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The Battle for Normandy

By nightfall on D-Day, 6 June 1944 the continuous lodgement area planned had not been established, but instead a series of toeholds on the coast of northern France had been achieved. More than 100,000 Allied soldiers had made it ashore and the Allies had established a beachhead through which they could land men and supplies. The Allies grip on these tiny beachheads was precarious and the German reaction after their initial surprise was swift.

The Battle of the Beaches

The battle to consolidate the beachhead and establish a lodgement area began, and the next ten days became crucial to the success of the Normandy invasion. The Allies had to land men and materials in sufficient quantity to withstand any German counterattack and had to keep the Germans far enough at bay to enable this to happen. The Germans had twenty-seven Divisions, four of which were Panzer Divisions, within a 200-mile radius of the landing beaches. If these could be brought to bear on the invading Allied Army it would be rolled back into the sea.

The Allies however, had an important advantage – Air Superiority. The effect on the German convoys being rushed to Normandy was devastating as Allied fighter-bombers ruthlessly prowled the countryside looking for targets. When the Typhoons and Mustangs found them they were easy prey and the Allied aircraft left a trail of burnt out and wrecked vehicles in their wake. To counter this the Germans began to move at night, but in doing so became vulnerable to ambushes set by the Marquis. The combined effects of the Allied air forces and the Marquis was to delay the rapid arrival of German reinforcements as Field Marshal Rommel had predicted it would.

Within a week the supplies needed by the Allies to sustain their army in the field were flowing in at a steady rate and by 11 June 1944 more than 326,000 troops, 55,000 vehicles and 105,000 tons of supplies had landed on the beaches. Behind the sunken ships of the ‘Gooseberry’ breakwaters vessels of every size and shape were engaged in the frantic task of bringing ashore supplies. Further out to sea the Rhino barges and DUKWs took on their cargos from the larger cargo ships and piled backwards and forwards between the ships and the beach. LSIs and LSTs with their flat bottoms sailed right up to the beaches to drop their ramps and offload their cargos of men, armoured vehicles, tanks and lorries. Two artificial ‘Mulberry’ harbours were set up, one in the American sector at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer and one in the British sector at Arromanches. These were soon being used to offload men and supplies directly from the cargo ships. At Port-en-Bessin and Sainte-Honorine-des-Pertes two PLUTO pipelines were run ashore for the transfer of petrol from tankers to the fuel dumps inland.

By the 18 June 1944 the battle of the beaches had been won, as the Allies were bringing far more men and equipment ashore than the Germans could bring to reinforce the Normandy area.

The American sector in the west

Following the landings at UTAH Beach the US VII Corps fought their way across the Cotentin Peninsula to seal off the port of Cherbourg from the rest of Normandy. With the peninsula cut-off they pushed up the peninsula and the port of Cherbourg was captured on the 26 June 1944. The Allies finally had the all-important deep-sea port through which they could bring in the men and materials needed to mount future operations. The port however could not be used immediately as it was littered with mines and wrecked ships, the harbours were booby-trapped, the rails on the docks had been ripped up, cranes had been toppled over and the swing bridges put out of use. It was not until the end of July that the first American Liberty ships were able to bring in supplies from the United States.

After the fall of Cherbourg the American forces to the west thrust southwards from the Cotentin Peninsula. The Germans however had brought up a considerable number of reinforcements in the time between the peninsula being cut off and this thrust south. In torrential rain at the beginning of July the Americans came up against an entrenched and prepared enemy where they became bogged down in the battle of the hedgerows. The close terrain of the Normandy countryside with its maze of tiny fields and sunken lanes made the use of tanks, artillery and airpower almost useless and meant that the Americans had to advance hedgerow by hedgerow. This infantry battle in which the defender had a distinct advantage over the attacker cost the lives of thousands of American Infantrymen by the time that Saint-Lô was captured on 18 July 1944.

It was not until they mounted Operation COBRA at the end of July that the Americans finally smashed through the German defences to sweep southwards into Brittany and towards the Loire. The American plan was to create a gap in the German defensive line using aerial saturation bombing that would briefly neutralise the German defences and with a gap created General Bradley’s US First Army would pour through and breakout. An initial attempt was made on 24 July, but this proved disastrous when the Allied bombers dropped their payload on the American front line. The following day a second attempt was made and the bombing disseminated the German Panzer Lehr Division that had only just moved into the area. 45 tonne Panther tanks were lifted off the ground and literally blown apart, German infantrymen were buried alive in their trenches and bunkers, those that survived fled or surrendered without a fight when the American Infantry advanced.

The Americans did not have it all their own way however and fierce fighting ensued throughout the 25 July 1944. The following day General Collins’ US VII Corps advanced seven-miles taking Saint-Gilles and Canisy before crossing the Coutances to Saint-Lô road. It was on 26 July 1944 that the first signs of cracks appeared in the German front. On the 27 July the American Armoured Divisions pushed forward once again and the German resistance collapsed. Marigny, Lessey and Périers were swiftly captured and Coutances was liberated the following day. Entire German Divisions were encircled whilst others fell apart and after two-months of bitter fighting thousands of demoralized and shaken German soldiers were taken prisoner.

The main resistance to the American advance was put up by the German LXXXIV Korps commanded by General Dietrich von Choltitz who attempted to set up new lines of defence, but these quickly became obsolete before they could be established. The American advance now gained momentum and on the 30 July the US 6th Armoured Division drove past Granville without stopping. The US 4th Armoured Division, still spearheading the assault, captured Avranches and secured Pontaubault Bridge over the River Sélune, they were now in Brittany. In less than a week they had advanced 30 miles and taken 18,000 prisoners.

The British sector in the east

In the British sector the German 21st Panzer Division had prevented the British and Canadian forces from capturing Caen on D-Day. During the night of the 6/7 June 1944 the German 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division augmented them and together these two Panzer Divisions formed a formidable barrier of fire and steel in front of the city. This stopped the Allies in their tracks and it took more than a month before the D-Day objective of Caen was finally liberated during which time the city became the fulcrum about which the Battle for Normandy pivoted.

The Battle for Caen began with the British trying to flank the city to the west in order to assault from the rear. However the German Panzer Lehr Division brought them to a standstill at Tilly-sur-Seulles on 9 June and the town was reduced to no more than a pile of rubble. Further to the west General Montgomery pushed the British 7th Armoured Division forward into what appeared to be a hole in the German defensive line in the area of Villers-Bocage. The hole was plugged by a detachment of German Tiger tanks supported by a number of Panzer IVs commanded by the German tank ace, SS-Haupsturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann, and the British were torn to pieces.

At the end of June the British mounted Operation EPSOM that was a large scale offensive centred on Odon, between Caen and Tilly-sur-Seulles. It involved 90,000 men, but shortly after crossing the river on 27 June they were halted at ‘Hill 112’ by the arrival of two SS Divisions. This modest rise to the west of Caen became the scene of some desperate fighting and the battle was threatening to become a war of position with each side holding their trenches.

On the evening of 7 July 1944 the north of the city was subjected to a devastating aerial bombardment that was the precursor for a frontal attack the following day. This was Operation CHARNWOOD and the Canadians flushed the enemy out of Buron and Authie and the British broke down the remaining German resistance on the outskirts of Lébisey. In the morning of 9 July 1944 British and Canadian patrols finally entered the city and the Canadians took Carpiquet airfield. Operation CHARNWOOD came to an end when the Germans withdrew across the River Orne and took up defensive positions on the eastern bank. They held their positions on the eastern bank for ten days until the Canadians in Operation GOODWOOD dislodged them on 19 July. Members of the Marquis guided them into the districts on the right bank of the river and Caen was finally liberated.

The German counterattack

Following Operation COBRA the American thrust from the west was reorganised and the newly formed US Third Army commanded by Lieutenant General George S Patton took over the attack. Lieutenant General Patton’s men gave the thrust of the Americans new momentum and in less than three days 100,000 men were passed through the gap that had been made in the German line. Three US Corps fanned out in three different directions, one into Brittany, another south towards the Loire and the third southeast towards Le Mans.

In support of the American breakout, General Montgomery ordered Operation BLUECOAT and the British and Canadian forces pushed forward from their defences around Caen to drive southwards. They pushed the German front line back eight miles, seizing the dominating high ground south of Caen, and drove a wedge between the German Seventh Army, now commanded by SS General Paul Hausser, and Panzer Group West now commanded by General der Panzer Heinrich Eberbach.

On the 7 August 1944 the Germans mounted a counterattack, Operation LÜTTICH, which had been planned by the German High Command. The counterattack was to punch through the Allied forces smashing through the Americans in the vicinity of Avranches to reach the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. The aim was to cut off Lieutenant General Patton’s US Third Army from their supplies leaving them sitting ducks to be picked off at the German’s leisure. This counterattack was mounted on the express orders of Hitler and against the advice of the German commanders on the ground. It began with a major armoured thrust on Mortain from both sides in a thick morning mist. Shortly after noon the mist began to lift and as it faded so too did the German’s chances of success. Wave after wave of Allied fighter-bombers attacked the advancing German columns and in the space of a few hours they lost more than 150 tanks. By evening it was evident that the attack had failed and the German forces began to be squeezed between the three Allied Armies. Dempsey’s British Second Army pushed in from the north, Bradley’s US First Army from the west and Patton’s US Third Army pushed up from Le Mans in the south.

The closing of the Falaise pocket

The German counterattack weakened their forces and the Allies moved to exploit this. The Canadians, under General Crerar, were pushed south and the US XV Corps was ordered to move rapidly to the north from Le Mans. These two Allied Armies were to come together in the vicinity of Argentan trapping the German Seventh Army and Fifth Panzer Army.

General Leclerc’s French 2nd Armoured Division, which had taken Le Mans, pushed north as the lead element of the US XV Corps. It reached Argentan on 14 August 1944 where it was halted to prevent it running into the Canadians who were pushing south from Caen.

The Canadians with the Polish 1st Armoured Division commanded by General Maczek launched their attack south towards Falaise on 9 August as part of Operation TOTALIZE. The Germans, though weakened, were still able to cause the Canadians serious trouble and the Allies progress in the north was slower than the south. After some fierce fighting in the region of ‘Hill 111’ and the woods to the north of the town the Canadians finally took Falaise on 17 August.

Realising that part of the German force could escape, General Montgomery modified the plan by moving the Allied line 12 miles further east to close the gap between Trun and Chambois. The decision to halt the Americans at Argentan had enabled some Germans who would otherwise have been caught in the Falaise pocket to escape, but on the 15 August they continued their advance north.

On the 18 August 1944 the 4th Canadian Armoured Division occupied Trun and the following day they took the village of Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives. The US 90th Infantry Division captured Chambois, 6.5 miles northeast of Argentan, on 19 August where they met the Canadians who had entered from the north. Digging in on a line running from Falaise, through Trun to Chambois the Allies had a fierce fight on their hands as the trapped Germans tried to get out of the pocket. The battle lasted for two days until a French priest, Abbé Launay, pleaded with the German commanders to surrender and late on 21 August 1944 the German troops, still in the Falaise pocket, laid down their weapons.

The German Army in Normandy had been virtually wiped out when it became encircled and trapped in the Falaise packet. Although many thousands had managed to escape before the gap was closed 150,000 were taken prisoner, many of them wounded. Over 10,000 Germans had died on the road between Chambois, Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, Trun and Tournai-sur-Dives and the road was virtually impassable due to the destroyed vehicles and bodies of the German soldiers. The Allies had also suffered heavy casualties, the Canadians alone sustaining 18,000 men dead or wounded. The difference between the two armies being that the Allied troops could be replaced with fresh reinforcements, the Germans however could not.

Whilst the battle in the Falaise pocket raged, the Americans turned their attention to the east and by 20 August 1944 they had crossed the River Seine at Mantes. Four days later on 24 August General Leclerc’s tanks entered the centre of Paris and the French capital was liberated.

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