Military history

CHAPTER TWO

Sealing off the Cotentin Peninsula

As soon as 82nd Airborne Division and 9th Infantry Division had secured bridgeheads across the River Douve at St Sauveur-le-Vicomte and Ste Colombe, General Collins was ready to carry out the next phase of expanding the beachhead; a drive across the peninsula. Major-General Manton S Eddy was to send two Regiments across the river, while his third Regiment, the 39th, secured the Corps’ right flank around Biniville and Orglandes.

The attack opened on 17 June and 47th Regiment passed through 82nd Airborne’s bridgehead at St Sauveur-le-Vicomte, brushing aside small groups of German soldiers as it headed southwest. By nightfall Colonel George W Smythe’s leading battalion had reached Grande Huanville, cutting the road between Barneville-sur-Mer and la Haye du Puits and the last escape route from the peninsula. 60th Regiment advanced west from Ste Colombe and pushed quickly through Nehou towards the high ground around St Pierre d’Arth Église. Again there was little resistance and as it began to grow dark Colonel Frederick J de Rohan’s men could see the coastline ahead as they reached the summits of Hill 145 and 133. German resistance appeared to have collapsed and General Collins was anxious to keep moving throughout the hours of darkness in the hope of reaching the sea before dawn.

Major-General Manton Eddy.

General Eddy passed on the message to Colonel Rohan with the words ‘we’re going all the way tonight’ and the plan was for armour to drive Company K into Barneville-sur-Mer while the rest of 3rd Battalion occupied the ridge overlooking the town. At 22:00 five Shermans, four tank-destroyers and four halftracks loaded with infantry headed down to the sea. Although an antitank gun disabled one tank-destroyer en route, German resistance melted away and by first light the armoured column had seized the town, finding only a handful of military police. 9th Division’s lightning advance had cut the escape route from the peninsula in record time, leaving thousands of German troops cut of from the rest of Seventh Army.

Airborne troops pick their way through the ruins of Ste Sauveur-le-Vicomte. NARA-111-SC-190613

While 47th Regiment made its advance in to Barneville, columns of German troops tried to break through the American cordon to the east. Infantry surprised 1/39th Regiment’s bivouac north of St Jacques de Nehou during the night and as automatic fire ripped through the darkness, Lieutenant-Colonel Tucker’s men scrambled to take up their positions. With communications to the rear cut, Tucker ordered his men to retire as the machine guns gave covering fire. One by one his companies broke off contact, keeping the enemy at bay with bayonets and grenades. After several hours, Tucker’s radio contact with divisional headquarters was re-established, and as the full weight of available artillery and mortars joined in the battle, the German attack was crushed. When Tucker’s men pushed north to the River Seye, they found over 300 dead and wounded scattered around their bivouac area; their own losses totalled forty-five.

An attempt to breach 60th Regiment’s lines was completely smashed by artillery fire. 60th Field Artillery Battalion was called up when a column of infantry and artillery units was seen leaving Bricquebec heading for Barneville. Observers directed the guns, walking the barrage up and down the column of vehicles sending men running for cover. The deluge of shells destroyed dozens of lorries, halftracks, cars, motorcycles and weapons, and completely shattered the breakout attempt. Roadblocks composed of infantry and anti-tank guns dealt with many other small groups of German troops as they tried to break through 60th Regiment’s cordon. With the peninsula cut and the corridor secure, General Collins could turn his attentions towards Cherbourg. While 9th Division had driven towards the coast, VIII Corps, under Major-General Troy H Middleton, had taken over responsibility for First Army’s southern flank. VII Corps could now concentrate on moving north towards the port.

9th Division’s drive to the west coast cut off thousands of German troops on the Cotentin Peninsula.

39th Regiment advances through St Jacques de Nehou on their way to the coast.

Major-General Ira Wyche. NARA-111-SC-191299

General Eddy manoeuvred his three regiments into position on the west bank of the River Douve on 18 June while a new formation, Major-General Ira T Wyche’s 79th Division, moved into the centre of VII Corps’ line, east of the river. 4th Division had improved its positions on the east side of the peninsula and although shelling and bombing had reduced Montebourg to ruins, Major-General Barton was aware that German troops were preparing to hold the town. Sergeant Duncan, of the 4th Engineer Combat Battalion, took part in one of the patrols sent out to locate German strongpoints for the artillery:

‘I went up to about 300 yards from Montebourg and saw the Germans booby trapping all the windows in the houses and blocking the roads and also saw them storing ammunition in a corner building. They were bringing it in little carts and wheelbarrows. I saw an 88 by the bridge on the right side of the road and another on the left. I also saw them setting up two mortars on a little road off to the side. I started firing at the Germans bringing up the ammunition to the corner house. They scattered all over the place. The artillery opened up and they knocked large holes in the church steeple, wiped out the corner building with all the ammunition, knocked out the mortars and also one 88. He said he didn’t want to shell the other 88 as there were too many civilians around.’

A jeep lies wrecked on a road into Montebourg. NARA-111-SC-190605

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By nightfall on 18 June, observers reported little movement in Montebourg. It appeared that the Germans had finally moved out to concealed positions either side of the town, where patrols had encountered strong German positions. Estimates put the opposing strength between 1,000 and 1,500 men. Elements of the 2nd Battalion, German 729th Infantry Regiment, and the Sturm Battalion AOK 7, had already been identified dug in along the railway line and intelligence reports had reported the presence of the 2nd Battalion, 921st Regiment.

Heavily camouflaged German troops wait for the offensive to begin.

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