The allied breakthrough (1/2)
D-Day+32 to D-Day+55 – July 8-31, 1944
|A Sherman Bulldozer crosses the Airel Bridge on July 8 with soldiers of the American 105th Engineer Combat Batallion. Photo: US National Archives|
On July 8, 1944, following operation Charnwood, the north of Caen finally fell into the hands of General Dempsey’s 2nd Army. The port of Cherbourg, destroyed by the Germans at the time of the attack on the city, is being repaired in order to allow the Allied forces to land material in a deep-water port (it was inaugurated on July 17, 1944 by the transport ships).
|Canadian soldiers patrol north of Caen on July 9, 1944. Photo: IWM|
But south of Caen, the attraction effect of the German armored vehicles continues, this sector being firmly held by the Panzergroupwest of Eberbach. To capture the entire capital of Calvados, General Montgomery developed a new operation, code-named Goodwood. It aims at assaulting the southern part of the city by attacking to the east from the positions defended by the 6th airborne division, formed on June 6 between the rivers Orne and Troarn. The attack is scheduled for June 18, 1944.
|A British soldier patrols with a bayonet. Photo: IWM|
Three British armored divisions (the 11th, 7th and Guards), commanded by the 8th British corps of General O’Connor, are to attack east of Caen in the direction of the open fields south and southwest of Caen then towards Falaise.
|At Saint-Fromond, an American armored column awaits the order of departure on July 11. Photo: US National Archives|
But the preparations for this attack alarmed the Germans who noticed the infantry and armored movements of their adversaries even before the start of the operation. Rommel ordered Eberbach (commander of the western armored group, responsible for the eastern part of the front, on the right flank of the 7th German Army) to reinforce the defense south of Caen by installing 88mm guns belonging to the 16th Antiaircraft defense division arrived from Holland, tanks of the 1st and 12th SS Panzer divisions and the 21st Panzerdivision. This command of Eberbach subsequently takes the name of 5th Panzer Armee.
|German position (Heer soldiers) with a heavy machine gun, here an MG 42, in the wood of Bavent in early July. Photo: Bundersarchiv|
Rommel departs on 17 July to inspect the fortifications set up by Eberbach and on his return from his journey to his command post at La Roche-Guyon, a bomber-fighter patrol of Belgian pilots is chasing the general. The driver of the car is killed and Rommel is seriously injured: a Norman civilian drives on this road at this time and is requisitioned by the survivors of the attack. Rommel is taken to a German military hospital. Von Kluge assumes the responsibilities of Rommel at the head of his command (west command) since nobody replaces him, in addition to his own responsibilities within the command of Army Group B.
The Conflict of Chiefs
The German defense, facing the attack of operation Goodwood, resisted very well until July 24 and lost up to 126 tanks in a single day to the 11th British division. But the city of Caen is at this date totally under allied control, as well as the surrounding plain on a depth of 7 kilometers. If Goodwood seems to be successful, Eisenhower and the entire Allied Command doubt its real success and the supreme commander of the Allied Forces wishes to take stock, on July 19, 1944, with the head of US forces Omar Bradley and the responsible for the British forces, Bernard Montgomery.
This meeting takes place especially since the internal relations between the Allied military leaders are not the best: the progress is very slow in the region of Caen, even insufficient given the means deployed. In addition, the loss of human life is very high and the supply of landed forces is lagging behind the predicted weather conditions. Bradley informs them that an American operation aimed at breaking the front to the south of the Cotentin is ready and waiting for the timing (mainly due to improved weather) to launch it.
As for Montgomery, he believes that his latest operation, Goodwood, is satisfactory in terms of results, although it appears disastrous for most Allied generals. Churchill, warned by Eisenhower, visits Montgomery and asks him to continue. This tension between the various Allied military leaders seems like a crisis, which quickly disappears after the events that take place after the meeting of 19 July.
On the 20th of July, an attack failed against Hitler, while he examined maps with his generals at the general headquarters of Rastenburg, in East Prussia.
The consequences in Normandy are not military, for the German soldiers continue the fighting with the same fervor. On the other hand, following this attack, the Führer took much more distance with his generals, especially those of the nobility (who are many) and accused of plotting against him. Indeed, the bomb that was to kill him was deposited by a member of his own military entourage, Count Claus von Stauffenberg, Chief of Staff of the German Armies.
|Hitler goes to the scene of the explosion with Mussolini after the failed attack on the Rastenburg on June 20, 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv|
This does not improve the bad relations between the officers of the German headquarters. Hitler no longer trusts classical units such as the Wehrmacht and he favors even more units considered as military elites, such as SS divisions. It also does not improve the relations between the Wehrmacht and the S. Hitler’s power is much more important now that the war is prolonged. German resources are still important, despite the constant bombing of the Allies.
The hedgerow war
Bradley says the Carentan swampy area is still the subject of serious fighting. The 1st US Army is retained in this sector, fiercely defended by German troops who are aware of the strategic importance of this city linking the beaches of Utah and Omaha. But little by little, the Americans move to the south of Normandy and the 1st army seizes the city of La-Haye-du-Puits after seven days of deadly fighting.
|A photograph illustrating the “hedgerows war”, near Saint-Lô. Photo: US National Archives|
The Americans, reassured by the liberation of Cherbourg, can focus on the progression of their troops towards the south. In early July 1944, the four US Army corps (14 divisions) were positioned southward on a 75 kilometer-front between the west coast of Cotentin, south of Saint-Sauveur, and Caumont in the east.
However, the progress of the troops disembarked is not easy: the hedgerow and hedges of Normandy occupied by fifteen divisions belonging to the 84th German Corps (commanded by von Choltitz, which replaced Farmbacher sacked after the fall of Cherbourg, also replacing Erich Marcks, killed at Caumont) did not facilitate the task of the Allies.
The American progression is slow: the Germans make each hedge a fortress, with heavy machine guns and light armored in ambush. Caumont serves as a pivot to the front line which reaches Saint-Lô, a martyr city, destroyed by bombardments at nearly 80% on 18 July. The north of the road to Périers and Lessay is under American control, but the Germans under von Choltitz strongly defend the southern part of the road.
Having only one reserve division (the 2nd SS Panzer Division, arriving from Toulouse at the end of June, north of Coutances), all the other divisions are positioned on the defensive, including Panzerlehrdivision, on the front since 8 June 1944 (initially, it is positioned near Caen) without interruption.
|Saint-Lô, destroyed at 80%, is captured on July 18, 1944. Photo: US National Archives|
The British and Canadians are also advancing south of Caen and heading for Mont-Pinçon, which dominates the center of the Allied front line.
German military factories still operate at a high level: 4,545 twin-engine airplanes are delivered during the second quarter of 1944, while 2,545 are destroyed in flight or on the ground by Allied forces. Similarly between May and July 1944 for the tank industries which deliver 2,313 tanks to the Wehrmacht against 1,730 of lost. One of the major concerns of the German forces is the displacement of new units and reserves. Indeed, the latter are experiencing fuel shortages, communication difficulties and a non-replacement of qualified personnel, not to mention the constant attacks by the Allied bombers and the French resistance.
From June 6 to July 23, 1944, the 7th German Army and the Western Armored Group lost 116,863 men and received only 10,078 from the training centers. The same applies to armored vehicles: while three to four hundred tanks are destroyed, only two dozen tanks replace them.
|American soldiers taking position south of Haye-du-Puits after the capture of the city. Photo: US National Archives|
Omar Bradley, the head of the US Army forces engaged in Normandy, wants to launch a major offensive to break through the front and disrupt the enemy’s defenses to precipitate the end of the German army in northwestern France.
This operation, called Cobra, is scheduled for 20 July. New reinforcements are landed and in seven weeks 36 allied divisions are operational in Normandy, not including the air and ground support forces which represent a total of 1,566,000 men, 332,000 vehicles and 1,500,000 tons of equipment and ammunition. Due to poor weather, the launch of operation Cobra is postponed to July 25.
At that date, the front to the south of the Cotentin was increased by fifteen kilometers at the price of very heavy losses.