U.S. First Army Breaks Out of Normandy Beachhead July 24-August 4, 1944
Codenamed Cobra, the Allied breakout from the Normandy Beachhead finally would begin late in July 1944. U.S. General Omar Bradley left nothing to chance in planning the breakout. Bradley sought to first breakthrough the German positions, and second turn loose General Patton's' newly activated Third Army to cut off the Brittany peninsula from France. After securing his flanks Patton would then race for the Seine River to the east and then beyond. On the Allies' left flank Montgomery, pursuing his own ambitious offensive, would mostly maintain the pressure on the German defenses near Caen and deny German reinforcements from switching across the front to stop Cobra. Ultimately, the armies under Montgomery would serve as a pivot point for the allies once the German front collapsed under the Americans assault. If Bradley's plan developed as expected the Allies could finally destroy the German armies in Normandy.
Weeks of planning set up Cobra. The Allies stockpiled immense quantities of supplies to guarantee not only penetrating the German lines, but also to ensure the success envisioned for the subsequent breakthrough. The Americans prepared a massive aerial and artillery bombardment to support Cobra, as the American reliance on firepower continued to comprise her primary weapon for battering through the German defenses. To that end, Bradley amassed approximately 2,500 bombers and fighter-bombers to hammer German positions within a small box totaling just six square miles of land west of St. Lo, with the bombers set to roll across the front in staggered waves depositing an aggregate total of 4,000 tons of bombs.
The American VII Corps led by General Collins spearheaded Cobra. Collins ordered two infantry divisions to wrench open a hole in the German front, and then hold open the breach's shoulders as one infantry and two armored divisions punched through the weakened German defenders. The Allied infantry would then advance on Coutances, some 15 miles behind the German lines, and the armor would push on to Avranches and beyond. The assault divisions would be the primary beneficiaries for the supporting firepower raining down upon only some 5,000 German soldiers holding the front in Cobra's immediate path.
The Germans had built their defensive positions along the bocage's last stronghold, where the favorable defensive terrain in Normandy began giving way to the more open countryside in central France. Land ideal for allied armies built on mobile warfare. The battered but elite Panzer Lehr division would face the brunt of Bradley's assault, and although reinforced with a combat element from the 275th Division and a regiment from the 5th Parachute Division was hardly capable of stopping what Bradley had planned. The Panzer Lehr, although once one of the most powerful divisions in the German army, by the end of July was a mere shell of itself after nearly two months of constant combat. The Panzer Lehr could only field one-third its authorized strength - all told about 45 tanks and 3,200 infantry. Supporting Panzer Lehr stood the 2nd SS Panzer Divisions, with only two companies from the 2nd SS representing the Germans scant armored reserves - hardly adequate for stopping the Americans if they broke out of the bocage.
Map Courtesy of: Department of History, United States Military Academy