The Breakthrough Idea
In Search of a Panacea
The dramatic divergence between the phase lines projected by the OVERLORD plan for certain dates and the actual extent of the OVERLORD beachhead on those dates led to inevitable discussion in the Allied camp on how to dissolve the apparent stalemate.1 Having considered even before the invasion the possibility that the Germans might contain the OVERLORD forces, SHAEF planners had formulated various proposals on how to break out of a stabilized front. In mid-July ideas of this nature became extremely pertinent. Attaining maneuver room and the Breton ports remained objectives as valid as they were elusive.
An obvious solution for dissolving the stalemate was to launch a subsidiary amphibious operation outside the OVERLORD beachhead area either by seaborne or by air-transported troops. Yet neither impressed the planners with prospects of success. If the original OVERLORD assault failed to achieve the desired results, how could a smaller force--four divisions was the maximum force immediately available--do better?2 The necessity of heavy naval involvement (including the use of carriers), difficult and long naval approaches, strong coastal defenses, and the improbability of achieving tactical surprise also discouraged recommendations for amphibious assaults outside the OVERLORD beachhead.3
The same was true of plans for airborne operations to dissolve an OVERLORD stalemate. The airborne divisions, committed on the Continent in June, had been delayed in their return to the United Kingdom, and their dispersed locations there, which made unit training difficult, plus a lack of suitable training areas, hindered preparations for immediate commitment. The demands on troop carrier units for air supply prevented effective troop carrier exercises. The need at the end of July to divert almost 400 transport aircraft to the Mediterranean for the invasion of southern France (scheduled for 15 August) made a large-scale airborne operation in support of OVERLORD impossible before late August or early September. Finally, airborne troops dropped outside a stabilized
beachhead might possibly require amphibious reinforcement.4
Despite the disadvantages and difficulties of amphibious and airborne operations in support of OVERLORD, Allied planners in June and July continued to explore the possibilities because no other solution was discernible. Since the basic planning already completed for future Allied operations beyond the OVERLORD lodgment area assumed Allied possession of the Breton ports, the planners of subsidiary operations to break the stalemate invariably looked toward Brittany.5 Of four major combat plans considered by the U.S. 1st Army Group, three focused on Brittany as the target area.6 Invasion of Brittany was also the central theme of the U.S. Third Army planning in June and July.7 General Eisenhower gave impetus to this planning by indicating his specific interest in airborne and amphibious operations "involving every likely objective" in Brittany.8 Yet all the proposed operations seemed to present hazards incommensurate with potential gains.9
The search for a panacea to relieve the stalemate came to an end soon after 21 Army Group planners began to press Allied naval sections for definite amphibious assault plans against Quiberon Bay and Brest. Because Quiberon and Brest were Breton ports vital to the American build-up, the U.S. 1st Army Group raised few objections to the British pressure. Admiral Sir Bertram H. Ramsay, the Allied naval commander, thus found himself obliged to consider operations he was unwilling to recommend because formidable enemy coastal defenses and the presence of German U-boat bases would subject naval vessels to unacceptable risk. Ramsay reminded Eisenhower that, before the invasion, ground commanders had rejected the idea of subsidiary airborne operations because they might weaken the main OVERLORD effort. Amphibious operations, he suggested, might have the same result. Accepting the implicit recommendation, General Eisenhower decided, "The principal pressure is to be kept on buildup in the beachhead, with sideshow excursions to be held down to those which will show profit with small investment."10 It was already apparent that
no sideshow investment promised a reasonable profit.
Although planning for subsidiary operations did not cease, two events indicated that a final decision had been made against them: the movement of a division from England to the Continent and the publication of a new plan of action. The 28th Division, trained for amphibious operations and originally scheduled for the OVERLORD assault, had remained in England in SHAEF reserve, ready to execute a subsidiary amphibious operation if necessary. The only amphibiously trained force still uncommitted twenty days after the invasion, the 28th Division was released by SHAEF to the 1st U.S. Army Group on 26 June with the condition that it be used only in an amphibious assault. On 13 July SHAEF withdrew the restriction, and ten days later the division moved to the Continent to augment the land forces already committed.11
The release of the 28th Division coincided with the appearance of a new operational plan presented by General Bradley and enthusiastically received by General Eisenhower. Bradley proposed to break out of the German containment and obtain maneuver room and eventually the Breton ports through a ground offensive supported by massive air power. A project that would concentrate on the main OVERLORD operation, Bradley's plan followed the advice of SHAEF planners, who had concluded long before that the best way to break a stalemate was by marshaling air power in support of a land offensive mounted from within the stabilized beachhead.12
Having searched for a new idea since the second week in July, when the First Army had begun to display definite signs of bogging down in the Cotentin, General Bradley had begun to envision an operation that combined concentrated land power and an overwhelming bombardment from the air. By 11 July General Bradley had conceived the idea; two days later the idea became the First Army's plan. It was called COBRA.13
The outstanding feature of COBRA (a name eventually applied to the operation as well as the plan) was the use of a heavy air bombardment to destroy an enemy defensive position of tactical significance. An unusual employment of air power, it was not novel. General Montgomery had used heavy bombers on 7 July in his attack against Caen. Although the bombardment had helped the British gain several miles of ground and part of Caen, the results of the attack had not been particularly spectacular or sufficiently decisive to warrant the expectation that a similar operation, such as COBRA, might achieve more than a limited advance.
That COBRA stirred hope of more than a limited advance--indeed, of a dissolution of the stabilized condition of OVERLORD--was attributable to the planners' belief that they could eliminate two factors
that had hampered the Caen operation: the obstructions that bomb craters and debris had placed in the path of ground troops and the long time interval between the air bombardment and the ground jump-off.
Optimistically assessed, if COBRA could co-ordinate the blast effect of a heavy air bombardment with an overwhelming ground attack, the Americans might smash the German ring of containment. Even if COBRA achieved only limited success, the ground gained would give the Allies additional maneuver room. The operation seemed worth a trial. It at least offered a prospect of relief from the painful type of advance that characterized the battle of the hedgerows.
In Search of a Breakthrough: GOODWOOD
As a hush fell over the American front after the capture of St. Lô, intense activity began in the British sector. The Second Army launched a strong attack (GOODWOOD) that promised the Allies an excellent chance of achieving a breakthrough. Had it succeeded, COBRA would probably have been unnecessary.
GOODWOOD had grown indirectly out of the situation on the American front. At a conference on 10 July General Bradley had admitted to General Montgomery that he was discouraged about the offensive in the Cotentin and that he was thinking of the new COBRA idea, not yet completely formulated. General Montgomery had advised him to "take all the time he needed" in the Cotentin. To assist, the British would continue the basic Montgomery pattern of action: attempt to draw the German strength away from the American sector, hold the eastern part of the front firmly, keep the enemy forces opposite the British engaged and off balance by limited objective attacks. Immediately after the conference General Dempsey, the commander of the Second British Army, suggested that the British might take a more positive role in the campaign and launch a strong attack of their own. Montgomery's first reaction was negative, but on reflection he ordered planning started that same day. He alerted Dempsey to hold a corps of three armored divisions in reserve for a "massive stroke" east of the Orne River from Caen to Falaise. By 13 July three armored
divisions were ready under control of the British 8 Corps.14
Loath to abandon the idea that the eastern flank was "a bastion" on which not only the U.S. main effort but also the whole future of the European campaign depended, General Montgomery directed Dempsey to maintain balance and a firm base by continuing to exert pressure and destroying German equipment and personnel.15 Nevertheless, Montgomery found the idea of a British breakthrough attempt increasingly intriguing. He began to think in terms of possibly making a double breakthrough effort--attacks by both British and American troops. By launching GOODWOOD the British would throw a left hook at the Germans; by following quickly with COBRA the Americans would strike with a right cross. Whether the primary intention of GOODWOOD was to aid COBRA by forcing the Germans to engage their mobile reserves and the secondary intention to achieve a breakthrough, or whether the reverse was true--though perhaps unimportant in the final analysis and perhaps even unknown to General Montgomery at the time--later became a matter of doubt and controversy.16
Like COBRA, GOODWOOD was to have heavy air support. Because the air forces could not support the two attacks simultaneously in the strength desired, GOODWOOD and COBRA were to take place two days apart. Though General Bradley had originally set 18 July as the COBRA target date, the slow advance in the Cotentin caused him to postpone it one day. General Montgomery selected 17 July for GOODWOOD, but adverse weather conditions and the need for extensive regrouping forced a delay. As finally decided, GOODWOOD was to take place on 18 July, COBRA three days later.
The two major deficiencies of the air bombardment launched earlier at Caen were to be corrected for GOODWOOD. Only fighter-bombers were to attack in the zone where armored divisions were to make the main effort, and thus the extensive cratering that had slowed armor at Caen would be avoided. The ground troops were to attack immediately after the air strike in order to capitalize on the paralyzing effect of the bombardment on the Germans.
The ground attack was to involve three corps. On the left (east), from a small bridgehead east of the Orne and northeast of Caen, the 8 Corps was to send three armored divisions in the direction of Falaise in the main effort. In the center, the Canadian 2d Corps was to secure the southern half of Caen (that part of the city beyond the Orne River) and nearby high ground. The British 12 Corps on the right was to launch preliminary attacks several days ahead of
Attack of Second British Army,
18-21 July 1944
the actual GOODWOOD effort to create a diversion. The immediate objective of GOODWOOD was the plain southeast of Caen, rolling terrain rising toward Falaise. Though neither Montgomery nor Dempsey mentioned Falaise specifically in their orders, they and other commanders were thinking of Falaise and even of Argentan as objectives perhaps quickly attainable if the battle developed favorably.17 (Map 9)
Promising General Eisenhower that his "whole eastern flank" would "burst into flames," General Montgomery requested the "whole weight of air power" to bring about a "decisive" victory. General Eisenhower was enthusiastic, "pepped up concerning the promise of this plan," which he termed a brilliant stroke calculated to knock loose the shackles that bound the Allies in Normandy. Air Chief Marshal Tedder assured Montgomery that the air forces would be "full out" to support the "far-reaching and decisive plan."18
While British naval units fired from the Seine Bay in support, bombers in the largest concentration yet utilized in direct support of a single ground attack loosed their explosives near Caen at daylight, 18 July. Almost 1,700 planes of the RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Eighth Air Force, plus almost 400 medium and fighter-bombers of the U.S. Ninth Air Force, dropped more than 8,000 tons of bombs to open a path for British ground forces.19
Before the bombers came, a quiet had pervaded most of the Panzer Group West front since 9 July. Under the control of four corps, eight divisions had manned the 70 -mile defensive line, and five divisions had been in reserve. Of the thirteen divisions that comprised Panzer Group West, a single division had held twenty miles of marshy coast land on the east flank; two divisions had guarded fifteen miles of bocage on the west flank; and ten divisions--five in the line and five in reserve--had covered the critical Caen sector of about thirty-five miles in the center.
To protect the open country around Caen, Eberbach, the commander of Panzer Group West, had established a zone defense composed of infantry positions echeloned in depth and covered by antitank fire. The main battle positions, about 1,200 yards deep, consisted of three lines, while local reserves had organized another defensive line about a mile to the rear. Dual-purpose 88 -mm. guns of the III Flak Corps, ample artillery pieces, and a rocket launcher brigade in each corps sector supported the infantry positions. Behind the support weapons, four of the reserve divisions had been assembled from two to seven miles in the rear; the fifth reserve division, the 12th SS Panzer, was undergoing rehabilitation farther to the rear.20
Principally from prisoner of war interrogations, Eberbach had learned that Montgomery was planning a three-pronged attack from Caen.21 Accepting Eberbach's expectation as valid and respecting Montgomery's large number of divisions in reserve, Kluge had dared not weaken the Panzer Group West defenses. No further withdrawal from the Caen region seemed possible without inviting disaster.
Although Kluge had not wished to disturb Eberbach's zone defense around Caen, Hitler was not so reluctant. Signs and portents, the Allied deception plan, and weather conditions had convinced the Fuehrer that the Allies were about to make another continental landing near the Seine Bay. The presence of Allied vessels to support GOODWOOD by naval fire added to the conviction. Despite agreement by Kluge and Rommel that they had not seen anything to justify suspicion of another Allied landing and despite their "discomfort" with the Coutances-St. Lô sector, they were forced
by Hitler's thinking to consider sending a panzer division from the Caen front to Lisieux, not far from the Seine Bay.22
Before actually dispatching a division toward the Seine Bay, Kluge protested to higher headquarters. He asked General der Artillerie Walter Warlimont, Jodl's assistant, what made Hitler insist on sending mobile troops to Lisieux.
"The expectation that in the next couple of days, because of weather conditions . . . ," Warlimont began.
"Oh, the usual reports," Kluge interrupted.
". . . another landing can be made that will put pressure on the weakly held coastal front," Warlimont concluded.
Well, Kluge said, he felt that the Allies were more dangerous in the area where they already were. "We aren't strong enough there," he said. And since he did not have enough troops to cover adequately his entire area of responsibility, he preferred to take his chances where the Allies had not yet appeared. Thus, as to sending troops to Lisieux, he told Warlimont, "I don't like what you say."
"I'll transmit your opinion to the Fuehrer," Warlimont suggested.
"Never mind," Kluge said hastily. "You don't have to tell him anything more. I just wanted to talk it over with you." Still trying to make it clear to Warlimont that he wasn't pleased by the shift at all, he nevertheless agreed to move the 12th SS Panzer Division to Lisieux.23 The weakest division in the Panzer Group West sector, the 12th SS Panzer Division had started to move to Lisieux when recalled to meet the threat of GOODWOOD.
The SS armored division was recalled partly because Eberbach no longer had a strong reserve. Since the night of 15 July, the British had attacked on the 12 Corps front using flame-throwing tanks and artificial moonlight, which was created by pointing searchlights at the overcast sky. The limited objective attacks, designed to mask the main effort to be launched on 18 July, forced the II SS Panzer Corps and part of theXLVII Panzer Corps to pull back slightly. Not only did the corps have to commit their local reserves, Eberbach had to commit two of his reserve divisions. If the 12th SS Panzer Division completed the move to Lisieux, Eberbach would have only two divisions left in reserve.24
On the British side, the 8 Corps of the Second British Army, eventually employing three armored divisions, closely followed the air bombardment of 18 July and advanced over three miles in little more than an hour. Tactical surprise and the effect of the bombardment were responsible. Eberbach had not expected Montgomery, who had a reputation for caution, to make a major attack out of the narrow bridgehead he possessed east of the Orne. Even after the attack got under way, Eberbach could not really believe that it was the British main effort. Montgomery had achieved surprise by moving his assault divisions across the Orne only a few hours before the jump-off. With German troops destroyed or dazed by the
bombardment, the divisions manning defensive positions in the bombed corridor were momentarily paralyzed. Despite valiant efforts to reorganize, they were unable to offer real resistance to the British armored attack.
From about 0900 to noon, the 8 Corps was on the verge of achieving a clean penetration. Only when the British hit the enemy's antitank and flak guns on the last defensive line was the advance halted. The heavy antitank screen and the efforts of individual German gun crews and bazooka teams contributed greatly to delaying an immediate exploitation of the potential breakthrough. More important perhaps, the congested battlefield prevented rapid British maneuver, restricted approaches through British mine fields hindered follow-up forces, and subordinate commanders were hesitant to bypass defended villages.
Recovering from the surprise by noon, Eberbach mobilized and committed four tank battalions and four infantry battalions of the 1st SS and 21st Panzer Divisions in a counterattack, which dispelled British hope of further immediate penetration.25 Despite Eberbach's ability to block a clean penetration, his counterattack failed to regain the lost ground, primarily because German tanks moving forward to counterattack "sank into a field of craters and had to be pulled out by tractors." With all of Eberbach's forces committed and with the 12th SS Panzer Division, which had turned back from Lisieux, hardly sufficient to affect the situation, Kluge requested and received permission to bring the 116th Panzer Division from the Fifteenth Army sector across the Seine River. "We have to get tanks," Kluge insisted. "We have to let higher headquarters know without misunderstanding that we must have more tanks."26
Though the British had lost 270 tanks and 1,500 men on the first day of attack, GOODWOOD continued on 19 July as the British endeavored to extend their gains by limited local attacks. Resistance continued strong, and the British that day lost 131 tanks and incurred 1,100 casualties. Further attempts to advance on 20 July, at a cost of 68 tanks and 1,000 casualties, resulted in little progress. When a heavy thunderstorm on the afternoon of 20 July turned the countryside into a quagmire, GOODWOOD came to an end. An ineffective German counterattack on 21 July signaled the close of the operation.
During the four-day attack, 8 Corps had secured thirty-four square miles of ground and the Canadian 2d Corps had captured the remainder of the city of Caen and part of the plain immediately to the southeast. The 8 Corps lost 500 tanks and over 4 ,000 men; tank losses in the entire operation totaled 36 percent of all British tanks on the Continent. Although territorial gains were small, particularly when compared with losses and with the expenditure of the air bombardment, Montgomery's attack by 20 July had exhausted Eberbach's
reserves. Eberbach had to resort to small task forces detached from armored and infantry divisions to operate under the direct control of Panzer Group West as "fire-fighting forces."27
At a conference with subordinate commanders on 20 July, Kluge reviewed the battle. There was no recrimination, for the troops had fought well. "We will hold," Kluge promised as he attempted to inspire his subordinate leaders, "and if no miracle weapons can be found to improve our basic situation, then we'll just die like men on the battlefield."28
While the Germans, despite discouragement, were content that they had fought as well as they could, the Allies were far from happy. General Eisenhower had expected a drive across the Orne from Caen and an exploitation toward the Seine Basin and Paris.29 Montgomery had been more cautious in his anticipations. On the afternoon of 18 July, the first day of the attack, General Montgomery had been "very well satisfied" to have caught the enemy off balance. The effect of the air support seemed "decisive." The Second British Army had three armored divisions operating in the open country southeast of Caen, and armored cars and tanks, he thought, were threatening Falaise.30 Two days later, Montgomery judged that the purpose of the attack had been accomplished. The 8 Corps had advanced nearly six miles and taken 2,000 prisoners, all of Caen had been secured, and the Orne bridgehead had been more than doubled in size. General Montgomery on 20 July instructed General Dempsey to withdraw his armored troops into reserve and replace them with infantry.31
To those in the Allied camp who had expected a decisive breakthrough and exploitation, expressions of satisfaction seemed hollow. A profound disappointment swept through the high levels of command. At SHAEF there was much feeling that the 21 Army Group and the Second British Army had not pushed as hard as they might have. "The slowness of the battle, . . . [and] inward but generally unspoken criticism of Monty for being so cautious" brought unusual gloom to General Eisenhower's features. Impatient critics pointed out that Montgomery had gained less than a mile for each ton of high explosives dropped from the planes. Gossips speculated on "who would succeed Monty if sacked."32
Later, General Montgomery attempted to explain the reason why "a number of misunderstandings" had arisen. He had been concerned on his eastern flank, he stated, only with "a battle for position," a preliminary operation designed to aid the projected American attack, Operation COBRA. Being a major operation, although important only as a
preliminary, Operation GOODWOOD had suggested "wider implications than in fact it had."33
Apologists could claim that there had been no thought of a breakthrough at the 21 Army Group headquarters, merely hope of a threat toward Falaise to keep the enemy occupied. Critics could claim that Montgomery had tried for a breakthrough with one hand while with the other he had kept the record clear in case he did not succeed. Although General Montgomery had in fact referred in July 1944 to GOODWOOD and to COBRA as parts of an over-all breakthrough plan, he had also, perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps to insure all-out air support, promised that his eastern flank would "burst into flames" and that he would secure a "decisive" victory there.34 Eisenhower had interpreted Montgomery's intentions for the 8 Corps armored attack as a promise of a plunge into the vitals of the enemy. "I would not be at all surprised," General Eisenhower had written Montgomery, "to see you gaining a victory that will make some of the 'old classics' look like a skirmish between patrols."35 When the British attack failed to achieve a spectacular breakthrough, disappointment was natural.
Disappointment led General Eisenhower to write Montgomery on 21 July to question whether they saw "eye to eye on the big problems." He reiterated that the Allied needs were the Breton ports; increased space for maneuver, administration, and airfields; and the destruction of German military forces. He remarked that he had been "extremely hopeful and optimistic" that GOODWOOD," assisted by tremendous air attack," would have a decisive effect on the battle of Normandy. "That did not come about," he wrote, and as a result, he was "pinning our immediate hopes on Bradley's attack." Nevertheless, because the recent advances near Caen had partially eliminated the necessity for a defensive attitude, and because the Allies had sufficient strength and supplies to support major assaults by both British and American armies, he urged General Montgomery to have Dempsey's army launch an offensive at the same time that COBRA began. Eventually, he reminded Montgomery, the U.S. ground strength would be greater than that of the British, but "while we have equality in size we must go forward shoulder to shoulder, with honors and sacrifices equally shared."36
On that day General Montgomery was instructing General Dempsey to continue operations "intensively" with infantry to make the enemy believe that the Allies were contemplating a major advance toward Falaise and Argentan.37 Referring to these instructions, General Montgomery told the supreme commander that he had no intention of stopping offensive operations on the east flank. Nevertheless, as a result of General Eisenhower's letter, Montgomery gave Dempsey more specific instructions to
supplement the rather general provisions of his original directive and thereby "fattened up" the attack on the east flank designed to supplement the American effort in the west.38
Reassured, General Eisenhower wrote, "We are apparently in complete agreement in conviction that vigorous and persistent offensive effort should be sustained by both First and Second Ar mies."39 But again, as in June when the U.S. First Army had driven toward Cherbourg, and as at the beginning of July when the Americans had commenced their offensive toward the south, the Allies, and particularly General Eisenhower, had their immediate hopes pinned on General Bradley's attack.
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