The Breakthrough Developed
The Second Thrust Toward Coutances
When night came on 26 July, the second day of Operation COBRA, General Collins still had one uncommitted unit, the 3d Armored Division (less CCB). Although scheduled to enter the fight on 26 July along with the other two armored columns, the 3d Armored had been withheld because of the uncertainty about the extent of the COBRA penetration. It was located in the VII Corps center where it might be used either to defend against counterattack or to reinforce success at any point within the corps.1
When operations on 26 July left no doubt that a clear penetration had been made, General Collins told the commander, General Watson, to begin executing his original mission the next morning, 27 July. (See Map V.) Employing General Hickey's Combat Command A (with a battalion of the 1st Division's 26th Infantry attached), the 3d Armored Division was to attack through the middle of the Marigny-St. Gilles gap to the vicinity of Carantilly and Canisy. At Cerisy-la-Salle the division was to turn to the west, secure Montpinchon, cut the north-south highway about half way between Coutances and Gavray, and set up blocking positions south of Coutances on high ground overlooking the roads leading south to Gavray and Bréhal.
This was basically a defensive mission. In making a wide envelopment en route to Coutances, the 3d Armored Division was to thwart the northward movement of German reinforcements against the 1st Division and its attached CCB. On the other hand, should COBRA thoroughly disorganize the Germans and force their withdrawal, the 3d Armored Division would be in position to block the southern exits from Coutances. If the VIII Corps reached Coutances ahead of the 3d Armored Division, General Watson was to halt at the Coutances-Gavray road in order to circumvent traffic congestion between VII and VIII Corps forces in a subsequent exploitation of COBRA. Because on 26 July a deep exploitation hardly seemed likely, General Collins told General Watson to destroy all bridges over the Sienne River not previously knocked out by air bombardment.2
Dividing CCA into three task forces-each basically a battalion of tanks and one of armored infantry--General Hickey sent the comand across the Périers-St. Lô highway in column early on 27 July. The troops were to drive forward aggressively, outflanking or bypassing resistance and avoiding hedgerow fighting. Though the road net was not the best for rapid armored advance, little opposition was expected because the 4th Division already had passed through the area. With Operation COBRA well on the way to success, there seemed no reason why the armored column should not move quickly to the village of Cerisy-la-Salle, then swing to the west.3
This line of thought did not take into account certain obstacles--bomb craters, wrecked vehicles, and traffic congestion. The leading task force met a well-organized strongpoint southeast of Marigny around noon of 27 July and lost four of its medium tanks. While the head of the column sought to disengage, the rest of the armor jammed up along the roads to the rear for a distance of almost ten miles. Though the point finally broke contact and bypassed the resistance (which the 12th Infantry of the 4th Division cleared later in the day), another obstacle developed in the Carantilly-Canisy region. Here CCA's advance units encountered several German tanks and antitank guns deployed along a railroad embankment. Prevented from bypassing this resistance because of inadequate roads, the leading task force had no choice but to fight. Heavy fire from CCA's tanks eventually subdued the defenses, but again the bulk of the column had to wait impotently for several hours along the roads to the rear. Traffic congestion and more enemy pockets prompted a halt shortly after dark.
The advance had been disappointing. The third task force in the column was still far back in the vicinity of Marigny and St. Gilles, the second was in the Carantilly-Canisy area, and the head of the combat command was more than three miles short of Cerisy-la-Salle, the pivot point for the westward thrust toward Coutances.4
The villages of Cerisy-la-Salle, on a hill almost 400 feet high, and Montpinchon, on a mound about 425 feet high two miles to the west and on the other side of a steep-walled valley, dominate the surrounding terrain in general and in particular the road net westward to Coutances. The 3d Armored Division commander, General Watson, had assumed that COBRA would develop so rapidly that CCA would occupy Cerisy-la-Salle without difficulty. Plans had thus been prepared for operations only in the area west of that village--along the Montpinchon-Coutances axis.
On the evening of 27 July, the situation demanded a change. CCA had started a day late, and its approach march had been disappointingly slow. In addition, there were indications that the Germans were in the process of establishing a front line facing eastward to cover a withdrawal through Coutances. Should they institute a full-scale withdrawal, they would inevitably try to pass through the Montpinchon-
Cerisy-la-Salle region and hold the commanding terrain. If CCA followed the original plan and passed through Cerisy-la-Salle in column, it would continue to move across the German front and be exposed to flanking fire. It might even get involved in an engagement at Cerisy-la-Salle or Montpinchon that might prevent the armor from reaching Coutances in time to block German withdrawal through that important road center. Thus, a quicker way to Coutances had to be found, but at the same time Cerisy-la-Salle and Montpinchon had to be seized and secured to deny the Germans dominating terrain, which in their hands would facilitate their escape from the Coutances area.
General Hickey's solution, which General Watson approved, was to start his turn westward toward Coutances at once and to move on a broad front. The leading task force was to turn west from Canisy, bypass Cerisy-la-Salle on the north, and drive to Montpinchon. The second task force in the CCA column was to continue to Cerisy-la-Salle and capture the high ground there. The last task force in the column was to assume the CCA main effort, swing westward from Carantilly, and head straight for Coutances. (See Map VI .)
Despite hopes for success, CCA was due for another day of disappointment on 28 July. Because of traffic congestion, the main effort from Carantilly did not get started until midafternoon. Even then terrain broken by hedgerows and small hills as well as a dearth of good roads slowed the advance markedly. Clearing isolated resistance, the task force in late afternoon reached a point about five miles west of Carantilly only to run into a German pocket near Savigny, part of the same one that the 1st Division's 26th Infantry had encountered a few hundred yards to the north. Together, the 26th Infantry and CCA eliminated the pocket, but not until the following day.
In the meantime, the task forces moving on Cerisy-la-Salle and Montpinchon had made few gains. Troops of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division held the commanding terrain tenaciously and, from good positions on the hedgerowed slopes of both hills, refused to give way, even in the face of bombing and strafing by sixteen planes. The resistance at Cerisy-la-Salle and Montpinchon weakened only when night afforded the Germans concealment for withdrawal. The next day, 29 July, when the two task forces of CCA renewed their attacks, the opposition had virtually vanished. Moving together, the task forces continued with little difficulty to the north-south Coutances-Gavray highway.
Like the 1st Division, CCA had not crossed the Cotentin in time to ensnare the German forces. The Germans had escaped and thus had thwarted the original COBRA intent. The Americans were not sure whether their threat of encirclement had made the Germans pull out or whether the pressure of the VIII Corps had driven them out before the trap could be sprung.
The Pressure Force
As "the direct pressure force," VIII Corps was to tie down the Germans to prevent their disengagement and withdrawal before the completion of the VII Corps envelopment. While the VII
Corps was supposed to block the escape routes of the Germans opposing VIII Corps, VIII Corps was to cross the Lessay-Périers highway on a broad front, advance half way to Coutances (to the lateral highway from Geffosses through St. Sauveur-Lendelin to Marigny), and apply pressure to crush the trapped German forces.5
With four experienced infantry divisions, a recently arrived armored division, and a two-squadron cavalry group, and with nine battalions of corps artillery (five heavy and four medium) and a sufficient quantity of ammunition and supplies for a major operation, General Middleton planned to attack with his four infantry divisions abreast.6 His difficulty was the terrain on the VIII Corps front.
Theoretically, the VIII Corps zone was a fifteen-mile portion of the Cotentin between the west coast and the Lozon River, but since the 330th Infantry of the 83d Division was attacking in conjunction with VII Corps, General Middleton's sector actually stopped at the Taute River. The troops of the VIII Corps f acing south toward the Lessay-Périers-St. Lô highway held an irregularly shaped front of from one to five miles north of the highway. The line followed the north banks of the Ay estuary and the Ay and Sèves Rivers and cut across the Carentan-Périers isthmus. (See Map V.)
On the coast, the 106th Cavalry Group looked toward the Ay estuary. The 79th Division was opposite the town of Lessay and faced the Ay River, which meanders across an open, swampy flood plain that offered the Germans superb fields of fire. The Germans had destroyed the only bridge across the Ay, the one to Lessay, and had mined the only good ford. Between the Ay and the Sèves, the 8th Division held a narrow front where hedgerows constituted natural defensive obstacles in depth. Along the Sèves, the 90th Division looked across a flood plain to the island of St. Germain, still held by the German forces that had turned back the division a week earlier. The 4th Armored Division occupied the western portion of the Carentan-Périers isthmus, and the 83d Division held the eastern part.
Two good highways lead south--one from Lessay, the other from Périers--and converge at Coutances. The terrain between these roads was in the 8th Division zone. Between the Ay and Sèves Rivers it was thick with hedgerows, though the least unfavorable on the corps front for offensive action. General Middleton chose to make his main effort there with the 8th Division, which was to attack frontally to the south and effect a penetration. The 79th Division was to follow through the gap, turn west to outflank the enemy positions south of the Ay, and seize Lessay. The 90th Division was to bypass the St. Germain area on both sides and advance on Périers, while the 83d Division was to attack southwest along the west bank of the Taute and eventually cross the river. When all four divisions were south of the Lessay-St. Lô highway, they were to move to the objective line, the Geffosses-St. Sauver-Lendelin-
Engineers Clearing Mines in Lessay
Marigny road. The 4th Armored Division, pinched out by the advance, was to revert to First Army control.7
Early on the morning of 26 July the VIII Corps Artillery delivered twenty-five prearranged missions during a one-hour period, laid down counterbattery fires, and then prepared to fire on call. Though ground observation was limited, the small artillery planes assured effective support. Except in the 83d Division sector, where enemy shelling began immediately, German artillery remained silent for about two hours. As the 4th Armored Division helped by delivering supporting fires, the other divisions of the VIII Corps moved out.8
Attacking with two regiments abreast, General Stroh's 8th Division met strong small arms and mortar fire at once. The zone of advance was thick with antitank and antipersonnel mine fields, and German tanks contested the attack. By sideslipping and outflanking, by employing tanks and tank destroyers to enfilade hedgerow defenses, and by engaging enemy armor with bazookas and antitank grenades, the 28th Infantry, on the right (west), advanced more than a mile and by evening secured the high, wooded ground just north of the Lessay-Périers highway.9
The other assault regiment, the 121st Infantry, on the left (east), attacked along the axis of the main road to Périers. If the troops cleared the road for one mile, tanks could use a small bridge over the Sèves River. The stream was only a dozen feet wide and easily fordable, but it ran through such flat, marshy ground that a tank-crossing seemed a dubious proposition except at the bridge. During the regimental attack, two infantry battalion command posts received direct enemy artillery hits. At the height of the crisis German tanks appeared. A tank platoon, called forward to challenge the German tanks, lost one Sherman to a mine and two others to the mud of a marshy bog. Blocked in their advance, unable to cross the river, and without observation of the battlefield, the remaining tanks were unable to help. Taking heavy casualties from small arms and mortar fire, the infantry fell back.
The 90th Division meanwhile mounted a two-pronged attack designed
to bypass and isolate the St. Germain area. On the right, a battalion of the 359th Infantry crossed the Sèves River in a rapid assault, traversed open, marshy ground, and overran a German trench dug along a fringe of woods. The momentum of the assault carried the battalion a hundred yards beyond the trench to a sunken road. As the soldiers climbed the road embankment to continue south, they met a burst of small arms and mortar fire. A German counterattack supported by tanks and artillery soon followed, driving the infantry out of the sunken road and back to the trench. There the battalion held. Bazooka fire, destroying one German tank, discouraged others from closing in. In the rear, part of the 358th Infantry began a demonstration by fire to distract enemy attention, and the division artillery placed smoke shells ahead of the assault battalion of the 359th. Engineers attempted to construct a ford across the stream for supporting tanks, but German artillery and tank fire barred the only approach route to the stream and prevented not only tanks but also infantry reinforcements from coming forward.
Four and a half miles to the east, the 357th Infantry, comprising the left prong of the 90th Division attack, entered the Carentan-Périers isthmus and tried to advance toward the southwest to make eventual contact above Périers with the main body of the division on the right. At the same time, the 329th and 331st Regiments of the 83d Division attacked along the west bank of the Taute River toward the southwest. Although the three committed regiments had at least twice the strength of the enemy forces that opposed them--in troops, tanks, mortars, and artillery--and although the 83d Division alone fired more than 300 individual missions before noon, the committed regiments "didn't do a thing." They advanced no more than 200 yards. The Germans fought resourcefully from entrenched positions along hedgerows and sunken roads, using their mortars and few available tanks effectively and keeping their limited artillery active all day.10
American intelligence officers had earlier considered that the Germans facing the VIII Corps had two alternatives of equal plausibility. The Germans could, they judged, defend in place or make a strong pretense of defending while withdrawing to the high ground north of Coutances.11 There seemed no question by the end of 26 July but that the Germans had chosen to take the former course of action. The VIII Corps had succeeded in making a small penetration to the Lessay--Périers highway, but in so doing its divisions had incurred more than 1,150 casualties while capturing less than 100 prisoners. Yet General Middleton was satisfied. His troops appeared to be tying down the enemy and holding him in place for the VII Corps encirclement.12
During the early evening of 26 July, General Middleton instructed his subordinate commanders to resume the attack the following morning. Several hours later, after receiving reports that the German opposition on other fronts seemed to be disintegrating and after
learning that General Collins had ordered the VII Corps to continue the attack during the night, Middleton alerted his commanders to possible German withdrawal. He told all units to patrol vigorously. If a withdrawal were discovered in any sector, the unit in that sector was to attack at daylight, 27 July, in close pursuit.13
Patrols all along the front found not only extensive mine fields but also evidence that appeared to indicate that the enemy lines were being maintained in place. Rain and haze during the early morning hours of 27 July obscured visibility and made further investigation fruitless. On the premise that the Germans were still going to defend in strength, the units made careful, comprehensive attack plans.
Soon after the attack commenced, it became apparent that little more than a profusion of mine fields opposed the assault troops all across the corps front. Artillery preparations proved to have been a waste of ammunition. The 8th Division eliminated insignificant resistance and advanced more than a mile beyond the Lessay-Périers road. Two battalions of the 79th Division crossed the Ay River in single file, each man stepping carefully into the footsteps of the soldier ahead to avoid mines, and against slight harassing small arms fire took Lessay. Division engineers bridged the stream at the ford, and by the end of the day all three regiments were south of the river and abreast of the 8th Division. The 106th Cavalry Group crossed the Ay estuary that evening at low tide and moved south to protect the coastal flank. The enemy had disengaged.14
In the 90th Division zone, after the enemy withdrawal was discovered, the division reconnaissance troop moved out ahead of the 359th Infantry in search of Germans. A destroyed Sèves River bridge on the main road to Périers delayed the advance until early afternoon and extensive mine fields on the roads slowed the leading troops by forcing them to proceed dismounted. By the middle of the afternoon, however, the reconnaissance unit was in the badly battered and deserted town of Périers.15
A mile south of Périers, on the highway to St. Sauveur-Lendelin, when troopers encountered a roadblock defended by infantry and tanks, members of the 359th Infantry, following the reconnaissance troop, moved against the opposition. Unable to bring antitank weapons and tank destroyers into range until evening because of mines, the regiment attacked shortly after nightfall, knocked out four German tanks, and then dug in for the night.
On the Carentan-Périers isthmus, the 357th Infantry had suspected an enemy withdrawal because German artillery had ceased early that morning, 27 July.16 When the troops attacked, they found only mines hampering their advance. Late that evening the regiment crossed the Taute River, overwhelmed German delaying positions just north of the Périers-St. Lô highway, and dug in along the highway for the night. The 358th
Infantry, after sending patrols into the St. Germain area and finding that the Germans had withdrawn, moved south to the vicinity of the Périers-St. Lô highway.
The 83d Division also advanced against light resistance and encountered many mines. Early in the afternoon of 27 July resistance vanished, and the division extended its control over the entire west bank of the Taute River in zone. Just before dark troops crossed the Taute and advanced almost a thousand yards into the Marchésieux and la Varde area.17
In possession of the Lessay--Périers highway by the end of 27 July, the VIII Corps had made a significant gain, but had captured hardly more than 100 prisoners. The enemy had disengaged and moved behind a strong protective shell. Though small delaying forces and isolated pockets of resistance had hampered American pursuit, the biggest problem to the Americans had been mines--antitank and antipersonnel mines, Teller mines, Schu mines, mustard pot mines, box mines, and all types of booby traps rigged in buildings, hedgerows, ditches, fields, along the roads, and at road junctions and intersections. Behind this screen, the Germans had escaped the COBRA pressure force.18
After engineers laid a treadway bridge across the Ay at Lessay, the VIII Corps continued to advance on 28 July. The absence of opposition prompted General Bradley to revoke the original objective line--the Geffosses--St. Sauveur-Lendelin-Marigny highway--and to permit the troops to proceed beyond it.19 The 79th and 8th Divisions met no resistance as they moved about ten and seven miles, respectively, to the vicinity of Coutances. The 90th and 83d Divisions proceeded to the proximity of the Coutances-St. Lô highway, where the 1st Division of the VII Corps lay athwart their zones of advance. The unopposed advance of the VIII Corps and the sense of victory that it engendered were somewhat empty achievements. The number of prisoners taken by all the divisions on 28 July, for example, was little more than 200.
Aided by the terrain, the weather, the darkness, the absence of Allied night fighter planes, and the extreme caution of American troops, who had come to respect the ability of the Germans to fight in the hedgerows, the German troops facing the VIII Corps had neatly slipped out of the trap set by COBRA. American commanders had begun to suspect an impending withdrawal and had noted evidence of it. Operations in the adjacent VII Corps sector had confirmed it. Plans had been changed to anticipate it.20 Yet despite precaution, warning, and suspicion on the part of the Americans, the Germans gave them the slip.
The Germans, on the other hand, though they had escaped the VIII Corps pressure force and had avoided entrapment by the first and second thrusts of
the VII Corps toward Coutances, were not yet safe. They still had to reckon with a third thrust by the VII Corps.
The 2d Armored Division, commanded by General Brooks, had the mission of erecting a fence around Operation COBRA. With General Rose's CCA driving along the west bank of the Vire River toward the ultimate objective of Tessy-sur-Vire and with the remainder of the division driving southwestward from Canisy toward Bréhal, General Brooks was to set up a series of blocks along the Cérences-Tessy-sur-Vire line.21 Although protective by motivation, the armored attack was exploitive by nature. By traversing the comparatively large distances involved, the armored units would arrive in the rear of the German defenses, contribute to enemy disorganization, and shield the VII Corps main effort westward to Coutances.
North of the Périers--St. Lô highway on 26 July and in position for commitment behind General Rose's CCA, CCB (Brig. Gen. Isaac D. White) was prepared to reinforce the CCA attack to the south or the 1st Division drive to Coutances. If neither action proved necessary, CCB was to execute its own planned role in COBRA by following CCA as far as Canisy and then turning to the southwest. With the aim of protecting the COBRA operation against a possible German counterthrust from the south, CCB was to set up blocking positions on the main road between Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly and Lengronne.
By the evening of 26 July, with the road to Canisy clear of CCA troops and COBRA giving cause for optimism, General Brooks made ready to commit CCB on the morning of 27 July in its originally planned role. Because the road network between the Périers-St. Lô highway and Canisy needed extensive repairs, division engineers worked through the night and during the morning to fill craters, remove wrecked vehicles, and construct bypasses. Shortly before noon, 27 July, CCB crossed the Périers-St. Lô highway. Three hours later, after having ruthlessly barred other units from the roads assigned to him, General White had his leading units through Canisy and headed southwest.22
At that time General White received a change in mission: "Move at once," General Brooks, the division commander, ordered, "on Cérences and Bréhal." The enemy forces facing the VIII Corps were withdrawing, and CCB was to cut off the withdrawal.23 Instead of halting at Lengronne, at the Sienne River, in order to leave a coastal corridor for an VIII Corps advance beyond Coutances, CCB was to drive all the way to the Cotentin west coast. General Bradley's original COBRA maneuver had thus been reinstated. The primary concern of CCB was no longer to prevent German reinforcement from the south; the combat command attack had become the main thrust of the VII Corps pincer movement westward.24 Inheriting the
mission earlier held by the 1st Division, General White was to speed his troops to the coast to intercept and trap the Germans withdrawing toward the south. The altered mission involved no change in route but rather an extension of the drive as originally planned. Speed became even more important. The combat command was to race an opponent who had a head start.
CCB was divided into two columns, but the absence of parallel roads made it necessary to advance the columns alternately.25 The 82d Reconnaissance Battalion in the meantime sped forward ahead of the main body. Two miles southwest of Canisy, at Quibou, the reconnaissance troops struck an enemy roadblock. While they engaged the German force, the advance guard outflanked the resistance. A battery of the 78th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, traveling with the advance guard, took firing positions on the side of the road and opened fire on self-propelled guns and mortar emplacements half a mile distant. A flight of dive bombers performing armed-column cover struck an enemy-held ridge nearby. Before this smooth-working team, the German defense disintegrated.
Once more on the highway, reconnaissance troops raced through the hamlet of Dangy, unaware that Bayerlein, the division commander of Panzer Lehr, was conducting a staff meeting in one of the houses. Overrunning isolated opposition, the fast-moving reconnaissance battalion quickly covered the four miles to Pont-Brocard, a village where the highway crossed the Soulle River. Antitank and small arms fire from the village halted progress briefly, but the advance guard soon arrived, deployed, attacked, and seized Pont-Brocard. The advance continued.
Two hours after midnight, 27 July, the combat command without difficulty secured Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly, a village seven miles southwest of Canisy.
This swift advance during the afternoon and evening of 27 July illustrated more than anything else the penetration achieved by COBRA. There was nothing between the LXXXIV and II Parachute Corps to stop the American forces rolling through the Marigny-St. Gilles gap. Positions at Quibou had proved ineffective and illusory. Soon after American tanks at Dangy unknowingly passed within a few yards of a joint command post of the 275th Division and Panzer Lehr, a shocked Bayerlein reported Panzer Lehr "finally annihilated." Units of the 275th Division had been out of contact with headquarters during the entire afternoon and by evening were considered lost. Remnants of the Lehr and 275th Divisions retired toward Pont-Brocard and Hambye, carrying with them miscellaneous troops in the area. Realizing the extent of the defeat, Bayerlein placed the blame on higher headquarters. "All calls for help have been ignored," he complained, "because no one [on the upper echelons] believed in the seriousness of the situation."26 This was hindsight, of course, but the serious situation was about to become worse.
In place at Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly to begin its final drive to the Cotentin west coast, CCB of the 2d Armored Division received word of another change in mission. To prevent overextension, CCB, instead of pushing all the way to the coast, was to move only as far as Lengronne and set up blocking positions between that village and Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly. (See Map VI.)
To carry out his blocking mission, General White sought to seize the critical traffic control points that lay southwest of Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly and also the bridges across the Sienne River, which bounded his zone of operations on the south and on the west. All the important bridges across the Sienne were to have been destroyed by air bombardment before COBRA, but some had survived intact. To make certain that none provided escape exits for German units, General White planned to outpost those west of Hambye and prepare them for demolition.
Darting through surprised Germans manning hasty defensive positions, streaking past enemy antitank guns at 50 miles an hour, CCB reconnaissance troops on 28 July secured more than the required number of bridges. With the exception of one at Gavray, held by a strong German force that defied the troopers, detachments took the Sienne bridges on the south and outposted the three bridges north of Cérences. Dispersing the reconnaissance battalion to the limits of the combat command sector and beyond was a feat of daring in the best cavalry tradition.
Though the rapid thrust had revealed the absence of serious German opposition and had brought confusion and hopelessness to the few Germans encountered, General White still could not be sure whether he had arrived too late to spring the trap. Concerned not only with blocking the bridges but also with obstructing the important crossroads, he sent one of his main columns southwest from Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly. The troops mopped up isolated pockets of resistance--hastily assembled elements of the 353d Division that occupied blocking positions between Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly and St. Denis-le-Gast--and detached small task forces to guard the significant road intersections. A reconnaissance troop outposted the final combat command objective, the Lengronne crossroads. A small task force (a company each of tanks and infantry, reinforced by engineers, medical personnel, and a tactical air control party) guarding the right flank was unable to halt several German tanks that crossed the front and moved south toward St. Denis-le-Gast and eventual escape, but it cut the Coutances-Gavray highway near Cambry, set up defensive positions, and waited for other German troops to appear.
Germans had already put in an appearance early that morning of 28 July near Pont-Brocard. On the right of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, which had organized positions at Montpinchon and Cerisy-la-Salle, the regiment controlled by the 5th Parachute Division was to have anchored the right (south) flank of the north-south line established by Choltitz to mask his withdrawal on the Cotentin west coast. The parachute regiment was nowhere in sight. In its place, a Panther battalion of the 2d SS Panzer Division under the control of Panzer Lehr officers, small units of the
275th Division, and assorted stragglers found themselves trying to re-form a front at Pont-Brocard, where Americans had passed the previous evening.27 Early on 28 July some of these German troops overran part of the 183d Field Artillery Battalion, a VII Corps Artillery unit supporting the 2d Armored Division from positions near Pont-Brocard. Fortunately, the Division Reserve (Col. Sidney R. Hinds) was on the road from Canisy, and it quickly restored American control in the Pont-Brocard-Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly area.
This and other evidence made it apparent on 28 July that a large German force was bottled up near Montpinchon and Roncey. CCB gradually turned its major attention to the north and northwest to contain it. The combat command, then, had not, after too late.
On the German side, confusion in the LXXXIV Corps coastal sector on 28 July was appalling. Communications were virtually nonexistent. The corps headquarters had some contact with some divisions but could not exercise effective control. The regiment of the 2d SS Panzer Division that was covering the withdrawal of the 91st Division had no knowledge of how the withdrawal was proceeding, and the 91st had no information about its covering force. Some withdrawing troops found to their discomfiture that the Americans that had crossed the Soulle River at Pont-Brocard were already behind them. Hausser was fired on by an American armored car near Gavray. Tychsen, the commander of the 2d SS Panzer Division, was killed close to his command post by an American patrol.28
Late in the afternoon of 28 July, when communications between the LXXXIV Corps and the 2d SS Panzer Division ceased, Col. Friedrich von Criegern, the corps chief of staff, went forward to make personal contact with the division. He found that Lt. Col. Otto Baum, the commander of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, had also assumed command of the 2d SS Panzer Division upon Tychsen's death. Baum and Criegern together concluded that American troops had probably already reached the Cotentin west coast and had thereby encircled the German forces still in the Coutances region. They agreed that an immediate withdrawal to the south was in order. They planned to gather all the troops they could find into an all-around defensive cordon, then make a strong attack southward to reach the ground below the Bréhal-Hambye road. While Baum busied himself with the preparations for this course of action, Criegern rushed back to inform Choltitz.29
Choltitz had just received an order from Hausser to break out of the Coutances region by attacking not to the south toward Bréhal but to the southeast toward Percy. Hausser wanted to get those forces that broke out of the American encirclement to join troops that Kluge was assembling east of the Vire River for a counterattack west of the
Vire to seal off the COBRA penetration. A good meeting point for the two forces moving toward each other, Hausser figured, would be Percy. Choltitz protested that an attack southeast from Coutances would leave only weak forces to anchor the entire Normandy front on the Cotentin west coast. But Hausser insisted, and Choltitz complied. He transmitted the order forward--the troops that were virtually encircled south of Coutances were to attack to the southeast, and not to withdraw to the south.30 Hausser of course notified Kluge of the instructions he had issued through Choltitz, and when Kluge learned that Hausser had virtually stripped his coastal positions and thereby jeopardized the entire Normandy defenses by inviting American encirclement of the German left flank, he nearly became violent. He told Hausser to send an officer courier to Choltitz at once to cancel the order for the southeastward attack to Percy. Instead, Choltitz was to mount a holding attack to enable the main LXXXIV Corps body to escape south along the coast. The withdrawal was to be made under the protection of outposts that were to hold positions along the north-south railroad between Coutances and Cérences. Meanwhile, a counterattack, to be launched now by two fresh panzer divisions, would strike westward across the Vire toward Percy to act as a diversion for the withdrawal. Once south of Cérences, the LXXXIV Corps was to occupy a new ten-mile-long main line of resistance from Bréhal through St. Denis-le-Gast to Gavray.31
Kluge's instructions did not reach the LXXXIV Corps units. Unable to phone Choltitz, Hausser transmitted a message to the corps rear command post. There, the corps quartermaster took a bicycle and rode forward to give the message to Choltitz. He arrived about midnight of 28 July. Without communications to subordinate units and therefore lacking control of their operations, Choltitz did nothing. Satisfied that the units under the control of the 91st Division were withdrawing south along the coast, he allowed the rest of the situation to develop as it would. The corps headquarters moved to the south and escaped intact. Meanwhile, the other units along the coast prepared to attack southeast in compliance with Hausser's original order. The effect would be to storm the blocking positions that the 2d Armored Division had stretched across the Cotentin.
The American commanders, Generals Brooks and White, guessing that the Germans would try to break out during the night of 28 July, called in their dispersed and exposed detachments late in the afternoon. Reinforced by the Division Reserve and by an infantry battalion of the 4th Division that came into Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly that evening, the armored troops took strong defensive positions along a seven-mile line between Pont-Brocard and St. Denis-le-Gast, alert to the possibility that the Germans might try to break out from the Montpinchon-Roncey area to safety.
Meanwhile, Hausser's original order transmitted by Choltitz had brought dismay
to Baum. Baum had been proceeding on the assumption (made by him and Criegern) that he could easily get the two divisions under his control--the 2d SS Panzer and the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier--to safety by way of a southern exit. He had become even more confident when he learned that the 2d Armored Division had pulled in its troops to St. Denis-le-Gast, thereby leaving open a ten-mile-wide corridor between that village and the coast. Furthermore, Baum had already pulled his units back from the eastern edge of the pocket, and he no longer had a firm hold on the area northwest of Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly. Without that sector as an assembly area, he could not launch an attack to the southeast through Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly to Percy. Baum compromised. He withdrew southward across the Sienne River, then turned eastward to Percy and thereby achieved the desired result by different means.
The other German troops north of Cérences that were covering the LXXXIV Corps withdrawal drifted south in the meantime and gathered near Roncey to attempt to break out to the southeast. The main components of this force that could be identified included parts of the 2d SS Panzer Division and the 17th SS Engineer Battalion, most of the 6th Parachute Regiment, and what remained of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. By striking toward Hambye and Percy, these and other troops were to demonstrate that the defensive efforts on the part of the 2d Armored Division had not been wasted.
Shortly before dawn, 29 July, about thirty enemy tanks and vehicles, led by an 88-mm. self-propelled gun, approached a crossroads about three miles southwest of Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly, where a company of armored infantry and a company of tanks were deployed. German infantrymen crawled along the ditches on both sides of the road as half a dozen enemy tanks and armored vehicles assaulted frontally to force open an escape route. The self-propelled gun in the lead overran the American defensive line and was about to make a breakthrough when rifle shots killed the driver and gunner. With the gun carriage blocking the road, individual American and German soldiers battled for the crossroads until daybreak, when the Germans withdrew, leaving 17 dead and 150 wounded. The motor of the undamaged self-propelled gun carriage was still running, the gun still loaded. The Americans sustained less than 50 casualties and lost a tank and a half-track.32
About the same time, not far away, about fifteen German tanks and several hundred troops overran an outpost manned by a company of the recently arrived battalion of the 4th Division. The American company commander was killed at once and the infantrymen fell back half a mile into the positions of the 78th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Two artillery batteries in direct fire, a third in indirect fire, and four guns of the 702d Tank Destroyer Battalion held off the Germans for thirty minutes until nearby armored infantrymen arrived to re-establish the outpost line. They found seven destroyed Mark IV tanks and counted more than 125 enemy dead . Some Germans had
Wrecked German Armor Bulldozed Off a Road Near Roncey
escaped in these two actions. Others escaped by filtering through American lines in small groups. In general, however, the CCB cordon proved effective. Troops all along the line had collected enemy stragglers and demoralized remnants of small German units.
Quite certain that Allied fighter-bombers would prevent a German escape in strength during daylight, General White again pushed his defensive line to Lengronne on the morning of 29 July. He re-established the roadblocks at intersections and sent outposts to the Sienne River bridges. General Brooks moved the Division Reserve to St. Denis-le-Gast to keep an eye on German movements south of the Sienne River. Though the
Germans maintained their control over the bridge at Gavray, elsewhere only small enemy groups offered half-hearted resistance.
German hopes for an eventual concerted breakout attempt were largely destroyed on 29 July by Allied tactical aircraft. The destruction that occurred went far beyond Allied anticipation. On the afternoon of 29 July pilots of the IX Tactical Air Command discovered a "fighter-bomber's paradise" in the Roncey area--a mass of German traffic, stationary, bumper to bumper, and "triple banked." Pilots estimated at least 500 vehicles jammed around Roncey, and for six hours that afternoon the planes attacked what became known as
the Roncey pocket. As squadrons of fighter-bombers rotated over the target, American artillery, tanks, and tank destroyers pumped shells into the melange. More than 100 tanks and over 250 vehicles were later found in various stages of wreckage, other vehicles had been abandoned intact. Though American intelligence officers guessed that a fuel shortage had caused the Germans to abandon their equipment, the fact was that the Germans had fled on foot in the hope of escaping the devastating fire rained down upon them.33
By the evening of 29 July, the 2d Armored Division (less CCA) was the only unit still actively engaged in Operation COBRA. General Bradley had initiated a new attack but the mission of eradicating the isolated German forces trapped in the Cotentin remained with General Brooks. His method was to erect a cage and let the Germans beat against the bars. The armored division was to hold its defensive lines and destroy the survivors of the Roncey disaster who surely would again attempt to escape during the night of 29 July.
As expected, German groups struck the armored defensive line at various points during the night. Some fought desperately to break through, others battled half-heartedly, still others surrendered after a cursory exploration that satisfied the requirements of honor. In the last category belonged the 150 Germans who stumbled into the bivouac area of the 62d Armored Field Artillery Battalion near Lengronne and gave themselves up after a short engagement.
At least two skirmishes reached the proportion of minor battles. The first occurred shortly before midnight, 29 July. As German forces launched a demonstration and a diversionary attack from the vicinity of Gavray with rockets and flares and with a small infantry-tank task force that engaged American outposts near St. Denis-le-Gast, two columns descended from the Roncey pocket and smashed against St. Denis-le-Gast from the north. About a thousand men and nearly a hundred armored vehicles in a well-organized attack penetrated the American line. A Mark V poked its gun through a hedgerow, destroyed the command half-track of a U.S. tank battalion, and set vehicles at the command post ablaze. Disorganized, the Americans fell back, relinquishing St. Denis-le-Gast. Had the Germans been interested in exploiting their success, they might have thoroughly disrupted the defensive cordon. Instead, they wanted only to flee south. Once the spearhead had pierced the American lines, it was every man for himself. The U.S. troops rallied, and an intense, confused battle took place at close range.34 In the morning the Americans again had a firm hold on St. Denis-le-Gast and its road intersection. They had killed 130 Germans, wounded 124, taken over 500 prisoners, and destroyed at least 25 vehicles, of which 7 were tanks. American losses were almost 100 men and 12 vehicles.
Eleven vehicles of the German force
that had attacked St. Denis-le-Gast got through the village, but instead of driving south they moved westward toward Lengronne, toward the bivouac of the 78th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Earlier that night U.S. artillerymen manning guard posts around their howitzers had killed or captured individual soldiers and small groups of men, but the small German column entered the American lines undetected. Moving rapidly, the column passed an antitank gun guarding the road. Perhaps the sentries assumed that the vehicles were American, perhaps they were too startled to open fire. Well inside the artillery bivouac area, an American officer stopped the column and challenged the driver of the lead truck. "Was ist?" came the surprised and surprising reply. Mutual astonishment quickly vanished and the battle commenced. Machine guns chattered. Howitzers at point-blank range, some from distances of less than a hundred yards, opened fire. A tank destroyer crew at the side of the road making emergency motor repairs began to fire 3-inch shells into the rear of the German column. With the leading and rear vehicles of the column destroyed, the Germans tried to flee on foot. Silhouetted by the flames of burning vehicles, they made excellent targets for the small arms of the artillerymen. The battle was short. In the morning, the artillerymen counted 90 enemy dead, over 200 prisoners, and all 11 vehicles destroyed. The Americans had lost 5 killed and 6 wounded.35
At the same time the small task force that had established an outpost on the Coutances-Gavray road near Cambry finally saw action after two days of patient waiting. Shortly after midnight, 29 July, about 2,500 Germans made an organized break for safety. The point of the German attack overran a tank roadblock and threatened to crush the entire outpost force. Sgt. Hulon B. Whittington, of the 41st Armored Infantry, jumped on an American tank, shouted through the turret to direct its crew, and maneuvered it through enemy bullets to a place where its point-blank fire destroyed the momentum of the German attack.36
Its attack stalled, the German force fell apart. Some panic-stricken Germans fled or surrendered, others battled at close range near burning vehicles. U.S. artillery battalions gave excellent supporting fires without prior registration and without clearance from the division artillery. As a result of the six-hour engagement, 450 Germans were killed, 1,000 taken prisoner, and about 100 vehicles of all types destroyed. American losses were about 50 killed and 60 wounded.
As day broke on 30 July, hundreds of destroyed vehicles and wagons, innumerable dead horses, and the miscellaneous wreckage of defeat lay scattered over the countryside, grim testimony to the extent of the debacle that the Germans had suffered in the Cotentin. The 2d Armored Division alone had killed an estimated 1,500 enemy and captured about 4,000, while losing not quite 100 dead and less than 300 wounded. CCB,
General Collins felt, had done "a magnificent job."37
The fact that the action was over by 30 July became apparent as reconnaissance troops combing the region rounded up 250 prisoners and killed nearly 100 other Germans still trying to escape. Shortly before noon, a group of 100 enemy soldiers walked into a command post of the armored division and surrendered.
Thus ended Operation COBRA on the Cotentin west coast in a final action not unlike the last twitch of a lifeless snake. Even as COBRA was expiring, the battle was passing beyond the limits contemplated for the action. With the Germans reduced to impotence, the offensive was becoming quite different from the original conception.
Despite German losses in the Cotentin, a rather large force escaped in the confusion. Among the units that fought or fled to safety were a battalion of Mark IV tanks of the 2d SS Panzer Division, and sizable contingents of the 17th SS Engineer Battalion, the 6th Parachute Regiment, and the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division. Many individual soldiers had also reached refuge. Quite a few who had abandoned their vehicles in the congested mass of traffic around Roncey and left them to Allied air force bombardment organized themselves into haphazard command groups, some effective, some not, and made their way south. Though a sufficient number of troops gathered to man a line from Percy westward to the sea, the difficulty was that the men were exhausted. As they attempted to establish a defense they fumbled about in various stages of wakefulness. One unit commander, von der Heydte, brought his 6th Parachute Regiment into a concealed bivouac and there, hidden from Americans and Germans alike, permitted his men to sleep for twenty-four hours before reporting his location to higher headquarters.38
From Gavray west to the sea the front was held largely by remnants gathered under the banner of the 91st Division. Although these forces had had a relatively easy time in withdrawing south along the coast, they had nevertheless been bombed and strafed and had lost troops, equipment, and supplies. Unable to form a continuous, strong, or stable line of defense, they were destined to be overrun in the midafternoon of 30 July.
Learning that little existed to oppose an American sweep down the Cotentin west coast, the German naval coast artillery battery in Granville destroyed its guns and retreated toward Avranches. By nightfall, 30 July, headquarters of the LXXXIV Corps and the advance command post of the Seventh Army were behind American lines. The only contact that Army Group B had with the combat troops along the Cotentin west coast was that maintained by the crew of a telephone relay station in Avranches, at the base of the Cotentin. Just before dark on 30 July, the signal crew reported the approach of U.S. troops.39
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