While the 4th Armored Division was performing its feats in Brittany, the 6th Armored Division also was executing a spectacular movement. On the afternoon of 31 July the VIII Corps commander, General Middleton, ordered General Grow's division to relieve the 4th Armored Division's CCA in the Selune River bridgehead at Pontaubault. (See Map VIII.)
Convinced that exploitation beyond Pontaubault was in order, but not knowing whether Middleton intended to move at once into Brittany or to consolidate his forces first at the base of the Cotentin, Grow asked Middleton whether the 6th Armored Division was to go beyond Pontaubault immediately. The answer was no. Satisfied that a day or two would pass (while other units of the corps arrived at Avranches) before the exploitation commenced, Grow dispatched Combat Command R (CCR), commanded by Col. Harry F. Hanson, to outpost the Pontaubault bridgehead.1
In armored division practice, CCR was often considered more suitable for defensive than for offensive missions, primarily because it had less command tanks, radio equipment, and personnel than the other combat commands. By sending CCR ahead, General Grow indicated his intention to pass Combat Commands A and B through CCR at Pontaubault whenever he renewed the offensive. However, CCR was just moving forward when Grow received word-shortly before dawn, 1 August--to proceed at once through Pontaubault and move westward into Brittany through
Pontorson and Dol-de-Bretagne to Dinan.2
Though General Grow's first impulse was to commit either CCA or CCB through CCR at once, the wreckage and rubble in Avranches and the existence of only one road to Pontaubault discouraged such action. As division military police took control of the routes through Avranches, as bulldozers worked to clear lanes for traffic, and as CCR moved to Pontaubault, Grow ordered Colonel Hanson to continue ten miles beyond Pontaubault to Pontorson. There, with the entire division through the Avranches bottleneck, Grow would pass the other combat commands through CCR for the westward advance into Brittany. Middleton visited Grow early on 1 August and approved the plans.
Several hours after Middleton's visit, as Grow was supervising the flow of traffic at a critical crossroads, General Patton arrived. Patton told Grow that he had wagered General Montgomery five pounds that U.S. troops would be in Brest "by Saturday night." Putting his hand on Grow's shoulder, Patton said, "Take Brest." To Grow's question on intermediate objectives, Patton indicated his interest in the Brest-Rennes railroad and instructed him to bypass resistance. The latter point was particularly satisfying. "That's all I want to know," Grow said. The corps objective, Dinan, was no longer valid.
To some, it might have seemed like madness to think of reaching Brest--more than two hundred miles west of Avranches--in five days; but General Grow was delighted. He had "received a cavalry mission from a cavalryman." While serving years before as Patton's G-3, Grow had planned comparable operations for peacetime maneuvers. "It was what we had spent years studying and training for," he later recalled.
Giving armored forces seemingly impossible goals to keep commanders looking beyond the ends of their noses was not unusual for Patton. His dramatic words "Take Brest," and his ignoring of intermediate geographical objectives, clearly defined his intent to exploit through the entire length of the Brittany peninsula. The faster the exploiting force went, the greater would be its effect. If the exploitation culminated in capture of Brest, the operation would be perfect. The ultimate objective became the immediate goal. Even though it was perhaps hardly feasible to expect a solitary division to drive two hundred miles into enemy territory and single-handedly capture a fortress of unknown strength, it was exactly what General Grow set out to do.
The fragmentary corps order that Grow had received before dawn of 1 August contained a hastily sketched overlay showing a temporary boundary line between the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions and a short arrow on each side pointing hazily into the Brittany peninsula. Later that day, as Middleton changed the 6th Armored Division objective from Dinan to Brest, he indicated two general routes as a guide for the division's movement. He also gave the division the 174th Field Artillery Battalion (155-mm. self-propelled guns), which complemented the normal attachments
Pontaubault Bridge over the Selune River,one of the few bridges left intact by retreating Germans.
the 603d Tank Destroyer Battalion, and the 777th Antiaircraft Artillery (Automatic Weapons) Battalion.3
Before General Grow could concentrate on his final objective, he had to move his division through Avranches and into Brittany and get his troops organized into two parallel columns poised for offensive action.4
Getting through the Avranches bottleneck was no mean achievement. On both 1 and 2 August German planes strafed the columns and tried to knock out critical bridges, while all the combat commands and the division trains had to use the lone available highway toward Brittany. During one forty-hour period, the 777th Antiaircraft Battalion knocked out eighteen of forty enemy planes that appeared over Avranches and Pontaubault.
Beyond the bottleneck, the first terrain obstacle where the enemy might logically be expected to defend was the Couesnon River, the border of Brittany. Suspecting that the enemy would attempt to deny the crossing at Pontorson, General Grow split his division into two columns immediately south of Pontaubault, sending Hanson's CCR to Pontorson and Taylor's CCA south-westward to the Couesnon crossing at Antrain, seven miles south of Pontorson. Read's CCB followed CCR. Once across the Couesnon at Pontorson and Antrain, CCB might pass through CCR on the morning of 2 August, whereupon the 6th Armored Division would have
two combat command columns ready for the westward drive along the backbone of t he Brittany peninsula to Brest.
Because of the lack of contact with the enemy and the fluidity of the general situation, the 6th Armored Division G-2 hazarded no guess on enemy capabilities or intentions. He nevertheless provided an accurate enemy order of battle in Brittany: the 2d Parachute Division, likely to be in the St. Malo area; regimental combat teams of the 265th, 266th, and 275th Infantry Divisions, dispersed in the peninsula; and the 343d Infantry Division, probably in Brest. The G-2 refrained from estimating the strength of the units except to assert that they were undoubtedly below table of organization authorizations.5
Leading the division on 1 August, CCR drove westward toward Pontorson. Six miles beyond Pontaubault, near Bree, the advance guard--a company each of tanks and infantry and a battery of artillery, moving in that order--was almost through a defile when the enemy opened fire on the rear of the column with artillery, mortars, bazookas, and small arms from well-camouflaged positions overlooking the road. Three self-propelled artillery pieces were destroyed at once. As armored infantrymen and tanks deployed to engage the enemy, Hanson radioed Grow that he was going to attack rearward with the advance guard and squeeze the enemy against the approaching main body of CCR. Unwilling to be diverted from securing the river crossing at Pontorson, Grow radioed Hanson to keep moving, to leave the opposition entirely to the main body. The principal force of CCR subsequently eliminated the position in a three-hour engagement, sustained seventy casualties, destroyed several pieces of German horse-drawn field artillery, knocked out an 88-mm. gun, and captured nearly a hundred prisoners. Sgt. John L. Morton of Battery A, 231st Field Artillery Battalion, alone killed thirty Germans with a carbine and submachine gun.6
Meanwhile, the advance guard had taken Pontorson, captured a bridge across the Couesnon intact, and established a bridgehead inside Brittany. "Mission accomplished," Hanson radioed. "Have had considerable casualties, wounded and dead. Am short of ammunition, gas, and water. Will not be able to go on without help. Am holding bridgehead for the night." Though this report revealed something less than unbridled optimism, it was enough to justify preparing CCB to pass through to continue the attack. In the meantime, Taylor's CCA had been securing the Antrain crossing uncontested.7
Sunrise, 2 August, found the division in the clear, "with no boundaries to worry about, no definite enemy information, in fact nothing but a map of Brittany and the knowledge that resistance was where you found it." General Grow felt he "owned all roads in Brittany," and he could go where he pleased as long as he drove toward Brest.
Taylor's CCA moved westward from Antrain through Combourg and Bécherel
almost to Quédilliac, a distance of nearly thirty-five miles. Nowhere did the command meet organized resistance. Read's CCB passed through CCR at Pontorson and avoided Dol-de-Bretagne, but ran into opposition on the outskirts of Dinan. Because a captured overlay showed the Dinan defenses to be strong, Grow instructed Read to bypass Dinan on the south and continue westward.8 By the time Grow's message arrived, some of CCB was already fighting at Dinan. When several unexpected fighter-bombers appeared overhead, Read requested the pilots to bomb and strafe Dinan to mask a withdrawal. While the planes attacked and armored artillery fired on the town, CCB backtracked, moved southwestward, and halted for the night near Bécherel, about thirty miles west of Pontorson. In keeping with the maxim of reinforcing success, Grow had earlier switched CCR to follow CCA, which had met no resistance.
Late on the night of 2 August, General Grow conferred with his major commanders and staff to consider the problems that faced them. Though the division was well into Brittany and deployed for action, certain deficiencies already threatened continued progress. There were no well-established lines of communication or supply, and German planes over Avranches threatened to delay the division trains. The 79th Division, scheduled to follow the armor, had been diverted to the east, and no infantry was available at the moment to take its place. Though the 83d Division might eventually move into Brittany, it would require a minimum of several days to catch up with the armored division. Finally, no one knew what to expect from the enemy, who had offered such varying opposition as the scattered resistance west of Antrain, the strong defense of Dinan, and the roadside ambush near Brée.9 In view of these facts, the question was to determine how the 6th Armored Division might best perform its mission.
The division chief of staff cautioned against driving wildly through Brittany, recommended establishing firm bases of supply, and advised that the division should be kept consolidated and advancing in a relatively compact mass for security. General Grow dismissed these suggestions with the statement that he didn't have time to go slow--he had to get to Brest.
This announcement provoked several gasps of astonishment. Ignorant of Patton's verbal order to Grow and not yet in receipt of the corps order changing the division objective, Grow's subordinates had not thought much beyond Evran and Dinan on the Rance River, twenty-five miles west of the Couesnon. With Brest suddenly revealed as the objective, the entire operation took on new significance. The prospect of a single division driving more than two hundred miles through enemy territory was at once exciting and sobering.10
So pronounced was the fatigue of the
staff officers and commanders (some fell asleep during the conference) that Grow postponed the advance until noon of 3 August. The delay not only would permit several additional hours of rest but also would enable the cavalry reconnaissance squadron to take its proper place at the front and on the flanks of the columns, a procedure impossible to this point because of the speed of the commitment into Brittany and the traffic congestion near Avranches.
The division shoved off at noon, 3 August, with the cavalry troops where they belonged. Taylor's CCA drove fifteen miles to the west, missed a turn at a crossroads, and ran into organized resistance near Mauron. Deciding that it would be more difficult to reverse direction in order to regain the correct route, Taylor attacked to eliminate an estimated enemy force of 250 men so that he could reach his original route of advance by side roads. After a three-hour fire fight, the Mauron defenses were reduced.
Meanwhile, Read's CCB drove west from Bécherel, detoured several miles to the north to avoid the tail of CCA at Mauron, and gave impetus to the attempts of a small group of Germans near Broons to flee. After having moved virtually unopposed for more than thirty miles that day, CCB received an inexplicable order to halt, an order doubly incomprehensible since Grow had that day switched CCR onto CCB's trail.
The explanation lay in word from General Middleton, who had radioed General Grow, "Do not bypass Dinan and St. Malo. Message follows by courier."11 The messenger from corps reached Grow, who was observing Taylor's attack at Mauron, and handed him a penciled note on a sheet of scratch paper. "Protect your front," Middleton instructed, "and concentrate so that we can move in on St. Malo tomorrow." Middleton had decided that he needed to take St. Malo at once. General Earnest's Task Force A and a portion of General Macon's 83d Division were in the St. Malo area; General Grow was to take command of these forces, add the weight of his 6th Armored Division, and launch a co-ordinated attack on the port city.12
General Grow's reactions were conflicting. How was he going to get to Brest by Saturday if he was diverted to Dinan and St. Malo? He first protested the corps order by radio and by officer courier and requested reconsideration of the changed mission. He then obeyed. "Mission changed," he radioed his chief of staff. CCA was to assemble near Mauron. CCB was to turn north to outflank Dinan, and CCR was to be ready to move north against Dinan.13 Unable to reach CCB by radio, Grow pursued the combat command in his armored car. Although he toyed with the idea of letting CCB continue westward alone, he decided that this would violate the spirit of the corps order.
After stopping CCB several miles short of Loudéac, General Grow changed his scheme of maneuver. On the chance that Middleton might accede to his request
and rescind the diversion to Dinan, Grow determined to keep CCB where it was, ahead of the division and on the road to Brest. Since the CCA headquarters was closer to Dinan and since an excellent highway led northward for thirty miles from Mauron to Dinan, Grow formed a special task force from CCR troops, placed Taylor's CCA headquarters in command of it, and sent it north toward the new objective.14
The officer courier who had gone to the corps headquarters to request reconsideration of the changed mission returned late that night and reported, "The answer was no." The disappointment at the division headquarters was so bitter that the G-3 section published the "Results of Operations" as "None."15
The division headquarters on the morning of 4 August was developing an attack plan for action against Dinan when, around 1100, General Patton arrived unannounced at a wheat field near Merdrignac where the headquarters was located.16 General Grow, who had just come out of his tent, saw the army commander's jeep turn into the field and was pleasantly surprised. The division chief of staff, who was walking across the field toward General Grow, was nearby when Patton got out of his jeep. The division G-3 emerged from his operations tent in time to hear Patton's first words.
The army commander appeared to be controlling an outburst of anger with difficulty.
"What in hell are you doing setting here?" he demanded of General Grow. "I thought I told you to go to Brest."
Grow explained that his advance had been halted.
"On what authority?" Patton rasped.
"Corps order, sir," Grow said.
The division chief of staff had already put his hand into the pocket of his shirt. Grow had given him the note he had received from Middleton and had asked him to get it into the division message file. The chief of staff still had it in his pocket. He handed it to Patton.
The three officers watched Patton read Middleton's note. When he finished, he folded the paper and put it into his pants pocket. "And he was a good doughboy, too," Patton said quietly as though talking to himself. Then he looked at Grow. "I'll see Middleton," he said. "You go ahead Where I told you to go."
One hundred miles east of the 6th Armored Division, the VIII Corps headquarters, toiling under the handicap of its communications problem with the divisions, was only vaguely aware of developments at the front.
On 2 August, when Grow had ordered his northern column (CCB) to bypass Dinan, he had notified the corps of his action. The corps noted that the armored division "pursuant to verbal orders Army Commander bypassed Dinan and is proceeding S and W." Later, news came that contingents of the division were in Dinan. Apparently on the basis of this information, the Third Army believed that the division had "passed through Dinan." When General
Earnest's Task Force A encountered enemy tanks and infantry near Dinan on the following morning (3 August), it was reasonable for Middleton--who believed that the 6th Armored Division had been through there on the previous evening and consequently could not be far away--to order Grow to "assist Task Force A at that point." As indications of enemy build-up in the Dinan--St. Malo region increased, Middleton began to experience a growing uneasiness. Though the 83d Division had begun to advance toward Pontorson, it could not possibly get there for another day. Learning that the 6th Armored Division had in reality bypassed Dinan, Middleton diverted it from its Brest run. His explanation: "We are getting too strung out. We must take Dinan and St. Malo before we can proceed."17 What appeared unreasonable to Grow was reasonable from Middleton's point of view.
Later on 3 August, when the pilot of a light artillery plane reported the locations of the 6th Armored Division columns, General Middleton realized that the armor had advanced much farther beyond Dinan than he had thought. When he learned of the imminent arrival of infantry troops in the Dinan-St. Malo sector, he changed his message to Grow from an order to a request. "Task Force 'A' and 83d Division will attack St. Malo tomorrow," he radioed Grow. "Can you participate with one combat command . . .?" Later that evening Middleton withdrew even this request. "I wanted you to assist in capture of St. Malo," he informed General Grow. "However it is apparent that your advance precludes this. . . . Continue your original mission."18
Shortly after midnight, when the Third Army G-3 telephoned to ask whether the 6th Armored Division had really been diverted toward St. Malo, the VIII Corps G-3 assured the caller that the division was proceeding toward Brest. The assurance was wishful. The corps had had only the briefest of contacts was with the division when the division courier had arrived to transmit General Grow's request for reconsideration of his mission. But the courier had departed hastily without learning that the original mission was again in force. Since then no word had come from the division, no acknowledgment of the restoration of the old mission, no information on General Grow's intentions or activities. Several hours after daylight, 4 August, a message finally came. "Urgently recommend no change in division mission [toward Brest]," General Grow had radioed the previous evening. "Both of my commands far beyond St. Malo. . . . would take another day to attack Dinan from west."19
The corps tried again. "Proceed on original mission toward Brest," Middle-ton radioed. Soon afterwards the corps received another message from the division, but it was no acknowledgment. "[Original] Mission changed," read the
message that General Grow had wired twelve hours earlier, "preparations being made for new mission [toward Dinan and St. Malo]." By this time, Patton's Household Cavalry was frantically trying to relay the corps order authorizing the division to continue toward Brest. Not until early that afternoon did the corps at last hear that Grow was in receipt of authority to continue on his original mission. Middleton then notified the troops in the Dinan-St. Malo sector that the armored division would not participate in the action there.20
Resolving the temporary confusion did not solve the problem of communications. On the contrary, as the 6th Armored Division plunged farther westward into Brittany, the problem became more acute.21 On the night of 4 August Middleton received a clear indication of Grow's progress. The division commander requested all pertinent data on the Brest defenses, he needed a ground pilot who could guide the division into the city, and he wanted the air force to refrain from destroying the bridges between him and his objective. Later, Grow radioed that he needed additional air support and sixty feet of Bailey bridging, that members of the FFI had assured him they would clear the approaches to Brest for the division, and, finally, "We expect to be in Brest tonight." Whether Grow meant the night of 4 or of 5 August was not clear. Still later, Grow reported that he was actually moving against his objective.22 These fragmentary pieces of information hardly gave corps headquarters a clear picture of the situation. Periodic progress reports took thirty-six hours to get from the division to the corps command post and were out of date when they arrived.
Suspense at corps was not resolved on the morning of 6 August when the next message from Grow arrived. The division commander reported simply that enemy groups in the rear were making supply operations extremely difficult. "If additional troops are not furnished to keep supply routes open," he stated, "division must live off the country which cannot furnish gasoline or ammunition. Air support essential but ground security is equally essential at once."23
Although Middleton restrained his intense concern regarding the whereabouts of the armor, General Patton could not. Patton asked the XIX Tactical Air Command to get some fighter-bombers over Brest and find out what was happening. Specifically, he wanted to know where the 6th Armored Division was and whether it could take Brest without assistance. Also, the pilots were to tell Grow that if there was any possibility at all of taking the port city without infantry reinforcement, he was to do so at once. At the same time, Patton instructed his Household Cavalry to get busy and tell him whether Brest had or had not been taken.24
It was not long before the Household Cavalry announced, "Brest is ours." Not long afterwards came the correction, "Brest was not ours," and it would "probably not fall until tomorrow."25 His patience gone, Middleton rapped out a message to Grow. "This headquarters has no information as to your present positions," he wrote. "Radio this headquarters at once."26
But communications difficulties precluded the regular flow of information. Corps could only guess what was happening. Estimates of enemy intentions were vaguely optimistic but of little real value. The corps G-2 reasoned that, considering the highly disorganized state of the enemy, the disruption of German supply operations, the lack of reserves, and the growing activity of the FFI, the Germans in Brittany could do no more than offer a "spotty and sporadic [delaying action] culminating in a short token defense of the city of Brest."27 Whether this was true or false, whether the 6th Armored Division was inside Brest or still outside, whether it was heavily engaged, in danger of being destroyed and needful of help, or having an easy time taking and securing the port were vital questions that could not be answered until word came from General Grow.
On the other hand, it seemed to corps that the strong fortifications known to exist around Brest would make the effort of a single armored division seem like the impact of an insect against the shell of a turtle. After a conference with Patton, Middleton radioed Grow to develop the situation wherever he was, whether "in front of or in Brest." If Grow could not capture and secure Brest without help, Middleton wrote,
. . . then we will reinforce you with the necessary force. As for me, I do not want you to become too involved so that you cannot take care of yourself. However, I feel that the situation at Brest should be clarified before [additional] troops are sent. Furthermore, at this time no one can say what should be sent. . . . While supply and evacuation is an Army function, yet if I can assist you in these matters do not hesitate to call.28
After that there was little for Middleton to do except to wait and hope for the best.
In the wheat field near Merdrignac, near noon on 4 August, Patton's unexpected arrival at the 6th Armored Division command post had virtually coincided with the receipt of corps permission for the division to continue toward Brest.29 It did not take long for General Grow to flash the news to all subordinate commands: "Division proceeds at once on original mission to Brest. Dinan will not (repeat not) be attacked."30 Assured that all units had received the re-orientation westward, Grow wired Middleton that he would move early that afternoon.31 Actually, however, it took the division most of the afternoon to get ready. The effect
of the abortive diversion toward Dinan was to delay the thrust on Brest almost a day.
While the division made preparations, Patton told Grow that he had come for three reasons: he had wanted to see how the unit was functioning, he had some information to impart, and he wanted to discuss supply, particularly gasoline. He admitted that he was pleasantly surprised to find the division so far into Brittany.32 He revealed that the division would have no infantry support until later since the 83d Division would have to knock out St. Malo before proceeding to Brest. Finally, he said he was planning to send gas forward for the division on the following day and asked where Grow wanted it delivered. Looking at the map, Grow selected the town of Pontivy, twenty-five miles west of the leading division troops. The army commander was momentarily startled. Designating a supply point ahead of the combat troops rather than behind them indicated that Grow intended to advance so fast and so far that Pontivy by the following day would be a rear area suitable for a supply dump. Patton grinned. "You'll get your gas there," he promised.
Because destroyed bridges and mined fords near Loudéac and Pontivy temporarily delayed the parallel armored columns early on the evening of 4 August, General Grow took advantage of a full moon and clear weather to order a night march. There was no opposition. Members of the FFI became bolder and not only acted as guides and information agents but also harassed and hurried the departure of small German garrisons from the interior towns.
Learning from the FFI that about two thousand German paratroopers had destroyed the bridges at Carhaix and were preparing to defend there, General Grow ordered the columns to bypass that town on north and south. Avoiding entanglement there on the morning of 5 August, both columns drove toward Huelgoat, less than forty air miles from Brest. As it began to seem likely that the division would be in the port city by nightfall and win General Patton's wager with Montgomery, about five hundred Germans with artillery and tanks stopped the advance near Huelgoat. Mined defiles, heavily wooded areas, and the presence of Germans in good defensive positions forced the division into an engagement that lasted several hours.33 The units finally cleared the enemy and prepared for what was hoped would be the final dash to Brest.
Pursuing interior routes and piloting his columns between Morlaix and Landivisiau, which he had been apprised were occupied by the Germans, General Grow pushed his troops forward on the morning of 6 August. Read's CCB moved rapidly north, then west, and struck a strong roadblock six miles south of Morlaix, obviously an outpost position. After sustaining several casualties, CCB withdrew and bypassed the resistance. That evening, when reconnaissance
troops encountered opposition at Lesneven--fifteen miles from Brest--a French volunteer delivered a surrender ultimatum to the German garrison at Lesneven. No reply came, and the combat command attacked, drove the enemy out, and took possession of the town.
Taylor's CCA, in contrast, advanced slowly over devious country lanes not marked on maps available to the troops. By nightfall the command was between Morlaix and Landivisiau. Hanson's CCR, which had switched routes near Huelgoat to follow CCA, changed again to reinforce the faster moving CCB.
Although the 6th Armored Division was in the vicinity of Brest by the evening of 6 August, it was hardly in position to attack or even to demonstrate against the objective. How strong the city defenses were and what the Germans intended to do were yet to be discovered.
Earlier that day an American fighter-bomber had appeared over the division column and the pilot had radioed Patton's request for information: "What is situation in Brest? Where are your forces? . . . Does 6th Armored Division need Infantry assistance?" Grow answered that he thought Brest would be defended and that he needed an infantry division to support his attack on the city. This was what had prompted the instruction that Grow was to develop his situation "in front of or in Brest" until further clarification of the situation permitted sending additional troops to Brest.34 Until then, the 6th Armored Division was to go it alone.
General Grow felt that he had a good chance of taking Brest. German morale was extremely low. The division advance had so disrupted German communications that local commanders probably had little if any knowledge of the situation. Because German strength in Brittany had been drained away into Normandy, what remained was of miscellaneous nature and low caliber. Although the 6th Armored Division had no accurate information on how many Germans defended Brest, a number in excess of 3,000 hardly seemed likely. They were probably capable of fighting delaying action on the radius of a fifty-mile circle around Brest and drawing back gradually into the fortress. Remembering that Granville, the first important division objective in the Cotentin, had surrendered to a tank platoon, General Grow decided that a show of force might satisfy the German requirements of honor and bring about the surrender of Brest. He ordered Read's CCB, which was closest to the city, to move against Brest the next morning, 7 August.35
Attacking southwest from Lesneven, CCB bypassed Plabennec on the north. After destroying a large antiaircraft warning system and observation post near Milizac, the combat command came under severe fire from artillery pieces in Brest. Seven miles north of the city, CCB had struck the hard shell of the fortress.
Meanwhile, on 7 August, the remainder of the division arrived in the Brest area. CCR in late afternoon reached the vicinity of Gouesnou, about four
miles north-northeast of the center of Brest. CCA moved to the vicinity of Guipavas during the evening and night, but not as far toward Brest as Grow would have liked. Deployed in three columns and from four to seven miles from the center of the city, the 6th Armored Division was in contact with the Brest defenses.
It was apparent by this time that the Germans intended to defend and that they had adequate means to do so. Heavy artillery fire harassed the division throughout 7 August, serving notice that the element of surprise had been removed.36 To take the fortress, the division would have to stage a full-scale attack. Needing a day to reorganize for a co-ordinated effort, Grow decided to give the German garrison one more chance to surrender. If the Germans were planning only a token defense, perhaps a surrender ultimatum might produce the desired result. While the division prepared an attack for 9 August, the G-2 and a German-speaking master sergeant drove toward the enemy line on the morning of 8 August in a jeep draped in white sheets and flying a flag of truce.
From the corps perspective, the situation appeared to be quite different: the evidence pointed to a strong defense of Brest. A hard-fought battle had developed at St. Malo. Captured overprints of the Lorient fortifications and the experience of the 4th Armored Division showed strong defenses there. Why should the Germans give only token opposition at Brest? General Middleton was certain that the reduction of each port city would be a difficult task requiring heavy artillery and a force of perhaps one armored and two infantry divisions. With only four divisions under his control, Middleton visualized protracted operations ahead, particularly since he felt that the increasing importance of developments east of Brittany might rob him of some of his resources. Proceeding with his program of reducing the German port cities one by one, with St. Malo first on the agenda, he could do little to aid his forces elsewhere; but at the same time he expected little from them.37
General Patton, who felt that his Household Cavalry gave him a better knowledge of what was happening in Brittany and who had received word that Grow planned to attack Brest, decided that the 6th Armored Division ought to have some reinforcement. He therefore ordered Middleton to move an infantry battalion of the 8th Division from Rennes to Brest. Early on the afternoon of 8 August, a battalion started westward to join the 6th Armored Division.38
Soon afterwards, a report came to army announcing that a large German force was moving toward Brest from the northeast.39 If this were true, the 6th Armored Division was about to be squeezed and crushed between the moving force and the Brest garrison. Concern over the potential fate of the division was intensified by the inadequate communications.
Although additional Signal equipment had been sent to the division, the presence of scattered groups of enemy soldiers in the division area delayed its use. German patrols similarly prohibited establishment of a landing strip for liaison planes. On General Grow's suggestion, a liaison plane from the corps appeared over the division command post on 7 August, and the pilot dropped a note on a panel laid out in a field. He then circled the area in a vain attempt to discover a meadow large enough to land on, for the terrain resembled the small hedgerow-enclosed fields of the Cotentin. After requesting by radio that the division bulldoze out one hedgerow to create a landing space the size of two fields, the pilot picked up a division message held aloft between lance poles, "waggled his wings, and went home with some flak on his tail."40
Because the hedgerowed fields were terraced, it was difficult to find two adjacent open spaces with the same floor level. After discovering a surface suitable for a landing strip, the Signal officer borrowed a bulldozer from the engineers early on 8 August and cut down a hedgerow. Shortly after he released the dozer, the area he had selected for the landing strip came under severe artillery shelling. Judging the field unsafe for a landing, he arranged another pickup and drop by the plane expected from corps. Although the shelling had ceased when the plane arrived, the pilot inspected the field from the air and decided he needed still more space for a landing. He dropped his message, secured the division message, and radioed: "See you tomorrow, get a longer field."
Meanwhile, at corps headquarters, it appeared likely that the anticipated German squeeze play against the 6th Armored Division soon might develop. When radio silence, imposed by General Grow to cloak his intentions before Brest, was momentarily lifted on the evening of 8 August, a cryptic message by high-powered radio informed corps that the division command post was "under attack, codes in danger, may destroy."
At Brest, on the morning of 8 August, a four-man German patrol guided the white-draped American jeep bearing M. Sgt. Alex Castle and the 6th Armored Division G-2, Maj. Ernest W. Mitchell, toward an outpost position. At the outpost, a German lieutenant blindfolded the two emissaries before taking them into the city. When the blindfolds were removed, Mitchell and Castle found themselves in an underground command post, face to face with several German officers seated at a table.
One German raised his hand and said, "Heil Hitler." After a momentary hesitation, Mitchell saluted. Presuming the German to be the senior commander, Mitchell handed him General Grow's surrender ultimatum. When the German denied knowledge of English, Castle translated the paper aloud:
Headquarters 6th Armored Division, Office of the Commanding General, APO 256, US Army, 8 August 1944, Memorandum To: Officer Commanding German Forces in Brest.
1. The United States Army, Naval and Air Force troops are in position to destroy the garrison of Brest.
2. This memorandum constitutes an opportunity
for you to surrender in the face of these overwhelming forces to representatives of the United States Government and avoid the unnecessary sacrifice of lives.
3. I shall be very glad to receive your formal surrender and make the detailed arrangements any time prior to 1500 this date. The officer who brings this memorandum will be glad to guide you and necessary members of your staff, not exceeding six to my headquarters.
R. W. Grow
Major General, USA
The German commander said he could not surrender. Mitchell asked whether he understood what that meant. The German said he did. Mitchell took back the ultimatum. The German commander heiled, Mitchell saluted. The two Americans were blindfolded and driven back to the outpost, where the bandages were removed, and Mitchell and Castle re-entered their lines and reported that the bluff had failed.41
With no alternative but to attack the city, General Grow requested heavy air support for the following day, 9 August. He wanted a continuous air attack for a minimum of three hours by waves of planes striking heavy guns, large oil tanks, and troop concentration areas. Planning to attack with two columns moving against the northeastern portion of the city, Grow shifted Read's CCB headquarters from the northern to the central column to take control of the troops that had been under CCR. Hanson's CCR headquarters moved to the right and assumed control of the units that had comprised Read's column.
The attack was to be made by CCB in the center and by Taylor's CCA on the left, with the four artillery battalions in position to support both columns.42
Chances of success appeared reasonably good. It was true that nearly every village on the outskirts of Brest was garrisoned by a few Germans with antitank guns, that the entrances into some were barred by roadblocks of steel rails, log barricades, or tetrahedrons, and in some cases concrete pillboxes, and that foxholes had been dug along all the roads leading into Brest. However, the significant facts seemed to be that the division was in contact along a line from Milizac through Gouesnou to Guipavas, apparently the outer defenses of the city, and that the enemy had only three or four thousand soldiers, augmented by an unknown number of naval forces.43
The attack was not to be made as scheduled. Since shortly before noon on 8 August, disturbing reports had been coming from rear outposts. Scattered enemy soldiers in stray vehicles had appeared suddenly, from nowhere it seemed. Several unit commanders complained throughout the day that troops of other commands were firing indiscriminately and endangering their men, yet investigation failed to disclose the source of the fire. The commander of the division trains, approaching Lesneven, reported that he was unable to enter the division rear area because of small arms and artillery fire, evidently from the rear of the combat commands deployed before Brest. These unaccountable reports were explained late
that afternoon when a battery of the 212th Armored Field Artillery Battalion captured Generalleutnant Karl Spang, commander of the 266th Division, and several of his staff. From documents they carried, the 6th Armored Division learned that the 266th, after having contributed forces to the Dinan and St. Malo garrisons, was moving from Morlaix to Brest to consolidate its remaining forces with the Brest garrison. Spang, whose capture was his first intimation that U.S. troops were "anywhere in the area," had preceded his unit in order to insure proper reception facilities for his men. By evening the situation that had been building up all day came to a head. The 266th Division, a static unit of perhaps regimental strength, was in contact with the armored division rear.44
Threatened from the rear at nightfall as troops of the 266th stumbled into the armored division's outposts, General Grow canceled the attack on Brest and instructed his subordinate commanders to leave screening forces facing the port city. Reconnaissance troops were to seal off the exits to prevent the German garrison from sallying out to meet the 266th. The combat command columns were to reverse in place and drive generally northeast toward Plouvien in order to destroy the unsuspecting Germans, who were approaching in route march formation. Meanwhile, since the division headquarters might be overrun, several, soldiers were posted at the electric code machines to destroy them with thermite canisters if necessary.
Because wires linking the division command post to subordinate units had been cut and because silence was being maintained, General Grow dispatched a handwritten field order to his subordinates by messenger. Acknowledgment returned at once from CCB and CCR, but none came from CCA. Not until later was it discovered that a message center sergeant had neglected to deliver the order to General Taylor. Fortunately, the incoming Germans did not strike CCA but blundered into the other two combat commands.
Skirmishes resulting from tentative probing contacts made during the night developed on 9 August into a full-scale engagement. Read's CCB carried the the main burden, Hanson's CCR contributed hardly less, and Taylor's CCA attacked later in the day. A group of fighter-bombers joined the action by blasting an enemy column near Lesneven. By evening the 6th Armored Division had taken almost a thousand prisoners and estimated that it had destroyed half of the enemy unit.45
It took another day for the division to clear the area and gather in those of the 266th who did not manage to reach Brest by devious routes. After establishing a cordon around the landward side of Brest, the bulk of the 6th Armored Division settled down into a somewhat stable situation, beyond observed enemy artillery range. The division trains bivouacked. The infantry battalion of the 8th Division arrived. Task Force A appeared briefly near Lesneven
before proceeding on another mission. A new airfield site was cleared, and regular courier service by planes commenced. The division radio teletype team erected a double-height antenna and secured satisfactory contact with corps headquarters.
Meanwhile, General Grow still pondered how to secure Brest. It was obvious that the defenses were much stronger than he had anticipated. The outer defense line barred swift entry, and the expectation of strongpoints within the city foreshadowed vicious street fighting. Artillery positions across the bay from Brest were out of reach of an armored attack across the landward approaches. The entire Brest complex appeared beyond the capabilities of an armored division reinforced only by an infantry battalion. Yet a glimmer of hope came from the uncertainty that no one seemed to know exactly how many Germans defended the port.
If a small German force held the city, it was possible that an armored drive in strength might overwhelm the defenders. To secure a good jump-off place for an attack, Grow planned to secure the high ground near Guipavas, which seemed to be a soft spot. From the high ground, his artillery could support without displacement a division attack all the way into the city.
Efforts by CCA and the attached infantry battalion on 11 and 12 August to secure the terrain near Guipavas failed.46 It gradually became clear that additional resources were needed: artillery to neutralize the guns in Brest and permit an advance through the outer defenses, infantry and a strong engineer attachment to attack the city proper, and fighter and medium bomber support to assist the assault troops and reduce the inner defenses. Still hoping he could eventually take Brest, General Grow requested a complement of heavy artillery. Until he received that, there was little he could do but continue to develop the outpost defenses. Enemy artillery was "much too strong" for anything more.47
Unfortunately for Grow's hopes, the corps' heavy artillery was engaged at St. Malo, and not until that port fell would infantry and artillery become available for an attack on Brest. The 83d or the 8th Division, perhaps both, would then move west to join the 6th Armored Division. Until then, General Middleton advised,
I believe it unwise to become too involved in a fight at Brest unless you feel reasonably sure of success. I prefer that you watch the situation and wait until an infantry division arrives. Heavy artillery will arrive with the infantry division.48
Any hope that General Grow had of taking Brest vanished on the evening of 12 August when he received word to contain the city with one combat command while relieving the 4th Armored Division at Lorient and Vannes with the others. Leaving CCA and the battalion of the 8th Division--about 4,000 troops--
at Brest, he completed the relief at Lorient and Vannes on 14 August.49
In advancing to Brest, the division had lost about 130 killed, 400 wounded, and 70 missing. Destroyed or damaged combat vehicles totaled 50, other vehicles 62, guns 11. In contrast, the division had taken 4,000 prisoners.50
Looking back after the war on the campaign, General Grow said he had been elated by the performance of his division in penetrating two hundred miles into Brittany, the most extended independent operation by a single division in the European theater. The 6th Armored Division had cleared the greater part of the peninsula, the proof being that before the end of the second week in August lone travelers covered long distances in the interior with no thought of danger. In addition to destroying what remained of the 266th Division in Brittany, the 6th Armored Division had driven the other German troops in its sector into a "self-imposed prison." The division "had performed," General Grow was convinced, "the greatest cavalry-type operation of the war . . . [and] had proved the soundness of the . . . mechanized division and the hard months of training." The role of the cavalry in exploitation and the value of mobility on the battlefield, he felt, had been restored by the display of speed, initiative, and boldness that were the basic cavalry characteristics inherited by armored troops.
Disappointed, naturally, because he had not taken Brest, Grow was discouraged by the static mission of containment with which he was charged. Despite his repeated recommendations that the FFI be assigned the task of guarding the port cities so that the division might be free for more active and more compatible missions, the unit remained in Brittany for another month, guarding Brest, Lorient, and Vannes. The value of armor had been proved but was then, he felt, disregarded.
One galling question remained: Could the 6th Armored Division have taken Brest if it had arrived there sooner? Having been assured by the FFI that Brest would probably have fallen had it been attacked in strength a day or two earlier, General Grow could not forget the Dinan diversion, which had delayed the division about twenty-four hours; the slow approach of CCA into the Brest area, which had made it necessary for CCB to attack alone on 7 August; and the movement of the 266th Division from Morlaix, which had prompted cancellation of the concerted attack planned for 9 August. With complete surprise in Grow's favor, a show of strength, he felt, might have been sufficient to persuade a vacillating commander with weak forces to capitulate.51
This attractive thesis was supported by the fact that only the 343d Division, some cadre companies, relatively weak artillery, and two batteries of coastal artillery were available at the beginning of August to defend the fortress against attack from land or sea. The presence of many civilians in the city complicated the defense. The Germans could count on a garrison of only 15,000 men at maximum,
many of whom were required to reinforce strongpoints already established to combat an amphibious invasion. Limited amounts of building materials and transportation facilities for defense construction were other deficiencies. Having had to consider a seaward attack of first import, the Germans felt that the landward strength of the fortress was defective. The ground fortifications were so close to the installations they protected that an attack on the defenses constituted at the same time an attack on the city's vitals--in some instances, artillery emplacements, supply depots, and military workshops were even located outside the defensive line.
Balancing these disadvantages and destroying the thesis were other factors. The old French fortifications had provided the Germans foundation for a modern defensive complex. Large, deep, artificial caves in rocky terrain afforded shellproof shelter to large numbers of the garrison. Able to resist bombardment and heavy-caliber artillery, the troops at the beginning of August were considered by the Germans to be adequate in numbers and high in morale. To the 343d Division were soon added "splinters" of the 266th Division and, more important, the well-trained 2d Parachute Division (commanded by Generalleutnant Herman B. Ramcke, a devoted Nazi), the latter unit eventually forming the nucleus of the defense. After contact had been made with the 6th Armored Division near Huelgoat on 5 August, there was no longer the possibility of a surprise attack. The Germans had no doubt that an attack against Brest was imminent.52
The fortress commander, Col. Hans von der Mosel (not Ramcke, as the Americans had thought), had rejected General Grow's surrender ultimatum on 8 August even before the 2d Parachute Division had joined his garrison.53 The paratroopers had started at the beginning of August to move in two columns eastward from the Brest area toward Normandy, but Fahrmbacher, the XXV Corps commander, had ordered the movement halted almost at once because of the rapid American thrust into Brittany. In contact with U.S. armor near Carhaix and Huelgoat, then bypassed by the 6th Armored Division and in danger of isolation, Ramcke obeyed the OKW order that had instructed the forces in Brittany to move into the fortresses. Avoiding the Americans, the 2d Parachute Division slipped into Brest on 9 August from the south, by way of Doualas. The division had lost, between 29 July and 12 August, about 50 dead, 200 wounded, and 100 missing, some as the result of FFI guerrilla action, some at the battle of Huelgoat. Three days after re-entering Brest, Ramcke became the fortress commander, Mosel his chief of staff.54
By the time General Grow was able to launch his preliminary attacks on Guipavas on 11 and 12 August, the Brest garrison numbered about 35,000 Army, Navy, and Air Force troops. But before then, even without such overwhelming strength, the Germans had made evident their decision to defend with determination. The extent of their fortifications,
the size of the fortress complex, and Hitler's orders to resist to the last man were more than sufficient to keep a lone armored division from taking the largest port in Brittany.55 Even though the VIII Corps G-2 as late as 12 August estimated that only 8,000 men defended Brest, he recognized that its defenses were far stronger than he had earlier judged.56 It should have been obvious much sooner. By mid-July, SHAEF had concluded that the Brest garrison was likely to number at minimum 17,000 troops. The numerous defensible river valleys between Morlaix and Brest, the perimeter defenses at Landivisiau, Lesneven, and Landerneau, the landward fortifications of Brest, and the numerous antiaircraft emplacements all argued against painless possession of a port that was as vital to Hitler as to the Allies.57 Although Patton lost his five-pound bet with Montgomery, the fact was that merely in pinning the vastly superior German force at Brest against the sea, the 6th Armored Division had achieved success.
A fluid front, fast-moving columns, and a rapidly lengthening line of communication had lessened corps control, had emphasized the necessity of individual initiative and judgment, improvisation and calculated risk. With no defined front except the direction in which the division was going, the cavalry reconnaissance squadron had maintained a flexible screen around the front and flanks that was retracted from or deflected around resistance too strong to overcome. A forward observer traveling with the head of a column could have artillery fire on a target as soon as the self-propelled pieces could drop their ammunition trailers. Casualties were moved forward with the division until convoys could be organized for evacuation. Prisoners were also carried along until they could be turned over, against their vehement protests, to the FFI, "who seemed only too glad to accept the responsibility for their care."58 Tanks and armored cars sometimes escorted supply vehicles, and the division band defended valiantly a supply dump near Carhaix and prevented its capture by a small German force. The army had established a gasoline dump at Pontivy, but the division had to go all the way back to Avranches for other supplies. The necessity for speed had prompted the division to disregard danger from mines; only a few times, principally at fords, had mines been encountered. In retrospect at least, the campaign seemed to have been "a routine operation" that had been aided by extremely favorable weather.59
Yet it was a spectacular achievement, an exhilarating accomplishment that went virtually unnoticed because of action elsewhere on a much larger scale.
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