Military history

CHAPTER FOUR

20 June – The drive north

9th Division

Изображение выглядит как колесо9th Division began to move at first light with 60th Regiment leading. Colonel Rohan advanced north along the coast, looking to trap German troops assembling in the Cap de la Hague area. Again there was little to stop the advance and by midday 60th Regiment had reached the high ground south of Binville and 2nd Battalion began climbing onto the next ridge, Hill 170, ahead of schedule. Unexpectedly, a message from divisional headquarters threw Colonel Rohan’s plans into disarray: General Eddy had arranged for the Air Force to bomb Hill 170. Lieutenant-Colonel Kauffman’s men were in danger of reaching the target zone too early; 2nd Battalion would have to wait and use yellow smoke when the aircraft approached to indicate friendly troops. The frustration displayed in Colonel Rohan’s message is evident:

‘White [2nd Battalion] wants to know what is going on.

An M7 Priest 105mm self-propelled howitzer heads north.

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Pulled back and men now disorganised. Wants to know why he moved back and what shall we do? Will reorganise and sit tight.’ 60th Regiment’s position was far from ideal and 2nd Battalion came under fire from enemy artillery on the high ground to the north. Hedgerows were few and far between on the coastline and Rohan’s men cursed the delay as they dug in and waited for the air strikes to begin.

47th Regiment had followed behind 60th Regiment’s right flank along the coast, turning northeast at the Bois de Néretz towards Hill 171 and Bois du Mont du Roc, the huge wood covering the summit. General Eddy wanted Colonel Smythe to advance quickly up the hill, and he had arranged for Corps Artillery to shell the Regiment’s objectives. So far aerial reconnaissance had not seen any signs of activity on the lower slopes of Hill 171 and 47th Regiment was expected to advance quickly to the Houelbecq stream before it deployed. It was an ambitious plan based on the assumption that the Germans had withdrawn to the summit of the hill and General Eddy was hoping that his men could break the position before the enemy had organised their defence.

In fact the Germans had built a series of camouflaged outposts on the forward slopes of Hill 171 and 2nd Battalion came under fire from Crossroads 114 as it bypassed Acqueville to the south. The gunfire sounded the alarm and before long both of Smythe’s battalions were under ‘severe artillery, mortar and small arms fire’ as they moved towards the Houelbecq stream.

Hidden positions on the slopes of Hill 171 brought the advance to an abrupt halt.

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The strength of the German position had taken General Eddy by surprise and while his headquarters tried to reorganise the artillery support to shell the German outpost line, the two battalions struggled to deploy. 2nd Battalion was pinned down astride the road in front of Crossroads 114 and the GIs sought cover in the hedgerows and ditches. An 88mm shell struck the battalion command post killing both the battalion commander and the artillery liaison officer, also wounding Company F’s commander and a number of radiomen and runners. Meanwhile, strongpoints on the far side of the Houelbecq stream blocked any chance of outflanking Crossroads 114.

Colonel Smythe was forced to concede defeat and as his men withdrew to a safe distance, General Eddy considered the implications of the setback. He had originally wanted 39th Regiment to secure the division’s right flank, until 79th Division had moved up. It would have then joined 47th Regiment in the centre of the division’s line, ready to assault Flottemanville-Hague position. However, the discovery of the German outpost line had seriously disrupted 9th Division’s plan and as long as 47th Regiment remained pinned down, 39th Regiment could not deploy.

Meanwhile, 60th Regiment waited in vain for the Air Force to show up and when the advance finally resumed, Colonel Rohan’s men encountered strong German positions covering Ste Croix Hague. During the evening, General Eddy instructed Colonel Rohan to prepare to join the rest of the division, leaving one battalion to cover Cap de la Hague. Colonel Rohan was concerned by the change in orders and as German attacks against his flank increased, he called for support:

‘The situation will leave nothing to my rear. I’ll do the best with what I’ve got. General says keep pushing.’

General Eddy had no other reserves in the area; the rest of the division was either engaged or too far away to assist. The right flank of 9th Division had already come up against Festung Cherbourg. There would be no more rapid advances.

79th Division

General Wyche was anxious to clear Bois de la Brique at first light so that the right flank of his division could join the advance. German resistance in the woods had, so far, prevented 79th Division from reaching the Cherbourg highway northwest of Valognes and once the road had been cut 313th Regiment could begin to push north alongside 4th Division. 314th Regiment’s objective was Hardinvast to the northwest and while the rest of the division followed the German withdrawal north, 315th Regiment would stay behind to cover Valognes until 4th Division had cleared the ruins.

313th Regiment led the advance into La Brique village and found that the Germans had destroyed the bridge over the Gloire stream. The infantry waded across, leaving behind a queue of tanks and support vehicles and as engineers set to work on a new crossing, using bulldozers to clear the banks of the stream to make a ford, Colonel Wood’s men pushed on alone. Fortunately, the Germans had withdrawn the previous night and, after reaching St Joseph, 2nd Battalion headed north along the Cherbourg highway, finding four abandoned German light tanks and a 88mm gun at Hau du Long.

The local population looks on as tanks and infantry head north for Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-191012

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The Germans had demolished a culvert just beyond the village, blocking the main highway, and for a second time the infantry had to leave their vehicles behind as they waded across. The steep sides of the stream made it impossible to create a ford and as Colonel Robinson’s men headed north the engineers started work on two temporary bridges; one for the infantry’s support weapons and the second capable of carrying tanks. As the bulldozers set about cutting approach ramps into the stream banks, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell, 1st Battalion’s commanding officer, arrived on the scene with a truckload of timber ‘acquired’ in La Brique. The German front line was not far away and Mitchell wanted his men to have armoured support as soon as possible.

The first signs of the enemy were encountered near Samson. Long range machine gun and artillery fire forced 2nd Battalion to deploy into the fields either side of the road. The advance had slowed to a crawl and, as the hours passed, Colonel Wood began to wonder where the Germans would make their stand. The answer came during the early afternoon. As 2nd Battalion approached Delasse, five miles from their Line of Departure, the Germans revealed their positions:

‘... the entire column was brought under fire by 88mm laying directly down the road. The entire forward group lay in the ditches for approximately one and one half hours sheltering from continuous shelling of the road.’

The 88s had turned the road into a death trap and while the men at the head of the column scraped out foxholes under hedgerows, the rest of the Regiment fanned out into the fields to try and locate the enemy positions.

While Colonel Wood’s men crept along the hedgerows looking for the 88s around Delasse, the tanks faced a series of frustrating delays. After completing the bridge at Hau du Long, the engineers had to clear a series of craters blocking the road with their bulldozers and by the time the Shermans reached 313th Regiment, daylight was fading. The infantry had failed to locate the 88mm gun positions, leaving Colonel Wood no options; he would have to wait until first light before he could use his tanks.

On 79th Division’s left flank, 314th Regiment had deployed on the north bank of the Gloire stream, extending the division’s front west to the Douve River. All three of Colonel Robinson’s battalions headed northwest. The Germans had withdrawn, destroying bridges as they fell back, and yet again the advance was delayed as the engineers built temporary crossings over the many streams which criss-crossed the lanes leading to Hardinvast and Tollevast.

After passing through Croix Jacobs 2nd Battalion came across four American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division. Their planes had dropped them fifteen miles from the intended target during the early hours of 6 June and for the past two weeks they had hidden in the woods. The paratroopers reported that German units had been heading north for the past twenty-four hours, confirming that the area ahead was clear of enemy troops. Meanwhile, 3rd Battalion found stacks of abandoned equipment near Brix, eight 88mm and two 40mm anti-aircraft guns had also been left behind. The battalion also discovered a V1 rocket complex, (referred to by the American troops as a ‘Buzz Bomb’ or ‘Crossbow’ site), comprising bunkers, shelters and concrete launch ramps in the woods south of the village.

American troops inspect a V1 launch site. NARA-111-SC-191169

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An anti-tank gun crew set up a roadblock near a wrecked German tank-destroyer. NARA-111-SC-190610

Throughout the spring of 1944 German engineers had built a number of rocket installations on the Cotentin Peninsula and as the Allies prepared to invade Normandy V1 ‘flying bombs’, one of Hitler’s terror weapons, began to target the south coast of England. After reporting the news of to divisional headquarters Colonel Robinson ordered his men to push on.

British Commandos of 30 Assault Unit Royal Marines, a unit specialised in collecting intelligence, came forward to investigate the camouflaged installation. A detailed survey, led by an RAF Intelligence officer, Flight Lieutenant David Nutting, followed and within hours the results were being flown back to Allied Bomber Command headquarters in England. For the first time aerial observers had first hand information on the layout of a V1 site and they could use the information to pinpoint similar sites across France and the Low Countries.

1st Battalion came across, what they assumed to be, four abandoned tanks as it approached Haumeau du Long, but as Company A went forward to investigate, the panzer crewmen emerged from their billets. Upon seeing the Americans they began running towards their Panzer IVs. However, a burst of automatic fire served to convince the Germans to surrender and they were quickly rounded up.

All three of Colonel Robinson’s battalion commanders reported an increase in German activity as they approached Hardinvast and Tollevast and as daylight began to fail, General Wyche ordered 314th Regiment to halt. He was anxious to avoid repeating 313th Regiment’s experience and while patrols probed the German positions, roadblocks were established to guard against counterattacks. Careful reconnaissance was needed before the advance towards Cherbourg continued.

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4th Division

General Barton knew nothing of the German withdrawal towards Cherbourg and planned to advance towards Bois du Coudray and Tamerville at first light with all three of his regiments. 12th Regiment quickly established that the enemy had fled, abandoning the high ground north of Saussemesnil and moved into reserve as the rest of the division pushed north. 8th Regiment also found that the Germans had abandoned their positions and once the rest of the Regiment had cleared the area north of Valognes, 1st Battalion sent two patrols into the ruins to search for enemy troops. Although the patrols reported that the Germans had fled, the Allied bombardment had completely destroyed Valognes, blocking many of the roads with huge piles of rubble. It would take several days to clear a way through the debris and in the meantime, VII Corps’ supply lines would have to rely on the side roads bypassing the town.

The burnt out ruins of Valognes church. NARA-111-SC-190751

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As soon as the German withdrawal had been confirmed, VII Corps took to the roads. NARA-111-SC-191443

General Barton was concerned that his division was falling behind the rest of VII Corps as it pushed north into the void left by the German withdrawal and ordered Colonels Van Fleet and Tribolet to take to the roads. Reports that General Eddy was already engaging the German fortifications west of Cherbourg were starting to spread and some thought that their own General wanted to reach the port first.

‘Rumour has it that the 9th [Division] is within artillery range of Cherbourg. I guess Division Commander Barton is worried that somebody will beat the 4th to Cherbourg.’

8th Regiment’s only encounter with the enemy occurred north of Saussemesnil. Machine gun fire raked a patrol of the Reconnaissance platoon as it drove past a farm, wrecking a jeep. The surviving officer ran back to warn 2nd Battalion about the danger ahead and once Lieutenant Dooley had deployed his men into the fields they worked their way behind the farmhouse. As Dooley’s men fired their weapons and threw grenades through the windows, a tank crept forward along the road firing shells into the farm buildings and setting fire to the barn. Eventually, three Germans crawled from the ruins with their hands up and although there was no sign of the machine gun, there was no time to carry out a thorough search. Dooley could see the rest of the battalion backed up along the road but as he ordered his men to resume advance, the owner of the farm came forward:

‘A Frenchman, very excited, tried to tell them something, but Dooley thought he was just upset about the burning of his barn.

Later he heard that twenty Germans were in the burning barn.’ 3rd Battalion’s first encounter with the enemy was a line of outposts covering the crossroads south of Ruffosses and in spite of heavy artillery fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Strickland’s companies were able to deploy into the fields and press home their attack. 2nd Battalion advanced alongside and the two battalions had cleared the village and the woods to the north before nightfall.

General Barton had been unable to keep in contact with his regiments for long periods as they advanced but by nightfall he was pleased to hear that his men had advanced over eight miles during the day. 22nd Regiment was close to Le Thiel on the right of the division and although his 8th Regiment had failed to reach Hill 178, it was ready to renew the attack at first light. General Barton was also pleased to hear that Bois du Rondou, a large wood in the centre of the division’s sector, appeared to have been abandoned by the enemy. Although the division had only encountered the German outposts, as 20 June came to a close, General Barton was poised to attack the main belt of fortifications southeast of Cherbourg.

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