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Forces War Records Blog

ON THIS DAY: 25TH JULY 'OPERATION COBRA'

Operation Cobra Just a short follow on to our blog on the British Goodwood offensive on the 18th July. The Americans launched their own offensive a few days after Goodwood on 25th July 1944, to take advantage of the German Heavyweight units being drawn to the British Sector of Operations around Caen. The plan involved punching a hole in the unbalanced German defenders south of the Cherbourg Peninsula and turn the flank of Army Group B, the entire German force in Normandy. In addition, the US Forces hoped to break out from the “Bocage” they had been stuck in for weeks since the D-Day Landings. The Bocage refers to the high and deeply rooted hedgerows dividing fields and bordering roads in Normandy. It allowed nearly unlimited defensive options for the Germans and was a constant frustration for the Allies. Similarly to Operation Goodwood, the Cobra attack would be preceded by a massive aerial bombardment, which although successful, ended up killing over 200 American Soldiers when the bombs were dropped short of their intended targets and hit the US Marshalling zones. The casualties included Lt General Lesley J. McNair, commander of Army Ground Forces, who had gone forward as an observer, he was the highest ranking US officer killed in World War Two. The Advance The US advance had gotten off to a rough start and was even further delayed by the miraculous re-organisation of what was left of German Units in the Operational Area. Despite having over 4000 tons of high explosive and napalm dropped on them, they were able to re-organise defences and hold back the numerically and materially superior US Forces. Squaring off against the Americans was the German Panzer-Lehr Division, a training unit made operational due to the desperate situation, but including some of the best units available to the Germans. Unlike all the other Armoured Divisions in the German Army and Waffen-SS, the Panzer Lehr had a full complement of battle tanks and Infantry Half Tracks, making them a formidable force to be reckoned with. To the west of the Panzer-Lehr, the 5th Fallschirmjaegar Division (Parachute), had been relatively un touched by the bombardment and had dug in to receive the American Attack. They did not last forever however, and one by one these pockets of resistance were broken and the US Forces charged on into Brittany. The Defence in Depth concept that the Germans normally relied on and had been encountered consistently by the British and Canadians around Caen had not been formed to oppose the American lines, giving them almost free reign to advance and bypass the remains of the German Units. German Forces Collapsing 3 Days into the advance, the German defences had largely collapsed, but they were quickly pouring in Elite Units to try and contain the advance. Elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division, 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division and 353rd Infantry Division counter attacked wherever possible to hold up the US Advance and buy time for their units to fall back and escape the “noose”.  The Panzer-Lehr Division had been “formally annihilated” as recounted by its commanding officer General Fritz Bayerlein. Having lost all of its armour and vehicles, severe personnel casualties and the loss of HQ records, the Panzer-Lehr ceased to exist as a fighting unit. What was left slipped out of the Falaise Pocket and moved towards the Vire to be re-equipped. The 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions were moved into the area and caused serious problems for the XIX US Corps. The remainders of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions used the cover of Darkness to slip through the US 2nd Armoured Division’s lines before launching attacks. By the 31st July, the last German counter attacks had been beaten back and the route to Brittany and Southern Normandy was open. Aftermath Cobra had reduced the state of the German Armed Forces in Normandy to dangerous levels. German units were barely able to hold the line against the rapidly advancing Allied Units. Coupled with renewed Soviet Offensives on the Eastern Front and the Destruction of the German Army Group Center, the prospect of re-supply and fresh reinforcements was almost non-existent. Despite this, Hitler, in his infinite wisdom, demanded a counter attack using all nine Panzer Divisions in Normandy. The protests of his commanders were waved away. The Germans were only able to muster 4 Panzer Divisions, one of them incomplete, disengage them from the defence and launch the counter attack. Hopelessly optimistic it was over within 24 Hours. The Importance of the British and Canadian Operation Goodwood to the success of Operation Cobra cannot be understated. Had the Germans been able to freely deploy their Panzer Divisions as reserves across their entire front a breakthrough, as was achieved during Cobra, would have been exceedingly more difficult. As it was the Germans played right into Allied hands and with this success came the opportunity for them to surround the last of the German forces in Normandy and shut the noose around them at the French town of Falaise.
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