The Normandy Breakthrough ... Part 3
Following the capture of Coutances our plan was for the Third Army to drive south in the western sector, breaking through Avranches into Brittany and seizing the area Rennes-Fougeres, thence turning westward to secure St-Malo, the Quiberon Bay area and Brest, and clearing the entire peninsula. Meanwhile the First Army would advance south to seize the area Mortain-Vire.
At the same time the Second Army was to concentrate on a thrust in the Caumont area, side by side with that of the First Army on Vire. The enemy in this part of the front had only some four regiments in the line, reinforced with an occasional dug-in tank, and a great opportunity appeared here for a striking blow which, with General Bradley's offensive in the west, might bring decisive results. Rapidity of action was the vital factor now: We could not afford to wait either for weather or for perfection in the details of our preparations. The enemy was reeling and it was imperative that we should not allow him time to readjust his lines, shift his units, or bring up reserves. Our policy must be to indulge in an all-out offensive and, if necessary, throw caution to the winds.
Our advance in the west continued. On 29 July VIII Corps' armor crossed the Sienne, south of Coutances; two days later Avranches fell to the 4th Armored Division; and on 3I July the 6th Armored Division reduced the elements resisting at Granville. No effective barrier now lay between us and Brittany, and my expectations of creating an open flank had been realized. The enemy was in a state of complete disorganization and our fighters and fighter-bombers swarmed over the roads, shooting up the jammed columns of German transport to such effect that our own advance was slowed by the masses of knocked-out vehicles. The enemy infantry was in no condition to resist us, and only the weary, badly battered armor put up any considerable fight.
At the same time the British launched their thrust south of Caumont. The enemy was attempting, with two armored divisions, to establish a hinge in the Percy-Tessy area on which to conduct operations designed to prevent a collapse of the entire Normandy front. In this, however, he was defeated by the combined First Army frontal attacks and the Second Army flank drive toward Vireo The British offensive in the Caumont sector was preceded by another smashing air bombardment by nearly 700 RAF heavy bombers, supported by over 500 AEAF light and medium bombers, which, as usual, had a paralyzing effect upon the enemy. Prisoners stated that the confusion was so great that effective unit fighting was rendered impossible for at least 12 hours, although the Allies lost some part of this advantage through not launching the ground attack immediately after the cessation of the bombing. Enemy attempts to deny us the high ground west of Mont Pincon and the valley of the Vire were frustrated; Le Beny-Bocage was captured by the II Armoured Division (8 Corps) on 5 August and, following heavy fighting, Vire was entered on 2 August only to be temporarily recaptured by two SS panzer divisions on the next day. There was a bitter struggle for some days before the enemy was finally forced back from this sector. Farther to the northeast, Villers-Bocage was taken on 5 August and Evrecy and Esquay, southwest of Caen, on the 4th.
By these combined efforts of the First and Second Armies, the flank of the American salient was safeguarded. The enemy, having finally decided to use his Fifteenth Army resources to reinforce the Normandy front, was now at last replacing, with the newly acquired infantry, the armor which he had hitherto kept massed east of the Orne to prevent any possibility of a breakthrough there toward Paris and the Seine. The armor so freed he proceeded to transfer westward toward the Vire area in support of the Seventh Army troops struggling to prevent a collapse of the front there, and to provide the necessary weight to hurl against the flanks of the Third Army. Resistance accordingly stiffened as four panzer divisions arrived from east of the Orne, followed by a further panzer division and an infantry division from across the Seine.
Following the capture of Granville and Avranches, the Third Army advance continued against negligible resistance into Brittany. The passage of the Selune River was assured by the 4th Armored Division's capture of its dams on 1 August and then this division struck southward to cut the neck of the Brittany Peninsula, while the 6th Armored Division turned westward toward Brest. the airborne operation which we had prepared to assist in "turning the corner" into Brittany was rendered unnecessary by the unimpeded rapidity of the ground force advances. On 2 August the 4th Armored Division was in the suburbs of Rennes, and the 6th Armored Division reached Dinan, bypassing St Malo. Combat commands of these two divisions, followed by the 8th, 79th, and 83d Infantry Divisions, now proceeded quickly to overrun the peninsula. On 4 August, Rennes was in our hands, and while one column drove on from there toward Nantes another secured Fougeres and Vitre, continuing southward toward the Loire. By 6 August the line of the Vilaine River was held from Rennes to the sea, thus completing the cutting off of the peninsula, while to the east the 5th Infantry Division reached the Loire River between Nantes and Angers, Nantes itself falling on 10 August. Meanwhile the 6th Armored Division had traversed Brittany to the west and was standing before Brest.
The opposition encountered by General Patton's flying columns in the course of this sweep was negligible, for the enemy's flank had collapsed so completely that there was hardly any resistance offered by organized units above company strength. The Germans, realizing the impossibility of forming any defensive line on which to hold the peninsula, accepted the inevitable and abandoned the interior of Brittany in order to concentrate their available strength to defend Brest, St-Nazaire, St-Malo, and Lorient, the ports which they estimated to be our principal objectives. The forces left to them for this purpose consisted of some 45,000 garrison troops, together with elements of the 2d Parachute Division and three infantry divisions-in all some 75,000 men. Inland, only small pockets of resistance remained, and these were bypassed by the armored columns and left to be mopped up by the infantry and the local French Forces of the Interior. By the end of the first week of August the enemy had been forced everywhere to fall back into the ports under siege by the VIII Corps.
Special mention must be made of the great assistance given us by the F.F.I. in the task of reducing Brittany. The overt resistance forces in this area had been built up since June around a core of S.A.S. troops of the French 4th Parachute Battalion to a total strength of some 30,000 men. On the night of 4-5 August the Etat-Major was dispatched to take charge of their operations. As the Allied columns advanced, these French forces ambushed the retreating enemy, attacked isolated groups and strong points, and protected bridges from destruction. When our armor had swept past them they were given the task of clearing up the localities where pockets of Germans remained, and of keeping open the Allied lines of communication. They also provided our troops with invaluable assistance in supplying information of the enemy's dispositions and intentions. Not least in importance, they had, by their ceaseless harassing activities, surrounded the Germans with a terrible atmosphere of danger and hatred which ate into the confidence of the leaders and the courage of the soldiers.
Battle of the Falaise-Argentan Pocket