70 years ago today the US troops were gearing up for Operation Cobra, the attack that would not so much breach as blow the German front line away. The British and Canadian troops had done their bit by diverting the Germans’ attention and arms towards Caen in the east with Operation Goodwood; now it was up to the Americans to put the plan into action.
That plan had originated with Sir Bernard Montgomery, who had realised even before D-Day that the ports around Britanny would need to be captured in order to ship in adequate supplies to fuel the army for their next drive across the River Seine. It was then refined by Bradley, who outlined his tactics for the attack on July 10th. The idea had been for it to start on July 19th, immediately after Goodwood, but in the event the latter was so successful that the German armies had been permanently crippled; though Cobra had been postponed, first by heavy resistance at St Lô then by stormy weather, to July 24th, the scattered and rather lonely remaining German tanks had still not had time to re-group.
The actual strategy for kicking off the battle was good; use heavy bombers from the USAAF Eighth and Ninth Air Forces to blast the German lines, use small bombs to minimise cratering and therefore obstacles to the following troops, so that they could follow closely and allow the Germans less recovery time, and attack on a very narrow front for maximum impact. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine a worst start to the campaign than the one that unfolded. The bad weather having swept back in, Bradley reluctantly postponed the attack at the last minute. However, some 300 heavy bombers had already taken off before the order to halt came. They were meant to fly across the troops’ position, but they got confused and instead flew down the Perriers-St Lô road, on a line between the Allied and German fronts, dropping their 685 tonnes of bombs as they went. It was a fiasco. 156 of the waiting US troops were killed or wounded in the completely pointless ‘friendly fire’, and still more fell when the Germans responded with heavy artillery bombing. The morale of the troops was shattered before the fighting had even begun.
The next day didn’t go much better, with 601 troops this time being killed or wounded in the friendly fire of the blanket bombing, including the man in charge of the US Army Ground Forces, Lieutenant-General Lesley McNair. He was buried quietly. Still, at least this time the Germans had had a bad day too. 1,880 bombers dropped 4,000 tonnes of bombs, and the German front line was pulverised. The defenders of the Panzer Lehr stood dazedly in the craters and fought, holding the Allies at bay for a time, but they all fell or were captured in the end. After all these heavy losses, the US VII Corps had advanced just two miles.
Things could only improve. On July 26th the US 30th Infantry division was joined in its push by the 2nd and 3rd Armoured Divisions, and the US VIII Corps under Middleton, which had been holding the front between VII Corps and the Sea, attacked towards Perriers. The Germans’ nerve failed in the face of the multiple enemies coming towards them, and they pulled back. By July 27th, VII Corps managed to finally break through the German front line- or rather, it almost melted away in front of them. After almost two months of counting advances in feet, suddenly the 2nd Armoured Division found themselves 12 miles behind the old front line by the end of the day!
Meanwhile, the Canadians and British had been busy. The Canadian II Corps struck south from Caen on July 25th against the 1st SS Panzer Division, with the British I Corps held in reserve. ‘Operation Spring’ failed to advance the Allies much, but it did draw attention and forces away from Cobra and cause confusion in the German camps as to which was the main attack. The operation ceased abruptly after just two days, and Montgomery’s Guards Armoured and 7th Armoured Divisions moved to support the US attack. On July 30th Operation Bluecoat, an attack by O’Connor’s VIII Corps with XXX corps in support, hit out towards Mont Picon in an attempt to gain control of the town of Vire, which was the last road junction the Germans could hold. The tired British advanced slowly, and changes in command were needed to keep any sort of progress, but gradually they worked their own way into Normandy.
The Americans were by now positively storming through the district. Patton’s US Third Army absorbed VIII Corps and went hell-for-leather through the countryside, as it was felt that the Germans would have no time or energy to resist if the attack was swift and confident, and no time to seal up their front before the next blow fell. They captured Coutances on July 28th, where they met a fierce German counter attack, but the German army simply couldn’t match the Allies at this point for energy, man-power and resources and their attempts to slow the advance failed. Within the next three days Third Army had captured 77,000 German troops, and on the morning on August 1st they had reached Avranches and secured three crossings over the Seine. Bradley, meanwhile, was advancing more slowly with the US First Army over a wider front, protecting Patton’s flank and cooperating with the British. Everyone could see that Normandy was lost, except Hitler.
Hitler, of course, had supreme command over the German army, and was very far from the fighting. He knew which units were available to fight, but envisioned them as strong, fit, well-manned and well-supplied- in others words, at 100% capability, which they certainly weren’t after all the punishment they’d endured. He ignored Marshal von Kluge’s plea to allow the remaining troops to retreat, and instead, on August 2nd, ordered a counter-attack with five Panzer divisions, aiming to strike at the hinge between the First and Third armies and drive a way to the coast. It took until August 7th to patchwork the remaining German tanks into a fighting force, which of course had none of the air support liberally promised by Hitler since the Allies now controlled the skies over Normandy. Hastily the 30th Division organised a defence, and though they lost many men, held off the tired Germans until reinforcements could come. The Germans, who had no reinforcements, only really sustained the attack for a day before folding. By August 8th, Patton’s tanks were at Le Mans.
By August 19th the German 5th and 7th Panzer armies were surrounded in the Falaise Pocket, and on August 22nd the circle closed and the troops who hadn’t fled were taken prisoner. The whole of Normandy was liberated, and the rest of France would be next.