Although the armored phase of COBRA was about to begin, the infantry on the morning of 26 July still had much to do. While getting out of the paths of the armored columns, they had to broaden the penetration achieved after the big bombardment and insure its permanence.1 This was no minor assignment; the infantry found that, even though the Germans were considerably disorganized, enemy morale had not been "shaken to the point where t he individual soldier will not carry out his mission, which still is to defend every inch of ground and inflict ... as many casualties as possible."2 (See Map V.)
The first report to give German higher headquarters any picture of what had happened after the COBRA bombardment revealed that the Americans had penetrated the main line of defense. German commanders learned at 1600, 25 July, that American troops were south of the Périers-St. Lô highway, in Montreuil, and on the road to Marigny.3 Choltitz immediately committed part of his LXXXIV Corps reserve, a reinforced regiment of the 353d Division. From an assembly area south of Périers, the regiment moved eastward to secure la Chapelle-en-Juger and thereby seal off the penetration. Not long afterward, Hausser committed part of his Seventh Army reserve, a regiment of the 275th Division, which, from its assembly area near Canisy, also moved toward la Chapelle-en-Juger. Thus, Choltitz and Hausser, acting on the same idea, sent two converging columns to deny the Americans the vital road network controlled by the village in the center of the attack zone.
Hausser hoped that retention of la Chapelle-en-Juger would permit him to re-establish a main line of resistance eastward to Hébécrevon, but he was unaware of the extent of the disaster that had overcome his troops. His command channels had been disrupted by the COBRA bombing and were saturated with overdue messages. Counting on the 5th Parachute Division, which controlled one regiment, to hold its positions near the Taute River and prevent the Americans from broadening their breach, he was not disappointed, for the paratroopers checked any genuine advance by the 330th Infantry. But Hausser also counted on the 352d Division (under II Parachute Corps) to hold the west bank of the Vire River and prevent
an American penetration near Hébécrevon. What he did not know was that Panzer Lehr had lost the bulk of its organic infantry, at least fourteen of its assault guns, and ten of its few remaining tanks; that Kampfgruppe Heinz and the other regiment of the 5th Parachute Division, both attached to Panzer Lehr, had been demolished; and that the regiment of the 275th Division moving up from Canisy was about to be crushed by American fighter-bombers and infantry. The result was an open left flank for the 352d Division, and in that condition the unit was simply too weak to hold Hébécrevon, much less seal off a penetration.
Ignorant of these developments and of the loss of Hébécrevon, which opened the route to St. Gilles, the German army and corps commanders in the Cotentin exuded optimism on the morning of 26 July. Choltitz committed the remainder of the 353d Division eastward toward the Montreuil-Marigny line to slow the efforts of the 9th Division. Hausser, while waiting for the destroyed and virtually nonexistent regiment of the 275th Division to move northwest from Canisy, decided to launch a counterattack with the company of tanks and the company of infantry of the 2d SS Panzer Division that he still had in army reserve. He committed this force in the Marigny area, where it met American armor and infantry.
Kluge, who had been diverted to the Caen sector on 25 July by the Canadian attack, thought the situation in the Cotentin might be worse than his subordinates suspected. He suggested that Hausser withdraw the left of the LXXXIV Corps slightly in order to shorten the front. This would make it possible to disengage the entire 2d SS Panzer Division for a counterattack. By this time, however, U.S. troops on the Cotentin west coast were attacking and tying down the LXXXIV Corps left. Hausser could not disengage the entire panzer division; by evening he had succeeded in freeing only one tank battalion and one infantry battalion from the battle. He moved these units eastward toward the breakthrough sector.4
Hausser's difficulty with the panzer division was only part of the story. By late afternoon on 25 July he had counted seven distinct American penetrations of his Lessay-St. Lô defensive line. He had also received Bayerlein's report that Panzer Lehr had practically no infantry left and that the division was about to cease to exist as an organized unit. Hausser therefore proposed a general withdrawal to Coutances of those LXXXIV Corps units in the coastal sector of the Cotentin. Still hoping that la Chapelle-en-Juger was not entirely lost, he thought of manning an outpost line between that village and Geffosses, the latter near the west coast.
Suspecting that a withdrawal might turn into a rout, Kluge insisted on restraint. He ordered Hausser to prepare a main line of resistance from Pirou through Millières to Périers in order to keep the Geffosses--St. Sauveur-Lendelin-Marigny road in German hands. He instructed Hausser to place all his available personnel on the front (rather than echeloning his defense in depth) in order to prevent immediately further American advances. He also repeated
a request, which he had been making to OKW since 13 July, that OKW permit the 9th Panzer Division to be brought up from southern France to reinforce the Seventh Army at once.5
On the morning of 26 July, the situation from the American point of view did not appear very bright. On the right of VII Corps, the 330th Infantry, which was to safeguard the flank of the COBRA main effort by cutting the Périers-St. Lô highway, securing a road intersection, and turning gradually westward, was hopeful of accomplishing its missions early on 26 July, for the tank destroyer fire that had been harassing the regiment from Marchésieux ceased.6 But it soon became evident that the German paratroopers in opposition were as determined as ever. Not until late in the evening was the 330th Infantry able to cross the Périers-St. Lô highway, and even then the Germans continued to deny the regiment its crossroads objective.7
Instructed to permit the principal COBRA armored column to pass through his 9th Division zone, General Eddy on 26 July had to clear both enemy troops and his own from the Marigny road.He had to prevent the enemy from cutting the road and thereby blunting the main COBRA thrust. Restricted to a narrow zone of operations and facing German forces unharmed by the COBRA bombardment, General Eddy maneuvered his units so that the 9th Division by the end of the day was two and a half miles south of the Périers-St. Lô highway and almost two miles west of the Marigny road. The division had sustained almost 200 casualties and had captured somewhat fewer prisoners. Although General Eddy had prevented his own troops from hampering an armored column moving south and had kept the Marigny road clear of enemy fire to the extent of his penetration, he faced the opposition of the 353d Division, which, in trying to retake la Chapelle-en-Juger, threatened the VII Corps right flank.8
The 8th Infantry of the 4th Division took la Chapelle-en-Juger in the early morning of 26 July. Combat patrols had entered the village during the night, but the village crossroads was not secured until morning.9 Continuing south, the regiment moved slowly, clearing isolated enemy groups. Commitment of the reserve battalion in the afternoon provided enough added weight for a three-mile surge that overran part of the 353d Division and put Panzer Lehr artillery units to flight. Early that evening the leading troops engaged what seemed like the remnants of a German battalion, captured about a company of miscellaneous
troops, and destroyed or dispersed the others. The regiment cut the Coutances--St. Lô highway and at the end of the day was about five miles south of the COBRA line of departure.10 On the corps left, the 30th Division had not only to protect the COBRA flank but also to permit an American armored column to pass through the division zone for exploitation beyond St. Gilles. Enemy artillery fire from what was estimated to be one medium and three light battalions, as well as from several 88-mm. guns, checked any real advance during the morning of 26 July; but counterbattery missions delivered by the artillery units of the 30th Division, the VII Corps, and the XIX Corps produced the desired effect early that afternoon. As the division began to advance against diminishing artillery and mortar fire, an armored column passed through the division zone and drove toward St. Gilles.11
The 117th Infantry, attacking toward the loop of the Vire River, was stopped at a steep ravine where a well-positioned line held by part of the 352d Division was supported by II Parachute Corps artillery firing from the high ground south of St. Lô. The regiment made five different attempts to overcome the resistance, but without success. Though close support by fighter-bombers might have aided the attack, General Hobbs was reluctant to request it because he feared a repetition of bombing errors. Accepting the apprehension as valid, General Collins did not press for the employment of tactical air. Not until evening, after a heavy 4.2-inch mortar preparation that coincided with a German withdrawal, did the regiment cross the ravine and move quickly to the entrance of the loop, less than two miles west of St. Lô.12
The 119th Infantry, the other assault regiment, moved rapidly in the afternoon for two miles south of Hébécrevon and cut the Coutances-St. Lô highway. Given a new mission at once--cutting the Canisy-St. Lô highway two miles to the south--the regiment was half way to its objective by nightfall. At this point the leading troops of the 30th Division were more than three miles south of the pre-COBRA positions.
By late afternoon of 26 July, General Collins no longer doubted that his forces had achieved a clear penetration of the enemy defenses. Deeming that the situation demanded speed rather than caution, he told the infantry divisions to continue their attacks through the night.13
General Collins' directive coincided with a German order to make a slight withdrawal. During the night of 26 July the German units west of the Taute River--those comprising the left of the LXXXIV Corps--withdrew slightly along the coast and took up a new line of defense anchored on Périers and Marchésieux. The 6th Parachute Regiment passed into the corps reserve at St. Sauveur-Lendelin. Just to the right of the corps boundary, the 352d Division of the II Parachute Corps, already outflanked,
also withdrew from the loop of the Vire and along the west bank of the Vire River--in order to try to re-establish contact with Panzer Lehr.14 This could be no more than a hope, for by that time there was virtually no organized resistance between the 352d, and the 5th Parachute Divisions, though the German higher commands did not seem to know it.
Although the 330th Infantry on the extreme right flank of the VII Corps again struck stonewall resistance, all the other infantry units advanced during the night of 26 July. The 9th Division secured a road junction of local importance. The 8th Infantry of the 4th Division, leaving its vehicles and antitank guns behind, moved unencumbered for several miles, outflanked both the Panzer Lehr artillery and the remaining reserves of the regiment of the 275th Division at Marigny, and, at dawn, hastened the flight of a withdrawing enemy column. Some troops of the 30th Division moved easily into the loop of the Vire River while others cut the Canisy--St. Lô road.
Except on the extreme right flank of the VII Corps where the 330th Infantry was denied for the third day the crossroads on the Périers-St. Lô highway that constituted its original objective, developments after daylight on 27 July indicated that the infantry was nearing fulfillment of its COBRA aims. The 9th Division, in a regimental attack against some 200 Germans, who were on a small ridge and were supported by four tanks and several antitank guns, destroyed the bulk of this force and dispersed the remainder.15 The 4th Division sent its reconnaissance troop ahead to screen a rapid advance.16 Strong resistance from enemy positions hastily erected during the night melted away. The 8th Infantry cut the Carantilly-Canisy road and proceeded to a point more than seven miles south of the Périers-St. Lô highway. To clear small pockets of bypassed Germans, General Barton committed portions of the 12th Infantry, which had been in division reserve since the commencement of COBRA. Contingents of the 30th Division moved all the way into the loop of the Vire River and established physical contact with the 35th Division at the St. Lô bridge. Other units secured the two Vire River bridges on the main roads south of St. Lô. General Hobbs committed his reserve regiment, the 120th, which drove south along the Vire River for almost six miles against little opposition.
"This thing has busted wide open," General Hobbs exulted. He was right. Evidence of German disintegration was plentiful. Some German soldiers were walking into command posts to surrender; other were fleeing south or across the Vire River.17
On the morning of 28 July, the 330th Infantry at last was able to move against virtually no resistance to rejoin its parent unit, the 83d Division. In the 9th Division sector, only an occasional round
of artillery or mortar fire was falling by noon; small arms fire had ceased. Having fulfilled its COBRA assignment, the 9th Division passed into reserve for rest and reconstitution. The 4th Division mopped up isolated enemy remnants and prepared to move south in a new operation. The 30th Division, advancing south along the west bank of the Vire River, passed from control of the VII Corps.
For the infantry units that had run interference, Operation COBRA had ended. General Hobbs perhaps typified infantry sentiment when he stated, "We may be the spearhead that broke the camel's back."18 There was no doubt that the camel's back was broken and that the infantry had helped break it. But the armored forces of Operation COBRA also played their part.
Commitment of Armor
For the Americans, the critical day of the COBRA operation was 26 July, when General Collins had gambled. He committed some of his forces assembled for the exploitation before the situation was unquestionably ripe for an exploitation maneuver. Specifically, the infantry had not captured the towns of Marigny and St. Gilles, road centers considered prerequisite to an uninhibited exploitation by mobile armored reserves.19
The fact that COBRA on 26 July was to become a three-corps offensive actually made it impossible for General Collins to wait for the infantry to seize Marigny and St. Gilles. The success of the larger effort depended basically on a VII Corps breakthrough. Emphasizing this fact, General Bradley assigned to VII Corps all the air support available on 26 July, thus obliging Collins to step up the attack. The only way to do this was to commit the armor.
The basic gamble involved was the possibility that armored columns would congest the VII Corps battlefield. "The only doubtful part of it [the original COBRA plan] to my mind," General Collins had said two weeks earlier, "is we shouldn't count too much on fast movement of armored divisions through this country; if we make a break-through it is OK but until them . . . [the armored divisions] can't move any faster than the infantry."20 To minimize congestion, General Collins called upon only part of his reserve, two armored columns instead of the three that were ready.
The commitment of the mobile units on 26 July was not so much the start of the exploitation as an effort to deepen the penetration. Instead of assigning exploitation objectives, Collins told one of the armored columns to take Marigny, the other St. Gilles. Two hundred fighter-bombers were to attack each town in advance of the thrusts.21 Only after these original infantry objectives were secured was the true exploitation phase of COBRA to begin.
Having expected the COBRA air bombardment to obliterate the German defenses and the infantry to clear the routes of advance, the commanders of the mobile forces had planned to move
at least as far as Marigny and St. Gilles with reconnaissance squadrons ahead of their main spearheads. Now a semi-administrative road march of this type was out of the question. The commanders replaced their reconnaissance units with assault troops and retained their artillery under centralized control rather than parceling it out to subordinate combat teams.22
Clearing the road to Marigny became the responsibility of Maj. Gen. Clarence R. Huebner, who commanded the 1st Infantry Division and the attached Combat Command B of the 3d Armored Division. Alerted on the afternoon of 25 July to pass through the 9th Division the next day and capture Marigny, General Huebner ordered CCB (Col. Truman E. Boudinot) and the reinforced 18th Infantry (Col. George Smith, Jr.) to attack abreast astride the road. Not quite certain whether the 1st Division, which had motorized its infantry troops, was embarking on exploitation, a VII Corps staff officer in a routine telephone call to transmit the bomb safety line remarked somewhat facetiously that his message was unnecessary if "you are going someplace and are going fast."23 General Huebner, who commanded one of the two divisions General Eisenhower had characterized as "tops" in the theater, was planning to go somewhere fast all right.24 He hoped to take Marigny quickly and proceed at once to exploit westward from Marigny to Coutances.
The 1st Division made its approach march to the vicinity of the Périers-St. Lô highway during the night of 25 July without incident. Shortly after daybreak, 26 July, the leading units bypassed an enemy pocket of 150 men still north of the COBRA line of departure. Leaving the reduction of this small force to the reserve battalion of the 18th Infantry, the advance troops drove toward Marigny.25
With the combat command on the right (west) of the road and the infantry regiment on the left, the 1st Division troops moved cautiously against small arms fire. Bomb craters in the roads and defended hedgerows bounding the fields were the principal deterrents to a rapid advance. Small roadblocks also slowed the attack. Artillery and tank fire eliminated most of the opposition, but only after the infantry components had received heavy casualties, particularly among key personnel.
Near Marigny, the troops encountered the increasing resistance of the 353d Division and the two companies of the 2d SS Panzer Division. Several Mark IV tanks and a few 75-mm. antitank guns north of the town halted progress early in the afternoon. Under cover of an extended tank fire fight, CCB attempted an envelopment to the right but achieved no success. A tactical air strike late in the afternoon enabled armored elements to reach the northern edge of the town; the enveloping forces buttoned up for the night about a mile west of Marigny.26
The presence of American tanks in the northern outskirts of Marigny and the abortive envelopment led the 18th Infantry to the erroneous belief that the combat command had taken the town. Acting on this mistaken impression, the regiment sent a battalion to bypass the town on the east during the evening and take high ground south of Marigny. The battalion took some high ground shortly before midnight and reported completion of its mission. Unfortunately, the battalion had become lost in the darkness; not only was it on the wrong objective, its actual location was a mystery.
The belief that Marigny had been captured was one of the factors leading to General Collins' order to continue the attacks during the night of 26 July. Specifically, Collins instructed General Huebner to commence his exploitation toward Coutances. To provide additional elbow room for the 1st Division, General Collins redrew the boundary between the 1st and 9th Divisions.27
General Huebner for his part dared not carry out the order. He was not sure exactly where all his front-line units were, for reports of their locations and dispositions had confused his headquarters throughout the day; he was not certain that his troops had really secured Marigny; he was concerned by continuing resistance near Marigny; and, finally, he feared that large-scale movement during darkness would promote congestion and confusion.28
Still without Marigny after two days, the VII Corps had yet to launch its main exploiting effort westward to Coutances. As discouraging as this seemed to be, the success achieved on the other flank of the corps was quite the opposite.
On the left (east) flank, Maj. Gen. Edward H. Brooks, commanding the 2d Armored Division, had what was essentially a protective mission: guarding the COBRA flank on the south and southeast. Yet if General Brooks realized that his mission was defensive in nature, he gave no indication of it. So far as he was concerned, he was going to move. With the 22d Infantry (Col. Charles T. Lanham) attached, he was to attack in a column of combat commands, which eventually were to split and make independent thrusts. Brig. Gen. Maurice Rose's Combat Command A, with the 22d Infantry attached, was to be the leading unit.29 Rose's troops were to pass through the 30th Division zone and secure St. Gilles.
Effecting the passage of lines without difficulty, CCA drove south early on 26 July in a single column.30 Almost immediately after the troops crossed the Périers-St. Lô highway, an enemy antitank gun destroyed one Sherman, but this was a blow not soon repeated. Brooks told Rose to get moving, and Rose complied. As the column began to roll, only scattered artillery and antitank fire and an occasional defended hedgerow or ditch provided any genuine
resistance. When combined with the problem of bomb craters dotting the countryside, this was nevertheless sufficient to preclude a rapid advance. In the early afternoon a defended roadblock several hundred yards north of St. Gilles held up progress for a short time, but tank fire and an air strike that destroyed four Mark IV tanks and a self-propelled gun soon eliminated the opposition.
In midafternoon CCA rolled through St. Gilles. By this act, the combat command launched the exploitation phase of COBRA. There was no longer any doubt that the German line had definitely been penetrated. The VII Corps had achieved its breakthrough.31
Troops Rolling Through Canisy
South of St. Gilles, CCA of the 2d Armored Division, with the 22d Infantry still attached, headed for its initial objective in the exploitation: the high ground five miles beyond St. Gilles, ground commanding an extensive network of roads leading into the COBRA zone from the east and south. There, at St. Samson-de-Bonfossé, le Mesnil-Herman, and Hill 183, the armor would find good defensive positions from which to halt a possible German counterattack from across the Vire River. To reach the area, CCA had to pass through Canisy, not quite two miles south of St. Gilles.
Proceeding steadily against mortar, artillery, and antitank fire interdicting the Canisy road, CCA had more difficulty with bomb craters, mine fields, and hedgerows than with the occasional enemy resistance. In late afternoon General Rose reported opposition in his zone negligible and estimated that the rear of his column would soon clear St. Gilles.32 Rose's optimism contributed materially to General Collins' decision to continue the corps attack during the night.
Part of the reason why the opposition was negligible lay in the clearing operations of the 30th Division. Another part lay in the fact that the St. Gilles-Canisy road was the boundary separating the LXXXIV and II Parachute Corps sectors. Panzer Lehr was specifically responsible for the highway. The virtual destruction of Panzer Lehr left the road open. The 352d Division, manning the sector between the road and the river,
was thus continually outflanked as Rose's combat command drove down an excellent route of advance, threatened solely by occasional flanking fire.
Only as CCA neared the first buildings in Canisy was there any real resistance. At a railroad embankment north of Canisy where a bombed railway overpass had tumbled across the highway, a few Germans tried to make a stand; the combat command outflanked the position from the east and raked the defenders with enfilading fire.33 Coincidentally, dive bombers struck Canisy and set half the town ablaze. The armor rolled through the burning town that evening.
Just beyond Canisy, General Rose split his command into two columns. One moved southeastward toward St. Samson-de-Bonfossé, the other southward toward le Mesnil-Herman. Although division headquarters assumed that the combat command had halted for the night, Rose drove his men forward with single-minded purpose and determination in compliance with General Collins' and General Brooks' orders.34 An hour before midnight one column entered St. Samson-de-Bonfossé without a fight. Three hours later the other seized the road intersection just north of le Mesnil-Herman. Only then, with part of the initial objective in hand, did General Rose sanction a halt.
The next morning, 27 July, as batteries of the 14th Armored Field Artillery Battalion leapfrogged forward to give continuous fire support, the combat command engaged enemy tanks and antitank guns before taking and securing le Mensil-Herman. Hill 183 fell during the afternoon. With that, CCA completed its initial mission.35
In two days Combat Command A had lost less than 200 men, 3 medium tanks, and 2 small trucks. Not only the weakness of the opposition but the dispatch with which General Rose had secured his objective had prevented higher casualties. Even so, Rose was not satisfied with his accomplishment; he complained that the poor condition of the roads, the absence of road bypasses, and the hedgerowed terrain had slowed his movement.36
As General Rose prepared to reconnoiter in force toward Villebaudon and Tessy-sur-Vire on the morning of 28 July, word came that CCA's role in COBRA was over. The combat command and the attached infantry regiment were soon to pass f rom the control of the VII Corps.
While General Rose's attack had moved smoothly against light opposition, General Huebner had met unexpected difficulty at Marigny on 26 July. The 1st Division, with Combat Command B of the 3d Armored Division attached, had been unable to start the main effort of the exploitation--its thrust westward from Marigny to Coutances to slash across the rear of the German troops facing north against the VIII Corps. Since the VIII Corps had begun to exert pressure from the north on 26 July, it became vital for the 1st Division to get to Coutances at once in order
to execute the squeeze play that was part of the basic COBRA idea.
Even though General Huebner did not possess a secure pivot point at Marigny, he felt impelled to begin his exploitation on the morning of 27 July. He ordered Colonel Boudinot's CCB to initiate the westward thrust toward Coutances. In the meantime, Colonel Smith's 18th Infantry was to attack Marigny and high ground south of the town in order to secure the road network required for sustaining the exploitation.
Getting CCB on the way to Coutances conformed with the original 1st Division plan, a plan devised to employ as the axis of advance the east--west Coutances-St. Lô highway, which passes through rolling bocage country. West of Marigny the highway runs along the southern slope of a ridge line formed by a complex of three hills--the highest rising 580 feet--a mile or so north of the highway. This prominent terrain feature dominating the approaches to Coutances from the north and east provided an excellent natural blocking position astride the routes of withdrawal of the German forces facing the VIII Corps, and together with Coutances was the 1st Division's objective.
Of the three hills forming the ridge line, the first, five miles west of Marigny, is near Camprond. The second, two miles farther to the west, is near Cambernon. The third is near Monthuchon. To General Huebner the early capture of these hills was of double importance, for they dominated also his own route of approach to Coutances.
General Huebner had selected his attached armored command to spearhead the attack both because a rapid advance along the highway was essential for success of the COBRA scheme of maneuver and because the highway between Marigny and Coutances was excellent. CCB was to seize the first objective, Camprond, then the third objective, Monthuchon. Motorized infantry regimental combat teams of organic 1st Division troops were to follow in column. The 18th Infantry was to relieve CCB first at Camprond, then at Monthuchon. In turn, the reinforced 16th Infantry (Col. Frederick W. Gibb) was to relieve the 18th at Camprond. The reinforced 26th Infantry (Col. John F. R. Seitz) was to follow secondary roads on the left flank of the other units and seize the second objective, Cambernon. In the end, all three infantry regiments would be lined up on the three objectives to the rear of the German line.
After being relieved at Monthuchon, CCB had a further mission, which was determined by the location of Monthuchon on the north-south Périers-Coutances highway, one of the main escape routes for Germans withdrawing before VIII Corps. The combat command was to be prepared to do one of two things: if the VIII Corps had not pushed back the Germans, CCB was to attack northward toward Périers; if the Germans were trying to escape to the south, CCB was to proceed southwestward from Monthuchon to high ground a mile or so north of Coutances in order to block the three main highways leading into Coutances from the north.37
Because of the unexpected resistance at Marigny, General Huebner changed his plan of maneuver on the morning of 27 July. Since continued German possession of Marigny denied the 1st Division an adequate road net, General Huebner withheld one regiment, the 26th, in order to reduce the hazard of traffic congestion. CCB was to secure Camprond, the first objective. Instead of following the armor, the 18th Infantry was to capture Marigny, then send a battalion to free the armor at Camprond. The 16th Infantry, instead of relieving the 18th at Camprond, was to make a wider swing to the west, echeloned to the left rear of CCB, and move all the way to the blocking positions on the highways just north of Coutances. Meanwhile, CCB was to attack and secure in turn all three hill objectives.38
The 18th Infantry cleared Marigny on the morning of 27 July, and that afternoon two battalions attacked to the south against strong opposition in an attempt to seize the high ground needed to secure the town.39 The reserve battalion in midafternoon moved westward along the Coutances highway to relieve CCB at Camprond.
Early that morning CCB had lunged down the Coutances highway.40 Spearheaded by the reconnaissance battalion and divided into three balanced teams or task forces (a company each of medium tanks and armored infantry), the combat command advanced with two teams abreast. Against disorganized opposition, the attack carried four miles in four hours. Shortly after midday the task force on the right turned to the north and struck cross-country for the hill near Camprond, two miles away. By midafternoon the task force held the objective.
The advance along the highway had been virtually a road march except for casual encounters with German motorcyclists, ambulances, and staff cars. Progress on the flanks had been more difficult, for the presence of hedgerows enabled scattered enemy groups to form hasty defenses and resist with determination. The result was a gain on a narrow front scarcely wider than the width of the highway.
Moving to relieve the force at Camprond, the battalion of the 18th Infantry encountered virtually no opposition on the Coutances highway, but when it moved off the road toward the hill small enemy groups supported by random tanks began to cause trouble. With the help of fighter-bombers, the battalion gained the hill shortly before midnight.
Meanwhile, the 16th Infantry, which was to make a parallel advance on the left and move swiftly to Coutances, was unable to pass through Marigny until late afternoon of 27 July. Against scattered opposition and sporadic fire, the regiment advanced in a column of battalions immediately south of the Coutances highway. Shortly before midnight the leading battalion came abreast of CCB at a point directly south of Camprond.
Thus at midnight, 27 July, the 1st Division had advanced on a front not quite three miles wide to a point about five miles west of Marigny.41 Though no
organized enemy opposition was apparent, small enemy groups supported by an occasional tank or antitank gun formed islands of resistance, floating and static, in the American sea of advance, endangering both supply and evacuation. When twenty-one supply trucks loaded with rations, gasoline, ammunition, and military police went forward from Marigny, a company of medium tanks accompanied them to give protection. The column reached Camprond without incident, but, returning after dark with two truckloads of prisoners, the column had to fight its way back to Marigny.42 The attempt of a reconnaissance platoon to cross the Lozon River three miles west of Marigny stimulated a counterattack by about a hundred Germans supported by a medium tank and an antitank gun. The platoon had to call for infantry and armor reinforcements from the 9th and 1st Division before dispersing the enemy group.43
The result of the main COBRA effort produced disappointment. "Generally, we are not being able to push very fast," the VII Corps G-3 admitted.44 General Huebner had hoped to rip into the rear of the German defense line. His troops were to have cut German telephone wires, disrupted communications, and in general produced confusion and disorganization.45 But instead of raising havoc in a slashing exploitation, the 1st Division had not yet secured Marigny and was only half way to Coutances.
The reason for the disappointing advance by the forces carrying the main COBRA effort was to be found in the German dispositions. The LXXXIV Corps left had made a withdrawal along the Cotentin west coast during the night of 26 July with the intention of establishing a new main line of resistance. Yet on 27 July the contemplated positions of this line were becoming untenable even before they were established because of the VII Corps threat developing west of Marigny toward the German right (east) flank. When Hausser and Choltitz suddenly became aware that American armored columns were moving through the Marigny-St. Gilles gap, they realized that they would have to move fast to avoid encirclement from the east. There was no alternative to continuing the withdrawal along the Cotentin west coast. To insure escape from encirclement, they erected a north-south defensive line facing eastward. Units manning the line included elements of the depleted 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, reluctantly withdrawing paratroopers, the 353d Division, and small elements of the 2d SS Panzer Division.
During the early afternoon of 27 July Choltitz learned that American troops--CCB of the 3d Armored Division, attached to the 1st Division--seemed to have clear sailing toward Coutances. American scouting parties on minor roads had made contact with artillery units of the 353d Division and the LXXXIV Corps, and German artillerymen were fighting as infantry. Discovering also that American troops had reached Guesnay, Choltitz ordered the engineer battalion of the 17th SS Panzer
Grenadier Division to "proceed immediately via Montcuit and Cambernon to the railroad junction and seal off the front to the east if you are not [now] engaged in battle.46
Harassed continuously by fighter-bombers, the engineer battalion marched eight miles and took positions along the railroad that night. Just to the north, the battalion found a company of the 2d SS Panzer Division defending Cambernon with ten Panther tanks. This north-south defensive line facing eastward, though far from strong, was efficacious in slowing the 1st Division attack toward Coutances on 27 July. Farther south, hastily organized positions between Carantilly and Quibou held up another American armored column, this one driving toward Montpinchon.
Hausser, meanwhile, had requested permission to withdraw the LXXXIV Corps to the Geffosses--St. Sauveur-Lendelin line. Soon afterward he wanted authorization to withdraw even farther, to Coutances. In both cases, he planned to make the withdrawal under the protection of the 2d SS Panzer Division, which was moving into the Cambernon sector.47 However, all plans were held in abeyance because Kluge, somewhat inexplicably to those in the Cotentin who awaited his advice, was inspecting the Panzer Group West front near Caen. Deciding they could wait no longer, Hausser and Choltitz agreed to withdraw to Coutances and hold it as the anchor point of a new line--an arc through Cambernon, Savigny, and Cerisy-la-Salle. Unfortunately for their plan, they were unaware that Panzer Lehr for all practical purposes no longer existed, and they were counting on Panzer Lehr to hold the Soulle River line at Pont-Brocard.
When Kluge returned from the Caen sector late on the afternoon of 27 July, he received a detailed report of a badly deteriorating situation. The salient points were that the 353d Division was presumed cut off and lost; the 353d Division on the west bank of the Vire was badly battered and holding a shaky security line facing northwestward into a yawning gap; and remnants of Panzer Lehr and the 275th Division, reinforced by what was hoped was a tank battalion of the 2d SS Panzer Division, were supposedly holding a line at Quibou and westward. The Americans were running wild; details were not clear, but some troops were known to have reached the village of Dangy, near the vicinity of the Panzer Lehr and the 275th Division command posts.
In this situation, Hausser recommended that Kluge permit him to restore order by straightening the Seventh Army front. Hausser proposed to have the II Parachute Corps withdraw the 3d Parachute Division (east of the Vire) "platoon by platoon" and have the LXXXIV Corps pull back to the banks of the Soulle and Sienne Rivers.48 Actually, this maneuver relied on using the nonexistent Panzer Lehr to hold a six-mile gap between Pont-Brocard and the shaky 352d Division on the west bank of the Vire. Furthermore, it
counted on a tank battalion of the 2d SS Panzer Division at Quibou that in reality had but fourteen tanks.
Still primarily concerned with the Caen sector held by Panzer Group West, Kluge refused to countenance the withdrawal by the II Parachute Corps, which might expose the Panzer Group West flank. He instead ordered the II Parachute Corps to defend in place in the St. Lô--Caumont sector while the LXXXIV Corps anchored its forces on Coutances and executed a fighting withdrawal to the Soulles-Sienne river line. Meanwhile, he was assembling an experienced and somewhat rested armored division in the Caumont area for action in the Cotentin. Aided by whatever could be found of Panzer Lehr, the 275th Division, and the 2d SS Panzer Division, the experienced armored division was to launch a counterattack to close the gap between the LXXXIV and II Parachute Corps of the Seventh Army.
In addition to the 9th Panzer Division, which Kluge had requested on the previous day, he asked OKW to send a total of four infantry divisions to Normandy from the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Armies. Still concerned with the Allied threat to invade southern France, yet realizing that Kluge's situation was serious, Hitler approved release of the 9th Panzer Division for commitment in Normandy. On the following day, 28 July, he authorized the movement to Normandy of three infantry divisions, the 84th, the 331st, and the 708th.49
Meanwhile, in the Cotentin those LXXXIV Corps units still north of the St. Lô-Coutances highway infiltrated south through the VII Corps column or moved around the western end of the American point during the night of 27 July. Covered by a reinforced regiment of the 2d SS Panzer Division, which held a defensive arc from Cambernon to Savigny, the units on the Cotentin west coast continued to move south on 28 July. The units were the depleted 243d Division, the kampfgruppe of the 265th Division, and elements of the 77th Division and of the 5th Parachute Division, all apparently under the operational control of the 91st Division. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division moved in broad daylight, though harassed from the air, to Cerisy-la-Salle in time to meet an American armored column there. At the same time the 6th Parachute Regiment, together with 2d SS Panzer Division tanks and the engineer battalion of the 17th SS, covered the rear of the withdrawal and protected Coutances from positions near Ouville.
These moves reflected and contributed to the changing situation. Already, on the evening of 27 July, General Bradley had altered plans by assigning General Huebner's last two objectives--Monthuchon and the high ground north of Coutances--to the VIII Corps.50 But since Huebner saw no certainty that the VIII Corps could reach these objectives ahead of the 1st Division, he proceeded on the tentative assumption that they might still be valid for him. Huebner thus ordered a continuation of his attack on 28 July. CCB was to take Cambernon, the 16th Infantry to capture Monthuchon, the 18th Infantry to remain in the Marigny area, and the 26th
Infantry to relieve CCB at Cambernon. After relief, CCB would be free to drive to the high ground north of Coutances if the VIII Corps was nowhere in evidence.51
Developments on 28 July illustrated the discrepancy between the results of COBRA as planned and as executed. North of the St. Lô-Coutances highway, CCB met little opposition on the move toward Cambernon. After knocking out two Mark V Panther tanks with bazookas, reconnaissance troops took the objective, securing it by noon. When Colonel Boudinot asked permission to continue westward to Monthuchon, General Huebner approved after a check with General Collins. (Map VI)
Almost immediately word came that VIII Corps had already captured Monthuchon. Still anxious to take a part of his original objective, Boudinot ordered his troops to bypass Monthuchon and take the high ground north of Coutances. Huebner could not sanction a crossing of the north--south Périers--Monthuchon-Coutances highway because it had been reserved for the VIII Corps, and he countermanded Boudinot's order. Although reconnaissance elements were already infiltrating across the road and outposting the high ground north of Coutances, the main body of CCB stopped in time to prevent serious intermingling with the VIII Corps.52 Forced to halt, the tankers could see the city of Coutances less than two miles away.
Although Combat Command B had found little to obstruct its advance, the 16th Infantry, attacking westward toward Monthuchon in a zone south of the St. Lô-Coutances highway, advanced only slightly before reaching a well-organized defensive line. "Any contact with the enemy?" a division staff officer asked on the telephone. "Three hundred and sixty degree contact," came the somewhat exaggerated reply.53 The regiment made no further progress during the afternoon, even though regimental attacks brought severe casualties and the loss of fifteen tanks, seven of them mediums. Tactical aircraft, which might have helped, were grounded because of cloudy weather.
Shortly before nightfall General Huebner told CCB to go to the aid of the 16th Infantry. Turning to the southeast and attacking, the combat command pinched the rear of the enemy position. Caught in a trap, the German defense disintegrated. Before midnight CCB and the 16th Infantry made contact.
Committed last, the 26th Infantry executed the 1st Division's final COBRA action. Having passed through Marigny during the morning of 28 July, it moved westward to take Cambernon. CCB's quick seizure of Cambernon and the cancellation of Monthuchon and Coutances as objectives for the VII Corps prompted General Huebner to change the regimental mission to that of sweeping the left flank of the division. Advancing through terrain infested by stragglers and remnants of German units, the 26th Infantry executed what was essentially a mop-up operation. In the early evening the leading battalion turned and faced south to exert pressure
on the rear of German troops trapped near the village of Savigny.54
Like CCB's shift to the south, the 26th Infantry's turn to the south was a consequence of the changing situation developing out of COBRA. According to the plan, the main battle was to have occurred in the triangular region formed on the Cotentin west coast between Lessay and Coutances by the highways from Lessay and Coutances to St. Lô. As the VIII Corps exerted pressure south from the Lessay-Périers road, the main exploiting force of the VII Corps was to have raced to Coutances to cut off German escape. "Did we lose the big fish in the trap?" a 1st Division officer asked. "Yes, probably," came the reply.55 The division had lost two big fish: the prestige of capturing Coutances and the opportunity of trapping large numbers of Germans north of the St. Lô-Coutances highway. In three days, the division had taken only 565 prisoners.56 The bulk of the Germans, by escaping the VII Corps main effort, had slipped through the COBRA noose. As a result, the fighting shifted to the region south of the Coutances-St. Lô highway. The 1st Division had little alternative but to face south and assume the role that the VIII Corps had earlier played, the role of a pressure force.
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