Chapter VIII
The Battle for St. Lô

The Objective

Before the summer of 1944 the provincial city of St. Lô--primarily a market town but also a political and administrative capital--enjoyed a prosperity common to most agricultural centers and reflected a touch of more than rural elegance imparted by the society of officialdom. By the middle of June 1944 this once "charming and serene little city" had become "no more than a heap of smoking rubble." On the day the Allies invaded the Continent, 6 June, Allied planes had bombed the power plant and railroad station and then made concentrated and repeated attacks that seemed to the inhabitants to have been motivated by the sole intention of destroying the city. Almost 800 civilians lay dead under the ruins by the morning of 7 June, and Allied bombers returned every day for a week to increase the devastation.1

Although German propaganda pointed to St. Lô as an example of how the Allies were liberating France, the inhabitants apparently harbored less resentment than the Allies had expected. The French exhibited a "pathetic eagerness" to understand why the Allies had selected St. Lô as an air force target long before the ground troops were near the town. There were several reasons: hope of hindering German troop movements by making a roadblock of the town itself, "a choke-point"; desire to destroy the LXXXIV Corps headquarters, located in a suburb until 16 June; and plans to take St. Lô nine days after the invasion.2

The Americans' unsuccessful efforts to capture St. Lô in June only stimulated desire for it. Although destroyed, the city at the beginning of July remained a place of vital interest both to the Americans who had helped demolish it and to the Germans who still held it. St. Lô had prestige value, and its continued retention by the Germans or its seizure by the Americans would have a strong effect on the morale of the opposing forces. The capital of the Department


St. Lo
St. Lô


of the Manche, St. Lô was politically and psychologically important to the French. A Norman road center rivaling Caen, St. Lô would give the Allies additional lateral communications and routes to the south. The Americans felt that their possession of St. Lô would correspondingly deny the Germans the ability to move troops and supplies easily from one side of the Vire River to the other immediately behind the front.

By mid-July, the prestige factor and the value of the city as an access point to roads leading south gave way to a more important reason. Because of its location at the apex of the Coutances-St. Lô-Lessay road triangle, the city was specifically important to General Bradley's emerging plan for achieving more rapid advance in the Cotentin. A premise of the new plan was American possession of St. Lô, a need that by mid-July imparted a sense of urgency to the battle for the city.3

The Germans had anchored their positions on the hills north and northeast of St. Lô, advantageous terrain for defense. At first they fought not so much to hold St. Lô as to maintain their line. The city was useless to them for lateral communications because it was within range of U.S. artillery, and their troop and supply movements were taking place far to the south. But in July, just before the Americans opened their attack toward the city, the Germans captured an American field order. With St. Lô revealed as a major U.S. objective, the Germans reappraised its worth anddetermined to challenge the effort to the extent of their strength.4

German strength appeared adequate. St. Lô was the responsibility of the II Parachute Corps, which held the sector between the Vire and the Drôme Rivers. On the left (west) were three kampfgruppen--one each from the 353d, the 266th, and the 352d Divisions--under the operational control of the 352d headquarters. On the right was the 3d Parachute Division. In support was the 12th Assault Gun Brigade. Although the troops in the line were spread thin across a wide front, they were veterans. The corps commander, Meindl, though concerned with what amounted to a manpower shortage for his wide front, felt certain that the defensive skill of his troops and the excellent positions would offset to a great extent the rather sparse dispositions. He was confident he could keep the Americans out of St. Lô.5

The old part of the city of St. Lô occupied a rock bluff that was crowned by ancient ramparts, a tower, and the graceful double spires of a fifteenth century church. Surrounding the bluff, modern St. Lô spreads across the lowlands and up the slopes of encircling hills. The Vire River, flowing generally northward, enters the city from the southwest, executes a horseshoe loop, and leaves to the northwest. The greater part of the city lies east of the river and outside the horseshoe. (Map 8.)

The western suburb of St. Lô, inside


the horseshoe loop, is on the high ground that extends westward to Coutances. The northern part of St. Lô rises steeply toward the plateau-like top of Hill 122. On the east, the city spreads toward the base of the Martinville ridge, an eminence that ascends in a gentle slope for four miles to Hill 192. The southern portion climbs very briefly toward high ground that dominates the southern approaches.

Two main highways intersect at St. Lô, and five blacktop roads converge on the city. On the west, the highway from Coutances and the road from Lessay and Périers merge inside the river loop before crossing the stream into town. From the north two routes arrive, one the highway from Carentan through Pont-Hébert and along the western slope of Hill 122, the other the road from Isigny along the eastern edge of the hill. From the east, the road from Caumont merges with the highway from Bayeux and Caen at the Bérigny fork (seven miles from St. Lô) and the resultant single large highway runs along the south face of the Martinville ridge and into town. From the south one highway and two roads enter the city.

At the time of the invasion, St. Lô had been in the V Corps zone. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, who had directed the landings on OMAHA Beach and the drive to Caumont, the V Corps in June had anchored the American left flank firmly on Caumont and in mid-June had surrendered the St. Lô region to the XIX Corps, under General Corlett. Yet the configuration of the terrain--specifically, the location of Hill 192--is such that both corps had to participate in the direct attack toward the city.6 Hill 192 is the culminating point of the high ground that straddles the Bérigny-St. Lô road four miles northeast of St. Lô. In the V Corps zone of operations, Hill 192 gave the Germans observation not only of the V Corps sector as far to the rear as the invasion beaches but also of all the approaches to St. Lô. Capture of the height thus was a prerequisite to the XIX Corps attack on the city. The XIX and V Corps consequently planned co-ordinated action for simultaneous attacks east of the Vire River on 11 July.7

Hill 192

As the offensive east of the Vire began, the focal point of the operations initially developed on Hill 192 and involved the right (west) flank unit of the V Corps. While the 2d Armored and the 1st Infantry Divisions on the left (east) of the V Corps sector defended Caumont and held the pivot point of the projected First Army wheeling movement, the 2d Infantry Division attacked on the right to secure Hill 192 in conjunction with the XIX Corps attack toward St. Lô.8 (Map 8)

Under Maj. Gen. Walter M. Robertson, division commander since 1942, the 2d Division had arrived in Normandy


Map 8. Attack on Hill 192, 11 July 1944
Map 8. Attack on Hill 192, 11 July 1944

the day after the invasion and had participated in the early drive from OMAHA Beach. Considered a good unit, the division had no illusions about taking Hill 192 easily, for an attempt in June had cost over 1,200 casualties within three days.9 The division awaited the inevitable order to attack the hill again; and while in physical contact with the enemy at distances varying from several yards to a few hedgerowed fields, the division shelled the hill thoroughly, drew up elaborate plans of attack, and conducted training specifically designed for the assault. The training emphasized tank-infantry-engineer proficiency in applying the tactics of demolition, fire power, and speed in the hedgerow terrain. To achieve speed in the attack, troops scooped holes, large enough for tanks to drive through, in the hedgerow embankments that served as the line of departure--holes that left a thin shell of earth on the side facing the enemy; when the attack order came, the tanks would be able to crash through under their own power. Bursting through the hollowed-out hedgerows, the tankers hoped to be upon the Germans in the next row before antitank weapons could be brought to bear.


Hill 192 had been "so pounded by artillery that aerial photographs showed it as a moth-eaten white blanket."10 Yet it was a strong position. The slopes of the hill rise gradually to a rather flat top, and the small fields bordered by hedgerows and the scattered woods that surface the slopes provided concealment for the defenders. Hedgerows presented natural defensive lines in depth. Sunken lanes provided excellent lines of communication easily protected by a few carefully sited weapons. Several hamlets and occasional farmhouses offered shelter for crew-served weapons and centers of resistance. A tower concealed in a diamond-shaped patch of woods, earlier destroyed by U.S. artillery fire but rebuilt by the Germans, gave the defenders a good observation post. A battalion of the 3d Parachute Division occupied the hill and had fortified it with an intricate system of mutually supporting positions.

The Germans maintained a tight counter-reconnaissance screen, made maximum use of sunken roads and hedges, and employed roadblocks, wire entanglements, and mine fields. Although the main defensive positions were judged shallow--perhaps only two or three hedgerows in depth--the Americans expected the Germans to defend with determination and vigor and to employ local counterattacks to retain their positions. There seemed to be few if any German tanks in the area, and intelligence officers estimated that the II Parachute Corps did not have an impressive amount of artillery. The Americans were sure, however, that prior registration would enable the Germans to cover the approaches to St. Lô and also the slopes of Hill 192 with precision fire.

The "top of the hill is the big thing," General Gerow said, but to make it secure the 2d Division had to advance beyond it and occupy a two and a half mile stretch of the Bérigny highway between the Calvaire road and the Bérigny fork. The other corps units were to make a strong demonstration; air support was arranged; the corps artillery and four artillery battalions of the other divisions in the corps sector were to reinforce the 2d Division fires.11

The 38th Infantry (Col. Ralph W. Zwicker), on the right (west) and less than a thousand yards north of the crest of Hill 192, was to make the main assault with three tank companies and two heavy mortar companies attached. The 23d Infantry (Lt. Col. Jay B. Loveless), in the center, was to send one battalion across the eastern slope of the objective. The 9th Infantry (Col. Chester J. Hirschfelder), in position east of the Bérigny fork, was to support the division attack with fire.

Since a haze limited visibility on the morning of 11 July, the planned air support was canceled. The artillery fired a heavy preparation for twenty minutes, and shortly after 0600 the division jumped off.12

The preceding night Colonel Zwicker's 38th Infantry had withdrawn several hundred yards for safety during the anticipated air strike, and when the regiment jumped off the troops immediately


met a heavy volume of enemy fire that temporarily prevented them from reaching their line of departure. The Germans had discovered the slight withdrawal, had moved forward, and had thus escaped the full force of the twenty-minute artillery preparation. During the first half hour of the attack, they disabled with Panzerfaust fire or forced to retire all six tanks in the first wave of one of the assault battalions. The stratagem of scooping out hedgerow banks to gain a surprise forward bound had thus been nullified.

American infantrymen advanced slowly with the help of heavy and accurate artillery fire. Twenty thousand rounds were fired by the division artillery alone; a total of 45 tons of high explosive came from all the artillery in support. Tanks and bazooka teams knocked out assault guns concealed in the rubble of a village. A dozen riflemen enveloped by stealth an enemy position known as "Kraut Corner," reached grenade distance, and destroyed the enemy weapons. Fifteen German paratroopers surrendered. Three who refused to capitulate were buried alive by a tank dozer.

"We have a battle on our hands," General Robertson said, "[but] things are breaking a little, a hundred yards here and a hundred yards there."13 This was the pattern of the slow, vigorous advance that by noon got the 38th Infantry to the top of Hill 192. The Germans then disengaged and withdrew, and only scattered groups opposed the descent on the south slope. Part of the 38th Infantry dug in on a defensive perimeter just short of the highway and covered the road with fire; the other elements slipped across the road in small groups and organized the high ground immediately to the south.

Meanwhile, a battalion of the 23d Infantry outflanked a gully called "Purple Heart Draw." Tanks placed direct fire on houses suspected of concealing German strongpoints. Several lucky shots by rifle grenades struck enemy-held hedgerows just right to achieve the effect of air bursts over enemy crew-served weapons. By late afternoon the battalion had crossed the east slope of Hill 192 and gained positions overlooking the Bérigny highway.

That evening Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, ordered Meindl, the II Parachute Corps commander, to hold Hill 192 at all costs.14 It was already too late. As U.S. artillery placed harassing fires south of the Bérigny road during the night, the infantry repelled small and ineffective counterattacks. It became obvious to the Americans that the Germans were establishing a new line of defense in the hills south of and overlooking the St. Lô--Bérigny highway.

On 12 July the 2d Division advanced little, spending the day consolidating its new positions south of the Bérigny road. The Germans were relieved when the American attack halted, for with their troops tied down by the XIX Corps attack toward St. Lô, German commanders felt that if the 2d Division had continued its attack toward the south, the Americans would have accomplished a clean breakthrough.15

The 2d Division had nonetheless


achieved a notable success. Although it had taken only 147 prisoners and sustained heavy losses--69 killed, 328 wounded, and 8 missing--it had captured the best observation point in the St. Lô sector, a point from which the Americans could look down the Martinville ridge toward the XIX Corps objective.

Down the Martinville Ridge

The attack directly toward St. Lô, by that part of the XIX Corps east of the Vire River, should logically have followed soon after the successive corps attacks in the Cotentin--those of the VIII Corps on 3 July, the VII on 4 July, and the XIX Corps bridgehead operation launched on 7 July. Although General Bradley had tentatively extended the pattern of his offensive by scheduling the direct attack toward St Lô for 9 July, considerations twice caused him to postpone the effort, each time for twenty-four hours. The first was his hope that commitment of armor west of the Vire would promote quick capture of the high ground west of St. Lô. The second was his feeling that additional troops were needed east of the Vire. Though the 29th Division, regarded as a good outfit, had formed the left of the XIX Corps early in July, Bradley believed, on the basis of combat experience in June, that a single division deployed on a wide front was not strong enough to take St. Lô. At least one additional division would be necessary in order to mount an attack that could be supported in depth.16

Whether the 35th Division, designated for attachment to the XIX Corps, would reach France in time to participate at the beginning of the attack was the question. Though advance elements of the division had relieved portions of the 30th Division and freed them for their bridgehead operations on 7 July, it would take "very strenuous efforts" to get all of the division's men and equipment into position to take over the right portion of the 29th Division zone. Not until 11 July was the 35th Division ready to attack.17 (See Map III.)

A scant four miles north of St. Lô, the 29th and 35th Divisions held positions across an eight-mile front--from la Meauffe through Villiers-Fossard to the Couvains-Calvaire road. St. Lô was in the center of the projected corps zone of operations. In order to secure St. Lô, the divisions would have to advance to the river line west of the city and to the Bérigny road, the eastward exit from the city.

The divisions were to attack abreast in narrow zones. The boundary separating them ran from Villiers-Fossard along the western base of Hill 122 to the loop of the Vire River. The 35th on the right was to move to the two-mile stretch of the Vire immediately northwest of St. Lô; the 29th was to take the city. While one battalion of medium artillery supported the XIX Corps attack west of the Vire, the remainder of the corps artillery--four battalions of 155-mm. howitzers and a battalion each of 4.5-inch guns and 8-inch howitzers--was to assist the attack on St. Lô. General Corlett attached an additional battalion of medium


artillery to the 29th Division, which was to make the main effort of the corps.18

The 29th Division was a veteran unit with D-Day experience on OMAHA Beach. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, it had taken Isigny and attempted to capture St. Lô in June. While awaiting the reopening of offensive operations, General Gerhardt had organized small tank-infantry-engineer teams and rehearsed their co-ordinated action according to a plan that assigned an infantry squad and one tank to each hedgerowed field and an engineer squad to each infantry platoon or three fields. He directed the division ordnance company to weld iron prongs to his tanks so that they could ram holes in the hedgerow banks to facilitate the placing of demolitions. He also experimented with the technique of infantry crossing the center of the fields rather than moving along hedgerows.19 By these means, and with heavy artillery support, he hoped--even though replacements had not brought all of his infantry battalions back to authorized strength--to make a rapid, sustained advance.

Bombed from the air and shelled from the ground, St. Lô was in ruins. To avoid not only the costly fighting involved in rooting Germans from the crumbling houses but also the task of clearing the rubble-clogged streets, General Gerhardt designated high ground near the city rather than St. Lô itself as the immediate objectives: Hill 122 north of the town and just inside the division right boundary, the Martinville ridge to the east, and the heights southeast of St. Lô. With these in his possession and with the 2d Division holding Hill 192, Gerhardt hoped that by threatening to encircle the city he could compel the Germans to evacuate.

Two of the three heights General Gerhardt deemed necessary for his purpose were within striking distance--Hill 122 and the Martinville ridge. Although possession of Hill 122 would give the 29th Division a more direct avenue of approach to the city--the Isigny-St. Lô highway, which enters St. Lô from the northeast--Gerhardt preferred not to attack it directly. Second only to Hill 192 in importance in the St. Lô area, Hill 122 was a bastion of the German defensive line, a position that anchored fortifications on a two-mile ridge extending north to Carillon. The Germans were sensitive to a threat against this height, since its plateaulike crest ends abruptly at a steep slope near the edge of the northern outskirts of St. Lô. From the top of the slope, the city lies exposed and vulnerable.

General Gerhardt preferred to make his main effort on the left (east). He therefore deployed the 115th Infantry (Col. Godwin Ordway, Jr.) across a broad front, north and northeast of Hill 122, on the division right. Even though all three infantry battalions were in the line, a gap of several hundred yards separated two of them. The reason for such thin deployment was Gerhardt's plan to make his main effort to secure the Martinville ridge. By holding this eminence east of St. Lô, U.S. troops would threaten the Germans on Hill 122 with encirclement and isolation from the south. In a potentially untenable


Martinville Ridge
Martinville Ridge

position, the Germans on Hill 122 would have to withdraw through St.Lô before the Americans entered the city and cut their route of escape. As the Germans withdrew the Americans could decimate them with artillery fire. Occupation of both Hill 122 and the high ground southeast of St. Lô would then be a simple matter.

Assuming that the 2d Division would take Hill 192 and thus secure his flank and rear, General Gerhardt directed the 116th Infantry (Col. Charles D. W. Can-ham) to slip south on a narrow front near the division left boundary to the Martinville ridge. There the regiment would turn right (west) and descend the ridge toward the eastern edge of town. The 115th Infantry was to make a diversionary effort down the Isigny-St. Lô road toward Hill 122 and protect the division right flank. The 175th Infantry (Col. Ollie W. Reed) was to be prepared to exploit success--either on the Martinville Ridge or, if despite contrary expectation the 115th met little resistance from Hill 122,along the Isigny-St. Lô axis.20

General Gerhardt's scheme was almost disarranged just before daybreak on 11 July when the II Parachute Corps launched a diversionary feint in support of the Panzer Lehr attack west of the Vire.21 A German patrol cut the communication wires of the 115th Infantry. Enemy artillery and mortars opened fire. Two paratroop companies supported by engineers struck the thinly deployed troops of the 115th, overran the American lines, encircled part of an infantry battalion, and drove a company of 4.2-inch mortarmen from their positions. Without communication and direction from higher headquarters, heavy mortar support, or knowledge of the extent of the German effort, small groups fought isolated engagements in the early morning light. At 0730, judging that they had done their duty by Panzer Lehr,


the German assault companies broke contact and withdrew to their former positions. What was essentially a raid alerted the 29th Division to the possibility that German reserves had been massed in depth for counterattack and would be in position to make a strong defense of St. Lô. The raid also inflicted more than a hundred casualties on the 115th and disrupted its scheduled jump-off. Regimental reorganization took the remainder of the morning, and Colonel Ordway did not launch his attack down the Isigny-St. Lô road until afternoon. As anticipated, little advance was made in the face of strong enemy fire directed from Hill 122.22

Meanwhile, General Gerhardt had been able to get his main effort under way on the division left flank early that morning when two battalions of the 116th Infantry jumped off in column behind a heavy artillery preparation. The hedgerows made it difficult to locate the exact sources of enemy fire, and progress was slow against determined resistance. As 4.2-inch mortars fired on the Martinville ridge and tanks knocked out a self-propelled gun on the Calvaire road, the infantry finally got past its first major obstacle, a sunken road heavily protected by antipersonnel mines. The regiment still had gained only six hedgerows in five hours when, suddenly, as the 2d Division secured the crest of Hill 192, the German opposition gave way. The 116th Infantry then moved rapidly south to the Martinville ridge, turned right (west), and began to move down the ridge toward St. Lô.

As soon as the assaulting troops surged forward, Colonel Canham, the regimental commander, committed his reserve battalion. By the end of the day this battalion, with a company of tanks in close support, had set up blocking positions on the division left flank. Entrenched on the south slope of the Martinville ridge, the battalion overlooked the Bérigny road.

Toward the end of the first day General Gerhardt's effort to outflank Hill 122 from the east and south promised success. The 2d Division had captured Hill 192 and was protecting the strong 116th Infantry positions on the Martinville ridge. Apparently ready to close in on St. Lô and threaten Hill 122 with isolation, Gerhardt alerted his reserve regiment, the 175th, to pass through the 116th on the following day and drive into the city from the east.

The plan had one drawback. As soon as the 116th had turned the axis of attack from the south to the west, its left flank had become exposed; men moving across the open fields and orchards of the southern face of the Martinville ridge came under observed German fire from high ground south of the Bérigny road. Having in effect sought defilade from the fires of Hill 122 against the north face of the Martinville ridge, the Americans had come under enfilading fire from the south, shelling that harassed movement and depleted ranks. As a result the 29th Division on 11 July lost almost 500 men.

If Gerhardt persisted with his original scheme of maneuver and brought the bulk of the division down the Martinville ridge, he would send his men through a gantlet of German fire. But because control of the southern face of


the Martinville ridge would protect his flank against attack across the Bérigny highway and because an approach to St. Lô from the east still held out the promise of quickly dislodging the Germans on Hill 122, General Gerhardt decided to continue. He became convinced, however, that as long as the Germans had control of the hills north and south of St. Lô, they were not likely to give up the city. Thus he had to take St. Lô by direct assault and occupy the town. On the evening of 11 July he instructed Colonel Canham to "push on, if possible take St. Lô."23 Encroaching darkness helped to thwart the attempt.

With the American scheme of maneuver revealed by a captured field order, German commanders during the morning of 11 July had been unworried by the American attack. By noontime the outlook had changed. They had lost the top of Hill 192, and the Panzer Lehr attack west of the Vire River had fizzled. The considerable American pressure, not only in the St. Lô region but all across the Cotentin, was having a cumulative effect that could not be wished away. Trying to retain possession of the St. Lô defenses, the II Parachute Corps reported that its entire front had "burst into flame." A strong volume of effective artillery fire had by nightfall of 11 July reduced the 3d Parachute Division to 35 percent of its authorized strength. The kampfgruppe of the 353d Division, fighting alongside the paratroopers, had shrunk from almost 1,000 men to 180. Approving commitment of the last reserve battalion of the 3d Parachute Division, Meindl, the corps commander, requested that a regiment of the 5th Parachute Division, arriving at this time from Brittany, be sent to reinforce his sector. Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, refused, judging that the Panzer Lehr defeat made the region west of St. Lô more critical. Hausser insisted, nevertheless, that the Martinville ridge be held at all costs. In response, Meindl remarked that someone was soon going to have to come up with a brilliant plan if they were to counter the American pressure. Meanwhile, Meindl established a new line during the night. The positions extended north across the Bérigny highway and over the Martinville ridge to tie in with Hill 122, and faced eastward to meet the threat that had developed on the Martinville ridge.24

On the second day of attack, 12 July, the 29th Division made little progress. On the right the 115th Infantry, extended over a broad front, without a reserve, and under the eyes of the Germans on Hill 122, did little more than maintain pressure and sustain casualties. On the left, the 175th Infantry was unable--because of German artillery fire-to pass through the 116th and get into position for a drive down the Martinville ridge. German artillery and mortar fire immobilized the division and again inflicted almost 500 casualties.

Losing nearly 1,000 men in two days was a serious drain on the division, which had not been up to strength at the beginning of the attack. A battalion of the 175th Infantry, even before


commitment, had only 225 men in its three rifle companies. Several hours after the jump-off another battalion commander had replied, when General Gerhardt asked him how he stood in strength, "On one leg, sir." German fire depleted the division at an alarming rate, and the hedgerow fighting wore out the survivors. On the evening of 12 July a regimental commander understated the case when he informed Gerhardt, "I think everybody is enthusiastic about taking up a strong defensive position right now and I would recommend it too."25

After two days of battle the corps and division commanders, Generals Corlett and Gerhardt, both came to the conclusion, "Hill 122 is SOP"--they needed Hill 122 before they could take St. Lô. By 13 July, however, General Gerhardt no longer had the strength to seize the hill. The bulk of the 29th Division, the 116th and 175th Regiments, was inextricably committed in the left portion of the division zone, the Martinville ridge; the 115th Infantry, facing Hill 122 and in position to assault the height, remained stretched across a broad front. Gerhardt tentatively proposed to envelop and bypass the German strongpoint on Hill 122, but he did not press the point since he did not feel it was a satisfactory solution.26

General Corlett held the solution to the problem of Hill 122. He could commit his corps reserve against it. Yet before doing so, he wanted to give Gerhardt's original plan of maneuver--continuation of the effort down the Martinville ridge--one more day. To support the attack he requested particularly heavy air bombardment of Hill 122.27

By morning of 13 July the two regiments on the Martinville ridge had managed to assume definite regimental zones abreast and facing west, the 116th generally holding the ridge line, the 175th occupying positions across the southern face of the ridge to the Bérigny road. In compliance with the corps commander's decision, General Gerhardt directed the 175th Infantry to drive down the Bérigny highway to St. Lô behind a spearhead of tanks. With dive bombers blasting ahead of the ground troops and neutralizing Hill 122, artillery giving close protection, and tanks driving the point down the road, there was reason to hope that the city might fall.

The hope was short lived. Hardly had daylight come before hindrances developed. Not only did bad weather nullify the air effort, but lack of proper co-ordination prevented the tanks from refueling and immobilized them for the duration of the attack. Deprived of both armor and air support, the infantry, although aided by strong artillery fire, advanced but 500 yards under the pounding of German artillery and mortar shells directed from the ridge south of the highway.

Late in the afternoon the regimental commander, Colonel Reed, requested permission to commit his reserve battalion against the high ground south of the Bérigny road. When General Gerhardt


relayed the request to the corps commander, General Corlett refused for fear it might promote a dispersal of effort. Also, he had by then decided to take action against Hill 122 by committing his reserve, a regiment of the 35th Division, and he needed the reserve battalion of Reed's regiment to constitute a new corps reserve. Ordering General Gerhardt to rest his troops and reorganize his positions on the following day, 14 July, General Corlett turned his main attention to the 35th Division, the unit on the right that had also been attacking since 11 July and would now have to take Hill 122.

Hill 122

Commanded by Maj. Gen. Paul W. Baade, the 35th Division, though well trained, was handicapped by the haste with which it had to be committed. The troops had taken over part of the active front without extensive ground reconnaissance; their knowledge of the enemy was limited to the general idea of where the German forward line lay, the impression that the Germans were defending with vigor, and the immediate realization that the Germans had excellent observation of all movement, particularly in the open fields. Only when the division launched its attack did the men learn how thoroughly the Germans had organized the terrain.28

From a line of departure running between la Meauffe (on the Vire) and Villiers-Fossard, the 35th Division faced hedgerow country. The objective, four miles away, was the two-mile stretch of the Vire River between the loop and the bend. The division's right flank was fairly well protected by the Vire River; but on the left, just outside the boundary, Hill 122 dominated the entire zone.

For his attack on 11 July, the same day that the 2d and 29th jumped off, General Baade planned to commit two regiments abreast--the 137th (Col. Grant Layng) on the right adjacent to the river, the 320th (Col. Bernard A. Byrne) on the left. The 134th Infantry (Col. Butler B. Miltonberger) was to be held as corps reserve. After a thirty-minute artillery preparation, the division moved forward at 0600.29

The right flank elements of both assault regiments advanced a mile and a half in two hours and straightened the division front, but then the attack stalled. Meeting strong resistance in the hedgerows, the troops encountered many of the same difficulties that plagued nearly all inexperienced divisions in the hedgerows. Communications went out almost immediately. Gaps soon developed between units. The men seemed surprised to find strong opposition from machine guns in sunken roads and behind hedges. With astonishment they noted that it was "hard to put down [artillery] fire behind hedges close to our tr[oop]s."30 Though the troops had been informed while in England that the Cornish countryside was somewhat like Normandy, neither planning nor training to overcome the terrain obstacles of the hedgerows had gone far


Sunken Road Near Carillon
Sunken Road Near Carillon

beyond speculation.31 German mortar and automatic weapons fire was particularly heavy, and one of the wounded was a regimental commander, Colonel Layng. The first day of action did little more than give the troops their baptism of fire and rudely introduce them into the complexities of hedgerow warfare. Across the Vire River General Hobbs clamored for the 35th Division to advance and cover the 30th Division flank.32

On the second day of attack, 12 July, the 35th Division employed a 45-minute artillery preparation to try to soften the German defenses. This helped to achieve success against a fortified position in a church and cemetery on the right flank, where machine gunners in concrete emplacements behind the cemetery walls had been an immovable obstruction since early the preceding day. A battalion cleared the obstacle shortly before noon; no prisoners were taken--all the Germans were dead. The infantry then proceeded to take the next strongpoint, a fortified chateau that had been set ablaze the previous night by artillery shells.

Despite this advance, the 35th Division made only slight gains on 12 and 13 July. Inexperience and the hedgerows were partly responsible, but more important was the strong German position at Carillon, which was in the center of the division zone and backed by the forces on Hill 122.

Though envelopment looked like the answer at Carillon, every attempt was thwarted by a lack of maneuver room and by the dominating German positions on Hill 122. It became obvious that if the 35th Division was to progress, Hill 122, in the 29th Division zone, had to be in American hands. Only then did it seem that General Baade would be able to advance his right flank sufficiently to cover the 30th Division on the other side of the river.

The situation was partially resolved on 14 July. While the 29th Division rested and reorganized, General Baade sent out part of the 35th in an attack along the east bank of the Vire. Helped by a strong 30th Division drive on the other river bank, the 137th Infantry, commanded now by Col. Harold R. Emery, advanced in rain through mine fields and heavy mortar and artillery fire to the Pont-Hébert-St. Lô highway.


U.S. Soldier in German Position
U.S. Soldier in German Position

With all three battalions committed and with tanks, tank destroyers, and artillery giving strong support, the 137th secured part of the ridge road. The regiment lost 125 men and 11 medium tanks and took 53 prisoners.

The results of the advance were important. The 352d Division, which defended the ground adjacent to and east of the Vire River, had always been troubled by its potentially precarious positions. The Vire River defined its left (west) flank and also crossed the unit rear. Since no permanent structures bridged the Vire between Pont-Hébert and St. Lô, if American troops drove to St. Lô or to the loop of the river, the division was trapped. To maintain lateral communications across the Vire, the Germans built an underwater bridge at Rampan, south of Pont-Hébert, but it could not support a wholesale exodus from the sector. The loss of Pont-Hébert so threatened the Rampan crossing site that German engineers hurriedly began to build a temporary bridge just northwest of St. Lô.33

Thoughts of withdrawal were becoming stronger as the battle proceeded. During the first three days of the American effort in July, the 352d Division computed that it had borne 40 attacks--2 in regimental, 12 in battalion, and 26 in company strength. The effect of the incessant thrust over a three-day period had forced the Germans back. If the U.S. infantry attacks had been effective, their artillery had been devastating. During the first two days, the German division had sustained 840 wounded, most from artillery fire, and was unable to count its dead. American counterbattery fire was particularly impressive, destroying in one instance six of the twelve guns of one battalion.

The rapid decline in the effectiveness of the 352d Division had serious connotations for the Germans defending St. Lô. Should the 353d collapse, Hill 122 would be lost. The loss of Hill 122 meant eventual withdrawal to the high ground south of St. Lô. Meindl therefore reinforced the forces on Hill 122 with 266th Division troops he had held in reserve and with the 30th Mobile Brigade, which had just returned to II Parachute Corps control after being relieved by Panzer Lehr in the sector west of the Vire.34

Unaware of the exact effect the 35th Division was having on the opposition, General Corlett was nevertheless conscious that Pont-Hébert, secured in conjunction


with the 30th Division attack on the other side of the river, gave the 35th a favored position. With a foothold on the ridge road, the Americans held an excellent approach to St. Lô from the northwest. Having outflanked the German strongpoint at Carillon, they also threatened Hill 122. Though the 320th Infantry, which was echeloned to the left rear for two miles, could do little more than exert unavailing pressure against Carillon, the 137th had fashioned an enveloping pincer against the Carillon-Hill 122 complex from the west. A similar pincer from the east would form a double envelopment of Carillon and Hill 122. Because the 29th Division, with the bulk of its forces on the Martinville ridge, did not have enough troops in position to assault Hill 122 from the northeast, Corlett shifted the division boundary to the east, to the Isigny--St. Lô highway, giving the 35th Division more maneuver space and Hill 122 as an objective. Corlett released the 134th Infantry from the corps reserve and directed Baade to take the height. In preparation for the attack, the 134th on 14 July replaced two battalions of the 115th Infantry that were west of the Isigny-St. Lô highway, thereby getting into position to strike for Hill 122 while at the same time bringing relief to the overextended 29th Division.35

General Baade's intention was to attack with both flank regiments. While the 320th contained the Germans at Carillon, the 137th, on the right, was to advance across the Pont-Hébert-St. Lô ridge road. The 134th, on the left, was to move forward in direct assault against Hill 122. Success on the flanks would neutralize the Carillon position, eliminate Hill 122, and open the way for an easy advance to the final division objective, the stretch of the Vire River between the loop and the bend.

A need to diverge from this plan became obvious on 15 July soon after the 137th Infantry attacked on the right to cross the Pont-Hébert-St. Lô ridge road. Artillery and mortar fire directed from Hill 122 inflicted 117 casualties and stopped the regiment cold. The 137th could not advance, General Baade deduced, until the 134th Infantry took Hill 122.

Colonel Miltonberger's 134th Infantry also had attacked early on 15 July. The axis of advance was a country road, dirt-surfaced and narrow, from Villiers-Fossard through Emélie to the hardly discernible flat top of the hill. The road parallels the Isigny--St. Lô highway, a mile to the east, and rises slightly for almost three miles as it mounts the gentle northern incline of Hill 122, then drops down the precipitous descent into the northern edge of St. Lô. On both sides of the road typical bocage terrain offered advantages to the defenders--impressive hedgerows and sunken lanes that are veritable caves.

The 134th Infantry moved toward the cluster of farm buildings at Emélie behind a rolling artillery barrage. Almost immediately the men became enmeshed in a tangle of hedgerowed lanes and a shower of enemy fire. The threat of confusion hovered over the battlefield as small units fought for individual fields. Although the regiment suffered high casualties in severe splinter actions, it had the hamlet of Emélie by noon.


Encouraged by this success, General Baade told Brig. Gen. Edmund B. Sebree, the assistant division commander, to form a task force and lead it in the remaining thrust to the crest of Hill 122. Uniting the 134th with two companies of the 737th Tank Battalion, a company of the 60th Engineer Battalion, and a platoon of the 654th Tank Destroyer Battalion, General Sebree completed his preparations by evening.36 At 2030, after planes bombed German positions around St. Lô and as the 29th Division attacked in its sector, the task force of the 35th Division jumped off.

In the deceptive illumination of twilight, the task force moved swiftly. Advancing up the north slope of Hill 122, General Sebree called on direct fire support from one artillery battalion, parts of two others, and the entire 82d Chemical Battalion. It was a mile to the crest of the hill, and the task force was there by midnight. While the infantrymen dug in, engineers hauled sandbags, wire, and mines up the incline to bolster defensive positions against counterattacks that were sure to follow. The Germans still had sufficient maneuver room north of St. Lô to launch counterattacks, but the integrity of the German strongpoint had been at least temporarily cracked.

The expected counterthrust came in the early hours of 16 July and drove the infantry back slightly until a newly committed reserve battalion helped restore the line.37 Later that day the Germans launched another attack, supported by heavy mortar and artillery fire. This time American infantrymen gave way in sizable numbers--some stragglers fled back to Emélie--but a counterassault picked up momentum and troops of the 35th Division crossed the crest of Hill 122 despite heavy artillery fire.38 As German artillery and mortar shells continued to fall on the hill, American troops had an astonishingly clear view of St. Lô, barely a mile away.

Capture of Hill 122 foreshadowed the end of the battle. With this bastion lost, the German defenses around St. Lô began to crumble. On 17 July, the 137th Infantry on the division right was finally able to break across the Pont-Hébert-St. Lô ridge road. Driving south toward the Vire River, the regiment encountered diminishing resistance. Meanwhile, the 320th Infantry prepared to mop up the Carillon area, which the Germans had virtually abandoned.39

"Come Hell or High Water"

Although the end of the battle for St. Lô could be foreseen on 17 July, capture of the city had not seemed imminent on 14 July when the 29th Division had paused to reorganize and prepare to renew the attack. Though the city was but 3,000 yards away, it remained in many respects almost as elusive as it had through the first three days of the battle.

Narrowing the 29th Division front to


exclude Hill 123 had provided the troops a fresh hope when they resumed the attack on 15 July. After a day of reorganization and rest, the 115th Infantry moved out along the Isigny-St. Lô road, the 116th made the main effort along the crest of the Martinville ridge on a 600-yard front, and the 175th Infantry gave fire support from positions echeloned to the left rear along the Bérigny road.

For all the expectations, the attack on 15 July began to show signs of dismal failure. The 116th immediately lost seven medium tanks to enfilading enemy fire from the south. Despite diversionary attacks launched by the 175th Infantry and air strikes by the IX Tactical Air Command, the main effort did not get rolling.40 On the division right, the 115th lost several hundred yards as the result of confusion. Intermingling battalions and misplaced tanks disrupted regimental control. Lack of proper coordination with the 35th Division caused misunderstanding and an exchange of fire among U.S. troops. The firm action of an artillery liaison officer, who took command of an infantry company and restored order and discipline, prevented a panicky withdrawal. A tank platoon nearby might have helped the regiment to regain the lost ground, but the tank commander could not locate a key infantry officer. While the tankers waited for instructions, the tanks remained idle.41

The division commander, General Gerhardt, was at first cautiously optimistic. "Looks like we are maybe going to roll," he said. His optimism later changed to stubborn determination. "We're going to keep at this now," he announced, "come hell or high water." Since the day passed with little more than an exchange of counterbattery fires and reorganization of some units, General Gerhardt planned a night attack. "We might do it tonight," he said. Several hours later he admitted, "We . . . did not make the grade."42 The 115th and 175th Regiments had made no appreciable gain, while the 116th Infantry, commanded now by Col. Philip R. Dwyer, had made what looked like no more than a minor initial advance.43

Unknown to the division commander at the time, an event had taken place during the night that was to exercise a significant and fortunate influence on the battle of St. Lô. Two assault battalions of the 116th Infantry had been making good progress along the Martinville ridge when the division headquarters, evidently lacking accurate knowledge of the situation and fearing an overextension of lines, had ordered a halt. One battalion stopped and consolidated a gain of about 500 yards. The other continued to move, for the battalion commander, Maj. Sidney V. Bingham, Jr., had received the order to halt while he was checking his supply lines in the rear. Lacking communication at that particular moment with his advance units, Bingham went forward to stop the advance. When he reached


his leading troops, he found that they were more than 1,000 yards beyond the regimental front and were organizing positions astride the Bérigny highway. Having met little opposition, they had angled down across the face of the Martinville ridge to a point less than 1,000 yards from the eastern edge of St. Lô.

German artillery and mortar fire directed at the main body of the 116th Infantry fell behind and isolated Bingham's comparatively small unit. Lacking half a rifle company, a squad of the heavy weapons company, the 81-mm. mortars, and the battalion staff--all of which were with the bulk of the regiment--the battalion formed a defensive perimeter. Reporting the gain to the regimental commander, Major Bingham said he thought he could hold even though he had little ammunition.

Separating the isolated force from the 116th and 175th Regiments were gaps of 1,000 and 700 yards, respectively. So strong was enemy fire from artillery, mortars, and automatic weapons that attempts by both regiments to reach the isolated battalion were blocked. So vulnerable was the position that some thought the entire battalion would be annihilated. On the other hand, the battalion's position constituted the closest American approach to St. Lô. Eventually, the latter condition was to prove a significant indication to Germans and Americans alike that the city's defenses were in reality disintegrating.

After Securing Hill 122, 17 July
After Securing Hill 122, 17 July.

That this was the case seemed far from plausible at midnight, 15 July, when General Corlett turned over to the VII Corps his sector west of the Vire River and devoted his entire attention to the situation east of the Vire. The situation at St. Lô was hardly encouraging. On the right, the 35th Division was halted before the Pont-Hébert-St. Lô ridge road and had then only a precarious hold on Hill 122. On the left, the 29th Division was in even worse straits: one regiment unable to advance down the Isigny-St. Lô highway and the other two stopped on the Martinville ridge, apparently incapable either of driving the short distance into the city or of establishing physical contact with an isolated battalion. Yet more than ever the Americans needed St. Lô. General Bradley needed to control the Vire River crossing site at St. Lô in order to block German threats against the flank of his new operation. It was vital to bring the battle of St. Lô swiftly to an end, yet there seemed little alternative


to the slow costly pattern of yard-by-yard advances already so familiar.

There was little improvement on 16 July. While the 35th Division fought to retain Hill 122, the 29th Division seemed virtually paralyzed. The 115th Infantry advanced about 300 yards down the Isigny-St. Lô highway and came abreast of the 35th Division forces on Hill 122, but the regiments on the Martinville ridge could not relieve the isolated battalion.

Six days of fighting had brought the 29th close to its goal, but with considerably weakened forces. Two days earlier, 125 replacements had restored one battalion of the 116th Infantry to only 60 percent of its authorized strength; during the night of 16-17 July another battalion received 250 enlisted replacements, bringing its total strength to 420. On 16 July a battalion of the 115th had only a platoon of riflemen remaining in each rifle company. On 17 July 200 men comprised the three rifle companies of a battalion of the 175th, and most of the commissioned and noncommissioned officers had been killed or wounded. Although these were extreme cases, the other infantry battalions were also seriously depleted.44

For the final assault on St. Lô at the opportune moment, General Gerhardt turned to the supporting arms. He instructed Brig. Gen. Norman D. Cota, the assistant division commander, to form a task force of tank, reconnaissance, tank destroyer, and engineer troops. They were to be assembled in the division rear area at a location that would enable them to attack toward St. Lô from either

the northeast--by way of the Isigny-St. Lô highway--or the east--down the Martinville ridge. Because Hill 122 was not yet entirely secure, General Gerhardt still expected to make his climactic drive into St. Lô from the east, but he wanted to be ready to drive from the northeast should capture of Hill 122 prove in reality to be the decisive factor in the battle for St. Lô.

A Legend is Born

On 17 July, the seventh day of attack, the 29th Division struck before dawn. Maj. Thomas D. Howie, commanding the 3d Battalion, 116th Infantry, led his men in a column of companies in a silent march toward Major Bingham's isolated unit. Suspicious Germans increased their artillery and mortar fire and played grazing machine gun fire across the slope of the Martinville ridge. Howie's men resisted the impulse to return this fire and crept forward through an early morning mist, still undetected. Several hours after daybreak, they reached Bingham's isolated force:

The regimental commander, Colonel Dwyer, had hoped that the two battalions together would be able to enter the city, but Bingham's men were exhausted. Howie informed Dwyer by telephone that they were incapable of further effort. When Dwyer asked whether Howie could move his battalion alone to the eastern edge of town, Howie replied, "Will do." Several minutes later an enemy shell killed him.

Taking command of Howie's battalion, Capt. William H. Puntenny tried to mount the attack on St. Lô along the Bérigny highway, but the Germans


threw up such a heavy curtain of mortar fire that the men could not move. All through the day the German fire denied an advance. Late that afternoon a counterattack with tank support started from St. Lô to eliminate the Bingham-Puntenny force. Only the fortuitous presence of American dive bombers saved the day. While the planes strafed and bombed the German column, the division artillery placed a protective screen of fire about the American positions.45 Disorganized, the Germans withdrew their assault force, but now two American battalions were isolated.

All efforts of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, to open a route to Bingham and Puntenny on 17 July and to bring forward ammunition, food, and medical supplies failed. Half-tracks and tank destroyers, escorted by quadruple .50-caliber machine guns, found the sunken roads about Martinville so clogged with debris, dead horses, and wrecked German vehicles that an advance under continuing enemy artillery fire was impossible. The 175th Infantry also attempted to reach the isolated men by attacking down the Bérigny highway, but the regiment sustained severe losses and made little advance. The only relief was that brought by light planes of the division artillery, which dropped sufficient blood plasma for 35 wounded men.

On the night of 17 July a carrying party of about forty men of the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, finally reached the isolated units. The next morning, 18 July, a rifle company--which had been reduced to 23 veterans but replenished with 85 replacements--opened a supply route to Bingham and Puntenny across the thousand-yard gap. Advancing in two columns along the axial hedgerows one field apart, maintaining visual contact between columns, and leaving four men in each field to hold the supply line open, the company met only light rifle fire. Supplies were brought forward and the wounded were evacuated. The few Germans, in small and disorganized groups, who blundered into the supply route during the day were either killed or captured.

By the time contact was firmly established with the two isolated battalions, the Martinville ridge had lost importance in the battle of St. Lô. The explanation had its basis in the condition that for seven long days had plagued the attacks along the ridge.

In full view of the Germans south of the Bérigny highway, every American movement along the south face of the Martinville ridge had brought deadly fire. Though the two regiments on the ridge had constituted a threat to the town, they had been unable to make the threat good. Attempts to impress the troops with the fact that the German positions were worse than their own had not succeeded. "Tell them that Jerry is in a wedge," the division G-3 had ordered a liaison officer. "Jerry doesn't seem to realize it," had come the reply.46 So it seemed, for in spite of the wedge exerting pressure from the north--Hill 122--and from the east--the Martinville ridge--the Germans had obstinately refused to release their hold on the city. With the passage of time it had become


a matter of increasing certainty that the forces on the ridge lacked the strength to make the final drive to the objective.

On the afternoon of 17 July, after the 35th Division had firmly established its control over Hill 122, General Gerhardt concluded that the 115th Infantry and not the regiments on the Martinville ridge really held the key to St. Lô. To insert the key, General Gerhardt had somehow to get the regiment to the gates of the city. He therefore directed Colonel Ordway to advance the 115th to the northeast outskirts of St. Lô. The advance depended almost wholly upon the battalion in the regimental center. "Expend the whole battalion if necessary," General Gerhardt ordered, "but it's got to get there." An hour later he repeated the same order.47 By nightfall of 17 July the troops of the entire 115th Infantry were near the northeastern fringe of the city, but getting there had brought them to the point of almost complete exhaustion.

Convinced beyond doubt that the only feasible point of entry to St. Lô was the northeastern gate, General Gerhardt changed his week-long scheme of maneuver. For operations on 18 July, he ordered the two regiments on the left--those on the Martinville ridge--to hold in place while the 115th made the main effort into the city.48

Early on 18 July, General Gerhardt phoned to ask General Baade what he was planning to have the 35th Division do that day. General Baade replied that he would "probably sit tight." As an afterthought he asked, "Are you going in?"

"I'm going to try," General Gerhardt answered.

"In that case," General Baade said, "so will I."

"You can help on your left," General Gerhardt suggested.

General Baade promised he would "look into it."

Three minutes later General Gerhardt was telling the corps commander that he thought the 35th Division should be ordered to attack to aid the 29th and not be allowed to attack "just because someone else [the 29th] is doing it."

General Corlett's reaction was sharp: "You had better just take on what I said in your order." Apparently realizing Gerhardt's fatigue, he added, "Just take St. Lô and secure it."49

If these conversations revealed a tension among American commanders, those occurring among German officers disclosed even greater concern. Seventh Army had called Army Group B in the midafternoon of 17 July, and Hausser requested not only permission to withdraw in the St. Lô sector but also an answer by 1800 that day. There was some double talk about withdrawing to a line north of St. Lô, but this was not feasible in terms of the terrain. A withdrawal meant retirement to the heights just south of the city, though combat outposts could be retained north of St. Lô.50

The request was rather surprising because under Hitler's standing order to hold fast, permission to withdraw was


a prerogative of OKW. Yet more surprising was the army group reply to the Seventh Army. The operations officer of Army Group B stated that, after discussion, the staff had decided that forwarding Hausser's request to OB WEST for further transmittal to OKW was not practical. "You take whatever measures you think are necessary," the operations officer advised; "if you have to withdraw, go ahead; just report to us afterwards that the enemy penetrated your main line of resistance in several places and that you barely succeeded in re-establishing a new line to the rear."51

Several reasons made a withdrawal necessary. American capture of Hill 122 and the attrition of the German troops in that sector exposed St. Lô from the north. The shortage of troops along the entire St. Lô front made it impossible for the II Parachute Corps to re-establish a defensive line north of the city. Underscoring the difficult, even hopeless, situation at St. Lô were the events that had occurred on the other side of the Vire: the 30th Division advance through Pont-Hébert to Rampan, the failure of the abortive Panzer Lehr counterattack on 15 July that did no more than delay the 30th Division advance, and the mistaken notion that U.S. troops had crossed the river at Rampan to infiltrate the rear of the 352d Division. All added up to the uncomfortable threat of American encirclement of St. Lô from the west.

As though this was not bad enough, Rommel, the Army Group B commander, while driving forward to visit the front on the afternoon of 17 July, incurred a severe skull fracture in an automobile accident brought on by strafing from an Allied plane. That evening, when the news became known to the Germans, the OB WEST commander, Kluge, assumed command of Army Group B as well.

By this time, Army Group B had passed Hausser's withdrawal request to OB WEST, which informed Jodl at OKW that troops were pulling back to hills north of St. Lô. Kluge tried to avert a complete withdrawal, but though he ordered Hausser to keep the Americans out of the city, he could find no reserves to reinforce the St. Lô sector.52 The 5th Parachute Division, which had arrived from Brittany several days earlier, was already committed to reinforce Panzer Lehr. The 275th Division, which was following the paratroopers, would not arrive in the St. Lô region for another day. Panzer Group West, which might have furnished troops, was expecting a strong British attack in the Caen area, and Kluge dared not disturb Eberbach's dispositions. Reluctantly, Kluge permitted Hausser to withdraw.53 Undetected by the Americans, the main forces retired that night leaving strong combat outposts north of St. Lô.

On the American side, General Gerhardt completed his preparations for assault on the morning of 18 July. Though the 115th Infantry had made the drive possible, Gerhardt replaced the regimental commander. "You did your best," Gerhardt told him. Colonel


Infantrymen Hit the Ground on a Street in St. Lo
Infantrymen Hit the Ground on a Street in St. Lô

Ednie, who had come from the 30th Division to understudy the assistant division commander, took his place. Ednie's mission was to open the northeast entrance to the city for the passage of General Cota's task force. Unaware of the German withdrawal, General Gerhardt was cautious. "We may go into St. Lô," he informed the corps commander, "but we don't want anyone to get cut off in there."54

After an artillery preparation, the 115th Infantry attacked. Since Hill 122 was no longer a point of embarrassment, the regiment made good progress. At noon Colonel Ednie was hammering on

the gate. "I believe this is the time to alert that Task Force," he advised General Gerhardt. The division commander no longer doubted. "Everything's shaping up now," he informed General Cota, "so I think you'd better get moving."55

Forty minutes later General Gerhardt transmitted another order to General Cota. He wanted the body of Major Howie to accompany the first U.S. troops into town.56 The act was to be not only a gesture of honor and respect to the fallen but also a visible reminder to the members of the task force of all their comrades who had given their lives in a


Ruins of St. Lo
Ruins of St. Lô

task not yet completed. The choice of Major Howie's body was particularly apt, for Howie, who had taken command of a battalion only three days before his death, represented the qualities of courage and sacrifice that had made the drive to the gates of St. Lô possible. The triumph belonged to the dead as well as to the living, and through Major Howie the fallen were to participate in the culmination of the effort.

At 1500, 18 July, General Cota's Task Force C departed its assembly area near the division left boundary, crossed the division zone, and began to roll down the Isigny-St. Lô highway. Like a left halfback making a wide run around right end, the task force picked up its

interference as it approached the line of scrimmage--the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry, which was closest to the goal. Silencing an antitank gun just outside the town, passing through harassing artillery and scattered rifle fire, and breaking through a roadblock, the task force entered the northeast portion of St. Lô at 1800 of the eighth day of the battle. Quickly seizing a square near the cemetery and organizing it as a base of operations, Task Force C moved rapidly through the rubble-choked streets to points of importance. Small groups occupied key road junctions, squares, and bridges. One hour after the task force entered the town it was apparent that only scattered German


resistance remained to be cleared. The bridges over the Vire were still intact.57

About the time the 29th Division task force began its drive into St. Lô, the 35th Division completed its assignment. Colonel Byrne's 320th Infantry mopped up bypassed enemy in the center of the division zone, Colonel Emery's 137th Infantry reached the bank of the Vire River between the loop and the bend, and Colonel Miltonberger's 134th Infantry moved down the south slope of Hill 122 to the northern edge of St. Lô. Because the division boundary did not permit the 35th to enter into town, General Baade requested a boundary change. The XIX Corps G-3 first checked with General Gerhardt: "We have another division crying for part of St. Lô," he reported.

"OK," General Gerhardt said, "let them go to it."

Despite General Gerhardt's largess, the corps commander was reluctant to condone the possibility of confusion and lack of control that might result from intermingling troops of the two divisions in the city. He decided not to shift the boundary, yet some 35th Division troops inevitably entered St. Lô and moved a short way into town.58

What had caused St. Lô to fall was the weight of two divisions pressing forward relentlessly for eight days. But if specific events have direct causal relation, two were mainly responsible. The capture of Hill 122 was the more obvious, for its seizure the day before the fall of St. Lô had deprived the Germans of a vital point in their line of defense. The other event was of more subtle significance. At the same time that the 35th Division was securing a hold on Hill 122, the 29th Division was penetrating the enemy defensive line across the Martinville ridge by means of Major Bingham's accidental advance of 1,000 yards. Although temporarily encircled and isolated, Bingham's battalion, less than 1,000 yards from St. Lô, presented a serious menace to the defenders--"an enemy battalion behind our lines."59 Major Howie's relief force had strengthened the threat. Although the 29th Division troops on the Martinville ridge did not have the power to take the city, their positions constituted a containment force, a base or anchor for the coup de grace delivered by Task Force C. The original scheme of maneuver had thus been reversed. The intended maneuver force, the 116th and 175th Regiments, had become the base, while the 115th Infantry, earlier designated the holding force, had become, with Task Force C, the assault element.

If speed was a fundamental requirement of General Gerhardt's mission, the question of whether the corps attack had been the most expeditious manner of securing St. Lô remained a lingering doubt. Other U.S. units advancing with the same slow rate of speed in the hedgerow country obscured the possibility that the corps might have secured its objective more rapidly had it attacked Hill 122 at the same time that the V Corps had attacked Hill 192. Had the


Symbol of St. Lo
Symbol of St. Lô. The flag-draped coffin of Major Howie rests
on the rubble-buried steps of Ste. Croix church.

Americans controlled Hill 122, the 29th Division would have been able to make its thrust to St. Lô across the north slope of the Martinville ridge and have been shielded from the German fire south of the Bérigny road.

General Gerhardt had a formal message prepared to announce the capture of St. Lô. At 1830, half an hour after Task Force C entered the streets of the town, he confidentially released the message to his special services officer in time to make that evening's edition of the division mimeographed newspaper. "I have the honor," the message read, "to report to the Corps Commander . . .," but before General Gerhardt could proclaim the achievement, General Corlett telephoned to inform him that he had already heard the news on a radio broadcast. "NBC beat you to it," General Corlett announced.60

Although St. Lô was taken, it was by no means safe. German artillery smashed into the town. Surprised and embarrassed by the speed with which the Americans had taken the city, Hausser ordered Meindl to have the 352d Division retake the town, but refused


Meindl's request for part of the 275th Division, which had just arrived from Brittany and was in the Seventh Army reserve behind Panzer Lehr. The 352d Division, which had tried to hold the Vire bridges by fighting in St. Lô with too few men, mounted a counterattack but was too weak to expel the Americans. Hausser and Meindl both later blamed an announcement by the Wehrmacht on the afternoon of 18 July of the withdrawal as the stimulus that had caused the final American assault. Actually, however, they had been unable to secure additional troops and they had feared that U.S. forces west of the Vire would outflank St Lô from the west; both commanders in reality had been forced by American pressure to pull the II Parachute Corps back.61

To maintain contact and determine the extent of the withdrawal, General Corlett instructed the 113th Cavalry Group to pass through the city. The cavalry received such a volume of antitank, mortar, and artillery fire 500 yards south of St. Lô that it became evident at once that the Germans had retired only to the high ground less than a mile to the south. The 352d Division counterattack launched that evening confirmed the fact that the enemy had not gone far.62

The XIX Corps completed its task on the morning of 19 July. The 29th Division finished clearing the city, and the 35th Division reported no active enemy troops in its sector.63

In capturing St. Lô the divisions had sustained the high losses that had become typical of the battle of the hedgerows. The 35th Division lost over 2,000 men; the 29th Division suffered over 3,000 casualties. On 19 July, in compliance with corps instructions, the 35th Division relieved the 29th, and General Baade deployed his troops across the entire corps front from the Vire River east to the Couvains-Calvaire road.

By the time the men of the 29th Division marched out of St. Lô on 20 July, the body of Major Howie had become a symbol. Task Force C had carried the flag-draped corpse as a battle standard into town on a jeep.64 Placed on a pile of rubble before the rather plain Romanesque church of Ste. Croix and surrounded by empty, gaping houses, the body had become a shrine, a universal symbol of sacrifice. When the men of the division removed the body and departed the town, the symbol remained in St. Lô. St. Lô itself, disfigured and lifeless, had become a memorial to all who had suffered and died in the battle of the hedgerows.


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