The Normandy Breakthrough .. Part 2
The plan of the attack was that, following a heavy air bombardment of the enemy positions, the First Army was to advance on a three-divisional front west of St-Lo with the general line Marigny-St-Gilles as the primary objective. Three more divisions were then to pass through the first wave, turn westward, and strike for Coutances and Granville, thus cutting off the enemy in the area Periers-Lessay. These first two waves were to be launched by VII Corps, with VIII Corps subsequently taking up the battle in the Lessay sector and advancing along the coast on our right.
As the outcome of the British-Canadian-American joint operations, I envisaged three possibilities. First, given a spell of fine weather, there was good reason to hope for such measure of success by both the First and Second Armies that our forces might encircle the enemy west of Vire and so eliminate his units as practically to create an open flank. In this case, it would be unnecessary to detach any large forces for the conquest of Brittany and the bulk of our strength could be devoted to completing the destruction of the enemy forces in Normandy. As a second possibility, the enemy might succeed in establishing a defensive line running from Caen to Avranches, in which case the task of gaining Brittany would require another large-scale thrust on the right flank. Thirdly, if, as seemed very unlikely, the enemy could manage to block our advance beyond this Caen-Avranches line, we had ready a special amphibious-airborne operation designed to seize Brittany in the enemy's rear. As the situation stood at that time, the conquest of Brittany was still an all-important aim of our policy in order that through its ports we might receive and maintain the additional divisions with which we planned to pursue the battle across France. We could not then envisage the full extent of the defeat which the enemy was to sustain in Normandy.
On the morning of 25 July an area 5 miles long and 1 mile wide to the west of St-Lo, was blasted by 1,495 heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force and 388 aircraft of AEAF dropping over 4,700 tons of bombs. At the same time, medium bombers attacked troops and gun concentrations southeast of Caen, and fighter bombers with bombs and rocket projectiles attacked targets behind the American assault area. The total of AEAF sorties for this day was 4,979, Of all the planes employed in these massive operations, only 6 heavy bombers, 4 light bombers, and 19 fighters were lost. These were chiefly the victims of flak; the enemy fighters offered more combat than usual, but did not succeed in penetrating our fighter screen and reaching the bombers.
As in the case of the bombardment of Caen a week earlier, the air blow preceding the ground attack west of St-Lo, did not cause a large number of casualties to the enemy sheltering in their dug-in positions, but it produced great confusion. Communications broke down and supplies from the rear were cut off. During the actual bombing the bewilderment of the enemy was such that some men unwittingly ran toward our lines and four uninjured tanks put up white flags before any ground attack was launched. Again, as at Caen, this stunning effect was only temporary.
The closeness of the air support given in this operation, thanks to our recent experiences, was such as we should never have dared to attempt a year before. We had indeed made enormous strides forward in this respect; and from the two Caen operations we had learned the need for a quicker ground follow-up on the conclusion of the bombing, for the avoidance of cratering, and for attacks upon a wider range of targets to the rear and on the flanks of the main bombardment area. Our technique, however, was still not yet perfected, and some of our bombs fell short, causing casualties to our own men. Unfortunately, perfection in the employment of comparatively new tactics, such as this close support carpet bombing, is attainable only through the process of trial and error, and these regrettable losses were part of the inevitable price of experience. Among those who lost their lives on this occasion was Lieut. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who was watching the preparations for the attack from a foxhole in the front line. His death was a heavy blow to the United States Army and a source of keen sorrow to me personally.
At the commencement of the ground battle, VII Corps, in the sector west of St-Lo, had under command the 2d and 3d Armored Divisions and the 1st, 4th, 9th, and 30th Infantry Divisions; while VIII Corps, in the Periers-Lessay sector had the 8th, 79th, 83rd, and 90th Infantry Divisions with the 4th Armored Division. The battle began with the advance of VII Corps at midday on 25 July; the 9th Division was on the right flank, 4th Division in the center, and 30th Division on the left, with 1st Division and the armor in the rear. At the same time our VIII, XIX, and V Corps maintained their pressure along the remainder of the army front. South of Caen, the Canadian 2 Corps simultaneously advanced southward astride the Falaise road.
The American advance was met with intense artillery fire, from positions not neutralized by the air bombing, on the left flank, while on the right German parachute units resisted fiercely. The ordinary infantry opposition, provided by elements of three infantry divisions, and of one panzer division, was not so severe. The enemy was still weak in armor in the sector fronting the United States armies: Although three panzer divisions were there, the bulk of his armored strength was still concentrated under Panzer Group West, with one panzer division west of the Orne, and five east of the river.
The advance at first made slow progress, but by midnight VII Corps had crossed the Periers-St-Lo road, and on 26 July its 1st Infantry and 2d and 3d Armored Divisions took up the attack. Lozon, Marigny, and St-Gilles were taken and the St-Lo-Coutances road cut. On the same day VIII Corps attacked across the Periers St-Lo road to the west of VII Corps. The Germans continued to counterattack vigorously, and, as the Allied thrust swung westward toward Coutances, it became clear that the enemy intended to retain that town as long as possible in order that he might extricate his troops from the north.
During 27 July the towns of Periers and Lessay were taken, and despite many mines and booby-traps the advance on Coutances was pushed ahead, led by the armored units. Pockets of resistance were bypassed by the tanks and left to be mopped up by the infantry. The enemy meanwhile struggled to withdraw his forces through Coutances, but the infantry elements in the coastal sector had commenced their retreat too late, and our air forces took heavy toll of the vehicles streaming southward along the roads converging on the city. The enemy forces north of Coutances at this time comprised elements of three infantry divisions (77th, 243d, and 353d),2d SS Panzer and 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Divisions, and battle groups of the 265th, 266th, and 275th Infantry Divisions. The German Command concentrated primarily on evacuating the SS formations, leaving the remainder to their fate.
On 28 July the escape route through Coutances was sealed with the capture of the city by the 4th Armored Division, which, with the 6th Armored Division, formed the spearhead of VIII Corps. These two formations then pressed on southward with gathering speed to the Sienne River, while VII Corps, spearheaded by the 2d and 3d Armored Divisions, continued to attack southwestward toward Granville and Avranches. The enemy withdrawal following the loss of Coutances, began to degenerate into a disorderly retreat, and 4,500 prisoners were taken during the 24 hours of 28 July. Although mine fields were laid to slow the pursuit, and German armored units fought a stubborn rearguard action, the advance was not checked. The 5th Parachute Division, Panzer Lehr Division, and 353d Infantry Division were almost completely accounted for by this time, although, in accordance with German practice, they were reconstituted at a later stage of the campaign.
Meanwhile, on 28 July, XIX Corps, advancing south from St-Lo, reached Tessy-sur-Vire, while V Corps attacked south of the Foret de Cerisy against stiff resistance by 3d Parachute Division. Farther east, in the British-Canadian sector, the Canadian 2 Corps advance toward Falaise had been halted by a strong defensive belt of antitank guns, dug-in tanks, and mortars. The Canadians were probing the defenses, with the aid of magnificent support by the RAF 83 Group, and considerable losses were inflicted on the enemy. Our pressure on this sector was not, however, able to prevent the move of 2d Panzer Division from the east bank of the Orne across to the Tessy area, where it made a stand to cover the general withdrawal from Coutances. Elements of two infantry divisions with a small proportion of the 2d Parachute Division were also being brought to the battle area from Brittany to bolster up the enemy's front. Prior to the arrival of these reinforcements, the enemy troops opposing the United States sector, while nominally consisting of nine infantry, two parachute, one panzer grenadier, and two panzer divisions, had an estimated combat strength of only three and a half infantry, one parachute, and three panzer-type divisions. Against the British sector, from Caumont to Cabourg, were nominally eight infantry and five panzer divisions, of a real strength not exceeding that of five and a half infantry and three and a half panzer divisions.
If further reinforcements were to be provided for the Seventh Army, and Panzer Group West, the majority of them would have to be drawn from the Fifteenth Army in the Pas-de-Calais. Of the Seventh Army itself, only the infantry division in the Channel Islands and parts of the two divisions in Brittany remained uncommitted. In the southwest of France, the German First Army had only two limited-employment infantry divisions, three training divisions, and a panzer division (which was engaged against the Maquis). The Nineteenth Army, in the southeast, had already sent three infantry divisions to the battle area, only one of which had been replaced; one field-type infantry division, six limited-employment infantry divisions, and a panzer division remained. The double threat of the Maquis and of Allied landings on the Mediterranean coast made it unlikely that much more would be forthcoming for Normandy from this source, with the possible exception of elements of the panzer division. Holland had contributed three limited-employment divisions to Normandy, and its coast-guarding units were seriously stretched. Replacements from within Germany had begun to arrive in the battle area, but the strength of the divisions opposing the Allies continued to decrease. Many units had been compelled in the recent fighting to use service elements, engineers, and artillery personnel as infantry, and others had been cannibalized to maintain the stronger divisions.
It was at this time that the effectiveness of our threat to the Pas-de-Calais began to decrease as the Germans found themselves faced with a more immediate danger in the shape of the breakthrough in Normandy. We were anxious to maintain the threat for as long as possible, although its greatest function-that of keeping the Fifteenth Army inactive during the crucial period of the assault and establishment of the lodgement area-had already been completed with such extraordinary success. The first moves from the Fifteenth Army area westward over the Seine coincided with the launching of the U. S. First Army attack on 25 July, when the 363d Infantry Division began to cross the river, while others prepared to follow it.
Following the success of our initial breakthrough in the west I considered that, in order fully to exploit our advantages, the time had come for the establishment of the U. S. Third Army. This officially came into existence under General Patton on I August, taking over command of VIII, XII, XV, and XX Corps, while V, VII, and XIX Corps remained with the First Army. The two armies were placed under command of General Bradley, whose leadership of the First Army had been so brilliantly successful. General (then Lieut. Gen.) C. H. Hodges succeeded him as Commanding General, First Army.
Earlier, on 23 July, the Canadian First Army, under General Crerar had also become operational, having under command initially the British I Corps, to which was joined the Canadian 2 Corps on 31 July. The army took over the easternmost coastal sector of the entire front. With the British Second Army, under General Dempsey, it now formed 21 Army Group, commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery.
My own operational headquarters was at this time in process of moving to the Continent, and in order to insure unified control during this critical stage of our operations Field Marshal Montgomery continued to act as my representative, with authority, under my supervision, over the entire operation as coordinator of activities. This arrangement continued from 1 August until 1 September, when my operations staff and communications were established and I assumed personal direction of the two army groups.
The Normandy Breakthrough ... Part 3