General Bradley was responsible for the conduct of American operations in Normandy. His mild and modest manner might easily have led those who did not know him to underestimate his qualities as a commander in combat. But General Eisenhower judged that he had "brains, a fine capacity for leadership, and a thorough understanding of the requirements of modern battle."1 General Bradley was to prove more than equal to his tasks.
During most of his early career General Bradley had alternated between assignments at the U.S. Military Academy and the Infantry School, both as student and instructor. After Pearl Harbor, as a division commander, he directed in turn the training activities of two divisions. He received his first overseas assignment as deputy commander of General Patton's II Corps, in North Africa. When General Patton relinquished the corps command in order to form the Seventh U.S. Army headquarters for the invasion of Sicily, General Bradley became the corps commander for the remainder of the North African campaign and the operations in Sicily. In the fall of 1943 he was called to England to command both the U.S. 1st Army Group and U.S. First Army. As commander of the 1st Army Group, General Bradley supervised the planning of the U.S. ground units that were to participate in OVERLORD.2 As commander of the First Army, he directed the American elements in the invasion assault.3 Under the control of General Montgomery, temporarily the Allied ground commander, General Bradley, as the senior American field commander on the Continent, enjoyed a far wider latitude of action than would normally have been granted him had he been directly under an American commander.4 The land force that General Bradley commanded at the beginning of July consisted of four corps headquarters and thirteen divisions--nine infantry, two armored, and two airborne. Not all the units had been tested and proved by
combat, but except for one armored and two infantry divisions all had had some battle experience during June. Scheduled to lose both airborne divisions in the near future, General Bradley momentarily expected the arrival of two additional infantry divisions and soon thereafter several armored divisions.
Even while the focus of the U.S. First Army effort had been directed north toward Cherbourg in June, General Bradley had tried to get an American attack to the south started. General Montgomery had urged him not to wait until Cherbourg fell before extending his operations southward toward la Haye-du-Puits and Coutances. General Eisenhower had reminded Bradley to "rush the preparations for the attack to the south with all possible speed," before the Germans could rally and seal off the First Army in the Cotentin.5
The attack had depended on the arrival in France of the VIII Corps, a headquarters assigned to the U.S. Third Army but attached temporarily to the First. Operational on the Continent on 15 June, the VIII Corps had assumed control of those forces holding a line across the base of the Cotentin Peninsula and had protected the rear area of the troops driving toward Cherbourg. General Bradley had instructed the VIII Corps commander to attack to the south on 22 June, but the Channel storm of 19-21 June disrupted logistical operations and caused a temporary shortage of artillery ammunition. Because the Cherbourg operation and the attack to the south could not be supported simultaneously, the VIII Corps offensive was postponed.6
On the day that Cherbourg fell--26 June--General Bradley had again directed the advance south toward Coutances, this time to begin on or about 1 July, VIII Corps moving out first and the other corps following on army order. Once more the operation had to be delayed because tactical regrouping and logistical arrangements were not completed in time.7
On the last day of June General Bradley received from General Montgomery the formal instructions that were to govern his action in July. Montgomery took his cue from the NEPTUNE plan, which had projected a wheeling movement, as opposed to a north-south axis of advance in the OVERORD plan, and directed the U.S. First Army to pivot on its left in the Caumont area. Wheeling south and east in a wide turn, the First Army was to find itself, upon completion of the maneuver, facing east along a north--south line from Caumont, through Vire and Mortain, to Fougeres, its right flank near the entrance into Brittany. At this point in the operations General Patton's Third U.S. Army was to become operational and move south and west to seize Brittany, while the First Army, in conjunction with the British and Canadian forces on the left, was to advance east toward the Seine and Paris. Desiring "drive and energy," General Montgomery wanted General
Bradley, once started, to continue without pause.8
General Bradley's revised and final order disclosed his intention to accomplish his mission in several phases. He named the Coutances-Caumont line as the immediate objective of the First Army attack that was to start on 3 July. The main effort was to be made in the Cotentin.9
Not all of the U.S. troops were in the Cotentin. In the left portion of the army sector, east of the Vire River, Americans lightly held a salient in bo-cage terrain, where the small hills, while not particularly favorable for offensive action, were not discouragingly adverse. Since the middle of June, while the major portion of the American strength had been operating against Cherbourg on the army right, the troops near St. Lô and Caumont had remained inactive because General Bradley had been unwilling to divert to them resources needed for the drive on Cherbourg, and because offensive activity on the left could have extended the salient and perhaps opened a gap between the American and the British forces.10 It was this latter factor that prompted General Bradley to initiate the attack to the south across the damp spongy ground of the Carentan plain. (See Map I.)
At the conclusion of the attack on the right, and with his troops holding the Coutances-St. Lô-Caumont line, General Bradley would have his entire army on firm dry ground, terrain suitable for offense by mechanized forces. At that time, as the elements on both sides of the Vire River would be on similar terrain, he would be able to deliver an attack with equal effectiveness from either his left or his right. Then he would be ready to begin another operation in further compliance with General Montgomery's directive to wheel on his left to the Fougeres-Mortain-Vire-Caumont line. But first Bradley had to move the forces on his right across the waterlogged area west of Carentan.
This swampy terrain was a natural position for defense. There, in 1940, the French had established a line and had endeavored to prevent the Germans from capturing Cherbourg. In 1944 the Germans were holding approximately the same positions they had occupied four years earlier, but this time they were on the defensive.11 The area was excellent for defense because of the prairies marécageuses. Large marshes sometimes below sea level, the prairies appear to be ancient arms of the sea, land partially reclaimed from the ocean. Open spaces that seem absolutely flat, they are breaks in the hedgerow country providing long vistas across desolate bogs.
There are five of these large swamps on the Carentan plain. Four are located along rivers draining into the Carentan bay--the Merderet, the Douve, the Taute, and the Vire. The river beds are so close to sea level that the water does not flow at a discernible rate of speed but rather oozes toward the ocean; often the streams appear stagnant. The fifth marsh or bog, called
the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges, is about twelve square miles in size and lies southwest of Carentan. These major swamps and many smaller marshes comprise nearly half the area of the Carentan plain.
From the height of an adjacent hill the prairies seem at first glance to be pastureland, though the grass is neither bright nor lush. A base of brown dims the lustre of the vegetation like a blight. This is peat, semicarbonized vegetable tissue formed by partial decomposition in water, plant masses varying in consistency from turf to slime. Impassable in the winter when rain and snow turn them into shallow ponds, the prairies in the summer are forage ground for cattle. Because the land is treacherously moist and soft, crossing the bogs on foot is hazardous, passage by vehicle impossible. In addition to numerous streams and springs that keep the earth soggy, mudholes and stagnant pools, as well as a network of canals and ditches, some intended for drainage and others originally primitive routes of transportation, close the marshland to wheeled traffic except over tarred causeways that link settlements together.
Adjacent to the marshes and comprising the other half of the Carentan plain is hedgerowed lowland suitable for farming. Barely above the level of the swamps, the lowland frequently appears to consist of "islands" or "peninsulas," wholly or partially surrounded by marshland.
Because swamps comprise so much of the region, the arable land is divided into tiny fragments of ownership. Since the fields are smaller than those in the bocage, the hedgerows are more numerous. The excessive moisture of the lowlands stimulates growth to the point where the luxuriant vegetation is almost tropical in richness, and the hedgerows are higher and thicker. The ground is hardly less soft than the neighboring marshes because of a high water table.
Since the swamps are impassable to a modern mechanized army, the hedgerowed lowland of the Carentan plain, even though of precarious consistency, had to sustain General Bradley's projected operations in July. But the co-existence of lowland and marsh presented him with strictly limited avenues of advance. To proceed through the Cotentin, U.S. troops had to advance within well-defined corridors blocked by huge hedgerows.
The Germans had emphasized this natural condition by flooding much of the moist swampland and transforming it into lakes. They had constructed concrete dams to keep fresh-water streams from reaching the sea and had reversed the automatic locks of the dams originally constructed to hold back the sea at high tide. In the summer of 1944 the marshland was covered with water.12 The insular or peninsular character of
the corridors of advance was thereby intensified.
The U.S. forces by the beginning of July had secured jump-off positions on the dry land of the Carentan plain. These were obvious to the Germans, who held superior ground on the bocage hills that ring the Cotentin marshes. With excellent observation of American movements, the Germans were able to mass their fires with such accuracy that American commanders warned drivers against halting their vehicles at crossroads, near bridges, or in towns; drivers were to proceed briskly through intersections, to take cover during a forced halt, and, if not able to camouflage their vehicles when stopped, to get clear without delay.13 Even far behind the front, care had to be exercised. When a tank destroyer unit disregarded the warnings of military police and crossed a bridge on a main route three miles behind the front line, a division provost marshal renounced his "responsibility" for the safety of that unit.14
Three corridors of advance lead through the Carentan plain, each marked by a road. One goes along the west coast of the Cotentin from la Haye-du-Puits to Coutances. Another runs from Carentan southwest to Périers. The third goes south from Carentan to St. Lô. General Bradley decided to make his main effort along the coastal road, for that corridor is the widest and the ground the most firm. Along this axis, but in reverse, the Germans had broken through the French defenses in 1940 and gained Cherbourg.
The VIII Corps, which comprised the army right flank on the west coast of the Cotentin, was to advance through la Haye-du-Puits to Coutances, a longer distance than that down the corridors leading south from Carentan to Périers and St. Lô. By having VIII Corps begin its advance first, General Bradley expected all the army elements to reach the objective line at the same time. The VII Corps, alerted to advance along the Carentan-Périers axis, and that part of the XIX Corps west of the Vire River, positioned for an advance from Carentan toward St. Lô, were to go into action in turn, from right (west) to left (east).
Although General Bradley thus exposed himself to criticism for piecemeal commitment, he had no other logical choice.15 The VII Corps headquarters, which had hurried south from Cherbourg to take a sector at Carentan, needed time for orientation. The XIX Corps required troops that were in the process of arriving from the landing beaches. But with higher headquarters impatiently demanding that the offensive to the south get underway at once, and with the attack having been postponed twice before, General Bradley felt that he could not delay. Furthermore, waiting until all units could attack simultaneously would give the enemy more opportunity to prepare his defenses, an opportunity the Germans had certainly exploited during the previous two-week period of inactivity.
Although most of the Americans facing the hedgerow and marshy terrain of the Cotentin were aware of the difficulties to come, the opposite had been
true before the invasion. American officers for the most part had known little of the hedgerow country. Few had seen the hedgerows, and air photos gave no real appreciation of what they were like. If most American commanders had not been able to visualize hedgerow fighting, most of the soldiers had not even been able to imagine a hedgerow. Not until the U.S. troops entered the hedgerows in June had they begun to have an idea of how effectively the terrain could be used for defense.16
The hedgerow fighting in June had been so difficult that many units made special studies of the problem. Most concluded that the principles of tactics taught at The Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, applied in this terrain as elsewhere. The task was to pin the enemy down with a base of fire and maneuver an element along a covered approach to assault from the flank. In Normandy the lateral hedgerows marked not only the successive lines of advance and the positions for a base of fire but also the enemy defensive positions; hedges parallel to the line of advance could be made to serve as covered approach routes.
As this technique developed in June, a refinement emerged. The tank-infantry team operating toward a short objective and with a simple plan proved to be effective. The objective was always the same, the next hedgerow. The plan was to provide for simultaneous advance of armor and infantry and their mutual support. As it usually worked out, a tank platoon supporting an infantry company fired through the lateral hedge that marked the line of departure and sprayed the flank hedgerows and the far side of the field to be taken with covering fire. The infantry advanced along the flank hedges to the next lateral row and cleared the enemy out at close range. With the field thus secured, one section of tanks moved forward, while the other remained temporarily at the rear to eliminate enemy troops that might suddenly appear from a concealed point or from an adjacent field. White phosphorus shells from 4.2-inch chemical mortars and artillery could be brought to bear on stubborn enemy groups.17 Advancing from one field to the next and clearing out individual hedgerows was a costly and slow procedure. It exhausted the troops and brought a high rate of casualties, but the slow plodding technique seemed necessary since "blitz action by tanks" was usually unsuccessful. A rapid armored advance generally resulted in only bypassing enemy groups that held up the infantry that was following.18
Several drawbacks complicated the simple type of small unit attack developed in June. One difficulty was moving armor through the hedgerows. The openings that already existed in the enclosures for wagons and cattle were well covered by German antitank gunners, and the appearance of an American tank prompted an immediate reaction. Although it was possible for a tank to climb the smaller hedgerow banks, the tank's most vulnerable part, the relatively lightly armored underbelly, was
thus exposed.19 Consequently, before a tank could protrude its guns and advance through a hedgerow, it was necessary for accompanying engineers to blast a hole through the hedgerow wall and open a passage for the tank. The explosion immediately attracted German attention to the point where armor was to breach the hedgerow, and enemy antitank weapons were not slow in covering the new opening.
The old sunken roads between the hedgerows were another hazard. So deep that they screened men and light vehicles from observation, these lanes, one observer said, "might have been made for ambush."20 The highways of the region, narrow tarred roads, were adequate for mechanized forces, but the hedgerows that lined them gave excellent concealment to hostile troops.
The fields were so small and the hedgerows consequently so numerous that the opposing forces fought at close range. U.S. troops armed with the M1 rifle, a weapon more effective at long ranges, were somewhat at a disadvantage. Submachine guns, more useful for clearing hedgerows at short ranges, and rifle-grenade launchers, particularly suitable for firing over the hedges at short distances, were in too short supply to be made available to all troops. There was also a shortage of white phosphorus shells, effective in clearing hedgerow corners of enemy strongpoints.21
A serious hindrance to American operations in hedgerow country was the lack of observation posts in the flat area of irregularly shaped fields, where it was impossible to anticipate the pattern of the hedgerow enclosures. Hedgerows and fields all resembled each other. There were few terrain features to serve as general objectives, as geographical markers, or as guiding points for small units. Consequently, small units had difficulty identifying their map locations with accuracy. Directional confusion often existed. Constant surveillance and frequent regrouping were necessary to maintain correct orientation.
Because the Germans occupied superior terrain in the surrounding bocage, American offensive movement brought immediate enemy artillery and mortar fire, deadly fire that had been carefully registered in advance. American counterbattery fire was difficult, for the hedgerows limited observation and prevented accurate adjustment of fire from the ground. Scaling ladders were in demand to place observers in trees, but forward observers were loath to climb trees for vantage points because of the danger of being shot by nervous Americans (many Americans were not yet experienced in battle and tended to be overalert to the possibility of enemy snipers). So extreme had this situation become in June that one division forbade its troops in the rear of the assault elements to fire into trees unless a hostile act had been committed; the division
recommended that forward observers place red streamers in the foliage and a guard at the base of any tree they used for observation purposes.22 Small cub planes, organic equipment of artillery units, were excellent for reconnaissance, observation, and adjustment of artillery fire, but rain and overcast skies frequently kept them grounded in the Cotentin.
Another complication was the general absence in combat units of smooth-working tank-infantry-engineer-artillery teams. Preinvasion training had not developed such teams, and instructions during combat, however exact, could not produce proficient units in short order.
The most obvious weakness of the American ground attack during June was the tank-infantry team. Many infantry commanders did not know how to use tanks properly in support, and many tank commanders did not realize how best to render assistance in a given situation. "The development of operational procedures and techniques between the infantry and close support tanks must not be left until the arrival in the combat zone," an army report stated, but that was the situation exactly.23 The infantry divisions had not had sufficient training with separate tank battalions, even though the latter units were normally division attachments. To remedy this situation, a tank battalion attached to a division in Normandy continued, insofar as possible, to be associated with that division throughout the campaign. Eventually, this developed mutual confidence and an awareness on the part of both of the individual peculiarities, the limitations, and the strengths of each. By the beginning of July, sufficient time had not elapsed to produce smoothly functioning tank-infantry teams.
The greatest problem in achieving adequate tank-infantry co-ordination was that of communication. The difficulty of on-the-spot co-ordination between an infantry platoon leader taking cover in a ditch and a commander buttoned up in his tank was a continual complaint that plagued the operations of tank-infantry teams, a universal problem not limited to Normandy.24 Because voice command could not always be heard above the sounds of battle and the noises of tank motors, hand signals had to be worked out and smoke signals and pyrotechnic devices prearranged. Riflemen guiding tanks sometimes had to get in front and jump up and down to get the attention of a driver. Eventually a tanker would stick his head through a turret hatch and take the message.25 Because armor and infantry radios operated on different channels, division signal companies in Normandy installed in the tanks infantry-type radios that could be tuned to the infantry radio net. To avoid the frustration that sometimes compelled infantrymen to pound their fists on tanks in vain efforts to claim the attention of tankers peering through tiny slits, Signal companies attached to the outside of tanks microphones or telephones connected with the tank intercommunication
system. Nevertheless, the development of smoothly functioning combinations had to attend the evolution through combat of elements accustomed to working in unison in mutual confidence and with a minimum of overt direction.26
While infantry platoons trained with tanks as much as possible in Normandy, engineers made up explosive charges to blast tank-sized openings in hedgerows. Engineers in those divisions facing water obstacles assembled sections of bridging for future river and canal crossings. Above all, commanders tried to indoctrinate the individual soldier with the idea that continuous and aggressive advance was the best assurance of safety in the hedgerow terrain.
At the beginning of July, those Americans who had fought in the hedgerow country during the preceding month had no illusions about instituting a major drive through that type of terrain. Added to the difficulties of the terrain was the weather. In June clammy cold rain had kept the swamps flooded, slowed road traffic, neutralized Allied air superiority, concealed enemy movements and dispositions, and left the individual soldier wet, muddy, and dispirited. During the first weeks of July almost incessant rain was to continue.
In addition to problems of terrain and weather, Americans were facing a meticulous and thorough enemy, troops well dug in and well camouflaged, soldiers holding excellent defensive positions. Bolstering the defenses were tanks superior in protective armor and in fire power to those available to the Americans.
The German tank employed in large numbers in western Europe was the Mark IV, a medium tank of 23 tons with a 75-mm. gun.27 The standard combat vehicle of tank battalions in armored divisions, it presented no frightening aspect of invulnerability. The Mark V or Panther, on the other hand, weighing 45 tons and carrying a high-velocity 75mm. gun, had appeared in Normandy during June in limited numbers and with good effect. Panthers were beginning to be distributed to tank battalions organic to armored divisions. Although the Allies had not yet made contact in Europe with the Mark VI or Tiger, knowledge acquired in North Africa of its 56-ton weight and 88-mm. gun was hardly reassuring. This tank was reserved for separate battalions distributed on the basis of one to an armored corps. Reports of a modified Mark VI, the King or Royal Tiger, weighing 67 tons, mounting an improved 88-mm. gun, and beginning
to appear in the west, increased Allied concern.28
In contrast, the heaviest British tank used in Europe, the Churchill, was not quite 40 tons, while the all-purpose Sherman, the American medium tank used by the British as well, weighed only 30. Most of the Shermans mounted the relatively low-powered 75-mm. gun at this time, although a few carried a 76mm. gun or a 105-mm. howitzer. The primary weapon of the American light tank was the 37-mm. gun, although a few were beginning to be equipped with the 75-mm. gun.
Though German tanks were more heavily armed and armored than Allied tanks, they had the disadvantages of being less mobile and less dependable mechanically. Also, in contrast with Allied armor, they lacked a power-driven traversing turret; the German hand-operated firing turrets could not compete with those of the Allied tanks, but they were more than adequate for long-range action.
American antitank weapons and ammunition were not generally effective against the frontal armor of the heavier German tanks. It was necessary to attack enemy tanks from the flanks, and the restricted terrain and narrow roads of the hedgerow country made this difficult. Even from the flanks, American weapons were not wholly effective. Only the 2.36-inch rocket launcher, the bazooka carried by the individual soldier, could be employed with any hope of consistent success.
Although experiments were being made in the United States to improve the armor-piercing quality of ammunition, General Eisenhower in early July wrote to General George C. Marshall, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, "We cannot wait for further experimentation."29 The 90-mm. guns, organic at this time to the antiaircraft artillery gun battalions, seemed to offer a means to improve antitank defense and armor capabilities in the attack. But greater numbers of this weapon were needed, both for tank destroyers and for tanks. So urgent was this need that General Eisenhower sent a special representative to the United States to expedite not only delivery of the 90-mm. guns but also research on improved armor-piercing ammunition. At the same time, in the field General Bradley was attaching 90-mm. antiaircraft artillery gun battalions to ground combat elements for defense against armor, since the weapon of this unit was the only one "sure to penetrate" the front of the heavier German tanks.30
At the end of June the apparent superiority of German tanks seemed particularly serious. Searching for evidence of a forthcoming enemy counterattack against the Allied foothold, Allied intelligence estimated that 230 Mark IV, 150 Mark V (Panther), and 40 Mark VI (Tiger) tanks faced the Allies. To these could be added the tanks of three elite
divisions assembling one hundred miles west of Paris--about 200 Mark IV, 150 Panther, and 80 Tiger tanks. These constituted a sizable armored force, especially if, as seemed likely, the Germans were to employ them in a massive counterattack.31
Impressed by the "formidable array" of German panzer divisions on the British front, eight definitely identified and more on the way, 21 Army Group warned that a "full blooded counterattack" seemed imminent. In agreement, First Army pointed to the British-American boundary and to the Périers-Carentan area as the two most likely places for an enemy counterattack.32
The First Army G-2, Col. Benjamin A. Dickson, was disturbed by the postponements of the First Army attack to the south in June. He felt that the II SS Panzer Corps (controlling the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions), arriving in Normandy from the Eastern Front, might not be fully assembled by 1 July, but that it was certain to be entirely assembled two days later, when American operations in the Cotentin were scheduled to start. An immediate First Army attack, on 1 July, might force the commitment of the German armored units in defense rather than in a counterattack. Furthermore, a panzer division and two infantry divisions were moving into Normandy from the Fifteenth Army Pas-de-Calais area. If the Americans attacked at once, they might prevent the Germans from deploying these forces in orderly defensive dispositions. Other elements of the Fifteenth Army, still immobilized by the threat of Fortitude, could not possibly reach the First Army battle area by 1 July, but they might conceivably do so by 3 July. Finally, delaying the attack until 3 July allowed the enemy two more days to improve his positions, perfect his communications, and establish a sound supply situation in the "rather good natural defensive line" selected in front of the U.S. forces.33 Despite these disadvantages of postponing the attack beyond 1 July, General Bradley's offensive was not to get underway for two more days. This then was the situation of the U.S. First Army just before it began its July offensive, an attack pointed through a
flooded pastoral region of ten thousand little fields enclosed by hedgerows. Through this region made for ambush, where the German defenders had dug into the hedgerow banks and erected strong defenses, the Americans were to fight from field to field, from hedgerow to hedgerow, measuring the progress of their advance in yards. Over it all a steady rain was to pour, and the odors of the Normandy soil were to mingle with the smell of decaying flesh and become part of the war.
At the beginning of July the Germans in the west were in the midst of important command changes. Generalfeldmarschall Guenther von Kluge, who had commanded an army group on the Eastern Front for two and a half years, was arriving to replace Rundstedt as commander in chief in the west. General der Panzertruppen Heinrich Eberbach, formerly a corps commander on the Eastern Front and an outstanding armor officer, was about to relieve Geyr as commander of Panzer Group West. Hausser, formerly commander of the II SS Panzer Corps had recently become commander of the Seventh Army, taking the place of Dollman, who had died of a heart attack. Of the high-ranking officers who had met the Allied invasion less than a month earlier, Rommel, commander of Army Group B, remained as the single veteran with experience against the British and Americans.
Deeply impressed by the Allied success and the German failure in June, Rommel felt that errors in tactical deployment and in handling reserves had contributed to a large extent to the situation at the beginning of July.34 He also believed that OB WEST's lack of certain command prerogatives had been detrimental to the German effort; he recommended that OB WEST be given command over all the elements in the theater, including Navy and Air, "like Montgomery's" headquarters.35
Aware of Rommel's capacity for enthusiasm and despair, Hitler had alerted Kluge to the possibility that Rommel might be a difficult subordinate. But when Kluge visited Rommel soon after his arrival in the west, he found that they were agreed on the course of action
Field Marshal von Kluge
to be followed: "Unconditional holding of the present defense line. . . . Improvement of the present lines forward, i.e. by attack after most careful preparation where it appears profitable. Fortification of the sector behind the front by all means available."36
The two sectors of the army group front were dissimilar. Eberbach, who had the mission of keeping Montgomery from getting across the Caen plain toward Paris, deepened the defense of Panzer Group West. He feared that if his troops occupied a shallow line of resistance in dense concentrations they would be destroyed by British artillery. He therefore planned to keep one third of his infantry on a lightly held outpost line and on his main line of resistance. The remainder of the infantry was to hold successive positions behind the main line to a depth of about 2,000 yards. Rear echelon troops and reserves were to construct alternate positions from 1,000 to 6,000 yards behind the front. These defenses, plus interlocking firing positions backed up by the antiaircraft artillery of the III Flak Corps in a ground role, were to prevent British armor from making a breakthrough. Behind the static defense positions, emergency reserves consisting of tank-infantry teams were to be ready to move to threatened points of penetration. Finally, if the British nevertheless broke through the defenses, panzer divisions in operational reserve were to be prepared to seal off the openings.
This was deep-zone defense and effective utilization of resources for a defensive mission. During July, Eberbach was to attempt with partial success to replace his armor on the front with infantry units arriving to reinforce the sector.37
Hausser, in command of the Seventh Army, with fewer troops but better defensive terrain than Eberbach, organized what in comparison appeared to be a shallow defense. Behind the outpost line and the main line of resistance, both sparsely manned in order to bolster the reserves, the bulk of the troops were grouped into local reserves capable of launching counterattacks with the support of tanks and assault guns. Although Hausser's Seventh Army lacked the fire power of Eberbach's Panzer Group West, it had plenty of assault guns. Superior to tanks in fire power, they were effective weapons that Americans habitually mistook for tanks.
In the Seventh Army sector the Germans expected a type of combat they called "bush warfare." Battle in the hedgerows was to be fought according to the pattern of active defense. Anticipating that the Americans would advance in small parallel tank-infantry columns, the Germans planned to meet them by having a reserve commander lead his small unit in a counterattack against the American flank--if he could find it. "We cannot do better," the Germans reported, exactly as their American adversaries often stated, "than
to adopt the methods of combat of the enemy with all his ruses and tricks."38
Because of the planning for offensive action in June, the bulk of German strength was still concentrated in the Caen sector under Panzer Group West. In comparison, the Seventh Army, with a defensive mission of preventing the Americans from driving south, was expecting the imminent arrival of a single armored division. The army had three relatively fresh infantry-type divisions four composite units of battered troops that were divisions in name alone, one detached parachute regiment, and three kampfgruppen. Of two sorts, kampfgruppen were mobile combat teams of regimental size formed from static of infantry divisions with organic or requisitioned transport to meet the crisis of the invasion, or they were improvised field formations used to organize remnants of combat units. The kampfgruppen in the Seventh Army sector at the beginning of July were of the first type; during July many were to become the second sort.
The Seventh Army had two corps, the II Parachute and the LXXXIV. The II Parachute Corps, which had moved from Brittany in mid-June, held a sixteen-mile sector between the Vire and the Drome Rivers. Responsible for the St. Lô-Caumont area, the corps controlled two divisions and two kampfgruppen.
On the extreme left (west) of the German positions in Normandy, the LXXXIV Corps faced the Americans in the Cotentin. The initial corps commander, Marcks, had been killed early in June, and OKW had appointed Generalleutnant Dietrich von Choltitz to take his place. While Choltitz was traveling from the Italian front to take up his new post, General der Artillerie Wilhelm Fahrmbacher had temporarily left his corps command in Brittany to lead the LXXXIV Corps in the Cotentin. Choltitz assumed command on 18 June, and Fahrmbacher returned to Brittany.
Responsible for the area west of the Vire River to the Cotentin west coast, Choltitz in reality had two sectors separated by the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges. A panzer grenadier division, reinforced by an infantry kampfgruppe and a separate parachute regiment, defended on the right (east). On the left, elements of five infantry divisions were deployed in an outpost position and on a main line of resistance. Desiring a deeper defense, Choltitz had on his own initiative delineated additional lines of defense in the rear, lines he had not divulged to higher headquarters for fear of appearing to controvert Hitler's instructions to hold fast. In the center and to the rear, a parachute regiment, under OKW control, constituted the corps reserve.
The strength of the German defenses in the Cotentin stemmed not so much from the quality or the number of the troops as from the nature of the terrain occupied. The soldiers of the static coastal divisions that had met the initial onslaught of the Allied invasion were older personnel, many of limited duty, equipped for the most part with a variety of weapons that were not the most modern. These units, as well as others that had arrived later, had sustained very heavy losses during the June fighting.
Yet the ground they held in the Cotentin was so favorable for defense that the Germans could look forward with confidence to the forthcoming American attack.
American preoccupation with Cherbourg in June and the German decision to contest not that main effort but the anticipated drive to the south had resulted in a two-week respite in the Cotentin that the Germans had used to advantage. They had fashioned a coherent defense.39
Despite excellent defensive preparations--Eberbach facing the British with a deep-zone defense, Hausser facing the Americans and utilizing the terrain to advantage--holding the line in Normandy was a gamble. As Rundstedt and Rommel had pointed out, if the Allies succeeded in penetrating the German positions, the absence of defensive lines between Normandy and the German border meant that the Germans would have to withdraw from France. Lacking mobility comparable to that of the Allies meant that the withdrawal would probably turn into retreat and rout. Yet the fact was that the German troops held the best positions they could hope for in France. The line was relatively short; the terrain was naturally strong; the battlefield imposed serious restrictions on Allied deployment. Only a small sector of open ground near Caen was difficult to defend. With reserves on the way, the Germans could reasonably hope to hold out until the decisive counterattack or the miracle promised by Hitler turned the course of the war.
Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (2) * Next Chapter (4)