Military history

CHAPTER TEN

26 & 27 June – Clearing the city

9th Division

47th Regiment’s first objective was to reoccupy the area cleared the previous day and Colonel Smythe had hoped to advance quickly towards the Naval Arsenal while his 2nd Battalion re-established roadblocks along the coast road. For the second time in three days there were difficulties with the artillery and a series of delays postponed zero hour. 1st Battalion decided not to wait for the barrage and C Company moved quickly and reached Rue Gambetta in front of the walls of the Arsenal two hours later:

‘Walls around Arsenal are 10 feet high and 30 feet thick... Embankment covered with wire, moat, earthen ramparts and high concrete walls with only three gates. Probably need grappling hooks and other scaling material... [Germans] have

The Arsenal, a huge fortification protecting Cherbourg’s military port.

20mm and 47mm there, covered by MGs.’

The rest of the battalion was heavily engaged around the Maritime Hospital and while Company A cleared the perimeter, Company B entered the buildings finding the wards crammed with wounded. As the two companies continued to push towards the Arsenal ambulances began to evacuate the building, finding 150 American soldiers amongst the 2,500 wounded men.

Gun positions guard the approaches to the Arsenal.

3rd Battalion waited impatiently for the artillery but when it started, two hours late, Lieutenant-Colonel Clayman was unimpressed: ‘Believed it wasn’t sufficient, but wanted to get it cleaned out.’

The battalion headed into St Sauveur accompanied by tank - destroyers and as one company engaged a strongpoint southwest of the Naval Hospital the other headed for the city cemetery where it captured the Headquarters Company of the 739th Infantry Regiment in an underground shelter. The commanding officer, Major Graefe, had wanted to surrender as soon as the American troops appeared but some of his men wanted to stage a final show of defiance. A few shots were fired at Clayman’s troops but moments later Graefe and his men emerged with their hands up.

One by one Colonel Smythe’s companies reached Rue Gambetta, finding the wide avenue covered by pillboxes and 20mm AA guns on the walls of the Arsenal. Tanks and tank-destroyers spent the afternoon cruising up and down Rue Gambetta but their armour piercing shells had no effect on the bunkers. 3rd Battalion eventually moved into position as it began to grow dark, having spent the afternoon engaging strongpoints around the Municipal Stadium. The Battalion’s late arrival meant that General Eddy had postponed the attack on the Arsenal until the following morning and in the meantime public address systems were set up to broadcast news of General von Schlieben’s surrender. There was still a glimmer of hope that Generalmajor Sattler might surrender the fortress without a fight.

39th Regiment made slow progress through Octeville and as 2nd Battalion cleared mines, the rooftop AA guns opened fire once again. 3rd Battalion also came under fire from the anti-aircraft guns across the Divette valley as it crossed the exposed Octeville heights. As 39th Regiment moved into the suburbs of St Sauveur, a new problem arose. The two battalions had failed to establish contact and as they advanced down the narrow streets reports of friendly fire began to increase.

Sherman tanks patrol the ruins. NARA-111-SC-191166

Infantry search for snipers. NARA-111-SC-190974

After clearing up the confusion, the advance resumed and 2nd Battalion soon came across the small quarry where General von Schlieben’s temporary headquarters was rumoured to be. A prisoner of war had earlier given information about the whereabouts of Cherbourg’s Commandant and General Eddy had been pleased to pass on the news to his subordinate: ‘Tell Colonel Flint that he will have the honour of capturing the German General.’

Another prisoner warned that the German staff had prepared an escape route; they would gather at the Prefect Maritime before heading through the Arsenal to Fort Hainert where a boat was waiting to evacuate them to Cap de la Hague. The escape plan never materialised and at 15:40 Lieutenant-Colonel Gunn reported that his men were covering the entrance to the General’s hideout:

General von Schlieben.

‘Am over the entrance to two tunnels which lead to subterranean. It is slow clearing up. Many reported underneath – shall soon know. It is questionable how many there are.’

A prisoner was sent down into the tunnels with an ultimatum to surrender but to begin with General von Schlieben refused to cooperate. Tank-destroyers moved in and after a few shots were fired, white flags were flown as dozens of German officers and orderlies began to emerge:

‘A few hours after the ultimatum was refused, Von Schlieben came out of a hole thirty feet underground and surrendered, while many of his troops fought on. With him were Rear Admiral Hennecke, second in command of Cherbourg, and 800 other officers and enlisted men.’

As Gunn’s men began to round up the prisoners, British Commandos of 30 Assault Unit, Royal Marines, moved swiftly into the tunnels searching for documents before the German staff could destroy them. Over the course of the next six days they would search several headquarters throughout the city finding useful intelligence material. The documents were returned to England and assessed by a team led by Commander Ian Fleming RNVR (the future author of the James Bond books).

Troops surround the entrance to von Schlieben’s lair. NARA-111-SC-190804-S

General Collins and General Eddy came forward to meet General von Schlieben hoping to finalise the surrender of Cherbourg and prevent further loss of life. They were to be disappointed. The General refused to cooperate and pointed out that his communications system had broken down over twenty-four hours ago. When the means to communicate with the outlying forts was offered, von Schlieben again rejected the offer: ‘The German General never did explain why he surrendered while his men continued to fight – or why he was not with them.’

Meanwhile, the two Regiments continued to push through the outskirts of Cherbourg, rounding up hundreds of prisoners as they neared the city centre. Hundreds of Germans (US 39th Regiment would take 2,100 prisoners by midnight) were willing to surrender and before long there was danger that General Eddy’s men could be overwhelmed. A shortage of transport made it difficult to evacuate the prisoners and the GIs resorted to cramming as many men onto the trucks as possible. Major Bradley noted that the record number of prisoners on a 2½ tonne truck was seventy-six!

GIs search von Schlieben’s staff as they come to the surface. NARA-111-SC-191084

Men of 314th Regiment round up prisoners from another underground headquarters. NARA-111-SC-190785-S

Bodies and debris litter the underground tunnels. NARA-111-SC-190797-S

Torpedoes line the walls of a subterranean fortress. NARA-111-SC-190786-S

General Collins interviews General von Schlieben and Admiral Hennecke NARA-111-SC-190786-S

313th Regiment hurry their prisoners into captivity.

By nightfall 9th Division had cleared the western suburbs of Cherbourg and while patrols remained behind to enforce a curfew on the local population, General Eddy’s men withdrew to prepare for the final attack on the Arsenal. Organised resistance had collapsed and during the night the Colonel in charge of the coastal defences surrendered 400 men to Lieutenant-Colonel Gunn when he learnt that General von Schlieben had been taken prisoner.

79th Division

General Wyche planned to send his men deep into the city at first light while Colonel Huff’s continue to prise their way into Fort du Roule. Men of the 313th Regiment advanced steadily, and although a few fanatics continued to snipe from windows and rooftops, over 500 prisoners were taken in the first two hours. Sherman tanks followed close behind waiting for the infantry to call them forward to eliminate a strongpoint. McCardell, the correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, monitored the troops as they advanced through the ruins:

‘We moved forward into a deserted quarter of the city, evidently a section in which working people had lived. Concussion had shattered every window, every hint of glass. The telephone and electric light wires were broken tangles. But most of the buildings did not appear to have been damaged seriously by either the bombings or the shellfire. The Germans had bricked up many windows and doors, leaving only narrow embrasures from which machine-guns would sweep the street.’

314th Regiment worked its way through the Val de Saire district and at times the Battalion commanders found it difficult to keep track of their companies. 3rd Battalion came under fire from Fort du Roule’s flak guns as it cleared the Canal de Retenue area and Colonel Davis was angry that his men were not receiving the support they needed, ‘Because of no communications he states that ack-ack are giving his battalion hell.’

A smoke screen provided by the Divisional artillery gave the necessary protection and by midday General Wyche was pleased to hear that both his Regiments were closing in on their objectives.

Heavy artillery move onto the quayside past the Tourist Information Office. NARA-111-SC-190784-S

After 313th Regiment had finished clearing the inner harbour, 1st Battalion closed in on the railway sidings only to find that some Germans were prepared to fight to the last man:

‘B Company advanced 100 yards from objective. Then stopped by numerous pillboxes to front. Company C mortars and Company D mortars brought on targets but fail to neutralise pillboxes. Tanks were brought into position but failed to neutralise position. Assault teams sent forward; one from B Company, one from C Company. One AT platoon brought forward. Heavy fire from 57s laid on pillboxes. 2nd Platoon of D Company and LMGs of Company B brought on targets.’

Aerial view of the ruined Gare Maritime. NARA-111-SC-199800

General Wyche’s men were warned not to enter the station until it had been checked for booby-traps. NARA-111-SC-199799

It seemed as though nothing could penetrate the bunkers’ thick walls and for several hours the GIs waited until a lucky shot exploded inside one pillbox. Seventeen dazed soldiers emerged waving a white flag and with their help the rest of position capitulated.

314th Regiment came under fire as it approached the railway station but once again tanks and anti-tank guns silenced the number of pillboxes. The Germans had already demolished part of the Gare Maritime’s terminal by shunting a train packed with explosives into the building. Even so, Colonel Robinson had been warned to avoid the building following prisoner reports that it had been booby-trapped with delayed action mines.

By mid afternoon General Wyche was pleased to hear that his men had cleared the centre of Cherbourg and taken over 2,000 prisoners. Their work complete, the two Regiments retraced their steps, carrying out a second thorough search and posted guards at key road junctions en route. Meanwhile, Wyche passed on his congratulations: ‘Division should feel cocky. 4th and 9th are both veteran Divisions and say it was a hard job to keep up with the 79th.’

314th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion had remained on the roof of Fort du Roule all night and while the rest of 79th Division began to clear the city below, Colonel Huff’s men renewed their attempts to take the lower levels. After failing to breach the doors, engineers began dropping explosive charges down ventilation shafts to encourage the men below to surrender. Attempts to reach the gun embrasures on the rock face had failed and after Lieutenant Kirby had withdrawn his men from the cliff, engineers lowered satchel charges from the roof of the fort. They used trigger devices to detonate the explosives, but still the 88s continued to fire on the city. Finally, eighteen tankdestroyers lined up in the streets below and blasted the gun positions until they fell silent.

Major-General Collins surveys the ruins of Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-190981

The Stars and Stripes fly proudly in Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-19034

The garrison of the fort still refused to surrender. A frontal assault inside the fort would have resulted in heavy casualties and General Wyche felt it was time to try for a second time to reach the embrasures. Sergeant Hurst’s team of volunteers climbed down the precipitous path, avoiding sniper fire as they crawled onto the cliff, and eventually found themselves over one of the embrasures. Pole charges failed to break open the steel shutters barring the way but with the help of a bazooka Hurst’s men blasted the embrasure open. As the GIs peered warily into tunnel they could see white flags in the darkness; Fort du Roule had fallen and as night fell across Cherbourg, Colonel Robinson was able to report that the subterranean tunnels on the cliffs overlooking the city had been cleared. A naval officer and 178 men eventually emerged from the dark depths after keeping Colonel Huff’s men at bay for forty-eight hours.

While the rest of 79th Division battled for Cherbourg, 315th Regiment finally cleared the pocket of resistance southwest of the city near Martinvast and Hardinvast. Patrols had located a large group of Germans and rather than engaging the enemy, Colonel Bernard B McMahon (the Regiment’s commander since 24 June) had brought up a truck equipped with a loud speakers to pass on the news that General von Schlieben had surrendered. A German colonel made it clear in the negotiations that followed that he was anxious to maintain his honour; the Americans would have to exhibit an ‘overwhelming display of strength’ before he would surrender. Two white phosphorous grenades proved to be sufficient. The colonel surrendered with 1,200 men, the majority of them wounded in a nearby field hospital; hundreds of other soldiers were rounded up during the course of the day.

Major-General Eddy, with the assistance of a German speaking GI, cross-examines a senior German officer. NARA-111-SC-191083

The Arsenal

Generalmajor Sattler had failed to response to ultimatums broadcast throughout the night and by the morning of 27 June, 47th Regiment was in position ready for the assault. Before launching his attack, Colonel Smythe made a final attempt to entice the Germans to surrender and a platoon from Company A approached the main gate, under the watchful eye of a Sherman tank. Small arms fire greeted the party and as they tried to withdraw, two 20mm AA guns came to life. The tank quickly destroyed them and as the platoon crawled back, General Eddy resigned himself to ordering the attack.

Men and tanks took up their positions waiting for zero hour but as the minutes ticked by, events began to quickly unfold. 47th Regiment’s signal record details the final tense moments inside the Arsenal:

08:39 Blue artillery observers say somebody is getting ready to shoot on the Arsenal – wants it stopped – as white flag is up and a patrol is going in.

08:40 Something screwy is up in the Arsenal. Blue 6 can see soldiers evidently unarmed walking around on the ramparts. The doors are open.

08:50 Blue patrol is up to the gates of the moat, has had no fire whatsoever – bridge is blown out.

08:55 Patrols going in now – all fire missions have been cancelled. 1st and 3rd Battalions both report white flags flying over the Arsenal. Both bridges are blown and gates are open. Will have to get engineers up quickly in order to get in.

09:10 General Eddy wants no troops to go into Arsenal until the Naval Engineers have been in for mines and demolitions inspection. Colonel Vanderhoef has four prisoners who can go in fort and accept surrender.

09:25 Captain Jackson, Divisional G-2 and four prisoners are in the Arsenal right now. All battalions have been informed to hold patrols. Colonel Smythe is right outside the gates. General Eddy orders that if any American patrols have entered, withdraw them and hold them outside the gates.

09:47Prisoners are coming out of the Arsenal now – has seen about 50 so far and they are continuing to come in.

09:56 Colonel Smythe in Arsenal – talking to Commandant – stubborn – has isolated groups of resistance throughout and he won’t surrender until force is shown – tanks and tank destroyers are going down to every entrance.

The capture of Generalmajor Sattler brought resistance in Cherbourg city to an end. NARA-111-SC-190833-S/NARA-111-SC-190834-S

The final obstacle, Cherbourg’s outer seawall.

10:10Colonel Smythe is personally escorting the Naval Commander out of the Arsenal.

Four hundred men followed their leader into captivity, bringing to an end organised resistance on the mainland. During the past two days resistance had crumbled as ten 1,000 prisoners had ignored Hitler’s order to hold Cherbourg to the last man.

Clearing the Breakwater

Once the mainland had been cleared, General Collins had to turn his attention to the forts protecting the outer harbour. Several sources had confirmed that the Germans had sown the harbour with mines:

‘West of Fort Chavanac, generally in a semi circle to the south, there are a string of mines electrically operated by an unknown civilian. He has instructions to set off these mines after the harbour is full of Allied shipping. All entrances to the harbour are heavily mined. A civilian diver reports that the harbours and outer breakwaters are extremely dangerous – mines, electronically operated and controlled – cannot be detected. Control points at Fort de l’Ouest and Fort Pelée. Heavy artillery positions on breakwaters.’

Although VII Corps was only hours away from freeing the port, it looked as though it would take weeks to clear the harbour for Allied shipping.

German soldiers occupied three Napoleonic forts, Fort l’Ouest, Fort Central and Fort l’Est on the two-mile long breakwater protecting Cherbourg’s outer harbour. Fort Chavagnac, the fortress protecting the western approaches had capitulated at the same time as the Arsenal. However, the fort on the eastern side of the harbour, Fort Ile de Pelée was still occupied by enemy troops.

Two metre thick walls made the structures virtually impervious from attack, and each of the five storeys (two above water and three below) were stacked with supplies of ammunition, food and water. The forts could hold out for weeks and General Collins would have to employ a careful balance of diplomacy and strength to encourage the Germans to surrender.

The French underground believed that Fort Ile de Pelée was the most susceptible to surrender due to its isolated position. On the afternoon of 27 June, Major Johnson of the 1/12th Regiment was given the task of taking the fort and while tank-destroyers tried to shell the garrison into submission Johnson’s men collected sailboats capable of crossing the mine-infested harbour.

As the barrage came to an end, Major Johnson and Colonel Jackson (the Battalion’s previous commander who had been badly burned a week earlier and was still swathed in bandages), made one final attempt to encourage the garrison to surrender. The two officers made their way along the narrow causeway carrying a fluorescent white panel and hailed the garrison through a loudspeaker. Several German officers came forward to talk and although the commanding officer was prepared to surrender the garrison, he refused to do so in daylight. The officer agreed to cross later that night at low tide when it was safer to navigate the minefield. It also meant that the garrison could be evacuated without being seen by the rest of the forts. Later that night his men were able to evacuate forty-five

Fort Ill de Pelée. NARA-111-SC-191500

German soldiers from Fort Ile de Pelée in rubber dinghies.

In the meantime Major Johnson watched for signs of life along the seawall from the roof of Fort du Flamands. Eventually a group of figures appeared on Fort l’Est and Johnson’s signal operator flashed repeatedly signally an ultimatum to surrender in Morse code. The Germans studied the signals and although three explosions were heard deep in the bowels of the fort there was no reply, (Johnson would later discover that no one could decipher the signals). There was still no sign of any white flags and as Johnson tried to re-establish contact with the forts, a salvo of shells from a company of 105mm howitzers brought the negotiations to an abrupt halt.

General Collins summoned Major-General Barton and Major Johnson to Fort de Querqueville and as the three watched, men of the 12th Regiment set sail across the harbour in rubber dinghies. Machine-gun fire sent them heading back for safety, leaving the three commanders no option, the forts would have to be shelled into submission. Throughout the night tank-destroyers, artillery and anti-tank guns lined up along the quayside to join in the bombardment. Fort Central burst into flames as one shell hit an ammunition store, but even the shells of the 155mm Long Tom howitzers failed to penetrate the walls of the three forts.

Warships closed in ready to shell the seawall and while Major Johnson’s men prepared to cross the harbour for a second time, General Collins arranged an attack by fighter-bombers timed to begin at 11:00am. As zero hour approached, soldiers began to emerge from Fort l’Ouest waving a white flag. It was too late to cancel the air strikes and as soon as planes appeared the Germans hurried inside. It looked as though an opportunity had been missed but as the dust settled, white flags appeared on the roof of Fort l’Est. An hour later Fort l’Ouest followed, bringing the battle for the seawall to an end.

Company A’s commander, Captain Glenn W Thorne, sailed across the harbour to Fort l’Ouest and as his men looked on, the garrison performed one final ceremony. Two ranks of German soldiers lined up and saluted their injured officer as he emerged from the fort. He later explained how a single shell splinter had pierced a gun aperture and damaged the fort’s generator rendering the control device for the minefield useless; the same splinter had also caused his own injuries.

General Collins explains to General Bradley how his men captured Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-191143

Cherbourg’s Liberation is complete

Although pockets of resistance still had to be cleared on the Cotentin Peninsula, General Collins decided to hold a liberation ceremony for the people of Cherbourg. At 16:00 a crowd of civilians gathered in the Place de la Republique and watched as their mayor accepted the freedom of the city:

‘It was a typically American scene, perhaps typical of Frenchmen as well as Americans. Several hundred American soldiers and officers were standing on the street and balconies around the square. These free soldiers far outnumbered the men in ranks and outnumbered the too few civilians, for Cherbourg was almost emptied of its population.’

The presentation of flags: here we see the Stars and Stripes. Also presented were the Royal Navy’s Ensign and the French Tricolour. NARA-111-SC-190745

A French Gendarme salutes the passing parade. NARA-111-SC-191033

A ceremonial band led the procession as the three divisional commanders marched into the square at the head of a platoon from each of their commands; VII Corps commander, General ‘Lightning’ Joe Collins came next:

[He] arrived in an M8 [armoured car], dismounted without ceremony, and greeted the mayor on the steps of the haggard Hotel de Ville. A large group of generals, staff officers and a few French officials were clustered around. Overhead floated the British, French and American flags... General Collins presented to the mayor a French flag made from American parachutes (the colour of blue was off, being a sea green). The mayor gave a brief speech, and then General Collins read a five-minute speech in excellent French, concluding with ‘Vivé la France’. Not satisfied with the vigour with which he had pronounced these words he repeated in a shout ‘Vivé la France.’ The small crowd gave its wholehearted applause... The band struck up a lively march. A young Frenchman across the square sprang into a lively Apache dance. The crowd closed around him, applauding. Those farther away ran towards this centre of interest. Then from all over the square the French men and women were running faster and more excitedly. American soldiers were shocked. The band and the dance stopped, the crowds dissolved. These people craved excitement and they had not had it.’

For many, the fact that they had been liberated was only just beginning to sink in. For four long years they had lived under the oppression of the German occupation. It would take a long time to restore their wrecked town to its former glory but they were free. The liberation of Europe was underway.

After four years of occupation Cherbourg is finally free. NARA-111-SC-191033

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