Military history


The Final Pockets of Resistance

Maupertus Airport and Cap Lévy

Hill 158 had been held by 22nd Regiment since 21 June, protecting 4th Division’s right flank from the German forces positioned around Maupertus airfield. For four days the Regiment had fought to keep its supply line open using tanks to escort soft vehicles along the road to Le Thiel. Once 12th Regiment reached the coast east of Cherbourg, Major-General Barton was able to turn his attentions to clearing the northeast corner of the Cotentin Peninsula where over 2,000 of the enemy had gathered at Maupertus airfield and Cap Lévy. On the evening of 25 June Colonel Robert T Foster (22nd Regiment’s new commander), ordered his battalions to turn east to prepare to capture the airfield. Although the Cherbourg garrison had capitulated, the men at Maupertus were prepared to fight on:

‘Instructions previously issued by the German commander had designated the airport as a centre of a last ditch resistance, all German soldiers who might be separated from their units were directed to make their way to the airport. The prisoners finally taken in this area had a high percentage of young Nazis. This sector was the most highly fortified area in the peninsula.’

22nd Regiment attacked the airfield on the morning of 26 June, encountering heavy fire from the cordon of anti-aircraft batteries built to protect the airstrip. Progress was slow, 22nd Regiment had lost many of its anti-tank guns and mortars over the past week and replacements had been hard to come by. Foster’s infantry had come to rely on 44th Field Artillery Battalion for close support and over the past week the GIs had learnt many lessons:

‘... all the troops had learned the value of manoeuvring. A platoon would no longer butt their heads straight in against an enemy strong point. When they run into heavy opposition now they move around a flank and get on commanding ground where they can look down the throat of an enemy. All of the old men have become so conscious of the value of communication that whenever one of them sees a broken wire he will immediately crawl up and repair it... all of the old men learned how to observe for enemy fire. Men who spotted a hostile gun would take an azimuth reading from high ground or some other definite terrain feature then would move back to another identifiable feature and take a compass reading, then would gallop back to the artillery observer and say to him “this is where it is”.’

The German positions were cleared one by one and by nightfall 3rd Battalion had captured Maupertus village, overrunning the AA batteries on the north side of the airfield. 2nd Battalion captured a heavily guarded battery of 40mm anti-aircraft guns on the western perimeter, while 1st Battalion cleared Gonneville and closed in on the southern edge of the airstrip. The remaining Germans around Maupertus capitulated the following morning.

Colonel Foster now had to turn his attentions to Cap Lévy where over 1,000 German troops had gathered to man the coastal batteries, including one of the largest on the peninsula, Fort Hamburg. The only consolation was that the batteries main armament were pointing out to sea. Even so, Foster’s men faced a network of pillboxes, entrenchments and flak guns:

‘This was the most highly fortified area encountered in the whole peninsula. The position around the 200 foot radar tower contained twenty bunkers, each of which had three or four rooms. There was a large underground mess hall, which accommodated 500 men; elaborate periscopes covered all that position of the peninsula to the coast and permitted the numbers to be read on ships at sea. They were elaborate, extremely efficient fire control devices.’

A ring of bunkers and trenches protected Fort Hamburg. NARA-111-SC-191501

As 3rd Battalion turned north and advanced towards the position it came under fire from anti-aircraft guns around the Napoleonic Fort at Cap Lévy. Captain Blassard, Company L’s commanding officer, crawled forward onto a promontory overlooking the fort and radioed the coordinates to 44th Field Artillery Battalion. After a few salvoes, white flags appeared and Blassard went forward to meet the commandant of the fort, Major Kauppers. Later that evening Colonel Teague accepted the formal surrender of Cap Lévy and when Kauppers was asked why he had capitulated so quickly, he replied, ‘Panzers to the right of me, panzers to the left of me, panzers in front of me, troops everywhere.’

Nearly 300 German soldiers were taken prisoner and as it was too late to evacuate them, Colonel Teague ordered them to assemble in the fort’s mess hall:

‘The prisoners requested that they be allowed to return to their bunkers for their blankets. Colonel Teague refused, but allowed them to go to the mess hall and remain there for the night, unguarded. Major Kauppers was a ‘decent Joe’ and he entertained the American officers with beer and cheese. He [Colonel Teague] wanted to be sure that the rest of the fortifications stayed surrendered and didn’t start raising hell again the next day.’

Fort Hamburg refused to capitulate until the following morning; 990 men eventually surrendered to Colonel Teague, bringing resistance on the northeast tip of the peninsula to an end.

Cap de la Hague

During the final stages of the attack on Cherbourg, 60th Regiment had been keeping a watchful eye on the enemy troops on Cap de la Hague. Intelligence suggested that over 3,000 troops, organised into two Kampfgruppen led by Oberstleutnant Mueller and Oberstleutnant Keil, had gathered there. Despite continued shelling and air attacks they appeared to be preparing to make a stand. 919th and 922nd Regiments formed the backbone of the German forces, but, many of the troops trapped in the peninsula were artillery and service personnel with dubious fighting qualities. Reports from prisoners and civilians indicated that morale was low and General Eddy intended to use pamphlets and public address systems to entice as many as possible to surrender.

Colonel Rohan’s men had reconnoitred the positions covering Hainneville, Ste Croix-Hague and Vauville, but once American troops had started to enter the city the Germans had fallen back to a shorter line between Querqueville and Branville. 60th Regiment followed, taking over 300 prisoners, three 88s and a battery of 105mm guns.

Following the fall of the Arsenal on the morning of 27 June, 47th Regiment moved up alongside 60th Regiment and as Colonel Smythe’s men moved into Hainneville, P47 fighter-bombers targeted suspected enemy strongholds around Querqueville, Gruchy, Nacqueville and Jobourg. The Germans evacuated Querqueville soon afterwards and as Smythe’s 2nd Battalion moved in to investigate, they came across 300 soldiers wishing to surrender. The fighter-bombers returned the following day and their attacks against the coastal batteries and Beaumont-Hague, paved the way for 9th Division’s advance.

60th Regiment found that its first objective, Branville-Hague, had been abandoned but as Colonel Rohan’s men advanced on Beaumont-Hauge they found that the Germans were preparing to make a stand. An anti-tank ditch barred the way and as 1st Battalion approached the road junction south of the village carefully concealed positions opened fire:

‘B and C advanced about 300yds, C about 300 yards short of B. C Company said they can hold where they are, he is down in a gully. Tough from the left flank, tank fire or something and machine gun fire, things were fine for 300yds then ran into trouble. Fired all artillery we can fire. A Company on the right to try and get up to B.

As 1st Battalion engaged the strongpoint, 3rd Battalion attacked the German line north of the highway. The infantry worked their way forward pinpointing enemy positions for their tanks and artillery. The Germans retaliated. Launching a counterattack supported by tanks, and with the help of artillery fire Colonel Rohan’s men held their positions. As darkness fell it was obvious that the two battalions had failed to break the German positions and neither of them were able to break off contact.

47th Regiment found that the Germans had withdrawn along the north coast, evacuating Urville-Nacqueville to take up positions east of Gréville-Hague. 3rd Battalion followed finding it a struggle to make headway along the rugged coastline: ‘Road network is poor – there is congestion of vehicles on the road – they are narrow and there is danger of mines.’

The Germans had occupied a ridge overlooking the coast road but as 3rd Battalion advanced up the hill, the majority fled. After clearing the outlying trenches Companies K and L came under heavy fire from three anti-tank guns and a number of machine guns. A heavy artillery concentration shattered the Germans’ morale and once the last round of smoke had been fired 3rd Battalion charged the position, taking sixty prisoners.

Colonel Smythe had heard conflicting reports about the positions guarding Gréville-Hague. Civilians reported that they were strongly held, but prisoners believed that the garrison was low on ammunition. An appeal to surrender produced twenty prisoners but patrols could still see signs of movement in the village. Smythe postponed the attack until the morning and during the course of the night a patrol captured thirty prisoners. They were able to confirm that their comrades had slipped away leaving Gréville-Hague unoccupied.

9th Division’s final attack on Beaumont Hague and Gréville Hague.

At first light on 29 June, Colonel Rohan’s 2nd Battalion was in position ready to turn the flank of the German line covering Beaumont-Hauge. Company E had to wait for an hour while engineers filled in an anti-tank ditch and by the time the advance began, the artillery smoke screen had faded away. Captain Sprindus and Lieutenant Cookson (the only two surviving company officers) led their men across a minefield under heavy fire. 1st and 2nd Platoon charged straight at the German strongpoint allowing 3rd Platoon to slip unseen into Beaumont-Hague via a streambed. The sight of American troops in the village, behind their lines, led the Germans to believe that their line had been broken. Company F took advantage of the confusion caused and entered the village accompanied by Sherman tanks.

Meanwhile, 47th Regiment overran, or destroyed by artillery, machine gun posts and mortar positions around Gréville-Hague and Hameau Gruchy. Once the two villages had been cleared, resistance began to crumble allowing Colonel Smythe to push west towards Cap de la Hague. The fall of Beaumont-Hague signalled the collapse of German morale opposite 60th Regiment’s front and by nightfall Jobourg, three miles to the west, had fallen.

Ambulances move in while infantry clear the ruined streets of a burning village. NARA-111-SC-190403

The Germans pressed every shape and size of gun into action. NARA-111-SC-191314

German soldiers comtemplate their future in a prisoner of war camp. NARA-111-SC-190978

General Eddy wanted to finish clearing the peninsula as quickly as possible but when he heard that the German officers were refusing to let their men lay down their arms, he decided to take the peninsula by force. Later that evening a company of tank-destroyers and a reconnaissance platoon joined the 3/39th Regiment, motorised for the occasion. Under cover of darkness the column set off towards Auderville on the tip of the peninsula. Hundreds of soldiers surrendered along the way and by dawn Lieutenant-Colonel Stumpf was able to report that he had cleared the village and captured the German commander Oberst Keil. ‘Everything here gave up, Germans are just sitting around awaiting to be taken.’

The rest of 9th Division had spent the night mopping up their respective areas, taking over 3,000 prisoners. It brought the total taken to 6,000; double the initial estimate. The amount of ordnance discovered on the peninsula was also staggering: two railway guns, four 155mm howitzers, five 88s, two 47mm and ten 20mm flak guns were taken.

The Aftermath

At 15:00 on 1 July 1944, General Eddy reported that resistance had ended on Cap de la Hague Peninsula, bringing the Cherbourg campaign to a close. It was D+25, four days later than planned but the delay was far less than Hitler had expected. He had ordered General von Schlieben to fight to the last man, yet 20,000 had surrendered, the majority in the final hours of the battle. VII Corps casualties in the thirteen-day campaign were over 8,800 men killed, wounded or missing; the German losses were far higher. The combination of infantry, armour, artillery and air attacks coupled with aggressive, and sometimes daring, tactics had overcome one of the strongest sections of the Atlantic Wall. Many of the lessons learnt on the Cotentin Peninsula, in particular the specialised tactics required to advance through the ‘bocage’ countryside, would be used time and time again in the Normandy campaign.

The capture of Cherbourg was a relief for General Eisenhower and Allied Supreme Headquarters. NARA-111-SC-19115

Life returns to normal, the first open market in Cherbourg NARA-111-SC-191243

Hitler’s recriminations came quickly. General von Schlieben, (now on his way across the English Channel into captivity), was denounced for his poor leadership of the troops under his command at Cherbourg. General Gerd von Rundstedt was ordered to court martial General Friedrich Dollmann, Seventh Army’s commander, for his failure to drive the Americans back into the sea. However, on 29 June, as American troops were clearing the streets of Cherbourg, Dollmann died of a heart attack; General von Rundstedt was removed from his post a few days later.

The capture of the port was a relief for the Allied Supreme Headquarters. Elsewhere on the Normandy front the advance inland was progressing far slower than expected. VIII Corps was experiencing its own difficulties in coming to terms with the Normandy ‘bocage’ around St Lô, while the British and Canadians were bogged down in front of Caen to the east. Now that VII Corps had cleared the Cotentin Peninsula, General Bradley could concentrate on breaking the German line to the south. 79th Division and 4th Division were already on their way, leaving the defence of Cherbourg to 101st Airborne Division, 9th Division would soon follow. Although the Cherbourg campaign was over, it was only the beginning of the liberation of Northwest Europe.

Throughout the weeks that followed engineers worked continuously to repair Cherbourg’s port facilities, destroyed in the final hours of the battle, while navy divers cleared mines and obstacles from the harbour. By the end of the summer ships and amphibious craft of every shape and size were sailing into the port, bringing men, equipment and materials for the advance across northern France. At long last the Allies’ reliance on the temporary harbour at Arromanches for supply had ended.

Weary troops of the 79th Division head south to their next battle NARA-111-SC-191372

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