By: William B. Breuer World War II, the European front was a raging battle between the allied forces and Nazi Germany. The battle for the liberation of France began on D-Day plus 49, 1944. The allied forces had not made progress into France as foreseen. Instead, one and a half million allied forces were stalled from just beyond the landing beaches and out into the English Channel. The stall occurred just north of St. -Lo where the Nazi's had dug into thick hedgerows and refused to budge. On 21 July, ground commanders of the allied forces in France and allied air commanders from Great Britain met to discuss the plan to break through the Nazi resistance and move into France.
This massive planned assault was to be called Cobra. The plan had a large deception ploy, which was the creation of an imaginary army in England. This massive, fictitious army was to be led by General George Patton. The preparations for the high-risk plan began the following day.
All units would pull back, to reduce the risk of being struck by shorts. A short is when allied bombs are released early, striking allied positions. Sherman tanks were to be fitted with "tusk like" angle iron. The tusks purpose was to dig into the hedgerows, reducing exposure of the weak belly.
Air commanders were to instruct all pilots to attack on a path parallel to the allied ground troops. This would put aircraft over hostile territory for a longer time but would reduce the amount of shorts falling on allied forces. Through the planning phase of operation Cobra, many positive ideas surfaced. The idea of the fictitious army was one of the most daring schemes the Army had ever tried.
The plan was very high-risk because everything hinged Germans believing the fictitious army existed. It proved to be to their advantage to take these risks. I believe that in this point of time in the war, the risks were worth taking. The kickoff to operation Cobra started on 24 July at exactly 1200.
The allied fighters approached their target, a three by one mile rectangle of the German line, on a parallel course. They dove on the German lines with machine guns rattling and releasing their 500-pound bombs. As the fighters were finishing their bombing runs, allied bombers were heard directly over the ground forces. The heavies (allied bombers) had approached on a perpendicular course, instead of the instructed parallel course. The first group of bombers dropped their entire load of bombs only 300 yards in front of the allied line of resistance. The heavies following the first group were unable to see through the dust and smoke and dropped their loads over the top of allied forces.
A wing commander took the initiative to contact pilots and demanded that they stop the bombing after hearing the report of numerous shorts. After the damage had been assessed, soldiers replaced, and the allied line restored, Cobra was to be tried again the following morning. As a result of the failure to follow orders by the bombers pilots, many allied lives were lost. These orders were given for a reason and it is my belief that no matter what the personal danger is, it is crucial to adhere to the mission requirements and do your duty. Early on 25 July airplane props could be heard approaching the target area. This day would mark the largest air assault in history, on an area of only three square miles of the German line.
On this assault, all aircraft approached on a parallel course. For four straight hours bombs fell from heavies and fighters onto their target. As the last bomber turned and headed home, it seemed that the kick off to Cobra was a success after a slow start. The second time around proved to be much more fortunate for the allies. With the mission orders being followed, the air assault was proven a success.
The allied armor became alive with the roar of diesel engines and started moving into the dust and smoke of the target area. Foot soldiers and supply vehicles supported the armor divisions. As the assaulting allies grew closer to the German lines, field artillery boomed and pounded the Germans 500 yards ahead of the advancing element. A vicious firefight broke out between the disoriented German Feldgrau and allies.
Tanks were firing on opposition at point blank range, due to the amount of dust and smoke reducing visibility. The allies were fighting for every inch, as Feldgrau refused to give up. By the end of the day, it was growing apparent that the breakout of France was a success. In spite of all the battlefield obstacles, sending the armor and foot soldiers in immediately after the bombing proved to be a tactically sound decision. As morning dawned, the ever-present allied air support could be heard. They provided cover for the armor units that were about to make bold advances into hostile territory.
The allied forces would use the three by one rectangle of death as the launching point for the slashing assaults by the armor and infantry units. The allies dispersed in several directions to capture key cities and terrain. The tips of the armored advances were told to advance as fast as possible. In doing so, these units would cut a path through the opposition that would sometimes close behind them making it difficult to supply them. The idea of using the terrain features to their advantage was smart the shortcoming was failing to secure the rear to ensure the re-supply missions. With armor and infantry rapidly spreading through the French countryside the Nazis finally realized that the army in England was a decoy.
Panzer and SS Feldgrau divisions anticipating the attack of the imaginary army were then rushed to meet the slashing spearhead assaults head on. As the panzer divisions rushed to the aid of their comrades they became the targets of allied fighters. This slowed the movement of German support and allowed the fangs of Cobra to sink deeper into the Germans hold of France. The ploy of the imaginary army proved to be a success long enough to allow the beginning of Cobra to unfold. By 30 July, many key terrain features were captured but there seemed to be no front any more.
The fighting had turned into a free for all with divisions heading in every direction. The front was no longer distinguishable so units passed in and out of hostile territory with out knowing it. The ground commander of the allied forces tried to regain contact with the spearheads of the assaulting forces. Once in contact he received reports of conflicts and how many of the objectives had been captured. He urged all forces to keep moving and capture their objectives. Moral began to drop due to the lack of sleep and the constant fighting.
Even with tired soldiers and abused equipment the allies continued their assault on the German forces. The dedication of the soldiers to drive on through hunger and sleep deprivation was what I believe to be the result of positive command influence. After reviewing how far the allied forces had traveled, a risky plan began to take shape. The allied ground commander immediately went to see General Eisenhower and brief him of this new plan. The plan was to link the divisions together that had been slashing through the German lines, creating a large trap around German forces. General Eisenhower agreed that it was risky, but could be the turning point in the war if successful.
With his approval, the allied commander returned to his command post and began to send the plan to the forward divisions. The initial phase of Cobra was a success, but great risks were still to come. I believe these risks were necessary to take with the opportunity that had presented itself. General Patton was given the full control of the Third Army, in eastern France, since his imaginary army no longer existed.
Patton did not see eye to eye with any of his fellow commanders. He thought that they worried too much about their open flanks, which were created by the slashing attacks. Patton responded with "Forget this goddamned business of worry about our [open] flanks. Let the goddamned German worry about his flanks". (pg. 130) Patton pushed on, with his eye ultimately on the port city, Brest. Patton may have a great battlefield leader, but his inability to cooperate with other leaders compromised the mission at times. With Patton over extended, the Nazi's saw this as an opportunity to split the allied army in half.
To do so they would need to recapture the vital city of Mortain, which they had lost on days earlier. After the recapture of Mortain, to make the split successful, the Germans would also need to capture the port city of Avranches. Again, SS Feldgrau, 88 millimeter field artillery, and Panzer divisions were pulled away from their current to position, to help with the all out attack on Mortain. At midnight of 05 August the German forces neared the city and unleashed a barrage of shells from there 88's. With Patton out of position, he was taking an unnecessary risk that could allow the Germans an advantage. The Old Hickories, an infantry division, was on the receiving end of the shelling.
Soon to follow the shelling, Panzer divisions, with the Feldgrau, would push up to the front line of the allies. Here they would meet strong armor and four of the finest infantry divisions. Wave after wave smashed into the allied line only to be demolished and turned back. The line had absorbed the massive attack. It was no longer a clear line of allies on one side and Germans on the other. When the allied commander received the report from Mortain he was informed that the Germans were mixed throughout the allied line.
This proved to be a test of the soldier's integrity as the Germans made its first full force counter attack. I respect the will and determination of those soldiers that stood their ground and kept on fighting to the end no matter what the costs were. Just east of Mortain, the 30th Infantry Division was holding a crucial key terrain feature, Hill 317. They had been completely cut off for two days and were running low on food, medical supplies, and other items. This hill was used for directing devastating shellfire onto German tanks and troops concentrations in the valleys on all sides. The allies tried to get supplies to the hill by aircraft but were turned back by anti-aircraft guns.
An idea of getting supplies to Hill 317 was to use smoke-shell cases to shoot in the supplies. The smoke-shells were used to send pamphlets and propaganda. The idea worked, and Hill 317 again had food and medical supplies. Only the day before a truce had been offered by a German commander to evacuate the wounded from each side.
Greatly out numbered and in a desperate position, the acting allied commander responded, "Go to hell!" The German commander stiffened and returned back down the hill. Thirty minutes later artillery was plastering the hilltop. Panzers and grenadiers were making their way up the hill, but the 30th Infantry Division again drove them back down the hill. The attack had taken its toll but the Germans were barred from Avranches one more time. With all odds stacked against them, they kept the hill, a major tactical position.
Not knowing their fate, they put their duty above their own lives to keep Hill 317. With this full-scale assault by the Germans, they had stuck their head deeper into the noose, which would soon be tightening around their neck. General Patton was informed to break off his attack toward Brest and meet up with the Canadian and British armies to completely enclose the Germans. Patton stopped his slashing attacks towards Brest and headed all but one of his divisions to meet up with the allies on the other side of the trap. The company that he left behind was assaulting the port city of St. Malo, a well-fortified city. Again Patton took it upon himself to adjust his orders to satisfy both his needs and that of his commander.
I believe that in this case Patton was as much of a problem as he was a solution. Within the city of St. Malo, a German commander made all of his subordinate commanders sign an oath, to fight to the death. As the allied poured shells into the city, a white flag was raised and all of the townsfolk were marched out to the allies. As soon as the last one was past the line the bombardment began again.
The fighting was vicious and it raged on well through the night. The Canadian and British forces that were supposed to meet up with Patton were not having the same success as the Americans were. They were hesitant and this cost the allies precious time. As they slowly fought toward the objective some 23 miles away, General Kurt Meyer hampered them with poor leadership and opposition put together. His force was made up of young, green soldiers known as the Hitlerjugend. Until this gap was closed, Germans used it to escape the trap that was laid before them.
Before they committed to an all out retreat one final order came from the top, Adolph Hitler. The order was to reroute forces and attack to the west towards Rennes. This battle order looked good on paper, but in the reality of the battlefield it was an unattainable order. The divisions that were supposed to be attacking the western front were scattered all over, extremely undermanned, and out powered. The Hitler loyalist did as instructed and plowed into the western front one last time. They were brushed away easily by Patton's Third Army.
The commander needs to be aware of the reality of the battlefield. Unrealistic orders were being given that cost the lives of numerous soldiers. Patton advanced to the rally point where they were supposed to meet the other allied front halfway. The Canadians and British had not met their objective, so Patton pushed on trying to close the gap.
The Canadians and British were having some problems pushing through General Meyers make shift companies. They were able to turn back the allies long enough for fleeing Germans to escape. Finally, they could hold no more and the allied forces broke through. Patton's decision to go beyond his objective proved to be a sound decision at this time. The Canadians and British met up with General Patton, just on the other side of the harsh battlefield. There were joyous smiles and relief to see a break in the war.
The narrow gap, which was once the escape route for fleeing Germans, was the slaughter ground of the war. Burnt vehicles and dead bodies lay silently smoldering throughout the countryside. The delay in closing the gap was costly; no one ever knew how many divisions escaped through the narrow corridor that General Kurt Meyer gave his life to keep open. If Meyer had failed and the gap was closed on time the German 5th Panzer and Seventh Army would have been slaughtered and forced to surrender. The effect of this would have been a monumental blow to the Third Reich. This book has left a lasting impression on me.
I was unaware of the plan to trap the Germans at Fal aise and the amount of death and destruction that the allies and Germans underwent throughout France. The author translated and expressed through his writings the emotions of the leaders and soldiers on both sides of the lines. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II. Death to a Nazi Army, William Breuer.