After D-Day: Operation Cobra and the Normandy Breakoutby James Jay Carafano
After storming the beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of France bogged down in seven weeks of grueling attrition in Normandy. On July 25, U.S. divisions under Gen. Omar Bradley launched Operation Cobra, an attempt to break out of the hedgerows and begin a war of movement across France. Despite a disastrous start, with misdropped bombs killing hundreds… See more details below
After storming the beaches on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allied invasion of France bogged down in seven weeks of grueling attrition in Normandy. On July 25, U.S. divisions under Gen. Omar Bradley launched Operation Cobra, an attempt to break out of the hedgerows and begin a war of movement across France. Despite a disastrous start, with misdropped bombs killing hundreds of GIs, Cobra proved to be one of the most pivotal battles of World War II, successfully breaking the stalemate in Normandy and clearing a path into occupied France.
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The Darkening Sky
July 24, 1944, dawn.
A short drive by jeep on Normandy's narrow, rutted, country lanes separated General Omar N. Bradley's U.S. First Army headquarters at Haut Chemin and the U.S. front lines south of Pont-Hébert just a few miles away. It was not, however, an effortless trip. Ragged columns of marching soldiers and lines of trucks, tanks, howitzers, and antitank guns choked the roads, all getting ready for the biggest U.S. Army attack since D-Day. General Bradley planned to launch six divisions, about 70,000 men, 3,000 airplanes, over 600 hundred tanks, and 43 battalions of artillery, straight at the center of the Germans' Normandy defenses.
Amid the greatest single concentration of combat power in United States military history, Major Chester B. Hansen, General Bradley's personal aide-de-camp, a small entourage of generals, and staff officers from the U.S. First Army headquarters wended their way through the traffic heading for the front. It was an anxious day for all of them, for the First Army, and for General Bradley. No one knew that better than Major Hansen. He had been with the general since the North African campaign over 2 years before. Hansen had watched Bradley become one of the most respected and dependable field commanders of the war, a master tactician, and a decisive leader. Bradley was called "the G.I.'s General," as competent and determined as the headline-grabbing General George S. Patton, but with a quiet and subdued style.
Wherever Bradley went, as he moved upfrom corps to army commander, he brought a select group of officers and enlisted aides. Hansen was part of a small, close, though sometimes fractious family. Of these loyal soldiers, none would stand by Bradley longer than this major. Counting the times during the war and after, Hansen served his general for 9 straight years. In all the days of faithful service, Major Hansen expected that 24 July 1944 would be one of the most unforgettableand a great day for General Bradley. Hansen thought July 24 might well become remembered as the most important day of the Normandy campaign after U.S. forces had stormed Omaha and Utah Beaches.
At first, the Americans had believed that getting ashore would be the most difficult and harrowing moment of the Normandy campaign. With brutal Soviet offensives tying down the German army on the Eastern Front and British-U.S. forces holding the attention of more German troops in Italy, the promise of a swift advance in France seemed possible once the British, Canadian, and U.S. divisions reached the Norman coast. The enemy defenses in Normandy, however, had proved tougher than expected. The Canadians had tried to break them and failed, as had the British. Now, the Americans had an opportunity to fight and win the first great battle after the beachhead, a breakthrough on the Normandy battlefieldand it would be General Bradley's victory.
The U.S. forces were about to attempt something they had never done before: mass six divisions on a very small 5-mile front and head straight through the enemy lines to objectives well behind the German defenses, while three other U.S. corps conducted simultaneous supporting attacks. To clear the path for the initial advance, the Americans planned to lay down a massive barrage with artillery, fighters, and bombers, including the big planes used to level German cities. The entire firepower assault would take place in the space of a few hours within sight of the GIs waiting to jump off. General Bradley expected a lot from what he called the "big attack," predicting that the U.S. Army would demonstrate it had the skill and flexibility to change the course of the campaign.
Bradley's operation was not without risks. Saturation, or "carpet," bombing enemy positions in front of friendly troops had never worked satisfactorily before. The British had tried a similar effort, Operation Charnwood, just 3 weeks before: on 7 July 460 bombers savaged a little less than a 2.5-mile-wide strip outside Caen. This bombing was followed by a ground attack by a British corps of two British and one Canadian divisions backed by two armored brigades. The assault hardly dented the German lines.
To make sure his operation succeeded, General Bradley planned to attack on a front about twice that of British General Bernard L. Montgomery's Charnwood attack, but with more than double the amount of ground troops, which would be backed by more than six times as many planes. In addition, he would bring the aerial attack in as close to the U.S. lines as he dared, about 1,200 yardslittle more than one-sixth of the safety distance used in Charnwood. Bradley had good reason to push his troops up so close. The British had taken 6 hours to reach the front after their preparatory bombing. Bradley wanted his troops coming to grips with the enemy in a fraction of that time and exploiting the effects of the bombardment as quickly as possible.
Even if the carpet bombing worked to perfection and the ground forces broke through, success was not assured. Some of the attacking troops might well find themselves advancing with their flanks exposed and Germans behind them, facing the risk of being cut off and surrounded behind enemy lines. If the Americans did not break through, the divisions would stack up like frustrated commuters, grinding away at the front for days of brutal, head-to-head, attrition warfare.
There were risks to reputations as well. Several of the best known U.S. Army combat leaders would be at the head of the charge. Major General J. Lawton, "Lightning Joe," Collins commanded the VII U.S. Corps, the force that would have to carry the whole attack. The youthful-looking, energetic, and decisive Collins would have direct control over the divisions making the main effort. A veteran of the war in the Pacific at Guadalcanal and the liberator of Cherbourg, the first port the Allies had captured in France, General Collins was arguably the U.S. Army's best and most famous corps commander.
General Collins's command included the ground army's big punch, the massive 2d and 3d Armored Divisions. The 2d Armored Division under Major General Edward H. Brooks was a veteran outfit, while the 3d Armored commanded by Major General Leroy H. Watson was earning its first campaign ribbon. Each general was out to prove the potential of U.S. tank forces in armor's first big test in Normandy.
The other divisions fighting under the VII Corps were proven combat outfits. The 9th Infantry Division had its share of headlines from fighting in both France and North Africa. Its commander, Major General Manton Eddy, was regarded as a cautious but dependable leader. Also joining in the attack was the only division in the theater more famous than the 9th, the 1st Infantry Divisionthe "Big Red One." The Big Red One's untried commander, Major General Clarence Huebner, was still earning his reputation. He had been tapped to replace Major General Terry Allen, a controversial and flamboyant leader who had been relieved of command by Bradley. The other infantry divisions in the assault, the 30th and the 4th, also had fine combat records and well-respected commanders. The 30th was led by the fiery Major General Leland "Hollywood" Hobbs, and the 4th was commanded by the steady Major General Raymond O. Barton.
All together, the spearhead of the operation included some of the best troops and best respected commanders that could be mustered. Reputations, as well as the success of the campaign, would be on the line in this bold and risky venture.
No one's prestige was more at stake than that of General Bradley. As the head of the U.S. First Army and the senior U.S. field commander in Normandy, he was responsible overall for the operation. He had planned the attack, including the aerial assault proceeding the advance. It was his plan, and within a very few hours it would be known whether or not he had planned well.
While General Bradley headed off to meet with Collins at the VII Corps headquarters for last-minute coordination, Bradley's aide Major Hansen joined the group of generals and staff going to the front. Hansen was going to get to see firsthand if the operation would become the big attack Bradley had hoped for.
The weather on 24 July 1944 hardly matched the historic nature of the day. A wet mist hugged the trees, while a drab, cloudy sky darkened the battlefield. Traveling on the roads, it was hard to gain an appreciation for the scale of the offensive. Where the mist and sky came together they formed a murky backdrop to the long lines of troops and trucks moving ahead and disappearing into a damp gray curtain. Even though he couldn't see them, Major Hansen knew that there were thousands of U.S. troops out there, waiting for the bombers to hit the enemy lines to signal the start of the operation.
Among the expectant was Lieutenant George Tuttle, the liaison officer from the 120th Infantry to a sister regiment in the division, the 119th Infantry. This morning Tuttle was back at the 120th's command post, coordinating for the upcoming operation. General Bradley had packed a lot of troops across a very narrow axis of advance, the largest corps ever assembled, moving into a gap of rugged Norman terrain only a few miles wide. The lieutenant's job was to help sort out his regiment's advance so that its soldiers would not be tripping over other units trying to reach the front. To the young lieutenant the scope of the operation seemed monumental, bigger than D-Day. It would be a hell of an attack, like nothing he had seen before.
High above the regimental command post, obscured by the blanket of clouds, the lead plane from a formation of B24s from the 846th Bomber Squadron, 9th Air Force, piloted by Lieutenant Ed Florcyk circled, waiting for the go-ahead. Spearheading a flight of bombers was a lot of responsibility for a young lieutenant who had once had a reputation as a "happy-go-lucky swinger." The war, however, had changed a lot of things. Days before shipping out to train for overseas duty, he had met and married a young woman at Mitchell Field, New York, and then left her behind to prepare for the war in Europe. Now he was over the Normandy front on his eleventh combat mission, part of a four-squadron maximum effort, forty-three aircraft, alongside the rest of the almost 1,500 bombers that composed half the aerial force.
Although the bomb run over Normandy was short in comparison with the time required for the targets deep in Germany, it still made for a draining, tense day that was not made any easier by the planes' constant noise and vibration. The crew was constantly on the lookout for enemy fighters, as well as warily eyeing nearby planes flying in their dense formation. (Collisions between friendly aircraft were not unheard of.) There were many ways to die flying 3 miles above the battlefield.
In addition, Lieutenant Florcyk knew that this run would be unusually difficult. The planes of his squadron would be bombing close to U.S. troops, so the formation would have to fly low, 15,000 feet, and visually identify the aiming points. They would be going in after a wave of fighter-bombers flying even lower, striking even closer to the troops, and leaving a lot of smoke and fire below, which would make it harder to identify aiming points. The fighter-bombers, such as the American P-47, would also further crowd the skies over Normandy, making a tempting target for German antiaircraft gunners below.
To make matters worse, when Florcyk's squadron reached the target area there was a complete undercast. The pilots called it "10/10th cloud." Florcyk could not see the ground through the white floor below him. When the formation did find a break, lines of tracers and billowing puffs of dark, flak-filled clouds from German antiaircraft fire raced to greet them. "Flak hitting the belly of the ship," a crewmember from one bomber recorded in his diary, "sounded like someone throwing gravel at us." The aircrews, however, knew what would happen if that "gravel" hit a vulnerable part of the plane, engine, hydraulics, or fuel line.
Below Florcyk's circling plane, not far from where Lieutenant Tuttle had reviewed the final plans for the big attack, Major Hansen and the rest of the First Army contingent reached the Americans' forward positions. They occupied a little stone house on a road heading southwest out of Pont-Hébert, a short distance behind the U.S. lines. In the modest building of white scrubbed fieldstone and weathered yellow brick, they found a suitable spot to observe the bombing and then watch the first troops jump off; they could clearly see both the target area and the troops assembling for the attack. Scattered furniture, ripped curtains, and a gaping hole in the roof made the poor house a fitting setting to observe the devastation to come. Among the ruins the First Army staff watched and waited. The operation was set to kick off at 1 P.M. with the first fighter-bombers hitting their targets about an hour before.
Shortly before noon, 6,000 feet above the battlefield, the first wave of fighter-bombers headed in the direction of Pont-Hébert, approaching in long column formations, flight after flight of aircraft. On order, the pilots dropped to the designated bomb release altitude of 2,000 feet and released their payloads. The operation was underway.
Major Hansen recorded the day's events in his war dairy. He had been near aerial bombardments before and understood the dangers of observing them close up. "Sighted any number of slit trenches and foxholes that we could occupy," he recalled. "I wanted to get away from the building and the danger of falling bricks." His forethought proved to be a sound precaution. From the slit trench, he watched the first wave of fighter-bombers head for the road. "First four, then eight and they came along in sweeping fours until the sky was heavy with them. Peeled off in single file; sighted their targets and down they swooped in long glides."
Hansen could see the bombs falling from their racks and feel the shudder of the explosions. Suddenly, eight of the aircraft broke formation and headed toward the U.S. lines. "One flight went off to the left of us," Hansen recalled, "the other came straight for us and let their bombs go." He saw one bomb hit an ammunition truck several hundred yards away, wounding three soldiers. Fire and smoke all around them blurred the distinction between enemy and friendly lines. For a few minutes the entire countryside was an explosion of sound, shrapnel, and chaos.
Major Hansen was not the only American attacked by his own planes. At 11:40 A.M. fighter-bombers struck the 197th Field Artillery near Les Hauts-Vents. The 743d Tank Battalion was bombed in its rallying area north of Hebecrevon, and bombs landed on the 30th Infantry Division artillery headquarters, elements of the 230th Field Artillery Battalion, and other units in the division area. Ten minutes later, a rain of bombs rolled across two companies from the 120th Infantry Regiment. It was an unsettling and disturbing way to start the big attack. Many GIs had been standing out in the open, hoping to get a glimpse of the massive air strike, and the bombing left a wake of casualties and confusion behind the U.S. lines.
The roar of the fighter-bombers was followed by silence. This first air attack was only a prelude, designed to hit the enemy targets closest to the U.S. positions. Soon the medium and heavy bombers would arrive to strike the targets deeper in enemy territory. With the first phase of the bombing over, there was nothing to do but wait for the bombers that according to the predetermined schedule were 30 minutes out. In the meanwhile, the First Army staff members found that the kitchen stove still worked and in short order had brewed hot coffee to go with their K-ration lunch. They anxiously ate, sipped coffee, and checked their watches. Close by they could see infantry moving toward the front. A short while later the sound of the troops was gradually drowned out by the rising drone of bombers, and it was time for the main event.
Overhead, the first bombers had already passed over the target without finding a break in the clouds and turned back for the airfields in Great Britain. Other formations circled the target area three times, searching for an open spot of sky. Lieutenant Florcyk's formation dropped to 13,500 feet before it located a gap in the cloud cover, and when the pilots finally found a clear view of the rolling farmlands below, the space was quickly filled with German antiaircraft fire. Flak struck Florcyk's plane, piercing the thin aluminum skin covering the wing fuel cells above the bomb bays. The plane immediately erupted in flames and then abruptly exploded. The blast blew one crew member standing near an open bomb bay free of the aircraft, and he managed to parachute safelybut Lieutenant Florcyk and the remainder of his crew perished. This was one of three bombers shot down during the attack. Fifty-six other planes were damaged by enemy flak.
Meanwhile, the cloud cover continued to disrupt the aerial bombardment. Three hundred fifty-two planes, making up far less than a third of the number of heavy bombers planned for the attack, found a gap in the clouds and dropped their payloads. The last planes over the target area were still looking for open skies when they received a recall signal. Before the attack had been called off, however, the fleet had released 10,124 high-explosive bombs and 1,822 fragmentation bombs over the Normandy countryside.
Of the bombs that were dropped, not all landed on the enemy. One bombardier startled by a packet of chaff striking the nose of the plane's turret accidentally hit the release switch and unloaded a devastating attack on a U.S. airstrip at Chippelle. Another bombardier inadvertently activated a stuck release mechanism and dropped part of his bomb load. A dozen planes, following the actions of the lead aircraft, dropped all their bombs. Some of the ordnance fell over 2,000 yards short of the target area, right on the forward U.S. positions.
At 12:40 P.M. a horrified Lieutenant Tuttle saw a wave of bombs land around his regimental command post. He watched as an exploding bomb cut down Lieutenant Tyron H. Cutter (a liaison officer from another regiment) standing only a few feet away. Amazingly, Tuttle escaped unhurt.
Between the attack on the command post and the two nearby infantry companies, the regiment reported 14 dead and 65 wounded. The adjacent 119th Infantry Regiment reported 5 killed and 28 injured. Total ground casualties from the short bombings in the division area and at the Chippelle airfield were 29 dead and 145 wounded GIs. In addition to the physical casualties, the combat effectiveness of the units hit by the "short" bombing seemed to disintegrate in an instant: some of the troops appeared stunned, unable to function, while others raced about putting out fires or tending and evacuating the wounded.
Making the scene around the 120th headquarters even more unreal, Lieutenant Tuttle observed regimental commander Colonel Hammond D. Birks conferring with Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair. Tuttle knew that McNair had been the commander of the U.S. Army Ground Forces, the stateside headquarters responsible for training units for overseas duty. The young lieutenant hardly expected to find the three-star general standing at the front lines of Normandy in the middle of what was shaping up to be one of the biggest screwups of the campaign. It had been a remarkable day.
Meanwhile, not far away bombs continued to fall. Major Hansen felt that "the ground grunted and heaved as the first cascade of bombs came down, horrible noise and the shuddering thunder." A screaming whistle overshadowed the other noises. It was a sound he had heard before, in North Africa, and it was a sound he should not be hearing nowthe sound of bombs falling close by. Everyone scattered for cover. Major Hansen saw "angry black spirals of dirt boil out of the ground," not 500 yards from where he had stood moments before. A few minutes later, ambulances were moving down the road and coming back filled with wounded. Something had gone terribly wrong. Before the first soldier had moved to attack, Bradley's bold scheme to break through German defenses and hopes of changing the course of the campaign seemed to be in jeopardy.
Disaster in the opening moment of the most important operation that U.S. forces had conducted since D-Day was to culminate 7 frustrating, debilitating weeks of fighting in Normandy. Standing amid confusion and casualties, on the fragile edge of the U.S. forces' foothold in Europe, Major Hansen and the other survivors of the past few harrowing moments could reflect on the hardships, sacrifices, and difficult decisions that had brought them to the cusp of ending the difficulties of the Normandy campaign: only to face another setback before the big attack had even begun.
Living in Hell
It would be difficult to overstate the burden on General Bradley as the U.S. First Army Commander after long weeks of difficult campaigning. The frustrating, grueling pace of the war had dismayed the U.S. soldiers at the front. No matter how many men poured into the theater, there never seemed to be enough to overcome the German defenders. One conversation went like this:
"What the hell is holding us up?"
"A bunch of Krauts, you goon."
Somebody else said, "Not enough troops over here yet."
I said, "S&S [Stars and Stripes newspaper] says there are over a million now."
"Well, there you are. What are we waiting for?"
For the troops who hoped for a swift campaign there was nothing but more frustration and disappointment. They seemed to be refighting the war of a previous generation. World War I soldiers had compared their life in the trenches to living in hell, and many GIs in Normandy had begun describe their existence in similar terms. The possibility that war could re-create the pace and tactics of the battlefields of 1917 was a fearsome and melancholy thought.
The attitude of the U.S. Army's most senior commander was not much more optimistic. When General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF), briefed reporters on the situation in Normandy, he warned them not to be too optimistic in their dispatches. "Fighting will be most strenuous and there will be heavy losses, he warned. The Allies will have to fight hard for every foot they gain." Eisenhower cautioned the reporters against expecting dramatic breakthroughs from General Bradley's forces anytime soon. To the readers back home such talk could not have been more disheartening: Bradley seemed more like a general commanding soldiers in the trenches of World War I than this war's swiftly advancing liberator of Europe.
Senior army leaders, like General Bradley veterans of World War I, understood well the cost of winning battles through the meatgrinder of attrition warfare. Bradley was not interested in refighting one blood-soaked engagement after another of the Great War. He wanted to conduct an operational war of fast-moving, dramatic campaigns and believed that the U.S. Army could be a flexible instrument. Rather than bludgeoning an opponent to death, U.S. forces, if used skillfully, could outmaneuver an enemy and change the course of a campaign. Despite his determination, however, it appeared that so far Bradley had condemned his young soldiers to fight on the battleground of their fathers.
Understanding the origins of General Bradley's plan to break through the German defenses begins with considering why two great armies came to fight at a specific point and time. Commanders never have complete freedom in picking the exact time, location, and conditions of battle. An order to charge the enemy lines stands last in a long line of decisions. In truth, Bradley had few options in selecting the moment or place for launching what he would come to call his "big attack." Why armies clash is determined by the interaction of the three levels of warstrategy, operations, and tactics. In concert the levels of war create the place in which all conflicts are fought. Overlaid one upon the other on the battlegrounds of Normandy, they formed the universe of battle, and where they touched became the genesis of Bradley's great offensivehis start point for planning how he would change the course of the Normandy campaign.
A Strategy for Victory
It all began with strategy, the highest level of war. Strategy comprises the ways, means, and ends that nations employ in the quest for victory. This is the realm of men and women who have the power to shatter continentsa country's civilian and military leadersthe ones who make the most basic decisions of when, where, how and why countries go to war.
The United States developed its strategy for World War II in concert with its British and Soviet allies. The great Allied war leadersPresident Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Chairman Josef Stalin of the Soviet Unionmade the fundamental choices of how the Allies would achieve their strategic objectives. It was the task of political leaders to focus on the big picture, while their military chiefs of staff worked out the details of military strategy.
Although the Allies' strategic leaders had many differences, debates, and doubts, they did concur (at least in principle) on the central strategic decision governing the conduct of the war: "Defeat Germany first." The leaders planned to first mass the coalition's forces against Germany and then turn and face Japan.
The Allies initially assigned priority to the defeat of Germany at the Arcadia Conference in Washington (22 December 1941 to 14 January 1942), but achieving this objective hardly followed a straight line. First, the Americans joined in the invasion of North Africa. At the Casablanca Conference (14-23 January 1943), the British and Americans decided to put off the assault on Western Europe. It was only at the Trident Conference in Washington (15-25 May 1943) that they agreed to a cross-Channel invasion in the spring of 1944. The strategy meandered, but in the end it committed the United States to fighting a major land battle at the gates of Western Europe. This decision started that nation on its course toward Bradley's big attack, the largest and boldest air-ground operation up to that point in the war.
OperationsThe Key to the Campaign
The operational level of war provided the link between Allied strategy and battlefield tactics. At the operational level commanders planned and conducted campaigns, a series of maneuvers designed to achieve strategic objectives. These commanders were the high-ranking generals who put soldiers in harm's way. General Eisenhower as SCAEF, commander of the European invasion force, assumed overall responsibility for the planning and execution of operations.
The first step of Eisenhower's campaign was to get on the Continent. The invasion plan called for an amphibious assault securing a lodgement area in Normandy. Afterward, Eisenhower intended to build up his base of operations, bringing in additional forces and supplies. With a solid base of supply behind him, he would launch an offensive to destroy the enemy's forces, overrun Germany, and secure an unconditional surrender.
General Eisenhower's principal ground commander for the first phase of the campaign was General (later Field Marshal) Bernard L. "Monty" Montgomery, the 21st Army Group commander. General Montgomery controlled two field armies in Normandy (plus an additional division and five armored brigades under the Army Group control). In the east was the British Second Army with twelve combat divisions (divided into three British and one Canadian corps) under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey. In the west, General Bradley commanded the U.S. First Army, consisting of thirteen U.S. combat divisions organized in four U.S. corps.
From the beginning the ground war was pretty much Monty's show. General Eisenhower's headquarters and, except for brief visits, Eisenhower himself remained in England until well after the Normandy fighting ended. A great controversy still lingers over how well General Montgomery conducted the campaign, and this debate is important for understanding the origins of Bradley's offensive. The controversy centers on Montgomery's intentions for the city of Caen, which, everyone agreed, was the key to the whole operation because the city offered the best routes beyond the D-Day beachheads. Even today most of Normandy remains farmland; Norman farmers are not worried about getting anywhere fast, and the countryside wholly reflects their character. The land had not been sculptured for fast-moving motorized armies. Caen, however, was different. It was the central transportation hub of the entire road network in Normandy, surrounded by good ground that could support rapid cross-country movement by large armored forces. For heading into France in a hurry without bogging down in a slug-fest reminiscent of World War I, Caen was the way to go.
Montgomery's advocates argue that the general meant for the British and Canadian forces to tie down the preponderance of the German armored forces around Caen. This would mean less pressure on the Americans. While the British Second Army ground down the Germans in the east, General Montgomery planned for the Americans to push through the less formidable defenses in the west, clear the way to the vital Brittany ports, and peel back the German front like a giant door swinging open around Caen.
General Montgomery's critics insist that the general's preinvasion master plan is a fiction. In fact, General Montgomery envisioned quickly seizing the city of Caen with British and Canadian forces and then rapidly expanding the lodgement area. When that maneuver failed the Allied offensive bogged down. The rest of the campaign, critics argue, was a makeshift attempt to make up for Montgomery's failure to take Caen.
No one has found a historical "smoking gun" to resolve the debate to everyone's satisfaction, but the balance of historical argument seems to weigh against Montgomery. Eisenhower, for one, clearly expected a more aggressive advance. Before the invasion, he wrote to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that he had agreed with all of General Montgomery's requests for the operation, including increasing the number of divisions and expanding the frontage of the assault, since they were all essential for "the early capture of the important focal point of CAEN." When that failed, Eisenhower also wrote that the plan to breakout of Normandy as "evolved [emphasis added] by Field Marshal Montgomery in his capacity of tactical commander, with my complete concurrence, was to strike hard with his left [British-Canadian zone] and then follow through promptly with a right hand blow [American zone]." In other words, when rapid exploitation around Caen failed, the Allies pursued a modified course of action that required greater U.S. Army initiative to unhinge the Germans' defensive scheme.
The most cogent, recent studies of the Normandy campaign suggest that General Montgomery was as frustrated with the difficulties of expanding the lodgement area as any of the Allied leaders. Like any experienced combat commander, he never expected his operations to go exactly as planned and made the best of the situation at hand. Montgomery's flawless "plan" was more a product of his postwar musings than a deliberate blueprint for breaking through the German coastal defenses.
Controversies aside, the reality of Montgomery's campaign was that by July 1944 it had put the Allies in a difficult situation. When Caen finally fell, the Germans had surrounded the good ground with a defensive ring of armor. Caen became the Germans' anchor and the rest of their defenses stretched like a chain from the city all the way west to the coast. The great crusade was on hold. General Eisenhower told reporters that "there was nothing spectacular in the picture or future prospects." He was equally cautious when he wrote to General George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. "The going is extremely tough," General Eisenhower concluded. The enemy was holding fast in France.
The German decision on how to defend Normandy also shaped General Bradley's choices. Like the Allied decision of when and where to attack, the Germans' approach to the Normandy campaign also resulted from the interplay of strategic and operational judgment. At the strategic level the German command structure roughly paralleled that of the Allies. At the top sat Adolf Hitler, leader in the Axis coalition, German head of state, and Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (commander of the armed forces). The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW (armed forces high command) helped him with setting strategic direction. In the summer of 1944, with the Germans being attacked on every front, Hitler had few options. One choice he could make was how and where to defend against the anticipated invasion of France. In theory it was a simple choice. There are two basic defensive patterns: the area defense and the mobile defense. The area defense (also called the passive defense) emphasizes retaining terrain rather than maneuvering forces. The defender holds his position and relies on firepower to defeat the attacker. In contrast, a mobile defense (also called the active defense) relies on maneuver as the primary tool for defeating the enemy. The defender uses the depth of the battlefield to draw the enemy into a position where the opponent is vulnerable to counterattack. The story behind Hitler's choice of defense is another of the controversies of the campaign that helped set the Americans inexorably on the course toward Bradley's big attack.
At the operational level, Oberbefehlshaber West or OB West under Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt commanded the ground forces in France. OB West contained two army groups. The Normandy area fell under the jurisdiction of Heeresgruppe (Army Group) B commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel's forces defended the coast from the Loire River to the Netherlands. Both he and Rundstedt agreed that Germany needed an Atlantic Wall, a defense network to prevent the Allies from seizing a major port where they could build up an invasion army and march into the Continent and on to the homeland.
What the two principal German commanders in the west disagreed about was on how to stop the Allies from gaining a foothold in Europe. Marshal Rundstedt, OB West commander, preferred a mobile defense. Concerned that the Germans lacked the firepower to engage the Allies head-on, he wanted to keep a large reserve, let the Allies make their move, and then counterattack. Army Group B commander, Marshal Rommel, feared that Allied air power would crush mobile counterattacks and argued that the situation called for an area defense. The only hope, he maintained, was to prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold to begin with; he wanted to fight as far forward as possible and stop the Allies at the beaches.
Historians still debate which of the great generals may have been right, the only consensus seems to be that it was not Hitler, who muddied the choice by adopting an ambiguous middle ground. He ordered some units added to Rommel's beach defenses, but also decided to hold back the bulk of the armor forces as a central reserve, a compromise that failed to defeat the Normandy landings. Once the Allies had gotten ashore Hitler's commitment to retaining every inch of ground was unshakable. He ordered the troops to hold fast, proclaiming that in their hands was the "security of the nation and the existence and future of our people." Germany would win or lose in France.
Hitler's decision to hold on, while fanatical, was not irrational. A sound purpose stood behind his thinking. He believed that his empire's only chance was to stand fast on all frontsshow no weakness and hope that German determination would eventually crack the solidarity of the Allied alliance. Hitler was betting that a protracted war of attrition would exhaust one or more of his opponents and force a compromise based on self-interest.
Germany's war leader made a profound miscalculationthe Allies' resolve turned out to be unshakable. Not only did the alliance stand, but it continued to support its senior military leaders even though there were obvious missteps and heavy losses in the opening weeks of the Normandy battles. The German commanders soon found to their dismay that the Allies were willing to take risks, endure casualties, and suffer operational setbacks. In defiance of Hitler's hopes, the resolve of the alliance would give General Bradley the confidence he needed to attempt his big attack. Hitler was facing a determined foe.
In fact the Allied pressure was relentless. Thus the German decision to hold fast in France was to commit Hitler's commanders to an area defense for the rest of the campaign. The fighting was hard on Marshal Rundstedt, the 68-year-old veteran of two wars: contemporary pictures show an austere, hollow-cheeked face reflecting his age and long years of military service. Exasperated as much by disagreements with Hitler and the OKW as with the enemy attacks, Rundstedt requested relief. On 2 July Hitler released him.
Hitler summoned Field Marshal Günther yon Kluge from the Eastern Front to assume command of OB West. Kluge's command style contrasted sharply with Rundstedt's. Marshal Rundstedt was distant and aristocratic, rarely visiting the front lines; Kluge could also seem cool and diffident but, unlike Rundstedt, he seemed to be everywhere at once. He was a forceful, hard-driving commander, and his passion to lead from the front made some subordinates uncomfortable. They complained that he mirrored Hitler's reputation for oversupervising, often bypassing commanders and giving detailed instructions directly to tactical units.
To his credit, when he interfered Marshal Kluge spoke from experience. He had successfully commanded an army during the 1940 invasion of France and had proven an innovative and determined commander of the Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. Kluge considered himself a master tactician and field commander, often referring to himself as another Marshal Ney, who was Napoleon's colorful, energetic cavalry commander. Kluge's troops nicknamed him "clever Hans."
Kluge's temperament was too similar to that of the famous Marshal Rommel, Army Group B commander, for the two to have any closer relationship than Rommel and Rundstedt had endured. When Rommel met his new commander on 5 July Kluge was alleged to have declared, "Field Marshal Rommel you must obey unconditionally from now. It is good advice that I am giving you." The suggestion provoked a bitter exchange between the two commanders, but a Rommel-Kluge feud never became an issue. On 17 July British planes caught Rommel's staff car in the open, and he was badly wounded and put out of action for the rest of the campaign. Kluge would have to be the savior of the Western Front alone.
With Rundstedt and Rommel both gone, and Normandy being the only fighting front in France, Hitler streamlined the western command. Marshal Kluge took over both OB West and Army Group B. This arrangement gave Kluge responsibility for both operational command and the administrative tasks of running the theater, and he assumed his mission with unbridled optimism. His enthusiasm, however, was quickly tempered after briefings from front-line commanders and staff members, who offered a steady stream of complaints, problems, and dour predictions. They left him, Kluge's subordinates claimed, "with a far different impression of conditions at the front than was told him by OKW."
To hold off almost three dozen Allied divisions Kluge had only General Paul Hausser's Seventh Army with two corps consisting of nine badly understrength divisions and an assortment of kampfgruppen (battle groups) directly facing General Bradley's U.S. First Army. Meanwhile, nine divisions organized in four corps under General Heinrich Eberbach's Panzer Group West held off the British-Canadian advance.
Even though he was outnumbered, Marshal Kluge had promised to hold at any cost and that was what he was going to do. His plan was to check the Allies in an operational stalemate, and through the first 7 weeks of the Normandy campaign the Germans did manage to do exactly that. The reason for the success of their operational efforts was that these efforts dovetailed well with their tactical plansa match that so far in the campaign had spelled heartbreak for General Bradley and the U.S. Army.
The Tactical Dilemma
Once operational commanders had determined where, when, and with what great armies they would fight, tacticsthe business of fighting battleswere to take over. Unfortunately for the U.S. Army, the Germans' tactical defenses were well suited to the Normandy battlefieldsand this had a significant and dramatic impact on Bradley's operations and future plans. In the end the tactical situation, more than any other factor, created the conditions reminiscent of the trench combat in World War I and generated the need for a decisive battle on the scale that Bradley envisioned.
That the Germans' fighting tactics proved so ideal in the battles of Normandy was one of World War II's odd twists of fate. German defense techniques were a witch's brew of doctrine from World War I, experiences on the Eastern Front in World War II, and the unique character of the Normandy countryside. Initially, World War I German defense doctrine was based on the principle of Halten was zu halten ist (Hold on to what can be held). This guidance guaranteed frequent battles and high casualties, with front-line troops being subjected to punishing barrages from enemy artillery. In 1917 the Germans revamped their doctrine. In the new defensive pattern only a security belt of observation posts remained in the frontline trenches, and the bulk of the German forces were placed farther back in a main line of resistance beyond the range of enemy artillery. When the enemy attacked, its barrages would fall on empty trenches in the security zone, and the assaulting infantry would find itself charging into the Germans' unfazed main defense line.
However, when the Germans applied their defense methods on the Eastern Front in World War II, they discovered significant problems. Units did not have enough manpower to organize a cohesive main line of resistance across the vastness of the Russian steppes. Even if the men could be found, static defenses were no match for Soviet breakthrough attacks of massed armor, mobile artillery, and airplanes. Hitler's virulent order to retain ground, regardless of its tactical value, only exacerbated the difficulties.
Drawing on experiences from the Eastern Front the Germans once again modified their defensive tactics. Their new doctrine retained the idea of area defense with a security zone and a main line of resistance. The main defensive belt, however, was built around a series of mutually supporting strongpoints. Positions were dug in and camouflaged, with all fire carefully oriented to destroy the enemy to the front and flanks.
The Germans brought their defensive doctrine to the battlefields of Normandy and used it to fight the Allies to a standstill. German defenses proved particularly effective because they were ideally suited for the local terrain.
For centuries Norman farmers had used built-up banks of earth, called hedgerows, to fence off fields, and the bushes and trees growing on top of the banks often extended the height of these natural fences upward by several feet. These hedgerows divided a good part of Normandy into small, impenetrable fields. So, building on this, the German defenders had preset mortar and artillery fire on the hedgerows in front of their strongpoints and laced the area with booby traps, mines, obstacles, early-warning devices, and snipers. Therefore, a U.S. Army infantryman rustling a leaf in the hot summer silence could bring sniper fire, the crack of artillery, or the rip of machine gun fire. Each patch of farmland became its own miniature universe of battle.
Even if a GI could peer through the vegetation without being shot dead, there was little reward for the dangerous effort. German strongpoints were virtually invisible, often dug in on the reverse side of the hedgerows. These positions not only concealed the defenders from observation, but also protected them from mortar and artillery fire and air attacks. German machine gun emplacements were carefully set to cover as much of the front as possible, being positioned in the corners of the hedgerows, oriented to fire over the open fields, and greet every rush of attacking infantry with interlocking fire. Even when the GIs got to the other side of a hedgerow field the danger was not over. There were the ubiquitous small sunken lanes, covered by a thick summer canopy, that bounded the hedgerows. The lanes offered ideal ambush sites and excellent routes for quick counterattacks.
To make matters worse, U.S. Army tactics were ill suited for hedgerow fighting. Unlike the singular evolution of German infantry defensive tactics, U.S. Army offensive small-unit doctrine was firmly established long before the landings in Normandy, embodied in a scheme called fire and movement. As one U.S. Army field manual explained: "Every movement must be covered by fire delivered by part of the company, by company supporting weapons, or both, and so placed that it neutralizes that part of the enemy's infantry which could otherwise effectively fire on the individuals or elements that are moving."
In other words, one part of the unit would suppress the enemy's weapons while others assaulted. Field manuals provided a neat diagram showing commanders how to integrate supporting heavy weapons including tanks, machine guns, mortars, and artillery. The manuals depicted a line for each weapons system extending out to its maximum effective range, illustrating how each system would thicken the base of fire for the infantry assault.
After the Normandy landings General Bradley, providing his assessment as the senior U.S. field commander, declared confidently that "our tactics as taught at home are as sound as a dollar. We only need to apply the things we learned in training." He could not have been more wrong. In practice, units on the ground could not duplicate the diagrams in the field manuals. The broken Normandy terrain compartmentalized forces and masked fields of fire. Attackers proved incapable of developing adequate supporting fire for the infantry assault against prepared enemy positions. The problem was simple: weapons could fire to the maximum ranges listed in the field manuals, but men could not see that far, and what they could not see they could not kill. Without fire support to destroy or suppress the enemy's fire the U.S. Army scheme for maneuvering through the hedgerows proved fruitless.
Even the U.S. tanks made little difference in the outcome of the battles. If armor could work past the broken countryside and reach a hedgerow, the tankers often found that they could not break through the thick undergrowth. When it was tried to drive over a hedgerow, the tanks would rise at a steep angle, preventing them from using their cannon or machine guns and exposing the weak underside armor to German antitank weapons. If the tanks did get through, the Germans would fall back to the next line of hedgerows, where they had prepared alternative positions, and the whole bloody business would start all over again.
Instead of advancing steadily from the coast, the interplay of strategy and operations had brought the Americans to a time and place where unsuitable tactics and centuries-old terrain kept them from exploiting their advantages in mobility and firepower. The situation created by the three levels of war set the conditions for the battle of the hedgerows, leaving a difficult operational challenge for U.S. forces. While the considerations of strategy, operations, and tactics were not the only factors that influenced commanders in determining how, when, and where to fight, such considerations were the taproot for considering what to do next. The levels of war marked the possible paths for how U.S. forces could traverse the universe of battle, avoiding debilitating combat in the hedgerows and restoring maneuver to the campaign.
In retrospect, considering the combination of strategic and operational decisions that placed them in the hedgerows of Normandy, it is difficult to fault General Bradley for the situation in which he found himself. And, in fact, Bradley could be well justified in being reasonably pleased with what the U.S. forces had achieved so far in the campaign. Piercing the Atlantic Wall and putting at risk the lives of over a million soldiers on the thin rim of a continent, soldiers who were tethered to supply lines dependent on the fortunes of wind and water, was no simple task.
The choice of when and where to invade had been an impossible one. Each day that the Allies waited, the gap between their strength and the enemy widened, but conversely it gave the Germans one more day to prepare. As a result, there probably never was a time when invading Europe would have been easy. Unless Germany had collapsed completely, it is difficult to imagine a less risky alternative to how the Allies chose to crack the Atlantic defenses. The situation General Bradley faced in July 1944 was a fair outcome for all the years of planning and preparation.
On the other hand, shifting blame for the slowness of the campaign's progress to the British and Canadian failure to take Caen or the difficulties of hedgerow fighting seems disingenuous. Campaigns never go as planned, and the U.S. First Army had to consider the alternative that it would have to assume a larger share of the responsibility for fighting its own way out of Normandy. Planning for likely contingencies was a standard operational practice. The U.S. forces had participated in more than their share, both before and in the earliest stages of the Normandy campaign.
General Bradley also knew from intelligence reports and terrain analysis the nature of the ground beyond the beachhead. Determining how the ground could be used to influence tactical engagements took no imagination; in fact, some of the training grounds used in Great Britain had similar features. If Bradley underestimated the capability of the Germans' use of the Norman terrain or discounted the threat because he hoped U.S. troops would be beyond the hedgerows in a matter of days, he had only himself to blame. The fact was that the operational requirements of the campaign had changed, and U.S. forces were slow to respond.
Could General Bradley and his army of young soldiers have done better? Moved faster? Cleared the Normandy hedgerows before being trapped between operational requirements and the tactical meat grinder of the summer battles? The answer is probably not. This conclusion is based on how the Americans chose to develop and employ their combat power during World War II. That is another important part of the universe of battle, and the subject of the next chapter.
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