The Offensive Broadened
In keeping with the desire of Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery to get the American offensive to the south under way, General Bradley had lost no time in redeploying the VII Corps from Cherbourg. As the Cherbourg operation was ending on the last day of June, Bradley ordered the VII Corps headquarters to move to Carentan immediately to assume responsibility for an area on the left (east) of the VIII Corps.1
The Carentan--Périers Isthmus
The new VII Corps sector, between the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges and the flooded Taute River, covered the shallowest part of the Allied beachhead. Through Carentan passed the only highway linking the U.S. troops in the Cotentin with the Allied forces east of the Taute River. The area was considered the weakest and most sensitive part of the entire First Army front. (Map 4)
A road center and small seaport, Carentan was extremely vulnerable to German attack. The VII Corps positions, facing southwest toward Périers, were only three and a half miles from the center of Carentan. A German counterattack in mid-June had come to within 500 yards of retaking the town, and German field artillery continued to interdict the town and the highway bridge across the Taute River.2 The First Army staff did not rule out the possibility that a determined German attack might overrun Carentan, cut the Allied beachhead in two, and deny the Allies lateral communication by land.3 Advancing the front line south of Carentan would eliminate these dangers and the nuisance of German shelling.
More important than these defensive considerations was the offensive motivation. The VII Corps objective was a portion of the Coutances-St. Lô highway. To reach the objective the corps had to pass through a narrow and well-defined corridor constricted by adjacent marshes. Resembling an isthmus two to three miles wide, the corridor between Carentan and Périers severely limited the amount of strength that corps could bring to bear. Only after reaching the Périers-St. Lô highway would VII Corps have adequate room for deploying its forces, and there, south of the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges, the VII Corps
Map 4. Attack of VII Corps 4-7 July 1944
would be at a juncture with the VIII Corps. Continuing south, the two corps would come abreast at the Coutances-St. Lô highway, the final army objective. Should resistance disintegrate before the final objective was reached, General Bradley could use an armored division that he had in the army reserve to exploit the American success.4
General Bradley had thought of launching the VII Corps attack on 3 July, at the same time the VIII Corps jumped off, but he had decided to help VIII Corps on its first day of operations by giving it temporary control of the VII Corps Artillery. He therefore postponed the VII Corps effort until 4 July, when VII Corps was to regain control of its own artillery support. A battalion of 8-inch howitzers and several battalions of medium artillery from army were to reinforce the fires of the corps pieces.5
The VII Corps commander was Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, who as a lieutenant colonel three years earlier had been the corps chief of staff. In the Pacific he had commanded the 25th Division on Guadalcanal and New Georgia. The division code name, Lightning, seemed to describe General Collins' method of operation. As VII Corps commander, his direction of the invasion landings on UTAH Beach and his vigorous prosecution of the Cherbourg campaign had reinforced the suitability of his nickname, "Lightning Joe." Flushed with success and generating unbounded confidence, General Collins and his staff enthusiastically accepted the challenge presented by the new task assigned to the VII Corps.
The first problem that General Collins faced was how to use to best advantage in the constricted corps zone the three infantry divisions available to him. Retaining the 4th and 9th Infantry Divisions, which had participated in the Cherbourg operation, Collins on 2 July took control of the 83d Infantry Division, which was manning the Carentan sector. Little more than three miles from Carentan, one fourth of the way to Périers, the 83d Division held defensive positions across the narrow isthmus. Directing the 83d to advance a little over two miles to Sainteny, which was half way to Périers, Collins set the stage for committing at least part of another division. Hoping that the 83d Division would reach Sainteny in one day, he planned to have elements of the 4th Division go on to Périers on the second day. If on reaching Sainteny the 83d did not make contact with the VIII Corps attacking along the western edge of the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges, surely the 4th Division would meet the VIII Corps near Périers. At that point, if the 83d Division made a similar advance, crossed the Taute River, and gained its assigned portion of the Périers-St. Lô highway, enough terrain would be available to employ the 9th Division.
Though General Collins wanted the 83d Division to reach Sainteny in a day, he nevertheless recognized that the width of the Carentan-Périers isthmus might enable comparatively few enemy troops to hold up forces of superior numbers. To reach Sainteny, the 83d Division had to squeeze through the narrowest part, a neck scarcely two miles wide. Hedgerows restricted mechanized units to well-defined channels and gave
the enemy ideal cover and concealment for delaying action. Except for the tarred highway to Périers and a lateral route between causeways, the roads on the isthmus were little better than wagon trails. American observers had detected neither antitank ditches nor permanent fortifications, but they felt sure that the Germans had organized their positions to a depth of several miles and were covering all road junctions with machine guns.6
The Germans in the Périers sector, comprising part of the right (east) wing of the LXXXIV Corps, were under the local operational control of the headquarters of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, a tough, well-trained unit. The division had one of its two regiments holding positions below Carentan. Attached to it was the separate 6th Parachute Regiment, a veteran though somewhat depleted unit. The leadership of these forces was especially strong and experienced.7
Aware of the German units that faced the 83d Division, General Collins did not underestimate their fighting ability. He also realized that early morning marsh mist and the promise of continuing rain would reduce the effectiveness of artillery support and diminish the help offered by tactical air. But he had no alternative to striking the Germans frontally--terrain, unit boundaries, and the First Army plan made a frontal attack by the 83d Division inevitable.
Though the primary aim was a short advance to allow the commitment of a second division, Collins, with characteristic confidence, ordered the 83d to maintain the momentum of its attack; if the division destroyed the German defenses at once, it was to advance as far as the Taute River in the left (east) portion of the corps zone.
The 83d Division had arrived in Normandy in the latter part of June and under VIII Corps control had relieved the 101st Airborne Division (Maj. Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor) at Carentan. The airborne troops had moved into the army reserve to prepare for their return to England, but not before boasting of their accomplishments and exaggerating the toughness of the Germans to the novice infantrymen who replaced them. Some members of the new division became jittery.8 Highly conscious of the division's inexperience, General Collins was to supervise its activities closely.
The 83d Division commander, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon, who had commanded a regiment in North Africa, had the problem of advancing units in terrain that could hardly have been less favorable for offensive action. The almost incessant rain of the previous weeks had soaked the isthmus beyond saturation. As the drainage ditches swelled into streams and the swamps turned into ponds, the surface of the fields became a potential sheet of mud. Progress for foot troops would be difficult; cross-country movement by vehicles virtually impossible; movement of armor in close support most difficult; good direct fire support by tanks and tank destroyers
a noteworthy accomplishment; supply hazardous.
To gain the greatest shock effect commensurate with his constricted zone, General Macon decided to commit two regiments abreast in columns of battalions. To advance down the Carentan-Périers road, the 331st Infantry (Col. Martin D. Barndollar, Jr.) was to attack along the right of the highway, while the 330th Infantry (Col. Ernest L. McLendon) attacked on the left. Col. Edwin B. Crabill's 329th Infantry (minus one battalion) was to constitute the division reserve. One battalion of the 329th was to clear a small area on the right flank at the edge of the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges. Division fire power was to be augmented by the 9th Division Artillery, the 746th Tank and the 802d Tank Destroyer Battalions, the 4.2-inch mortars of two companies of the 87th Chemical Battalion, and the quadruple .50-caliber machine guns of the 453d Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. Eager to prove its competence and nervous about its impending trial in battle, the 83d Division celebrated the Fourth of July by firing a ten-minute artillery preparation and then jumping off at daybreak.9
Mishaps plagued the division from the start. Tanks in close support immediately "messed up" wires, and General Macon lost touch with his assault formations soon after they crossed the line of departure. Two hours later, the commander of the 331st, Colonel Barndollar, was dead with a bullet below his heart. Soon afterwards, engineers attempting to clear paths through enemy mine fields were being picked off by enemy rifle fire. At midmorning, enemy infantrymen on the division right flank temporarily surrounded several tanks that were trying to advance over soft and muddy marshland. The division moved but a short distance toward Sainteny, 200 yards at most, before German mortar and machine gun fire, from hedgerows and from log pillboxes reinforced by sandbags, halted the attack.
Following the action of the division from his corps command post, General Collins in midmorning became impatient with the slow progress. He had assured General Macon that he would not interfere with the conduct of operations, but when one infantry battalion waited for others to come abreast, Collins phoned the division headquarters and informed the chief of staff, "That's exactly what I don't want." What he did want was the battalion in the lead to cut behind the Germans who would then be forced to withdraw. "Don't ever let me hear of that again," General Collins warned, "and get that down to the regimental and battalion commanders and tell Macon about it." But telephonic exhortation, no matter how pertinent, could not blow down the defended hedgerows--nor, apparently, could the personal endeavors of General Macon and his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. Claude B. Ferenbaugh, who had gone down to the regiments to press the attack.
On the division right flank the battalion of the 329th Infantry attempting to clear the small area near the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges had managed to advance about 1,000 yards. Two
rifle companies had crossed a stream swollen by rain and overflowing its banks. The adjacent terrain had become virtual swamp, with some mud-holes waist deep. When the battalion commander tried to get his heavy weapons company across the stream just before noon, enemy mortars and machine gun fire forced the men to hug the ground. Commitment of the reserve rifle company produced no effect since the riflemen could do no better than the machine gunners of the weapons company in the face of the enemy fire. Taking heavy casualties, unable to maneuver in the swampy terrain, and fearing attack from the rear by the same infiltrating Germans who had earlier isolated several tanks, the battalion commander ordered a withdrawal. The men moved back to their original line of departure. Upon reorganization, the battalion discovered that one rifle company was almost a total loss; another could muster only one third of its strength.10 Large numbers of stragglers intensified the impression of extreme losses. About fifty men of the battalion entered the division artillery positions during the afternoon and caused shortlived consternation by claiming to be the only survivors. Having lost most of its equipment in the swamp, the battalion remained on its line of departure to protect the division right flank. That evening it arranged a truce with the enemy, without authorization from higher headquarters, to collect its dead and wounded.
Impatient over the division's lack of progress, General Collins was infuriated when he learned of the battalion withdrawal on the division right. "Tell the CG," he informed the division chief of staff by telephone, "that I want the withdrawal investigated." Why make it necessary, he demanded, to lose more lives in forcing a crossing of the stream a second time? And when, he wanted to know, was the division going to launch a co-ordinated attack down the corridor?
For all the strenuous efforts of the division and assistant division commanders, the regiments were not ready for a concerted attack until late afternoon. After two postponements, General Macon finally got it started. The division artillery fired a preparation, and the two regiments attacked again down the Carentan-Périers road. They had made only minor advances before heavy artillery fire forced one regiment to pull back; a counterattack just before dark pushed back the other.
The terrain and stubborn resistance had soured the Fourth of July celebration and had thwarted the 83d Division in its attempt to advance beyond its outpost lines. "If the going is good, and it should be," General Macon had said, "we will have them rocked back, and will go right on." The going had not been good. Prepared defenses, active mortar fire, and extensive use of automatic weapons had been too effective. Only six German prisoners had been taken.
A count of personnel in the front-line positions of the 331st Infantry revealed only 300 men. The commander of the German parachute regiment in opposition, Col. Friedrich A. Freiherr von der
Heydte, returned medical personnel his forces had captured, with a note stating that he thought General Macon needed them.11 He was right. In its first day of combat the 83d Division had lost almost 1,400 men. An accurate breakdown of casualty figures was impossible. One regiment reported a total of 867 casualties without attempting further classification. On the basis of such incomplete information, the division arbitrarily categorized the total casualties and reported 47 killed, 815 wounded, and a surprising 530 missing in action. Many of the missing were stragglers and isolated troops who were later to rejoin the division, but at the end of the first day the division had suffered a more than 10 percent loss.12
Although the 83d Division had failed to achieve its mission of allowing the VII Corps to commit a second division in the isthmus after the first day's action, General Collins had no alternative but to keep pushing. He ordered the attack to secure Sainteny to continue on 5 July. General Macon changed his dispositions but slightly. The 331st Infantry, now commanded by Lt. Col. William E. Long, was to try again on the right of the Carentan-Périers road. Colonel McLendon's 330th Infantry, which had sustained the highest number of casualties, was to relinquish part of its zone to two battalions of Colonel Crabill's 329th Infantry. The third battalion of the 329th would remain on the division's extreme right as flank protection.
The attack on 5 July began on a disheartening, if exaggerated, note. During the ten-minute artillery preparation, the executive officer of one of the regiments phoned division headquarters that the division artillery was "slaughtering our 3d Battalion." In reality, the regiment had received only a few short rounds.
The division jumped off on schedule. Unfortunately, the attack that morning repeated the unsuccessful pattern of the previous day. The troops made little progress.
Restless and impatient in a situation that denied use of available strength, General Collins ordered General Macon to make room "or else." Since there was no place to go except forward, Macon had to insist on continuation of a costly frontal attack. That afternoon he began to apply more pressure on his subordinate commanders. "You tell him," General Macon ordered, "that he must take that objective and go right on down regardless of his flank; pay attention to nothing, not even communication." An hour later he instructed a regimental commander, "Never mind about the gap; keep that leading battalion going."
When a battalion commander protested that he had only about 400 men, General Macon assured him, "That is just what I need, 400 men; keep driving." In midafternoon a regimental commander reported infiltrating enemy. "They won't hurt you any," Macon promised. "They shoot us," the regimental
commander explained. When he protested that one of his battalions consisted of only one and a half rifle companies and the heavy weapons company, or about 300 men, the general sent the assistant division commander and two platoons of tanks to help the regiment clear the area.
When another battalion commander reported what looked like a counterattack, the general ordered, "Do not pay any attention to it; you must go on down [in attack.]" To a third battalion commander's protest that he had no reserve left, General Macon answered, "You go on down there and they [the enemy] will have to get out of your way."
By evening the general was shouting. "To hell with the [enemy] fire, to hell with what's on your flank, get down there and take the area. You don't need any recon. You have got to go ahead. You have got to take that objective if you have to go all night."
All seemed in vain when General Collins telephoned that evening. "What has been the trouble?" he asked. "[You] haven't moved an inch." The trouble was the same: mud, canalized routes of advance, and strong resistance.
Just before dark the division did succeed in reaching a hamlet half way to Sainteny, but the Germans would permit no celebration of the achievement. When accurate mortar and artillery fire battered the troops after dark, each of the two regiments lost contact with one of its battalions for several hours. When finally located during the early morning hours of 6 July, the battalions needed water, food, ammunition, litters, ambulances, and reinforcements. Nevertheless, the troops held on to their hard-won gains.
In two days the 83d Division had displayed almost all the weaknesses and made virtually all the mistakes of a unit new to combat. Poor reports from subordinate units, incorrect map locations, and weak communications made accurate artillery support almost impossible and effective aid from the few tactical planes in the air on the second day difficult. Lax command control and discipline resulted in an inordinately large number of stragglers. Regimental and battalion commanders did not seem able to coordinate their attached units, institute reconnaissance in time, or press their attacks with vigor. Tank-infantry cooperation was especially bad, and mutual complaint and recrimination resulted. Infantrymen accused tankers of refusing to work at night and of disobeying orders with the excuse that they were only attached units, and at least one infantry commander threatened to shoot a tank officer for declining to advance in support. On the other hand, the tankers had little confidence in the ability of the infantry to protect them from close-range counterattack, and at least one tank commander threatened to shoot infantrymen who seemed on the verge of running to the rear and abandoning the tanks. The inexperience of the division was apparent on all echelons. When General Macon remarked that the commander of another division used his antiaircraft guns to mow down the hedges facing him, the artillery commander of the 83d Division asked, "How does he get them into position?" "I don't know," General Macon answered.
Despite its deficiencies, the division
had managed by sheer persistence to advance over a mile down the Carentan-Périers road. As a result, the division was at the southern end of the narrow neck and was ready to debouch into wider terrain just north of Sainteny. But in making the advance, it had suffered an additional 750 casualties. With these losses, many among key personnel, the future effectiveness of the division had been seriously impaired.
Although the advance of the 83d still did not permit commitment of a second division, General Collins, already delayed one day, decided to wait no longer. The depletion and exhaustion of the 83d must have been a factor in his decision. He ordered General Macon to confine his efforts to the left of the Carentan-Périers road and to shift his direction from the southwest toward Périers to the south toward the bank of the Taute River. Collins then instructed the 4th Division commander to take temporary control of the battered and depleted 331st Infantry on the right of the Carentan-Périers road, commit one of his own regiments through it, and drive toward Périers. Responsibility for the isthmus on the right of the road passed to the 4th Division.
The 4th Division was an experienced unit. It had taken part in the D-Day invasion of the Continent and had participated effectively in the Cherbourg operation. In the process, however, the division had lost about 5,400 men. Only five of the rifle company commanders who had made the D-Day landing were with the division three weeks later. Though many key individuals remained to steady the 4,400 replacements who partially refilled the division's ranks, Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton, who had commanded the unit since 1942, remarked with regret, "We no longer have the division we brought ashore."13
General Barton planned to commit the 12th Infantry (Col. James S. Luckett), with a company each of the 87th Chemical, the 70th Tank, and the 801st Tank Destroyer Battalions, and a platoon of the 377th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion. To support the attack, Barton regained control of his division artillery and an additional battalion of medium field artillery, which for three days had been operating with the 90th Division. At the same time that the 12th Infantry moved into position to make the main division effort toward Périers, elements of Col. James S. Rodwell's 8th Infantry were to relieve the battalion of the 329th Infantry still on the extreme right flank of the corps.
Early on 6 July the 12th Infantry began to relieve the 331st. It was a difficult relief since strong enemy fire and local counterattack harassed the troops. When the 12th Infantry had finally passed through and attacked to gain a favorable line of departure for the coordinated effort planned with the 83d Division, the regiment met firm resistance that halted the advance at once. Further attack for that day was canceled.
In the meantime, the enemy maintained heavy fire on the 83d Division and launched minor counterattacks, inflicting about 700 additional casualties. Under
punishing pressure, the division nevertheless held its positions.
The lack of success during the third day of action along the Carentan-Périers axis, this time involving a veteran unit, must have confirmed General Collins' suspicions that the inexperience of the 83d Division had not been the principal factor in holding back its advance. He concluded that the cost of bulldozing through the lowlands with conventional tactics was too high and turned to an ally, the IX Tactical Air Command. During the previous few days, as the weather had permitted, fighter-bombers of the IX TAC had attacked targets of opportunity and struck enemy positions located by ground observers. General Collins now asked for more. He wanted a mass dive-bombing effort by more than a hundred planes to pummel the enemy in front of the 4th and 83d Divisions for forty-five minutes before renewal of the ground attack on 7 July.14 With this assistance and a co-ordinated attack by the two divisions, General Collins hoped that the 83d Division would reach Sainteny by dark on 7 July and that the 4th Division would move far enough forward toward Périers to allow the 9th Division to be committed. Expecting this to be fulfilled, General Collins alerted the 9th Division for a move to an assembly area near Carentan.15
Two events marred the beginning of the attack on 7 July. The first occurred after General Barton had decided to obliterate the resistance in the small area on the right near the Prairies Marécageuses de Gorges. The area had bothered the 83d Division, which had made an unsuccessful effort to clear it on the first day of its attack. The main obstacle to success was the stream, which was difficult to cross. Deciding that it could best be crossed during darkness, General Barton had instructed the commander of the 8th Infantry to make a surprise move during the night of 6 July. By sending two battalions over the stream at night, the units would be in position to clear the area at daylight, 7 July, thus eradicating a potential nuisance to the division rear that might hold up the advance should the division break through to Périers.
Though the regimental commander complied with instructions, one of his battalions could not cross the stream even at night because of enemy fire. The other battalion, after having picked its way through the marsh during the night and made the crossing, found itself in an untenable position at daybreak and was forced to withdraw after taking more than a hundred casualties.16
The second disappointment was a drizzling rain on the morning of 7 July that resulted in cancellation of the strong air support. "Disappointing news," General Collins reported to the divisions prepared to jump off. "But go right ahead with your attack."
General Macon attempted to swing his 83d Division gradually southward to the bank of the Taute River. His new axis of advance was the secondary road that crossed the Carentan-Périers isthmus laterally and led to the causeway over the flooded Taute. Despite the
new direction of advance, the right flank elements of the division were still to take Sainteny. As the division endeavored to move forward during the morning of 7 July, it repelled five counterattacks, local in nature but fierce in intensity. Strong fire from the division artillery, effective use of bazooka teams, and direct fire from tanks and tank destroyers finally defeated the enemy efforts, though one battalion, isolated by German infiltrators, had to hold out until jeeps escorted by light tanks brought ammunition and food and restored communications. In the late afternoon Colonel McLendon's 330th Infantry made effective use of the division artillery, chiseled a narrow penetration through the enemy positions, and gained several hundred yards on the east flank. The achievement was hailed as substantial, raising hopes that the enemy defense was deteriorating, but the enemy quickly recovered as the reconnaissance battalion of the SS panzer grenadiers sealed off the penetration.17 The 83d Division captured only seventeen prisoners that day. The German paratroopers and SS soldiers fought stubbornly, refusing to surrender when outnumbered and overpowered and giving ground only with desperate reluctance. The 83d Division failed to reach either Sainteny or the bank of the Taute River during the day.
The 12th Infantry of General Barton's 4th Division had even less success. Improved weather conditions during the afternoon permitted several fighter-bombers to operate over the VII Corps front, where they bombed enemy positions opposing the regiment. The 4th Division Artillery followed the bombardment with a preparation, and the regiment jumped off once more. Unfortunately, the strenuous efforts resulted in hardly any gain.
In their attack on 7 July the two committed regiments of the 4th Division sustained almost 600 casualties. The 12th Infantry moved forward but slightly; the 8th, on the right flank, advanced not at all. Even for an experienced division, the stubborn and skillful resistance of the Germans in the Cotentin was proving too much. The swamps and the mud were themselves formidable enemies, but the most important obstacle insofar as the 4th Division was concerned was the old problem of the hedgerows. To take an average-size field required an entire infantry company, for there was no way of telling along which row or on which side of the hedge the Germans would be, and therefore there was no way of knowing the best approach.18
As the 4th Division rediscovered the problems of waging offensive warfare in Normandy, the 83d Division began to show signs of improvement. The men who had survived the early fighting began to feel like veterans and to act as such. Command control tightened, communications improved, and the division began to utilize its attached units with confidence. When requesting replacements for the 83d Division from the First Army on 7 July, General Collins remarked that the division was coming along pretty well.
The improvement was a bright spot in an otherwise bleak situation. Although the 83d Division was beginning to gain experience, each of its regiments was approximately
600 men understrength, and the men remaining were exhausted after four days of combat. While the 4th Division had not sustained such high casualties, it was not fully committed. Nor was it possible yet for General Collins to employ the 4th Division in full force. Early commitment of the 9th Division appeared unlikely. The VII Corps had failed to move even to Sainteny, an advance of only two and a half miles. The combination of German resistance and the Cotentin marshes and hedgerows had stymied the Americans, at least for the moment in the Carentan-Périers isthmus. Continuation of the attack meant costly frontal effort with little promise of rapid success.
Unknown to the Americans, their offensive action was more successful than the results seemed to indicate. The aggressive defense of the Germans--tactics to seal off local penetrations by counterattack and to encircle American spearheads--was unable to function properly under effective artillery fire and fighter-bomber attack. Despite skillful ground defense, the Germans were gradually being forced back, their reserves were being used up, and their defensive line was dangerously stretched. With the two regiments on the isthmus being increasingly depleted, the SS panzer grenadier division committed in defense of Périers part of its regiment that had been east of the Taute River.19
Despite the impact of the VII Corps thrust, the Seventh Army looked upon it as it had done when judging the adjacent VIII Corps attack on the previous day--as merely a reconnaissance in force. Although depreciating the American intention, the Seventh Army urgently called for help. With two U.S. Corps exerting pressure, the Germans began to be concerned over their relatively meager forces in reserve.20 Anticipating by 5 July that the Americans might break through to Périers and cut off the LXXXIV Corps forces in the la Haye-du-Puits sector, Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, had demanded additional reserves. The 2d SS Panzer Division had been moved westward from the II Parachute Corps sector to meet the American attack, and by 7 July its troops were strung across the Cotentin and battling both VIII Corps at la Haye-du-Puits and VII Corps on the Carentan-Périers isthmus.21
The VII Corps attack had thus robbed the German sectors on both sides of the corridor; it had prevented the Germans from employing all their available armor at la Haye-du-Puits; it also had weakened the St. Lô sector just to the east. Instead of massing the armored division for a strong counterattack, the Germans had had to meet American pressure by committing the armored unit piecemeal in defense. The panzer division's striking power was thus dissipated across the active front. To meet the need for still more reserves, Rommel and Kluge prevailed upon OKW and Hitler to release the 5th Parachute Division from its station in Brittany, and on 7 July the paratroopers began to move toward the Cotentin battlefield.22
If General Bradley surmised these
developments, he could not have been entirely dismayed by the fact that the VII Corps attack on the isthmus had been halted at the same time as that of the VIII Corps. Also, on the same day, 7 July, operations immediately to the east, in the XIX Corps zone, seemed to show an opportunity for rapid success. Shifting his hopes eastward, General Bradley looked to the region between the Taute and the Vire Rivers, where additional American pressure seemed to promise a swift penetration of the enemy defenses.
The Vire and Taute Bridgehead
The XIX Corps held positions straddling the Vire River, which split the Corps zone into equal parts of dissimilar terrain--Cotentin lowland on the west and rolling country on the east. The difference was accentuated by the fact that the troops on the left (east) were along a front that was several miles in advance of the line on the right. (Map 5)
The corps portion of the First Army objective lay astride the Vire River along the Coutances-St. Lô-Bayeux highway--between the villages of St. Gilles and St. André-de-l'Epine, about four miles southwest and northeast of St. Lô, respectively. The objective included not only the high ground adjacent to the highway but also the city of St. Lô.
In compliance with the dictates of the terrain, the corps attack was to take place in two steps--first west of the Vire River, the second east of it. The initial effort (on 7 July) was to get troops across the Vire et Taute Canal and the Vire River and push the corps right flank to that part of the objective west of the Vire. Such action would protect the lateral coastal highway between Carentan and Isigny, which was still under occasional hostile fire; but more to the point, it would place troops on the high ground along the Périers-St. Lô highway, which was part of the First Army's Coutances-Caumont objective line. U.S. forces there would outflank St. Lô on the west and threaten the city from that direction. Reaching Pont-Hebert, about half way to the objective, would be enough to indicate this menace to the Germans, and at that point the troops on the corps left were to launch their attack east of the Vire.23
The XIX Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett. A West Pointer whose quiet manner inspired confidence and who had a knack of getting the most from sometimes difficult subordinates, General Corlett had participated in operations on Attu and had led the 7th Division in the successful Marshall Islands campaign in the Pacific. Sent to the European theater as an expert in amphibious warfare, he had brought the XIX Corps from England to France in June.24
General Corlett controlled two divisions: the 30th Infantry on the corps right was to make the attack on 7 July to seize the high ground immediately west of St. Lô; the 29th Infantry was to attack later east of the Vire and directly toward St. Lô. The 35th Infantry Division,
Map 5. Attack of XIX COrpds West of the Vire River, 7-10 July 194
in the process of arriving in France, was soon to join the XIX Corps for commitment either east or west of the Vire, depending upon the development of the offensive. It was rumored that Corlett was also to receive an armored division for employment west of the Vire, but no confirmation had come through by 7 July. 25
To bring up his right, General Corlett had to take a large and difficult step. His forces had to advance about nine miles across moist bottomland rising gradually toward the ridge west of St. Lô. The operations were to take place in an area six miles wide, between the Taute and Vire Rivers, which flow north in parallel channels to Carentan and Isigny, respectively. Connecting the two rivers was the Vire et Taute Canal, a shallow east-west waterway joining Carentan and Airel. The canal marked the forward positions at the beginning of July.
The 30th Division, which held these positions, had arrived in Normandy in mid-June. Most of the division was still untested in battle. Its commander, Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, who had led the division since 1942, was known to be intensely intolerant of persons he suspected of inefficiency.
All three regiments of the 30th Division were in the line and deployed in an arc along the Vire et Taute Canal and the Vire River. The 120th Infantry held the north bank of the canal, the 117th and 119th Regiments the east bank of the river near Airel. The first problem facing General Hobbs in the forthcoming attack was how to get across the water barrier and establish a bridgehead easily reinforced and expanded.
The gently sloping banks of the Vire et Taute Canal were only twenty feet apart, and the water in some places was shallow enough to be waded. Nevertheless, a muddy bottom made fording treacherous, and the adjacent terrain was completely open marshland. North of the canal the soft ground between Carentan and Isigny was not suitable for concentrating heavy equipment and large numbers of supporting troops. Two roads had originally crossed the canal, a country road near the Taute River and a tarred highway closer to the Vire, but the bridges had been destroyed.
The Vire River south of the juncture with the canal, at Airel, had steep banks eight feet high. The river in July was 60 feet wide and the water from 9 to 14 feet deep. Low, flat, and exposed fields
400 yards in width bordered the Vire on each side, but the land was relatively dry. East of the river the ground was firm and had a well-surfaced road network. Where a highway crossed the river near Airel, an arched stone bridge was only slightly damaged.
Although the size of the canal made it a less obvious obstacle, the river offered several positive advantages for an assault crossing. Getting across the 60-foot river in assault boats was likely to be quicker and less costly than wading the canal. The Germans had flooded both waterways, but their efforts at the Vire were less efficacious. The road network east of the river was better than that north of the canal, and the damaged stone bridge at Airel could be easily repaired. There was little cover and concealment in either of the two areas.
The logical immediate objective of forces establishing a bridgehead was a road intersection near St. Jean-de-Daye, a crossroads equidistant--about three miles--from the canal and the river. The fact that artillery and infantry weapons could support a crossing of either the river or the canal with equal effectiveness influenced General Hobbs' decision to make a two-pronged attack across both water barriers. The division was to move from the north across the canal and from the east across the river to seize a bridgehead defined by the roads that intersected south of St. Jean-de-Daye. Once in possession of the bridgehead, the division would move south to the high ground west of St. Lô.
To cross the Vire River in the division main effort, General Hobbs selected the 117th Infantry (Col. Henry E. Kelly), a regiment that had demonstrated river crossings at The Infantry School, Fort Benning, Georgia. The 117th Infantry was to move across the open terrain at the edge of the river just before daybreak and at dawn was to embark in assault boats several hundred yards north of the Airel stone bridge. Three assault waves were to be ferried across the river on a 400-yard front while bridges were being prepared to accommodate the rest of the troops. If the bridges were not ready at the end of the third assault wave, the infantry was to continue crossing in boats until enough bridges were placed to permit foot and vehicular passage. Upon reaching the far shore, the infantry was to clear the hamlet at the western end of the Airel bridge, get astride the road leading west, and move uphill toward the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads. As soon as the entire regiment was across the river, Col. Alfred V. Ednie's 119th Infantry was to follow.
At the canal, Col. Hammond D. Birks was to send the 120th Infantry across the water on foot in the early afternoon of the day of attack. The crossing site was to be at the destroyed bridge on the highway leading south to St. Jean-de-Daye. The land was sufficiently dry for about 400 yards on each side of the bridge site to permit deploying two battalions abreast. After wading the canal, the battalions were to drive south. In the wake of the infantry, Col. William S. Biddle's 113th Cavalry Group was to cross and turn west toward the Taute River to protect the 30th Division's right flank. The third battalion of the 120th Infantry was to remain on the north bank of the canal at the country road near the Taute
River. Designated as the corps reserve, the battalion was to support the regimental crossing by fire, make a crossing feint of its own, and check any German attempt to make a countercrossing.26
As in almost all opposed bridgehead operations, much depended upon the work of the division engineers, in this case the 105th Engineer Combat Battalion (Lt. Col. Carroll H. Dunn). In addition to assisting the infantry with demolitions, flame throwers, and mine removal, the engineers had major assignments at both the river and the canal.27
At the river the engineers were to blow gaps for infantry passage through the last hedgerow before the water. They were to supply 40 assault boats and crews of four men per boat. Three men of each crew were to paddle the boats across while the fourth remained on the east bank to pull the boat back by rope for the next wave. To help the infantrymen mount the steep bank on the far side, the engineers were to build scaling ladders with special hooks.
In addition, the division engineers, with the help of corps engineers, were to span the river with a variety of bridges. First priority was given to a footbridge; next, a ponton infantry support bridge was to be placed across the river to permit the organic division vehicles to cross. Afterwards, a floating treadway was to be installed and the stone bridge at Airel was to be repaired for the heavy vehicular traffic of the armor and artillery units. When all three vehicular bridges were in operation, General Hobbs planned to use the stone structure and the treadway for oneway traffic moving west into the bridgehead, the ponton bridge for traffic moving east out of it.
At the canal the engineers were to lay duckboards as footbridges for the men of the heavy weapons companies and also for the litter bearers evacuating casualties. Medical planners expected long hand-carry hauls at both the river and the canal because the lack of existing vehicular bridges and the absence of cover in the areas bordering the water precluded the use of jeeps fitted with litter racks.28 For eventual vehicular passage at the canal the engineers were to install a section of treadway bridging and repair the destroyed structure at the crossing site.
American G-2 officers expected both crossings to meet strong resistance. Intelligence indicated three regimental-sized organizations deployed between the Taute and Vire Rivers: a regiment of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, three battalions of the 275th Division formed into Kampfgruppe Heinz, and elements of the 266th Division supported by troops of the 352d Division organized into Kampfgruppe Kentner--all under the local operational control of the panzer grenadiers, which in turn functioned under LXXXIV Corps. German tanks had not been noted in the region, but an assault gun battalion with about three dozen 75-mm. and 105-mm. pieces in support of the infantry had been observed. Occupying ground that rises gradually toward the south, the Germans had good observation
of the entire area. They had rested, reorganized, and increased their supply levels during several weeks of inactivity, and had maintained a strong counter-reconnaissance screen that inhibited American patrolling. Their probable course of action, as judged by intelligence, was to be a tenacious defense employing strong local counterattacks.29
This estimate, in marked contrast with the optimistic appraisals made several days earlier by the VII and VIII Corps, was in error. Whereas the two U.S. corps on the First Army right had underestimated the opposition, the XIX Corps overestimated the German strength.
The XIX Corps had actually faced strong German forces on 3 July. An attack between the Taute and the Vire on that date would have met a considerable force of German reserves. The SS panzer grenadier regiment in full force, supported by Kampfgruppe Heinz, would have opposed the water crossings; the 353d Division would have contributed units for a counterattack; and the 15th Parachute Regiment near Périers and the 2d SS Panzer Division near St. Lô would have been available for commitment.
By 7 July, however, almost the entire SS panzer grenadier division was fighting on the Carentan-Périers isthmus. The 353d Division and the 15th Parachute Regiment were engaged on Mont Castre and at la Haye-du-Puits. The 2d SS Panzer Division was largely committed at la Haye-du-Puits and north of Périers. Kampfgruppe Kentner was east of the Vire and a part of the II Parachute Corps. Thus, the only units ready to oppose the 30th Division between the Taute and the Vire were Kampfgruppe Heinz and a small part of the SS panzer grenadiers. These forces nevertheless possessed positive advantages in superior observation and terrain readily adaptable to defense.30
To overcome the expected resistance, General Hobbs called upon a tremendous amount of fire power. Dive bombers were to blast the German positions and potential routes of reinforcement. An elaborate artillery plan (drawn by Brig. Gen. George Shea, the XIX Corps Artillery commander) utilized the division artillery, the corps artillery, and the artillery of a nearby armored division. In all, eight field artillery battalions, including one of 8-inch howitzers, were to augment the organic division artillery. In addition, the 92d Chemical and the 823d Tank Destroyer Battalions were to deliver indirect fire. All buildings suspected of housing enemy strongpoints were to be destroyed. A rolling or creeping barrage was to precede the foot troops, the fire to advance 100 yards every five minutes. "Hug the artillery barrage," General Hobbs instructed his subordinate commanders, "it will carry us through."31
In preparing to execute the plan, the division applied itself to perfecting the techniques of getting across the water. The 117th Infantry conducted practice
crossings, and each officer and noncommissioned leader in the regiment studied the terrain and the plan on a large sand table model of the area. The engineers practiced the details of bridge construction, made ready the assault boats, and assembled the required equipment. At the same time, the bulk of the division studied and practiced hedgerow tactics. General Hobbs emphasized the necessity of achieving close infantry, armor, and engineer co-ordination. He stressed the need to keep moving. Since bunching up or building up a firing line along a hedge or a landmark was an "invitation for casualties," he insisted on extended formations.
During their training period the men found that the light machine gun was not the best weapon to support infantry attacks in the hedgerows. They discovered that two 15-pound charges of TNT in burlap bags opened a gap in a hedgerow bank large enough for a tank. Learning that without demolition 50 percent of the hedgerow dikes could be breached by engineer tank dozers, the division attached dozers to the tank units. The men were reminded that the Germans particularly feared white phosphorus shells, which were highly effective against hedgerow positions. They were instructed to use the bazooka as more than a antitank weapon since its rocket head, when employed in high-angle fire and against a hard object, was almost as effective against personnel as the 60-mm. mortar shell.
The division also studied the lessons of its first minor combat action a few weeks earlier. The troops determined that the proper way to advance was to locate the enemy's main line of resistance, then drive to it and roll it up from the flank, neutralize it, or bypass it. This would eliminate the necessity of feeling out every hedge in the kind of slow deliberate advance that increased the effectiveness of the enemy's prearranged fires. But applying the technique was not easy. The excellent German camouflage made it extremely difficult to find the enemy positions. So inclement was the weather between 25 June and 7 July that not one aerial photographic mission could be flown.32
The 30th Division completed its attack preparations during the first days of July. The attached 743d Tank Battalion reported all its tanks--52 mediums and 17 light--ready for combat; the engineers made known their readiness; the infantry seemed to be set. General Hobbs was satisfied that the division would make a good showing.33
On the morning of 7 July it rained. All air strikes were canceled. The artillery observation planes remained on the ground.
At 0300 one battalion of the 117th Infantry moved out of its assembly area one mile east of the Vire River.34
Low clouds obscured the moon. A drizzling rain fell. Fog hovered over the ground. The brush dripped moisture, and the earth became mud. The corps artillery began its preparation at 0330 by firing on distant targets. Forty-five minutes later the division artillery, tank destroyers, and 4.2-inch mortars began to fire at close-in enemy installations and troop concentration areas. At the line of departure--the last hedgerow before the river--engineer guides met the two infantry assault companies at 0430. Picking up their rubber assault boats and scaling ladders, the infantrymen and engineers moved through holes already blasted in the hedgerow and walked along prepared paths to the water. Organized into groups of twelve, the men carried their craft in addition to their weapons, ammunition, and combat packs. They slid down the slick clay bank and lowered their boats into the stream. Because of the sharp angle of launching, most of the craft shipped some water. The riflemen climbed aboard; the men of the weapons platoons placed their mortars and machine guns in the boats and swam alongside to avoid swamping them.
Shortly after 0430, as artillery shells slammed into the ground ahead, the first assault wave of thirty-two boats crossed the Vire River. Ten minutes later the men were scrambling up the bank on the far side and heading for the first hedgerow in enemy territory. A single hostile machine gun opened fire. As the engineers on the east bank of the river began pulling on their ropes to haul the boats back, enemy artillery and mortar shells began crashing into the stream. Under this shelling the second and third infantry assault waves paddled across the river.
As the first assault wave pulled away from the near shore, the first critical task of the supporting engineers began--installing a footbridge. Having carried preconstructed sections of the footbridge to the edge of the water, a platoon of engineers had installed six bays when enemy artillery struck the bays and a group of engineers carrying additional duckboard sections. The shells killed four men and wounded four. Though the platoon repaired the bays and set them in place again, enemy artillery tore the bridge loose from its moorings and wounded several more men. Doggedly, the engineers swam into the river to secure the bridge again. About 0600 the footbridge at last was in. Assault boats no longer were needed for the crossing. In the process, the engineer platoon had lost about twenty men, half its strength.
On the far shore, the two leading rifle companies moved quickly to the southwest across the hedgerowed fields for a thousand yards. A rifle company that had landed in the second wave moved south against the hamlet on the west side of the Airel bridge and took it after a short, sharp engagement. By about 0830, the first battalion of the 117th Infantry to cross had met strong but scattered resistance and was astride its axis of advance, ready to drive west to the St. Jean-de-Daye road intersection.
On the near bank of the Vire, engineers continued their bridging efforts. At 0700 they removed bodies and a wrecked truck from the Airel bridge and began demining the stone structure and its eastern approaches. Harassing rifle
Stone Bridge at Airel
fire ceased after American infantrymen cleared the hamlet across the river. An engineer officer and six men began to repair the two large holes in the bridge roadbed. Though this provided sufficient space for jeeps to make a careful crossing, the bridge had to be capable of bearing heavier traffic--the tank battalion attached to the division had been given first priority for use of the bridge. Under fire from enemy mortars and artillery, which smoke shells fired by the division artillery failed to discourage, a small engineer group maneuvered two trucks fitted with special Brockway bodies to the river. These vehicles not only carried treadway sections but also had hydraulic booms to lift the treadways off and set them in place. Heaving and prying six tons of steel into place, the engineers laid the treadways over the damaged span and by 0900 had covered the gaps in the roadway. The operation took thirteen minutes. Five minutes later a bulldozer crossed the stone bridge and cleared rubble from the streets of the hamlet while engineers swept the western approaches for mines. Vehicles soon began to cross.
At 0730 another group of engineers had started constructing an infantry support bridge for the vehicles organic to the division. They completed it in an hour at a cost of fifteen casualties from enemy artillery fire. Another engineer crew commenced work at 0845 on a
floating treadway bridge, which was in place by noon.
The efforts of the engineers gave the division one footbridge and the three planned vehicular entrances into the bridgehead, two of which were capable of sustaining heavy traffic. Without these bridges, the infantry on the far bank might have been unable to sustain offensive operations for long.35
All three battalions of Colonel Kelly's 117th Infantry were across the Vire River before 1000 on 7 July. Meeting scattered delaying action from Kampfgruppe Heinz, the regiment advanced west toward St. Jean-de-Daye.36 At 1015 a battalion of Colonel Ednie's 119th Infantry crossed the Airel bridge and moved to protect the left flank of the bridgehead. Tanks and tank destroyers began rolling across about noon.
As the Vire River bridgehead broadened, Colonel Birks prepared to launch the 120th Infantry across the Vire et Taute Canal at 1330. When artillery turned an increased volume of fire on the German positions along the canal just before the scheduled jump-off time, plans temporarily went awry. Instead of wading the canal as instructed, the assault companies decided to wait for engineers to install footbridges. The engineers, having miscalculated the width of the waterway, found it difficult to lay their duckboards. Confusion developed at the line of departure, an occurrence furthered by incoming enemy artillery, mortar, and small arms fire.
About fifteen minutes late, the leading men of the two attacking battalions f inally plunged into the canal to launch their advance south along the highway toward St. Jean-de-Daye.
During the afternoon all six battalions on the far side of the water obstacles--three from the 117th Infantry, one from the 119th, and two from the 120th--attempted to establish mutual contact and set up a consolidated position at the crossroads. New to the hedgerow fighting, the men of the 30th Division found that attaining their objectives was no simple task. The men soon discovered how difficult it was in actuality to locate the enemy positions, how hard it was to maintain communications, how easy it was to get lost, how much depended on the individual initiative of the commanders of small units.
Rain added to problems of restricted observation in the hedgerows, and there was little effective infantry-artillery coordination on 7 July. Early in the morning General Hobbs himself canceled the rolling artillery barrage when he noted that the infantry could not keep pace with it. Inspection later revealed that the barrage was wasteful. Firing for five minutes each on lines arbitrarily drawn a hundred yards apart meant that rounds struck the enemy hedgerow positions only by chance. The 4.2-inch mortars, participating in the barrage, fired about 2,100 shells, so much ammunition that expenditures were restricted for the remainder of the month.37
All afternoon Colonel Birks kept calling for commitment of the third battalion of the 120th Infantry into the bridgehead. The corps commander would not release the battalion from reserve positions on the north bank of the Vire et Taute Canal until Colonel Biddle's 113th Cavalry Group had crossed the canal and secured the 30th Division right flank. The cavalry could not cross the canal until the engineers spanned the water with a treadway bridge. The engineers could not put in the bridge because the site was under constant enemy artillery fire. After waiting impatiently for several hours, General Hobbs finally commanded the engineers to disregard the enemy fire and set the bridge in place. Less than an hour later the bridge was in. Pleased, General Hobbs remarked that he "knew it could be done if they had guts." He ordered Colonel Birks to "pour that cavalry over."38
Before the cavalry could cross, a traffic jam developed as three tank platoons entered the bridgehead to support the infantry. Not until two hours later, at 2030, could Colonel Biddle begin to move his 113th Cavalry Group across the bridge, an operation that took five and a half hours. Enemy harassing fire and intermingling vehicles of several units impeded the crossing. The narrow roads, originally in poor condition, worsened under the rain and the weight of the heavy vehicles. The single bridge across the canal was inadequate for the main supply route where reinforcements and supplies flowed in one direction while casualties moved in the other. Using bulldozers to fill the canal with earth, the engineers completed a second vehicular crossing site just before midnight.39
The traffic congestion at the Vire River was worse. The division had planned to use the stone bridge and the treadway for one-way traffic into the bridgehead, the infantry support bridge for casualties and traffic moving east. Early in the afternoon, as a half-track and trailer were crossing the infantry support bridge, an enemy shell scored a direct hit. The half-track and trailer sank and fouled the ponton structure, and efforts to raise the vehicles and repair the bridge during the afternoon and evening were unsuccessful. This left but two vehicular bridges at Airel, both targets of interdictory shelling. Under the direction of impatient commanders, personnel and supplies trickled across the structures while the roads became more and more congested and the bridge approaches jammed. As engines labored, tires churned and men cursed.
The six battalions in the bridgehead paused to rest and reorganize several hundred yards short of the crossroads in the late afternoon of the rain-soaked day. During the evening they established mutual contact, a continuous line, and a consolidated position overlooking the
road intersection. Although General Corlett wanted the division to continue the attack after nightfall to secure the crossroad objective, General Hobbs persuaded him that exerting pressure by active and aggressive patrolling would suffice.40
The 30th Division had failed to take its objective, but it had made a significant advance on its first day of attack with less than 300 casualties.41 So successful was the river crossing that even before the assault was made across the canal it was rumored that the armored division earlier predicted for the XIX Corps would be forthcoming for employment in the bridgehead. That afternoon General Corlett thought that if he did get the armored division, he would put it across the Vire, pass it through the infantry, and direct it south to the corps objective, the ridge west of St. Lô.42
That evening the rumor became fact. General Bradley had decided that if only a light enemy screen protected the ground between the Vire and the Taute Rivers, as seemed likely, armored commitment in the bridgehead was in order.43 Ten minutes after General Corlett learned that General Bradley had attached the 3d Armored Division to XIX Corps, Corlett was telling the armored division commander to cross the Vire River at Airel, move southwest through the 30th Division, and make a "powerdrive" toward the high ground west of St. Lô. The 30th Division was to follow rapidly in support.44
Not long afterwards, contingents of armor were moving toward the stone bridge at Airel. Although the two corps on the First Army right wing appeared halted, it looked as though the XIX Corps between the Taute and the Vire had only begun to advance. If this development were exploited adroitly, the entire First Army offensive might pick up speed.
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