Plans, Personalities, and Problems
"From all reports," General Eisenhower wrote General Montgomery on the last day of July, "your plan continues to develop beautifully. I learn that you have a column in Avranches. This is great news and Bradley must quickly make our position there impregnable. Bradley has plenty of Infantry units to rush into forward areas to consolidate all gains and permit armor to continue thrusting. . . ." Two days later Eisenhower wrote Montgomery, "If my latest reports are correct, the enemy resistance seems to have disintegrated very materially in the Avranches region. Our armored and mobile columns will want to operate boldly against the enemy. . . ."1
As General Eisenhower anticipated, the bold thrust of armored columns was to characterize Allied operations during August.
In contrast with Allied optimism, the picture appeared bleak from the German side.
Meeting on the last day of July with Jodl in the Wolfschanze, the Fuehrer's command post in East Prussia, Hitler faced a depressing situation. In Italy, he felt, German forces were usefully tying down numerically superior Allied troops, but elsewhere Hitler found little consolation. As he put it, his principal worry was defection in the Balkan area; his most anxious concern was the potential capitulation of Hungary; his most pressing military need was stability on the Eastern Front in the Baltic and Polish regions; his immediate problem was the situation in France.
Over all the situation reports and staff studies that Hitler consulted hovered the shadow of the plot that on 20 July had come close to destroying his life. Despite vigorous measures to uproot the conspiracy, he could not be sure of its extent. He suspected considerable defection within the ranks of the German generals and general staff and was certain that disloyalty to his person existed on subordinate echelons as well. Tormented by a lack of confidence in the military, Hitler decided to direct the war increasingly from his own headquarters. He himself would plan a withdrawal from France. He would have OKW issue only fragmentary orders at the proper time to insure compliance with his master plan. In that way he would not reveal the plan in its entirety to someone who might compromise its success.
Hitler's basic plan to meet the American breakout at the end of July was to secure a temporary stabilization of the
front while intermediate rally lines and new defensive positions were being organized in the rear. To organize new defenses in protection of Germany and to await the fruition of new production and troop training schedules, Hitler needed six weeks at the least, ten weeks at the most. To gain the time he needed, he struck two blows at the Allied logistical apparatus. He ordered all withdrawing troops to destroy transportation facilities in France--locomotives, railway lines, marshaling yards, machine shops, and bridges--a plan already abetted by Allied bombardment. And he ordered his fortress policy into effect to deny the Allies the major ports they needed and to retain for the German Navy bases for submarine warfare against Allied shipping.2
In 1943 OKW had designated as fortresses all the Atlantic harbors that had been extensively fortified. To each was assigned an especially dependable commander who took an oath to defend his fortress to the death. Among the fortresses were the port cities Dunkerque, Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre, Cherbourg, St. Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire.3 Of these, Cherbourg had fallen in June, and at the end of July, as American troops seized Avranches and Pontaubault at the base of the Cotentin, the principal ports of Brittany--St. Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire--were threatened. (See Maps I, VIII, XII.)
Having been vexed by the failure of the Cherbourg garrison to hold out as long as he expected, Hitler tried to make certain that his fortress commanders in Brittany and in the Pas-de-Calais would not similarly disappoint him. Hoping to deny the Allies the ports he recognized as vital to the success not only of Overlord but also of the entire Allied campaign in western Europe, Hitler specifically ordered the fortresses held "to the last man, to the last cartridge." Although this Hitlerian phrase was later to become trite and even farcical, it was a serious manifesto. Hitler's argument was that, since the forces guarding the fortresses were static troops, they could not be employed effectively in the war of movement the Americans were certain to initiate in August. Since they could not conduct mobile operations, they were to fight to the finish within the ports, destroying the harbors in the process. The garrison forces would thus not only destroy the base of the logistical machinery--ports of entry--that the Allies had to erect in order to wage effective war, they would also tie down Allied forces that might otherwise be used in the decisive battle inevitably to be fought on the western approaches to Germany.
At OB WEST, this policy was markedly unpopular. Feeling that Hitler's implementation of the fortress policy meant the inevitable loss of from 180,000 to 280,000 men and their equipment, the OB WEST staff believed that the static troops in the Pas-de-Calais area at least--assuming that the groups in Brittany were already lost for future operations--could be used to better advantage
in reinforcing the new defensive positions to be erected in the rear of the Normandy front. But since Kluge was in command of Army Group B as well as of OB WEST and since he was in actuality giving most of his attention to tactical affairs at the army group level and below, OB WEST exerted no vital influence on operations. For all practical purposes it had become a message center that transmitted orders and reports up and down the chain of command. More to the point, whatever OB WEST's recommendations, Hitler had already made his decision. He told Kluge to pay no attention to the U.S. forces entering Brittany.4 Instead, Kluge was to devote his efforts to stemming the American threat eastward toward the Seine.
During the early hours of 1 August, Kluge had asked Hitler's permission to bring the 2d Parachute Division eastward from Brest and the 319th Infantry Division from the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey to the mainland to deny the Americans entry into Brittany. Hitler refused to evacuate the Channel Islands but granted permission for Kluge to use the 2d Parachute Division. Although the paratroopers started to move eastward, it soon became apparent that they would be too late to affect developments in Brittany. Threatened with isolation from Brest by a U.S. armored division, the paratroopers slipped back into the port city.5
By midmorning of 1 August, the Germans learned that U.S. forces were moving freely south of Pontaubault. By noon they had reports that Americans were in Pontorson and Dol-de-Bretagne and that two batteries of a German assault gun brigade committed against the armored spearheads had been destroyed, principally, they thought, by fighter-bombers.6 By evening there was no hope of stopping the influx of American troops into Brittany.
Although Kluge was aware of the meaning of these events, Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, tried to minimize the gravity of the situation by maintaining that "only armored elements have broken through [and that] so far there has been no exploitation of the breakthrough with massed forces." He admitted that several columns of American tanks, with sixty tanks in each column, had been reported near Villedieu-les-Poëles, and that "they must be somewhere in the area south of Avranches." Despite this, he still felt that he could stabilize his part of a front between Avranches and Caen.
Kluge evaluated the situation more realistically. Although he was talking to Hausser, he seemed to be speaking more to himself: "We have got to stop the flow [of American forces] from Avranches southward." This was his principal concern. Figuring that the 2d Parachute Division would have to fight in Brittany and could not therefore be used to bolster the front in Normandy, Kluge turned his attention to the problem of securing additional German
units from other places in the west to help stabilize the Normandy front.7
With OB WEST, Army Group B, and the Seventh Army in no position to look after Brittany, the task devolved upon the XXV Corps. Designated the commander of the forces in Brittany, Fahrmbacher, the XXV Corps commander, was delegated the job of directing what was to become the battle of the fortresses, a campaign independent of the action developing in Normandy.8
Fahrmbacher, who, as the temporary LXXXIV Corps commander, had met the Americans in the Cotentin in June, was ill-prepared to face them again in Brittany. Of the army field forces of 100,000 troops in Brittany at the beginning of June, less than one third remained at the end of July. The others, the best-armed and best-trained units, had been sent to Normandy--the 3d and 5th Parachute Divisions, the 77th, 353d, and 275th Infantry Divisions, and two mobile kampfgruppen of regimental size (from the 265th and 266th Divisions). Since the 319th Division on the Channel Islands would not see action on the mainland, the defenders of Brittany consisted of the 2d Parachute Division and the static 343d Infantry Division near Brest, weak elements of the static 266th Division (perhaps in regimental strength) near Morlaix, and the remaining parts of the static 265th Division at Lorient, St. Nazaire, and Nantes. Augmenting these troops were antiaircraft batteries, coastal artillery units, antitank groups, engineers, and Navy and Air Force personnel.9 To reinforce them came units and stragglers fleeing from Normandy--in particular the 77th and 91st Divisions, which carried with them assorted remnants of once-proud outfits. These headed for the St. Malo area, whence Fahrmbacher dispatched the 77th toward Pontaubault and the 91st to defend Rennes.10
As Fahrmbacher understood the fortress policy, the fortress commanders of St. Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire were to protect the submarine bases, prevent the Americans from using the ports, and contain as much of the American force as possible. Although each fortress commander had no garrison troops organized as such under his direct control, he commanded all the units and individuals of all the services within the fortress. The commanders of the field force troops had charge of activity outside the fortresses. Only after they were forced to retire within the limits of the fortresses did they come under the control of the fortress commanders.
Fortification of the port cities had begun in 1942 in response to the major threat of Allied invasion from the sea. The main construction work had at first been concentrated on the submarine installations, then on headquarters and battery positions for coastal artillery and flak, next on combat installations at possible landing points, and finally on the land front proper. So much time, effort, and concrete had gone into the
Atlantic Wall installations, which, at the insistence of the Navy, had been faced toward the sea, that the land front, according to Army planners, was neglected. The fortress commanders who faced the Allied ground forces in August 1944 believed their landward defenses far from adequate.
Upon reports that the Americans had invaded the interior of Brittany and that armored columns were racing toward the port cities, Fahrmbacher and his XXV Corps headquarters moved on 3 August from Pontivy to Lorient. Four days later, on 7 August, when Kluge ordered Fahrmbacher to take command of Brest, Fahrmbacher did not carry out the order because land contact between Lorient and Brest had already been cut, because no preparations had been made for sea communications, and because he felt that the fortress commander of Brest was competent to conduct his own independent defense. Nor did Fahrmbacher exercise control over the action developing around St. Malo; he had no way of doing so. Though the XXV Corps remained nominally in control of operations in Brittany, for all practical purposes it directed only the forces in Lorient and St. Nazaire. Subordination of the St. Nazaire garrison lasted only a brief time--until U.S. troops encircled and isolated both Lorient and St. Nazaire. Reduced to a nonessential role in Lorient, Fahrmbacher and his corps headquarters found an opportunity to assume real command status when the fortress commander of Lorient was injured around 10 August by a mine. Fahrmbacher then took his place and functioned in that capacity.
Appointing Fahrmbacher commander of the forces in Brittany thus had availed the Germans little. After the first few days of August there was no unified command. All the German troops who could, abandoned the interior and scurried into the fortresses, where they awaited the inevitable opening of siege operations.
A New Army
Behind the armored spearheads pushing into German-held territory was an Allied strength on the Continent that had almost reached organizational maturity. General Crerar's First Canadian Army had become operational under the control of General Montgomery's 21 Army Group on 23 July, and it was apparent then that General Patton's Third Army would soon have to become active. The build-up was fattening the First Army almost to unreasonable proportions, and the broad scope of OVERLORD operations foreshadowed the early need of a U.S. army group. If American troops entered Brittany and drove westward as contemplated, they would diverge from British, Canadian, and other U.S. forces oriented eastward toward the Seine. An American army group in control of the American thrusts eastward and westward would simplify problems of command control and logistics.11
As early as mid-July, when the plans for creating an American army group still were indefinite and American forces
were far from Brittany, the growing number of divisions under First Army control had prompted General Bradley to recommend (with Montgomery's concurrence) that the 12th Army Group and Third Army headquarters become operational as soon as COBRA was completed, regardless of the progress achieved in COBRA.12 Anticipating General Eisenhower's approval, Bradley informed Generals Hodges and Patton that the change in command would be made during the COBRA offensive and "without any appreciable halt in the attack provided everything is going well; . . . we will not halt the advance to reorganize."13 General Eisenhower approved Bradley's recommendation and authorized him to set the date for the change. At the same time he made clear his desire that Montgomery continue to act as the Allied ground forces commander until SHAEF moved to the Continent and he, Eisenhower, assumed personal command of the Allied ground forces.14
At noon, 1 August, as armored columns streamed beyond Pontaubault, the 12th Army Group, under General Bradley's command, became operational.15 General Hodges assumed command of the First U.S. Army, and General Patton's Third U.S. Army came to life.16
The most flamboyant personality in the Allied camp was without question General Patton. Commander of assault troops in the North African landings in November 1942, leader of the II Corps in Tunisia, organizer and commander of the Seventh U.S. Army in Sicily, Patton had been designated the Third Army commander in the spring of 1944. Intensely sensitive, at times overbearing, always temperamentally dramatic, a controversial figure recognized as one of the outstanding field commanders in the U.S. Army, Patton was able to exert "an extraordinary and ruthless driving power . . . at critical moments." He had "demonstrated [his] ability of getting the utmost out of soldiers in offensive operations."17
Closely associated with the development of tanks and armor doctrine, a cavalryman by temperament, tradition, and training, and at the same time a profound student of military history, General Patton typified the tenets of daring and dash. If he seemed to be reckless and impetuous, he was also bold and imaginative, favoring "a good plan violently executed now" rather than "a perfect plan next week." Like Napoleon, he believed that war was "a very simple thing." Its determining characteristics were "self-confidence, speed, and audacity."18 During the month of August, Patton and his army--whose
members modeled their behavior on that of their chief--were to find a situation perfectly suited to the expression of their principles of combat.19
Partially as a result of the personalities of the commanders, the headquarters of the First and Third Armies functioned in slightly different ways. The difference was evident only by comparison. The First Army tended to be more methodical and meticulous in staff work, and required more reports from subordinate units. More planning was committed to paper in the First Army, whereas informal briefings and conversations frequently sufficed in the Third. Yet in both armies the work of the staff members was neither underrated nor unappreciated. Long hours of patient staff work often preceded a daring decision or brought a brilliant idea to maturity and reality. The many anonymous staff officers who toiled in relative obscurity, not only on the army level but on all echelons of command, made it possible for the military leaders of World War II to direct the complex operations with such apparent ease.
To enhance the Fortitude deception--the Allied threat of a landing on the Pas-de-Calais--General Eisenhower forbade publicity on Patton's entrance into battle.20 The Germans were still being tricked into keeping a considerable number of their Fifteenth Army forces immobile because they were expecting Patton's appearance on the Continent outside Normandy. They could construe his unexplained absence only as signifying that another Allied invasion of western Europe would take place.21 The Germans knew that Patton had more combat experience than Bradley; they were conscious that he outranked Bradley in grade. Respecting Patton as a dangerous opponent, they logically expected the Allies to use him to head the main U.S. forces in western Europe, which evidently had not yet appeared.22
The Third Army arrived on the scene in the midst of an extremely fluid situation. By taking command of VIII Corps, which on 1 August was rapidly approaching Brittany, Patton assumed control of a going concern. Behind the front, XV Corps headquarters, which had arrived in France on 15 July, and XX Corps headquarters, which had arrived on 24 July, were ready for action. The XII Corps headquarters was staging the movement of Third Army units from England to the Continent and processing them from the beach forward; part of the headquarters reached Normandy on 29 July, the remainder on 7 August.23
To give close air support to the Third Army, Brig. Gen. Otto P. Weyland's XIX Tactical Air Command, which had been operating as part of the IX TAC, became operational. The transfer from England to France of the headquarters of the British Second Tactical Air Force and of the U.S. Ninth Air Force--moves scheduled to be completed in the first
week of August--complemented the establishment on the Continent of the two army group headquarters for the ground forces. When SHAEF displaced to France and the Supreme Commander assumed direct control of ground operations, Headquarters, AEAF, was also to move in order to facilitate co-ordination of ground and air operations.24
The OVERLORD plan had designated Brittany the stage for the Third Army's initial operations, which were expected to begin some time between two weeks and two months after the invasion. In Normandy since the early days of July, commanders and staffs of the Third Army and its components had despaired of performing within the original OVERLORD time limits. Suddenly, less than a week before the planned limit expired, they were ordered into Brittany.
The peninsula of Brittany was important to the Allies because of its ports: St. Malo, less than fifty miles west of Avranches; Brest, on the western extremity of the peninsula; Lorient and St. Nazaire, along the southern seashore; Nantes, fifty miles east of the Loire River mouth; and the many small harbors and beaches useful for discharging cargo. If Brittany could be captured, one of the basic requirements for the success of OVERLORD would be fulfilled: a continental port capacity sufficient to support the forces deemed necessary to defeat the Germans. Without the Breton ports, the Allies, particularly the Americans, could not hope to sustain the continental build-up projected by OVERLORD. As General Eisenhower stated it, "the ideal situation [would be] . . . to obtain the entire coastal area from Havre to Nantes, both inclusive. With such a broad avenue of entry we could [bring to the Continent] . . . every single soldier the United States could procure for us, and we would have . . . little interest in ANVIL."25 To gain a broad avenue of entry was a major Allied objective.
Planners originally had projected the capture of Brittany in two thrusts-seizure of Nantes and St. Nazaire, and a subsequent westward drive to secure Brest and the other harbors. Logistical planners doubted that the Breton ports could be used immediately after capture. The Germans had fortified the important ones, particularly Lorient, St. Nazaire, and Brest, which were naval bases for the underwater and surface raiders that attacked Allied shipping on the Atlantic, and they were certain to defend them with determination and destroy the facilities in the process. On this assumption, the Americans had decided to construct an entirely new port on the south coast of Brittany between Lorient and St. Nazaire, where the Quiberon peninsula shelters a curving bay from the Atlantic winds. There, four ports (including the not inconsiderable harbors of Vannes and Auray), an excellent rail and road network, hard beaches with gentle gradients, and sheltered anchorages for ocean-going vessels made the area attractive. Closer to the post-OVERLORD area of operations than Cherbourg and Brest, a port complex around Quiberon would obviate complete
dependence on the railway that linked Brest with the interior of France, a railroad the Germans would most probably have destroyed and one that would be difficult to repair. With the Allies in possession of Quiberon, it would not be necessary to rely so heavily on the original landing beaches in Normandy, which were expected to be useful only until autumn. Furthermore, protective bridgeheads south of the Loire River, the southern boundary of the OVERLORD lodgment area, would be needed in order to utilize Nantes and St. Nazaire, but would not be necessary for Quiberon Bay. On this basis, the Americans decided that instead of securing Nantes and St. Nazaire first, they would drive at once to seize the Quiberon area. As early as 13 May, the 1st Army Group had instructed the Third Army to prepare plans for this operation.26
Despite plans for using Quiberon Bay to handle large freight tonnages, the Allies were still interested in the major ports of Brittany, Brest in particular. Possession of Brest would enable personnel and vehicles coming directly from the United States to be landed there without waiting for the Quiberon complex to be built. Also, with Brest in Allied hands, convoys could sail around Brittany to the Quiberon Bay area without hindrance from German warships based at Brest. Although doubts had been expressed in July that the Allies could obtain the major ports quickly and although there appeared an increasing reluctance to undertake the complicated engineering necessary to utilize Quiberon, the Allies at the beginning of August still felt that they needed Brittany and its port facilities.27
Personalities and Concepts
It had long been planned to turn the VIII Corps westward into Brittany as soon as the Americans reached the base of the Cotentin at Avranches. In moving toward Rennes and St. Malo, VIII Corps was to precede other units of the Third Army, which would clear the "whole of the Brittany Peninsula."28 General Bradley thus ordered Patton to drive south from Pontaubault to seize Rennes and Fougeres, then turn westward to secure St. Malo, the Quiberon Bay area, Brest, and the remainder of Brittany, in that sequence. The Communications Zone was alerted to the task of opening and developing the ports of St. Malo, Quiberon Bay, and Brest as soon as possible after their capture.29
Before the invasion, it had been thought necessary to divert a sizable U.S. force to capture the Breton ports, and plans had been formed to deploy not
Generals Hodges, Bradley, and Patton discuss the drive through Brittany at General Bradley's headquarters, 17 August.
only the VIII Corps but also the XV, and possibly even the VII and XX.30 When German disorganization seemed so thorough, the opportunity of seizing Brittany with smaller forces became feasible.
Specifically, General Patton planned to drive southwest from Avranches through Rennes to Quiberon Bay in order to cut the Brittany peninsula near its base and prevent the reinforcement or escape of German forces thus isolated.
Next, he would clear Brittany by seizing the central plateau of the peninsula. In so doing, he would liberate a vast region of France, open interior lines of communication, and reduce the enemy defenses to isolated pockets along the coast. With the Germans penned into a few port cities, it would be relatively easy to force their capitulation. Once the ports were in American hands, the Third Army would be free to turn east, where the decisive battle of the European campaign would obviously be fought. Thus, Patton visualized his primary mission as clearing the peninsula, his incidental mission as securing Quiberon
Bay and Brest first and the other ports later, his eventual mission as driving eastward toward Paris and the Seine.31
Patton's method for securing Brittany was to unleash armored columns in the peninsula. The 4th Armored Division was to drive through Rennes to Quiberon. The 6th Armored Division was to go all the way to Brest. A third column, formed by activating a provisional unit called Task Force A under the command of Brig. Gen. Herbert L. Earnest, was to advance to Brest to secure the vital railroad that follows generally the north shore.32
If Brest was to prove of value as a port of entry, the double-track railway linking it to Rennes had to be in good condition. Since the railroad crosses several big bridges that can not be quickly or easily replaced or repaired, Task Force A was to capture the bridges before the Germans could demolish them. That Patton considered this an important mission was clear when he requested General Grow of the 6th Armored Division also to keep an eye out for the bridges along the railroad, particularly the one at Morlaix.33
Unlike General Bradley, General Patton considered the capture of St. Malo incidental to the entire Brittany campaign. He did not specifically assign it as an objective to any of his forces. And he apparently influenced Bradley to the extent that Bradley agreed St. Malo could be bypassed and contained if its reduction appeared to require too many forces and too much time.34
What emerged was a concept quite different from that which had governed operations in the Cotentin. Patton saw his immediate objectives far in advance of the front, for his intent was to slash forward and exploit not only the mobility and striking power of his armored divisions but also the German disorganization.35 Prone to give his subordinates free rein, Patton expected them to exercise independent judgment and tactical daring. Confident of the ability of armor to disrupt enemy rear areas and to sustain itself deep in enemy territory, and conscious of the weak and disorganized opposition, he felt that the ultimate objectives were immediately pertinent and attainable. There seemed little point in slowly reducing Brittany by carefully planned and thoroughly supervised operations unraveled in successive phases. As a result, Patton granted his subordinates a freedom of action that permitted the division commanders to be virtually independent.
With this concept of warfare that stressed taking advantage of the breaks, General Patton required constant knowledge of front-line changes. To get it,
he renamed the 6th Cavalry Group (Col. Edward M. Fickett) the Army Information Service and transformed it into a communications unit. A varying number of reconnaissance platoons (each usually with two officers, twenty-eight men, six armored cars, and six jeeps) formed into troops under two squadrons were to report the activities of combat units down through battalion size. The reconnaissance platoons were to funnel G-2 and G-3 information through troop headquarters to squadron and group. The latter would co-ordinate and condense the information into teletype messages and send it directly to the army advance command post. Known as Patton's "Household Cavalry" and required to bypass normal communications channels, the 6th Cavalry Group was to provide a means of contact between far-flung forces engaged in diverse missions and the army command post, which was sometimes to be as much as a hundred miles behind the front.36 It thus happened on occasion that, though corps and divisions monitored the messages, the army staff was better informed on a particular situation than the corps directing the operation.
In Brittany, the corps commander in immediate charge of operations, General Middleton, methodical and meticulous, found himself in a whirlwind that threatened to upset his ideas of orderly and controlled progress. The transfer of VIII Corps from First to Third Army brought changes in staff procedures, communications, and supply, but these were minor problems when compared to the exigencies that emerged in rapid succession as a result of the change from the positional hedgerow warfare in the Cotentin to wide-open exploitation in Brittany.
General Middleton's plans for Brittany grew out of the premises that had governed the action in the Cotentin: orderly advances were to be made to specific objectives by units developing a compact fighting front. In conformance with this manner of operation, he planned to send two columns into Brittany--two armored divisions abreast, each followed by an infantry division--the same formation employed so successfully during the post-COBRA exploitation to Avranches. The 4th Armored Division, followed by the 8th Division, was to move southwest from Pontaubault and capture Rennes; the 6th Armored Division, supported by the 79th Division, was to strike westward from Pontaubault and seize in turn Pontorson, Dol-de-Bretagne, and Dinan. Once these objectives were secured, General Middleton would send his columns on to Quiberon and St. Malo, respectively. St. Malo, Middleton believed, was his "immediate task" in Brittany.37
The commanders who were to lead the spearheads into Brittany regarded themselves as belonging to the Patton school of thought. They seized upon the situation of exploitation with relish. Generals Grow and Earnest, who were
to pass near St. Malo, for example, made no plans to capture the city, Earnest going so far as to tell his staff, with some exaggeration, that they would go by it without even looking at it.38
Generals Wood and Grow in particular felt toward General Patton, who, like them, was a tank officer, an affinity they could not feel toward General Middleton, bred in the infantry. They were convinced they understood better what Patton expected. Their units had been relatively untouched by the depressing combat in the hedgerows and had not sustained the heavy losses that were normal in the Cotentin. Having thrust victoriously to Avranches in the last days of July, they believed they had accomplished what other units had not been able to do. Having led the U.S. forces from the breakthrough into the breakout, the division commanders and their units became infected with an enthusiasm and a self-confidence that were perfectly suited to exploitation but proved to be a headache to those who sought to retain a semblance of control. A naturally headstrong crew became rambunctious in Brittany.
Control was one of the major problems of the Brittany campaign, and distance added to the problem. The VIII Corps command post was located north of Avranches, and General Middleton was able to displace forward to a point several miles south of that city only on 4 August. By then the combat components of the corps were scattered, out of sight and virtually out of hearing.
Although Middleton wanted to move his command post into Brittany and closer to his far-flung units, the Third Army staff was most anxious for him not to displace the corps headquarters beyond the limited range of field telephones. Middleton complied. Communications between the army and the corps headquarters thus remained satisfactory, but this state of affairs was not duplicated below the corps level. As early as 2 August, General Middleton remarked that contact with the armored divisions was "practically nil."39
With the corps units stretched over a vast area and moving rapidly, signal communications broke down almost completely. "The expensive signal equipment at the disposal of the Corps," General Middleton later wrote, "was never designed apparently for a penetration and pursuit of the magnitude of the Brittany operation."40 It was impossible to install or maintain wire communications over such distances. During the night of 3 August, the few corps signal lines to forward units that did exist were bombed out by German planes, as were the wires to the army headquarters. For about eight hours, while the lines were being repaired, the corps headquarters existed in a virtual vacuum, able to exercise only the most limited influence on operations.41
Although communications with both armored divisions were strained, they were particularly weak in the case of the 6th Armored Division, which had disappeared
in a cloud of dust on the roads to Brest. Since Signal personnel were unable to lay telephone cables fast enough and far enough, the division depended to a large extent on the high-powered SCR-399 long-distance radio, which proved unsatisfactory. As many as eight different transmitters working on the assigned corps frequency were often heard at the same time. With the corps radio communications net so jammed and signals so faint because of distance, the division had to wait for radio time. Often a code group had to be repeated six to ten times to insure accurate reception.42
A corps cable teletype team had been attached to the 6th Armored Division in the Cotentin, but it had been unable to keep up with the rapid advance and was replaced in Brittany by a radio teletype team using very high frequency beam antenna equipment. The new team was instructed to beam its equipment on a prominent hill near Avranches, where the corps expected to place a receiving station on 1 August. Because the enemy still was ensconced on the hill and because German planes were attacking U.S. troops and installations in the Avranches area, the corps Signal section set up its receiving station near Brehal instead. Without knowledge of the change of location, the division radio teletype team beamed on the wrong place. Had the distance between sender and receiver been shorter, the correct location would have easily been found, but beyond fifty miles the equipment was unreliable, and contact was not established for several days.43
With radio teletype nonoperational, with high-power radio erratic, and with wire and cable lacking, communications devolved upon messengers who traveled long distances by jeep. Sometimes a round trip between division and corps headquarters took the better part of a day. Messengers were excellent targets for bypassed enemy groups and individual snipers in the far-reaching no man's land between the corps and division command posts, and they had to have ingenuity, patience, and luck. An officer courier, Capt. Hans H. Marechal, who started from the VIII Corps command post for the 6th Armored Division headquarters about noon one day proceeded through Antrain and beyond Loudeac until French civilians warned him that several hundred Germans with a few tanks still held a town ahead. Detouring south to Pontivy, the captain met and joined a convoy of gasoline trucks going to the division. A destroyed bridge caused another change in route. At the town where the division command post had last been reported, Marechal learned from civilians that the division had moved on to another town. Eventually, he found a solitary military policeman who was awaiting the arrival of the division trains. The convoy halted, but Marechal continued alone in search of the division command post. Another reported pocket of enemy forced another detour, and then he was "off the map." Noticing tank tracks in the road, he followed them and reached the
armored division command post nine hours after he had departed the corps headquarters. Returning by the same route early the following day, Marechal discovered that Germans drifting across Brittany to find refuge in the port cities made the roads hazardous for single American vehicles. Fortunately, civilians warned him in time of hostile groups, and he regained the corps command post twenty-four hours after he had left. An enlisted man of the 6th Armored Division, who often carried messages to the corps though unable to read or write or follow a map, returned to the division on one occasion after a two-day trip--with a bullet in his back and two captured Germans on the hood of the jeep he was still driving.44
The hazardous journeys to supply information between corps and divisions were often futile, since situations changed so rapidly that the messages were frequently out of date by the time they were delivered.45 The division artillery observation planes might have been used for liaison and thus have provided a faster means of communications but, in the case of the 6th Armored Division at least, most of the planes were out of action. Rough landing fields in Normandy and enemy fire had accounted for most of the casualties. The absence of landing strips in Brittany--because the fast-moving division lacked time to clear landing fields--kept the corps artillery observation planes grounded.46
Patton's Household Cavalry provided an additional channel of communications. One armored car with a high-powered SCR-506 radio, as well as several armored jeeps, accompanied each armored division. The radio car possessed choice and workable frequencies, and the armored jeeps, often entrusted with situation reports, were able to shoot their way through small roadblocks. Even though the cavalrymen were burdened with their own radio traffic and could absorb only a small part of the division communications, they sometimes relayed division messages.
Because of all these difficulties, the interval between the sending of a message and the receipt of its acknowledgment from the addressee usually exceeded thirty-six hours.47 Before the end of the first week in August, the 6th Armored Division was about 150 miles west of Avranches. It was so far away from the corps that Middleton advised Patton that he had practically no control and little knowledge of the division operation, and thus virtually denied responsibility for the division activities. "This headquarters" he wrote, "has made repeated attempts to establish radio contact with the 6th Armored Division without success. A special messenger was dispatched . . . but his time of arrival cannot be stated. This headquarters will continue efforts to establish radio contact. . . ."48
In the face of these difficulties, confusion and misunderstanding were inevitable. Having outrun communications
in the interest of exploitation, the division commanders found it difficult to understand why their messages to corps were apparently being ignored, why they received so little assistance and guidance. Needing to react quickly to fast-changing situations, they could hardly wait for orders, which might be out of date by the time they arrived. As General Wood, the 4th Armored Division commander, later recalled, "The situation at the time was . . . extremely fluid. I had to make decisions on my own responsibility, since there were no orders from higher authority. Of course, everything went 'according to plan,' but at that time no one in the higher circles had [yet] discovered just how . . . the plan [fitted] . . . the events. . . . We were moving on our own. We could not wait for directions or objectives to be passed down from higher authority."49
Supplies were secured on the basis of expediency. Because of the development of the main stream of the European campaign outside Brittany, the VIII Corps was semi-independent. A tactical headquarters, it had to assume certain administrative and logistical responsibilities. Permanent supply dumps were out of the question because the breakthrough had never stopped. "Within a couple of days [we] were passing out rations like Santa Claus on his sleigh, with both giver and receiver on the move. . . . The trucks were like a band of stage-coaches making a run through Indian country. We got used to keeping the wheels going, disregarding the snipers, and hoping we wouldn't get lost or hit."50 Supply depots remained north of Avranches during the early part of the month, and gasoline and ammunition convoys added to traffic complications in the Avranches bottleneck. Convoys had to have armed escorts because of hostile pockets along the lines of communication in Brittany. At first, 40-mm. antiaircraft batteries were used for escort duty. Later in the month the 54th Antiaircraft Brigade assumed the task of guarding the supply routes with the aid of members of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI).
The FFI in Brittany was a sizable force numbering about 20,000 armed members.51 During July preparations had been made in London to activate a unified command to direct this large and dispersed but potentially strong underground force. General Koenig had designated Col. Albert M. Eon as the commander of all the FFI in Brittany and had taken him to visit General Montgomery's 21 Army Group headquarters in Normandy, where the army group chief of staff, Major-General Sir Francis de Guingand, had briefed both French officers on future operations. The French leaders learned that the
Americans planned to penetrate Brittany along two principal axes--Dinan-Brest, and Avranches-Rennes-Redon--and they hoped to be of assistance.
The Allies had planned to promote intensified FFI activities in Brittany only after trained guerrilla leaders, arms, ammunition, and supplies had been dropped into the area. This program was to have been completed about the time U.S. troops made their appearance on the peninsula, but American exploitation was so rapid that the FFI had to begin operating before the program could be fully realized.
General Bradley's 12th Army Group assumed command of the FFI in Brittany on 29 July and placed it under the control of the Third Army. Plans were made to parachute a small reconnaissance party into Brittany during the night of 2 August to establish a command post for Colonel Eon, but poor weather conditions forced cancellation of the drop. On 3 August the British Broadcasting Corporation radioed a coded message to the FFI in Brittany to begin general guerrilla activities short of open warfare. Because American troops had already sped beyond Dinan and Rennes by 4 August, General Koenig requested Colonel Eon to parachute into Brittany with his staff, take command of Resistance operations at once, and assume an initial mission of seizing and securing high ground north of Vannes in the Quiberon Bay area. Although some French officers, including Eon, had had no jump experience, the command group parachuted into Brittany during the night of 4 August. At the same time, 150 men were dropped in the Morlaix area to seize and preserve the railroad trestle bridges there. On the following night, ten American gliders towed by British aircraft were landed between Vannes and Lorient to bring in armored jeeps, weapons, and ammunition to support local FFI troops who were ready to take the Vannes airfield. On 6 August the FFI command made contact with a U.S. armored patrol and learned that the Americans, with the assistance of local French Resistance groups, had already cleared a large part of the peninsula.52
The weather had turned hot and dry in August, and mechanized columns raised clouds of grit and dust as they drove over the sun-baked earth. Sun glasses became precious possessions, goggles a necessity. Overhead, the clear weather gave perfect visibility for Allied fighter-bombers.
As fluid as the situation was to become in Brittany, the immediate preliminary to it was quite the opposite. Getting troops out of Normandy and into Brittany was a difficult problem. In the coastal sector of the Cotentin there were only two main highways running southward, and debris, dead animals, and wrecked vehicles, as well as mines, obstructed traffic, while destroyed villages and damaged towns blocked it. Bulldozers had had to clear lanes through rubble in some places--particularly in Avranches --before normal military traffic could pass. Convergence of the two highways at Coutances and again at Avranches posed additional
difficulties. Engineers constructed a cutoff at Coutances to keep traffic moving along both routes and opened a subsidiary road from Avranches to Pontaubault. Pontaubault was the most critical traffic point of all, for through that village had to be funnelled all the vehicles moving into Brittany. Establishing traffic priorities and assuring compliance with them required perseverance and patience as well as attention to detail. Task Force A was given three hours to move its 3,500 men through the Avranches-Pontaubault bottleneck; it was to arrive in Avranches "precisely at 0200, 3 August, not before" and was to clear Pontaubault exactly by 0500. "Still spending most of my time as a traffic cop," wrote a division commander. It was not unusual to see high ranking officers acting as military policemen at critical traffic points, but the payoff was the feat of getting two armored divisions into Brittany in less than forty-eight hours.53
Several bridges over the Sée and the Sélune Rivers, the road approaches to these crossing sites, and the dams nearby were of extreme importance. During the first few days of August the German Air Force appeared in relative strength over the Cotentin in a belated effort to block by bombardment the American entrance into Brittany. Antiaircraft protection, a matter of small importance during July, became a vital adjunct of the breakout and exploitation. Gun crews, enthusiastic that they had an opportunity at last to participate in action against the enemy, shot down more than a score of planes around Avranches during the first week of August.
Though operations in Brittany later diminished in importance, the prospect of success at the beginning of August led to high expectations. Normandy had been slow and painful; Brittany appeared to be fast and exhilarating. Beyond the initial physical obstructions at Avranches, one fact shone brightly: the Germans had little with which to oppose the exploitation of the breakout into Brittany.54 Confusion of purpose and method on the American side, which was to mar the breakout, stemmed from the abruptness of the change from static to mobile warfare and from the contrasting personalities of the leaders involved. With fluidity the overriding condition, the Americans broke out of the Cotentin into the relative freedom of a war of movement in Brittany, a difference that seemed to be symbolized by the man of the hour, General Patton.
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