Chapter 9 » THE BREAKOUT
Throughout the first half of July, while the British and Canadians were fighting their bitter battles around Caen, the Americans were enduring equal pain and frustration in their efforts to disentangle themselves from the clinging misery of the bocage. On 3 July, Middleton’s VIII Corps attacked south towards Coutances–St Lô–Caumont. The corps commander himself was one of the most experienced fighting soldiers in the American army, having led a regiment in France in the First World War, and more recently a division in Italy. But Middleton was now seriously troubled and weakened by the pain of an arthritic knee, and his staff were conscious that this reduced his ability to concentrate upon the battle. Not that it was likely that the outcome of the early fighting would have been different had he been fit. By far the toughest initial objective was the 300-foot height of Mont Castre, dominating the Cotentin plain. After heavy fighting the superb 82nd Airborne Division, halved in strength by weeks in action, gained the hill and proved what a first-class formation could achieve even against dogged opposition. Elsewhere on the front, however, matters went much less happily. The accident-prone 90th Division made no headway, and Bradley prepared to sack yet another of its commanders, Landrum. The 79th Division suffered 2,000 casualties in the next five days to crawl forward a little over three miles. There was nothing to suggest that these difficulties were caused by command shortcomings, for when VII Corps joined the attack on 4 July under the dynamic Collins, they too found themselves rapidly bogged down. On the 7th, XIX Corps was thrown in, although Corlett, its corps commander, like Middleton was in visibly poor health, and even when fit had never been considered a driver of men. Hodges described him at the time as possessing ‘that hospital look’.1 Scenes of near-farce ensued when advancing elements of 30th Division became entangled with the tanks of 3rd Armored, creating terrible congestion. There was a furious confrontation between Generals Bohn and Hobbs about whose fault this was, which ended in the sacking of Bohn, the junior officer, but a tough old veteran who had started as a private soldier and risen through the ranks of the American army.
After 12 days of battle, VIII Corps had suffered 10,000 casualties to advance some seven miles. Corlett’s and Collins’s men had fared no better. ‘Thus my breakout and dreams of a blitz to Avranches failed badly,’ wrote Bradley, ‘a crushing disappointment to me personally.’2 The principal American achievement was the defeat of a counter-attack by Panzer Lehr towards St Jean-de-Daye on 11 July, which 9th and 30th Divisions threw back causing the loss of 25 per cent of the Germans’ strength. Once again, it had been demonstrated that movement by either army was the crucial difficulty in the bocage, and that in defence American troops could hammer the Germans as hard as Hausser’s men of Seventh Army had hit the Americans when they were defending.
Enduring the pain of their own difficulties, the Americans sometimes forgot the scale of suffering that they were inflicting upon the Germans. Sergeant Helmut Gunther, of 17th Panzer-grenadiers, each day watched his company of the reconnaissance battalion whittled away without hope of replacements: Hahnel, who was killed by small-arms fire in their first battle; Heinrich, his veteran chess partner, who died on the Carentan road; Dobler, who took over a platoon when its commander was killed and was shot in the head as he jumped from the ditch to lead a counter-attack. All these old friends and many more were gone: ‘I used to think – “What a poor pig I am, fighting here with my back to the wall.” ’3 Yet Gunther’s self-pity was mixed with astonishment that the survivors stood the strain and the losses so well, and fought on. He was astounded that the Americans did not break through their line in early July. His own company was reduced to 20 men out of 120, yet when he sought his CO’s permission to withdraw 50 yards to a better tactical position, it was refused.
On 9 July, they were at last driven from their positions, and Gunther found himself staring at a Sherman tank bearing down upon him only yards away. He was working forward to throw a sticky bomb at it when a German voice called ‘Come back!’, and he glanced round to see a German tank behind him. He stood confused and uncertain for a moment as the panzer commander shouted, ‘Get down, he’s going to shoot!’ and a shell from the Sherman blasted into the German tank, splinters ricocheting into Gunther’s back. Characteristically, the panzer survived the encounter. The Sherman did not. Gunther was evacuated to hospital.
The defeat of the German counter-attacks was encouraging to the Americans, but provided little consolation for Bradley, wrestling with his fundamental problem of breaking through into Brittany. At the highest level, the Americans discussed with deep concern the problem of giving their infantry divisions something of the thrust and attacking power that so far seemed the monopoly of the Airborne. ‘We were flabbergasted by the bocage,’ said General Quesada of IXth Tactical Air Command, who was working daily alongside Bradley. ‘Our infantry had become paralysed. It has never been adequately described how immobilized they were by the sound of small-arms fire among the hedges.’4 Patton reminded an old French army friend of a remark that he had made in the First War: ‘He had said, “The poorer the infantry the more artillery it needs; the American infantry needs all it can get.” He was right then, and still is.’5 First Army reported on ‘the urgent need for the development of an aggressive spirit by the infantry soldier . . . The outstanding impression gained from a review of battle experience is the importance of aggressive action and continuous energetic forward movement in order to gain ground and reduce casualties.’6
It had become brutally apparent to every man in First Army that service in an infantry unit was an almost certain sentence to death or wounds. The top sergeant in Corporal George Small’s anti-aircraft battalion routinely threatened jesters: ‘One more crack like that and you’ll find yourself in the infantry.’7 The unfortunate 90th Division suffered replacement of 150 per cent of its officers and over 100 per cent of enlisted men in its first six weeks in action. Typical tank casualty figures showed that in June alone, the 712th Battalion lost 21 out of 74 in 16 days of action, the 746th 44 out of 51 in 23 days, the 747th 41 out of 61 in 10 days. In July, the 712th lost 21 out of 68 in 16 days, the 756th 51 out of 91 in 29 days. Temporary or permanent losses from ‘battle fatigue’ had reached an alarming 10,000 men since D-Day, around 20 per cent of all casualties. Between June and November 1944, a staggering 26 per cent of all American soldiers in combat divisions were treated for some form of battle fatigue; this was out of a total of 929,307 such cases in the US Army in the Second World War. There was a real fear that ‘battle fatigue’ was reaching epidemic proportions. The after-action medical report of First Army declared that:
. . . the rate of admission to the exhaustion centres . . . during the first weeks of operations was in accord with the estimates made previously, however, the rate thereafter increased to such proportions that it became necessary to reinforce each of the platoons operating the exhaustion centres . . . Reasons for this increase: a) addition of a number of divisions to the army in excess of original estimates, b) difficult terrain, mud, hedgerows etc, c) stiff resistance offered by the enemy in the La Haye du Puits, Carentan and St. Lô actions, d) troops remaining in combat for long periods.8
Every army in the Second World War recognized battle exhaustion or shell shock as a genuine, curable condition among soldiers under acute strain. But it was felt by many officers in 1944 that the US Army had become too ready to allow its men to believe that battle exhaustion was an acceptable state. There is a narrow borderline between humanitarian concern and dangerous weakness. If Patton had been overharsh in his treatment of battle exhaustion in Sicily, there seemed grounds for believing that in Normandy, First Army moved too far in the opposite direction. Major Frank Colacicco of the 3rd/18th Infantry described how men appeared before him claiming battle fatigue and, if challenged, defied him to court-martial them. ‘What was five years in the brig? They knew that the US government would fluke out.’ By July, the rear areas of all the Allied armies were generously populated with deserters, whom American units often treated with much greater forbearance than the British. Provost-Sergeant James Dobie of the British 5th King’s Regiment was astonished to discover, when he returned two errant GIs to their unit, that ‘they were greeted like long-lost brothers instead of absentees’. The German army’s discipline was not based entirely upon natural loyalty. Between January and September 1944, the Wehrmacht executed almost 4,000 of its own men, 1,605 of these for desertion.
Some senior Americans regretted that their army had failed to adopt Montgomery’s policy before D-day, of leavening untried divisions with key officers and NCOs who possessed battle experience at battalion level and below. There had also been a failure to make the men of First Army familiar with their leaders. An extraordinary number of American soldiers who fought in north-west Europe regarded the high command as impossibly remote, and Eisenhower and Bradley as hardly comprehensible figures. A few divisional commanders – Huebner, Cota, Barton, Rose, Eddy – became widely known and respected by their men. But the roll call of senior American officers found wanting and sacked in Normandy was astonishing: two successive commanders of 90th Division, Brown of 28th Division, McMahon of 8th (who told Bradley frankly, ‘Brad, I think you are going to have to relieve me.’),9 Watson of 3rd Armored, to name only the most prominent. Bradley found 83rd Division’s leadership ‘uncertain’, and that of the 79th and 80th suspect. Of the corps commanders, only Collins had distinguished himself. The commander-designate of First Army, Courtney Hodges, was considered by most of his peers to be an officer of limited imagination and self-effacing personality. Bradley described him as ‘one of the most skilled craftsmen under my entire command’, but was constrained to add that he was also ‘essentially a military technician . . . a spare, soft-voiced Georgian without temper, drama, or visible emotion.’10
If Bradley’s personal modesty was one of his most engaging characteristics, it contributed to the impersonality of his army. Whatever men thought of Patton – and many scorned him – all of them knew who he was. Most took a pride, then and later, in serving with Patton’s Army. As Montgomery understood so well, the cult of personality can be immensely valuable in war. The lack of it within the American army in Normandy – the difficulty for most infantry replacements of identifying with a man, a unit, anything human beyond their own squad save the vast juggernaut of tanks and guns with which they rolled – contributed significantly to the difficulties of the American army. Where the German army did its utmost to maintain men in regional formations, the Americans pursued a deliberate policy of dividing men from the same town or state – a legacy of the First War, when the pain of a local unit’s destruction was thought to have borne too heavily upon individual communities. But even industrialized war on a vast scale needs its focus of identity, its charismatic leaders. These were instinctive human necessities that America’s commanders seemed slow to understand.
Private Gerard Ascher, a 27-year-old New Yorker who worked in the family business until he was drafted in 1943, was one of countless thousands of infantry replacements shipped to Normandy in June 1944 in anonymous packages of 250 men, to be directed wherever casualties dictated. One of his group gazed around at Normandy for a few minutes after their landing, then declared decisively: ‘This is no place for me,’ and vanished from their ken for ever. Ascher reached the 357th Infantry in darkness with an unknown young Mississippian, to be greeted by a lieutenant, who said simply: ‘You two stay in this hedgerow – the others are in that one.’ The New Yorker’s memories of the campaign were above all of disorientation, of utter ignorance of their purpose: ‘I really couldn’t fathom the whole thing – I couldn’t understand what it was all about. I never remembered seeing the battalion commander except at ceremonies.’11 If all infantrymen in all armies share something of this feeling, and if Ascher was uncommonly unlucky to be sent to the 90th Division, his sentiments reflected a problem that afflicted much of the American army in north-west Europe. Very many soldiers respected their NCOs. But in sharp contrast to the British army, in which most men looked up to their officers, few American rankers admitted to thinking well of theirs. Corporal George Small wrote of ‘this nearly universal scorn of American soldiers for most officers’.12 Above all at platoon level, the ‘90-day wonders’ – the young lieutenants upon whom so much junior leadership depended – seldom won the confidence and respect of their soldiers.
The men of Bradley’s army might not be privy to ‘the big picture’, but in early July 1944 they felt a deep sense that much was going wrong. ‘We were stuck,’ said Corporal Bill Preston of the 743rd Tank Battalion: ‘Something dreadful seemed to have happened in terms of the overall plan. Things were going very awry. The whole theory of mobility that we had been taught, of our racing across the battlefield, seemed to have gone up in smoke.’ Sergeant Bill Walsh of the 102nd Cavalry thought that the struggle between Germans and Americans resembled ‘a pro fighter taking on an amateur who didn’t want to fight. None of those American infantry boys wanted to be over there.’ Lieutenant Philip Reisler of 2nd Armored felt that the campaign had become ‘like an interminable succession of Thermopylaes. In every engagement, we were only able to present one tiny unit to the enemy at a time.’
Yet even as First Army’s difficulties seemed at their greatest, the transformation of American fortunes was at hand. Together with General Collins of VII Corps, Bradley had conceived a new plan. To clear the way for a major offensive, Collins’s men began to push forward to the St Lô–Périers road. By 20 July, they had reached positions commanding it. On 18 July, at a cost of 3,000 casualties in the 29th Division and more than 2,000 in the 35th, the Americans gained the vital heights of St Lô. The battle for the shattered rubble of the town was one of First Army’s outstanding feats of arms in the campaign, driving back General Eugene Meindl’s II Parachute Corps yard by yard, despite constant casualties. The body of Major Thomas Howie, killed leading the 3rd/116th Infantry to the rescue of the 2nd Battalion on the outskirts of St Lô, was laid on a bier of rubble outside the church of Notre-Dame. Hill 122 joined a host of other Norman map references among the American army’s battle honours. The German 352nd Division, whose presence had wrought such havoc with American plans on 6 June, was now in ruins. Even Meindl’s paratroopers had cracked. The stage was set for the supreme American military achievement of the Normandy campaign, Operation COBRA.
It was symbolic of the contrasting approaches to war by the two principal Allies in Normandy that the British codenamed their greatest efforts after race meetings, while the Americans adopted a symbol of deadly killing power. Montgomery’s official biographer has recently argued that it was the C-in-C of 21st Army Group who produced the essential framework for COBRA, in a declaration of future intentions dated 13 June. After discussing immediate objectives for that period, he continued:
f) to capture ST LO and then COUTANCES
g) to thrust southwards from CAUMONT towards VIRE and MORTAIN; and from ST LO towards VILLEDIEU and AVRANCHES
h) all the time to exert pressure towards LA HAYE DU PUITS and VOLOGNES, and to capture CHERBOURG.
‘This was,’ declares Montgomery’s biographer, ‘town for town the layout for the American Operation “Cobra”.’13 [emphasis in original] If this assertion arouses ire among the ghosts of the First Army, it is also true that, after the event, Americans were too eager to write into history the view that COBRA was expected from the outset to lead inexorably to Lorient, Le Mans and Argentan, and that from its launching the rest of the campaign was preordained. In reality, of course, it would have been extraordinary to plan it as anything of the sort. It was an ambitious, well-conceived blueprint for a major offensive. Considering the proven difficulties of wrestling ground from the Germans, and the earlier failure of many equally high hopes, it could never have begun as more than that. To suggest that the Americans now consciously embarked upon a completely new phase of the campaign – ‘the breakout’ – is to pretend that they had not been trying desperately to escape from the bocage for many weeks already. What took place in late July on the American flank was that First Army launched an offensive that worked, assisted by the absence of most of the best of von Kluge’s army, who were engaged with the British and Canadians in the east. They then pursued and exploited their success with dramatic energy.
No earlier statement of objectives by Montgomery can diminish the personal achievement of Bradley, whose plan COBRA was. During the weeks since 6 June, there had been a subtle but steady shift in the command relationship between 21st Army Group and the Americans, reflecting both the growing weight of US strength now deployed in Normandy, and the shrinking confidence of First Army in Montgomery’s superior wisdom and experience. There was still the closest consultation between the Allies, and great care was taken to mesh British and American plans. Montgomery confirmed American intentions in crisply-worded written orders. There is little doubt that his negative authority over First Army was undiminished: he could have prevented, the Americans from embarking upon a course of which he disapproved. But he could no longer expect to exercise positive authority, to compel them to initiate operations for which they felt disinclined. A study of Montgomery’s files for this period, his successive orders to the armies, might give a different impression. But in real terms, while the Americans accepted his co-ordinating authority, it would be inaccurate to describe him as their commander, in the sense that Bradley was commander of First Army.
The American Secretary for War, Henry Stimson, visited Bradley’s headquarters on 17 July, and recorded in his notes: ‘Plan Cobra – attack by 2 infantry divisions (30th and 9th) followed by 1st Infantry and 2nd Armored to the left. Break through and turn to right, enveloping 5 or 6 divisions. If successful would have easy going to the SW end of the bocage.’14 In the event, between Stimson’s visit and the COBRA jump-off, the thrust of VII Corps south-westwards from the St Lô–Périers road towards Coutances was strengthened by the addition of the 4th Division in the centre. In contrast to the usual American preference for broad front assaults, this was to be a narrow, concentrated attack on a 7,000-yard front, immediately preceded by a massive air bombardment. The fighter-bombers would concentrate on hitting forward German defences in a 250-yard belt immediately south of the road. Spaatz’s ‘heavies’ would bomb to a depth of 2,500 yards behind the German front, accompanied by the artillery fire of 1,000 guns.
The Americans’ principal secret weapon for COBRA was the ‘Rhino’ – a set of steel tusks welded onto the front of many of the Shermans, which so equipped had been found capable of battering a path through the Norman hedgerows in heartening fashion. Within weeks, the name of Sergeant Curtis G. Culin, of 2nd Armored’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance, echoed across America as the imaginative young American who had devised the battle-winner. The reality, as usual in these matters, was touchingly a little different. Every American armoured unit had been puzzling over the hedgerow problem, and one day Captain Jimmy de Pew of the 102nd summoned a ‘bull session’ of his men to chew it over. A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts asked slowly: ‘Why don’t we get some saw teeth and put them on the front of the tank and cut through these hedges?’ The crowd of men roared with laughter. But Sergeant Culin, a notably shrewd soldier known in the unit both as a chess player and a man impatient of army routines, said: ‘Hang on a minute, he’s got an idea there.’ Culin it was who put Roberts’s ill-articulated notion into effect, and directed the first demonstration: the tankers – and shortly afterwards General Bradley – watched in awe as a hedgerow exploded before their eyes to make way for the Sherman bursting through. In great secrecy, steel lengths stockpiled from the German beach obstacles were salvaged and used to modify hundreds of First Army’s tanks. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the ‘Rhinos’, as they were called, for they restored battlefield manoeuvrability to Bradley’s armour. Henceforth, while the German tanks remained restricted to the roads, the Shermans possessed the power to outflank them across country. Culin was later summoned to appear before a press conference in Paris. An honest man, he tried hard to give some credit to Roberts. But the weight of the great propaganda and publicity machine was too much for him. He became a very American kind of national hero.15
Another kind of hero was lost to First Army on the very eve of COBRA – 54-year-old Colonel Paddy Flint, the hoary old commander of the 39th Infantry who had made himself legendary for the reckless courage which now killed him. Irritated by the slow progress of his 2nd Battalion approaching the COBRA start-line, he strode impatiently forward under heavy mortaring to galvanize them into life. He sent a message to his executive officer from the battalion CP: ‘Strangely quiet here. Could take nap. Have spotted pillbox. Will start them cooking.’ He reached the front line with his headquarters group to be greeted by a German with a machine pistol whose fire ripped Flint’s trousers. Flint ordered a tank to move forward, and when its commander told him that he could not do so as he had turret trouble, Flint exploded: ‘It isn’t often you’ll have a colonel for a bodyguard!’ The reluctant tank and a cluster of infantry advanced up the road with their colonel. At one point, when he was standing on the Sherman’s hull directing the driver, German fire began to ricochet off the steel, and Flint was induced to step down into cover. The ‘bodyguard colonel’ now advanced with his little group towards the Germans, disdaining their hand grenades: ‘I don’t mind that – they can’t hit me anyway.’ His driver was wounded, but while he was being taken to the rear Flint kept up heavy fire with the two carbines and M1 rifle with which he was now armed, and of which his unhappy staff officer sought to relieve him. The colonel was standing in a doorway lecturing a sergeant on infantry tactics when there was a single shot, and he pitched forward, hit in the head. The sergeant spotted the German sniper and worked forward until he shot him out of a tree. Flint was given morphia and a cigarette, and murmured as he lay: ‘You can’t kill an Irishman, you only make him mad.’ He died in the field hospital. In one sense, Flint’s performance was suicidal and wildly unsuited to the role of regimental commander. But in another, given the chronic difficulty of inducing the infantry to employ ‘Indian fighting’, to get to close quarters with the enemy, it was a magnificent example. George Patton acted as one of Flint’s pallbearers, and said with uncommon accuracy that he was sure that this was how his old friend would like to have gone. Flint was one of the great characters of First Army, cast in a mould of leadership that filled his men with immense pride.16
The launching of COBRA was delayed for some days by the same torrential rain and low cloud that sealed the fate of GOODWOOD. On 24 July, the order was given and 1,600 aircraft had already taken off for the preliminary air bombardment when the weather closed in again. Some were successfully recalled, or declined to risk bombing through the overcast atmosphere. But others again poured down explosives destined for the path of the American attack. The results were disastrously erratic. 25 Americans were killed and 131 wounded in the 30th Division, and the Germans were provided with final confirmation of the American intention to move on the St Lô–Périers front. Some enraged American units, such as the 2nd/120th Infantry, opened fire on their own aircraft, a not uncommon practice among all the armies in Normandy when suffering at the hands of their own pilots.
The next morning, the forecasters’ promise of brighter weather was fulfilled. At 7.00 a.m., 901st Panzergrenadiers telephoned divisional headquarters to report: ‘American infantry in front of our trenches are abandoning their positions. They are withdrawing everywhere.’ As similar reports reached Bayerlein from all along the front, his operations officer, Kurt Kauffmann, said cheerfully: ‘Looks as if they’ve got cold feet. Perhaps Seventh Army is right after all.’ Hausser’s staff had confidently predicted, despite every indication from Panzer Lehr to the contrary, that the major Allied attack would come south of Caen. Then the field telephones in Bayerlein’s farmhouse at Canisy began to ring again, reporting: ‘Bombing attacks by endless waves of aircraft. Fighter-bomber attacks on bridges and artillery positions.’17 At 9.38 a.m., the fighter-bombers opened their first 20-minute assault on the German front line. Behind them, high above the dust and smoke, 1,800 heavy bombers of 8th Air Force droned slowly towards the target area, their glinting wings watched by thousands of expectant young Americans in their foxholes and tank turrets below, massed ready to move when the airmen had finished.
As we watched [wrote the war correspondent Ernie Pyle], there crept into our consciousness a realization that windrows of exploding bombs were easing back towards us, flight by flight, instead of gradually forward, as the plan called for. Then we were horrified by the suspicion that these machines, high in the sky and completely detached from us, were aiming their bombs at the smokeline on the ground, and a gentle breeze was drifting the smokeline back over us! An indescribable kind of panic comes over you at such times. We stood tensed in muscle and frozen in intellect, watching each flight approach and pass over us, feeling trapped and completely helpless.
Bradley had asked that the bombers attack east–west, out of the sun and parallel to the front on the St Lô–Périers road, to reduce the risk of ‘short bombing’, or ‘creepback’, as the British called it. The airmen, for their own reasons, came in north–south. Despite desperate efforts by the ground troops to identify their positions with yellow panels and smoke markers, there was wild bombing by 8th Air Force, with appalling consequences for the men below. ‘The ground was shaken and rocked as if by a great earthquake,’ said Lieutenant-Colonel George Tuttle of the 30th Division. ‘The concussion, even underground, felt as if someone was beating you with a club.’18 Ernie Pyle wrote of ‘that awful rush of wind, like the rattling of seeds in a dry gourd’. Lieutenant Sidney Eichen of the 120th Infantry had stood with his men watching the bombers approach with comfortable satisfaction: ‘We thought – “How gorgeous.” Then it was – “Goddamit, they’re coming for us again!” My outfit was decimated, our anti-tank guns blown apart. I saw one of our truck drivers, Jesse Ivy, lying split down the middle. Captain Bell was buried in a crater with only his head visible. He suffocated before we could get him out.’19 111 Americans were killed, including Lieutenant-General Lesley McNair, who had come forward to watch the attack, and 490 wounded. The entire command group of the 9th Division’s 3rd/47th Infantry was wiped out. Maddened men were forcibly carried to the rear. Others merely ran blindly from the battlefield. Maimed men lay screaming for aid. Brigadier-General William Harrison of the 30th Division wrote savagely home that night: ‘When you read of all the great glamour of our flying friends, just remember that not all that glitters is gold!’20 Harrison won a Distinguished Service Cross that day for his part in dragging men from their shock and paralysis, pulling together shattered units, and driving them forward to press on with the attack. He told the commanding officer of the 120th Infantry: ‘Colonel, the attack goes ahead as scheduled. Even if you have only two or three men, the attack is to be made.’ Eichen saw his regimental commander running from company to company shouting: ‘You’ve gotta get going, get going!’ Eichen said: ‘Half-heartedly, we started to move.’
General Courtney Hodges, commander-designate of First Army, visited 30th Division’s command post to meet its enraged commander, Hobbs, who, ‘was naturally terribly upset by the air show . . . “We’re good soldiers, Courtney, I know, but there’s absolutely no excuse, no excuse at all. I wish I could show some of those air boys, decorated with everything a man can be decorated with, some of our casualty clearing stations.” ’21
Amid the shambles created by the bombing of their own forward areas, VII Corps’ attack began hesitantly on the 25th, men moving slowly forward to discover, to their dismay, that the Panzer Lehr division before them was battered but still unbroken. Some German troops had even moved rapidly forward to occupy ground evacuated by the Americans to provide an air safety zone – a technique they had also adopted on the 24th. Collins’s troops were even more disheartened to meet fierce artillery fire, which they had confidently expected to find suppressed by the bombing. ‘It was hard to believe that any living thing could be left alive in front of our positions,’ said Colonel Turtle. ‘However on moving to enemy-held territory, our men ran into some determined resistance.’22 Units found themselves entangled in protracted firefights against strongpoints and networks of foxholes held by the customary German mix of a handful of tanks, supporting infantry, and the inevitable 88 mm guns.
Bayerlein had personally ridden forward by motor-cycle to the 901st Regiment, whose commander, Colonel von Hausser, was sitting in a cellar beneath an old stone tower. Von Hausser declared gloomily that his entire front line had been devastated. Yet the survivors resisted with all their usual stubbornness. Colonel Hammonds Birks of 120th Infantry radioed to 30th Division that ‘the going was very slow . . . the boche had tanks dug in, hull down, and were shooting perhaps more artillery than they had ever previously used along any American sector.’ First Army’s diary recorded bleakly: ‘This day, a day to remember for more than one reason, did not bring the breakthrough for which we had all hoped . . . There was no question but that the postponement of the attack from Monday to Tuesday, plus two successive days of bombing of our own troops, took the ginger out of several of the front-line elements.’
Yet even in these first encounters, General Collins found cause for encouragement. While the German positions were resisting fiercely, they did not appear to form a continuous belt of defences. They could be outflanked, bypassed. In contrast to the meticulously prepared succession of defensive positions in depth with which the Germans on the Bourguébus Ridge met GOODWOOD, below the St Lô–Périers road on 25 July, they retained only a crust. This, despite all the warning they had received of an impending American thrust. It was a tribute to the efforts of the British and Canadians that von Kluge’s fears, as well as his principal forces, were still decisively fixed upon the eastern flank. That day, the 25th, the 2nd Canadian Corps launched a new attack towards Bourguébus which quickly broke down and was counter-attacked by 9th SS Panzer. But, faced with two heavy assaults, it was to the east that von Kluge chose to go himself that day, to inspect the front. Against the 14 British and Canadian divisions, the Germans still deployed 14 of their own, including six panzer. The Americans faced only 11 seriously weakened enemy divisions, two of them armoured. The old Panzer Lehr began the COBRA battle with a strength of just 2,200 men and 45 operational armoured vehicles in the front line. Against this weary gathering of German battle-groups and depleted infantry formations, the full weight of 15 American divisions would shortly be committed. Bayerlein was enraged to receive a visit from a staff officer of von Kluge, conveying the Field-Marshal’s order that the St Lô–Périers line must be held: not a single man must leave his position. A battalion of SS Panthers was on its way to provide support. Bayerlein said flatly: ‘Out in front every one is holding out. Every one. My grenadiers and my engineers and my tank crews – they’re all holding their ground. Not a single man is leaving his post. They are lying silent in their foxholes, for they are dead. You may report to the Field-Marshal that the Panzer Lehr Division is annihilated.’23 In keeping with the occasion, at that moment a vast ammunition dump exploded nearby, hit by fighter-bombers. Bayerlein’s remarks were only slightly exaggerated.
On the afternoon of the 25th, Collins learned enough about the vulnerability of the Germans to outflanking movements to risk giving the order to his mobile columns to start moving. By nightfall, elements of 1st Division were outside Marigny. The next morning, across the entire VII Corps front, units began to shake free from engagements with the defenders of Panzer Lehr and move fast across country, reporting that resistance was crumbling before them. The tank columns were slowed by the need for the ‘Rhinos’ to spend an average of two and a half minutes cutting through each hedgerow. But delays of this order were trifling by comparison with the hours of sluggish progress under fire that had marked each battle in the bocage since D-Day. The entire offensive was rapidly gaining momentum. Pockets of resistance at crossroads halted the American tanks only for such time as it took the infantry to jump down and pour fire into them. Sergeant Hans Stober and his company of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers had been ordered to hold their positions for 24 hours. ‘But we found that American units in company strength had bypassed us. There was no choice but to order us to withdraw.’24 So it was for thousands of German soldiers the length of the line. As darkness fell on the night of the 26th, the forceful Brigadier Maurice Rose of 2nd Armored’s Combat Command A – the equivalent of a British brigade group – raced on. His men’s progress had been dramatically rapid, a tribute to the careful training of his tank companies before the attack, alongside the foot soldiers of 22nd Infantry. At 3.00 a.m. the next morning, they had reached the first objective of COBRA, a road junction north of Le Mesnil-Herman. By noon on the 27th, 9th Division was also clear of all organized German resistance, and moving fast. Since the rear areas were alive with German stragglers and retreating units, it proved essential to provide armoured escorts for the American supply columns racing to follow the lead troops. Everywhere behind the front, they were now meeting the chaos of German defeat – fleeing men and vehicles, enemy columns searching desperately for a route of escape.
Lieutenant Philip Reisler of 2nd Armored was sitting dozing in the turret of his Sherman on a bend in a sunken road, his crew sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion in the hull beneath him, when he heard an unfamiliar engine sound behind him, and turned to see a German half-track driving fast in his direction, the soldiers inside it laughing, oblivious of the Americans. The vehicle smashed full-tilt into the tank and stopped dead, its radiator hissing and steaming. The horrified German driver tore his gears in a desperate effort to reverse, while Reisler fumbled equally clumsily with his machine-gun, simultaneously kicking his gunner into life. A German machine-gunner began to fire wildly, and the half-track somehow swerved around the tank. Then the Americans slammed a 75 mm at point-blank range into its rear: it slewed across the road and began to burn. Reisler’s coaxial machine-gun killed the crew as they leapt out of the flames. At that moment, a second half-track rounded the corner, steered around the tank, halted behind the flaming barricade and received another 75 mm shell which blew most of its occupants alive into the road. One German walked in a daze to the Sherman and leaned against it, shaking his head. Reisler pressed the trigger of his pistol. To his dismay nothing happened. The German, however, scrambled hastily up the bank into an orchard, and infuriated the American by turning back and grinning before he walked unhurriedly away through the trees. Three more Germans marched towards the tank, hands in the air. The tank crew chatted to them by the roadside. Reisler suggested to one that he should hide his wristwatch in his sock, for otherwise the MPs would surely take it.
A few minutes later, Reisler’s battalion commander walked down the road and took over the Sherman’s radio. His own tank, he said, had been hit. From the orchard came a burst of submachine-gun fire. The colonel seized a Thompson gun and emptied clip after clip into the trees until, assuaged, he stepped down and walked forward to the wreck of his own tank with Reisler. The lieutenant peered down into the driver’s seat, and was appalled to find only the man’s lower half remained. He looked upwards, and saw the remainder of the body hanging obscenely from the telephone wires, 20 feet above his head, one hand gently waving.
The flak battalion of the 17th SS was wiped out by air attack. ‘The troops had been trained to lose a battle quite calmly,’ said one of its survivors, Sergeant Stober, ‘we knew that the vital thing was to stick together. But we could see that the Americans had learnt how to break through, ignoring their flanks and pushing on to occupy crossroads and set up blocking positions so that our vehicles and heavy weapons could not get through. We lost vast quantities of matériel.’
On 26 July, VIII Corps joined the offensive on the right. Middleton felt compelled to use the 8th and 90th Divisions to lead his attack, because their positions alone possessed clear paths in front through the floods and swamps. Both bitterly disappointed First Army by failing to gain ground. But the next morning, first light revealed that the Germans in front of them had gone, compelled to pull back because of their crumbling left flank, leaving only immense minefields to delay the advance of VIII Corps.
A sense of exhilaration such as they had not known since Cherbourg, perhaps not matched since 7 June, was now overtaking the Americans as they dashed through villages which welcomed them with all the warmth of civilians whose homes and possessions and livestock had not been destroyed. ‘This virtual road march was such as the American army was designed for,’ Russell Weigley has written, ‘especially the American armored divisions. Appealing also to the passion for moving on that is so much a part of the American character and heritage, it brought out the best in the troops, their energy and mechanical resourcefulness.’25 The infantry clung to the tank hulls and sat up in the trucks waving wildly to French onlookers as they raced south-westwards, blackened German vehicles by the roadside testifying to the achievement of the fighter-bombers in clearing the roads ahead of them. Despite stiffening resistance east of Coutances on the 28th, that evening the CC B of Middleton’s 4th Armored swung up from the south to reach the town. ‘The highlight of the day’, recorded First Army’s diary of the 29th, ‘occurred when a considerable force of enemy tanks, vehicles and guns were bottled up on the Roncey–St Denis le Vêtu by-highways by elements of the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divs, and was pounded to bits by armor, artillery and aircraft.’ Lieutenant Eichen of the 120th Infantry said: ‘By now we were expecting to push them all the way through to Germany. You might come to a hill line or a road junction and find a few tanks or 88s firing from it, but for all the rest of that week it was just push and go.’
The Americans destroyed two tanks within minutes of encountering Lieutenant Fritz Langangke’s platoon of 2nd SS Panzer; a third bogged in a ditch. Langangke’s driver, Zeeger, jumped down to fix a towing shackle to the hill of the cripple, and was immediately wounded badly in the face by shell fragments. Shocked, the man staggered into the undergrowth and vanished from sight. A retreating tank met him and got him away to the rear. Langangke leapt from his turret to the empty driving position and steered the Panther himself until, two hours later, a new driver was found for him. They all knew that the front was crumbling: ‘Verloren!’ – lost! – was a word they heard much of that week.
Sergeant Helmut Gunther of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers had returned from hospital in Le Mans on the 14th after being wounded in the abortive American offensive in early July. The reconnaissance battalion with which he served was already reduced to two understrength companies, which were merged and placed under his command. They were sent together with the pioneer battalion to defend a supposedly quiet sector of the front. On the 23rd–24th, they heard the sound of fierce fighting on their right as a neighbouring paratroop unit held off a local American attack. Then, although they themselves were not in the direct path of VII Corps’ assault, they were hastily ordered to fall back as the line around them cracked.
We were marching, marching back all the time. One morning we were ordered to keep a road open, but we found that the Americans had already blocked it. The roads were crowded with American vehicles, and all that we could do was to take to the fields on foot. On the fourth day, by sheer coincidence we ran into some of our own unit’s vehicles, and kept going by road. But we were losing stragglers all the time – some of us later had letters from them from America. Once when we were moving to take up position an army staff car stopped beside us. I saluted. The officer in it asked me where we were going. ‘Have you gone crazy?’ he said. ‘The Americans are there already.’ Then he drove on. In a ditch in a wood we met ten exhausted paratroopers who asked us for water. I suggested that they come with us, but they were reluctant. We moved off, and a while later heard shooting. One paratrooper caught up with us, and told us that all the rest were dead. They had tried to surrender, but it was too difficult.
We found a pig in a farm, killed it and cooked it. We took sheets from the farmhouse and laid them out on the table and prepared to eat. Suddenly a Luftwaffe man burst in shouting: ‘The Americans are right behind me.’ We grabbed the corners of the sheet with everything inside it, threw it in the back of a field car, and pulled out just as the first Sherman came in sight. Eventually we met up with our battalion headquarters, who were expecting the enemy at any moment. From then on, I could not distinguish the days. I had seen the first retreat from Moscow, which was terrible enough, but at least units were still intact. Here, we had become a cluster of individuals. We were not a battleworthy company any longer. All that we had going for us was that we knew each other very well.26
The offensive now entered a new and bloodier phase. As the American columns lay strung out over miles of unfamiliar country, German units began to fight with all their customary ferocity to escape entrapment. There were elements of 2nd SS Panzer, 17th SS Panzergrenadiers and the 353rd Infantry Division seeking to break free, while von Kluge was at last moving reinforcements west – 2nd Panzer and 116th Panzer under the command of XLVII Panzer Corps. A single self-propelled 88 mm gun overran two American companies near Notre Dame de Cenilly until Sergeant Robert Lotz of 41st Armored Infantry shot out its periscope, then closed in to kill its commander. A fierce counter-attack was fought off by CC B of 2nd Armored and cost the Germans dearly when Quesada’s fighter-bombers were vectored onto the scene. Americans came across abandoned German vehicles whose occupants had decided to flee on foot. On the night of 29 July, elements of 67th Armored Regiment and 41st Armored Infantry found themselves fighting for their lives against a column from 2nd SS Panzer and 17th SS who smashed through their lines in the darkness near St Denis-le-Gast. Most of the Germans eventually escaped, but they left behind 500 prisoners. Other elements of the same American units were attacked near Cambry the same night, and fought for six hours. But now the commanders of First Army knew that they were dominating the battlefield and that the German assaults reflected the thrashings of desperate men, rather than a genuine threat to the American front.
Lieutenant Fritz Langangke of 2nd SS Panzer was ordered to rendezvous with a paratroop unit at a crossroads which was to be held open until evening. He arrived to find no sign of the infantry, and was reinforced only by a single tank – that of his company commander. They camouflaged the Panthers and deployed to cover the road. Their engines were switched off as the first Sherman appeared, and although they struggled to hand-crank the turret they were too slow. Their first round missed. While the American seemed to hesitate, Langangke roared hastily backwards, fired again and hit. The Sherman’s commander was still standing uncertainly upright in his turret when his tank caught fire; the second Panther accounted for the next two Shermans. Mist, most unusual for the season, was drifting across the road. In its midst, Langangke was shocked to see Germans moving towards the Americans with their hands up. These were the infantry he had expected to meet: ‘They had taken their chance to finish the war.’
There was a lull in the action. American artillery fire began to fall around the orchard, and the Germans took it in turns to doze. Then a solitary Sherman raced headlong towards them, and its gun began to traverse to meet that of the Panther. The German fired first. The American tank commander leapt from his burning turret and ran for cover. The heat in the Panther was becoming intolerable, and sweat was pouring down the crews’ faces. There was another pause. Then came a sudden massive explosion against the hull, and they looked out to see American infantry all around them. To their astonishment, the tank responded when they roared into reverse. But now they were clearly visible, in the open, and a succession of American tank shells hit them. The driver shouted: ‘I can’t see! The periscope’s gone!’ Langangke pushed up his head and directed the driver further back. Another shell sprang open the turret welding, and they could see daylight through the steel. The crew baled out, Langangke wrenching his neck as he jumped without removing his headset.
They left their company commander still in his tank, working on a jammed gun, and ran away down the road towards the main German positions. They were in open country when a passing fighter-bomber swooped upon them, and Langangke’s gunner was killed by a cannon shell. Like all soldiers attacked by aircraft, they felt a passionate hatred for the pilot: ‘If we had had a chance to get that man, there would have been another war crime.’ They walked on until they reached the headquarters of one of the division’s panzergrenadier regiments, and were eventually provided with a repaired tank from the workshops, in time for the Mortain counter-attack.
Corlett had been pressing Bradley for a role for his XIX Corps in the offensive. Now he gained his point. As his men began to advance on the left of VII Corps, they encountered the first German reinforcements reaching the west. West of Tessy-sur-Vire, between the 28th and 31st, they collided with 2nd Panzer and then with the newly-arrived 116th Panzer in the fiercest fighting since COBRA began. On the 30th, Brigadier-General Rose’s CC A of 2nd Armored, recently attached to Corlett’s command, approached the town of Percy and was attacked in the rear by German tanks and infantry.
Percy lay in a hollow surrounded by hills. At about 4.30 p.m., a cluster of Rose’s tank commanders and infantry officers were at the bottom of the hill preparing to advance, ignorant of the powerful opposition in the area. Some of the tank crews were out of their vehicles, cheerfully milking cows in a field. Men of 4th Infantry lay on their backs under a hedgerow, smoking. Without warning, the entire area erupted under German mortar fire. Wounded and dying GIs lay scattered in the grass as the Americans hastily deployed to move up the hill, the tanks crawling forward at walking pace to allow the infantry to keep with them. As they paused to breast a hedge, two tanks were hit and burst into flames. The gunners poured fire into every hedge in front of them, but from his Sherman Lieutenant Phil Reisler could see infantry dropping around him:
. . . like some terrible war film. I saw one tall, very thin man drop his rifle and start to run away down the hill. Then I caught sight of holes in his head, and he crashed full tilt into an apple tree. He was running dead, like a chicken. I’ll never forget the dedication of those men of 4th Infantry walking up that hill over their dead buddies like British redcoats attacking in Revolutionary War days. It was magnificent. We got to the top with about ten tanks and about thirty-five foot soldiers.27
They placed two careful rounds through Percy clock tower and church and the mortaring stopped. But all that night they stood on the hill under heavy German fire, the tank crews listening unhappily to the moans and screams of wounded American infantrymen. The scene was lit by flames from the wrecked tanks, which burned through the darkness. On the radio net, they heard the infantry company commander asking repeatedly for medical support, until his unit ordered: ‘Quit calling. We can’t get to you.’ At intervals, the little infantry medical corporal would run to Reisler and beg him to call through again for aid, and the tank officer pretended to do so, without pressing his transmission switch. Once the corporal laid a blanket over a man who had gone. A few hours later, the men on the hill were appalled to see the figure beneath it sit up and scream. In the morning, the six surviving American tanks out of the 15 that had driven up, together with what was left of the infantry, withdrew from the hill, the Shermans coasting in neutral so that the Germans would not know that they had gone. Later Figurski, the gunner, had to pull human remains from their bogie wheels. Reisler said: ‘We never did get to see any krauts. Only dead ones.’
After more fierce fighting, Rose’s men and the other divisions of XIX Corps threw back the Germans, inflicting heavy losses of men and tanks. Some Sherman crews kept their engines running almost continuously for seven days. In the course of the entire battle, from 26 July to 12 August, one tank battalion – the 2nd/66th – lost 51 per cent of its combat personnel and 70 per cent of its tank strength. By 31 July, after fighting off repeated German assaults, the 743rd Tank Battalion was reduced to 13 Shermans.
But the Americans could afford losses of this kind far better than 2nd and 116th Panzer. Colonel Heinz-Gunther Guderian, 116th’s senior staff officer, described the desperate frustration of seeking to concentrate the division for its attack on 29 July amid incessant American fighter-bomber activity. They were expecting to go in with direct support from 2nd Panzer, but they did not receive this, for the other division had problems of its own. Their assault was postponed from the night of the 29th until the morning of the 30th, but they still had had no chance to probe the American front. On their left was relatively good tank going. Ignorant of this, they attacked with maximum weight on their right, and immediately found themselves plunged into thick bocage. All the frustrations that the Allies had endured in the preceding weeks overtook 116th Panzer. Unable to move across country and largely restricted to the roads, their hesitant advance struck an enemy exhilarated by success, at last gaining confidence in his own powers on the battlefield. Only one German infantry company reached the St Lô road on the 30th, and the vital tanks were still struggling far behind. By noon that day, the Germans knew that their attack had failed. From the bus which served as divisional headquarters, Guderian and the staff struggled to switch the axis of advance to the west, but they were now informed that their tank battalions were being transferred elsewhere under the direct command of LXXXIV Corps. They were being pounded remorselessly by American air and artillery. The next morning, the 31st, they were not surprised when a renewed attack failed. Their only concern now was to disengage, as the Americans began to push forward again in front of them. On the night of 1 August, they were successful. Thereafter, reduced to little more than the effective strength of a battle-group, they were moved south to support the sagging German left. Guderian confessed his own disappointment in the performance of some of the division throughout the battle: ‘Without proper artillery and armoured support, the panzergrenadiers would not hold. These were not the men of 1941–42.’28
While 2nd Armored’s CC A was fighting around Percy, the rest of Corlett’s XIX Corps were struggling to gain ground further east. On 31 July, Sergeant Bill Walsh of 102nd Cavalry was with a mixed team of tanks and assault guns which fought a characteristic action to clear the bridge across the Vire and the high ground dominating it at the little town of Torigny, south-east of St Lô.
The American armour rattled up the ruined main street of Torigny, watched in silence by clusters of frightened French civilians, hugging their doorways. One out of three bridges across the river remained intact, and across this the vehicles rolled one by one, under fire from small arms and artillery from Germans on the ridge above, Hill 204. The Americans turned and began to advance steadily up the hill towards the enemy, dug in behind the inevitable hedgerow. To their horror, Walsh’s crew found their assault gun sagging, losing grip and sinking sideways into a small swamp. They baled out hastily and ran for the shelter of a cluster of trees. As they caught their breath and watched shells bursting around the crippled gun, Walsh suggested to the driver that he might try again to unstick it. He declined. Walsh ran across, started the engines, accelerated and braked in vain for a moment or two, then fled back to the trees.
He heard an officer shout for all dismounted men to follow the tanks up the hill. He began to run with the infantry, clutching his carbine. Beside him a big, walrus-moustached mechanic called Cerbeck, who had joined the battle because he said that he wished to see what combat was like before he went home, was killed by small-arms fire along with the man beyond. Walsh made a desperate grab to clamber up on a Sherman as it paused, tracks grinding and throwing up clods of earth and stones, to smash a hedgerow with its ‘Rhino’ prongs. He fell off as the tank broke through, and looking around saw that it was the only American vehicle to have survived the drive. Propped against the reverse bank of the hedge, he found a bareheaded German soldier sitting bleeding badly from a stomach wound, muttering feebly: ‘Bitte, bitte.’
Walsh now saw the solitary Sherman reversing hard through the hole that it had cut, evidently pulling back. He ran desperately alongside until infantrymen clinging to the hull dragged him up. They withdrew to a safer distance from the German positions, and lay down around the tank waiting for reinforcements. Walsh saw a little cluster of unhappy men gathered around a soldier he knew from B Troop, who was lying footless after stepping on a Schuhmine. The doctor appeared and dressed the clean amputation while the others fed the man cigarettes and tried to force themselves to chat easily to him as he lay in the calm of acute shock. Exhausted and drained soldiers lay all along the hedgerow, roused to life only for a few moments of heavy firing when an officer shouted that some Germans were trying to counter-attack ahead. Then the battle seemed to peter out, the Germans disappearing beyond the reverse slope of the ridge. American vehicles clattered forward nose-to-tail across the bridge below, on the road to Vire, amid ineffectual enemy artillery fire. The word came that the division had decided to bypass the Germans on the ridge rather than continue a direct assault upon them. Two days later, with the enemy long gone as the advance reached far ahead of their flanks, Walsh returned with an armoured recovery vehicle and rescued his abandoned gun. The sharp, bitter little afternoon at Torigny had cost the Americans 33 casualties, three tanks and a clutch of trucks and half-tracks.
The 82nd Reconnaissance Battalion of 2nd Armored suffered a similar shock on the afternoon of 2 August, as it moved fast south-eastwards at the head of CC B. Led by a Sherman, its column drove up a steep winding hill through the thickly-wooded forest of St Sever towards the town of Calvados beyond. In their haste to reach their objectives, they had dispensed with infantry flank protection or advance patrols. As the lead vehicle emerged from the wood, it was halted by a road block of trees felled across the road. The commander, a Pennsylvanian named Sergeant James Maser, dismounted to inspect the trees seconds before fire from two Tiger tanks, hull-down covering the road, destroyed his Sherman. German infantry in the woods began to bring down machine-gun and mortar fire the length of the column. Americans ran from their vehicles to try to pinpoint their attackers, but could see nothing through the trees and thick scrub. Within a few minutes, one of the survivors wrote, ‘it became a nightmare of embarrassing, disorganized rout.’ 25 Americans died in a few minutes of furious German firing, before the rest of the battalion could make their escape. Half their NCOs were lost, and two more became casualties in accidents in their assembly area that night. It was a brutal, stinging reminder of the punishment that the Germans could still inflict upon tactical carelessness. It was 7 August before 2nd Armored cleared St Sever and advanced to St Hilaire and Barenton.
As von Kluge’s exhausted men at last recoiled further east, the Allies were pressing forward. On 30 July, the British VIII Corps launched Operation BLUECOAT south from Caumont towards Vire and Mont Pinçon, while the US V Corps advanced on their right. V Corps’ official task was merely to protect the flank of COBRA, but General Hodges told Gerow that there was nothing to stop him making all the ground that he could in the process. There was some confusion between the British and Americans about rights of access to roads, and mutual irritation when British reconnaissance vehicles found Vire empty and claimed its liberation, only to find the Americans occupying the town before British main elements could reach it. For the British, any satisfaction at the extraordinary loosening of the front that had now begun was soured by the discovery that, once again, XXX Corps and 7th Armoured Division were performing feebly. Montgomery’s patience was finally exhausted: Bucknall and Erskine were sacked. The US First Army’s diary for 31 July reported:
Resistance in the XIX Corps sector continues to be rugged; the boche here shows no sign of demoralization, 30th division made only 300 yards, and the 29th were only able to make 800. V Corps had things a bit easier, the 2nd and 5th divisions making more than two miles, 35th div a mile. The Second British Army continued its drive, but met determined enemy resistance and consequently had to be content with a stalemate . . . Some 10,000 prisoners have been taken during the drive.
The disappointments on Gerow and Corlett’s fronts could not mar the exhilaration of the vast success of COBRA to the west, the personal triumph of Collins, who played a pre-eminent role in the achievement. This passionate, intolerant, impatient soldier had once again demonstrated his outstanding qualities as a corps commander. All the American virtues of speed and energy had at last come into play on the battlefield. The plan and the army had found their moment. It is highly doubtful whether an operation resembling COBRA could have been launched earlier in thecampaign. Its prerequisites were, first, a degree of battle wisdom that First Army only attained after weeks of painful experience; and second, an erosion of German strength that had taken much hard fighting to bring about. Against an army of such supreme professionalism, a premature American dash deep into the German front might have resulted in a crushing defeat for the attackers; the Allies needed first to cripple the fighting power of the enemy and crumble their resources. Having done so, they now reaped rich rewards.
At this pivotal moment in the Allies’ fortunes, the long-scheduled shift in the American command structure took effect: Lieutenant-General Courtney Hodges assumed command of First Army; Patton’s Third Army formally came into being; Bradley stepped up to exercise overall command of the American forces, now designated 12th Army Group. The stage was set for one of the most dramatic American strategic movements of the war.