Military history


19 June – The opening attack

9th Division

Major-General Eddy’s plan was to advance from Carteret and St Jacques de Nèhou at first light seizing the high ground six miles to the north. 60th Regiment headed rapidly along the coast towards St Germain le Gaillard while 39th Regiment advanced quickly towards Rauville la Bigot. Meanwhile, four troops of the 4th Cavalry Group operated on the division’s right flank, maintaining contact with 79th Division’s advance.

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As General Eddy’s men pushed north, civilians were eager to point out that Germans had already fled during the night and the remnants of the 743rd and 91st Infantry Divisions were heading north for Cherbourg. Colonel Rohan and Colonel Smythe’s men found that few roads had been mined and many bridges had been left intact a sure sign that the withdrawal had been rapid. 39th Regiment reached Bricquebec on the right flank in less than an hour and quickly established that the Germans had abandoned the town leaving several hundred wounded behind in a field hospital; amongst the wounded were 150 US paratroopers, captured during the early stages the invasion.

The local population turn out to wave on their liberators on. NARA-111-SC-191016

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9th Division pushed quickly towards Les Pieux, while the rest of VII Corps encountered strong German resistance.

Confidence grew as the columns of troops headed north and news of the advance began to spread. In many villages the local population turned out in force to watch the GIs pass by, passing on useful information to their liberators. Several reports of a prisoner of war camp near the village of Le Vretot were quickly followed up and another 400 US Airborne troops were soon released and returned to their units.

39th Regiment’s reconnaissance troops made an interesting discovery as they approached the final objective. The body of Generalmajor Stegmann, commanding officer of the 77th German Infantry Division, was found in a wrecked staff car on the road to Les Pieux. He had been mortally wounded during an attack by an Allied plane as he tried to escape to the south.

By noon both 60th Regiment and 39th Regiment reported that they were on their objectives and the only resistance had been encountered on the division’s right flank. Troop A of the 4th Cavalry Group quickly crushed the German position on the outskirts of Rocheville with the assistance of tanks and assault guns. The only other signs of resistance were behind the division’s lines as groups of Germans cut off by the rapid advance emerged from their hiding places to attack supply columns. General Eddy ordered Colonel Harry A Flint to move his men into the Babeuf valley and from time to time 39th Regiment was called upon to round up the German stragglers; the largest group numbered over 300.

General Eddy was determined to take advantage of the German withdrawal but his first concern was to establish contact with 79th Division, which had been struggling to keep up on the east bank of the River Douve. While the division regrouped between St Germain le Galliard and Rauville la Bigot, General Collins made a battalion of the 90th Division, the 1/359th Infantry Regiment, available to cover the gap developing between the two divisions.

Motorised patrols scouting ahead failed to establish contact with the retreating Germans and when 9th Division resumed its march north, General Eddy ordered his two Colonels to move fast:

‘... keep going until dark and dig in. Keep following enemy up... Make objective right away. Push on. Do everything in the world to maintain communication.’

60th Regiment bypassed the village of Les Pieux and moved quickly along the coast, reaching the high ground around Helleville by nightfall, while 39th Regiment had occupied its objectives, St Christophe du Foc and Couville before midnight. 47th Regiment moved up from reserve and took up positions around Les Pieux, protecting the division’s left flank. Yet again, enemy resistance was virtually non-existent and attempts by German rearguards to delay General Eddy’s advance were quickly crushed by tanks and tank-destroyers.

9th Division’s advance had exceeded all expectations. It had covered over eight miles since first light and was closing in on the western outskirts of Festung Cherbourg. Overnight, as General Eddy planned his attack, a lieutenant of the French underground contacted his headquarters to pass on useful information about the German positions. Once his platoon of resistance fighters assembled, bringing over forty prisoners with them, the Frenchmen offered to help their liberators, acting as guides and working as interpreters amongst the local population.

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Medics of the 39th Regiment help a wounded prisoner in Briquebec. The Regiment’s motto was ‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, Bar None’ symbolised by the marking ‘AAAΘ’ as seen on the helmet on the right. NARA-111-SC-190710

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79th Division

General Wyche had divided his objectives between the 313th and 315th Infantry Regiments and again the emphasis was on speed. His orders to the Regimental commanders illustrate how the American troops were adapting to their tactics to deal with the difficult terrain conditions:

‘Mission – To take high ground north and west of VALOGNES in shortest possible time and to push at least one platoon per company to stream at same time. Prepare to meet counter attack at once, to take high ground by noon... Company COs advised to squirt BARs [light machineguns] into corners and to press forward under enemy fire... Engineers to blow new holes in hedgerows and assist. Company of tanks to be ready to be committed on regimental orders.’

Even though elements of the 77th Infantry Division had been identified opposite 79th Division’s front, General Wyche expected little resistance reporting that the enemy was weak for two miles beyond the Line of Departure’ and as the GIs moved off, they were prepared for a long advance: ‘No rolls, no packs, carry full canteens and D Bars.’

The majority were in action for the first time and wasted ammunition by firing indiscriminately into hedgerows at imaginary snipers and machine gun nests as they advanced along the narrow lanes.

313th Regiment covered four miles in an as many hours, while they maintained contact with 79th Reconnaissance Troop operating along the Douve River. Although civilians reported that German rearguards had stayed behind to slow down the American advance, few were seen as the Regiment approached Bois de la Brique. 1st Battalion sent Company C to investigate Négreville, but rather than finding enemy troops, they met a patrol of the 4th Cavalry who reported that the area was clear. The only signs of enemy activity were two 1,000lb bombs left behind to destroy the bridge across the River Douve.

It seemed as though the Germans were far ahead. However, as 313th Regiment drew close to its final objective, Colonel Stirling A Wood, began to hear reports that his men were coming under fire from the high ground west of La Brique. As firefights broke out all along the line, Colonel Wood called forward a company of tanks to assist his men. 1st Battalion was busy engaging the German troops on their front when trucks crammed with infantry were seen approaching. Lieutenant-Colonel Clair B Mitchell immediately called for assistance and the full weight of his supporting artillery battalion quickly destroyed the column. Despite the heavy resistance, Mitchell was able to report to Colonel Wood that his men were ‘having one hell of a fine fight!’

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An American Priest, self-propelled gun, provides covering artillery fire.

3rd Battalion’s leading companies were pinned down by strongpoints on the high ground south of La Brique and although armoured support had been requested, the tanks were having difficulty finding the infantry in the maze of hedgerows. Captain Hedges was on his way forward to locate the infantry headquarters when a burst of machine gun fire forced his jeep off the road, sending him diving for cover behind a wall. After radioing for help, two tanks located their leader, backing down several narrow lanes to reach him.

The German machine gun team melted away at the sight of the armour and Hedges was finally able to find 3rd Battalion’s headquarters. The infantry directed the two Shermans towards the enemy strongpoint but as the tanks drove forward, anti-tank guns opened fire at point blank range from concealed positions. With no room to manoeuvre, the two tank crews were trapped between the high hedgerows, forcing the tank commanders to fight it out. Shell after shell slammed into the Shermans as the tank crews returned fire and by the time rest of the Captain Hedges’ tanks reached the strongpoint, Sergeant Baird’s tank had been destroyed after being hit nine times and Sergeant McNeely’s had been disabled. They had, however, destroyed the anti-tank guns and the infantry manning the strongpoint had fled. For a second time, the sight of tanks closing in had broken the Germans’ will to fight and as darkness fell Colonel Wood’s battalions reached the high ground overlooking La Brique village and Bois la Brique.

315th Regiment had a similar experience to their sister Regiment and few Germans were seen during the early stages of the advance. Both 1st and 2nd Battalion came under small arms and mortar fire from a rearguard north of Urville. As Colonel Porter B Wiggins’ men prepared to crush the rearguard, the Germans launched an attack from Lieusaint endangering 2nd Battalion’s rear and attacking the Regiment’s supply vehicles. Neither battalion was in a position to counter the German assault and while Wiggins’ 3rd Battalion deployed to deal with the threat, General Wyche was forced to reconsider his plan.

313th Regiment had already reached its objectives but 315th Regiment was heavily engaged southwest of Valognes and still fighting enemy troops behind its lines. To relieve the pressure on his right flank, Wyche ordered Colonel Wood to advance into the Bois de la Brique, reinforcing 315th Regiment. 314th Regiment would move forward to take over 313th Regiment’s positions on the division’s left flank and push north towards the River Gloire. 314th Regiment had so far spent the day in reserve and some men had struggled to keep out of mischief while they waited and one battalion reported that, ‘French women were getting soldiers drunk and asking pertinent questions.’ Colonel Warren A Robinson eventually received news of the move late in the afternoon and General Wyche’s plan was to transport a battalion onto the high ground southwest of Croix Jacobs at the earliest opportunity. Despite the urgency, the change in orders took several hours to organize and by the time the fleet of lorries had found Robinson’s 2nd Battalion, it was growing dark. Unknown to General Wyche, Generalleutnant von Schlieben, the appointed General of the troops cut off on the Cotentin Peninsula, had already ordered a general withdrawal towards Cherbourg and by the time Lieutenant-Colonel Huff’s men dismounted close to their objective, the Germans had already withdrawn.

A ‘remodified’ Sherman.

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Strong German rearguards in Bois de la Brique prevented 79th Division cutting the highway north of Valognes.

A GI takes advantage of the delay to amuse a youngster.

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By nightfall 79th Division was holding the majority of its objective. Two Regiments had reached the River Gloire but 313th Regiment had been unable to cut the highway north of Valognes. Although General Wyche had every reason to be pleased that his men had performed well in their first battle, their inexperience meant that several battalions were running low on small arms and mortar ammunition. Throughout the night supply trucks ferried vital supplies to the front line, coming under fire from snipers and machine gun teams cut off by the advance. It would take many hours to round them all up.

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4th Division

On the right of VII Corps front, General Barton planned to advance before it was light, hopefully taking the Germans dug in either side of Montebourg by surprise. If possible Barton wanted his men to walk through the German front line before they could react. The divisional artillery had been ordered to hold their fire, only shooting when requested on specific targets to reduce the chance of casualties from ‘friendly fire’; regimental mortars would provide the covering barrage. As soon as 8th and 12th Regiments had occupied the high ground northwest of Montebourg, 22nd Infantry Regiment would send a battalion into the town to round up any German troops trapped in the ruins.

8th Regiment attacked the German positions southwest of the town, with the leading platoons hugging the line of bursting mortar shells as they advanced, so close in fact that the high explosive and white phosphorous shells ‘burnt their faces’.

Two platoons of 1st Battalion passed right through the German lines, a series of entrenchments along the railway line, and entered Lossiere before they were noticed. The Germans reacted rapidly and the rest of the battalion found themselves pinned down under heavy fire. As it grew light, Lieutenant-Colonel Conrad S Simmons realised that he would not be able to break the German position without armoured support and after recalling the two isolated platoons, pulled back the rest of his men to regroup. 2nd Battalion had more success to begin with and Company F had overrun several enemy positions along the railway, before the Germans began firing blindly into the darkness. Lieutenant John A Kulp advanced quickly, expecting the rest of the battalion to follow but by the time he had reached the objective only forty-five men remained; in the words of the After-Action Report, ‘the advance was so screwed up that Company F lost two platoons.’ The rest of Company F had taken cover in a sunken lane when the Germans opened fire and they were soon joined by Lieutenant John C Rebarchek, Company E’s commanding officer. Gathering the men together, Rebarchek led them forward expecting the rest of his company to follow but for a second time the column became lost in the dark.

4th Division’s initial attack either side of Montebourg failed; the Germans only withdrew when General Barton deployed his armoured support.

Lieutenant Rebarchek led the two platoons through the German front line, finding four anti-aircraft guns covering the Montebourg – Valognes highway. After moving close in the darkness, Rebarchek’s men charged the position, killing or capturing the crews, before moving on towards the battalion objective. Although Kulp was pleased to see Rebarchek, both officers wondered where the rest of their men were. Until now, neither had realised that they were cut off from the rest of the battalion. Unable to raise their headquarters, the two decided to dig in and wait. As it began to grow light the four platoons scraped out foxholes and looked anxiously to the south for their comrades.

The rest of his battalion was pinned down close to the railway line and when Lieutenant-Colonel Carlton O MacNeely heard the news he went forward only to discover that two of his company commanders were cut off behind the German lines. The Germans were holding slit trenches dug deep into the embankments of a sunken lane and, so far, Company E’s attempts to reach them had been stopped by heavy machine gun fire. In many places the German entrenchments were so close to 2nd Battalion’s lines that the 60mm mortars were unable to target them. In MacNeely’s words, ‘the Germans were dug in so deep that they couldn’t dig them out’. For a second time that morning Colonel James A Van Fleet heard one of his battalion commanders calling for armoured support.

12th Regiment encountered similar difficulties as it tried to advance through the German lines east of Montebourg aiming to reach Hill 110 and 119 before first light. 1st and 3rd Battalion ran into determined opposition along the railway. Two platoons of 1st Battalion entered the woods on the far side of the railway line before the Germans realised they were being attacked. Elsewhere the response was rapid and deadly. Mortars shelled predetermined points while machine guns put down a murderous crossfire, pinning down the two battalions. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles L Jackson was forced to recall his two platoons from their forward position and as the GIs withdrew to their Line of Departure to regroup, both of Colonel James S Luckett’s battalion commanders requested armour to break the deadlock.

As it began to grow light, the confusing situation along 4th Division’s front became clear: only two platoons had penetrated the German lines and they were they now cut off to the west of Montebourg. Along the rest of the division’s front, companies were regrouping but in places groups of men were too close to the enemy positions to withdraw. All four battalions in the front line needed armoured support to stand a chance of dislodging the Germans from their positions. The dilemma facing the two regimental commanders was how would they deploy their limited reserve of tanks?

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GIs escort civilians out of the battle zone. NARA-111-SC-190824

After consultation with the commander of Company B, 70th Tank Battalion, Colonel Van Fleet sent one platoon of tanks to 1st Battalion’s assistance and the sight of Sherman tanks moving into position was enough to break the Germans will to fight. Within the hour Lieutenant-Colonel Simmons was able to report that resistance had ended on his front. A second platoon was sent through the outskirts of Montebourg, outflanking the German positions in front of the 2nd Battalion. As the Shermans drew into position, Lieutenant-Colonel MacNeely ordered his men to advance, driving the Germans back and into the path of his two isolated platoons:

‘When Lieutenant Kulp and Lieutenant Rebarchek first saw the Germans approaching them from the rear they thought they were being counterattacked. They had already established an all round defence and his company shot down a large number of the fleeing enemy. Some of them were shot in the back as they moved backwards facing the pursuing troops.’

The two platoons of tanks had broken the main line of resistance and by nightfall all three of Colonel Van Fleet’s battalions were in position on the high ground between La Victoire and Huberville, to the northwest of Montebourg.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Luckett decided to use different tactics, placing the full weight of Company A, 70th Tank Battalion, behind his 1st Battalion to break the deadlock. Lieutenant-Colonel Jackson ordered his men to advance as soon as the Shermans were in position and once again the German infantry began to withdraw as the tanks approached. This time the withdrawal was orderly and Jackson’s men found themselves targeted by mortars and their enemy made skilful use of the hedgerows to try and isolate the Shermans from the infantry. Although the Germans had no armour of their own, Panzerfaust teams continually harried the advance as they tried to close in on the tanks.

Eventually, 1st Battalion secured the crest of Hill 110 where the GIs found to their cost that the hill drew fire from every artillery piece and Nebelwerfers in the area. Meanwhile, the company of Shermans headed back to break the deadlock on the right of 12th Regiment’s front. 3rd Battalion renewed their attack across the railway line once the tanks were in position and for the second time that day Company A’s Shermans advanced slowly through the narrow lanes while Lieutenant-Colonel Dulin’s men kept the German infantry at bay.

It was late afternoon by the time 3rd Battalion reached Hill 119, the second of 12th Regiment’s objectives. Even so, Colonel Luckett decided to push on to deny the Germans the chance of holding the high ground to his front. 2nd Battalion moved up from reserve and met little resistance as it cleared the summit of the hill (a second Hill 119) and, sensing that the Germans had withdrawn, Luckett decided to keep advancing. The gamble paid off and by nightfall 12th Regiment had occupied Anneville.

The initial resistance on 4th Division’s front had delayed General Barton’s plan to occupy Montebourg and 22nd Regiment’s 3rd Battalion moved into the town several hours later than expected. As the GIs made their way through the ruins initial concerns that German soldiers could be hiding came to nothing. A thorough search only produced thirty prisoners, some dressed in civilian clothes hoping to pass themselves off as locals. Despite the devastation wrought by days of shelling many of the local population had stayed behind:

‘About 300 of the civilian population emerged from cellars after the Americans entered although the town had been under heavy shelling for more than a week and was completely burned out.’

Once Montebourg had been cleared, 22nd Regiment moved forward onto the Quineville Ridge, extending the division’s right flank and established contact with the 24th Cavalry Squadron on the coast. The unexpected German withdrawal during the afternoon had allowed 4th Division to advance far beyond its original objectives and by midnight all three of General Barton’s Regiment’s were ready to renew the advance at first light.

US troops begin to move through the ruins of Montebourg. NARA-111-SC-191020

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