Preston of the 743rd Tank Battalion.17 The German units proved capable of stubborn resistance when defending prepared positions against direct assault, but lacked the will or the means to interfere with major American units manoeuvring in open country.

There was a legendary exchange between Bradley and Collins at this time, when the First Army commander received a characteristic signal from Montgomery declaring loftily that ‘Caen is really the key to Cherbourg.’ Collins exploded: ‘Brad, let’s wire him to send us the key!’18 Yet while the Americans interpreted Montgomery’s words both as an excuse for British difficulties around Caen, and an attempt to diminish that which they themselves were seeking to accomplish in the Cotentin, Montgomery was correct. Almost every single German formation of quality was fighting against the British. There could be no comparison between the difficulty of facing 12th SS Panzer or Panzer Lehr, and that of rolling up the weak enemy divisions falling back on Cherbourg.

Not that this diminishes the qualities of speed and energy which VII Corps displayed in reaching the great port. Collins was already revealing himself as one of the outstanding personalities of the campaign. The tenth child of a Louisiana Irish family, he was 48 years old. Like so many other American career soldiers, he had spent years between the wars gaining age and enduring stagnation, seemingly without hope of glory or professional fulfilment. In 1920, when he found himself demoted to captain in the general post-war rundown of the services, he considered resignation. He was 44 before he attained a lieutenant-colonelcy, and it was January 1943 before he saw action for the first time, as a divisional commander in the Pacific. As a young man, he had considered becoming a lawyer, and possessed uncommonly catholic tastes for a soldier. He had travelled widely in Europe and the Far East, was a fine shot and an opera lover. A ruthless driver of men, he unhesitatingly sacked officers of any rank who failed to match his standards. Beyond the various divisional and regimental commanders whom he dismissed in the weeks after D-Day, he disposed of an operations officer who persisted with the fatal American army pre-war doctrine of placing unit boundaries on high ground, and an artillery commander who seemed unable to understand the vital importance of forward observation. Intolerant of excuses, he had a superb eye for an opportunity on the battlefield: American – and British – forces in Normandy sorely needed more commanders out of his mould.

Just 22 hours after gaining Barneville, having achieved an astonishingly rapid change of axis through 90 degrees, Collins’s men began to push north for the port. Middleton’s VIII Corps, newly operational, accepted responsibility for securing the American east–west line while VII Corps drove for the port. Collins was already agitating for a leading role in the push south when Cherbourg fell. Bradley told him: ‘Troy [Middleton of VIII Corps] likes to fight, too.’

General Bradley also had some definite words to say about divisions and commanders who appeared to be fighting the war for newspaper headlines alone [reported Hodges’s diary]. This competition for publicity, he told General Collins, will have to cease.19

The intensity of rivalry between senior officers in battle is often difficult for civilians to grasp. But it is a simple fact of life that for professional soldiers, war offers the same opportunities and fulfilments as great sales drives offer corporation presidents. This is not a moral judgement, but a reality as old as war itself. All that was new in the Second World War was that unique opportunities were available to commanders on the battlefield to ingratiate themselves with newspaper correspondents, and thus to make themselves national figures. In the British Army, only an officer of Montgomery’s rank could exploit this. But within the American forces in Normandy, many divisional commanders competed ferociously for publicity for themselves and their formations, and there was bitter jealousy, for instance, of the fame of ‘The Big Red One’.

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