Normandy Lodgement ... Part 2
The quality of the German ground forces with whom our armies came in contact varied considerably. At the top of the scale came the troops of SS panzer and parachute units, considerably better than those of the ordinary infantry divisions. Their morale, backed by a blind confidence in ultimate Nazi victory, was extremely good, and whether in attack or defense they fought to a man with a fanatical courage. But in the infantry divisions we found opponents inferior, both physically and morally, to those against whom we had fought in North Africa. The lack of air and artillery support, the break-down of ration supplies, the nonarrival of mail, the unsoldierly behavior of some of the officers, the bombing of home towns-all tended to lower the men's spirits. Perhaps two-thirds of them were under 19 or over 30 years of age, and many were obviously tired of the war. Nevertheless, they had not yet reached the dangerous state of indifference. Their inborn Teutonic discipline and their native courage enabled them to fight on stubbornly, and it was only toward the end of the campaign in France that their morale broke momentarily. Many who were so-called non-Nazis saw no hope for Germany other than through Hitler, and thought it better to go down fighting than to suffer a repetition of 1918. Moreover, it cannot be doubted that the governmental propaganda on V-weapons had a considerable effect in strengthening morale in these early stages of the campaign. At the bottom of the scale came the foreigners who had either volunteered for or been pressed into the service of Germany. These men were dispersed throughout fixed garrisons and infantry divisions in order that adequate supervision could be exercised over them, but it was from their ranks almost exclusively that deserters came.
The abortive plot of the German military clique to assassinate Hitler, which astonished the world on 20 July, seemed to have little effect upon enemy morale. The details were little publicized by the German authorities, and the majority of the soldiers apparently regarded the facts as presented to them by the Allies as mere propaganda. Nor did the subsequent Himmler purge of non-Nazi elements in the army produce any marked change in the outlook of the rank and file.
The struggle which took place during this period of the establishment of the lodgment area, following the success of our initial assault, took the form of a hard slugging match on the British sector of the front, with the city of Caen as its focal point. Here the enemy concentrated the bulk of his strength, while the men of the U. S. First Army fought their way up the Cherbourg Peninsula to capture the port itself, subsequently regrouping and consolidating their position to the south in preparation for what was to prove the decisive breakthrough at the end of July.
By his anxiety to prevent the capture of Caen and the eastward extension of our beachhead, the enemy to some extent contributed to the accomplishment of our initial plan insofar as the capture of Cherbourg was concerned, and from D-plus6 or D-plus-7 the battle developed in general as foreseen. This enemy anxiety in the east was manifested from D-plus-l onward, following the failure of our attempt to seize the city of Caen in our first rush inland. It was vital for the enemy to deny us the Seine Basin: partly as it afforded the last natural barrier defending the V-1 and V-2 sites; partly because he needed the river ferries to bring over supplies and reinforcements to his divisions in Normandy; partly because he feared a thrust on Paris which would cut off all his forces to the west; partly because he foresaw a threat to Le Havre, which was an invaluable base for his naval craft operating against the approaches to the assault area; but perhaps most of all because he wished to avoid the possibility of a link-up between those Allied forces already ashore and those which he expected to land in the Pas-de-Calais.
For these reasons, therefore, he committed all his available armor and a considerable part of his infantry to the battle in the Caen sector, thus rendering easier the task of the Allied troops in the west but denying us access to the good tank and airfield country toward Falaise. His secondary aims, which crystallized as our strategy became clear to him, were to maintain a wedge threatening to divide the United States forces in the Cotentin from those in Calvados, to prevent the cutting of the Cherbourg Peninsula, and to block the way to Cherbourg itself. He fully appreciated the importance to us of securing this port-indeed, he overestimated the necessity of it, being ignorant of our artificial harbors project and probably underestimating our ability to use the open beaches-but his shortage of infantry and preoccupation with the Caen sector impaired his ability to defend it.
Our strategy, in the light of these German reactions, was to hit hard in the east in order to contain the enemy main strength there while consolidating our position in the west. The resulting struggle around Caen, which seemed to cost so much blood for such small territorial gains, was thus an essential factor in insuring our ultimate success. The very tenacity of the defense there was sufficient proof of this. As I told the press correspondents at the end of August, every foot of ground the enemy lost at Caen was like losing ten miles anywhere else. At Caen we held him with our left while we delivered the blow toward Cherbourg with our right.
The enemy's tenacity in the east did not mean that the Allied forces in the west enjoyed a walk-over. The terrain through which they fought was overwhelmingly favorable to the defense. In the close "bocage" countryside, dotted with woods and orchards, and with its fields divided by high tree-topped embankments, each in itself a formidable antitank obstacle, armor was of little value, and the infantry had to wage a grim struggle from hedgerow to hedgerow and bank to bank, harassed by innumerable snipers and concealed machinegun posts. For this type of warfare, experience gained by some of our units in their intensive pre-invasion exercises in the battle-training areas of southwest England proved valuable, as they had there been taught to fight in country resembling that in which they found themselves at grips with the real enemy.
After the fall of Carentan on 12 June, marking the effective junction of the two American beachheads, the enemy became anxious concerning the drive of the 82d Airborne and 9th Infantry Divisions which, striking towards St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, threatened to cut the neck of the peninsula and thus isolate Cherbourg. Although the enemy's 77th Infantry Division had been brought up from Brittany to assist, his available forces were not sufficient to cope with this thrust as well as with the more direct threat to Cherbourg leveled by our 4th and 90th Infantry Divisions which were pushing north on both sides of the Montebourg road. The enemy concentrated, therefore, on counterattacks from the south in an unsuccessful endeavor to recapture Carentan and reestablish the "wedge," while deploying a considerable mass of artillery to bar the way north at Montebourg. The town eventually fell on 19 June, but mean while the enemy weakness in the center led to the evacuation of St-Sauveur on 16 June. Patrols of the 82d Airborne Division entered the town on that day, and on 17 June the 9th Infantry Division reached the west coast at Les-Moitiers-d'Allone and St-Lo-d'Ourville, north and south of Barneville. The enemy had formed two battle groups, one of which was to defend Cherbourg and the other to escape to the south, but when the peninsula was cut, part of the "escape" force was trapped. The forces isolated to the north included the bulk of two infantry divisions, parts of two others, and the naval and garrison personnel employed in Cherbourg itself. Once VII Corps had reached the west coast, the enemy was unable to reopen his corridor to the north.
The Montebourg defense having been broken by 19 June, the advance on Cherbourg continued. Valognes fell on the following day, and three infantry divisions (the 4th on the right, 79th in the center, and 9th on the left) under VII Corps closed in on the city. The German attempt to hold us at Montebourg, as personally ordered by Hitler, proved to be an error of judgment, since, when the line was forced, the units which retreated to Cherbourg were in no state of organization to maintain a protracted defense of the city. Had the withdrawal taken place earlier, Cherbourg might have been able to hold out as long as Brest did subsequently. The lesson had been learned by the time the fighting reached Brittany.
An attack on Cherbourg was launched on the afternoon of 22 June, following an 80-minute bombardment of the outer defenses, but the enemy at first fought back stoutly. By 25 June, however, our men were fighting in the streets while the thunder of the German demolitions in the port area reverberated from the surrounding hills. At 1500 hours on 26 June, the joint commanders, Maj. Gen. von Schlieben (land forces) and Rear Adm. Hennecke (naval forces), despite having previously exacted no-surrender pledges from their men, gave themselves up. The Arsenal held out until the next morning, and other fanatical groups which even then continued to resist had to be eliminated one by one. A certain number of the enemy still remained to be rounded up in the northwest corner of the peninsula, but on 1 July their commander, Colonel Keil, was captured with his staff and all resistance in the northern Cotentin came to an end.
Normandy Lodgement ... Part 3