Military history

The battle for Cherbourg

At 2.00 p.m. on 22 June, preceded by a massive air bombardment, the Americans opened their attack against the three ridge lines on which the German outer defence of Cherbourg was centred. ‘The combat efficiency of all the [defending] troops was extremely low,’ admitted a German writer later.1 Cherbourg’s defences had been designed principally to meet an attack from the sea, and in an exercise early in May, General Marcks had demonstrated their vulnerability to landward assault by breaking through at exactly the points at which the Americans now attacked. Collins later expressed his astonishment that the Germans failed to make a stand on the outer range of high ground around the city, instead retiring immediately to the inner forts. They appeared to lack not only the numbers, but the will to conduct such a defence. Four German battle-groups had been formed from the remains of the units which had retreated up the Cotentin, and static defence in fortified positions is the least demanding role for poor-quality troops. If the Americans were able to mount their attack without enduring forceful counter-attacks, of the kind which were creating such difficulties for the British around Caen, it remained a harrowing task for infantry to advance into the intense machine-gun fire from the huge concrete bunkers.

Major Randall Bryant’s battalion had fought a procession of minor skirmishes against pockets of German resistance up the peninsula, in one of which Bryant surprised himself as much as his men by successfully bouncing a bazooka round off a road into the belly of a German tank – the Americans had learned by bitter experience that direct fire would not penetrate its armour. Now, in the streets of Cherbourg, they began two days of nerve-racking house-to-house fighting on the road to Fort du Roule. They learned by experience the techniques of covering the building opposite while squads leapfrogged forward, paving their path with grenades, for it was a skill in which they had never trained. The enemy’s massive network of strongpoints had to be reduced one by one in dogged fighting, the assaulting infantry scaling the open approaches under withering machine-gun fire.

We jump off Fort Octeville [wrote Major Herman of the 39th Infantry]. A barrage pins us down initially, but men filter through somehow, running like scared rabbits directly into the fort. We stop our artillery; it falls short on G Company, knocking out a platoon. Everything seems wrong. Our supporting tanks turn tail. With my Sgt. Maachi in tow, we crawl under heavy but high machine-gun fire up to the fort that looms up like Grand Central Station. I don’t quite remember what happens from here on, but piecing it together, we got two bazookas up to about sixty yards from the fort when we hit the outpost. I kneeled up to fire my MI and a burst caught me in the right hip, taking my jacket with it. I started to run towards the pillbox, firing. A potato masher tore the gun out of my hands, ripping the forearm muscles of my right arm away, but not touching the bone. My boys said that I rolled down into a ditch, unconscious.2

9th Division gained Octeville, and the 314th Infantry stormed Fort du Roule by other examples of the sacrificial courage which alone enables infantry to seize strongly fortified positions. When Corporal John Kelly found his platoon pinned down by machine-gun fire, he crawled forward to fix a pole charge beneath the German firing-slit, but returned to find that it had failed to detonate, and went back with another one. This time, the explosion blew off the protruding gun barrels, enabling the corporal to climb the slope a third time, reach the rear door of the pillbox and grenade it into silence. Lieutenant Carlos Ogden cleared the way for his company by knocking out an 88 mm gun with a rifle grenade although already wounded in the head, ignoring a second wound to run forward with grenades and silence the supporting German machine-guns. Both Kelly and Ogden were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The German Maschinegewehr MG 42 – universally known as the Spandau among Allied troops – was a superb general-purpose machine-gun, with a startling 1,200 rpm rate of fire. It could be fed either through boxed belts or – as here – by drum for greater portability. Distributed prodigally among all German units, it contributed decisively to their ability to generate immense defensive fire-power even when positions were manned by only small numbers of men. 750,000 were made before the end of the war, and achieved a remarkable reputation for reliability – the MG 42’s barrel could be changed in five seconds during periods of heavy firing.

Underground in their tunnels and bunkers, thousands of German personnel lay crowded beneath the bombardment: naval ratings, Luftwaffe ground staff, supply units, clerks – all the ragtag of a huge base wretchedly conscious of their isolation and disheartened by days amid the stink of their big generator motors, and the dust and cordite fumes filtering through the caverns. On a wall map in General von Schlieben’s command post at St Sauveur, on the southern outskirts of the city, his operations officer, Major Forster, marked the remorseless progress of the American advance – Collins’s men had unknowingly bypassed the German’s switchboard bunker, leaving their communications intact. On 26 June, the unhappy von Schlieben surrendered with 800 of his men when tank destroyers began firing direct into the tunnel entrances above him. Major Randall Bryant was beside Manton Eddy, the divisional commander, when a tall, dignified German officer detached himself from the long file of surrendering defenders emerging from the arsenal and announced formally: ‘I am von Schlieben.’ The astonished Eddy showed the general to a jeep and took him away to his command post for lunch. Bradley, however, declined to entertain the German because of his anger that he had protracted Cherbourg’s defence at such cost in American lives, and had finally refused to order a total surrender of the port after his capture.

Organized resistance in Cherbourg ended only on 27 June, and the 9th Division was obliged to fight hard for several days more to reduce the defences of Cap de la Hague, at the north-west tip of the peninsula. In the city, Eddy led a desperate attempt to control the men of his division as they ran riot among captured stocks of brandy, wine, champagne. At last he retired in despair, declaring, ‘Okay, everybody take twenty-four hours and get drunk.’3 Hundreds of cases of looted alcohol were loaded aboard captured German vehicles and followed units of VII Corps across Europe. Half a case of champagne was sent to Bradley, who touchingly sent it home to the US to toast his grandson on his return in 1945. Randall Bryant’s officers’ club was still drinking its share of the proceeds of Cherbourg in Germany in 1946.

Bryant’s battalion regretted its excesses on the morning of 28 June, when they began a long foot march towards Cap de La Hague, following the German formation signposts. They reached the entrance to a huge underground bunker without opposition, seized the single enemy sentry guarding it, and advanced warily inside, pistols in hands, towards the sound of voices. They found themselves in a room full of German officers clustered around a table laden with a large ham. Dean Vanderhouf, the battalion commander, rose to the occasion. ‘Stop!’ he called to his astonished audience. He leaned forward to seize the ham: ‘I’ll take that.’ The Americans were uncommonly lucky. Other units endured hard fights at Cap de la Hague.

In the month of June, VII Corps had captured 39,042 prisoners and achieved the first American objectives of the campaign. General Collins had proved himself an outstandingly energetic and skilful corps commander, just as General Maton Eddy had shown his capabilities at the head of the 9th Division. The reduction of a ‘fortress’ that Hitler had ordered to resist for months gave sufficient exhilaration to the Allies to mask the disappointment of their commanders when they received the first reports from Cherbourg harbour. The port facilities of Naples had become operational just three days after the city fell, and some such new miracle had been looked for at Cherbourg. Instead, Bradley’s engineers found the shambles created by one of the most comprehensive demolition programmes in the history of war. The OVERLORD logistics plan called for Cherbourg to discharge 150,000 tons of stores by 25 July. In reality, the port received less than 18,000 tons by that date. In was late September before it approached full operational capacity, by which time almost every harbour in France and Belgium was in the hands of the Allies. The drive for Cherbourg thus failed to achieve its immediate strategic purpose of accelerating and securing the Allied build-up. But of this, little needed to be said in the days of exultation following the most spectacular Allied ground gains since the landings. It was only Eisenhower, Bradley and Montgomery and their staffs who were conscious that the battle for the northern Cotentin had lasted many days longer than they had hoped or planned for and that, while it persisted, little progress was made with the drive to gain fighting room further south. On 27 June, when Everett Hughes brought Eisenhower news of a renewed delay to movement by First Army, the Supreme Commander reflected moodily: ‘Sometimes I wish I had George Patton over there.’4

The men who fought the battle for the Cotentin afterwards remembered chiefly the fear and exhaustion of groping their way through the Norman hedgerows with their infantry company or tank platoon – ‘tiptoeing in a tank’, one gunner called it – prickling with the sense of their own nakedness as they crossed each open space, cursing their inability to see the enemy mortaring or machine-gunningtheir advance, damning the air force, which was already revealing a disturbing inability to avoid strafing American positions. All wars become a matter of small private battles to those who are fighting them. But this was uniquely true of the struggle for Normandy, where it was seldom possible to see more than 100 or 200 yards in any direction, where forward infantry rarely glimpsed their own armour, artillery or higher commanders, where the appalling attrition rate among the rifle companies at the tip of each army’s spear rapidly became one of the dominant factors of the campaign.

In this first battle in north-west Europe, the American army was given cause to regret the poor priority that it had given to infantry recruitment since the great mobilization of American manpower began in 1940. All nations in the Second World War diverted some of their fittest and best-educated recruits to the air forces and technical branches. But no other nation allowed the rifle companies of its armies to become a wastebin for men considered unsuitable for any other occupation. The infantry suffered in the services’ attempts to allow men to follow specializations of their choice – of the 1942 volunteers, only 5 per cent chose infantry or armour. ‘By the end of 1943,’ confessed the official history of the training and procurement of US army ground forces, ‘the operations of this priority and a number of other factors had reduced to a dangerously low level the number of men allotted to the ground forces who seemed likely to perform effectively in combat.’5 It was discovered that infantrymen were an inch shorter than the army’s average height – a fair measure of general physique. Even more disturbing, statistics produced in March 1944 showed that while the infantry made up only 6 per cent of the army – an extraordinarily low proportion by any measure – they had suffered 53 per cent of its total battle casualties. This proportion rose to far more alarming heights in Normandy.

Great efforts began to be made in the spring of 1944 to push men of higher quality into the infantry. In March, 30,000 dismayed aviation cadets found themselves transferred wholesale to the army, almost all to ground forces. Some specialists were hastily diverted to the infantry, and the first of many comb-outs of service units took place, in search of suitable officers and men for infantry duty. But none of this came in time to assist the army that was to fight the first battles for north-west Europe. In Normandy, only 37 per cent of the replacements arriving to make good casualties were rifle-trained. First Army was suffering a desperate shortage of competent officers and NCOs. Wholesale sackings proved necessary in some units. In a situation in which junior leadership was critical, where again and again men were called up to fight beyond the control and eyes of their battalion or even company commanders, such leadership was repeatedly found wanting. The American army had determinedly eschewed the German policy of building elite and low-grade divisions to meet different requirements, and had sought instead to create a force of uniform quality. But in Normandy and after, Bradley’s commanders found themselves principally dependent upon a handful of formations which proved exceptionally determined and competent – the 1st, 4th, 9th, 2nd Armored and the airborne divisions. Just as the first weeks of battle in Normandy caused the British to reach disturbing conclusions about their own tactics and about the determination of some of their principal formations, so the Americans found cause for serious concern in the performance of certain units. A First Army report on the tactical lessons of Normandy declared:

It is essential that infantry in training be imbued with a bold, aggressive attitude. Many units do not acquire this attitude until long after their entry into combat, and some never acquire it. On the other hand units containing specially selected personnel such as Airborne and Rangers exhibited an aggressive spirit from the start. The average infantry soldier places too much reliance upon the supporting artillery to drive the enemy from positions opposing his advance. He has not been impressed sufficiently with his own potency and the effect of well-aimed, properly distributed rifle and machine-gun fire. The outstanding impression gained from a review of battle experiences is the importance of aggressive action and continuous energetic forward movement in order to gain ground and reduce casualties.6

Like the British, the Americans had discovered that their tank–infantry co-operation was woefully inadequate. They lacked the means for rapid communication on the battlefield between the men on the ground and those in the Shermans, battened down inside their steel hulls. They had no telephones mounted on their armour, which later enabled an infantryman to contact a tank commander without clambering up and hammering on his hatch, often under heavy fire. Officers were surprised to discover after an action how few rounds their riflemen had expended. Despite all their training in the importance of ‘marching fire’ to suppress the defences, many infantrymen were instinctively reluctant to shoot when they could see no target, or were too concerned with hugging the earth for protection to reveal themselves and take an aim. Fieldcraft was likewise poor. A rifle company commander of the 9th Division reported: ‘The American soldier is too careless in unduly exposing himself when in view of the enemy. Individually he feels that some other “Joe” will get shot and not he.’7 A report from General Mark Clark in Italy at this time stated: ‘The infantryman in landing operations, as in other operations, carries the heavy load, suffers the losses, and must have the guts to go forward despite danger and heavy casualties. Without question our training has not yet produced disciplined officers and disciplined men. Leaders up to and including battalion have a tendency to allow their troops to get out of control.’8

There was interminable private debate in 1944, and there has been a great deal more in the years since, about the respective fighting power of the British and American soldier, and their shortcomings as revealed in Normandy. The truth seems self-evident – that the best British and American units were very good indeed, and perfectly comparable with each other. Each army was at times bemused by the different national approach to war of the other. Gavin wrote of the British: ‘In many ways they took the war far less seriously than we.’9 The British, in their turn, were sometimes scornful of the theatricality of the American style – of their generals’ invariable habit of wearing helmets and personal weapons when no British commander troubled with either, of their enthusiasm for histrionics on the battlefield while the British sought always to understate the moment. But a British officer who saw much of the Americans said later that ‘if they were sometimes boastful, they would also go to extraordinary lengths to try to make good their boasts’.10 Gavin added to his comment on the British above: ‘On the other hand, on matters of discipline and combat effectiveness they set very high standards.’11

It ill became either army in Normandy to seek to harp upon the shortcomings of the other – the British sluggishness in gaining Caen or the poor performance of some American divisions in the bocage. Despite the fine performance of Collins’s VII Corps in gaining Cherbourg, each army at large had found it difficult to work up the driving power, the killing force, necessary to break through well-positioned German forces on the battlefield. The most important recent American historian of the campaign has written of Normandy: ‘There the limitations of the American army in generating sustained combat power were further to cripple the drive into the unknown, on battlefields sorely lacking in appropriate ground to apply mobility.’12

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