Military history


21 June – Sealing off the port

The German Plan

While VII Corps advanced into the void left by the German retreat, General von Schlieben was reorganising his troops to defend the inland approach to Cherbourg. Although the Atlantic Wall was designed to repel an invasion from the sea, Hitler had given orders to protect the ports along the coast of France and the Low Countries from an inland attack. Over the preceding four years Organisation Todt had covered the ring of hills surrounding the port with a belt of pillboxes, entrenchments and wire. Anti-tank ditches and steep sided streams, designed to funnel the American troops towards minefields, both real and dummy, restricted the way forward for tanks. Concealed artillery pieces and mortars supported the German infantry while anti-tank guns covered the narrow lanes. Anti-aircraft batteries, comprising 88mm, 40mm and 20mm flak guns, had been positioned on the hills overlooking Cherbourg and they were all capable of being used in a ground role.

Rolling hills provided the German engineers with an ideal basis for their defensive perimeter and large parts of the Cotentin Peninsula were covered with small fields, each one surrounded by high embankments topped by thick hedgerows:

‘Perhaps the most striking feature of the terrain was the hedgerows; those countless, centuries old mounds of earth, stone and underbrush bordering cultivated fields, orchards and roads, which were utilised with desperate ingenuity by the veteran enemy troops.’

The local name for the patchwork of hedgerows was bocage, a name later associated with the intense fighting throughout Normandy. In many areas the attacking troops would have to thread their way through a maze of narrow lanes and thick hedgerows, while the troops protecting the port watched their every move from their camouflaged positions.

The German troops found a ready-made defensive system as they neared Cherbourg and Lee McCardell, war correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, inspected one of the German positions after it had been captured. His report gives an insight into the ingenuity of the German engineers:

‘The so called pillboxes in the first line of German defences which the 79th Division assaulted in the attack on Cherbourg were actually inland forts with steel and reinforced concrete walls four or five feet thick. Built into the hills of Normandy so their parapets were level with the surrounding ground, the forts were heavily armed with mortars, machine guns and 88mm guns – this last, the Germans’ most formidable piece of artillery. Around the forts lay a pattern of smaller defences, pillboxes, redoubts, rifle pits, sunken well-like mortar emplacements permitting 360 degree traverse, observation posts and other works enabling the defenders to deliver deadly crossfire from all directions. Approaches were further protected by minefields, barbed wire and anti-tank ditches at least twenty feet wide at the top and twenty feet deep. Each strongpoint was connected to the other and all were linked with the mother fort by a system of deep, camouflaged trenches and underground tunnels. The forts and pillboxes were fitted with periscopes; telephones tied in all defences. Entrance to these forts is from the rear, below ground level, through double doors of steel armour plate which defending garrisons clamped shut behind them. The forts were electrically lighted and automatically ventilated. Below a casemated gallery in which the guns were located firing through narrow slits, were two underground bomb proof levels packed almost solidly with cases of canned food, artillery shells and belted ammunition for machine guns.’

General von Schlieben had deployed his commanders in sectors they were already familiar with and Kampfgruppen Mueller, formed from the remnants of 243rd Division, held the high ground west of Cherbourg. Oberstleutnant Franz Mueller’s men had watched closely from Hill 171 and Flottemanville-Hague as 9th Division stumbled on the line of outposts covering the Houelbecq stream. Oberstleutnant Guenther Keil, with 919th Regiment and the 17th Machine Gun Battalion, manned a series of entrenchments and pillboxes covering Bois du Mont du Roc and the Divette valley. Further to the east, Kampfgruppen Koehn, formed around the remnants of 739th Regiment, held the hills either side of the Trobecque stream in front of 79th Division and the left flank of 4th Division. Meanwhile, 729th Regiment held the fortifications to the east of Cherbourg covering Bois du Coudray and Maupertus Airfield. Oberst Helmuth Rohrbach’s command had been severely mauled as it disengaged from 4th Division around Montebourg and many of the battalions had already been reduced to fewer than 200 men.

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An aerial view of a German gun casemate; trenches and dugouts surround the position. NARA-111-SC-191499

As VII Corps drew near to Cherbourg, General von Schlieben had given orders to arm every available man in the port to bolster the Kampfgruppen on hills around the city. As General Collins’ men prepared to attack the German positions, air force personnel, headquarters staff, naval personnel and miscellaneous rear echelon troops joined the German infantry as they waited for the assault to begin. However, while von Schlieben had reinforced the Cherbourg Landfront, he advised Seventh Army headquarters that the morale of some of his troops was suspect, and and noted that,

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US soldiers inspect a French Renault tank that had been commandeered by the Germans. NARA-111-SC-190743

‘Good treatment of prisoners on the part of the enemy is very dangerous.’

As VII Corps drew close to Festung Cherbourg it would become apparent that hardened fanatics held some strongpoints, meanwhile, some German soldiers and men recruited from conquered territories were willing to surrender at the first opportunity. It was a volatile mixture, one that would cause problems for both sides in the battle for the port.

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On 21 June American patrols reported a strong belt of fortifications surrounding Cherbourg.

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Civilians make their way past a German Wespe self-propelled gun as they flee the fighting. NARA-111-SC-190510-S

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9th Division

Having established that Kampfgruppen Keil’s outpost line was along the forward slopes of Hill 171, General Eddy was forced to alter his plans. 39th Regiment would take over 4th Cavalry’s position on the right flank of the division, contacting 79th Division across the Divette stream. 4th Cavalry would then move across to the left flank to relieve 60th Regiment in front of Ste Croix-Hague. The previous day’s encounter had proved that Kampfgruppen Mueller was too strong for a single Regiment and General Eddy intended to screen the Cap de la Hague peninsula while his division concentrated on attacking Cherbourg.

On 60th Regiment’s front, Colonel Rohan was determined to clear the enemy positions around Ste Croix-Hague before handing over the area to the 4th Cavalry, but as 1st Battalion patrolled Hill 170, 88mm anti-tank weapons started targeting the battalion area. 2nd Battalion came under heavy fire as it advanced onto the high ground south of Ste Croix-Hague:

60th Regiment failed to break the German line covering Ste Croix-Hague

‘Artillery set fire to one tank and shrapnel another. Camouflage net set on fire. It’s OK. Germans have zeroed in on us and we can’t move. Are going to patrol and try and find trail up at night. Can’t advance during the day.’

Lieutenant-Colonel Kauffman’s request for assistance was refused; already 3rd Battalion had become heavily engaged as it probed Kampfgruppen Keil’s line west of Flottemanville-Hague,

‘Having a hot time here now. Have a new gun on us and don’t know where it is coming from.’

2nd Battalion had to push towards Ste Croix-Hague alone but as it tried to infiltrate a wood covering the village a hidden strongpoint opened fire. For a second time Lieutenant-Colonel

Kauffman was in difficulty:

‘None of our patrols can get in; I get wounded men on every try. Enemy one hedgerow in front of me; can’t send patrols through will have to find a hole in the side to get through. This is definitely an enemy strongpoint. Will lose a lot of lives if I try to bust through an enemy strongpoint here.’

With no reserves to envelop the position, Colonel Rohan ordered Kauffman to withdraw and later that evening 4th Cavalry took over the line in front of Ste Croix-Hague. It would be over a week before VII Corps could to turn its attentions towards Cap de la Hague.

On 9th Division’s right flank, 39th Regiment had manoeuvred into position by noon and as it advanced towards Valtot civilians and prisoners freely gave information about the enemy positions ahead. Colonel Flint was hoping to find 4th Cavalry holding Le Ferrange, but as 2nd Battalion advanced they found that the Germans had destroyed the only bridge crossing a railway cutting; it meant that 39th Regiment would have to advance without armoured support.

2nd Battalion crossed the railway only to find that the Germans were waiting on the far side and while machine guns and Nebelwerfers targeted Lieutenant-Colonel Gunn’s men, Colonel Flint called up his 3rd Battalion to envelop the enemy positions. Lieutenant-Colonel Stumpf’s battalion faced similar difficulties as it tried to reach Le Ferrange, coming under heavy fire from the opposite side of the Divette valley. As the two battalions struggled to advance, occasionally firing on each other, Company K lost its way in the maze of hedgerows. The attack was a shambles and once patrols located the missing company, sheltering along the railway line under heavy crossfire, Colonel Flint ordered his battalions to regroup. A second advance was more successful but when 39th Regiment finally contacted 4th Cavalry, Colonel Flint was ordered to break off contact and to regroup behind the centre of the division:

‘Regiment alerted to move, all plans for the morning changed, advised units are in action and can not be readily be alerted.’

The manoeuvre was eventually completed under cover of darkness. As 21 June drew to a close, 39th Regiment was ready to support the attack on Bois du Mont du Roc.

Despite the setback, Colonel Flint’s experiences helped to determine General Collins future plan of attack. Troops advancing along the Divette stream could be subjected to crossfire from both sides of the valley and now that contact had been established between 9th and 79th Division, VII Corps would concentrate on clearing the high ground. It meant that 9th Division would have all three of its regiments available for the assault on Cherbourg.

While the rest of 9th Division manoeuvred into position, 47th Regiment probed Kampfgruppen Keil’s positions on the east bank of the Néretz stream searching for targets for their artillery and the Air Force. German artillery and 88mm guns fired indiscriminately on 47th Regiment’s patrols and although tanks and infantry were seen moving into Baudienville, Colonel Smythe’s men kept their distance; Divisional headquarters was anxious not to become drawn into a battle too early.

The plan to survey the enemy lines began to pay off during the evening as patrols returned with fragments of information. Some had found documents and General Eddy’s intelligence officers were able to study maps detailing the enemy strongpoints protecting Flottemanville-Hague. Engineers had also discovered that some minefields were fakes and careful probing established that the warning signs indicated what lay ahead; black and white signs marked a dummy minefield while yellow and white signs meant danger. Several patrols had taken prisoners and a few had interesting stories to tell. Men from the 310th Marine Boat Fleet had been formed into Marine Flugabwehr Companies and sent to the front after their vessels had been scuttled. Anti-aircraft guns taken from the ships had also been pressed into action as ground support weapons.

Minesweeping was a slow and dangerous task. NARA-111-SC-331135

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47th Regiment managed to gather a wealth of information on the German positions but some prisoners were eager to point out that their comrades were preparing to fight. One reported a build up of troops on the high ground around Flottemanville-Hague, the Regiment’s objective for 22 June. He had counted twenty tanks, and although there were only a few Panzer IVs, it was a worrying development. He had also seen no fewer than sixteen flak and four anti-tank guns dug in around the village.

Members of the French underground worked alongside Colonel Smythe’s men, questioning the local population about enemy positions and strengths. General Eddy was impressed by the assistance given and to recognise their efforts the divisional staff organised US Army uniforms for their new Allies. Divisional headquarters also reported that the underground members possessed intimate knowledge of the German fortifications and ‘could be a great help in planning the attack.’ Many locals were anxious to help their liberators and some resorted to sabotage:

‘Tank Destroyer officer met civilians digging up cable alongside road, probably Cherbourg – St Lo communications. Also reported two German observers dressed as civilians, carrying packs on bicycles.’

The cable was thought to be General von Schlieben’s telephone link to Seventh Army Headquarters, a vital link in the German communications.

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79th Division

79th Division also spent the day probing the German lines, sending out patrols to locate Kampfgruppen Koehn’s strongpoints. The instructions given to Lieutenant Monk, an officer with 313th Regiment’s 1st Battalion, were repeated all along the division’s front:

‘Two radio towers are dominant guide features on the terrain. It is reported that there are two gun emplacements near those towers. The mission of your patrol is to find out whether there are Germans in the area around the radio towers and to get the information back. Use the stream as your guide. Stress concealment and watch out for German positions. If there are Germans there, find out how many there are there. You are to get information back, but fight if you have to.’

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Lieutenant Monk’s patrol was ambushed as it reconnoitred a German communications centre. NARA-111-SC-200572

Patrolling the narrow lanes and fields was nerve-wracking work and although the Germans usually relied on artillery and small arms fire to deter the American patrols, the GIs occasionally encountered their opposite number. Fire fights amongst the lanes and hedgerows were brief and bloody as each patrol endeavoured to overwhelm their enemy. After locating two camouflaged artillery pieces, Lieutenant Monk’s patrol was on its way back to safety when it stumbled on a German patrol:

‘Upon return trip, patrol was ambushed by a counter patrol of at least five men, four of whom were behind a hedgerow and the other to the right flank of the patrol. Enemy patrol cornered and four killed by M-1 fire. Lieutenant Monk wounded by grenades thrown and one man of patrol possibly killed, two others injured. Lieutenant Monk arrived back in an unconscious state. Lieutenant Monk reported position of guns.’

By nightfall General Wyche was under no illusions. Patrols were reporting pillboxes, gun positions, machine gun nests and wire entanglements all along the front, 2nd Battalion alone faced sixteen pillboxes. Information gleaned from the local population completed the picture; 79th Division faced one of the strongest sections of the Cherbourg fortifications.

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4th Division

While the rest of VII Corps had come up against the Cherbourg Landfront, 4th Division had not found the main line of resistance covering the area southeast of the city. General Barton was anxious to locate the German fortifications so he would be ready to assault the fortified area alongside the rest of the Corps.

The Cotentin Peninsula was an ideal base for Hitler’s V1 Rocket campaign against the south coast of England.

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8th Regiment attacked first, aiming to clear Kampfgruppen Koehn’s outposts in Bois de Roudou. Heavy resistance was expected in the heart of the woods where reconnaissance planes had reported a large construction site:

‘... a large unfinished German installation, apparently a Buzz-Bomb site. There were a large number of concrete dugouts north west of the crossroads while all the surrounding houses were strongly defended. A number of 88’s were in position near the crossroads.’

1st and 3rd Battalions cleared scattered outposts on the outskirts of the wood but as they moved closer to the construction site, 88mm and 20mm AA guns brought the advance to a standstill. Dense undergrowth prevented Colonel Van Fleet using his armour and the divisional artillery failed to silence the gun positions. Eventually, 3rd Battalion tried to outflank the position and had advanced 800 metres before it was spotted. German infantry quickly pinned Lieutenant-Colonel Strickland’s men down bringing the attempt to clear the wood to an end.

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An aerial view of the huge installation. NARA-111-SC-190780-S

While the rest of he Regiment battled their way through Bois du Rondou, 2nd Battalion attacked Crossroads 148, to the northeast. To begin with Lieutenant-Colonel MacNeely’s advance showed some promise as Company E advanced through a gap in enemy lines while the Germans sheltered from the mortar and artillery bombardment. Company G ran into a nest of concrete bunkers and before long heavy fire from three sides had pinned it down, splitting 2nd Battalion’s attack in two. After calling for armoured support MacNeely brought forward the battalion’s anti-tank guns and machine guns to give covering fire while Company F prepared to break the deadlock using unusual tactics:

‘Marched on La Bourdonnerie; had a severe fight. Here MacNeely used attack formation of tank platoon in line, an infantry platoon immediately behind each tank (Co HQ behind the fifth tank). The whole line charged, tanks firing guns and machine-guns, infantry spraying with all their machine-guns. It was the goddamnest looking formation; I held my breath when I saw Company F line up behind those tanks but it was successful.’

As the tanks rumbled forward with Company F tucked in behind, the Germans fled. A high explosive shell damaged one tank, ripping off a track, but the rest escorted MacNeely’s men safely as far as Company E. Unfortunately, Colonel MacNeely knew nothing of the hold up in Bois du Rondou and his success left his battalion isolated from the rest of the Regiment. Rather than withdraw and risk heavy casualties, 2nd Battalion dug in for the night, expecting the Germans holding Crossroads 148 to withdraw. They were mistaken. German troops closed in on MacNeely’s perimeter during the night, making it impossible for supply trucks to get through. 2nd Battalion was cut off.

8th Regiment found heavily guarded V1 installations in Bois du Rondou

12th Infantry Regiment had moved into the centre of 4th Division’s line during the night. At first light, 2nd Battalion moved forward towards Bois du Coudray, a thick belt of woods over a mile long and half a mile wide. After wading across the stream skirting the edge of the wood, the GIs plunged into the thick undergrowth finding only a handful of snipers. Moving cautiously forward, it soon became clear that the snipers had been acting as lookouts for the main German position. As 2nd Battalion reached the northern edge of the wood, the GIs found a second stream, the Saire, blocked their way and heavy fire greeted the leading company as it emerged from the trees. Kampfgruppen Rohrbach had made use of a natural gap in the woods, positioning bunkers on the far bank overlooking the marshy ground either side of the stream. Tanks could not cross the stream and the only bridge in the area had already been destroyed. As Colonel Luckett learned of the natural barrier, artillery and mortars began to zero in on 2nd Battalion, proving that the Germans were determined to hold the stream. With daylight fading, all Luckett could do was order the rest of his Regiment into the woods, ready to begin the search for a crossing further downstream at first light.

With two of his Regiments bogged down in front of the German outpost line, General Barton was hoping that Lieutenant-Colonel Hervey A Tribolet might be able to break the deadlock. The plan for 22nd Regiment was an ambitious one, based on the hope that Kampfgruppen Rohrbach had withdrawn from the area north of Le Thiel. Barton wanted his men to drive north at speed, skirting the belt of fortifications east of Cherbourg, and cut the road connecting Cherbourg and St Pierre Église. The move would isolate any Germans gathering in the northeast tip of the Cotentin peninsula and in particular around Maupertus Airfield, a suspected strongpoint.

In the late afternoon 1st and 3rd Battalions moved out from Le Theil and as the infantry pushed north their artillery shelled likely targets on the road ahead. To begin with it looked as though the Germans had withdrawn but as the head of the column reached Pinabel, artillery stationed around Maupertus airfield opened fire. Colonel Tribolet had expected to dig in for the night at Pinabel but Hill 158, the highest point on the road between Cherbourg and St Pierre Église, overlooked the hamlet. As 22nd Regiment moved nearer anti-aircraft guns opened fire but rather than withdrawing to a safer distance, Tribolet requested permission to push on in the hope of taking Hill 158. General Collins approved the suggestion and as the light faded 22nd Regiment advanced.

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An anti-tank platoon heads north through a ruined village. NARA-111-SC-190401

Elements of 729th Infantry Regiment unable to reach Cherbourg had headed towards Maupertus airfield with the intention of making a last stand and many of the soldiers were hardened fanatics intent on fighting to the end. Their positions around the landing strip were backed up by an impressive array of artillery and AA guns and they prevented Tribolet’s 1st Battalion from reaching the airfield. However, 3rd Battalion infiltrated the outposts covering Hill 158 under cover of darkness and by midnight the rest of the Regiment had reached the summit. General Barton and General Collins were delighted to hear that 22nd Regiment had taken the hilltop position:

‘It was a strongly fortified position containing a radio tower and was the centre of communication for the fortified area to the west and northwest. The Corps Commander attached great importance to the position and gave special congratulations to the division on accomplishment of this mission.’

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22nd Regiment’s daring dash to Hill 158 cut Maupertus airfield off from the rest of Festung Cherbourg. The Regiment formed a circular perimeter.

The advance left 22nd Regiment with an extended supply line and throughout the night it became apparent that German troops were intent on attacking anything moving along the road to Le Thiel. 2nd Battalion spent the night trying to secure the road but as soon as the American patrols passed by, the Germans would reappear:

‘Germans in considerable force, but apparently unorganised, infiltrated across their rear continually during the next four days and nights. Communication during this period was uncertain. Sometimes a single man would succeed in moving between the forward and rear elements without difficulty, at other times a considerable party would be stopped completely.’

Tanks loaded with supplies managed to escort 3rd Battalion’s convoy as far as Hill 158 but 1st Battalion’s supply trucks had to turn back; it was a problem that would persist for several days.

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