While awaiting the signal for COBRA to begin, intelligence officers pondered some troublesome questions.1 Did the enemy defenses on the Lessay-St. Lô road represent the actual main battle position? Were there enough mobile German reserves assembled locally to counter the attack successfully? What major reserves were available to the Germans? Where were they? Where were they likely to be committed? Was the Luftwaffe capable of intervention? Would the Germans employ the V-1, V-2, or some other secret weapon against COBRA?
Barring the appearance of miracle weapons and a miraculous resuscitation of the German Air Force, the enemy was thought capable of only defensive action. Neither the LXXXIV Corps nor the II Parachute Corps seemed to have local reserves capable of intervening with effect. Nor did either Seventh Army or Panzer Group West appear to have excess troops that might be committed against COBRA. Even if the Germans somehow assembled a reserve for a counterattack from the base of the Cotentin, they would need more time to concentrate sufficient forces than the Americans thought they themselves needed to achieve the success they expected of COBRA. Though the Germans might attempt a rigid defense of the Périers-St. Lô line, deficiencies in manpower and supplies made an effective defense doubtful. The most likely course of enemy action, then, seemed to be a gradual withdrawal accompanied by strong delaying action in terrain favorable to defense, probably along three successive natural defensive lines: between Coutances and Canisy, in the Gavray area, and at the base of the Cotentin near Avranches.
The Americans estimated that the enemy troops facing VII and VIII Corps numbered no more than 17,000 men with less than 100 tanks in support--a slight force to resist the power of more than five times that strength assembled for COBRA. Since captured letters and documents and prisoner-of-war interrogations indicated that the German soldier was weary of war and had no real hope of victory, the fierce resistance met in the hedgerows seemed inexplicable. Perhaps the Germans would suddenly give way during COBRA. Similarly, on the strategic level, it seemed impossible that Germany could hold out much longer. A shortage of oil had become
the major factor limiting strategic and operational efficiency both in the air and on the ground. Deficiencies in heavy armament had dropped the tank strength of panzer divisions to an average of about 70 percent of tables of equipment. A scarcity of drivers, as well as of oil, had intensified a shortage of motor transport that was further increased by wastage far exceeding vehicle replacements and captured matériel. All types of ammunition had deteriorated in quality and quantity. The same could be said for manpower. Propaganda inside Germany seemed to be losing its force and influence. Yet there was no evidence to suggest that anything but invasion of Germany proper would produce a collapse of the home front. Both at home and on the battlefield, the Germans refused to accept the defeat that from the Allied point of view seemed inevitable and only a matter of time.
The significant factors on the battlefield appeared to be the continued lag in infantry build-up and the piecemeal employment of reserves as they reached the battle area. As a result, instead of massing reserves for a co-ordinated counteroffensive, the Germans had dissipated them. The Germans had been compelled to assume a purely defensive attitude, and were forced to fight a constant delaying action from one hastily prepared line or position to another while mounting local counterattacks in company or battalion strength. Without a strategic reserve, the Germans were stripping their Breton defenses and denuding their French Mediterranean coastal positions to meet Allied pressure in Normandy. Only the continued fear of another Allied amphibious assault in the Pas-de-Calais kept strong forces immobile there. It was reasonable to suppose that the Germans would probably maintain an aggressive defensive attitude along the entire battle front in Normandy and try to amass reserves for a major counterattack sometime in the future, but not in time to affect COBRA.
Allied estimates were quite correct, even though Kluge, commander in chief in the west who had also formally taken command of Army Group B, had had some success in building up the front in Normandy. Kluge had managed to secure four infantry divisions from southern France and the Pas-de-Calais (more were promised him), and he was using them to replace armored divisions on the Panzer Group West front. His motive was twofold: to keep the panzer divisions from being "ground to pieces," because if that happened "there won't be anything left"; and to create a mobile reserve. Eberbach, the Panzer Group West commander, helped Kluge by taking drastic steps to assemble transport and thus speed the arrival of the infantry divisions. Eberbach also feared that if the infantry divisions arriving as replacements came too slowly, little of the panzer divisions would be left to be relieved. Between 10 and 22 July, the four newly arrived infantry divisions replaced five panzer divisions.2 Operation GOODWOOD virtually nullified this
achievement by forcing the recommitment of armor.
The reason for Kluge's primary concern with the Panzer Group West portion of the front--that part facing the British--was the terrain around Caen. Montgomery's pressure, climaxed by the GOODWOOD attack, indicated that both Montgomery and Kluge were acting according to the dictates of the terrain. The little offensive planning on higher German echelons during July turned about the idea of launching an attack in the Caen region some time in August.3 As a result of preoccupation with both the vulnerability of the Panzer Group West sector and its excellence for offensive operations, the Germans virtually overlooked the Seventh Army front. (Map IV)
Dissatisfied with the strength of the Cotentin defenses, Kluge advised Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, that his mission was to avoid being pushed back into the interior of France, where the Allies could swing wide and outflank the German positions near Caen. Specifically, Hausser was to remove the two armored divisions on his front--the 2d SS Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr-- and concentrate them under army control to be used flexibly against threatened penetrations. Hausser's only immediate move in this direction was to detach two tank companies from the 2d SS Panzer Division and place them in the army reserve. Before complying further, he awaited the arrival of the 363d Infantry Division (coming from the Fifteenth Army), which was not to reach the Seventh Army sector until August. Haus ser might have taken Panzer Lehr out of the line by substituting for it the 275th Infantry Division, which he retained under army control immediately behind Panzer Lehr. He might have replaced the entire 2d SS Panzer Division with the 353d Infantry Division, which Choltitz, the LXXXIV Corps commander, withdrew to form a reserve of his own. But Hausser hesitated to pull armor out of the front line because he felt that "the defensive capabilities of an infantry division are less" than those of an armored division. Apparently believing that the type of terrain furnished adequate reason for maintaining the static defense already erected, Hausser did little more than clamor for battlefield replacements, additional artillery and supplies, and the sight of air cover.4
Yet Hausser was concerned. The battle of the hedgerows had worn down his forces at an alarming rate. The little that remained of the static units that had fought since the invasion lacked transport, adequate equipment, and even weapons.5 The more recently arrived units in the Cotentin were also suffering the ravages of attrition. Had the Americans continued their pressure, a decisive result would probably have occurred within a month. But Hausser and other German commanders expected that the Americans would be too impatient to await this kind of decision, and they looked for signs of a big new U.S. offensive. Hausser watched where it seemed more likely to begin--east of the Vire--and in doing so he failed to perceive
the build-up west of the Vire. He could not conceive of a major attack in strength taking place between St. Lô and Coutances because the terrain there was not conducive to a massive effort. Although Choltitz on 23 July reported a concentration of strong armored forces near the Cotentin west coast, the Seventh Army headquarters denied categorically that any indications of an immediately impending attack existed.6 Part of the reason for the lack of perception at higher headquarters was an over-awareness of the importance of the terrain, a feeling that the menacing strength of the British and Canadian units encouraged. It was this that made the German surprise even greater when COBRA came.
Facing the U.S. troops poised to execute COBRA and holding positions generally along the Lessay-St. Lô highway, the LXXXIV Corps controlled many units but relatively few troops. In the coastal sector, near Lessay, were the battered remnants of the 243d Division and beside it the 91st, with control over remaining elements of the 77th Division and the exhausted kampfgruppe of the 265th Division (the depleted 15th Parachute Regiment of the 5th Parachute Division had moved east of the Vire River to provide a reserve for the 3d Parachute Division in the St. Lô sector). The still-strong 2d SS Panzer Division (augmented by the separate (independent) 6th Parachute Regiment) and the considerably weakened forces of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division defended in the Périers area. Immediately to the east was the 5th Parachute Division, recently arrived from Brittany and controlling only one regiment. Panzer Lehr (augmented by 450 combat troops of the badly damaged Kampfgruppe Heinz of the 275th Division and by 500 partially trained combat troops of an inexperienced regiment of the 5th Parachute Division, plus some elements of the 2d SS Panzer Division), occupied the greater part of the ground between the Taute and the Vire, but its right boundary was two miles short of the Vire River. On the right (east) of the LXXXIV Corps boundary and adjacent to Panzer Lehr, 650 battle-fatigued combat troops of the 352d Division plus some attached units, all under the control of the II Parachute Corps, occupied a two-mile front on the west bank of the Vire.
Each of these units held a portion of the front. In immediate reserve were infantry, reconnaissance, and engineer battalions in the process of rehabilitation. Forming the LXXXIV Corps reserve, the tired 353d Division was assembled south of Périers and behind the 5th Parachute Division. In Seventh Army reserve the 275th Division, newly arrived from Brittany and controlling two regiments, was stationed behind Panzer Lehr. Two infantry companies and two tank companies of the 2d SS Panzer Division were also under the Seventh Army control as a mobile task force in reserve.7
The troops directly opposing the U.S.
VII Corps on the morning of 24 July totaled about 30,000 men, quite a few more than the Americans estimated. The actual number of combat effectives on or near the front between the Taute and the Vire was much less, perhaps only 5,000. Of these, approximately 3,200 combat effectives of Panzer Lehr and its attached units were directly in the path of COBRA.
Authorized almost 15,000 men, Panzer Lehr was seriously reduced in strength. Its losses had been almost entirely among its combat elements. Its two regiments of armored infantry, its tank regiment, and its tank destroyer battalion had totaled slightly more than 7,000 combat effectives and over 200 tanks and tank destroyers at full strength; on 24 July only about 2,200 combat troops and perhaps 45 serviceable armored vehicles held the main line of resistance. These organic troops of Panzer Lehr and its attached units were to receive the full force of the COBRA bombardment.
The Panzer Lehr front extended about three miles along the Périers-St. Lô highway. Several small infantry groups formed centers of resistance on an outpost line north of the highway, but most of the troops were deployed just south of the road. On the left (west) the attached parachute regiment had formed a strongpoint and roadblock near the road to Marigny. On the right (east) Kampfgruppe Heinz, near the village of Hébécrevon, had organized five strongpoints, each in the strength of a reinforced infantry platoon with a few tanks or tank destroyers and light antitank guns. In the center, organic infantry and tanks had erected three strong-points, each in battalion strength, between Marigny and St. Gilles, and three smaller roadblocks to cover the highway to St. Gilles and secondary roads near the village of la Chapelle-en-Juger. If the Americans succeeded in crossing the Périers-St. Lô highway, Bayerlein was prepared to commit regimental reserves-several companies of infantry and a few tanks--located along a country road just south of and parallel to the main highway.
Except for the combatants, the battlefield was deserted. Most of the French inhabitants had evacuated their homes and departed the battle zone. The few who remained in the COBRA area took refuge in isolated farmhouses, most of them, fortunately, outside the air bombardment target.8
Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory had set the COBRA H Hour at 1300, 24 July, and on the morning of 24 July he went to Normandy to observe the operation. He found the sky overcast, the clouds thick. Deciding that visibility was inadequate for the air attack, he ordered a postponement. Unfortunately, he was too late. The message announcing his decision reached England only a few minutes before the actual bombing was to commence in France. Although the planes were ordered to return without making their bomb runs, it was impossible to get them all back.
In accordance with the original planning, six groups of fighter-bombers of the IX TAC and three bombardment divisions
(about 1,600 heavy bombers) of the Eighth U.S. Air Force had departed their bases in England and headed toward France. Only the medium bombers, scheduled to bomb last, had not left the ground when the postponement order came. Of the six groups of fighter-bombers in the air, three received the recall order before they dropped their bombs. The other three bombed the general target area, the narrow strip, and certain targets north of the Périers-St. Lô highway, with no observed results. The postponement message to the heavy bombers stayed only a few planes in the last formation.
Ignorant that COBRA had been postponed, pilots of the great majority of the heavy bombers guided their big craft on toward the target. Because no precise radio channels had been designated for emergency communication, there was no certain means of transmitting the news to the planes. While air force personnel in France attempted to get word to the craft aloft, the first formation of 500 planes arrived over the target area. Fortunately, they found visibility so poor that no attack was made. The second formation found cloud conditions so bad that only 35 aircraft, after making three bomb runs to identify the target, released their loads. Over 300 bombers of the third formation, with slightly improved weather conditions, dropped their bombs--about 550 tons of high explosive and 135 tons of fragmentation--before the postponement message finally got through to cancel the remainder of the strike.9
The 24 July bombing was unfortunate, not only because of the likelihood of negating the surprise planned for COBRA, but also because it killed 25 men and wounded 131 of the 30th Division.10 The tragedy was the result of one accident. The lead bombardier of a heavy bomber formation had had difficulty moving his bomb release mechanism and had inadvertently salvoed a portion of his load. The fifteen aircraft flying in the formation followed his example and released their bombs. The bomb load fell 2,000 yards north of the Périers-St. Lô highway.11
On the ground, VII Corps had executed the initial part of the COBRA attack by withdrawing the front-line troops of the 9th and 30th Divisions several hundred yards to the north. The poor weather conditions had prompted commanders to wonder whether the lack of visibility would cancel the air bombardment, but General Collins was characteristically optimistic. He believed that the planes would get through the haze. Even if the heavy bombers were not able to take part in the air attack, he felt that the fighter-bombers would be on hand
Advancing Toward Périers-St. Lô Road.
4th Division advance patrol passes tanks awaiting orders to move up.
and that their bombardment would give sufficient impetus for the attack. He therefore told his subordinate commanders to go ahead. If the fighter-bomber effort proved insufficient, he expected the heavy bombers to return on the following day.12
Notice that the air bombardment had been postponed reached the ground troops a short time before the bombardment actually commenced. What then was the meaning of the bombs that were dropped? What was the mission of the ground troops? Was COBRA delayed? Or were the ground troops to initiate COBRA on the basis of the incomplete air effort?
While discussion took place at higher headquarters, General Collins decided that the VII Corps had to attack. Withdrawal of the 9th and 30th Divisions had created a vacuum that the Germans would fill unless the infantry returned to the vicinity of the Périers-St. Lô highway. If COBRA was to start without benefit of the full air preparation, the infantry could simply continue the attack, cross the line of departure at the highway, and attempt to pry open the Marigny--St. Gilles gap. If, on the other hand, postponement in the air meant postponement on the ground, then the same conditions on which the COBRA plan was based had to be restored. General Collins therefore told the 9th, 4th, and 30th Divisions, the units scheduled
to initiate the COBRA offensive, to make a limited objective attack to the Périers-St. Lô highway. Maybe they would continue beyond the highway, maybe not.13
Half an hour later General Collins learned that COBRA was postponed on the ground as well as in the air, but to prevent the enemy from moving north of the Périers-St. Lô highway, the three infantry divisions were to attack at 1300 as though COBRA were going into effect. In reality, the divisions were to restore the front line that had existed before the air bombardment.14 If the incomplete air bombardment had not forewarned the Germans and destroyed the tactical surprise on which General Bradley counted so heavily, the German main line of resistance would be unchanged for another COBRA effort on the following day. Until COBRA kicked off as planned, the divisions in the VII Corps exploiting force were to remain in their concealed bivouacs.15
The abortive air bombardment on 24 July had obviously alerted the Germans to the American ground attack that followed. Enemy artillery fire began to fall in large volume. All three assault divisions had a difficult time that afternoon.
On the corps right, the 9th Division committed its three regiments: the 60th Infantry battled enemy troops that had infiltrated behind the withdrawal; a reinforced battalion of the 47 th Infantry struggled until dark to gain a single hedgerow; two battalions of the 39th Infantry fought eight hours to reduce a strongpoint and took 77 casualties, among them the regimental commander, Col. Harry A. Flint.16 In the corps center, the 4th Division committed the 8th Infantry, which attacked in a column of battalions with tank support; after two hours of heavy fighting and a loss of 27 killed and 70 wounded, the regiment reached a point 100 yards north of the highway. On the corps left, the 30th Division did not advance at once because the assault elements were stunned and demoralized by the bombardment accident. It took almost an hour for the units to recover and reorganize, by which time enemy artillery fire had subsided. The division then advanced and reoccupied its original lines.
The bombardment accident released a flood of controversy. Having expected a lateral approach to the target area, General Bradley was astonished and shocked when he learned that the planes had made a perpendicular bomb run. Using a perpendicular approach, Bradley said later, was an act of perfidy on the part of the Air Forces, "a serious breach of good faith in planning."17 Other ground commanders had also anticipated a lateral approach, and their surprise was deepened by the horror that the news of casualties brought.18 Even General Quesada, the commander of the
155-mm. Howitzer, north of Périers-St. Lô highway, blasts German lines.
IX TAC, dispatched a telegram of indignant protest on the direction of the heavy-bomber approach (his fighter-bombers had made a lateral approach). Quesada demanded whether "another plan" had actually been employed.19 Obviously, something was wrong. Perhaps something was inexcusably wrong, since COBRA had been conceived and planned, not hastily, but thoroughly over a period of almost two weeks.
At the conference between General Bradley and air representatives on 19 July, when the COBRA air arrangements were being worked out, the direction of the bombing approach had "evoked considerable discussion." General Bradley had insisted on his parallel plan, while all the Air Forces representatives had argued that perpendicular runs were more suitable.20 At the end of the conference the question had not been settled formally, though General Bradley must have assumed that his recommendation for lateral bomb runs would be accepted. The Air Forces representatives had understood that General Bradley "was aware of the possibility of gross [bombing] errors causing casualties"
among his troops, and they thought he had said "that he was prepared to accept such casualties no matter which way the planes approached."21 Unaware of this conception, General Bradley had considered the conference "very satisfactory." Even though Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory had had to "rush off" before its conclusion, General Quesada had remained throughout.22 The result of what in reality had been an unsatisfactory conference was an absence of firm understanding and mutual agreement.
The approach route was not the only difficulty. General Bradley recalled after the war that he had gained the impression that the air forces would use bombs no heavier than 100 pounds and was surprised when larger bombs were dropped.23 Yet during Bradley's conference at the First Army command post on 12 July, General Collins had asked, "Do we get heavy or medium bombs or both?" and Bradley had replied, "Both." The 260-pound bomb in Bradley's estimation did not "make too big a crater." Collins, who wanted to take a chance on the cratering, had voted for "bigger and better bombs," even 500-pound bombs, while General Quesada had suggested that 260-pound bombs would be large enough. The discussion had not cleared up the matter, and when the conference ended the question was still not settled.24
Despite the absence of agreement, the basic planning documents of the air strike plainly indicated that 450 fighter-bombers and medium bombers were each to carry two 500-pound general purpose bombs as well as 260-pound general purpose and fragmentation bombs.25 Although 70 percent of the heavy bombers were to carry 100-pound general purpose bombs, the remaining 30 percent were to use 260-pound fragmentation bombs to the extent of their availability and heavier bombs when no more 260-pound bombs could be had.26
There was no time for recrimination on 24 July, for an immediate decision had to be made. Should General Bradley agree to another bombardment under the same terms and thereby indirectly condone the possibility of additional American casualties? Or should he insist on changing the pattern of air attack, which would mean postponing COBRA for several days at least? With higher headquarters anxious for action, General Bradley had little choice. The ground attack on the afternoon of 24 July had re-established the necessary COBRA conditions. Prospects for good weather on 25 July were improving. The question whether the premature bombing had lost the Americans tactical surprise was to be resolved at once: the Allies would launch COBRA again at 1100, 25 July.
For the second COBRA bombardment several alterations were made in an attempt to avoid a repetition of the bombing errors. Air bombardment targets north of the Périers--St. Lô highway--
Waiting for the COBRA Bombardment, 8th Infantrymen look skyward.
six in all--were relegated to the artillery.27 A special weather reconnaissance plane was to enter the assault area early in the morning to obtain exact atmospheric data and find out if there was adequate visibility for the bombardment. The heavy bombers were to fly as low as safety would permit, and, if possible, bomb visually.28
Again on the morning of 25 July the planes came. Flying in groups of twelve, over 1,500 B-17's and B-24's dropped more than 3,300 tons of bombs in the COBRA area, and more than 380 medium bombers dropped over 650 tons of high explosives and fragmentation bombs. In groups of four, over 550 fighter-bombers dropped more than 200 tons of bombs and a large amount of napalm.29 The earth shook.
Bombing heights had been fixed around 15,000 feet, but the presence of clouds forced readjustment in flight. Most bombardiers had to recompute their figures en route. Some planes
After the COBRA Bombardment men dig out from the short bombings.
bombed from the relatively low altitude of 12,000 feet, which brought them closer to the enemy antiaircraft fire and thus added to pilot strain, loosened flight formations, and increased the hazards of crowded air over the target. Artillery smoke markers proved of little value because they were not visible until the smoke drifted to high altitudes, and by that time the wind had dispersed and displaced it. Once the attack began, great clouds of dust and smoke obscured not only markers but terrain features as well. Furthermore, the red smoke of artillery markers could hardly be distinguished from shell and bomb bursts and from muzzle flashes of American and German artillery. Because it was impossible to keep bomb formations tight and because the crew members had been impressed with the necessity of avoiding short bombing, a good portion of the bombs landed south of the target area or west and east of it. Some bombs, however, again fell north of the Périers-St. Lô highway and on American positions.30
The bombs fell north of the highway because of human error. The lead bombardier of one heavy bomber formation
had trouble with his bombsight and released visually with bad results. Another failed to identify landmarks properly. The lead pilot of a third formation prematurely ordered bombs away, and all the planes in his unit released their loads. Fragmentation bombs and high explosives from 35 heavy bombers and the bombs of 42 medium bombers dropped within American lines.31
This relatively light bombardment north of the road killed 111 of the American troops and wounded 490.32 In addition some spectators, official observers, and newspaper reporters were hit. Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commanding general of the Army Ground Forces and pro tem commander of the 1st U.S. Army Group, was killed. General McNair had been placed in command of the army group in order to give continuing verisimilitude to the Allied deception maintained by Operation FORTITUDE. Because the news of General McNair's death might compromise FORTITUDE, he was buried secretly, with only senior officers in attendance. The news was suppressed until Lt. Gen. John L. DeWitt reached the theater to become nominal commander of the fictitious army group.33
As news of the second short bombing spread across the battle area on 25 July, the sense of elated anticipation that had come with the appearance of the COBRA bombardment fleet vanished. Resentment that the air force "had done it again" and grimness over the prospects of successful ground action spread throughout American ranks.34 Dismayed and dejected over the nearly 900 U.S. casualties sustained from the bombings in the two days, General Eisenhower resolved that he would never again use heavy bombers in a tactical role.35
Near the vicinity where the short bombs had fallen, troops were disorganized and in some cases attack plans were disrupted. The entire command group of the 3d Battalion, 47th Infantry, had been destroyed with the exception of the battalion commander; 30 men were killed or wounded, and the unit had to
9th Division Troops Advance, Ignoring Dust kicked up by the COBRA bombardment, 25 July.
be replaced in the assault. The fire direction center of the 957th Field Artillery Battalion was obliterated. The communications wire between the 9th Division Artillery command post and the firing battalions was cut, and initial preparations had to be controlled by radio. All four assault companies of the 8th Infantry were bombed. Because of extremely high casualties in the 11 9th and 120th Infantry Regiments, the commanders were as much concerned about securing ambulances for their wounded as about starting the attack. Many individuals who suffered no visible physical injuries sustained concussion and shock. The 30th Division, for example, reported 164 cases of combat exhaustion attributable to the short bombing on 25 July.36 "The dive bombers came in beautifully," a company commander related afterward, and dropped their bombs right . . . where they belonged. Then the first group of heavies dropped them in the draw several hundred yards in front of us. . . . The next wave came in closer, the next one . . . still closer. The dust cloud was drifting back toward us. Then they came right on top of us. . . . We put on all the orange smoke we had but I don't think it did any good, they could not have seen it through the dust. . . . The shock was awful. A lot of the men were sitting around after the bombing in a complete daze. . . . I called battalion and told them I was in no condition to move, that everything was completely disorganized and it would take me some time to get my men back together, and asked for a delay. But battalion said no, push off. Jump off immediately.37
The feeling of profound discouragement temporarily overshadowed questions of more immediate importance.
Had the bombardment neutralized the German defenses in the COBRA area? Had the bomb errors paralyzed American mobility on the ground by demoralizing the assault troops? The answers were soon to be revealed. Short bombing or not, COBRA had been launched; for better or for worse, the ground attack had to go on.
Effect on the Enemy
Not only the main bombardment on 25 July but also the premature bombing on 24 July terrified the Germans and civilians on the other side of the Périers-St. Lô highway. Around noon of 24 July, it must have seemed that the motors of the approaching COBRA armada were like an orchestra of bass viols tuning up. The crash of bombs announced the overture, the premature bombardment. Even the relatively few bombs that were released were enough to create an awesome effect. At least one person believed that the end of the world had come. Others thought that the Allies had developed a new weapon of overwhelming power.38
To Bayerlein, commander of Panzer Lehr, the bombardment on 24 July obviously signaled the beginning of a major American ground attack. Yet Bayerlein was able to influence the battle little.
The disruption of his communications to forward units and the confusion that resulted made it difficult to organize a co-ordinated defense against the ground attack that followed the bombing. Consequently, Bayerlein was more than gratified by the situation at the end of the day. Ignorant of the fact that Allied plans had gone awry and that the Americans had mounted only a limited objective attack, Bayerlein congratulated himself on the achievement of his troops. They had apparently repelled a major American effort and prevented the troops from crossing the Périers-St. Lô highway. Panzer Lehr had flinched under the weight of the bombardment, but it had not given way; the front line remained intact and neither corps nor army reserves had been committed. However, losses from the bombing and the ground attack numbered about 350 men and perhaps 10 tanks and tank destroyers. Ammunition had been expended liberally, and stocks at firing batteries were rather low. Expecting a renewed attack on the following day, Bayerlein requested and received 200 replacements from the regiments of the 275th Division assembled behind him. He also withdrew the bulk of his outpost line to locations south of the Périers-St. Lô highway, leaving only very lightly manned positions north of the road, where he anticipated strong American artillery fire.39
The premature bombing and the limited objective attack on 24 July had thus had the effect of a ruse. They nourished German self-confidence; Bayerlein
had no reason to believe that his division could not repeat its performance and turn the Americans back again. For the real COBRA bombardment that was to come on 25 July, Panzer Lehr was deployed substantially as on the preceding day. The only difference was advantageous to the Americans: Bayerlein had thinned his outpost line north of the highway and moved more troops directly into the area scheduled for saturation bombing.
Bayerlein's self-confidence was shared by Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, but not by Kluge. When Kluge learned the Allies had bombed front-line positions, he thought immediately the strike must have occurred in the Panzer Group West sector, for that was the area he considered of primary importance to the integrity of the entire Normandy front. He lost no time in telephoning Eberbach and asking in alarm what had happened. Nothing new, Eberbach replied; everything very quiet.40
Discovering that it was Panzer Lehr in the Seventh Army sector that had been bombed, Kluge telephoned Hausser and asked for "a quick run-down on the situation." Hausser complied. He began a calm recital of facts. "Strong fire and patrol activity on the right wing; artillery fire on the Vire bridges; reorganization of the [American] army front."
"Reorganization for what?" Kluge interrupted.
"To insert another corps," Hausser explained. Then after waiting a moment, he continued. "On the left flank very strong air activity; attacks in the form of bomb carpets three kilometers behind the MLR. Attack against the middle of the left sector. Only limited attacks; no concerted assault recognizable."
"In other words," Kluge pressed for an interpretation, "as weather improves we can expect increasingly severe fighting around St. Lô and westward. Isn't that about it?"
Hausser agreed. "On the extreme left wing also," he added.
"I'd like to ask you again," Kluge insisted, "do you get the impression that you're heading for heavy fighting?"
"We've got to expect it somewhere," Hausser allowed. He revealed little concern or worry.
"Have you created appropriate reserves?" Kluge asked.
Hausser reminded him that the 353d Division had been pulled out of the line.
But Kluge seemed already to be thinking of something else. "Without any doubt," he said, as though talking to himself, "there's something new in all this air activity. We have got to expect a heavy enemy offensive somewhere."41
Kluge's hunch was right, but his guess was wrong. Still assuming that the Allies would make their main effort against the eastern sector, Kluge spent the following day, 25 July, inspecting the forward positions of Panzer Group West.42 He was on hand to witness the reaction to an attack near Tilly launched
by the 2d Canadian Corps. The Canadians gained a mile or two until the 9th SS Panzer Division was committed to stop the advance.43 But there was no real cause for concern on the Panzer Group West front. The dangerous sector was across the Vire in the Seventh Army area, where COBRA had struck again.
If the previous day's commotion had seemed like Armageddon, the bombardment of 25 July was even worse.44 Bombs buried men and equipment, overturned tanks, cut telephone wires, broke radio antennas, sent messengers fleeing for foxholes or the nearest crater. Communications with forward echelons were completely disrupted. The bombardment transformed the main line of resistance from a familiar pastoral paysage into a frightening landscape of the moon. Several hours after the bombing, the village priest of la Chapelle-en-Juger, near the center of the target area, walked through the fields and thought he was in a strange world.45
No less than a thousand men must have perished in the COBRA bombardment. About one third of the total number of combat effectives manning the main line of defense and assembled on the immediate reserve line were probably killed or wounded, the survivors dazed. Perhaps only a dozen tanks or tank destroyers remained in operation. Three battalion command posts of Panzer Lehr were demolished. The attached parachute regiment virtually vanished. Only local and feeble resistance was possible against attacking American infantrymen.46
Kamfgruppe Heinz on the Panzer Lehr right was the sole unit larger than a battalion that was capable of effective combat. By the end of 25 July that kampfgruppe no longer existed--it had apparently been annihilated in ground action near Hébécrevon. The II Parachute Corps, trying to re-establish contact with Panzer Lehr that evening, dispatched an infantry battalion to the sector previously occupied by the kampfgruppe. The battalion found only Americans.
Continued Allied air activity in Panzer Lehr rear areas during the afternoon of 25 July thwarted efforts to reorganize and build up a new line of defense. One regiment of the 275th Division, ordered to move up from Marigny and counterattack through la Chapelle-en-Juger, lost all semblance of organization and counted only 200 survivors at the end of the day.
"As of this moment," Kluge reported that evening, "the front has . . . burst." The Americans had made a penetration three miles in width and from one to three miles in depth. Not yet sealed off, the hole was inhabited by isolated units, by bewildered individuals, and by departed souls. The 353d Division and the remainder of the 275th Division had been committed, but it was highly questionable whether they could restore the front or even re-establish a defensive line. Kluge nevertheless felt there was
still hope of stopping the Americans. Although "we must fight for every yard on the right wing [Panzer Group West sector]," Kluge stated, he had freedom of movement and of withdrawal on the left, west of the Vire. If he could decrease the length of his line west of St. Lô by withdrawal and thereby extricate the 2d SS Panzer Division and use it as a mobile reserve, he might salvage something from the discouraging situation, but he needed "a free hand in his decisions about Seventh Army." Would Hitler give him a free hand? Shortly after midnight, Hitler said he would.47
Hopeful that the COBRA bombardment on the morning of 25 July had caused widespread devastation on the German main line of resistance but not at all sure that it had, infantrymen of the VII Corps moved out in attack at 1100. Despite the disorganization that the bombing errors had prompted, only two units, a regiment of the 9th Division and a battalion of the 30th Division, were unable to attack on the hour, and these jumped off after only a slight delay.48
The infantry units initiating the COBRA ground attack were to create a protected corridor for those troops scheduled to follow and exploit a breakthrough. The infantry, therefore, had the mission of securing specific geographical objectives as rapidly as possible. Critical terrain features such as high ground and crossroads that meant control of the corridor had been carefully assigned to each small unit participating in the attack, and the assault troops were to drive to their objectives without regard to the rate of advance of adjacent units. They were to bypass enemy strongpoints, leaving their reduction to others who would come later. Engineers were to assist forward movement by hastily repairing the roads and removing obstacles. All unnecessary traffic was to stay off the roads in the assault area. The attacking units had been stripped of nonessential equipment to reduce column time lengths. The troops carried extra rations to keep supply traffic to a minimum. They were to hold wounded men and prisoners in place whenever possible. They had been issued enough ammunition to last until the exploiting armor passed through them. Commanders or responsible staff officers were to be at unit radios at all times and tuned to the command net for word that the mobile columns were about to begin their exploitation. When that was announced, the infantry was to clear the main roads and allow the exploitation to get under way without impediment.49 (Map V )
The towns of Marigny and St. Gilles were the main infantry objectives. Their capture would signify a penetration of three miles in depth, and their retention would give the VII Corps control of the road network needed for the exploitation. If the air bombardment had destroyed the German defenses, the
infantry would reach and secure Marigny and St. Gilles without great difficulty. General Collins would then catapult his armor forward.
On the VII Corps right (west), the 330th Infantry (detached from the 83d Division) was to seize a part of the Périers-St. Lô highway, including a vital road intersection, and block to the west in order to hamper any German attack from Périers against the corps right flank. In effect, the regiment was to secure and hold the pivot on which the VII Corps main effort was to swing in its turn toward Coutances. Eventually, the 330th Infantry was also to turn westward and join its parent unit and VIII Corps.50
The immediate regimental objective was near the Taute River flats, marshy hedgerowed lowland that was outside the COBRA bombardment area. Because the 83d Division had been unable a week earlier to force a crossing of the Taute River over the la Varde causeway, Germans still occupied the la Varde peninsula and constituted a threat to the regimental right flank.51 Dispersed over a large area, without strength in depth, facing hedgerowed lowlands, about to attack enemy troops that had not been affected by the COBRA bombardment, and harassed by tank destroyer fire from the right rear near Marchesieux, the regiment had a mission as difficult as it was vital.
The advance was rapid so long as fighter-bombers and medium bombers were still striking the COBRA target area southeast of the regimental positions.
In forty minutes the assault battalion advanced 800 yards. When the planes left, the Germans raised their heads from their foxholes, discovered that the saturation bombing had taken place several miles away, and realized that they were not at all hurt. Opening fire from their hedgerow positions and quickly repairing breaks in communication wires caused by a few stray bombs, the soldiers of the regiment that the 5th Parachute Division controlled soon achieved a coordinated defense that stopped the 330th Infantry. At the same time, shells from Marchesieux began to fall on the 330th's right flank.
The 330th Infantry could get no farther than a point several hundred yards short of its objective. Counter-battery fire by the 83d Division Artillery seemed to have little effect in reducing the volume of enemy shells. Unless a bombing attack destroyed the Marchesieux emplacements and thus eliminated the threat to the regimental right rear, there seemed little hope that the 330th Infantry would attain its immediate COBRA objective.52
The 9th Division was to attack to Marigny, along the main highway, which was later to serve the principal exploiting thrust. General Eddy's regiments were to peel off to the west in order to uncover the highway and form a strong protective line facing west. The terrain in the zone of advance--low ridges and small marshes--was rather difficult.
After some confusion occasioned by the bombing errors, the assault units moved rather quickly through the hostile outpost line north of the Périers-St.
Lô highway, containing and bypassing several strongpoints that were still active. Once across the line of departure, the troops were surprised to find increasingly troublesome centers of resistance. Despite the saturation bombing, groups of enemy soldiers were still fighting stubbornly. When the 9th Division shifted its weight to the west and met Germans who had been outside the bombardment carpet, the infantry made little progress.
The assault units of the 9th Division, with several exceptions, did not reach their initial objectives. One battalion that did arrive at its objective was prohibited by division order from continuing lest it get too far ahead of the others. Another battalion, which had advanced a thousand yards down the Marigny road, also received the order to halt and consolidate for the night even though it had encountered only sporadic small arms and long-range artillery fire. The caution that General Eddy was demonstrating illustrated American surprise at the tenacity of the German opposition. Enemy troops that had escaped the bomb blast seemed not at all affected by what had happened to nearby units that had been obliterated in the bombardment.
In the center of the VII Corps sector, General Barton had committed only one regiment of the 4th Division. With but slight disorganization because of the short bombing, the 8th Infantry attacked with two battalions abreast on a 2,000-yard front on good terrain for offensive action. One assault battalion immediately bypassed a German strongpoint north of the Périers--St. Lô highway, the line of departure, and moved rapidly south for a mile and a half against scattered opposition; at nightfall the leading troops were just east of la Chapelle-en-Juger. The other assault battalion struck an orchard full of Germans who had such effective fields of fire that the battalion could not sideslip the obstruction. After a two-hour delay, eighteen supporting tanks, which had temporarily lost contact with the infantry, arrived and blasted the orchard. The resistance disintegrated. The battalion crossed the Périers-St. Lô highway and encountered no opposition for 700 yards, but then two German tanks and a line of enemy soldiers along a sunken road again stopped the battalion. Once more the supporting Shermans had become separated from the infantry. The battalion made a double envelopment of the enemy strongpoint and knocked out the two enemy tanks with bazooka fire. Still the enemy held. After the Shermans finally rumbled up, a few rounds of tank fire destroyed the defense. Receiving a sudden order to seize la Chapelle-en-Juger, the battalion changed direction and gained the edge of town. American artillery fire falling nearby brought the attack to a halt.
On the corps left, oriented toward St. Gilles, the 30th Division recovered with amazing quickness from the demoralizing effect of the short bombing.53 Soon after the infantry started forward American planes bombed and strafed the troops again, driving them into ditches and bomb craters. More angry than scared, the men advanced once more.
They had a twofold mission. The 30th Division was to clear the road to
St. Gilles for the armored thrust to follow and was also to establish roadblocks at the bridges across the Vire River south of St. Lô. The bridges across the Vire had been bombed by tactical aircraft in pre-COBRA operations, and although some structures were damaged or destroyed, actual possession of the bridge sites by 30th Division infantrymen would enhance the security of the COBRA east flank.54 As the 30th Division veered eastward and uncovered the road to St. Gilles, an armored column, alerted to follow, would drive south to foil German reinforcement from the southeast. General Hobbs thus mounted a two-pronged attack, one thrusting toward St. Gilles, the other pointing toward the high ground inside the horseshoe loop of the Vire River at St. Lô. The minimum assignment for the division was capture of Hébécrevon.
Just across the Périers-St. Lô highway, 30th Division troops met a roadblock built around three Mark V tanks. A frontal three-company attack, supported by Shermans, failed to dislodge the roadblock and resulted in the loss of three American tanks. An attempted double envelopment brought infantrymen into contact with additional German centers of resistance. Aggressive reconnaissance and excellent tank-infantry co-ordination were finally responsible for knocking out a dozen armored vehicles and uprooting the German defense.
In attacking Hébécrevon, the 30th Division had to cross a valley, using an unpaved and mined road with precipitous banks, and make a frontal assault against commanding terrain. Because German fire prevented American engineers from clearing the road of mines, tanks could not accompany the infantry. Lack of alternate roads, absence of stream-crossing sites, closeness of adjacent units, and troop congestion precluded maneuver. An air strike seemingly had no effect on the volume of enemy fire. In the early evening the regimental commander of the 119th Infantry sought clarification of what appeared to be a paradoxical mission: was he to seize Hébécrevon or was he to bypass enemy resistance? Both, replied General Hobbs; "The important thing was to gain control of the crossroad in the town."55 But not until darkness fell were infantrymen and tanks able to move against Hébécrevon. Soldiers acting like seeing-eye dogs led Shermans around bomb craters and through mine fields into positions for direct fire. Their shelling soon had the desired effect. Around midnight American troops entered Hébécrevon.
The ground attack following the COBRA bombardment on 25 July moved the VII Corps across the Périers-St. Lô highway but not much farther. Although crossing the highway was no mean achievement, the prevailing American attitude was far from elation. The immediate verdict of American commanders judging the effectiveness of the COBRA air strike was virtually unanimous: the bombardment had had almost no effect on the enemy. German artillery fire on 25 July had been light when compared to that of the previous day, but still the volume had been strong. The difference could be ascribed to low ammunition stocks or to
the disruption of communications: the "enemy artillery," Americans believed, "was not touched by our bombing."56 Admittedly, the planes had damaged and destroyed equipment and had inflicted personnel losses in the bombed area, but the "effect of the bombing on the elimination of infantry resistance was negligible." Had not the Germans continued to contest every inch of ground?57 General Hobbs was more blunt: "There is no indication of bombing," he stated, "in where we have gone so far."58
The truth of the matter was that "saturation" bombing had not saturated the entire target. Some American units had moved rapidly through areas in which the German defenses had obviously been neutralized by the bombardment.59 Others had met resistance they had not expected.
The disappointment resulted in the main from over-anticipation and over-confidence in the results of the bombardment. Many American troops had expected the bombardment to eliminate resistance in the target area; they thought that all the Germans would be killed or wounded; they had looked forward to the prospect of strolling through the bomb target area. The fact that some enemy groups had survived and were able to fight seemed to prove that the air bombardment had failed to achieve its purpose. The troops apparently had not realized that air bombardment and artillery fire, even under the most favorable conditions, do not completely destroy the enemy, but by inflicting heavy losses weaken him physically and morally, disorganize his defenses, and make him vulnerable to infantry attack.60
The bombing errors that had taken American lives heightened the sense of discouragement. Comparatively few bombs had produced heavy casualties. Only gradually did the attitude of depression change. The bombing of American troops, it developed, "was not as bad as it seemed at first."61 It had not materially disrupted the ground attack. The bombardment had, after all, knocked a hole in the German defenses. German prisoners were visibly shaken and dazed. Steel bomb fragments had shredded light vehicles, perforated heavy equipment, cut tank treads, splintered trees, smashed houses, and shattered communications in the enemy sector.62
Judged from the point of view of geographical advance, the ground attack had nevertheless gained relatively little terrain. The VII Corps had advanced the line only about a mile south of the Périers--St. Lô highway. That this was the case, even though only isolated and uncoordinated German groups remained to contest the advance, could be explained partially by the fact that the initial disappointment itself had nullified to a large extent General Bradley's injunction to be bold. The battle of the hedgerows during the preceding weeks had inflicted its psychological toll on the combat forces. Habits of caution
could not be dissipated by an air strike or by an order. The presence of German defenders per se implied stubborn and skillful opposition.
The ground attack had actually succeeded better than anyone supposed. The VII Corps infantrymen had destroyed almost all the Germans who survived the bombardment, but the Germans knew this better than the Americans. It would have been hard to convince the 330th Infantry, for example, which had not yet crossed the Périers-St. Lô highway, that a yawning hole existed before the VII Corps. The 9th Division also was far short of Marigny; the committed regiment of the 4th Division had not secured la Chapelle-en-Juger; and the 30th Division had had great difficulty taking Hébécrevon and uncovering a small part of the road to St. Gilles.63 In the opinion of American commanders, a clean penetration had not been made by the end of 25 July. They could not believe that once the troops broke through the main line of resistance, which in actuality they already had, there was "nothing in back to stop us."64
For his part, General Collins noted the absence of co-ordination in the Ger man defense. If this meant that the enemy main line of resistance had been smashed, Collins reasoned, then the Germans must not be permitted to refashion another and he should commit his mobile reserves immediately. On the other hand, if the Germans had been forewarned by the premature bombing of 24 July, had withdrawn their main line, and escaped the full force of the main bombardment, then the sporadic nature of their defense possibly presaged a counterattack. If the German defenses had not been pierced, or if the Germans had erected another line, committing additional forces to the attack might promote a congestion that could prove fatal.
To General Collins a decision either to commit or to withhold his mobile striking f orce was a gamble. The infantry had not secured the minimum objectives deemed prerequisite for commitment of the armor. Nevertheless, he noted that the vital roads south to Marigny and to St. Gilles appeared to have been uncovered sufficiently to permit at least the commencement of the armored thrusts. Collins chose to move. During the afternoon of 25 July he decided to commit the armor on the following morning.65