FIFTH ARMY'S LEADER in the July offensive that culminated in destruction of German Seventh Army: Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley.
ST-LÔ, capital of the department of Manche, can be used as one symbol for First U. S. Army's victory in a most difficult and bloody phase of the Campaign of Normandy: the "Battle of the Hedgerows," during the first three weeks of July 1944. Other names figure in this battle. La Haye-du-Puits, Périers, Hill 192, like St-Lô, will be remembered by First Army soldiers from a background of stubborn struggle for gains too often measured in terms of a few hundred yards, or of two or three fields, conquered against a bitterly resisting enemy.
Much more was at stake in the Battle of the Hedgerows than possession of a communications center on the Vire River. In June, First Army and British Second Army had won their beachheads and had captured Cherbourg (26 June). Supplies and reinforcements were building up for a powerful offensive, designed to break out of the Normandy pocket and scheduled to be mounted in the First Army zone. But more room and better jump-off positions for the crucial offensive were needed before this blow could be delivered. The attack that began in early July was planned to gain this ground, on a front of 25 miles. Four corps, employing ultimately 12 divisions, were involved in the effort. All these units faced similar problems of advance, and all contributed to the measure of success achieved. Therefore, in the larger tactical sense it would be unfair to identify the Battle of the Hedgerows with St-Lô and later military studies, treating the Campaign of Normandy in different scope, will give the operation in truer proportions. Here, one phase of the hedgerow battle can be used to illustrate, in tactical detail, the character of the larger action.
The advance which reached St-Lô is the story of XIX Corps, aided by the action of the 2d Division of V Corps on its left flank.
First Army's Problem
During the period required for VII Corps to capture Cherbourg and clean up the Cotentin Peninsula, the Allied line to the south had remained relatively stable. To the east, British Second Army was still fighting toward Caen against heavy concentrations of enemy armor (seven divisions as of 30 June), employed in frequent counterattacks. From Caumont to Carentan, and west across the peninsula, First U. S. Army had been holding the positions gained by 20 June and regrouping forces as the build-up increased them. (See Map I at end of book.1) To critics who were ignorant of General Eisenhower's plans and the immense problems of supply and build-up, it appeared that the Allied attack had lost momentum and that Allied forces were becoming involved in the type of static warfare which they had sought to avoid. Such critics were hardly reassured by the progress of First Army's offensive after it opened on 3 July. The fact that this offensive had limited objectives, and was a preliminary for a definitive breakthrough effort, would only be shown by future developments.
The map of First Army's zone (Map II) shows clearly some of the considerations which dictated
this July attack for elbow-room. The ground just south of First Army's lines was divided by the Vire River into two relatively distinct areas. East of the Vire was broken, hilly country rising steadily toward the south and featured by east-west ridges that ran across the axis of Allied advance. West of the river, the area in which the major effort was to come in the ultimate larger offensive, advance toward the corner of Brittany would lead into terrain that was increasingly favorable for offensive maneuver; but before this suitable ground could be reached, First Army had to penetrate a belt, six to ten miles deep, in which every feature of the terrain favored the German defense. Any major offensive effort, if it started here, might well be blunted and lose its momentum before it broke through this belt.
First Army Zone
2 July 1944
One aspect of the terrain problem was First Army's lack of room in the 2 July positions to use its power effectively. The sluggish streams that converge on Carentan flow from south or southwest in wide, marshy flood plains, cut by drainage ditches and otherwise devoid of cover. Any attack to the south would have to debouch from the Carentan area along two relatively narrow corridors between these water barriers: one, along the axis of the Carentan-St-Jean-de-Daye-St-Lô highway; the other, along the Carentan-Périers road. This limitation restricted maneuver and presented the Germans with every opportunity for concentrated defense against frontal attack. Farther west, beyond extensive marshes of the upper Seves (the Prairies Marécageuses) was a belt of hills, which, combined with the large Mont-Castre Forest, controlled the important road junction at la Haye-du-Puits. Here, the enemy had had time to organize a strong main line of resistance (MLR) to protect his flank on the sea. Nowhere on the front west of the Vire was the terrain suitable for an effort at rapid breakthrough, or for full exploitation of First Army's growing superiority in numbers and in materiel.
The road net presented a further complication. East of Carentan First Army had only one main lateral for communications, and this highway was still under enemy artillery fire from Carentan to the Vire. All land traffic from Cherbourg and the Cotentin to Isigny and Bayuex depended on this one route, with its bottleneck at Carentan. West of that town the only roads within ten miles of the front were three north-south axial routes; they would help when Cherbourg was opened, but that port required extensive repair and development. In the meantime the open beaches, Omaha and Utah, were still the only means of getting men and materiel for the build-up into the American zone. Thus First Army was seriously hampered in concentrating its supplies and in moving troops.
The attack in early July was designed to win ground which would solve these difficulties on First Army's right and center. The objective set was the general line Coutances-Marigny-St-Lô; on gaining this line, First Army would hold terrain satisfactory for launching an offensive of greater scope. The restricting corridors formed by the marshes and streams would be passed, and First Army would have the use of main laterals between Carentan and la Haye-du-Puits, and between St-Lô and Périers.
The attack plan called for an effort that would begin on the right, near the sea, then widen progressively eastward in a series of blows by three of the four corps in line, each corps attacking on Army order. To reach the ultimate objectives would involve the greatest advance (some 20 miles) on the right, while the whole front pivoted on V Corps, east of St-Lô. VIII Corps would open the offensive, aiming first at la Haye-du-Puits and the Mont-Castre hills with three divisions in line, the 79th, 90th, and 82d Airborne. The 82d Airborne, which had been in action since D Day, needed rest and was to be pinched out early in the advance; the 8th Division was in corps reserve. On Army order, the VII Corps would pick up the attack, striking with the 83d and 4th Divisions, while the 9th was to come in when maneuver room could be obtained. Finally, XIX Corps would join the battle, aided by the 2d Division of V Corps, in a zone that
FIELD INTERSECTION near Villiers-Fossard, giving some idea of the scale of embankments. Beyond the soldier is a narrow lane, flanked by hedgerows. Bulldozers have but a trail through the field corners in the direction toward which the man is looking.
included the Vire River and aimed at the St-Lô area on both sides of that river. At the start XIX Corps had two divisions in line, the 29th and 30th; the 35th was on its way to France, scheduled to reinforce their attack. The 3d Armored Division was initially in army reserve, near Isigny.
German forces in the battle zone constituted the larger part of Seventh Army, commanded by SS Lt. Gen. Hauser.2 Two corps, the LXXXIV and the II Parachute, held the front from the Caumont sector west to the coast, the Vire River being the boundary.3 Elements of no less than 12 divisions were under these 2 corps, including the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier and the 2d SS Panzer (Das Reich). Only the latter unit was believed to have tanks. Many German units were far below strength, both as a result of losses incurred in June and of enemy difficulties in getting men, supplies, and materiel to the front under the conditions imposed by Allied air supremacy. Of the divisions which had reinforced the front since D Day, few were at anything like full strength. Some elements of the 2d SS Panzer were still in southern France, near Toulouse. The available units of the 265th, 266th, and 275th Divisions were only battle groups, composed of mobile elements of these divisions; parts of the first two of these
divisions and the bulk of the 275th were still in Brittany or south of the Loire.4 Nevertheless, the enemy forces included several crack units, such as the 2d Parachute and the two SS divisions, and Seventh Army had enjoyed sufficient time to prepare the ground thoroughly for a defensive battle. Also, in contrast to First Army's situation, the enemy had plenty of room for defensive maneuver and good communications for making a flexible defense.
But the Germans' greatest advantage lay in the hedgerows which crisscrossed the country everywhere, hampering offensive action and limiting the use of tanks. An aerial photograph of a typical section of Normandy shows more than 3,900 hedged enclosures in an area of less than eight square miles. Growing out of massive embankments that formed dikes up to ten feet high, often flanked by drainage ditches or sunken roads, the hedges lent themselves easily to skillful organization of dug-in emplacements and concealed strongpoints, difficult both to locate and to attack.
The uncertainty of weather conditions represented another hazard for First Army's effort. The current one threatened to develop into the rainiest in many years, thereby accentuating the problems presented by marshy areas, slowing all movements on the hedge-bound narrow roads, and handicapping our ground attack. The extensive, marshy bottom lands south and southwest of Carentan had been partly flooded by the Germans as a feature of their defensive plans, and the rains helped to keep these areas a barrier. Most important, poor weather could minimize the Allies' advantage of overwhelming air power by canceling air strikes and preventing observation of enemy movements and dispositions.5
On 3 July, VIII Corps (Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton) opened the First Army offensive. Three divisions jumped off abreast in a downpour of rain that not only nullified air attacks but prevented artillery observation. Enemy resistance was heavy, and the only notable advance was scored by the 82d Airborne Division. During the next three days slow progress was made in hard fighting under adverse weather. The corps struck the enemy's MLR along the line le Plessis-Mont-Castre Forest-la Haye-du-Puits, and enemy counterattacks stiffened by armor helped to slow down the VIII Corps. Though la Haye-du-Puits was nearly surrounded, average gains for the three-day period were under 6,000 yards on the corps front, and, contrary to expectations, the enemy had clearly shown his intentions of defending in place whatever the cost.
On 4 July, VII Corps (Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins) entered the action with the 83d Division, fighting its first battle. Crowded between the Taute River bottomlands and the swamps of the Seves (Prairies Marécageuses), VII Corps had to drive along an isthmus of dry land two to three
GROUP OF COMMANDERS who played a part in the July offensive: left, Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, 30th Division; center, Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges, Deputy Commander of First Army; right, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, commanding the XIX Corps.
miles wide and badly needed more room. According to first plans, when the 90th Division (of VIII Corps) and the 83d Division, advancing on either side of the Prairies Marécageuses, had reached Gorges to the west of the swamps and Sainteny to the east, the 4th Division was to attack through them toward Périers, followed by the 3d Armored and 9th Divisions. But the enemy had organized the neck of dry land leading to Périers in great depth and was ready for his strongest defensive effort in VII Corps' zone. The 83d Division lost 300 men during the first day of attack and made only slight gains then and the next day. On 6 July, General Collins threw in the 4th Division, on a front mainly west of the Carentan-Périers highway. A 500-yard advance brought the 4th Division up to the first of three enemy MLR's along the isthmus. Three days of heavy fighting had netted little more than 2000 yards down the Carentan-Périers road.
On 7 July, XIX Corps opened its battle, with initial effort west of the Vire. The ultimate goal in this corps zone was the high ground east and west of St-Lô.
XIX Corps' Problem
The immediate area of St-Lô had limited tactical importance; that city, with a peacetime population of about 11,000 stands on low ground near a loop of the Vire River, ringed by hills. Its military significance derived from being a hub of main arteries that lead in every direction. From the north come highways connecting it with Carentan and Isigny; eastward, roads suitable for heavy traffic lead toward Caumont and Bayeux; to the west runs a road to Périers and Lessay that constituted the principal lateral behind the German west wing; southwest is the Coutances highway. (See Map III.) Holding St-Lô, the enemy had good connections near his front lines for shifting forces east or west of the Vire. To deny the Germans this advantage would be one gain in capture of the city. Much more important for First Army's larger aims was the prospect of capturing the hills that commanded the Vire Valley on both sides of St-Lô. If XIX Corps could win the objective set, along the line St-Gilles-St-Lô-Berigny, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley would have terrain essential to an offensive such as the Allied high command was already planning. The ground west of St-Lô could be used for jump-off on attack into country where tanks could operate and tactical maneuver would be favored. But the terrain near St-Lô on the east was also suitable for mounting an attack, and this fact would both help First Army and embarrass the German command. If XIX Corps could get astride the Vire at St-Lô, thus threatening a drive either southeast toward Vire or southwest toward Coutances, this would increase the enemy's problem in disposing limited forces to guard against a breakthrough. The importance of the St-Lô area to the Germans is shown by the desperate defense they offered in June and were to repeat in July.
XIX Corps Zone
6 July 1944
Nearly 15 miles wide at the start, XIX Corps' zone ran north to south, straddling the winding Vire River. Though relatively small (40 to 60 feet wide), this deep and swift stream constituted a considerable military obstacle. It had three main crossings north of St-Lô, at Pont-Hébert, Aire, and Isigny (Auville-sur-le-Vey); only the northernmost was in American hands on 7 July. For tactical purposes, the Vire split the corps zone into two subzones, each presenting different problems in the attack.
The westernmost of these subzones lay between the Vire and the minor streams that come together to form the Taute River. The Taute is a sluggish creek that flows for miles in broad and swampy lowlands, cut up by drainage ditches and crossed by only one main highway, the road from le Port to Tribehou. South of that crossing, the Taute headwaters fan out in a number of tributary streams that dissect a broad area into little islands of dry ground. In wet seasons the Taute lowlands, almost as far south as the Périers-St-Lô highway, are unsuitable for maneuver and nearly impassable for ground forces except in restricted zones. As a result of the barrier thus presented, XIX Corps' zone of attack west of the Vire would at first be definitely separated from the action of VII Corps and would be forced to follow the axis of the watershed between the Vire and Taute stream systems. This restriction, limiting all but local maneuver and flanking efforts, would assist the enemy defense.
That defense rested 7 July on the Vire-Taute Canal, running southeast from Carentan to join the Vire near the crossing at Aire. Behind the canal, the ground rises gently to a height of 120 feet above the river valleys at St-Jean-de-Daye. South of this little village, along the line of the highway to St-Lô, there are no pronounced terrain features for several miles. Small, irregular dips and swells blur the line of the watershed and add to the difficulties of observation in typical hedgerow country, with few villages and only occasional scattered farms. A road net ample for rural purposes, and ranging from "improved" second- and third-class roads to sunken lanes and farm tracks, sprawls over the area. The roads of greatest military value were two: the north-south highway via Pont-Hébert to St-Lô, and the east-west route from Aire toward le Désert.
Near Pont-Hébert the general level rises above the 150-foot contour, and the axis of XIX Corps' attack would lead into more definitely hilly country. The Vire River, south of this crossing, loses its flood plain and is squeezed into a narrow corridor between steepening bluffs. Hauts-Vents, a crossroads hamlet, stands at an elevation of nearly 300 feet (Hill 91), enough to give it commanding observation over the plains west and toward Carentan. South of Hauts-Vents, the attack west of the Vire would necessarily follow a narrow ridge line toward St-Gilles, between the Vire and the small Terrette River, tributary of the Taute. Once near the St-Lô-Périers highway, tactical contact with VII Corps would no longer be interfered with by the marshy lowlands of the Taute plains.
On the right bank of the Vire, XIX Corps faced rather different country, except for the common factor of hedgerows. The first surge of V Corps from the initial beachhead in June had carried the First Army line into hills that constitute the strongest defenses of St-Lô on the east. To the northeast of St-Lô, the 29th Division was on these hills and only three miles away from the town. But due east of it, the Germans still held the highest ground, including Hill 192, about 300 feet higher than the surrounding area and affording the best observation post in the whole St-Lô sector.
As the map shows (Map III), at the start of the action the left wing of XIX Corps extended south in a considerable salient, flanked by the Vire River. West of that water barrier, the right wing of the corps was on a general line some ten miles farther from the objective area. Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett, commanding XIX Corps, aimed his first blow west of the Vire, to gain ground which would bring that wing up on line. Advance here would support the attack of VII Corps to the west, cover the flank of his own units on the right bank
of the Vire, and pave the way for a direct attack on St-Lô east of the river. He planned to clear the enemy from the corps zone west of the Vire as far as the high ground directly west of St-Lô, on which ran the highways toward Périers and Coutances; these roads were the final objective in his opening attack. While the 30th Division, supported by the 113th Cavalry Group, made this effort, the 29th Division would hold east of the Vire, ready to attack on Corps order directly at St-Lô. The 35th Division was scheduled to join XIX Corps for the drive on St-Lô, but had just landed in Normandy and would need some days to get into line on the right bank.
Enemy forces in front of XIX Corps belonged to both LXXXIV and II Parachute Corps. Interrogation of prisoners of war indicated that the divisions consisted partly of hastily improvised battle groups, but included also some crack regiments. Total strength was estimated to consist of ten infantry, three engineer, and two parachute battalions plus two companies of armor. West of the Vire, the sector facing XIX Corps' opening attack was part of the 20-mile front held by the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. Its right wing consisted of Battle Group "Heintz", a unit typical of the composite formations which the Germans had thrown together in the early days of reinforcing their battle line. It included two rifle battalions of the 275th Division, the 275th Engineer Battalion, and the Engineer Battalion Angers; its artillery consisted of one battery from a regiment once part of the 352d Division, and one AA Battery. West of St-Jean-de-Daye, elements of the 38th SS Armored Infantry Regiment faced the XIX Corps attack zone. The bulk of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division was already heavily engaged by U. S. VII Corps.
The Enemy Side
After considering the Army High Command's estimate of the situation in Normandy, Hitler decided at the end of June (and the order duly came down to Seventh Army) that present positions were to be held and any breakthrough prevented by tenacious defense and local counterattacks. Allied attack along the whole front was expected.
On 2 July, Seventh Army's War Diary noted the Staff's conclusion that preparation for American attack was complete. Army's prediction was that the main effort would come from Carentan toward Périers.
When the attack started on 3 July toward la Haye-du-Puits, Seventh Army's first opinion was that this action represented only a major reconnaissance thrust. That view was abandoned at the end of the day, when three of the U. S. divisions were reported in line. One defending battalion, Öst-Battalion "Huber", lost 80 percent in casualties and was overrun; the bad conduct of this (non-German) unit was blamed for the day's loss in ground, described as a "deep penetration." "öst" battalions, of which there were several in Normandy, had personnel formed mainly of "volunteers" from eastern (Slavic) Europe, officered largely by Germans. In fact, many of these units were made up of adventurers or of ex-prisoners, terrorized into service for the Nazi regime. German field commanders had legitimate doubts as to their value in combat.
Seventh Army at once began negotiations with higher echelons to obtain reinforcement, asking for permission to call up the 5th Parachute Division from Brittany and the larger part of the 275th Infantry Division, still south of the Loire.6 Army had under discussion plans for relieving certain units which were particularly battleworn: the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division; the 352d Division, which had been roughly handled by V Corps in its drive from Omaha beachhead and was still in line northeast of St-Lô; and the 77th and 91st Divisions, which had lost heavily in the campaign that ended with the capture of
Cherbourg. Whether relief of these units would be possible was now regarded as doubtful, in the face of the U. S. offensive getting under way. Seventh Army requested Army Group for two additional heavy artillery battalions, two artillery observation battalions, and a smoke brigade to help meet the coming offensive. Attention was also called to ammunition shortages, particularly west of the Vire.
The Commander and Chief of Staff of Seventh Army still believed at the end of 3 July that the attack toward la Haye-du-Puits was only a prelude to another and even greater U. S. effort south of Carentan. They informed Field Marshal Rommel, commanding Army Group, that they did not yet consider it necessary to ask for mobile forces from the eastern part of the Normandy front.
Hard fighting and further loss of ground on 4 July forced Seventh Army into plans for juggling units to strengthen the LXXXIV Corps, west of the Vire. The 2d SS Panzer Division (Army Reserve) was ordered to send a battle group to the Périers area, to guard against a possible airlanding attack on that communications center. The 30th Mobile Brigade, reduced now to about battalion strength, was pulled from the sector north of St-Lô and then started across the Vire to LXXXIV Corps. The opening of the U. S. offensive on the Carentan-Périers highway put severe pressure on the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. The situation near la Haye-du-Puits was now regarded as "tense."
The next day brought little relief, with further penetrations made by the American attack toward Périers. Army requested reinforcement for LXXXIV Corps by a mobile unit and an infantry division, but was told it would have to manage with its present reserves (2d SS Panzer Division and the 15th Parachute Regiment). Field Marshal Kluge, who had just relieved Field Marshal Rundstedt as commander of German forces in the west, visited the battle zone. Plans were discussed for committing the 2d SS Panzer in counterattack west of la Haye-du-Puits. But plans for relief of the 352d, 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, 77th, and 91st Divisions were now obviously impractical. The last three were all heavily involved.
In the western sector, 6 July saw the intended counterattack by the 2d SS Panzer units bog down as a result of air action. The Allied air force was also credited with hampering the German artillery in its work. The commanding general of LXXXIV Corps reported that the American artillery, guided by air observers and supported by air attacks, was not only silencing German batteries but destroying the infantry even in their dugouts. Army made strong representations for a shift of all available air and antiaircraft strength to the west wing; Army Group concurred. But the 2d German Air Corps reported that such a shift could not be effected quickly because of heavy losses in fighter units and the lack of replacements.
On 7 July, the Army command still hoped to restore the situation on the west front (la Haye-du-Puits) by counterattack of the task force sent by the 2d SS Panzer Division, and Army summarized the situation reached in the battle as follows:
Two infantry divisions (77th and 353d), one reinforced division (17th SS Panzer Grenadier), a combat group of the 243d Division, and the remnants of the 91st Division, had so far borne the brunt of the defense. The American forces committed were estimated at five infantry and possibly one or two armored divisions. The Seventh Army singled out for special mention the power of U. S. artillery support, which had expended ammunition at a rate five to ten times that of the German. In a brief analysis of the fighting, American commanders were credited with facility in tactical maneuver and with being quick to exploit favorable situations. East of the present battle area, on both sides of the Vire, six U. S. infantry divisions and two armored divisions were believed ready to widen the zone of attack. German losses had been heavy; one battalion of the 353d, the only full-strength division in LXXXIV Corps, had lost half its men in three days. Renewed pleas were made to Kluge for immediate reinforcement by the 5th Parachute Division and the 275th Division.
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1. Maps numbered in Roman are found at the end, in sequence.
2. His predecessor, Lt. Gen. Dollmann, died of a heart attack on 28 June.
3. Seventh Army responsibilities also included Brittany, held by elements of two corps which had been heavily "milked" for reinforcement of the Normandy battle. The east boundary of Seventh Army was the Drôme River.
4. These battle groups are not located on Map II. The 265th elements were attached to the remnants of the 91st Division; the 266th group was under the 352d Division; the 275th was holding the right wing of 17th SS Panzer Grenadier's sector, and will appear in later maps as Battle Group "Heintz".
5. Between 25 June and 7 July not a single photographic mission could be flown in XIX Corps' zone, as a result of rain or poor visibility.
6. A small battle group of this division had already come to Normandy in June and was with LXXXIV Corps in the Vire sector. (See above, p. 3). One regiment (15th) of the 5th Parachute was also at hand, in reserve near Périers.