The "Incalculable" Results
"It's a madhouse here," Kluge cried in despair as he attempted to describe the situation on the morning of 31 July.
At the Seventh Army command post in le Mans, Kluge for the second day was for all intents and purposes commanding the LXXXIV Corps and the Seventh Army, in addition to performing his official duties as commander of Army Group B and OB WEST.
"You can't imagine what it's like," he told General der Infanterie Guenther Blumentritt, the OB WEST chief of staff, on the telephone. "Commanders are completely out of contact [with their troops]. Jodl and Warlimont [Hitler's chief advisers at OKW] ought to come down and see what is taking place."
Who was to blame? The whole mess had started, it seemed to Kluge, "with Hausser's fatal decision to break out to the southeast. So far, it appears that only the spearheads of various [American] mobile units are through to Avranches. But it is perfectly clear that everything else will follow. Unless I can get infantry and antitank weapons there, the [left] wing can not hold."
Apropos of that, Blumentritt said, OKW wanted to know the locations of all the alternate and rearward defenses under construction in Normandy.
Kluge did not hide his derision. "All you can do is laugh out loud," he replied. "Don't they read our dispatches? Haven't they been oriented? They must be living on the moon."
"Of course," Blumentritt agreed smoothly.
Kluge's mood changed. "Someone has to tell the Fuehrer," he said, without designating who was to perform the unpleasant task, "that if the Americans get through at Avranches they will be out of the woods and they'll be able to do what they want."
The terrible thing, Kluge said, was that there was not much that anyone could do. "It's a crazy situation."1
At 0030 on 31 July, Kluge had authorized the Seventh Army to withdraw to a line from Granville to Troisgots.2 Thirty minutes later he was trying to get the LXXXIV Corps back still farther, to the Avranches-Villedieu-les-Poëles line, but without much success--for his messages were not getting through. At this time Kluge admitted unequivocably that his left flank had collapsed.3
At 0920 Kluge learned definitely that the Americans were in Avranches, but other than that the entire situation in the Avranches-Villedieu sector was "completely unclear." The only facts that could be accepted with assurance were that German losses in men and equipment were high and that U.S. fighter-bomber activity was "unprecedented." An "umbrella" of planes had covered American tanks advancing on Granville and Avranches. The responsibility for the crisis, he insisted, lay with Hausser's order for the left wing of the LXXXIV Corps to attack to the southeast. He had discovered that Choltitz had protested Hausser's order, and he felt that this futile protest absolved Choltitz from blame for the subsequent disaster. Troops under the control of the 91st Division had established a thin line from Bréhal to Cérences as early as 28 July, but the American penetration on 31 July near Cérences had "ripped open the whole western front." The inevitable conclusion was that "Villedieu, springboard for movement east and south, is the anchor-point for Brittany, [and] has to be held under all circumstances or else has to be recaptured."4 But Kluge could do no more than draw conclusions; without an organized front and without adequate communications, he was powerless to influence the course of events.
Fifteen minutes later, Kluge's greatest worry was still Villedieu. He did not know nor could he find out which side held the town. Suspecting the worst, he agreed to let the XLVII Panzer Corps pull back the 2d and 116th Panzer Divisions to the Villedieu-Percy line. He knew that east of the Vire River, in the withdrawal toward the town of Vire, the II Parachute Corps had lost the greater part of the 3d Parachute Division (including the 15th Parachute Regiment attached to it). He knew also that the 21st Panzer Division, the last reserve division in Normandy, had been committed on the left flank of Panzer Group West, where the 326th Infantry Division had been overrun by the British.5
Satisfied that he could do little on the front east of Avranches except hope for the best, Kluge set out to block the Americans at Avranches. At first he thought he could bring up two infantry divisions--the 84th and 89th--to deal with the small armored spearheads there, but he soon realized that the divisions could not possibly arrive in time.6 He then turned to the forces in Brittany.
Since early on the morning of 31 July, when Kluge first faced the difficult and distasteful conclusion that the front was disintegrating, he had tried to get troops to hold the bridge near Pontaubault.7 Unsuccessful in this effort, he took the drastic step of stripping the Brittany defenses by ordering Fahrmbacher, who commanded the XXV Corps in Brittany, to denude the St. Malo area of forces in order to prohibit the influx of Americans into Brittany. Specifically, Fahrmbacher was to send all available mobile troops to hold the Pontaubault bridge and from there to launch
a counterattack to the north to recapture Avranches.
Fahrmbacher was handicapped in two respects. Though there were many unemployed naval and air force troops in his corps sector, he could not order them to assume ground force missions because they were not under his jurisdiction. The troops directly under his control and therefore available to him were generally of two types--static troops guarding the coast line and units that had escaped from the Cotentin after taking heavy losses. Both lacked sufficient transport to make them mobile. Fahrmbacher felt that he could not perform his mission at Avranches, but he tried anyway.8
Fahrmbacher dispatched toward Pontaubault what remained of the 77th Division, a unit perhaps the equivalent of a battalion in strength, reinforced by assorted paratroopers and a company of assault guns. This force, under Col. Rudolf Bacherer, the 77th Division commander, reached the vicinity of Pontaubault in the late afternoon of 31 July, only to find the Americans already there.9
Hours before this took place, Kluge had reported to Hitler through Warlimont that he did not think it at all possible to stop the Americans, who had broken out of the strong static defenses that had contained them in July.10 Hitler's "stand fast and hold" tactics, it appeared, had failed.
How had it happened? How had an operation designed to reach the Coutances-Caumont line been parlayed from a breakthrough into a breakout?
The explanation could be likened to a double exposure of the same subject, filmed from different points of view. The edges of the picture were slightly blurred, but the result was clearly discernible.
The Germans had astutely escaped the initial COBRA thrusts, only to fall prey to the later developments. They had been completely surprised by the COBRA bombardment and ground attack of 25 July. And yet they themselves had aggravated the consequences. That they had been outmaneuvered was soon apparent. Their communications facilities wrecked, they had found their endeavors to re-establish order marked by ignorance and inevitable frustration. Unable to keep abreast of a COBRA operation that developed remarkable speed after a slow beginning, the Germans were too late in their counter-measures. Hampered by shortages of manpower, equipment, and supplies, they were also the victims of their own mistakes. Whereas Eberbach had launched major portions of two panzer divisions in a counterattack several hours after GOODWOOD had begun and had thereby blocked British exploitation of a penetration already achieved, the Germans in the Cotentin were not able to match or even come close to Eberbach's accomplishment. A large part of the confusing and conflicting drama that had ensued in the Cotentin could in the final analysis be traced to the failure of a few men to react quickly, with decision,
and in accord with a single purpose.11
At the beginning, German intelligence had failed. Radio interception had revealed significant changes in American dispositions during the week preceding COBRA, but these were not reflected in the reports that reached army group and theater headquarters. They did not even reach Hausser.12
More important than the lack of advance warning on COBRA and perhaps even more significant than the disparity in numbers of troops controlled by the opponents were Hausser's dispositions before COBRA, which had largely predetermined his initial reaction. From the night of 13 July, when American pressure against the LXXXIV Corps left began to diminish, Hausser was increasingly free to regroup his forces because except for minor action the fighting in the Cotentin came to an end with the fall of St. Lô on 18 July. A week of poor weather conditions before COBRA gave Hausser further respite. In all, he had about ten days to reshuffle his forces in the Cotentin. The equivalent of nearly seven infantry divisions, these forces had numbered about 21,000 combat effectives. The infantry was incapable of rapid movement, but Hausser had two panzer divisions that were highly mobile. Even though Panzer Lehr had not been at top strength (it had been unable--even with the support of its attached parachute regiment--to launch an attack east of the Vire River to regain St. Lô), the 2d SS Panzer Division had been strong, confident, and aggressive.13 Together, the two armored divisions comprised a force in being that could have had a serious effect on COBRA.
Kluge had suggested to Hausser that he pull his two panzer divisions out of the line, replace them with infantry, and conserve them for mobile action against American penetrations of the defensive line. Hausser, on the other hand, had been reluctant to deprive his static defense of armor. He believed that "tanks formed the backbone of the position; built into the ground, they served as antitank guns and as armored machine guns."14 He had consequently held the armored divisions in place.
As a result, instead of having the infantry absorb the shock of the COBRA assault and having an armored reserve capable of counterattack, Hausser had so disposed his troops that the Americans knocked out one of the two panzer divisions in the COBRA bombardment--Panzer Lehr was immediately eliminated as a potential threat. The 2d SS Panzer Division, though more fortunate than Lehr in escaping bombardment, could not be extricated from the front in time for a decisive counterattack role. Once the Americans broke through, their mechanized and motorized troops easily outmaneuvered German infantrymen and paratroopers who comprised Hausser's immediate reserves, forces that were sadly deficient in transportation facilities. Without additional assembled reserves, Hausser could not close the gap
that developed between the LXXXIV and II Parachute Corps.
By the very terrain his troops occupied, Hausser might have visualized his task as the maintenance of a resilient defense. He might have envisaged a gradual hard-fought withdrawal, if necessary, to the Avranches-Vire-Caen line (which Rundstedt and Rommel had discussed around the end of June), for such a withdrawal would have been in accord with the defensive concept in Normandy. Eberbach, in contrast, could not withdraw his Panzer Group West and retain for the forces in Normandy the same conditions of warfare. Despite the impossibility of his even considering a withdrawal and despite his lack of intention to withdraw, Eberbach had constructed alternate positions to the rear. Hausser, who could have justified a withdrawal and who could have given up ground without endangering the forces of Army Group B, had failed to prepare even rally points to the rear.
Though Hausser had not designated alternate positions, Choltitz was sufficiently security conscious--perhaps simply cautious enough--to do so on his own authority. Afraid to appear a defeatist in Hausser's eyes, Choltitz did not tell him of the alternate positions. The relationship between the two commanders was founded on a lack of mutual trust, co-operation, and understanding that bred confusion. When Choltitz had marked a line of defense to the rear, he had been responsible for the defense of the Cotentin from the west coast to the Vire River. After the fall of St. Lô, when the 352d Division withdrew behind the Vire River west of St. Lô and took positions on the west bank,
Hausser allowed it to remain under the control of the II Parachute Corps. Thus, when Choltitz shortly after the COBRA bombardment ordered Panzer Lehr to man a designated line to the rear, the consequence was that Lehr had neither contact with the 352d nor an anchor on the Vire River. Both units had floating flanks. When the 352d withdrew a day later to anchor the flanks, Panzer Lehr had been further jostled by the COBRA exploitation and was beyond salvation.15
Kluge shared in the accountability for defeat. Concerned with the Panzer Group West sector and worried about the positions south of Caen, he had failed to note Hausser's inadequate preparations for defense. It should have been clear to him that Hausser had not grasped the role of the Seventh Army in the defense of Normandy.16 Yet Kluge was preoccupied with the British threat to Falaise, and he did not remark Hausser's failure to comply with his instructions on creating armored reserves.
Kluge criticized Hausser explicitly soon after COBRA began for his employment of the 2d SS Panzer Division. He condemned Hausser's helplessness in the face of communications difficulties. He thought that Hausser was permitting inefficiency among army staff members, particularly his chief of staff, General-major Max Pemsel, who, Kluge felt, would hamper Hausser's influence on
the course of the battle.17 He thought it necessary to restrain Hausser's request to withdraw, and he had insisted on withdrawal only for the purpose of gaining reserves. On the morning of 28 July he remarked that Hausser and Pemsel were obviously not masters of the situation and that he had just about decided to relieve at least Pemsel.18 That same morning he sent his son Guenther, a lieutenant colonel who was his aide, to the Seventh Army sector as his personal representative.
The climax of Kluge's doubt came on the question of Coutances. Though Kluge considered closing the gap in the Seventh Army center vital, he felt that retention of Coutances was even more important. When Pemsel assured Kluge on 28 July that strong rear-guard action north of Coutances would keep the Americans out of the city and prevent them from launching a major effort along the coast, Kluge was certain that Hausser understood the significance of Coutances--that loss of Coutances would open the door to an American drive that might outflank the counterattack about to be launched in the army center by the XLVII Panzer Corps.19 His surprise bordered on shock when he received word that evening of Hausser's plan to have the LXXXIV Corps in the Coutances area escape American encirclement by attacking southeast, rather than by withdrawing south along the coast. By virtually abandoning Coutances and projecting a concentration of forces near Percy, Hausser removed opposition to an American advance down the west coast of the Cotentin.
Kluge's countermand of Hausser's order had little effect because of inadequate communication facilities. A result was that Hausser's act brought to a head Kluge's dissatisfaction with the Seventh Army leadership. That evening, though apparently without authority to relieve Hausser, who was one of Himmler's SS commanders, or perhaps not daring to, Kluge replaced Pemsel with Gersdorff; Choltitz, the LXXXIV Corps commander, with Generalleutnant Otto Elfeldt.20 Kluge must have regretted that Hausser still commanded the Seventh Army on the following day, for again he countermanded Hausser's order committing the XLVII Panzer Corps to defense between Tessy and Gavray.
By the time that Kluge took an active part in the Cotentin operation, the battle was lost. Even though he drew upon Eberbach's Panzer Group West reserves in an attempt to stem the tide of events, he did so with reluctance, not because GOODWOOD had exhausted those operational reserves concentrated south of Caen, but because in the midst of the COBRA deluge he still believed that the decisive action would take place on the eastern flank near Caen. Kluge was, of course, mistaken.
German errors were only part of the story. The breakout also illustrated the magnificent ability of American commanders to take advantage of the opportunities and transform a limited envelopment in process to a breakthrough that became a breakout.
The abortive COBRA bombardment on 24 July had acted as a ruse. It had given the Germans a false sense of confidence and had nailed down the German main line of defense along the Périers-St. Lô highway. The real bombardment on 25 July had smashed the defense in the Marigny-St. Gilles gap. Though not at first apparent, the massed heavy and medium bomber attack had destroyed the efficiency and the initiative of the German soldier, both as an individual and as a member of the combat team, and had provided American ground troops with an initial impetus that turned out to be decisive.
To the Germans, the mere presence of unopposed aircraft overhead had been depressing, but the bombing itself had produced a temporary demoralization and a loss of will to fight or even to move about in the area under attack, a psychological effect that had given the Americans a tremendous tactical advantage. German casualties were later conservatively estimated as 10 percent of the total troops in the area. Even more important than the casualties were the confusion, the disruption of communications, and the shock effect. Some German soldiers were still deaf twenty-four hours later. Despite the bomb casualties among American troops, despite the fact that small isolated German groups had still been able to resist after the bombing, the COBRA bombardment was later judged to have been the best example in the European theater of "carpet bombing."21
The small and isolated German groups in the Marigny-St. Lô gap that had been able to resist had performed so well that they had maintained a semblance of the opposition that had stopped the Americans in the battle of the hedgerows earlier in the month. Expecting the same kind of combat, American infantrymen had been afflicted with a caution that, in view of the lack of organized German defense, approached timidity.
Recognizing that the entire First Army attack depended on getting through the German defenses at once, General Collins had dissipated the hesitation marking the American ground attack on the first day of COBRA, 25 July, by committing his armor on the morning of 26 July. That act had insured COBRA's success, but the forces in the VII Corps main effort had not made the decisive thrust. Rather, the aggressiveness of General Brooks' 2d Armored Division and the single-minded leadership of General Rose had carried CCA, and with it the VII Corps, into the exploitation phase of COBRA.
Again sensing a critical moment, General Collins had ordered continued attack through the night of 26 July. It was this--in particular the activity of General Barton's 4th Division--that had rammed the COBRA attack home. Had the VIII Corps attacked during the night of 26 July, the Germans on the Cotentin west coast might not have slipped away in the dark to temporary escape.
The German miscalculations that had allowed the COBRA attack to cross the original relatively limited horizon and had made possible the post-COBRA opportunity for exploitation were quickly seized upon by General Bradley. Despite strong German forces between
Lessay and Périers and despite the ability of German forces at Marigny to keep the COBRA main effort toward Coutances from reaching fruition, General Bradley exploited and deepened a nascent disorganization of the enemy as disastrous as that caused by the heavy bombers, as compelling as the effect of the American ground attack.
With the chief COBRA premise invalidated because the Germans had eluded not only the principal COBRA envelopment to Coutances but also the subsidiary thrust, the Americans closed another trap with alacrity around Roncey. Hausser's premature anticipation of the encirclement of his west coast forces--a maneuver that was never actually completed--and his order for the troops on the left to attack toward the southeast would have had little effect on the ultimate result if American troops had not been in place to block them--in particular the 2d Armored Division and General White's CCB, which had displayed a ruthlessness in its destructive capacity. The German hold on the Cotentin west coast broken and the way thereby open not only to an encirclement of the LXXXIV Corps left but also to the much more serious encirclement of the entire German defensive line in France, the Americans again acted with dispatch.
With the Germans themselves having largely planted the seeds of their own destruction, "it was only necessary for the First Army to take advantage of the disorganized state of the enemy." General Bradley had not been at all hesitant about issuing his orders for the post-COBRA exploitation. "Consequently, the ensuing period, which the [COBRA] plan had conceived [of as] . . . a holding and mopping-up period, became a vigorous attack period."22 General Corlett's XIX Corps had blunted the enemy's planned counterattack at Tessy and had thereby destroyed German hopes of quickly re-establishing a defensive line in the Cotentin. General Collins' rapid reorganization of the VII Corps and the spectacular thrust of 3d Armored Division task forces toward St. Pois and to Brécey had denied the Germans the vital terrain about Villedieu-les-Poëles. General Patton's modification of the VIII Corps attack by inserting twin armored columns and the sensational success of General Wood's 4th Armored Division had exploded the nightmare of static warfare that had haunted the Americans so long in the Cotentin.
The British and Canadian contributions to the development of the breakout are difficult to judge. There is no doubt that General Montgomery had worried Kluge in the Caen sector. By creating uncertainty in the mind of the German field commander, Montgomery had added to and deepened the surprise that accompanied the American operation. Except for two armored divisions that had moved to the American zone to oppose the post-COBRA exploitation, Montgomery had tied down the strength of Panzer Group West, which still guarded the vital approaches to Falaise. Whether General Montgomery had visualized it so, or whether he was aware of the historical example, the breakout in Normandy from a larger
perspective resembled in the essentials of maneuver the operation in Sicily of less than a year earlier. There, too, Montgomery's forces had tied down the enemy while Patton's U.S. troops carried the main assault and made the striking gain.
Two days before COBRA, General Montgomery had suggested it might be advantageous to drop parachute troops to seize bridgeheads over the Sée and Sélune Rivers--to block a German retreat, to prevent the enemy from stabilizing his line at Avranches, and to facilitate the projected American thrust into Brittany. General Bradley had vetoed this relatively shallow drop.23 As it turned out, an airborne operation was unnecessary.
General Eisenhower had sounded the keynote when he had written General Bradley on the eve of COBRA:
My high hopes and best wishes ride with you in your attack . . . , which is the largest ground assault yet staged in this war by American troops exclusively. Speaking as the responsible American rather than the Allied Commander, I assure you that . . . a breakthrough at this juncture will minimize the total cost [of victory]. . . . Pursue every advantage with an ardor verging on recklessness and with all your troops without fear of major counter offensive from the forces the enemy now has on his front. . . . The results will be incalculable.24
The results were indeed incalculable. Of the 28,000 German prisoners the First Army captured during the month of July, 20,000 were taken during the last six days. No German defensive capability was apparent in the Pontaubault-Brécey-Villedieu-les-Poëles sector. The LXXXIV Corps was smashed. The II Parachute Corps was beaten. The Seventh Army had been defeated. The way was open to even greater German disaster and even more incalculable results.25
The Allied Outlook
The action that had developed so rapidly on the First Army's right during the last few days of July was a preview of what was to come in August. Significantly, armored units had transformed the breakthrough into the breakout in all of the three corps sectors west of the Vire River. Even in the region east of the Vire, the British 11th Armoured Division had manifested the type of slashing power inherent in armored formations.
On the First Army right, the combat command had become the basic unit of advance. In the VII Corps sector, a new combination had evolved: a combat command attached to each infantry division, imparting the armored characteristics of fire power, mobility, and shock to the infantry capacity for sustained action. In all the corps sectors west of the Vire, balanced teams of tanks, tank destroyers, motorized infantry, artillery, and engineers had pushed ahead, making generous use of marching fire. The units had automatically taken crossroads, road junctions, defensible terrain features, hedgerows, and buildings under fire in order to neutralize potential resistance. All forces in the exploitation had cut German telephone wires. Leading
units had made a constant effort to overrun German outposts before they could relay information on American progress. The hedgerow cutter, developed to give armor mobility in the hedgerow country, was of little tactical value in the breakout, except possibly as a morale factor to the troops, since the tanks advanced on the roads, not cross-country.
Taking light casualties, U.S. troops felt their morale soar as the opposition melted. The sight of German prisoners in large numbers, "so happy to be captured that all they could do was giggle," dimmed unhappy memories of the battle of the hedgerows.26 The absence of an established enemy line and the replacement of the formerly well-prepared defensive positions with hastily dug trenches and ill-constructed emplacements brought exultation to American troops. The abandoned, wrecked, and disabled enemy vehicles that littered the roads were much less troublesome obstacles than well-manned strongpoints or villages and towns that had been both objectives and obstacles.27 The 15,000 engineers who had participated in COBRA had performed with distinction their primary effort of keeping the main routes open, thereby enabling over 100,000 combat troops to pour through a gap not more than five miles wide.28 The resulting situation had become so fluid that it had often been difficult for headquarters to transmit their orders to subordinate units or to receive new instructions from higher headquarters.29
Artillery had played a comparatively minor role. Only the armored batteries accompanying the advance units had been called upon to eliminate the occasional resistance that small German groups had hurriedly organized. Artillerymen had fired their machine guns more often than their howitzers. The question of adequate artillery ammunition supplies had vanished, and even though rationing had remained in effect throughout the month, it had no effect on the small expenditures that had been necessary.30
Although the method of supplying the forward troops changed somewhat, General Collins later recalled "no real supply difficulties that hampered the actual operation."31 Combat units carried more than their regular allowances of gasoline, usually double the amount. With kitchens left in the rear in increasing numbers, the combat troops for the most part ate cold K rations or heated their own 10-in-1 rations. Distances between depots and the front-line units increased. Sometimes tanks or armored cars escorted supply columns to assure their safety. Facilities for handling prisoners had suddenly become overburdened, and the First Army established two "holding enclosures" several miles behind the front as temporary prisoner installations until Communication
Zone guards could march the captives to the invasion beaches for transfer to England.32
The wretched weather that earlier had hampered operations in Normandy had vanished. With the launching of COBRA, "the weather turned fair, and the last days of July were characterized by brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures."33 This, perhaps as much as anything, had insured the success of the breakout, for it had permitted a most heartening development in the close and effective co-operation between the pilots of the fighter-bombers and the tankers leading the ground forces.
From 26 July through the end of the month, over 400 support missions were flown over First Army spearheads. In the VII Corps sector alone, fighter-bomber pilots claimed to have destroyed 362 tanks and self-propelled guns, damaged 216; and to have destroyed 1,337 other vehicles and damaged 380. In addition, they attacked horse-drawn wagons, gun positions, trains, warehouses, road junctions, railroad and highway bridges, troop concentrations, enemy aircraft, and one ammunition dump. In one day alone, the critical day of 26 July, fighter-bomber pilots claimed to have destroyed or damaged 85 tanks and 97 motor vehicles and to have attacked 22 gun positions. Pilots also had sought to hamper the night movement of enemy troops by dropping during the day near important crossroads--particularly near Coutances and Gavray--delayed-action bombs timed to explode during the night.34
From 25 through 31 July, the IX Tactical Air Command flew 9,185 sorties and dropped 2,281 tons of bombs, in addition to making 655 reconnaissance sorties. The air command's planned distribution of its resources on 28 July was representative of the distribution for the period: 7 percent of available aircraft were to provide assault area cover, 7 percent to perform offensive fighter sweeps, 7 percent to execute armed reconnaissance beyond the forward troops, 7 percent to be held in reserve to fulfill air request missions coming directly from the corps, 14 percent to attack targets as directed by the Ninth Air Force, 14 percent to fulfill close support missions requested by the First Army, 22 percent to escort medium bombers on attack missions, and 22 percent to perform armored column cover. It was later computed that from 25 through 28 July, 2,926 aircraft had dropped 5,961 tons of bombs, and 1,964 artillery pieces of all caliber (exclusive of tank guns) had fired 4,089 tons of shells on the First Army front.35
Armored column cover, begun on 26 July, had been a vital--and perhaps essential--factor in the American success at the end of the month. Relays of four fighter-bombers armed with bombs or rockets had flown in half-hour shifts over the head of each armored column.
Air support personnel riding in the forward tanks of the column maintained liaison with the pilots by means of very high frequency (VHF) radio sets installed in the tanks. The planes thus were able to act as the eyes of the ground forces, to give advance warning of impending threats and detailed information of the enemy's dispositions. They were also able to attack targets far ahead of the tank columns. The results obtained "by the employment of the tank-air team in mobile fast moving situations," commanders later recognized, had been "an outstanding achievement in air-ground cooperation and represented] the development of an unbeatable combination."36
Careful and detailed planning for air-ground co-operation had been necessary. Tank markings were repainted. Army liaison officers at airfields briefed pilots on air support missions to familiarize them with the situation on the ground and interrogated them upon their return from missions to secure information valuable to the ground components. An important factor that had served to bring about the "closest possible coordination" between the First Army and IX TAC staffs was that the air staff and the air representatives of the army staff were lodged under the same roof.37
The heart of the operation, however, lay in the radio dialogue between the pilots and the tankers. "I am receiving fire from an enemy tank nearby," a tanker would report; "can you get him?"
"I'll make a try," the pilot would reply. After making a pass, the pilot would call, "I found him. But you're too close for me to bomb safely. Back up a short distance, and I will go after him." It was simple; it was effective. The phrase "thanks a lot" frequently sounded over the radio channels.38
July had been a month of opposites in combat experience. Until 25 July foot troops had made slow, costly advances against stubborn hedgerow defenses; casualties had been high, and gains had been measured in yards. After 25 July armored formations had made rapid advances against a defeated, disorganized, and demoralized enemy; casualties had been light, resistance sporadic. The inception of COBRA had marked the change.
Several days after the commencement of the COBRA attack, General Marshall had requested General Eisenhower to send him information on General Bradley's offensive, which he had learned about from an unexplained radio reference to COBRA, "whatever that was."39 By the end of July there was little question of what COBRA was or what it had done. After one week of action, U.S. troops held a line from Pontaubault eastward through Brécey and St. Pois to a point several miles north of the town of Vire. To be sure, the front line was held only by advance spearheads; the bulk of the First Army was still concentrated fifteen to twenty miles to the north. Nevertheless, the Allied forces
had definitely seized the initiative, and there seemed to be no reason why they should relinquish it, particularly since the enemy disorganization was still unresolved. Brittany was at hand and Paris and the Seine had come within reach. The prospects for the future were unlimited.40
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