Normandy Lodgement .. Part 3
It was the judgment of Rommel himself that, with Cherbourg in our hands, elimination of the beachhead was no longer possible. The admission was tantamount to a confession of the failure of his own policy of relying on a concrete "wall" to frustrate an invasion on the very beaches. The next few weeks were to see the enemy making a frantic but unavailing effort, under von Rundstedt's supervision, to create the mobile striking force necessary for an elastic defense. But it was too late.
This inability of the enemy, after the initial success of our landings, to form an adequate reserve with which to regain the initiative and drive us into the sea became very apparent during the fighting in the British-Canadian sector. While the U.S. V Corps pushed inland from its Calvados beachhead to the south and east of Caumont, a heavy, seesaw battle was fought by the Second Army in the Tilly area, with two panzer divisions initially providing the bulk of the opposition. As our pressure increased, reinforcements were introduced by the enemy from two other armored divisions, but these proved inadequate. On 28 June, the British 8 Corps established a bridgehead some 4,000 yards wide and 1,000 yards deep beyond the Odon River near Mondrainville. The greater part of eight armored divisions was now flung into the battle by the enemy in a fruitless attempt to halt the advance and to cut the Allied corridor north of the river. Despite the bad weather, which deprived us of full air support, the bridgehead was reinforced and stood firm. The cream of the SS panzer troops failed to dislodge us, not because they were lacking in fighting spirit, but because they were put into the battle piecemeal as soon as they could be brought to the scene. In his efforts to prevent a breakthrough, the enemy found it necessary to employ his forces in small groups of about 200 infantry supported by 15 to 20 tanks, a process which proved both ineffective and expensive. The British forces compelled the enemy to continue these tactics, until by I July any chance he may have had of mounting a large-scale blow at anyone point had been completely destroyed. By their unceasing pressure they had never allowed the initiative to pass to the enemy and had never given him the respite necessary to withdraw and mass his armored resources.
Nevertheless, in the east we had been unable to break out toward the Seine, and the enemy's concentration of his main power in the Caen sector had prevented us from securing the ground in that area we so badly needed. Our plans were sufficiently flexible that we could take advantage of this enemy reaction by directing that the American Forces smash out of the lodgment area in the west while the British and Canadians kept the Germans occupied in the east.
Incessant pressure by the Second Army to contain the enemy's strength was therefore continued by Field Marshal Montgomery during July. Simultaneously, the United States forces in the Cotentin proceeded to fight their way southward, alongside those which had landed east of the Vire, to win ground for mounting the attack which was to break through the German defenses at the end of the month. Field Marshal Montgomery's tactical handling of this situation was masterly. By this time, I was in no doubt as to the security of our beachhead from any immediate enemy threat, and the chief need was for elbow room in which to deploy our forces, the build-up of which had proceeded rapidly. We were already approaching the stage when the capacity of Cherbourg, the beaches, and the artificial ports would no longer be adequate to maintain us, and it was imperative that we should open up other ports, particularly those in Brittany, so that we might make our great attack before the enemy was able to obtain substantial equality in infantry, tanks, and artillery. The danger we had to meet was one of a position of stalemate along the whole front, when we might be forced to the defensive with only a slight depth of lodgment area behind us.
The indomitable offensive spirit animating all sections of the Allied forces prevented such a situation from arising; but it was hard going all along the front, and the first half of July was a wearing time for both sides. While the Second Army battled furiously against the enemy armored strength to the east, the First Army struggled forward on both sides of the Vire.
It had been my intention that General Bradley's forces should strike south as soon as Cherbourg had fallen, but the need to reorganize and regroup prevented a start being made until 3 July. Then the advance was a laborious business, owing to the close nature of the country and the atrocious weather. The enemy resisted fiercely along the whole front. In the VIlI Corps sector violent fighting raged in the La-Haye-du-Puits area from 4 to 10 July, when the enemy's strongly organized positions were finally broken. VII Corps, attacking in terrain restricted by swampy land, suffered heavy losses for small gains along the Carentan-Periers highway. XIX Corps attacked across the Vire and established a bridgehead at St-Jean.de-Daye, then struck southward . The Germans, for the first time, transferred some armor from the eastern to the western sector, where the 2d SS Panzer Division had been the only armored unit in action. Panzer Lehr now joined it west of the Vire on 11 July, Panzer Lehr's counterattack was smashed by the 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions, and on the same day the U. S. First Army opened a new drive east of the Vire and directly toward St-Lo. Promising gains were made, but the German 2d Parachute Corps rallied to prevent any breakthrough to St-Lo.
In view of the strength of this opposition to the First Army, which caused the advance to be disappointingly slow although General Bradley attacked unceasingly with everything he could bring into action, Field Marshal Montgomery had decided to redouble the efforts on the eastern flank and, as he said, to "put the wind up the enemy by seizing Caen" in preparation for establishing a bridgehead across the Orne. When this had been done, the Second Army could either drive south with its left flank on the Orne or else take over the Caumont sector in order to free more American troops for the thrust toward Brittany.
In spite of his reinforcement of the western part of the front, it was evident that the enemy continued to regard the defense of Caen as the matter of greatest importance, and 700 of his available 900 tanks were still located in this sector. They were now under command of Panzer Group West, which held the sector east of the Drome River facing the British Second Army. Following the establishment of the Odon bridgehead, interest in the Second Army area was focused on a Canadian thrust toward Caen from the west which led to bitter resistance by the Germans at Carpiquet, where a three-day duel (4-6 July) for the possession of the airfield was fought between the Canadian 3 Infantry Division and the 12th SS Panzer Division.
On 8 July, Field Marshal Montgomery mounted his full-scale assault upon Caen. Applying the principles which he had first employed with such success in North Africa, he concentrated a maximum of striking power on one sector to achieve a breakthrough. The attack was preceded by an air bombardment of nearly 500 RAF "heavies," supplemented by effective naval fire from HMS Rodney, Roberts, and Belfast, and by land artillery. Although six hours elapsed between the air bombing and the ground attack, the result was to paralyze the enemy, who broke before our attack. The bombing having cut off their supplies, they ran out of ammunition and rations, and we occupied the whole of the town north and west of the Orne. Our advance was made difficult by the debris and cratering resulting from the bombing, and the enemy still held the Faubourg de Vaucelles across the river.
The entry into Caen was followed by a renewed thrust to extend the Odon bridgehead, and the capture of Maltot on 10 July threatened to trap the enemy in the triangle between the Orne and Odon. The threat produced vigorous enemy reaction again, the fighting for possession of Hill 112 being especially bitter. Once more the enemy was forced to bring back into the battle the armored elements which he had been in process of replacing in the line by infantry and withdrawing to form a strong striking force in reserve. A few days later he made another attempt, withdrawing two SS panzer divisions, but the Second Army attack on Evrecy on 16-17 July forced him, not only to bring the armor hurriedly back, but to adopt the dangerous and uneconomical policy of dividing an SS panzer division into two battle groups. Only the 12th SS Panzer Division, weary from a long period of activity culminating in its defeat before Caen, now remained in reserve, and the big attack south and east of Caen which materialized on 18 July put an end to its relaxation.
This continuing failure by the enemy to form an armored reserve constitutes the outstanding feature of the campaign during June and July: to it we owed the successful establishment of our lodgement area, safe from the threat of counterattacks which might have driven us back into the sea. Every time an attempt was made to replace armor in the line with a newly arrived infantry division, a fresh attack necessitated its hasty recommittal. These continual Allied jabs compelled the enemy to maintain his expensive policy of frantically "plugging the holes" to avert a breakthrough. So long as the pressure continued, and so long as the threat to the Pas-de-Calais proved effective in preventing the move of infantry reinforcements from there across the Seine, the enemy had no alternative but to stand on the defensive and see the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West slowly bleed to death. All that he could do was play for time, denying us ground by fighting hard for every defensive position.
Meanwhile, to the west, the steady pressure of the First Army forced the enemy gradually back through the close countryside, strewn with mines, toward the line of the Lessay-Periers-St-Lo road, where he had decided to make his main stand. His defense was weakest at the western extremity of this line, but in the St-Lo sector he showed a lively anxiety to hold this important road junction, the capture of which was essential to the success of our plan for a breakthrough. On 18 July, however, St-Lo fell to the 29th Division, and the 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions, west of St-Lo and across the Vire, had reached high ground suitable for launching the breakthrough attempt.
Thus, by 18 July, both the First and Second Armies had taken up the positions from which the breakthrough attacks were to be started. We now had the requisite room to maneuver, and our divisions in the field had been built up to 15 U.S. (including 3 armored) and 15 British and Canadian (including 4 armored), against which the enemy had 27, 8 of which were armored. On account of the losses which we had inflicted, however, the actual strength of the enemy was no more than the equivalent of six panzer or panzer-grenadier and ten full-strength infantry divisions. He had committed 540,000 men to battle and had lost at least 160,000 of them, killed, wounded, and prisoners; of 1,200 tanks committed, 30 percent had been lost. His reinforcement prospects were not rosy, for only four of his panzer divisions in the west (outside the Pas-de-Calais) had not yet been committed to the battle, and these were not ready for combat. His six divisions in Brittany had already been bled to help hold the line in Normandy, while in the southern half of France there were only 12 divisions left, of which but 7 or 8 were actually available to guard the coasts, thanks to the action of the Maquis inland. The southwestern part of the country had been practically evacuated of effective field units. Only the Fifteenth Army in the Pas-de-Calais, 19 divisions strong, was still left substantially intact, waiting for the expected further landings, which the commencement of the flying bomb attacks on 12 June may have made appear more likely than ever to the Germans.
Although the process had taken somewhat longer than we had anticipated, we had undeniably won the first and second rounds. In the first round we had gained our footing in France; in the second we had retained the initiative while expanding and consolidating our lodgement area and building up our strength in men and materials in readiness for the decisive blow to follow.
The enemy never succeeded in remedying the fatal situation into which Rommel's reliance on the Atlantic Wall had led him following the achievement of our landings. It was a coincidence that our old opponent of Africa should be struck down on the eve of the Second Army attack across the Orne, which was to be the precursor of the breakthrough in the west.
The Normandy Breakthrough