The Breakthrough

From the beginning of the campaign in Normandy, I agreed with Field Marshal Montgomery and general Bradley that our basic policy should be so to maneuver and attack as to pin down and destroy substantial portions of the enemy in our immediate front in order later to have full freedom of action. The alternative would have been merely a pushing-back, with consequent necessity for slowly battling our way toward the ultimate geographical objectives. By the third week in July, our forces were in position to launch the all-out attack, which, in accordance with this strategic idea, was to break through and destroy the enemy divisions then with difficulty attempting to contain us in our lodgement area. By throwing all our weight into an offensive at this stage, I felt confident that we should not only achieve our objectives but that, in the long run, the cost of our victory would be the less.

The enemy's reaction had convinced us that we should strike hard with our left and then follow through promptly with our right-hand blow. In both case, the whole weight of our air power was to be employed to support the ground attacks. We agreed also that the main attacks were to be supported by aggressive action all along the line to pin down the enemy's local reserves He had no major reserves immediately available, and we did not fear any serious counteroffensive.

In the Second Army sector, vigorous thrusts in the Evrecy-Esquay area through the Odon bridgehead on 16-17 July were to be in the nature of a feint to distract the enemy's attention and to cause him to withdraw more of his armor westward across the Orne to meet the threat. Then, on 18 July, the main British-Canadian thrust was to take the for of a drive across the Orne from Caen toward the south and southeast, exploiting in the direction of the Seine basin and Paris. On the following day, General Bradley would launch his major attack across the Périers-St. Lô road at a point west of St. Lô. Having achieved a breakthrough, he was to swing his spearheads westward to Coutances, in order to isolate the enemy divisions between St. Lô and the coast, and then strike down through Avranches, creating, if possible, an open flank. By this means we could then operate into the Brittany Peninsula to open up the much-needed ports, while the German Seventh Army and at least part of Panzer Group West could be encircled and crushed between the U.S. forces to the west and the British and Canadians to the east.

The execution of this plan opened promisingly. The enemy, as we had hoped, was deceived as to our intentions on the Second Army front by the operations in the Evrecy-Esquay area on 16 and 17 July. The reserve which he had been trying to form with two armored divisions was hurriedly broken up and part of one of them was brought westward over the Orne to counter our threat. Consequently our drive to the south and southeast of Caen across the river on 18 July achieved complete tactical surprise.

The attack was preceded at dawn on that day by what was the heaviest and most concentrated air assault hitherto employed in support of ground operations. This operation was a fine example of Anglo-American air cooperation, in which over 2,000 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth and Ninth Air Forces took part, dropping a total of over 7,000 tons of bombs. While RAF Halifaxes and Lancasters dropped over 5,000 tons of bombs in less than 45 minutes on the area south of the river over which the ground assault was to be made, United States planes attacked the enemy concentrations to the rear and on the flanks. In the carpet bombing, fragmentation bombs were used to break the enemy resistance without causing extensive cratering which would have hindered the advance of our tanks. At the same time, a strong naval bombardment was made to supplement the air effort.

Although only temporary in effect, the results of the bombing were decisive so far as the initial ground attack was concerned. Actual casualties to the enemy, in his foxholes, were comparatively few, but he was stunned by the weight of the bombing and a degree of confusion was caused which rendered the opposition to our advance negligible for some hours At the same time, the spectacle of our might air fleets roaring in over their heads to attack had a most heartening effect upon our own men. The attack was led by the 7, 11, and Guards Armoured Divisions under 8 Corps, commanded by Lieut. Gen. O'Connor. These struck across the river at 0745 hours, followed by the infantry of 1 Corps and Canadian 2 Corps on either flank. The enemy at first proved unable to regroup his armor to


meet the thrust, while the 21st Panzer and 16th GAF Divisions, which bore the brunt of the attack, were too disorganized by the bombing to offer much resistance. By the afternoon, the 11 Armoured Division had reached the Bourguébus area, the Guards were at Vimont, and the 7 had advanced to the south beyond Démouville. Toward evening, however, enemy resistance stiffened and he was able to counterattack with 50 tanks south and southeast of Bourguébus. By nightfall, he succeeded in establishing a strong antitank screen with guns which had escaped the bombing, and this effectively halted our advance on the line Emiéville-Cagny-Soliers. On the following days the weather, which had relented to permit the massive air effort of the 18th, broke once more, turning the low-lying country of the battle area into a sea of mud which afforded an effective check to further tank operations.

This break in the weather also delayed the First Army attack which was scheduled for 19 July. Here, as at Caen, General Bradley and I had decided that an overwhelming air bombardment was a necessary prerequisite to the success of our plans. It was not, however, until 25 July that the skies cleared sufficiently to permit this air effort. Meanwhile the men of the First Army were compelled to huddle in their foxholes under the dropping hedgerows in conditions of extreme discomfort, while the enemy, similarly entrenched behind the natural defenses of the country, was alert to every movement. It was not until after 6 days of waiting, more miserable to the American troops than any others in this campaign, that the opportunity for action came on 25 July.

The plan of 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. Lô, 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 Périers-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 division 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. Lô 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 concentration 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. Lô 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


Map: The Breakthrough
The Breakthrough

leaned the need for a quicker ground follow-up on the conclusion of the bombing, for the avoidance of creatring, 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 frell short, causing casualties to our own men. Unfortunately, perfection in the employment of comparativey 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. Lô, had under command


the 2d and 3d Armored Divisions and the 1st, 4th, 9th, and 30th Infantry Divisions; while VIII Corps, in the Périers-Lessay sector had the 8th, 79th, 83d, 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 tinmen 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 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 Périers-St. Lô 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. Lô-Coutances road cut. On the same day VIII Corps attacked across the Périers-St. Lô road to the west of VII Corps. The Germans continued to counterattack vigorously, and, as the Allied thrust swing 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 Périers 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 Panzer Grenadier Divisions, and battle groups of the 265th, 266th, and 275th Infantry Divisions. The German Command concentrated primarily oh 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. Lô, reached Tessy-sur-Vire, while V Corps attacked south of the Forêt 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 to 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 form the Fifteenth Army area westward over the Seine coincided with the launching of the U.S. First Army attack on 26 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 1 August, taking over command of VIII, XII, XV, and XX Corps, while V, VII, and XIX Corps remained with the First Army. The two aries 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 hi mas 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 1 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.

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-Fougères, 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 fill to the 4th


Armored Division; and on 31 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 Vire. 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 Pinçon and the valley of the Vire were frustrated; Le Bény-Bocage was captured by the 11 Armoured Division (8 Corps) on 1 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 safe-guarded. 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 eight 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 infrantry division from across the Seine.

Following the capture of Granville and Arromanches, 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 Foug&egrace;res and Vitré, 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 of 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 on 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.D. 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, attached isolated groups and strongpoints, 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 German 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 are into the confidence of the leaders and the courage of the soldiers.


Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (3) * Next Chapter (5)

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation