The Allied breakout from Normandy, August 1-13, 1944
In August 1944 the Anglo-American led army gathered in Normandy finally broke the German 7th Army's back. U.S. General George S. Patton has garnered the lion's share of praise for the Allied breakout from Normandy. The reality however is that his path to success was paved by events going even beyond the excellent work done by Bradley and Collins during July in planning and executing Operation Cobra. In particular, two individuals helped guarantee the U.S. Third Army would not face nearly the resistance in August that its brothers in arms had fought against in June and July. These two men, Adolf Hitler and British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, would do more to aid Patton's efforts than is often recognized.
For his part, Hitler, witnessing the success of Operation Cobra, had ordered an attack into the seemingly long and exposed American flank that had opened up near Mortain as Patton drove his army through the gap blown in German lines by Bradley's men. Hitler, detached and isolated from the front and more out of touch with reality than ever, gave this order despite the reality failure likely meant the end of the Seventh Army; in large part because a dozen highly mobile American divisions already had poured through the breach in the German lines. Lacking an understanding regarding the situation on the ground one could argue Hitler's attack was the correct move; as it would completely cut off the American 12th Army Group's best divisions and potentially reverse the entire situation in Normandy. The German army in Normandy however was not the German Army of 1940 and hardly was capable of successfully carrying out such an operation. Moreover, with the skies filled with Allied fighter-bombers, a massive allied superiority in mechanized formations, and allied knowledge regarding the German counterattack from ULTRA; the Germans did not stand a chance.
Thus, the doomed German counterattack began on August 6th. Three weak and run down panzer divisions led the way. The 1st SS Panzer, 2nd SS Panzer, and 2nd Panzer Divisions spearheaded the assault with a combined strength at one pre-invasion panzer division, or 145 tanks and 32 assault guns combined. Despite being under strength, these panzer divisions did represent a powerful armored collection. Mark V Panthers comprised half the German tank allotment; the heavy German panzers quickly met initial success and advanced up to seven miles into the Allied flanks. Nevertheless, after this promising start, the attack bogged down against fierce resistance from the prepared Americans.
The men of the exhausted U.S. 30th Infantry Division played a pivotal role in slowing the German advance. Most notably, the 2nd Battalion of the 30th Infantry's 120th Regiment made an incredible stand at Hill 317; an important geographical position. Surrounded for six days by the surging German counterattack, the American infantry held out against overwhelming odds before finally relieved by their countrymen. The 2nd Battalion paid a heavy price for its intransigence; the four companies from the American battalion averaged only about 35 men per company after the battle, from an average strength at 175 men per company before the German attack began. As a whole, the U.S. 30th Infantry Division lost nearly 2,000 men during six days of heavy fighting, but it had played the vital role in denying the German counter-attack any real momentum. By August 7th, the German counterstroke had increasingly proved not only a failure but also further exacerbated the increasingly dire situation facing the German 7th Army.
Nevertheless, Hitler refused to call off the counterattack. Meanwhile, Montgomery's Army was finally on the move. Montgomery had slowly begun to push toward the crucial town of Falaise and the chance to envelope the entire German army in Normandy. If the Allied armies encircled the German Seventh Army, the remaining German armies in France would be badly out of position for not only stopping an allied drive within Central France, but also stopping the allies from reaching the German border 325 miles to the east. Montgomery's offensive, code named "Totalize", sought to shatter the German defenses opposing the eastern part of the Normandy beachhead. Although Totalize would fail in its stated goal, it, along with Hitler's counterstroke, are two significant reasons why the U.S. Third Army could thunder into the French interior without facing the concentrated might of the German Seventh Army's panzer divisions. Canadian General Guy Simonds led the operation. Simonds deployed the near equivalent of four armored divisions in the vanguard; the Canadian 4th Armored, Polish 1st Armored, Canadian 2nd Armored Brigade, and the British 33rd Armored Brigade as well as three infantry divisions. Along the axis of the attack's focal point Simonds enjoyed advantage in men and material reached nearly 10:1 over the German infantry division manning the front.
Backing the German infantry however was Kurt Meyer's battered but elite 12th SS Panzer Division. Meyer, having played an important role in stopping Montgomery, and particularly the Canadians, time and again over the prior two months, was ready for Montgomery's effort even though the cagy British Field Marshall had thrown a new wrinkle into this offensive. What Montgomery had done was to begin Totalize at night partially so he could mitigate against the devastatingly accurate long-range fire from the German Tigers and Panthers in the relatively open tank country.
Totalize began on August 8th in typical Allied fashion as the Canadians turned loose the near obligatory heavy bombers. The bombers quickly turned the German defenses into a moonscape and the allied armor easily pushed through the devastated German defensive positions during the night. However, with victory in grasp, Simonds fatally paused, believing he needed the heavy bombers and artillery to neutralize any further defenses before he moved on. Simmonds' pause meant as daylight broke over the battlefield the allied armor had sat for a full six hours; waiting on the next bomber raid and wasting precious time.
In the meantime, the Germans had responded quickly and brought forward reserves to form yet another Kampfgruppe, including the ad hoc anti-tank gun line formed by General Meyer's forward elements from the 12th SS and bolstered by Lt. Gen. Wolfgang Pickerts men from the III Flak Corps. The Germans inevitably decided to counterattack with two battle groups leading the way. Meanwhile, Meyer had slipped up to the front to reconnoiter the Allied lines. Meyer's reconnaissance paid off as he viewed row upon row of idling Allied tanks but even more importantly spotted high above a lone B-17 bomber leisurely approaching the German lines. Meyer knew this B-17 represented the lead pathfinder for another bombing wave and thus ordered a battle group, KG Waldmuller, to immediately attack and close with the Canadians.
KG Waldmuller comprised 10 Tigers and 39 Panzer IVs facing the Canadian 2nd and 4th Armored Brigades; a near 600 tank strong allied force dwarfing the collection of German armor. Because the Canadian armor deployed along a narrow front, however, only half the massed Allied tanks could fight at one time. The Canadian armored dispositions improved things a bit for the Germans, but nonetheless meant the attacking Germans, with only 49 tanks, were severely outnumbered. The German counterattack received a boost however from many "shorts" as the nearly 500 B-17's sent to smooth Totalize's path instead created havoc in the allied front lines.
The allied weight in armor ultimately overcame the chaos created by their own air support and pressed back Meyer's initial counterattacks, but he fluidly responded with further strikes into the allied flanks. Advancing Polish armor met one such Meyer counterattack and his Divisional Escort
Company, equipped with Jagdpanzer IVs, efficiently destroyed some 26 Shermans.
Overall, the allied attacks represented a less than stellar combined arms effort and were hamstrung by poor coordination as well the destruction wrought by German armor and anti-tank guns lining the woods and decimating allied armor ranks. Within two days, the Germans had destroyed over 150 more allied tanks, and their smoking hulls littered the battlefield. Despite the carnage, the allies slowly forced the Germans to give up ground; eight miles worth. These territorial losses represented more land surrendered by the Germans in this one relentlessly pursued Allied operation than any previous British or Canadian led assault to date in Normandy. Although the Allies paid dearly, the advance put the German's back to the proverbial wall just west of Falaise. At the same time, the American armored spearheads stormed across the French countryside; attracting the world's attention as they continue to do today - in spite of the importance Hitler and Montgomery's near contemporaneous decisions played in Patton's success.
Map Courtesy of: Department of History, United States Military Academy