Opportunities and Intentions
In contrast with the Third Army's spectacular gains during the first week of August, the First Army seemed to be standing still. The difference between the rates of progress of the two armies was easily explained. Whereas Patton's units were slashing through areas held by few German defenders, the First Army was meeting organized, stubborn resistance. Because the Third Army's achievements were more impressive, they became the side of the coin usually displayed, but the accomplishments of Hodges' First Army were no less important in determining the course of the campaign in western Europe.
The American Task
The primary intention of the Allies on 1 August was to sustain the momentum developed by COBRA. The objectives remained the same as those enunciated at the beginning of July. While the Third Army slid into Brittany, the First Army was to swing left to a north-south line facing eastward and prepare to drive to the Seine in conjunction with the British and Canadians.
The NEPTUNE planners had envisioned a rather wide wheeling movement beginning at the base of the Cotentin and clearing the OVERLORD lodgment area as far south as the Loire River. In keeping with this concept, the boundary between the First Army and the British and Canadians extended from the invasion coast southeast more than fifty miles through Bayeux and Flers, then east through Alençon and Dreux to the Eure River just short of Paris. This split the lodgment area (exclusive of Brittany) roughly into equal parts and postulated a twin drive by the 21 Army Group toward the lower Seine River (between Paris and the sea) and the 12th Army Group toward the upper Seine north of the Loire River (between Paris and Orléans). The pivot for the American turn was at a point just west of Alençon, almost sixty miles from the invasion coast.1
Three weeks after the invasion it had seemed obvious that pivoting on Alençon was an optimistic improbability. Also, General Montgomery preferred to anchor the British forces on the small foothold secured by the end of June rather than attempt to enlarge the space that would determine the eventual wheeling maneuver. Montgomery had therefore instructed General Bradley to secure the American left on Caumont, less than twenty miles inland, and make a shallower turning movement, describing
an arc through Fougères, about seventy miles north of the Loire River. This, the First Army had been unable to accomplish.
During the COBRA operation, the American left flank forces had been anchored on St. Lô. The success of COBRA and of the post-COBRA exploitation had enabled the forces on the right to sweep through the successive objectives of Laval and le Mans, about fifty miles north of the Loire. At the same time, the American pivot shifted south to the town of Vire. At the beginning of August, American and British troops were both driving to secure Vire as the point of the wheeling movement that had already started.2
Earlier, the Allies had believed that, before troops could move from Avranches into Brittany, it would be necessary to erect a barrier against interference from the east. This requirement partially explained Allied preoccupation with the road centers of Vire, Mortain, and Fougères. Yet before these could be seized, even as the American left remained heavily engaged near Villedieu-les-Poëles, Percy, and Tessy, the entrance into Brittany had been made. Vire, Mortain, and Fougères remained important nevertheless, for with German strength in Brittany drained to reinforce the Normandy front, a strong German threat could only come from the east or the southeast. When the Third Army assumed responsibility for taking Fougères, General Hodges concentrated upon capturing Vire and Mortain.3
Succeeding to the command of the First Army after having served as deputy commander, General Hodges was in demeanor and habit much like his predecessor, General Bradley. Quiet and modest, "unostentatious and retiring," General Hodges performed his duties in a workmanlike manner without fanfare. He was opposed to what he termed the "uncertain business" of "tricky maneuver." Too many units, he felt, tried to flank and skirt instead of meeting the enemy straight on, and he believed that it was "safer, sounder, and in the end quicker to keep smashing ahead."4
General Hodges had enlisted in the Regular Army as a private, had served in Pershing's Punitive Expedition into Mexico as an officer, and had fought in France during World War I as a battalion and a regimental commander. Commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940, Hodges had become in rapid succession Chief of Infantry, head of the Replacement and School Command of the Army Ground Forces, and Commanding General, X Corps. A lieutenant general by 1944, he assumed command of the First Army on 1 August and took control of three corps, the VII, the XIX, and the V.
By seizing Vire and Mortain, General Hodges would provide protection for the Avranches corridor while beginning the First Army turning maneuver.5 Prospects of attaining his goals seemed favorable. The Germans were trying to stabilize their left flank, but despite counterattacks "and the belated shifting
of his reserves," the enemy appeared incapable of halting a First Army advance.6 If eight divisions were shifted from the Fifteenth Army, the Germans could perhaps continue to fight along a general line from Rennes through Mortain, Falaise, and Trouville and thus prevent the emergence of Allied forces from Normandy. Otherwise, there could only be abandonment of the "no retreat" policy. Beyond that, it was possible even to foresee complete German collapse in the very near future. "Only discipline," the First Army G-2 wrote,
and habit of obedience to orders keeps the front line units fighting. It is doubtful that the German forces in Normandy can continue for more than four to eight weeks as a military machine. One more heavy defeat such as the recent breakthrough battle which commenced 25 July will most probably result in the collapse of the forces now at the base of the Cherbourg Peninsula. Surrender or a disastrous retreat will be the alternative for the German forces. In the next four to eight weeks the current situation may change with dramatic suddenness into a race to reach a chaotic Germany.7
So optimistic an assessment, though completely warranted, was not to endure for long once the character of German resistance on the immediate First Army front was manifest.
The German Task
In planning a counterattack to regain Avranches and restabilize their Normandy defenses, the Germans had to stiffen their resistance in order to preserve the conditions under which a counterattack was possible. If the defensive line east of Avranches were lost, regaining Avranches would avail little. At the same time, the assembly areas for the forces that were to launch the counterattack had to be protected. To accomplish these tasks was to prove difficult, for the Germans had relatively few troops in Normandy at the beginning of August. (See Map IX.)
Losses had been exceedingly high among the divisions in contact with the Allies during June and July. Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, counted eight divisions that had practically been destroyed in the Cotentin during the month of July alone: Panzer Lehr, 5th Parachute, 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, and 91st, 352d, 275th, 243d, and 77th Infantry Divisions.8 This did not take into account the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and the 326th Division, annihilated near Caen and Caumont, respectively. It did not include the divisions in Brittany and on the Channel Isles that had to be written off as far as the Normandy front was concerned: the 2d Parachute, the 343d and 319th Infantry Divisions, and parts of the 265th and 266th. Nor did it mention that the 21st, 9th SS, 10th SS, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions had been badly crippled in the Caen and Caumont sectors. Only a few divisions of Eberbach's Fifth Panzer Army, the weak 3d Parachute and 353d Divisions (the latter temporarily presumed lost during COBRA and now reduced to kampfgruppe size) of Hausser's Seventh Army, and the armored divisions scheduled to launch the Avranches counterattack still retained combat effectiveness. Like all the troops in Normandy, these too had suffered from
uninterrupted combat, inferior equipment, inadequate materiel and supplies, and Allied air superiority. Though the men were still fighting grimly, commanders were concerned lest the will to resist suddenly vanish.9
Two infantry divisions were scheduled to reinforce the battered units holding the Normandy left flank and also to relieve the armored divisions scheduled to counterattack. The 363d moved through Tinchebray during the first days of August and into the Brécey-Vire line to relieve the 2d and the 2d SS Panzer Divisions by 5 August.10 The 84th, supposed to relieve the 116th Panzer Division, was committed on 2 August in defense of the Sourdeval sector and became engaged in such violent combat that it was unable to accomplish the relief as quickly as hoped.
Despite heavy pressure exerted by the First U.S. Army, the Seventh Army managed, by stubborn resistance and skillful withdrawal, to retain a defensive line that, while not solid, was at least cohesive. The XLVII Panzer Corps headquarters gave up responsibility for the center to prepare for the counterattack, and the 77 Parachute and the LXXXIV Corps together fought along the Brécey-Vire line. On the right (east), the II Parachute Corps, controlling only the 3d Parachute Division (reinforced by a regiment of the 5th Parachute Division) defended the town of Vire. On the left, the LXXXIV Corps had the more complicated job of getting the armored divisions out of the line without upsetting the precarious defensive balance. In this the corps depended heavily on the kampfgruppe of the 353d Division. On the extreme left, under LXXXIV Corps control, remnants of the 5th Parachute and 275th Divisions held weak blocking positions south of the Sée River near Juvigny.11
During the first week of August, five factors gave the German commanders pause. First, they often doubted that they could prevent the counterattack assembly areas from being overrun. Second, they wondered whether the transfer of armored divisions (the 2d and the 116th at the end of July, and the pending transfer of the 1st SS in August) from Eberbach's forces would so weaken the right wing that the British and Canadians would be able to effect a penetration south of Caen. Third, they were aware of the threat of encirclement by coordinated British and American drives to the town of Flers--the British by a continuation of the southeastward thrust from Caumont, the Americans by a northeastward thrust from Fougères through Domfront. Fourth, they were concerned with the threat to the Army Group B rear posed by American forces driving toward le Mans. Fifth, they worried that loss of high ground around Mortain--excellent terrain from which to launch offensive action--might inhibit the counterattack toward Avranches. These thoughts added to the burdens of the holding battle immediately preceding the counterattack.12
he Drive to Mortain
On the First U.S. Army right, the VII Corps had outflanked the German left by 1 August when troops of the 3d Armored Division's Combat Command A (attached to the 1st Division) pushed across the Sée River at Brécey. Between Brécey and Avranches, a distance of ten miles, yawned the gap through which the Third Army skittered toward Brittany, and since the Third Army would take responsibility for holding the Avranches corridor open, VII Corps had to move east to get out of the way. The VII Corps moved toward Mortain, a road center near commanding ground twenty miles east of Avranches between the Sée and the Sélune.13 (Map 13)
General Collins, the VII Corps commander, ordered General Huebner, the 1st Division commander, "to envelop the enemy's left flank and exploit the breakthrough of his defenses" by seizing the high ground and road centers in the Mortain area. The 1st Division was to sweep southeastward across the front of and pinch out General Barton's 4th Division, which was attacking south from Villedieu through St. Pois to the Sée River, and was to make contact with General Eddy's 9th Division, which was to attack south toward Sourdeval and the high ground north of Mortain.14
The 1st Division turned eastward toward Mortain, the attached CCA of the 3d Armored Division acting as a spearhead while the infantry regiments mopped up. Extremely broken terrain, roads twisting and turning around hills and crossing narrow, steep-walled valleys, gave the Germans ample opportunity to ambush. Against them, the 1st Division used fire power liberally, overran elements of the 275th Division, and took Reffuveille, le Mesnil-Adelée, Juvigny, and St. Barthélemy. On the afternoon of 3 August, the 1st Division entered Mortain after dispersing the reconnaissance battalion of the 2d Panzer Division, General Huebner immediately outposted the high ground east of town.15
The relatively easy capture of Mortain contrasted with operations in the remaining portion of the VII Corps front, where the Germans manned an unbroken defensive line between St. Pois and Vire. The 84th Division held tenaciously to Sourdeval, a scant six miles north of Mortain, but the remnants of the Panzer Lehr Division, which ostensibly covered Mortain, Barenton, and Passais, could not prevent patrols of the 1st Division from reaching Fougerolles-du-Plessis and Barenton, twelve miles south and seven miles southeast of Mortain, respectively.
The natural inclination to push the 1st Division along the path of least resistance,
MAP 13. First U.S. Army, 1-6 August 1944
Troops Advancing From Juvigny southward toward Mortain.
into exploitation toward the successive objectives of the Domfront-Mayenne and Alençon-le Mans lines, gave way to a more sober calculation. At Mortain t he division positions formed a conspicuous salient on the German left flank and presented a potential threat to the rear of the German units fighting along the St. Pois-Vire line. Aware of the withdrawal of the 2d Panzer and the 2d SS Panzer Divisions, American commanders misinterpreted German troop movements as attempts to escape the threat on the flank. While other First Army units exerted pressure from the north, the 1st Division consolidated positions at Mortain to prevent enemy escape and to guard against counterattack from the north. At the same time, the division artillery took numerous targets to the north and northeast under fire, on 4 August alone firing 105 missions, of which 28 were harassing, 14 were against tanks, 15 were counter-battery, 24 were antipersonnel and anti-vehicular, and 5 were interdiction and preparation.16
As the XV Corps, on the right of the VII Corps, began to advance toward Laval and le Mans, General Hodges instructed General Collins to move to the south to cover the XV Corps north flank. In compliance, the 1st Division on 6 August displaced across the Sélune River south of Mortain to Gorron and Ambrières-le-Grand and, having met only slight interference, started to relieve the 90th Division at Mayenne.17 To replace the 1st Division at Mortain, Hodges shifted the 30th Division from Tessy and XIX Corps control. The 1st Division was then free to exploit eastward from Mayenne toward Alençon in a drive paralleling the XV Corps thrust to le Mans.
In contrast with the 1st Division experience, the 4th Division struck determined resistance in the hills just north and northwest of St. Pois on 2 August. The 3d Armored Division's Combat Command B, attached to the 4th Division and spearheading the attack, was not far from St. Pois, but the armor awaited arrival of the infantry before resuming the attack. The rest of the division moved south from Villedieu in what appeared to resemble a gigantic traffic jam on 2 August but what was in actuality a rapid movement. General Barton had decided that "the quickest way to get them there [was to] put them all on the road at once."18
From the forward positions just north
of St. Pois, Barton had to advance about six miles and seize three objectives, each two miles apart: the town of St. Pois, Hill 211, and a bridgehead across the Sée River at Chérencé-le-Roussel.19 Although General Collins contemplated sending the 4th Division beyond Chérencé-le-Roussel to the high ground north of Mortain in the Gathemo-Sourdeval area, the stubborn resistance in the St. Pois sector disrupted this plan.20 The 116th Panzer Division had been hastily withdrawn from the line near Tessy on 1 August to counter the American thrust toward Brécey, and this force had been committed in time to halt CCB and the 4th Division.21
Impatient to get the three objectives so that the 4th Division might go into reserve for rest as promised, General Barton applied at St. Pois a lesson learned at Villedieu. On 3 August he sent a task force of infantry and armor to bypass St. Pois on the west. Moving about five miles "without firing a shot," the task force crossed the Sée River at Cuves, four miles west of Chérencé-le-Roussel. On the following day CCB and attached infantry fought eastward from Cuves along the south bank of the Sée River, then crossed the river again at Chérencé-le-Roussel and established a bridgehead on the north bank of the Sée. While the task force was thus outflanking and enveloping the enemy, three regiments of the 4th Division attacked abreast from the northwest toward St. Pois. The 12th Infantry on the left strove to gain Hill 232, the 22d Infantry in the center attacked the town of St. Pois, and the 8th Infantry on the right drove on Hill 211. The going was difficult against the guns of the 116th Panzer Division, and by evening the objectives were still not secured. When the attack was halted and orders given to dig in for the night, the rifle company officers of a battalion of the 8th Infantry requested and secured permission to continue as a measure of respect for their commander, Lt. Col. Erasmus H. Strickland, who had been wounded that day. The assault carried to the crest of Hill 211, and at dawn, 5 August, the regiment was ready to repel the strong but obviously final German counterattack.
Although St. Pois technically remained in German hands that morning, the town was virtually encircled. The Germans began to withdraw to the southeast to protect Sourdeval. From the hills around St. Pois, men of the 4th Division hastened the enemy's departure by bringing down artillery fire and calling in fighter-bombers to attack the columns. The cannon company of the 8th Infantry fired 3,200 shells and burned out three howitzer tubes, the 4.2-inch mortar company depleted all its ammunition stocks, and the 81-mm. mortars expended 3,000 rounds.22
The division mission completed by the end of 5 August, General Barton released CCB to control of the 3d Armored Division, assembled the 4th Division at St. Pois in the VII Corps reserve, and looked forward to giving his troops four
or five days of rest, replete with "hot showers, hot food, USO shows . . . Red Cross doughnut girls."23
Like the 4th Division, General Eddy's 9th Division encountered strong opposition. Moving from a rest area to assembly near Villebaudon on 1 August, the 9th Division prepared to advance twenty miles to high ground north of Mortain against what appeared to be disorganized enemy forces.24 Two regiments abreast gained ten miles in two days, a rapid advance for the difficult terrain, but then progress slowed as they moved through hilly hedgerow terrain well defended by the 353d Division reinforced by the remnants of the 352d Division and a small task force of the 6th Parachute Regiment. The 9th Division advance was tedious in the face of numerous mines and strong delaying forces at roadblocks and on critical terrain features. As the division threatened the Fôret de St. Sever, which concealed troops and semipermanent supply installations, resistance stiffened. The newly arrived 394th Assault Gun Brigade, which had come forward to participate in the counterattack, was subordinated to the LXXXIV Corps to protect the Fôret de St. Sever, and the brigade's heavy artillery concentrations and antitank rockets further slowed the 9th Division attack.25
In order to speed the movement of the 9th Division to the Sée River and beyond to Gathemo, the immediate division objective, General Eddy secured General Collins' approval for a wide flanking attack. He sent a regiment westward through Villedieu-les-Poëles, southward through Brécey, eastward through Chérencé-le-Roussel, and then northeastward to Gathemo to encircle the German troops in the St. Pois-St. Sever-Calvados sector. Contact with the two regiments attacking south would complete a two-pronged squeeze play ending at Gathemo.26
Directed through the 4th and 1st Division sectors, on 5 August the 39th Infantry of the 9th Division passed through the 4th Division bridgehead held by tanks and infantry at Chérencé-le-Roussel and attacked toward the northeast. Although stiff resistance prevented progress, other contingents of the division discovered a soft spot. The 60th Infantry moved with surprising rapidity through the Fôret de St. Sever against occasional artillery and mortar fire. That afternoon, a battalion temporarily gained possession of the crossroads village of Champ-du-Boult, two miles northwest of Gathemo, though a counterattack by the 353d Division reserve supported by the 6th Parachute Regiment drove the battalion out.27
Continuing the attack on 6 August, the 9th Division regained Champ-du-Boult in the north and increased the threat to Perriers-en-Beauficel in the south. With only three miles separating the two division hooks, General Collins anticipated quick consolidation. As he began to plan the movement of the 9th to the south to cover the eastward thrust
of the XV Corps to le Mans, the Germans counterattacked.28
During the first six days of August, General Collins had faced contrasting situations on his corps front. On his right, he had essentially the same opportunity for exploitation enjoyed by the Third Army's XV Corps, yet he had been bound to the First Army and its requirements and consequently was unable to capitalize on the fluid situation there. With the exception of the 1st Division, the VII Corps components had taken part in combat that resembled the earlier battle of the hedgerows. Stubborn resistance, skillful withdrawal, and effective delaying action in bocage terrain had resulted in a slow and hard advance. Whereas the 1st Division sustained less than 250 casualties between 2 and 7 August, the 3d Armored Division lost almost 300 men, the 4th Division 600, and the 9th Division nearly 850.29 Although the figures hardly approached the intensity of losses in July, they indicated clearly a major difference in the character of the opposition met on different sectors of the front.
The Battle for Vire
Hard slugging characterized combat all along the remainder of the First Army front. On the immediate left of the VII Corps, the XIX Corps had been occupied for five days in smashing German attempts to re-form a defensive line from Tessy to the Cotentin west coast, but on 2 August, with Tessy finally captured, General Corlett began to drive southeastward toward the town of Vire.30 As the 30th Division settled down at Tessy for several days of rest, the 28th and 29th Divisions, each with an attached combat command of the 2d Armored Division, attacked abreast from the Percy-Tessy line in what was hoped would be pursuit of a defeated enemy.31
Difficult terrain and stubborn resistance transformed the hoped-for pursuit into a protracted fight. The action of the 28th Division, which was manifesting the usual characteristics of a unit newly committed to combat, complicated the picture. On the first day of attack the division sustained almost 750 casualties, and not until the attached CCB moved to the front to lead the advance did the troops begin to move with any assurance and competence. Two days later, on 4 August, the 28th captured St. Sever-Calvados, eight miles southeast of Percy. At the same time the 29th Division, with CCA attached, reached positions northwest of the town of Vire after hard fighting.32
General Gerow's V Corps had also been moving toward Vire from the north. The corps objective was a line several miles north of Vire where the corps was to be pinched out by the converging advances of the adjacent forces. By 1 August the British on the left had already pinched out the 5th Division, and General Irwin prepared to join the Third Army. The two remaining divisions of the V Corps, the 35th and the 2d, crossed the Vire-Souloeuvre River line
on 2 August and pushed south with the intent of "maintaining strong pressure against the enemy and insuring contact at all times."33
The Germans were withdrawing behind strong rear-guard action and were using the terrain advantageously, but General Gerow still hoped to gain enough momentum to go beyond his designated limit of advance. He requested permission from General Hodges to capture the town of Vire if the prospect became feasible. The army commander at first agreed, but on second thought refused because he was unwilling to chance the confusion that might result from intermingling XIX and V Corps forces.34
The 2d and 35th Divisions reached their objectives by 5 August, the former having sustained nearly 900 casualties in the process, the latter almost 600.35 As General Baade prepared to take his 35th Division, which was no longer in contact with the enemy, out of the sector to join the Third Army, Maj. Gen. Walter M. Robertson's 2d Division established defensive positions north of the town of Vire.
The XIX Corps, according to General Bradley's post-COBRA instructions, was to have driven southeastward through Vire toward Tinchebray, thereby cutting across the V Corps front and pinching it out. General Hodges modified these plans when increasing emphasis was placed on maintaining unrelenting pressure on the enemy. Instead of allowing the V Corps to remain idle just north of Vire, Hodges designated Tinchebray, eight miles southeast of Vire, as the next V Corps objective. To replace the departing 35th Division, he at first gave Gerow the 30th Division but, when he sent the 30th to Mortain instead, he substituted the 29th for it. After Vire was captured, the 29th Division would pass to V Corps control. Since the new V Corps sector would be narrow, Gerow was to attack with the 2d and 29th Divisions in column to capture Tinchebray. The XIX Corps would continue southward from Vire toward Domfront and Mayenne to cover the northern flank of the XV Corps (which was driving eastward toward le Mans) and also to cut off and encircle the enemy forces in the St. Pois-Gathemo area.36 But before these plans could be put into effect, the town of Vire had to be taken. The task fell to the 29th Division and its attachment, CCA of the 2d Armored Division.
Vire, an old fortified town of 8,000 inhabitants, is built on hills dominating the Norman bocage and is the center of several converging roads. The town overlooks the Vire River and a tributary, the Vaux de Vire. Long a religious and artistic center, it was by virtue of its location a military prize. The townspeople in 1944 came to regard their privations of that year as a double agony. The Allied aerial bombardment of 6 June, part of the attempt to hamper German troop movements at the time of the
invasion, had nearly destroyed the town; the actual struggle for the town by the ground forces in August reduced the town to rubble. Late in July, as the sound of artillery came increasingly closer, the citizens were hardly reassured when German troops urged them not to be afraid. "We'll defend your town house by house," they promised.37
The LXXXIV Corps' indefatigable kampfgruppe of the 353 d Division, supported by elements of the 363d Division, and the II Parachute Corps' 3d Parachute Division were responsible for the town. Roadblocks covered by antitank guns and excellent positions on dominating ground comprised the defenses.38
The battle for Vire started on 5 August when 29th Division tanks and infantry drove down the Tessy-Vire highway. Any hope that the Germans would abandon Vire vanished quickly, for they gave immediate notice of their intentions by striking the spearhead of the U.S. attack, the 2d Armored Division's CCA, at Martilly, less than a mile from the center of the city. A tank company assembled nineteen tanks in two fields beside the highway in preparation for crossing the Vire at a stone bridge. No sooner were the tanks assembled along the hedgerow perimeters of the fields than enemy artillery knocked out ten tanks with a disastrous concentration of fire. Although the remaining tanks moved out at once in an attempt to cross the Martilly bridge, continuing fire from dominating ground knocked out four additional tanks and prevented the crossing. Reconnaissance parties searching for alternate sites found the ground too soft for tanks to ford the stream.
Other tanks had better luck. They secured Hill 219, west of Vire, against slight opposition and gave the Americans terrain that was extremely favorable for offensive action against the town. Since the presence of CCA tankers and infantrymen on Hill 219 constituted a serious threat to the German defense, strong counterattacks were launched from Vire throughout the day. The American positions became so precarious that General Gerhardt that evening dispatched the 116th Infantry as reinforcement.
To reach Hill 219, the 116th Infantry moved in three battalion columns, the men of each advancing single file through the hedgerowed fields, the columns about a field apart. Isolated groups of Germans concealed in scattered farmhouses and foxholes and along the hedges were quickly eliminated. The regiment reached the crest of Hill 219 late on the night of 5 August. By the following morning it was evident that this was the best jump-off point for an assault against Vire.
By that time General Corlett had reached the conclusion that it would be unprofitable to continue to employ the 2d Armored Division's combat commands to spearhead the infantry division's attacks. The broken terrain and the lack of a good road net made the area basically unsuitable for armored operations. The corps commander felt that the tanks could add little to infantry capabilities, in fact they actually clogged the few available roads and impeded the infantry advance. Furthermore, during the five days between 1 and 6 August, the combat commands had sustained
about 450 casualties, a large number for armored troops and not commensurate with the gains.39 Feeling that the armored division could be employed better elsewhere, General Corlett instructed General Brooks to move the 2d Armored Division off the roads in order to let the 28th and 29th Divisions pass through. The armored division--with the exception of CCA on Hill 219, designated now as the XIX Corps reserve--assembled and prepared to move into the VII Corps zone. Meanwhile, the 28th Division made ready to continue southeastward to Gathemo and beyond, and the 29th Division completed preliminary consolidation for the assault on Vire.
Just before dark on 6 August, the 116th Infantry descended the steep east slope of Hill 219. The men moved in single file through dense underbrush and over thick outcroppings into a narrow ravine at the bottom of the hill. They were more interested in speed than in concealment, for the Germans did not wait long before beginning to shell the route of advance. Protected to a degree by the sharp angle of declivity and the narrowness of the gully, the assault troops crossed a shallow stream at the bottom of the hill and climbed the opposite wall of the ravine. Rushing in small groups across a shell-pocked secondary road, the troops ran up a gently sloping hill and into the town of Vire.
Buildings set ablaze by artillery threw a pall of smoke over the town, and piles of rubble blocked the streets. The exercise of command even at company level was difficult during the street fighting, but men of the 116th Infantry displayed individual initiative and judgment and worked efficiently in small groups to clear the town. Prisoners constituted a problem in the darkness, and many escaped after capture. By dawn of 7 August the regiment had secured Vire and had set up blocking positions on five roads leading east and south from the town. The 29th Division officially reported the capture of Vire, as the Germans systematically began to shell the town.
The 29th Division sustained nearly a thousand casualties while advancing the ten miles from Tessy through Vire, in the process achieving its third major victory in less than a month: St. Lô, Tessy, and Vire.40 Yet the gain of twenty miles from St. Lô to Vire must have seemed to the troops hardly fair compensation for so much weariness and pain.
The First Army achievements during the first six days of August were somewhat inconclusive even though the objectives deemed essential for continued operations--Mortain and Vire-- were in American possession and even though undiminished pressure had forced a withdrawal that the enemy, by his determined resistance, had demonstrated he was unwilling to make. By capturing the Fôret de St. Sever the Americans denied the Germans excellent observation and cover and came into control of an extensive road net.41
Despite these accomplishments, the First Army was still short of its objectives in the Sourdeval area, and a twenty-mile gap lay open in the right portion of
Clearing Operations in Vire
the army front between the 1st Division at Ambrières-le-Grand and the 30th Division at Mortain. Stubborn resistance in the Sourdeval-Gathemo salient despite a developing American threat of encirclement perplexed American commanders. General Hodges on 4 August thought there might be some German strength coming west toward the salient and in order "to stop them as short as possible" he had approved a suggestion made by General Collins. In view of the slow XIX Corps advance south from Tessy, Collins proposed to push the VII Corps almost due east to Gathemo and thus intrude on the XIX Corps zone. However, the VII Corps continued to have difficulties in its own zone, the XIX Corps rate of advance improved, and the original boundaries remained in effect.
Determined enemy resistance in the center, evidence of increasing strength among German forces, and the gap in the VII Corps zone promoted caution on the part of the First Army. It was this that had kept the First Army from exploiting the fluid situation on the German left "with impunity" as had the Third.42
The failure to eliminate the opposition
that had crystalized around Sourdeval was like an ominous cloud marring an otherwise clear summer sky. Optimism obscured some of the cloud's meaning. The cloud actually foreshadowed a storm.
British troops had also threatened the town of Vire during the first week in August as the 8 Corps of the Second British Army right flank continued the drive south begun from Caumont on 30 July. Although patrols of the 11th Armoured Division had reached a point a little more than a mile north of Vire on 2 August, antitank fire by the 3d Parachute Division forced a withdrawal. On the following day paratroopers, aided by parts of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions under II SS Panzer Corps control, counterattacked exposed British flanks and encircled a small armored force, causing the armor to halt temporarily.43 The 11th Armoured then resumed the attack toward the southeast and advanced through le Bény-Bocage, across the Vire-Condé-sur-Noireau road, and into position to threaten Tinchebray and Flers by 6 August. (See Map IX.)
The 30 British Corps, in the center of General Dempsey's army, had struck southeast on 30 July from the vicinity of Villers-Bocage toward Thury-Harcourt and the Orne River. Stubborn resistance and rugged terrain centering on the thousand-foot height of Mt. Pinçon denied rapid advance, but the British nevertheless secured a foothold on the slopes of the high ground. On 5 August Dempsey broadened his attack, and two days later the 12 Corps crossed the Orne River between Mt. Pinçon and Caen, securing a shallow bridgehead.
Meanwhile, the 2d Canadian Corps of the First Canadian Army had mounted several holding attacks in the Caen sector to prevent the Germans from shifting reinforcements to other sectors under Allied attack. Even as General Crerar thus sought to divert the Germans, his main concern was to prepare a major effort to be launched south of Caen toward Falaise.44
Plans for a major attack from Caen toward Falaise revealed the development of General Montgomery's intentions. The strategic decision reached by the Allies early in August involved a drive to the Seine, but the first step toward the Seine was the clearance of the area west of the Orne. General Eisenhower had pointed this out as early as 31 July when he wrote: "With the Canadian Army fighting intensively to prevent enemy movement away from the Caen area, Dempsey's attack coupled with Bradley's will clean up the area west of the Orne once and for all."45
Several days later, General Montgomery was thinking beyond the Orne. By 4 August he felt that the enemy front was "in such a state that it could be made to disintegrate completely." He had concluded that "the only hope" the Germans had of saving their armies was a "staged withdrawal to the Seine." By swinging the Allied right flank "round
towards Paris," Montgomery could hasten and disrupt the withdrawal and force the Germans back against the Seine and its destroyed bridges.
If the Germans withdrew to the Seine, as Montgomery thought they must, their immediate move logically would be to positions east of the Orne River, generally along a line between Caen and Flers. If Montgomery could act quickly enough, a drive to the south from Caen to Falaise would place troops behind the preliminary German withdrawal to the Orne. If Crerar's troops secured Falaise, if Dempsey's troops reached Condé-sur-Noireau, and if enemy forces remained in between, the Germans would be "in a very awkward situation."
Thus, although the broader Allied strategy was an intent to pin the Germans back against the Seine, the immediate opportunity was present to "cut off the enemy now facing Second Army and render their withdrawing east difficult--if not impossible." Destroying enemy personnel and equipment would be but the beginning of a "wide exploitation of success," presumably meaning exploitation on a wide front toward the Seine. The main instrument of destruction was to be the First Canadian Army making ready to attack toward Falaise "as early as possible and in any case not later than 8 August."46
Two days after stating these plans, General Montgomery explained his intentions more specifically. As Montgomery saw the situation on 6 August, the Germans faced dismal alternatives in making the withdrawal that seemed to Montgomery the only course open to them. If they tried to utilize a series of delaying positions between the Caen-Vire line and the Seine, they would be unable to hold any long front in strength. With relatively few troops available, it would be impossible for the Germans to retain a pivot point at Caen for the withdrawal and simultaneously to restore the crumbled left flank. In the absence of established alternate lines in the rear, the Germans could not let go both ends of the line. If the Germans persisted in holding Caen, they offered the Allies the opportunity of swinging completely around their left and cutting off their escape. If they endeavored to buttress their encircled left flank and thereby weakened their pivot point, they gave the Allies access to the shortest route to the Seine. In either case, the Germans invited destruction of their forces west of the Seine River.
General Montgomery accepted the invitation with alacrity, announcing his intention to destroy the enemy forces within the boundaries of the OVERLORD lodgment area. He planned to pivot the Allied armies on the left, swing hard with the right toward Paris, drive the Germans against the Seine, and crush them before they could repair the destroyed bridges to evacuate their retreating forces.
Judging that the Germans would try to escape the COBRA consequences by accepting the lesser evil and pivoting on the Caen area as they fell back, Montgomery planned to unhinge the Germans' withdrawal by robbing them of their pivot point, Caen. General Crerar was to accomplish this by driving to Falaise, then attacking to the Seine along the Lisieux-Rouen axis. As a complementary
maneuver, General Dempsey was to push out in an arc, swinging southeast and then east, putting the main weight on the right flank. After moving through Argentan and Laigle, the British were to drive through the Dreux-Evreux area and prepare to cross the Seine between Mantes-Gassicourt and les Andelys. On the right, General Bradley's 12th Army Group was to make the main effort on the right flank, thrusting rapidly east and northeast toward Paris.
Speed, General Montgomery indicated, was the overwhelming requisite for success. Commanders were therefore to press forward boldly and take great risks. Destroying the enemy forces west of the Seine might be so damaging a blow, he thought, as to hasten the end of the war.47
In brief, General Montgomery's intentions were postulated on the belief that the Germans had no alternative but to withdraw to and across the Seine. On this premise he sought to disorganize, harass, and pursue them, transform their retreat into a rout, and destroy their forces in detail. The maneuver he ordered would swing three Allied armies into the German forces while the fourth Allied army would catapult forward to outrun them.48
General Bradley was not entirely convinced of the irresistible logic of Montgomery's interpretation. He ordered Patton to move toward le Mans and eventually toward the Paris-Orléans gap, and he ordered Hodges to seize the Domfront-Ambrières-le-Grand area as a preliminary for a drive toward Alençon. But he was concerned by the fact that the Germans might turn and leap. They were capable, Bradley judged, of assembling strong armored forces in the vicinity of Domfront, and from there they might attack westward toward Avranches.49
Like Bradley, Hodges felt that because the German left flank was still "floating," it was reasonable to expect a German counterattack aimed at arresting American momentum.50 Similarly, but more specifically, Haislip had pointed out that a German counterattack toward Avranches with the purpose of separating American forces north and south of the Sée and Sélune Rivers was "a distinct capability."51
Despite these warnings, commanders were in no mood to listen to what seemed to be prophets of gloom. Without worrying about what the Germans might do, the Allies pursued their own offensive plans. While Crerar prepared to jump off toward Falaise, while Dempsey made ready to push southeast toward Argentan, while Hodges displaced part of his forces southward to take up the pursuit toward Alençon, and while Patton was sending the XV Corps eastward toward le Mans, the Germans disregarded Montgomery's logic. In their first large-scale counterattack since the invasion two months earlier, the Germans turned and sprang westward toward Avranches.
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