The Attempt to Exploit
The comparative ease with which the bridgehead between the Taute and the Vire Rivers was established on 7 July indicated to Americans and Germans alike the existence of a soft spot in the German defenses. With only Kampfgruppe Heinz and a small part of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division defending the area, the Americans were close to achieving a breakthrough. Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, shifted a mobile (bicycle) brigade of light infantry and a reconnaissance battalion westward across the Vire River out of the II Parachute Corps sector. This could be only an expedient, a stopgap measure, for obviously the troops were not strong enough, nor the defensive attitude that their commitment implied sufficient, to stop expansion of the bridgehead. What the Germans needed was a counterattack by strong forces to demolish the bridgehead and restore the positions along the canal and the river.
Panzer Lehr, an armored division recently in defensive positions near Caen, seemed to Kluge and Rommel an obvious choice. Having just been replaced by a newly arrived infantry division, Panzer Lehr was scheduled to go into the Panzer Group West reserve and strengthen Eberbach's zone defense. The division was the only strong force available for transfer to the Seventh Army front to counterattack the American bridgehead.
Since shifting the division across the front from the vicinity of Caen to the area west of St. Lô would take several days, the Germans had to preserve the conditions that still made a counterattack feasible. They had to find strong forces that were closer to the threatened area and available for immediate commitment. They settled on the 2d SS Panzer Division, most of which already was battling the VII and VIII Corps. Although Kluge realized that drawing part of the SS armored division away from the Seventh Army left might weaken the west flank defenses beyond repair, Rommel pointed out that the Taute and Vire situation was much more critical. American success between the two rivers had created a minor penetration that, if exploited, might well invalidate the German policy of holding fast. Kluge reluctantly agreed. He approved the plan to send part of the 2d SS Panzer Division eastward across the Taute to hold until the Panzer Lehr Division, moving westward across the Vire, could arrive to counterattack and demolish the bridgehead.1
The Americans, for their part, having judged the probable German course correctly, hastened to exploit their success
German Bicycle Brigade
before the enemy could act.2 Hopeful that the First Army offensive was at last about to move with dispatch, but also looking to the lesser goal of shoring up the bridgehead against counterattack, General Bradley gave XIX Corps the 3d Armored Division, which had been in the army reserve.3 Unwilling to dictate the details of commitment, General Bradley simply instructed General Corlett to support the 30th Division with the armored division.
General Corlett had definite ideas of his own. He wanted to get the 3d Armored Division across the Vire, pass it through the 30th Division, and advance rapidly to the south to seize and hold the high ground west of St. Lô. Unfortunately, it was difficult to translate the desire into action, for General Corlett was severely ill and confined to bed at his command post for several days. He telephoned the armored division commander, Maj. Gen. Leroy H. Watson, in the late afternoon of 7 July and instructed him to cross the Vire River as soon as he could and then drive south. "How far do you want me to go?" General Watson asked. "The Germans have little or nothing over there," the corps commander replied, "just keep going."
Thus, at the beginning of the new phase of action between the Taute and the Vire, clarity of aims was lacking. The army commander envisioned a build-up of the bridgehead forces with armor; the corps commander foresaw a limited exploitation to the ridge west of St. Lô; the armored division commander understood that he was to make an unlimited drive to the. south. The incompatibility of intent led to some confusion that was the beginning of increasing disorder.
Although General Corlett had known for some time that the armored division might be attached to his corps, illness prevented him from personally directing its commitment. To help him with the operation, Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker, commander of the XX Corps, which had not yet been committed to action, temporarily acted as Corlett's representative.
General Watson was surprised by the sudden news of his impending commitment. He had not been informed beforehand of the corps objectives and plans, nor had he discussed with Generals Corlett and Hobbs such arrangements as co-ordinating artillery fires, constructing additional bridges, facilitating the entry of the division into the bridgehead, providing passage through the 30th Division, or determining routes of advance. Guessing that General Corlett intended to commit the entire armored division, which happened actually to be the case, Watson decided to send one combat command across the river first.
General Watson's force was one of the two "old-type" armored divisions in the European theater. Both had been in England preparing for the invasion when a new table of organization, effective September 1943, had triangularized the armored division and reduced its size to make it less cumbersome and more maneuverable. Because reorganizing the two divisions in England might have delayed their battle readiness, they had retained their original organization. In contrast with the new and smaller armored divisions, the 3d Armored Division possessed two combat commands instead of three, 232 medium tanks instead of 168, and with its attached units numbered over 16,000 men instead of 12,000. Powerful, if somewhat unwieldy, the 3d Armored Division was subdivided into twin combat commands, each a strong force easily detached from the whole. Neither Bradley nor Corlett had specified the size of the armored force to be committed west of the Vire River on 7 July, but Watson's decision to commit one combat command as a start was normal.
The armored division had arrived in Normandy late in June. Early plans for July had caused the division to be tentatively alerted for an attack in the VII Corps sector; but because of increasing danger that the Germans might counterattack the army left, east of the Vire River, the division remained in army reserve. Since Combat Command A (CCA) had taken part in a limited objective attack at the end of June, General Watson decided to give Combat Command B (CCB), headed by Brig. Gen. John J. Bohn, the first mission between the Taute and the Vire. In an assembly area east of the Vire River, CCB had been prepared to execute several potential plans of action, among them one based on the assumption that
it would attack south after the 30th Division seized St. Jean-de-Daye--exactly the situation the unit was called upon to implement.4 (See Map 5. )
Having been alerted for movement at 1615, 7 July, and having received the march order at 1830, General Bohn led his column toward the Airel bridge. Although he had asked permission to phone General Hobbs to co-ordinate his river crossing with the infantry--wire had been laid to the 30th Division headquarters in anticipation of this kind of emergency--the 3d Armored Division chief of staff assured him that the division staff would take care of all such details. Bohn was to perform under 3d Armored Division control.
General Bohn had quite a task. He had to get 6,000 men in 800 vehicles and 300 trailers, a column over 20 miles long, across a single bridge that was under enemy fire, enter, partially during the hours of darkness, a bridgehead that belonged to another division, and attack a distant objective in strange territory with inexperienced troops.5
Since the time length of a combat command column was normally estimated at four hours, and since the Airel crossing site was but five miles from the combat command assembly area, the unit under normal conditions should have been across the Vire River shortly after midnight, 7 July.6 Conditions on the night of 7-8 July were far from normal. The combat command could use only one road to approach the river, a road that was narrow, rain-soaked, and heavily burdened with other traffic. Maintaining radio silence, the armored force proceeded slowly toward an area that was receiving intermittent enemy artillery fire and becoming increasingly congested with vehicles. The 30th Division alone, attempting to reinforce, supply, and stabilize the bridgehead, was having difficulty maintaining a continuous flow of traffic across the river. Of the three vehicular bridges constructed near Airel, the ponton structure had been knocked out during the afternoon by enemy shells. Of the two remaining--the permanent stone bridge and the floating treadway--one had to carry traffic moving east from the bridgehead. A single bridge was all that was available for CCB, and even that had to be shared with the 30th Division, which was in the process of moving an additional infantry battalion into the bridgehead. With vehicles of both organizations intermingling, the enemy fire falling near Airel further retarding the flow of traffic, and blackout discipline increasing
the difficulties, the combat command did not get its last vehicle across the bridge until long after daybreak on 8 July.
Across the river, the combat command had to find lodgment in a small area crowded with 30th Division troops and closely hemmed in by an active enemy. A tank battalion received enemy small arms and mortar fire as it moved into assembly just south of the Airel-St. Jean-de-Daye road. A reconnaissance company scouting several hundred yards south of the same road ran into a roadblock guarded by enemy infantrymen with machine guns. During the night, minor enemy forces attacked and drove one small armored unit back to the main road. As the men sought places where they could park their tanks and other vehicles west of the Vire, they were harassed by enemy mortar and artillery fire.7
To pass one major element through another is always a delicate procedure. Passing the combat command through the 30th Division was to be a frustrating experience. Without reconnaissance on the part of the armored unit and without co-ordination between the combat command and the infantry division, misunderstanding was inevitable.
On the night of 7-8 July the 30th Division had the bulk of its combat troops west of the Vire. One battalion of the 119th Infantry held the left flank, which rested on the Vire River, and another battalion of that regiment was moving into the bridgehead. The three battalions of the 117th Infantry, in the center, occupied positions just short of the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads. Two battalions of the 120th Infantry were echeloned to the right along the road between St. Jean-de-Daye and the canal. West of that road as far as the Taute River, about four miles away, the area still had to be cleared by the 113th Cavalry Group, which had followed the 120th Infantry across the canal.
As soon as General Hobbs had learned that the combat command was to enter the bridgehead, he had ordered his troops to clear the main road west of Airel of all unnecessary traffic and give the armor priority of movement. He envisioned the advance of the combat command to the St. Jean-de-Daye road intersection, where the armor would turn left and drive rapidly south along the good highway toward the corps objective, the high ground west of St. Lô. The first part of this action, the advance to the crossroad, would secure the bridgehead objective, which the 30th Division had not taken. The second part, the drive to the south, would provide the infantry division with an armored spearhead. But General Hobbs did not have operational control of Combat Command B.
General Watson, the armored division commander, gave some consideration to this course of action but decided against it. An advance along the Pont-Hébert highway would present an open flank to the enemy between the highway and the Taute, and taking the crossroads and establishing adequate flank protection would involve the armored unit in a task that might delay the movement southward. General Watson therefore directed General Bohn to turn left immediately after crossing the Airel bridge,
move southwest over a network of unimproved roads and trails, and reach the main highway leading south at a point three miles below the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads. The division field order and overlay subsequently showed a short arrow pointing generally southwest from the Airel bridge.
There was nothing unusual in sending armor over secondary roads or crosscountry to outflank or bypass resistance before resuming an advance along the main axis, and General Watson did not think that the combat command would be unduly delayed. The distance to the main highway was between four and six miles. Although the combat command had not made a prior reconnaissance, the ground was believed lightly held by the enemy. The risk of getting the tanks involved in hedgerow tactics of fighting from one field to the next seemed slight, and the potential complications of pointing the command diagonally across the zones of two regiments of the 30th Division seemed minor.
Another factor that contributed to General Watson's decision on the route of advance was the framework of reference that governed the employment of armor in the Cotentin at this time. The knowledge that German antitank guns were superior to American armor plate produced among American troops an unwholesome respect of all enemy antitank weapons. Perhaps the most effective was the German 88-mm. antiaircraft gun, which was used also against ground targets. Just as Americans tended to confuse assault guns with tanks, it became general practice to refer to all German antitank guns as 88's--the 75's as well as the lighter weapons, whether towed or self-propelled. The experience of CCA of the 3d Armored Division at the end of June had specifically indicated that tanks could escape the deadly enemy antitank fire by avoiding the roads and trails and advancing crosscountry. Directives and memoranda from higher headquarters endorsed the view. The 3d Armored Division training had stressed the techniques of field-to-field movement; rapid advance along the narrow and restricted highways of the hedgerow country and under the sights of well-sited zeroed-in enemy weapons was considered rash, reckless, and ill advised.8
General Bohn had divided his command into three task forces--each formed around a reinforced tank battalion-- and an administrative element. They were to deploy in column on a thousand-yard front and attack in normal armored manner, the leading task force advancing in two columns along parallel routes. Shortly after daybreak, 8 July, even before all the combat command's units were across the Vire, the leading task force commenced the attack. Without artillery preparation, men and tanks began to move southwest in an area traversed by country roads and hedgerowed lanes.
Almost at once the task force met and destroyed five Mark IV tanks attached to Kampfgruppe Heinz. In the exchange of fire the task force lost one tank. Through this auspicious beginning augured well, the task force soon
Congestion at Airel Bridge
became involved in the kind of tortuous advance that had become typical of offensive action in the hedgerow country. The armor overflowed the narrow trails and entered the fields, making it necessary for demolition teams and engineer bulldozers to breach the hedgerows. Though the task force received two additional dozers and encountered only light resistance, the day's gain totaled only about a mile and a half.9
The limited advance was disappointing, particularly since only minor units had come to the aid of Kampfgruppe Heinz during the day. General Watson informed General Bohn that the progress of the combat command was unsatisfactory. Pointing out the "great opportunity" that faced the command and the "good chance of a break through," he urged Bohn to fit his method of advance to the situation. If he found it impossible to go ahead on the roads, he was to move cross-country; if his tanks bogged down in the fields, he was to dispel among his subordinate commanders the "inflexible idea that cross-country progress is essential."10 Although there was no real difference between methods of advance in this area, General Bohn had emphasized to his
task force commander the need for speed and had insisted that he use the roads wherever possible. The task force commander had been reluctant or perhaps simply unable to move his men and vehicles out of the fields.
Meanwhile, in the rear areas of the bridgehead there was a disheartening spectacle of confusion, a confusion throttling an orderly development of the bridgehead and the attack. Seven infantry battalions, one tank battalion, and an artillery battalion of the 30th Division; one infantry battalion, three tank battalions, and two artillery battalions of CCB; plus an almost equal number of supporting troops of both units jammed an area of hedgerowed labyrinths scarcely four miles wide and less than three miles deep. To the tankers the fields seemed full of riflemen; to the infantrymen the terrain appeared covered with armor. In this overpopulated morass of mud, tank treads chewed up wire and destroyed communications, while unemployed combat units jostled supply personnel attempting to carry out their functions. Infantrymen ignorant of the armored commitment were surprised by the appearance of tanks, while tankers were indignant when they found infantrymen occupying fields useful as armored assembly areas. Experienced troops might have surmounted the difficulties engendered by restricted space, but both infantrymen and tankers were novices. Nervous soldiers of both units aggravated conditions by firing their weapons wildly in rear areas and on the flanks. Each organization accused the other of stifling the advance.
By striking southwest immediately after crossing the Vire, the combat command had impinged on the sector of the 119th Infantry. Only after moving forward several miles would the armored unit have created a zone for itself between the 119th and the 117th Regiments. Agreement on this procedure was reached by representatives of armor and infantry at a special conference for co-ordination during the afternoon of 8 July. At the same time, the artillery commanders of the 3d Armored and 30th Divisions were meeting to keep the artillery of one from firing on the troops of the other.11
General Hobbs complained bitterly of the presence of the combat command in the bridgehead. He protested that the armor was cluttering up his sector and bogging down his advance. The presence of tanks in his regimental rear areas, he was sure, was preventing artillery, supplies, and men from reaching his forward areas quickly. Promiscuous tank fire, he reported, had caused sixteen casualties in his division. It was impossible, he contended, to protect his troops with artillery fire for fear of striking armored elements. So incensed was he that he ordered his artillery to give the infantry the fire requested "wherever they are, irrespective of armor or anything else." He felt that either the combat command or the infantry division had to be halted, for both could not operate in the restricted area. He was convinced that the 30th Division without CCB would reach the corps objective rapidly, but that CCB without the 30th Division would "never get anyplace."
The armored force commander had been "sitting on his fanny all day, doing nothing" and had not "turned a track in 95% of his vehicles all day long." The 3d Armored Division commander had "only a hazy idea" of what was happening. And there were "too many people in the party," too many commanders giving uncoordinated orders.12
In hope of resolving the situation and introducing unity of command, General Corlett placed the responsibility of the bridgehead operations on General Hobbs. Attaching CCB to the 30th Division on the evening of 8 July, Corlett directed Hobbs to get the armor and the infantry to make a co-ordinated effort to the south. By this time, Hobbs did not want the combat command. He had his own attached tank battalion and tank destroyers, he asserted, and with them he could exploit the breakthrough his infantry had achieved. When Corlett advised that he would have to keep the combat command because it "could not go any place else," Hobbs agreed to let the armor "just trail along."13
The combat command was not entirely at fault. While it had not displayed the daring and dash expected of armor, the principal reason for the failure was the hasty, ill-planned, and uncoordinated commitment into a bridgehead of inadequate size. Its route of access into the bridgehead had been sharply restricted, its operational space was small, its routes of advance were poorly surfaced and narrow. The road network was deficient, the hedgerows presented successive, seemingly endless obstacles, and the swampy Cotentin lowland had become even more treacherous and soft because of rain. Operating in a zone that seemed to belong to another unit, men and commanders of the combat command felt like intruders. When they called for fire support from their organic artillery, they had to wait for clearance from the 30th Division Artillery. Attacking on a narrow front, the combat command held the bulk of its strength, useless, in the rear. Separated from its parent headquarters, the armored force received little guidance and encouragement.
Concern over the minor advance and the disorder in the bridgehead had not detracted from another potential hazard. General Corlett had apparently supposed that crossing the Vire et Taute Canal and taking St. Jean-de-Daye would compel the Germans on the east bank of the Taute to withdraw. Counting on light delaying resistance, the corps commander had given Colonel Biddle's 113th Cavalry Group the mission of clearing the area between the 30th Division right flank and the Taute, but opposition on 8 July was so determined that the cavalry troops had had to dismount from their light tanks and armored cars and fight through the hedgerows like infantrymen.14 Although elements of the 30th Division secured the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads on 8 July, they did not take le Désert, a few miles to the west. Anticipating the possibility of a counterattack from the Taute River area, General Corlett directed General Watson to send CCA into the bridgehead to protect the right flank. Specifically,
the combat command was to reinforce the cavalry group.
On the afternoon of 8 July, Brig. Gen. Doyle O. Hickey's Combat Command A crossed the Vire and moved west along the main road toward the Taute. Its passage through the bridgehead intensified the congestion. To add to the confusion, the last battalion of the 120th Infantry entered the bridgehead after being replaced along the north bank of the Vire et Taute Canal by a suddenly available battalion of the arriving 35th Division. The battalion of the 120th moved south through St. Jean-de-Daye. When the infantry met and crossed the CCA column, which was moving west, inevitable delays occurred. "Every road is blocked by armor," Hobbs complained.15
Although General Hobbs had said he would let CCB trail along after the 30th Division in his attack south on 9 July, General Corlett insisted that he use the armor to spearhead his advance. The objective was no longer the high ground west of St. Lô, which General Corlett felt could not be attained by a quick armored thrust, but instead Hill 91 at Hauts-Vents, a little more than three miles ahead of the combat command.
About 300 feet above sea level and aptly named for the high winds that sweep across it, Hauts-Vents overlooks the Cotentin lowlands as far north as Carentan. It dominates the St. Jean-de-Daye-Pont-Hébert road and commands the Vire River crossing to the east that leads to St. Lô. It would serve as a compromise objective. If CCB gained Hauts-Vents quickly, General Corlett thought he might then attack St. Lô from the northwest, or perhaps drive farther south to the original corps objective. With these intentions of the corps commander in mind, General Hobbs ordered General Bohn to resume his attack on 9 July, continuing southwest across the St. Jean-de-Daye-Pont-Hébert highway to Hauts-Vents and Hill 91.
On the second day of the attack, 9 July, General Bohn passed his second task force in column through the first. Passage was difficult because of the terrain, but by midmorning the task force was making slow progress across muddy fields and along narrow roads and trails. Only occasional harassing artillery fire came in. The opposition seemed slight. This prompted Hobbs to order Bohn to get the task force out of the fields and on to the roads.
In part, the order was virtually meaningless. The roads in the area were little better than trails--narrow, sunken in many places, and frequently blocked by trees and overhanging hedges. Movement along these country lanes was not much different from cross-country advance, and possibly worse. A fallen tree or a wrecked vehicle could easily immobilize an entire column. Floundering in the mud, fighting the terrain rather than the enemy, the tankers could not advance with true armored rapidity.
The meaning of the order lay not in General Hobbs' directive to get onto the roads but rather in his judgment that the combat command was not acting aggressively enough to get out of the repressive terrain. Although General
Bohn had ordered the attacking task force to use the roads in the same sense that Hobbs had meant it, the task force commander had instructed his units to use the "hedgerow method of advance." When Bohn repeated his order and when the task force commander seemed hesitant about carrying it out, Bohn started forward to expedite personally a change in the manner of attack.
Traffic congestion, intensified by intermittent rain, so delayed General Bohn that he did not reach the task force command post until an hour after noon. Reiterating his orders, he told the task force commander to get on the roads and move. In response, the officer demanded with some heat whether General Bohn realized that he was "asking him to go contrary to General Corlett's directives, General Watson's directives, and the rehearsals . . . of the tank-infantry teams." At this point, General Bohn himself took charge of the task force.
While Bohn was attempting to get through the traffic congestion to the task force, General Hobbs was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the slow progress. Unwilling to suffer longer what appeared to him a clear case of inefficiency, Hobbs sent Bohn an ultimatum: either reach the objective, Hauts-Vents, by 1700, or relinquish command.
General Corlett had also become dissatisfied. Learning at 1400 that the leading task force had advanced only 600 yards in eight hours but had lost not a man or a tank to German fire, Corlett had come to the conclusion that Bohn was not pressing the attack with sufficient vigor. He requested General Walker, who was assisting because of Corlett's illness, to inform Bohn that if Bohn's relief were recommended, he, Corlett, would have to concur. Walker transmitted the message shortly after Hobbs' ultimatum arrived.
Still impatient to know why CCB was not getting underway, General Hobbs sent his assistant division commander, Brig. Gen. William K. Harrison, jr., to find out. General Harrison reached the task force about 1500; an hour later he was satisfied that General Bohn had the situation well in hand.
With the task force commander still muttering that "it was fatal to get on the roads . . . after all the indoctrination by the Division Commander," General Bohn finally succeeded in reorganizing the task force so that it could move in column along parallel routes without the delay of plowing abreast through the fields. Anxious to give higher headquarters some sign of progress, he directed a tank company to proceed without delay and without pause southwest to the objective. The tank company was to disregard communications with the rear, move to the St. Jean-de-Daye-Pont-Hébert highway, cross the highway, and continue on to Hill 91 at Hauts-Vents.
Eight tanks of the company moved ahead down a narrow country lane in single file, spraying the ditches and hedges with machine gun fire as they advanced. They soon vanished from sight.
One reason higher commanders were so insistent upon getting CCB rolling was their knowledge of the approach of substantial enemy forces: from the west a part of the 2d SS Panzer Division, an
infantry battalion supported by a tank company; from the east the full power of the Panzer Lehr Division. Since early morning intelligence officers had been expressing considerable concern about what appeared to be a strong enemy effort in the making, particularly after aerial reconnaissance confirmed the movement of enemy tanks toward the Taute and Vire sector.16 General Corlett suggested that a screen of bazookas and antitank guns be thrown up close behind the forward troops, and that all artillery units be alerted for action against enemy armor. A rash of rumors spread through the ranks as everyone became acutely conscious of the probability of counterattack. An incipient cloudiness turning into mist and later into drizzling rain obscured the ground, denied further observation, and thwarted air attack on the enemy columns.
Later in the morning on 9 July, small probing elements of a tank-infantry task force of the 2d SS Panzer Division struck the 30th Division right flank near le Désert. The threat was contained by noontime, and the 30th Division became satisfied that the anticipated German effort had been stopped. Secure in this belief, the division artillery was displacing its headquarters early that afternoon when enemy infantry, tanks, and self-propelled guns again struck the right flank. For more than an hour, during the critical early stages of the German attack, the division artillery operated from its old command post with limited means of communication. Not until the fire-direction center opened at its new location could unqualified co-ordination with XIX Corps be achieved. Despite some uncertainty as to the positions of several U.S. infantry units, eighteen artillery battalions took the Germans under fire. The artillery was chiefly responsible for checking the German thrust.17 More reassuring was the imminent arrival on that day of the 9th Division, which was to secure the 30th Division right flank.18 Though beaten back, the counterattack was not without consequences. Pursuing two Mark IV tanks down a country road, a company of the 743d Tank Battalion (attached to the 30th Division) fell into an ambush. German armor with screaming sirens attacked from the flank at close range, and in fifteen minutes the tank company had lost most of its equipment. Three damaged tanks were abandoned; nine tanks and a dozer were destroyed; five men were dead, four wounded, and thirty-six missing. Having lost two tanks to enemy action the previous day, the company now was virtually destroyed.19
Although the 30th Division's infantry generally held firm, a few overt acts were enough to cause hysteria among some individuals. Occupying positions several hundred yards ahead of the units on its flanks, an infantry company withdrew to improve its lateral liaison and communications. About the same time, a limited withdrawal by a nearby battalion prompted the erroneous report that an entire regiment was surrounded.
This exaggeration was typical of the uncertainty and the rumors of disaster that spread through the bridgehead during the afternoon. News of the destruction of the tank company fed the apprehension and contributed to a panic that touched about 200 soldiers who were performing close support missions. As soldiers streamed toward St. Jean-de-Daye in small, disorganized groups, two medical collecting stations, a cannon company, and an infantry battalion headquarters, becoming convinced that the enemy had made a penetration, also withdrew, but in good order, to the vicinity of St. Jean-de-Daye. On the basis of these withdrawals, front-line units became concerned about the integrity and disposition of adjacent troops. Several headquarters complained that subordinate units of other headquarters were fleeing in disorder.20
At the height of the counterattack, the eight tanks dispatched by General Bohn were proceeding toward the St. Jean-de-Daye-Pont-Hébert highway. Several miles ahead of CCB's leading task force, and angling southwest toward the highway, the tanks were to turn left when they reached the main road. They were then to go several hundred yards south before turning right on a secondary road to the objective, Hauts-Vents. Spraying the hedges and ditches continuously with machine gun fire, the tankers reached the north-south highway. Instead of turning left and south, the company commander in the lead tank turned right and north toward St. Jean-de-Daye. The other seven tanks in column followed.21
In the meantime, just south of the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads, a company of the 823d Tank Destroyer Battalion had emplaced its 3-inch guns along the main highway. Stragglers falling back on the crossroads told the tank-destroyer crewmen of a breakthrough by German armor, which, the stragglers said, was just a short distance over the hill. Air bursts exploding in the vicinity from unidentified guns seemed to substantiate the reports. A short while later the reports took on added credence when one of the 30th Division's regiments passed on the erroneous information that fifty enemy tanks were moving north on the highway from Pont-Hébert toward St. Jean-de-Daye. Manning their guns and outposting them with bazookas, the tank-destroyer crewmen peered anxiously through the drizzling rain of the foggy afternoon and listened for the sound of tank motors.
They were fully alert when the silhouette of a tank hull nosed over the top of a small rise a thousand yards away. Although there was little doubt that this was the enemy, a tank-destroyer officer radioed his company to ask whether any American tanks were in the area. The reply came at once: nearby armor was German. By then several other tanks had come into view. Firing machine guns and throwing an occasional round of high explosive into the adjacent fields, the tanks moved
steadily toward the tank-destroyer positions. There could be no doubt that these were anything but the long-awaited enemy. The tank-destroyer guns opened fire at a range of 600 yards. The first round scored a direct hit on the lead tank.
At this moment General Bohn at the task force command post was trying to get in touch with the tanks he had sent ahead. On the open radio channel he heard a cry of anguish and the voice of the tank-company commander say with awful clarity, "I am in dreadful agony."
Before mutual identification could be established, crews of the tanks and tank destroyers together had sustained about ten casualties. Two tanks were knocked out.22
Reversing direction, the six remaining tanks began rolling back down the highway toward Hauts-Vents. Again they disappeared, again they lost communication with Bohn's headquarters. Although the tank radios could transmit, they perversely failed in reception.
General Bohn subsequently succeeded in getting the bulk of his leading task force to the St. Jean-de-Daye-Pont-Hébert highway. By evening the task force was advancing toward the objective. The third task force, having moved west and cross-country in the rear, debouched on the main road and rolled rapidly to the south.
Just as it began to appear that CCB might complete its mission that night, General Hobbs ordered a halt. General Bohn was to set up defensive positions astride the Pont-Hébert road about a mile short of Hauts-Vents. Although Bohn requested permission to continue--on the consideration not only of weak opposition but also that the armor was at last free of the constricting terrain and could reach Hauts-Vents before dark--Hobbs refused.
General Hobbs had based his decision upon the likelihood that the Germans might continue to counterattack after dark. If the combat command took Hauts-Vents, the division would have to advance in a strong supporting effort. Although the division had sustained less than 300 casualties that day, most of them from enemy artillery fire, Hobbs felt that he needed to reorganize before attempting to attack. He judged that strong defensive positions were more important. Without a supporting advance by infantry, he believed that Combat Command B would be too far in advance at Hauts-Vents for adequate flank and rear protection in an area where enemy strength was manifest. He told Bohn to direct his troops to "button up along the line I gave them and get a good night's rest."23
As the combat command assumed the defensive, General Bohn tried to call back the six tanks that had disappeared. Shortly before darkness, the tankers had reported being on the hill objective at Hauts-Vents. A moment later, an air mission, requested earlier but delayed by the bad weather, struck Hauts-Vents in the fading light. Though American pilots strafed the six tanks, the tanks luckily escaped losses. Unable to receive on their faulty radio sets, and ignorant of the order that had halted
the main force of CCB, the tankers formed a perimeter in a field at darkness and awaited the arrival of General Bohn and the rest of the force.24
The news that six tanks of Combat Command B were on the objective was received at headquarters of both the 30th Division and the XIX Corps with some skepticism. After forty-eight hours of disappointment, it was difficult to believe that the armor had finally reached Hauts-Vents. But since the possibility existed and because there was further uncertainty about the precise positions of the rest of the combat command, the corps and the division artillery had difficulty planning and executing their harassing and interdictory fires for the night. This was the final blow of another day of frustration in the attempt to achieve co-ordination between armor and infantry.25
Having warned General Bohn of relief if he did not reach his objective by 1700, General Hobbs removed him from command five hours later. His grounds: the extreme caution that the combat command had displayed in conducting an attack against relatively light opposition. For the lack of aggressiveness throughout the command, he held the senior officer personally responsible. Although Bohn's efforts on the afternoon of 9 July were commendable, he had not secured the co-operation of his subordinate commanders. Even though the limited roads and trails available to the combat command had intensified the problem of regrouping from a "hedgerow-to-hedgerow" advance to one "down roads and trails," the failure appeared essentially that of command. "I know what you did personally," General Hobbs assured General Bohn, "[but] you're a victim of circumstances."26
Under Col. Dorrance S. Roysdon, CCB resumed the attack toward Hauts-Vents soon after daybreak on the third day, 10 July. The six tank crews, after waiting vainly all night for the combat command to join them on the objective, returned at dawn. Had they remained at Hauts-Vents, they would have facilitated the advance of the main body. As it was, congestion on the sunken roads and enemy antitank fire hampered the command almost at once. A destroyed enemy tank blocked movement until bulldozers, maneuvering tortuously on the narrow road, cleared a bypass. The column continued until the destruction of the lead tank by enemy fire again blocked the way. The roads were so jammed with traffic and movement was so slow that Colonel Roysdon requested permission to use the main highway south to Pont-Hébert instead of the minor country roads leading southwest to Hauts-Vents. General Hobbs denied the request, for he wanted to keep the highway open for the 30th Division to attack south once the armor took Hill 91. After a co-ordination conference attended by General Hobbs, General Watson, Colonel Roysdon, and an infantry regimental commander, the combat command, by midmorning, seemed to be moving ahead. "Whatever confusion we had with the armor is reasonably
well ironed out," Hobbs reported. "Roysdon is kicking them along."27
The honeymoon was short lived. That afternoon, as the hedgerow terrain and German fire continued to retard the advance, General Hobbs again became discontented. "If Colonel Roysdon doesn't do what he can do, and should have done by noon today," he threatened, he too would have to be relieved of command. Roysdon's "only trouble" was that he "wasn't doing anything." "Please get them out of our hair," Hobbs begged.28
In the evening General Corlett decided to detach CCB from the 30th Division as soon as Hill 91 at Hauts-Vents was secured. The infantry division alone would continue to the ridge west of St. Lô, the final corps objective.29
By this time, Panzer Lehr was moving into the area. Hauts-Vents was no longer undefended and waiting to be occupied. A contingent of CCB did reach the top of Hill 91 on the evening of 10 July, but strong enemy artillery and mortar fire forced withdrawal. Though unsuccessful in seizing and holding the ground, the contingent nevertheless disrupted Panzer Lehr preparations for an attack that had been planned to start shortly after midnight.30
Combat Command B jumped off again on the morning of 11 July. Enemy antitank guns east of the Vire River knocked out six tanks immediately, but the attack continued. Reaching the crest of Hill 91 once more, men and tanks again had to give way. A second assault, led personally by Colonel Roysdon, finally secured Hauts-Vents during the afternoon. The accomplishment caused Roysdon to characterize the morale of his exhausted troops as "amazing"; his words of praise: "Enough cannot be said."31
Earlier in the afternoon General Hobbs had refused an offer by General Corlett of an additional tank battalion. He already had three battalions of CCB, he said, "sitting on their fannies." Not until a day later, with Hill 91 in hand, could Hobbs look at the matter differently. He agreed with Roysdon that the combat command had done a good job, and he regretted his relief of General Bohn. "If he [Bohn] had had a little more of a chance," Hobbs admitted, "he probably would have done the same thing [as Roysdon]."32
The entrance of CCB into the bridgehead had resulted in another frustration similar to those on the other active portions of the First Army front. Five days of combat had advanced the XIX Corps right wing only halfway to the ridge west of St. Lô. Great promise of quick success had turned into failure primarily because of the uncoordinated commitment of the combat command into restricted operational space. Whether General Bradley had intended only a reinforced tank battalion to enter the
bridgehead on 7 July, as was later claimed, was an academic question by the morning of 8 July.33 The entire combat command had crossed the Vire and was on the ground, and that fact was unalterable. Little more could be done than to hope that the armor would disentangle itself from the congestion and the terrain. An opportunity to make a deep penetration had been missed, for by the time the combat command got free of its external repressions and its internal inhibitions, the Germans had plugged the gap. Panzer Lehr was ready to attack.
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