Origins and objectives of the Lüttich operation
Operation Cobra, led by the Americans south of Cotentin on July 25, 1944, opened a vast gap in the German lines in the direction of Saint-Lô. The latter, incapable of falling back on a line of defense, and firmly restraining the American advance, underwent the full force of the Allied Compressor, strong of its infantry, cavalry, artillery, and aviation. German forces were hard hit by these repeated assaults and many tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed: on 1 August 1944, the Americans were already in Avranches. They seize the bridge of Pontaubault which allows all the 3rd Army commanded by General Patton to infiltrate in Brittany.
If the Americans seek to widen the narrow corridor allowing them to reach Brittany and all other regions of France (the 7th Corps of General Collins seizes Mortain on August 3, only twenty-four Kilometers to the east of Avranches), it is because they are aware that there is their weak point, strongly exposed to a possible German counter-attack. To prevent this, they launched a few days before operation Bluecoat (30 July) in order to fix any German reserves facing north.
But the Germans did not put all their units to counter Bluecoat. On August 2, Hitler ordered General von Kluge to cut off the American armies in two by attacking between Mortain and Avranches. At this moment of the battle of Normandy, the German generals were on the whole convinced that their forces must first reorganize themselves on the other side of the Seine before launching any offensive. Two days later, after the fall of Mortain, Hitler renewed his order. In order to carry out this perilous mission, von Kluge must use as many tanks as possible to penetrate the American lines, and therefore the committed units are obliged to detach a number of their armored vehicles to reinforce the assault forces. The German officers, warned of the imminence of an attack, are particularly pessimistic about the chances of success.
Von Kluge, together with General Paul Hausser, commander of the 7th Army, worked out the details of the operation. Hitler demanded that eight armored divisions be engaged in the offensive, but von Kluge succeeded in uniting only four (only 300 tanks in total): the 2nd and 116th SS Panzerdivisionen and the 1st and 2nd Panzer divisions. These tanks are supported by infantry (two divisions and five joint brigades) and artillery. The objective of the operation named Lüttich is to reach the coast by passing east of Mortain where is the 30th American infantry division commanded by General Leland Hobbs.
From August 4, the Americans intercept the German communications linked to Lüttich and thanks to the Ultra system they decipher the messages announcing the German operation. The Americans do not modify their plan but put on alert the 9th Air Force as well as the British air forces that are able to intervene. Hitler demanded that his forces be able to attack between 8 and 10 August in order to allow as many elements as possible to reinforce the assault forces.
Conduct of operation Lüttich
Von Kluge wants to attack as soon as possible because his opponents strengthen each hour and he decides to attack from 7 August. The pessimism surrounding the German forces is such that General Gerhard von Schwerin, commander of the 116th Panzer Division, did not even pass on to his subordinates the orders received from von Kluge. His tanks are immobilized and do not rejoin the line to unclog. The other units are set up and the assault begins shortly after midnight on 7 August. The offensive is not preceded by a usual artillery barrage in order to retain the effect of surprise, which is real: the Americans did not transmit the information of an imminent attack early enough to the 30th Division of American infantry.
The 2nd Panzer Division commanded by Lüttwitz north of the German device pierced the front and upset the 117th American infantry regiment. It reached Le Mesnil-Tôve and then Le Mesnil-Adelée at six in the morning, a progression of nearly fifteen kilometers during the night. But his right flank is exposed because of the unexplained immobility of the 116th Panzer Division, which did not move. In the south, the 1st SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte-Adolf Hitler” faced the fierce resistance of the 117th regiment of infantry who had to leave St. Bartholomew at one o’clock in the morning but succeeded in blocking the Germans in the vicinity of the coast. Mortain was besieged in the southern sector of operation Lüttich by the 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” and advanced German elements advance to Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët, Romagny, Fontenay and Milly, encircling the soldiers of the 120th regiment Infantry on Hill 317 east of Mortain.
The return of Allied aviation
Allied aviation can not intervene at dawn because of an important fog but around midday, it dissipates. Thus, the American hunt flies attacking the columns of Panzer. The Germans go no farther than the positions held at the dawn of 7 August: they are mercilessly bombed and machine-gunned by Allied aviation. US ground forces responded in turn by deploying elements from the 4th Infantry Division as well as Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division in support of the 30th Infantry Division. The take-off of American fighter bombers reinforced by the 2nd Tactical Air British force, marks the end of Operation Lüttich, because even before the Tiger tanks made contact with the 3rd Armored Division, aviation completely stopped the German advance and nearly sixty tanks were destroyed.
Luftwaffe aircraft, which were to control the airspace in this area throughout the Lüttich offensive, were destroyed directly by the Allied aircraft, even before they could intervene. However, in the early afternoon, the Germans were ordered to renew the offensive towards the west, but they were no longer able to make any progress.
Von Kluge receives a message from Hitler that his Führer is extremely disappointed with this result and that he does not understand why operation Lüttich did not start at least a day later as he had advised. But the German reinforcements who arrived on August 7 in the early afternoon are set aside for a new attack which must start the following day in the same place: Hitler gives another chance to von Kluge and requires him to relaunch the offensive In the direction of Avranches.
Operation Totalize fatal consequences
On 8 August, Commonwealth forces began operation Totalize, south of Caen, to pierce the German lines in the direction of Falaise. Hitler ordered, at first, to intensify his efforts to reach the coast, which was no longer very far away: he asked General Heinrich Eberbach, commander of Panzergruppe West, to set up a new headquarters exclusively responsible for the offensive Lüttich, and relaunch the offensive. But Eberbach did not have time to prepare a new attack: further reinforcements had to be sent as quickly as possible to the Falaise area to counter Totalize.
The Americans resumed the initiative and opened numerous gaps in the German lines: in the hurry, the orders of installation in full defense in front of the west did not all reach the fighters. Some units retreat east while others value the terrain while waiting for US counter-attacks. For several days, the Allies were fighting in this region a double-speed German army, either offensive or defensive, handicapped by major communication problems. It was not until August 13, 1944, that the Germans ceased any offensive towards the west.
Conclusion of operation Lüttich
The human and material balance of this operation is very heavy, on the German side as on the American side. This offensive, which lasted less than a week, turned to the advantage of the assailants only during the first twelve hours of the attack. The losses inflicted on the Germans were so high on the first day that they were unable to relaunch the operation afterwards. Of the 300 tanks deployed, nearly 150 were destroyed by the Allies from 7 to 8 August. If tank groupings disrupt US ground forces and are likely to cross their lines as we have seen in operation Lüttich, Allied air superiority puts an end once again to enemy armored offensives.
The German generals present on the ground in Normandy knew, at the beginning of August 1944, particularly strong doubts with regard to Hitler’s strategies. They are almost all convinced that a strategic retreat on the other side of the Seine river is necessary and no longer fully engage in punctual counter-offensives as shown by the behavior of General von Schwerin during Lüttich.
This offensive allowed the Allies to gradually encircle the opposing forces because the 3rd US Army captured Le Mans on 9 August and General Bradley soon noticed that a trap was being formed around the 7th German Army : The next days of the Battle of Normandy are dedicated to the closing of this trap in the Falaise area (operation Tractable, August 14, 1944).