Friday, July 24, 2015

D-Day +49

The 24th and 25th of July, 1944 witnessed one of the most reckless Allied acts of WWII, but one which certainly contributed to the ultimate demise of the German 7th army in France.

Operation Cobra, was a plan hatched in desperation and frustration. The architect, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, wanted a dramatic end to the stalemate in the hedgerows, where gains were often measured in lives lost for yards taken. His plan required unbalancing his opponents, while punching a hole in their stout defenses, through which his Divisions could pour, begin the dash to Brittany and complete the ultimate encirclement of their forces.

A strip of land some 7000 yards long was chosen for the action. This zone bordered the main highway between Perriers, still in German hands, and the newly liberated town of St Lo.

Section from German view

Section from American view

The attack was to be proceeded by an aerial bombardment and a ferocious artillery barrage. The aerial bombardment required a preliminary attack by fighter bombers, which had better visibility, to hit a belt of German defenses 250 yards deep, while medium and heavy bombers flying at altitude would carpet bomb to a depth of 2,500 yards. The demarcation line was to be the highway.

North of the highway the American Divisions were amassed and South was the target area. For fear of alerting the Germans, civilians were not warned. Civilian deaths and the destruction of their homes was considered inescapable collateral damage by Bradley. After the bombardment the 9th and 30th Divisions would jump off, punch through the dazed Germans and hold the flanks while the US 1st Infantry Division, the 2nd Armored Division,and 4th Infantry Division would drive deep into the Germans and collapse their resistance. In overall command on the ground was General 'Lightening Joe' Collins, who time and time again had proven his worth. He was just the right man to exploit this bold maneuver.

Map of advance, taken from monument by start of bombardment
From the beginning there had been friction between Bradley and 8th Air Force General Carl Spaatz, who derided the use of air support for ground attacks. He felt that using his bombers to plow up ground in front of an infantry advance and bomb a few half baked German Divisions was a waste of his precious resources. He was made to tow the line and after delays due to bad weather the bombardment was scheduled for July 24th.

Unbeknown to Army command, the air force had decided to bomb perpendicular to the main highway and not parallel, as had been agreed. At 15 minutes prior to the scheduled attack, the 30th Infantry Division fired red smoke shells into the area south of the highway to further define the bombing line, but a slight breeze began to blow the smoke back over the road and on to the American positions.

View from the air, minus the smoke
Normally troops would be at least 4000 yards behind such a bombardment, but Bradley did not want to give the enemy time to gather his wits. He insisted that troops be prepared to jump off from a line only 1,200 yards away from the bombs raining down. The results were disastrous.

Soldiers climbed out of their foxholes to watch the aerial armada overhead, only to be horrified as they watched the aircraft disgorge their deadly cargoes on top of them. Although all the Divisions suffered, it was the 30th right in the center of the advance who received the full effect of this calamitous miscalculation. Hundreds of men were killed, wounded or listed as missing. Morale was decimated, soldiers wandered around as if punch drunk. Many were unable to speak.

"They just looked like ghosts," one officer reported.

Eisenhower who had arrived in France to watch the results of this spectacular assault, returned to England vowing he would never allow such a thing to happen again. Bradley's credibility was on the line.

General McNair
A second run was planned for July 25th, even though the dazed troops had barely had time to recover, get to grips with the loss of colleagues and friends, and re-supply. Second in command, General Lesley J. McNair, who had protested strongly to his boss Bradley, came up to see for himself. He took up a position in a foxhole close to the front line as the flights of bombers made for the target area. As was the day before, the 30th fired their red smoke and yet again the breeze forced it back over the American positions. Calamity was about to strike a second time.

Bradley's aide Major Hansen, who had also witnessed the first days debacle, said:

"the ground grunted and heaved as the first cascade of bombs came down and angry black spirals of dirt bolied out of the ground."

General McNair took a direct hit, tossing his body sixty feet into the air. His remains were unrecognizable, only his shoulder boards and stars gave any clue as to his identity. Men were blown to bits, vehicles were burning and some soldiers threw down their equipment and tried to stumble away from this awful death.

Shrapnel found in the area July 24, 2011

Remains of the church today
The lush Normandy countryside had been turned into a cratered wasteland as bombs exploded spewing out deadly, molten shrapnel. Even today, 69 years later, the craters are still visible and rusted lumps of metal still litter the area.

All front line divisions took casualties, but as the day before, it was the 30th who came off worst. In the village of Le Mesnil Durand, the regimental combat post was bombed causing 40 casualties. Even the tiny village church took a direct hit.

View from a bomb crater behind memorial chapel that stands in the church ruins
How does a commanding officer rally his men after such experiences? To get the trembling survivors out of their slit trenches and foxholes, have them pass the mangled remains of friends and push them into battle, is a real tribute to these great leaders. General Leland Hobbs of the 30th Division and General Raymond Barton of the 4th Division, two tough and experienced men, could not allow the Germans to recover, nor could they allow the apocalyptic actions of the Air Force to destroy the fighting spirit of their surviving troops. With the aid of their loyal and determined staff officers, they rallied the dazed GI's and urged them forward into what was now a lunar landscape.

Only a small percentage of the ordnance designated for 'Operation Cobra' had fallen on the Americans, the remainder had found important targets, but further behind the German lines. The front line Germans were still able to put up a fight until they were flanked and annihilated. The 'jump off' had not gone according to plan. In some places the Germans had crept back into 'no man's land' as the Americans pulled back to the safe distance line, and scattered mines and anti personnel devices. Like everything else in the Normandy campaign, territorial gains were made at a great price.

The Panzer Lehr Division had been decimated and although some stubborn pockets of Germans remained, it was not long before the enemy was in headlong retreat. The entire village of Le Chapelle en Juger, at the center of the aerial bombardment, was virtually wiped off the map.

This costly action would signal the start of a complete rout of German forces: although there were many tough battles still to be fought.

Friday, July 17, 2015

D-Day +42

Saint-Lo is the capital of the Manche region of Normandy and a vital traffic hub. In 1944, it had been a key strategic objective for American forces. Sitting at the center of a major road and rail network which connects Normandy and Brittany, it was to form a pivotal role in the American attempt to swing into Brittany and begin the encirclement of the enemy.

The Germans also had an important command and control centre in St.-Lo. The Germans had been prepared for The Americans. As early as July1st, German High Command had dictated that a fight to the death policy would be adopted, ground was to be yielded only when overrun and harassing counterattacks were to be effectively utilized against the advancing Americans. Every field, lane, and approach to St.-Lo had been prepared by the Germans.

Territorial gains in the weeks leading up to the taking of St.-Lo, could often be measured in terms of yards taken, for men killed.

Germans dug in, American casualty in foreground
The terrain even benefited the Germans. They were able to dig in, camouflage and lay in wait. They only had to knock out the lead tank in a column to bring an armored advance to a complete halt in the narrow country lanes, then their well sighted artillery could go about the job of picking of the remaining tanks at will. Every time a GI raised his head above a hedgerow, he was likely to get it blown off.

The advance on St. Lo had been a miserable affair for the American soldiers, but on July 18th 1944, the 29th Division finally entered what was left of the ancient market town.

The taking of the town has always been credited to the 29th as it was they who had fought their way in, but stout and costly support had been provided by the 30th Division. Without the soldiers of ‘Old Hickory’, engaging the fanatical groups of German paratroopers and SS grenadiers, tightly holding on, the 29th Division casualties, already significant, would have been catastrophic.

St.-Lo had played a pivotal role in Normandy battles through the ages, and has a history dating back to the 8th century. From the Vikings to the Germans, it had been taken and occupied many times, but no war had ever come close to punishing the inhabitants and obliterating their homes like this one.

Thousands of civilians had perished in Allied bombing and artillery strikes and barely a building was left standing, when Lt. Edward G. Jones, Jr of the 29th Recon troop entered the town. The people of St. Lo had paid a heavy price for their freedom.

Saint-Lo, modern day, from

Since 1999 St Lo has been twinned with Roanoke, Virginia, USA.

Monday, July 13, 2015

D-Day +35

The Battle for Mont Castre and Hill 122 mentioned in the previous post had been won, but at a high price. Four thousand GI's lay dead and many more were severely wounded. Armored support had aided the capture of this strategic area, but the battleground was strewn with the wreckage of Sherman tanks.

La Haye du Puits National Archives
The capture of these heights enabled the 82nd Airborne to move in with the 79th Infantry Division and take the important town of La Haye du Puits. This would be the 82nd's last engagement in Normandy. They were exhausted and their ranks severely depleted, but they had proved themselves effective shock troops, an inspiration to their infantry counterparts and fierce adversaries to the stubborn Germans.

The 83rd Infantry Division together with the 4th Infantry Division had finally taken Sainteny and now continued their inch by inch battle.

On their left flank, the 29th Infantry Division, who had been mauled on Bloody Omaha, moved forward with the 30th Infantry Division, making progress towards the important objective of St Lo. They had experienced their share of murderous hedgerow fighting and lost many men en-route.

Airel bridge, modern day
Airel bridge National Archives
Unfortunately, advancing across the narrow bridge at Airel, they clashed with men from the U.S. 3rd Armored division who, in their forward thrust, cast aside the bedraggled soldiers of the 30th. With their heavy tanks and support vehicles, they ran over communication wires and failed at all levels to co-ordinate with soldiers from the 30th. The 3rd was just desperate to get into the fight. In his book The Americans at Normandy, historian John C. McManus reports 30th Division General, Leland Hobbs, as accusing the 3rd Armored of creating casualties amongst his men by their "promiscuous fire." He was so frustrated, he ordered artillery called in by the 30th to be laid down regardless of where 3rd Armored that might be in the area.

If they do it to us, we do it to them!

KO'd panther tank, National Archives
Things were about to get worse as more and more reinforcements from the 2nd SS panzer division, "Das Reich" began flooding into the area. By July 11th, the Americans had taken Hauts Vents, inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans, but sustaining high levels as well.

The Americans were inching ever nearer their objective of St. Lo, but hedgerow country and fanatical Germans would cause them to invest heavily for each piece of ground taken.

Friendly fire, a regrettable feature of all warfare, would become a major factor in the bold "break out" plan being meticulously prepared at the highest level.

Curtis Culin
One ray of light, a much needed solution to the problems of the Allied tanks ability to penetrate the dense bocage, had been developed by a sergeant from New Jersey, Curtis G. Culin. Taking German steel obstacles that littered the beaches, Culin found that they could be shaped and welded to the front of a tank, enabling it to cut through hedgerows. These tanks became known as "Rhinos."

Rhino National Archives

Sunday, July 5, 2015

D-Day +28

A swampy approach

As day broke on July 4th 1944, the American armies jumped off on their continued inch-by-inch battle of the hedgerows. The 331st Infantry Regiment of the 83rd Infantry Division were positioned just South of the small village of Meautis. 

German artillery was stationed behind these trees.
The German 6th paratroop regiment under von der Heydte were waiting for them.

Preceded by a preliminary artillery barrage, and accompanied by a couple of medium tanks, the Americans headed into the swampy ground toward the
farmhouse of Les Ormeaux.

There is a good, first hand description of the battle for Les Ormeaux farm and how it repeatedly changed hands at this site.

On the 331st's left flank, the 330th Regiment would launch their attack down the main Carentan-Perriers road to try to seize the small town of Santeny, located just 9kms south of Carentan. This town was held by the 17th SS panzer grenadiers, aided by panther tanks from the dreaded 2nd SS ‘Das Reich’.

The pharmacy is now a salon.

By evening, the attack on Sainteny had stalled on the outskirts of the village, but a pfc, Tony Vaccaro, a keen photographer, wanted to develop his film. He made his way into the town, which was still under fire, and found a pharmacy. With the butt of his rifle, he broke the window. He climbed in and found the chemicals he needed.

On arriving back at his foxhole, Tony borrowed some helmets from his buddies and set to work developing his film, which he hung on the branch of a tree. “It was a dark night with no moon,” recalled Vaccaro, "and we were still trading artillery with the enemy, but I managed to develop my photographs.”

SS Relics From Sainteny Fighting

The attacks and counterattacks on Sainteny would continue until July 10th, when with the help of the 4th Infantry Division, the town fell to the Americans.

Further West, the 90th Infantry Division were on the outskirts of the village of St Jore. They had been bloodied all the way after crossing the Merderet River and they were about to experience their most ferocious combat to date, the battle for Mont Castre, known as Hill 122, which rises 300 feet above sea level. The Germans who held this hill maintained an unrivaled vantage point, which had to be taken by advancing American forces. Yet again the weary paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne would have to come to the rescue.

German view from the hill of the road leading to Periers (National Archives photo)
Overall, the whole advance was starting to stall. The enemy were still in a position to maneuver despite Allied air supremacy. They had a relatively intact communications system and their supplies were still getting through. The weather had been atrocious with a deluge of rain, which made areas of already marshy ground often impassable. The Germans had also demonstrated their willingness to defend positions regardless of cost.

US National Archives
Poor visibility had hampered Allied aerial patrols. In addition, numerous American tanks were being lost to German attack as they ‘bellied up’ over the hedgerows, presenting their lightly armored underside to enemy panzergrenadiers.

The pressure was mounting on General Bradley to do something bold and decisive, fast!

Friday, June 26, 2015

D-Day + 21

By D-Day + 21, U.S forces were still pinned down in the dreaded bocage with their backs to the sea. Following the destruction of the Mulberry harbors mentioned in the last Notebook postGeneral Omar Bradley had committed a substantial force to the taking of Cherbourg, the only deep water port on the Cotentin peninsula.

Prior to the advance on Cherbourg, it was necessary to cut the peninsula in two, thus trapping the remnants of the German 77th and 91st Divisions. This job was successfully completed by General Manton Eddy's 9th Division, moving West across Normandy, with no small effort from the weary troopers of the 82nd Airborne. Eddy then turned his forces toward Cherbourg.

The 4th and 79th Divisions, under the overall command of General 'Lightning Joe' Collins (architect of the Cherbourg attack), had fought their way up through perilous hedgerow country and were poised to attack from the Eastern coastline.

Reprint of 1947 Michelin Map (insert)

By June 27th, the three Divisions had linked up
and prized the town from the hands of the stubborn German defenders.

Fort du Roule
View from Fort du Roule over Cherbourg

Commander of the German forces in Cherbourg was General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben. He had ringed the town with formidable defenses, so the casualty rate had been high among US forces.

The town of Cherbourg is overlooked by a 19th century fort, Fort du Roule, a tremendous vantage point, which the Germans had turned into a subterranean defensive fortress, towering over the town below.

Anything that moved in a 360 degree radius around the fort was targeted by withering machine gun and artillery fire.

Two medals of honor were awarded during the U.S. action to take this impregnable enemy strongpoint, one to Corporal John Kelly and the other to Lieutenant Carlos Ogden, both of the 314th Infantry Regiment, 79th Division.

Hamburg - east of Cherbourg, National Archives photo
The U.S. Navy played a major role in the capture of Cherbourg. The Germans had placed two massive coastal artillery batteries on the outskirts of the town, one at Querqueville and the other, 'Battery Hamburg,' at Cape Levy, both of which could have turned their guns on the forces advancing into the city.

Using a high risk strategy, Bradley ordered Admiral Kirk to bring his destroyers close in shore and take on these two positions. Kirk gave the job to Admiral Deyo and an array of destroyers and cruisers, including the USS Texas and Arkansas, set about dueling with with the German gun crews. The gun crews' range, at 40,000 yards, was twice that of the Americans. After about five hours, the Navy was running out of evasive maneuvers, and their smoke camouflage had cleared. They became sitting ducks and began to take casualties, finally breaking off the engagement and heading out to sea.

Author and Historian, John C. McManus Ph.D, wrote in his remarkable book, The Americans at Normandy
On the heights that overlooked Cherbourg, General Collins stood, watching the whole spectacle. “It was thrilling and….an awe-inspiring sight. I knew definitely that Cherbourg was ours.” The naval fire had not actually knocked out many of the German guns, but it had kept the crews busy, diverting them from dealing with the greatest threat-the enemy behind them. Collins was so grateful for the Navy’s courageous support that he wrote to Admiral Deyo and told him that the bombardment “did much to engage the enemy’s fire while our troops stormed into Cherbourg from the rear."
By the 27th, D-Day + 21, twenty thousand Germans surrendered and the Americans had their deep water port, but Bradley's high risk strategy, which had cost so many lives, did not give him the means of unloading the much needed supplies.
German prisoners, National Archives photo

The Germans had completely destroyed the port and all of the unloading facilities. It would be three months before any cargo would cross it’s wharves, by which time the British had taken Antwerp.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Ellwood's Notebook D-Day+14

Following D-Day, American forces became locked in a war of attrition with the desperate Germans, who, after being dazed by the initial Allied invasion, were becoming more organized every day.

Bocage is extraordinarily thick, and difficult to penetrate.

Bocage patchwork from the air. Notice how
lanes between rows are not visible.
Apart from the ferocious opposition, GIs were bogged down in the Normandy hedgerow country, which is known locally as ‘The Bocage.’ These high medieval hedges, bordering sunken lanes, were a defender’s delight and a death trap for the attacking forces.

Sunken lane between hedge row

Within the bocage, Germans were able to conceal their deadly MG42 machine gun nests in positions of interlocking fire, which covered the patchwork of meadows between the hedgerows.

Germans with hidden 88

Allied Armor struggled to penetrate these fortifications and fell prey to attack from panzerfausts and the deadly 88mm German artillery pieces.

Dead livestock and the bodies of fallen soldiers from both sides littered the fields, and conditions became miserable.

All Allied hopes of a swift cross country dash were evaporating as the Germans made the liberators pay for every inch of ground.


Ellwood discusses the notorious German 88mm artillery piece

Between the 18th and the 21st of June, a massive storm raged in the English Channel. The storm destroyed the Mulberry harbors off Omaha Beach, which had been hastily assembled and not anchored correctly to the sea bed. These artificial harbors had enabled a steady but limited supply of ammunition and equipment to reach the hapless young GIs.

Mulberry harbor destruction

The rapid capture of a deep water port took on an added importance!

Click here for additional posts on the Battle of Normandy.