Breakthrough Becomes Breakout
The Outflanking Force
While General Bradley on 28 July was giving direction to the exploitation growing out of COBRA, General Collins' VII Corps still had not completed its assignment in the COBRA operation. The 1st Division, with Combat Command B of the 3d Armored Division attached, was establishing positions in the Coutances-Marigny area. The rest of the 3d Armored Division was engaged near Montpinchon. The 2d Armored Division, less CCA, was extending a line across the Cotentin from Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly to Cérences. The 4th Division, less the 22d Infantry, was hurrying to the Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly sector to reinforce the armored division. Only the 9th Division was out of contact with the enemy--needing rest, it was about to pass into corps reserve. Both the 30th Division and the 2d Armored's CCA had been transferred to the XIX Corps, and plans already were under way to redistribute some of the extra artillery provided the VII Corps for Operation COBRA.1 (See Maps VI and VII.
Still oriented to the west in accord with the COBRA plan, VII Corps would have to make a sharp turn to the south before taking part in the exploitation, a maneuver that well might delay its participation. In hope of speeding the shift and holding traffic congestion to a minimum, General Collins first ordered reorientation and attack by the units that were farthest south in the corps sector, the 2d Armored and 4th Infantry Divisions, only to see this plan disrupted by the continued pressure against the 2d Armored Division the Germans exerted in trying to escape the Roncey pocket.2 So long as this pressure persisted, the 2d Armored Division could not assume a new mission.
Having detached the 3d Armored Division's CCB from the 1st Division in order to provide an armored reserve under his original plan, General Collins saw a solution to his problem in reuniting the combat command with its parent division and using the 3d Armored in the exploitation attack. He ordered the 3d Armored to go south early on 30 July and pass through the 2d Armored in order to attack on the right and abreast of the 4th Division. To reinforce the 4th Division, since the 22d Infantry had passed to control of the XIX Corps, Collins provided it with the 1st Division's 26th Infantry. The remainder of the 1st Division was to be in reserve, but be prepared to move south on six hours' notice. The 9th Division was to
go into bivouac for rest and reorganization.3
The 3d Armored and 4th Divisions were ready to take up the post-COBRA exploitation on the morning of 30 July. The two divisions were to attack southeast for seven miles from Gavray to Villedieules-Poëles. The infantry was to take Villedieu, an important road center in the middle of the Cotentin about half way between Granville and the town of Vire, and high ground east of Villedieu, while the armor was to seize high ground and river crossing sites west of Villedieu.
The situation seemed propitious since the Germans west of the Vire River--perhaps 16,000 men and less than three tank battalions--were in retreat. Neither reserves nor a German defensive line north of the Avranches-Tessy-sur-Vire area was in evidence.4
Attacking with two regiments abreast on the morning of 30 July, the 4th Division encountered little opposition until it arrived about four miles north of Villedieu-les-Poëles. Here an artillery preparation and a battalion attack during the afternoon failed to eliminate the opposition. Excellent defensive terrain and the presence of strong enemy forces, particularly on the 4th Division left on ground south of Percy, brought operations to a temporary halt.
On the 4th Division right, the two combat commands of the 3d Armored Division in the meantime had driven toward Gavray and Hambye to cross the Sienne River abreast.5 Of the two, CCB had less difficulty, despite poor country roads and wrecked German vehicles that had to be pushed off the roads before the columns could pass. Reaching Hambye in early afternoon of 30 July, CCB found a damaged bridge and met small arms fire f rom the south bank, but a small reconnaissance party supported by fire from the advance guard was sufficient to drive the Germans back. Engineers repaired the bridge by late afternoon, and the combat command continued the march south toward Villedieu-les-Poëles. Like the infantry, the armor ran into increasing resistance when nearing Villedieu. Since portions of the combat command still had to cross the Sienne before a full-scale attack could be mounted against the objective west of the town, Colonel Boudinot halted CCB and established perimeter defenses for the night.6
In moving to Gavray, CCA of the 3d Armored Division had been hampered by the presence of troops of other divisions. CCA's COBRA attack had brought it to, and in some places beyond, the Coutances Lengronne highway, which had been pre-empted by, then turned over to, the VIII Corps. Since armor of the VIII Corps was driving south along this route, intermingling of VII and VIII Corps troops was inevitable. "Things were in wild disorder," General Collins later recalled. Extricating hundreds of CCA men and vehicles from what had become the adjacent corps sector was difficult work. Had CCA been able to use the main highway from Coutances through Lengronne to Gavray, its advance would have been simplified. But CCA, like
CCB, had been relegated to a network of narrow, muddy, twisting roads that would have retarded movement even if hundreds of burned-out German vehicles had not blocked the way in Roncey and along the roads leading south and southeast. Furthermore, orienting CCA from west to southeast involved turning the advance guards, uncoiling columns, regrouping forces, and, as a result, much internal traffic congestion. The necessity of passing through the rear of the 2d Armored Division also added to traffic problems. Both General Collins and General Hickey had to give personal attention to traffic control at critical road intersections in order to get CCA on its way.7
In spite of all these difficulties, reconnaissance troops of CCA reached the Sienne River in the early afternoon of 30 July. They found the bridge to Gavray destroyed and the town, situated on the south bank, apparently held in strength. Conscious of high wooded ground across the river, where the Germans possessed good observation, concealment, and fields of fire, and acutely aware of enemy artillery, the reconnaissance troops made no effort to cross the little river before the main body of the combat command arrived.
In late afternoon the two leading task forces of CCA were in position to make an assault crossing. After two armored field artillery battalions laid down a fifteen-minute preparation and fired counterbattery against several enemy pieces located by observation planes, the armored infantrymen waded into four feet of water to fight their way across. One task force appeared so hesitant in making its crossing that its commander, Lt. Col. Leander L. Doan, became impatient, dismounted from his tank, and personally led the assault.8 Actually, the Germans possessed little strength. Only scattered fire bothered the infantry as they crossed. In little more than a hour the two task forces had established a consolidated bridgehead and began to prepare for a counterattack that never came. Engineers set to work building a bridge so that tanks and other vehicles could cross the following morning.
Although both attacking divisions of the VII Corps were across the Sienne by the evening of 30 July, General Collins was markedly disappointed that no more spectacular advances had been made. He therefore altered the plan of attack.
For some time General Collins had been of the opinion that the 3d Armored Division was overcautious. He had, for example, seen dismounted reconnaissance personnel searching for enemy troops while American vehicles nearby passed back and forth unmolested. He also felt that the 3d showed lack of experience and needed aggressive leadership at the top. The command did not know, for example, "how to coil up off the road or close when it was stopped." Collins had observed a "long column going off the road through one hole in a hedgerow . . . one vehicle . . . at a time . . . blocking the road to the rear for miles, holding up supplies and transportation
coming forward." To replace the 3d Armored Division, Collins brought the 1st Division south to take responsibility for the 3d Armored Division zone. This gave him "two exceptionally able commanders" in Generals Huebner and Barton.9
Attaching CCA to the 1st Division and CCB to the 4th Division--thereby reducing the 3d Armored Division headquarters to an administrative agency charged only with supplying and servicing the combat commands--Collins ordered the infantry divisions to attack abreast, each spearheaded by the attached armor. With COBRA completed, he visualized a more distant objective ten miles south of Villedieu-les-Poëles: the 4th Division was to proceed through Villedieu to St. Pois, which earlier, until the Tessy-sur-Vire battle developed, had been a XIX Corps objective; the 1st Division was to drive to Brécey and beyond, across the Sée River.10
The challenge of rapid advance came a day too early for the 4th Division, for the division lacked troops. Though the organic regiment that had been attached to the XIX Corps had been replaced by the 1st Division's 26th Infantry, the 26th now passed to its parent unit. Another of the 4th Division's organic regiments, the 8th Infantry, would not arrive from the Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly region until too late for the first day of renewed attack. Only one regiment, the 12th Infantry, plus the attached armor, was on hand. When the infantrymen attacked toward Villedieu-les-Poëles, they could make only minor gains. At the same time, CCB moved eastward along the vulnerable left flank of the division and spent most of the day building bridges, reorganizing, and reducing occasional enemy roadblocks.
Not until the evening of 31 July, after the arrival of the 8th Infantry, was the 4th Division altogether ready to drive south. Calling his principal subordinates together, General Barton made it clear he had in mind rapid, sweeping advances. "We face a defeated enemy," he told his commanders, "an enemy terribly low in morale, terribly confused. I want you in the next advance to throw caution to the winds . . . destroying, capturing, or bypassing the enemy, and pressing"--he paused to find the correct word--"pressing recklessly on to the objective."11 The units of the 4th Division and the attached armor took General Barton at his word when they renewed the attack on 1 August.
Meanwhile, developments had occurred even more rapidly on the corps right, where CCA spearheaded the 1st Division attack on 31 July. One task force drove quickly against scattered German forces that were employing occasional tanks and antitank guns in ineffective delaying actions. Hitting the broad side of an enemy column--light armor and personnel carriers--moving southwest from Villedieu toward Avranches, tankers of this task force disorganized and dispersed the enemy with fire at close range, though fast-falling twilight helped a large part of the column to escape. Sensing the proximity
of stronger enemy forces, and unwilling to chance contact while his own troops were dispersed, General Hickey ordered the task force into defensive positions for the night near the village of l'Epine.
More spectacular was the thrust of another task force under Colonel Doan that cut the Villedieu-les-Poëles-Granville highway just west of Villedieu in the late afternoon of 31 July. As Doan was searching for a good place to halt, he received a message that General Collins wanted him to continue twelve miles farther to the final objective, Hill 242, south of Brécey. Doan spurred his force on. Looking ahead to a railroad embankment where he could expect opposition, he asked for fighter-bombers to fly column cover to strafe and bomb the tracks as their last mission in the fading light of day. When the ground column crossed the railway unopposed, the tankers noticed several unmanned antitank guns. Though the enemy crews later returned to their positions to oppose the infantry in wake of the armored spearhead, the effective work of the fighter-bombers had spared the armor what could have been a costly engagement.
Bypassing one of its original objectives, Hill 216 southwest of Villedieu-les-Poëles, Doan's task force barreled down the main road to Brécey during the early evening hours of 31 July. When the commander of the point had difficulty selecting the correct road at an intersection, Colonel Doan himself took over in his command tank. Making a Hollywood-type entry into Brécey, the task force commander took pot shots with his pistol at surprised German soldiers who were lounging at the curb and in houses along the main street of the town.12
Though the principal bridge south of Brécey had been destroyed, Doan's command prepared a hasty ford by hand-carrying rock to line the river bed. Infantrymen waded the stream and subdued scattered small arms fire. Tanks and vehicles followed. The final objective, Hill 242, lay three miles to the south, and only when his men reached a wooded area on the north slope of the hill did Doan permit a halt.
On 1 August, a week after the beginning of Operation COBRA, VII Corps was near the base of the Cotentin, more than thirty miles due south of the Périers-St. Lô highway. General Collins had reversed his field and made an extraordinary gain that outflanked the German left.
The Breakout to Avranches
In the coastal sector of the Cotentin an even more outstanding achievement was developing. Under the supervision of General Patton, the Third Army commander, VIII Corps had been demonstrating vividly just how much Operation COBRA had accomplished.
When General Bradley instructed General Patton to supervise the VIII Corps exploitation growing out of COBRA, he gave Patton charge of operations that intimately and personally concerned the Third Army commander. The quicker Patton got the VIII Corps to the threshold of Brittany, the sooner he would be able to enter 09battle at the head of his army.
To enable Patton to supervise the VIII Corps, General Bradley had asked him to serve as his deputy for the forces on the right.13 Though Patton remained in the background of command to the best of his ability, his presence was unmistakable, and his imprint on the operations that developed was as visible as his shadow on the wall of the operations tent.
The situation facing the VIII Corps on the evening of 27 July was challenging. On the one hand, the Germans were making a general withdrawal, which in effect invited the Americans to exploit. On the other hand, serious obstacles kept the Americans from making a rapid advance--the profusion of mines, wrecked vehicles, and enemy delaying forces. Furthermore, the infantry divisions that had carried the VIII Corps attack in COBRA filled the roads, and from the east came the VII Corps and the threat of congestion. As though the potential confusion between VII and VIII Corps units was not enough, a new corps, the XV, was scheduled to enter the line between the VII and the VIII as soon as the Third Army became operational.14
For all these drawbacks, the absence of organized German resistance on 27 July and the urge to reach the edge of Brittany exerted an overpowering influence. General Bradley, after conferring with General Patton on 27 July, had already ordered General Middleton to disregard the COBRA limit of advance north of Coutances, and infantrymen of the VIII Corps were streaming south as quickly as engineers could clear paths for them through mine fields.15
That evening, as orders from Bradley shifted the First Army from COBRA into exploitation, Patton manifested his influence by substituting armor for infantry. Two armored divisions were to spearhead the attack to the south.
In the COBRA attack, the lone armored division available to the VIII Corps, the 4th under Maj. Gen. John S. Wood, had been pinched out near the starting line. Located on the Carentan-Périers isthmus in corps reserve, the 4th Armored Division was behind the infantry forces completing their COBRA assignments when General Middleton ordered General Wood to move. Shortly after daylight, 28 July, Wood was to pass through the 90th Division and proceed through Périers and toward Coutances as far as Monthuchon. Expecting troops of the VII Corps to have secured Monthuchon by that time, Middleton told Wood to co-ordinate with Collins' units so that he could continue through Coutances to Cérences, twenty-two miles south of Périers and nine miles south of Coutances.16
The second armored force was a new unit, the 6th Armored Division under Maj. Gen. Robert W. Grow, attached from the Third Army. Middleton alerted Grow to move from his assembly area north of la Haye-du-Puits and attack on the right of the 4th Armored
Division down the Cotentin coast. Grow was to pass through the 79th Division, bypass Coutances on the west, and drive to Granville, twenty-eight miles south of Coutances.17
The plan of action for 28 July thus projected twin thrusts by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions moving abreast through two infantry divisions, the 90th and the 79th. In the expectation that XV Corps was to be inserted on the VIII Corps left, and, anticipating that the new corps would compress the 4th Armored Division zone of advance, General Middleton intended to assign the main effort to the 6th Armored Division on the right. Followed by the 79th Division, the 6th Armored Division would subsequently drive from Granville to the base of the Cotentin near Avranches.18
To make possible armored operations in a corps zone jammed with infantry troops and strewn with mines, Middle-ton ordered the infantry divisions to intensify their demining programs and to clear the main routes. The VIII Corps Engineer, Col. William R. Winslow, hastily organized teams to teach members of the armored divisions how to remove new types of German mines.19 To assure control and balance while the armored divisions passed to the front, General Middleton instructed the troops to halt for further orders after capturing Granville and Cérences.20
The 6th Armored Division reconnoitered its projected zone of advance on the afternoon of 27 July. The following morning, as the infantry divisions of the VIII Corps continued to advance against no opposition, Grow received the order to start rolling.21 CCA (Brig. Gen. James Taylor) moved quickly to Lessay, where traffic congestion because of combat damage to the town, bridge repair, and mine fields retarded progress. Getting through Lessay was difficult, but by early afternoon CCA was moving rapidly toward Coutances. The only opposition to what resembled a road march came from an enemy roadblock two miles northwest of Coutances, where a few German infantrymen and one tank tried to delay the column. Bypassing Coutances on the west, the leading units of CCA moved a short distance down the coastal road toward Granville before halting for the night.22
In the left of the VIII Corps zone, the 4th Armored Division had begun to advance shortly after daybreak, 28 July, when CCB (Brig. Gen. Holmes E. Dager) moved through Périers toward
Knocked-Out American Tanks Outside Avranches
Coutances. Near St. Sauveur-Lendelin a dense mine field held up progress. Reconnaissance troops vainly searched side roads for alternate routes, tank dozers came forward to construct bypasses, and the main body remained in place for three hours until engineers swept and demined the main road. Under way again, CCB met scant opposition. The armor found no VII Corps troops at Monthuchon and continued to the outskirts of Coutances during the afternoon. When armored infantry dismounted and, accompanied by light tanks, entered the city on foot, German rear-guard troops fought back with artillery, mortar, and small arms fire. A sharp skirmish ensued. Supported by an artillery battalion that threaded its way forward through the stationary armored column, the armored infantry by evening had cleared Coutances of its scattered defenders. German artillery on high ground several miles east of the city gave brief and half-hearted interdictory fire.23
By the end of 28 July, VIII Corps at last held Coutances, the objective that had lured the corps forward for almost a month. COBRA had accomplished what the battle of the hedgerows had not, but Coutances in the process had lost its value. More important, General Middleton had two armored divisions at the head of his troops, almost in position to pursue a withdrawing enemy--almost in position, but not quite, for although the
spearheads were in place, the columns were strung out and backed up through the countryside. The armor would require another day to wriggle through the infantry.
From a study of the terrain, it seemed that the Germans might try to anchor their right on Tessy-sur-Vire and withdraw their left. On this basis, the Germans might try to consolidate defenses and hold on one of three possible lines: Tessy-Coutances; Tessy-Granville; or Tessy-Villedieu-les-Poëles-Avranches.
By the end of 28 July, however, the Germans had lost Coutances and appeared incapable of stabilizing the front in the Cotentin. There was little indication of defensive preparations. The Germans seemed "completely disorganized with no sign of co-ordinated resistance." Air reconnaissance disclosed no movement of reinforcements toward the area roughly bounded by Coutances, Avranches, and Percy. On the contrary, German vehicular columns were cluttering the roads below Bréhal, Gavray, and Percy as they hurried south under punishment administered by American tactical aircraft. Destroyed and burning vehicles lined almost every main road. Trees along a 200-yard line in Coutances had been notched for felling across the highway, but were still standing when American troops arrived, clear evidence of the haste of the German withdrawal. Mines were scattered along roads and at intersections rather than in disciplined patterns. Defenders of the few isolated roadblocks that existed fought half-heartedly. Bridges were sometimes demolished, sometimes not. A small amount of light-caliber artillery fire harassed the American advance, but the bulk of the German artillery was en route south.24
Convinced that German reinforcements must be on their way to the Cotentin from Brittany and from sectors east of the Vire River, American commanders hoped to overrun the potential defensive lines that remained in the Cotentin before the reinforcements could arrive. General Middleton consequently raised his immediate sights to Avranches.25
On a picturesque bluff 200 feet high, Avranches overlooks the bay of Mont St. Michel and the famous rock clearly visible eight miles away. Avranches fascinated the Americans, not because of the sights that have interested tourists for so long but because it is at the base of the Cotentin. For practical-minded Americans in July 1944, Avranches was the symbol of egress from the Cotentin and entrance into Brittany.
Avranches lies between two rivers, the Sée and the Sélune, which flow westward to the bay about four miles apart. The city snuggles against the Sée where two highway bridges funnel traffic from five highways arriving from the north and the east--two from Granville, one each from Coutances, Villedieu-les-Poëles, and Brécey. Below Avranches the roads are compressed into one main highway leading due south and across the Sélune River near Pontaubault, where the highway splits, the roads diverging and affording access to the east, south, and west. A bottleneck in the north-south road network, protected by water on
three sides, situated on commanding terrain, Avranches in the summer of 1944 was a prize beyond compare.
On the evening of 28 July, armored spearheads of the VIII Corps were more than thirty miles from Avranches, but separated from the city, General Middleton believed, only by scattered opposition. He ordered the 6th Armored Division to strike swiftly through Granville to Avranches while the 4th Armored Division took Cérences, then moved southeastward to secure a crossing of the Sée River at Tirepied, several miles east of Avranches. The capture of Avranches and of crossing sites over the Sée and Sélune Rivers would make possible the commitment of the Third Army into Brittany, and to this end the 4th Armored Division was to hold open the natural bottleneck at the base of the Cotentin and block German forces that might threaten the slender corridor from the east. Attaching forty Quartermaster trucks to the 79th and 8th Divisions, Middleton instructed each of these infantry division commanders to motorize a regimental combat team. The teams were to be ready to assist the 6th and 4th Armored Divisions, respectively.26
Shortly after daybreak, 29 July, the leading units of the 6th Armored Division moved southwest of Coutances to the Sienne River. At the destroyed bridge of Pont-de-la-Roque, small arms fire from the south bank stopped the advance. When reconnaissance revealed no other river crossing site in the division zone, CCA prepared a full-scale assault. The arrangements consumed most of the day. After a five-minute artillery preparation reinforced by tank and tank destroyer fire, armored infantrymen crossed the river early in the evening against light mortar and small arms fire and dispersed the few defenders. Engineers began to construct a bridge and prepare a ford.
The ground gained was disappointing, and the loss of 3 killed and 10 wounded as against only 39 prisoners taken seemed to indicate that the division had been less than aggressive in its initial action. General Patton noted this pointedly to the division commander, as did General Middleton, who tersely commanded General Grow to "put on the heat."27
On the left, the 4th Armored Division was making better progress. General Wood saw that his axis of advance, the Coutances-Hyenville-Cérences highway, crossed the Sienne River in three places. Anticipating that the Germans would have destroyed the bridges, he requested permission to use, in addition, the parallel highway--the Coutances-Lengronne road--two miles to the east. Unfortunately, the road was in the VII Corps sector. After a conference at corps and army echelons and despite recognition that VII Corps troops driving westward from Montpinchon would probably overflow the highway and cause confusion and delay, the road was reassigned to the VIII Corps. General Wood then ordered CCB to use both main highways, a course of action the tankers had already initiated.28
Brig. Gen. Holmes E. Dager's CCB
had worked through the night of 28 July to clear the scattered enemy troops in Coutances and just south of the city. At daybreak, 29 July, when two armored columns departed, only a few armed Germans and a profusion of mines remained in Coutances.29 A damaged bridge immediately south of the city was quickly repaired.30 Then, as fighter-bombers provided air cover, the armor drove forward on two routes, meeting sporadic resistance so disorganized that deployment was usually not necessary in order to overrun and eliminate it. Interference from VII Corps tanks that overflowed from the adjacent corps zone was more serious, though not fatal. The CCB columns encountered and destroyed several German tanks late in the afternoon and rolled on to the Sienne River at Cérences and south of Lengronne. There, destroyed bridges brought the advance to a halt.
In gaining about ten miles on 29 July, CCB had sustained little more than 30 casualties and had taken 125 prisoners. The problem of handling surrendering enemy threatened throughout the day to consume more time and energy than did the terrain, traffic, and spotty resistance. "Send them to the rear disarmed without guards" became a standing operating procedure.31
By the end of 29 July, the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions were sufficiently forward to give promise of rapid thrusts to the south on the following day. Nothing the enemy seemed capable of doing appeared strong enough to block the advance. The "disorderly withdrawal of the enemy throughout the period continued, showing no signs of slackening." German vehicular movement southward still clogged the roads south of Bréhal and Cérences. Sporadic fire from isolated self-propelled guns harassed American bridging parties along the Sienne River, but other than that the leading units of VIII Corps were out of contact with organized German defenses. To the rear of the armor, the infantry divisions had held in place and collected about a hundred prisoners. The 79th and 8th Divisions each had a motorized regimental combat team ready to reinforce the armored divisions. The corps artillery had fired only registration missions, had reconnoitered forward areas, and had displaced to the south as rapidly as possible. All seemed in readiness for a decisive thrust to Avranches.32
To General Middleton, the 4th Armored Division instead of the 6th now seemed in a better position to secure Avranches. The 4th was also manifesting the superiority over untested units that experienced troops generally display. Earlier in the month, to the horror of some armored experts who had protested that an armored division should not be used to hold a static front,
General Middleton had assigned the 4th a portion of the defensive line on the Carentan-Périers isthmus. There, during the week before COBRA, the division had learned enough of actual combat to acquire a confidence that was evident in its operations of 28 and 29 July. To take advantage of these factors, Middleton gave Avranches, the corps objective, to General Wood. The 6th Armored Division was to capture Bréhal and Granville.33
Dissatisfied with the progress of CCA, General Grow wished to get CCB (Col. George W. Read, Jr.) into action. He therefore passed CCB through the 6th Armored Division forces holding the bridgehead at Pont-de-la-Roque. Anticipating little resistance at Bréhal, Grow expected CCB, after driving through the town, to bypass Granville on the east and encircle it from the south.34
As expected, little besides small arms fire along the main road opposed the approach to Bréhal. CCB leapfrogged forward, firing high-explosive shells and canister into wooded areas along the road, and reached the outskirts of town, where a log roadblock with a rolling steel gate barred the way. After a flight of four P-47's made several unsuccessful passes at the obstacle, the lead tank in the column simply rammed the block, knocked down the logs, and opened a passage into the main street of Bréhal. After several random shots, a few bedraggled Germans were herded into the town square.
South of Bréhal, CCB passed a prepared but undefended roadblock and drove through light artillery fire interdicting the highway to Granville. General Grow halted the advance short of the city to consolidate his gain. The division had moved about twelve miles, had taken more than 200 prisoners against 2 men killed and 10 wounded, and was demonstrating that it, too, was capable of aggressive and assured action.
Meanwhile, the 4th Armored Division was carrying the main effort of VIII Corps. As soon as General Wood had learned that he was to take Avranches, he notified the CCB commander: "Present mission cancelled--using any roads [in zone] . . . move on Avranches . . . to capture it and secure crossings east thereof."35 For all the urgency implied in this order, the destroyed Sienne River bridges at Cérences and south of Lengronne continued to thwart advance until the afternoon of 30 July, when engineers bridged the stream. Only then could both columns of CCB cross the river and proceed to the south.
The eastern column ran into an ambush almost at once and after losing six half-tracks spent the rest of the day eradicating the resistance. Dismounted infantry, with support from artillery and a flight of fighter-bombers, attacked German positions on high ground obstructing the advance, while antitank gunners engaged and destroyed two German tanks. At the approach of darkness the Germans retired, then shelled the high ground they had vacated, apparently on the premise that American infantrymen had occupied it. But the Americans had abandoned the hill to outpost the
tanks on the road during the night. When the skirmish ended, CCB had incurred 43 casualties and lost eight halftracks.
The western column, under the personal command of General Dager, had better luck. Tanks moved rapidly for about ten miles through la Haye-Pesnel and Sartilly against virtually no resistance. Three and a half miles north of Avranches, the troops unknowingly passed within several hundred yards of the Seventh Army advance command post. General Hausser, Generalmajor Rudolf-Christoph Freiherr Gersdorff, and other general staff officers made their way to safety through the meticulously regular intervals of the column serials. On foot at first, later in commandeered vehicles, the German officers fled eastward through Brécey toward Mortain.36
The CCB column continued to the Sée River just north of Avranches and discovered that both highway bridges were intact. Early in the evening troops entered Avranches, an undefended city for all its prize aspects. After outposting the southern and eastern outskirts quickly, General Dager sent a small force eastward along the north bank of the Sée to secure the bridge at Tirepied, five miles away.37
The situation as it was known at VIII Corps headquarters on the evening of 30 July was obscure, even to the achievement at Avranches.38 Abundant evidence indicated the complete absence of organized resistance in the corps zone. Airplane pilots reported having seen Frenchmen from Granville to Villedieu-les-Poëles "waving the Tri-Color," which obviously meant that the Germans had withdrawn south of that line. Civilians reported Germans asking the road to Mayenne, twenty-five miles to the south. Prisoners, numbering 1,200 on 30 July, consistently affirmed that German units were completely out of contact with each other and with higher headquarters.39 Yet the experience of the 6th Armored Division in the coastal sector and the ambush of the 4th Armored Division eastern column pointed to the presence of hard-fighting enemy units. At the same time the whereabouts of the column in Avranches was unknown. If, as was rumored, troops of the 4th Armored Division's CCB had entered Avranches, then the VIII Corps left flank from Gavray to Avranches, a distance of ten miles, was wide open since the adjacent VII Corps on the evening of 30 July was crossing the Sienne River at Gavray.40
Unable to believe that German disorganization was as great as represented, General Middleton was hopefully cautious until he learned definitely that American troops were in Avranches. Then, late on the evening of 30 July, Middleton acted with dispatch. He ordered Wood to push through Avranches
and across the Sélune River and attached to the 4th Armored Division the motorized regimental combat team of the 8th Division that was ready to move. To prevent intermingling of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions on the restricted road net, Middleton told Grow to take Granville and move only as far toward Avranches as the Sartilly-la Haye-Pesnel line.41
Appreciating the necessity for speed and on-the-spot co-ordination, General Wood delegated control of all the 4th Armored Division forces in the vicinity of Avranches to General Dager by attaching to CCB not only the infantry regiment of the 8th Division but also CCA (Col. Bruce C. Clarke), which he had already dispatched to Avranches.42
Taking Avranches was not enough. The narrow coastal corridor, consisting of the single main highway from Avranches to the Sélune River crossing near Pontaubault, four miles to the south, had to be made secure to allow the Third Army to pass into Brittany. The troops thus needed to hold Avranches and at the same time to seize and hold essential adjacent objectives: river crossings south and southeast of Avranches and high ground east and southeast. Part of the high ground between the Sée and Sélune Rivers--rugged terrain where several reservoirs and dams were located--was an eventual objective of the VII Corps, but responsibility for the portion south of the Sélune near the village of Ducey belonged, as did the other tasks around Avranches, to General Dager's CCB.43
General Dager learned at 0200, 31 July, that he was soon to receive additional forces to help him hold Avranches, establish Sélune River crossing sites, and take Ducey. The news was opportune, less in terms of seizing the other objectives than in holding the one he had taken with such ease the afternoon before. The fact was that trouble had developed at Avranches.44
First indications that Avranches might not be as easy to hold as it had at first appeared had developed about two hours before midnight of 30 July. At the Sée River bridge on the main highway from Granville, men of a CCB tank company detected the approach of a large German vehicular column along the coastal road from Granville. Because the vehicles were marked with red crosses, the tankers assumed they were evacuating German wounded. They allowed the first few to pass and cross the bridge into Avranches. But when Germans in several of the trucks opened fire with rifles, the tankers returned the fire and destroyed a few vehicles, thus blocking the road. With the column halted, German soldiers piled out of their vehicles and came toward the bridge, hands high in surrender. The tank company took several hundred prisoners. Examination revealed that the vehicles were loaded with ammunition and other nonmedical supplies.
Learning from their prisoners that
another, more heavily armed German column was also approaching down the coastal road from Granville, the men of the tank company became jittery. Small arms fire shortly after midnight announced the arrival of the second column. When an enemy shell struck an ammunition truck and set it ablaze, the tank company commander reached a quick decision. His position illuminated, lacking infantry protection for his tanks, and outnumbered by his prisoners, he ordered withdrawal. Without having lost a man or a tank, the company abandoned several hundred prisoners and the Granville road bridge to move eastward to the Sée River bridge on the Villedieu-les-Poëles road.
Over the unguarded bridge the Germans, before daylight on 31 July, entered Avranches in considerable numbers. Some emplaced several artillery pieces on the northwest edge of the Avranches bluff to dominate the bridge and the Granville road. Others in a column of trucks, horse-drawn wagons, and tracked vehicles turned eastward and disappeared into the darkness, headed toward Mortain. Still others moved toward the southern exits of Avranches, where they bumped into armored infantrymen of CCB, who were outposting the southern approaches to the city. Surprised, both American and Germans opened fire. In the confused fight, the action of one machine gunner, Pvt. William H. Whitson, was a deciding factor. Before he was killed, he destroyed nearly 50 Germans and more than 20 light vehicles with his .30-caliber gun.45
The Germans turned back, but only to reorganize for a second attack that came after daylight. The CCB infantrymen were ready. Using white phosphorus mortar shells effectively and supported by the providential appearance of a flight of P-47's, they held their ground. When the attack collapsed, several hundred Germans surrendered.
Meanwhile, General Dager had discovered the abandonment of the bridge on the Granville road and ordered the tank company commander to return. The company reached its former positions on 31 July, about the same time that advance units of CCA were arriving on the scene. When the German artillery pieces on the bluff opened fire on CCA, tankers engaged them while armored infantrymen crossed the river, mounted the bluff, and captured the pieces.
By the afternoon of 31 July General Dager was sure that the Germans at Avranches had actually been seeking an escape route and not attempting to recapture Avranches. Dager considered the town secure.46 He directed CCA to move on to the other task--seizing the main bridge across the Sélune at Pontaubault, a secondary bridge at Ducey, and two dams several miles southeast of Avranches. While the bridges were of prime importance, the dams were hardly less so. If the Germans destroyed the water gates and flooded the Sélune, an immediate advance would be out of the question.
The CCA commander, Colonel Clarke, divided his troops into four task forces. He directed each to one of the
Abandoned German Equipment Litters a Road to Avranches
four objectives, which were to be secured before nightfall that day, 31 July, and ordered the forces to bypass resistance. There was no information about the enemy, nor was there time to reconnoiter. With speed the important element, the task forces planned no special tactical dispositions to provide advance or flank security. Since there was no time to obtain air support liaison parties for the individual task forces, fighter-bomber pilots without direct communication to the tankers found their own targets and kept track of progress on the ground by the bright cerise panels on the rear decks and the white painted stars on the tops of the tanks.
One task force took Ducey after several short skirmishes and outposted the bridge there. Another secured its dam objective after overcoming minor resistance. A third was well on its way to taking the other dam after plunging through a series of small roadblocks, knocking over several German motorcyclists, destroying a few enemy tanks, running a gantlet of exploding shells in a destroyed ammunition dump, and finally capturing a company of German infantrymen who walked into the task force outposts on the assumption they were German positions.
It seemed illogical to expect the Pontaubault bridge, four miles due south of Avranches, to be captured intact. If the bridges at Avranches still stood through German oversight, it was unlikely that the same mistake would be made again. American reconnaissance pilots nevertheless had reported on 30
Destroyed Enemy Vehicles Cluttering a Street in Avranches
July that the Pontaubault bridge was apparently in good condition and unguarded. As late as the afternoon of 31 July, pilots still failed to detect any German troops near the bridge.47
As a matter of fact, the Germans were trying to get into position to contest the Pontaubault bridge. They were too late. As a task force of the 4th Division's CCA swept across the bridge in the late afternoon of 31 July and outposted the important road intersections immediately south of it, enemy vehicles approached from the west. Tank and artillery fire quickly dispersed them.
The action completed by the 4th Armored Division by the morning of 1 August gave VIII Corps three crossing sites over the Sée River (two bridges at Avranches and one at Tirepied, five miles to the east) and four over the Sélune--easily enough routes to enter Brittany. With the division in position to continue south, General Middleton ordered the 6th Armored Division, which had cleared Granville of scattered resistance and moved to the la Haye-Pensel-Sartilly line, to relieve the 4th at Avranches and Pontaubault. He also dispatched another regimental combat team of the 8th Division to the vicinity of Avranches and sent artillery and antiaircraft units to guard the critical roads and bridges.48
That little stood in the way of continued advance was clearly evident. The 4th and 6th Armored Divisions together had taken more than 4,000 prisoners on 31 July. The 79th and 8th Divisions, moving behind the armor on secondary roads, had done little more than process about 3,000 additional prisoners, all willing to be out of the war. In contrast with these figures, casualties of the VIII Corps from 28 through 31 July totaled less than 700.
Fighter-bomber pilots continued to wreak havoc on the retreating enemy columns. Destroyed enemy vehicles along the roads continued to constitute the chief obstruction to ground operations. One pilot counted seventy vehicles burning during the night of 30 July in the Vire-Laval-Rennes-Avranches region. Everywhere in the Cotentin German disorganization was rampant. Abandoned equipment and supplies--guns, tanks, and trucks--littered the countryside as German units fled south and east, and west into Brittany. So great was the destruction in the VIII Corps zone that "hundreds of dead horses, cows, and pigs [and the] stench and decay pervading" were judged "likely menaces to water points and possible bivouac areas."49
The facts were obvious. The German defenses in the Cotentin had crumbled and disintegrated. The Americans on the last day of July 1944 possessed and controlled the last natural defensive line before Brittany. From the German point of view, the situation had become a "Riesensauerei"--one hell of a mess.50
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