Military history


23 June – Making inroads into the perimeter

9th Division

As General Eddy prepared for the assault on the main German line covering Flottemanville-Hague and Bois du Mont du Roc, his men tried to sleep in their shallow foxholes. Rain added to their misery, and to many it seemed that the battle for the hedgerows and hills in front of Cherbourg would never end:

‘The troops were on the verge of physical exhaustion after many days of bitter exertion. Nerves were jumpy, tempers raw. The Germans were still firing every gun and field piece on the peninsula directly at him, it seemed to the average foot slogger, when he peered out of his foxhole or through a hedgerow. His disgust was profound. His body revolted at the thought of the increasing pace of the campaign and the tenacity of the enemy. His mind was sick from the sight and smell of blood and death mingled in with the damp earth about him. Yet his fighting spirit and sense of duty drove him on when and where further advances seemed impossible.’

‘Star and Stripes’ boosted the troops morale with up to date news. NARA-111-SC-190598

Meanwhile, patrols on 47th Regiment’s front had captured German documents listing Kampfgruppen Keil’s Order of Battle. It gave a revealing insight into the state of the German troops protecting Cherbourg. Alongside the expected Army formations were details of miscellaneous units, composing of Naval personnel, artillerymen and anti-aircraft crews converted into infantry to bolster their numbers. Garrison troops and service personnel, many of them foreign soldiers of dubious fighting quality, had also been pressed into service and the report urged officers to use German nationals on essential duties, in particular night patrolling. The report’s conclusions showed that there was still a shortage of men and ammunition:

‘Short on ammunition – ordered to fire only on specific targets. Also short of men – attempt deception by dispersing only a few men in each bunker and spreading out thinly.’ Throughout the night supply lorries and rear echelon units had come under attack from isolated groups of Germans still operating behind 9th Division’s lines. At first light patrols of the 39th Regiment assisted by members of the French underground worked alongside the American troops as they searched the lanes and fields for their enemy. Colonel Flint’s 1st Battalion moved onto Hill 128 to clear a strongpoint behind 60th Regiment. Company A crawled up to the hedgerow in front of the bunkers and while it drew the Germans’ fire, Company C worked its way around the flank. The operation took most of the day but by nightfall the battalion had cleared Hill 128 and taken seventy-five prisoners.

German artillery observers spotted 2nd Battalion as it headed towards the entrenchments on Hill 138 and Hill 150 but despite the shelling the two strongpoints remained silent. A French guide directed Company E and their supporting armour along the narrow lanes bringing them close to the entrenchments on Hill 138 and as soon as Lieutenant-Colonel Tucker’s men were in place, the tank-destroyers opened fire, giving the signal for the attack. Tucker’s men charged across the fields to reach the bunkers, weaving their way through a minefield:

‘Lieutenant Denny led attack through barbed wire and hit by machine-gun pistol in shoulder and hand. Veritable arsenal just lack of men to man them.’

Company G used similar tactics to silence the enemy positions on Hill 150 and by the time it was dark 60th Regiment’s rear was secure.

While 39th Regiment cleared the isolated strongpoints to its rear, 60th Regiment continued to advance towards Flottemanville-Hague. 1st Battalion’s initial attack on Hill 180 was met with small arms fire and the two leading companies fell back in confusion. After regrouping a second attempt secured the summit, clearing a number of machine guns pits and a bunker housing a 50mm anti-tank gun. Artillery and mortars began to target the battalion as it advanced towards Strongpoint 13 and casualties mounted:

‘... receiving heavy direct fire from high ground. Being hit from all sides. Need litter bearers.’

As Colonel Rohan’s men drew closer they could see six light tanks moving into position around the strongpoint. It looked as if Oberstleutenant Keil was preparing to make a stand.

2nd Battalion had also been working its way steadily towards the summit of the ridge, but a counterattack had left Lieutenant-Colonel Kauffmen’s men low on ammunition. With one battalion pinned down and a second in danger of being cut off, 60th Regiment’s attack was faltering but as Colonel Rohan prepared to commit his 3rd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Kauffman reported that Kampfgruppen Keil had started to evacuate Hill 180. The withdrawal gave 60th Regiment the chance to reorganise and while the divisional artillery targeted suspected enemy positions, 2nd Battalion was able to occupy Hill 180.

An ambulance transports wounded through a ruined village. NARA-111-SC-255627

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60th Regiment’s advance towards Hill 180 and Strongpoint 13.

One objective had been taken, but a rearguard had remained behind in Strongpoint 13 to delay 1st Battalion’s advance. One artillery fire mission had already been cancelled following reports that patrols had entered the strongpoint. The information was incorrect and as General Eddy made arrangements with the Air Force, he left Colonel Rohan in no doubt what he expected:

‘General Eddy is concerned that 1st Battalion is taking vicious artillery concentration from 13, see it is overrun otherwise mortars will continue. I personally want to see the bombing mission is followed up.’

The dive-bombers eventually flew over as it began to grow dark and 60th Regiment advanced as the artillery bombarded Strongpoint 13. German rearguards fired on Colonel Rohan’s men as they advanced along the ridge but 1st Battalion was finally able to reach strongpoint under cover of darkness. Tank-destroyers followed and engaged bunkers and emplacements while the infantry cleared out the maze of trenches, taking thirty-seven dazed prisoners. General Eddy was elated to hear that the position had fallen. It meant that 9th Division’s flank was finally secure; his men could concentrate on closing in on the final ring of forts protecting Cherbourg and, and in his words, ‘shoot the works’.

47th Regiment began its attack on Bois du Mont du Roc at dawn, but as 3rd Battalion moved forward the mortar platoon came under fire from a strongpoint behind its lines. The position had been overlooked the previous evening and while Company B pushed on, the rest of the battalion headed back to deal with the emplacement. Despite the interruption, Colonel Clayman was pleased to hear that his men had cleared a number of bunkers with the help of tank-destroyers, taking the summit of Hill 171.

2nd Battalion also found German troops operating to their rear. A company of infantry revealed themselves at first light and they had destroyed a number of supply trucks on the Octeville road before they were taken prisoner. The Battalion command post also came under fire when a hidden anti-tank gun made its presence felt. The attacks delayed 2nd Battalion’s advance and it was late afternoon before Colonel Smythe was confident that Hill 171 was secure.

Artillery had difficulty finding suitable firing positions in the ‘bocage’. NARA-111-SC-190385-S

Although progress had been slow, General Eddy was able to report that his men had secured the two highest points in the area, Hill 180 and Hill 171. 39th Regiment had finished clearing the division’s rear area and once Colonel Flint had assembled his men on the Division’s right flank, all three Regiment’s were ready to join the final drive on Cherbourg.

79th Division

Four battalions had penetrated deep into Kampfgruppen Koehn’s lines during the night, establishing a sizeable foothold on the high ground around Crossroads 177. There was a great deal of confusion behind 79th Division’s lines as the Germans realised what had happened and their patrols spent the night attacking vehicles as they moved north along the Cherbourg highway. During the early hours Colonel Wood heard reports that the enemy had reoccupied a number of bunkers at les Chèvres, cutting off the Division’s supply line. It was a serious oversight.

As it grew, light Colonel Wood was perturbed to hear that 2nd Battalion had become separated from the rest of 313th Regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Bode could only account for seventy of his men, the rest were engaged in a futile battle along the banks of the Trottebec stream. As Bode searched the woods, trying to rally his men, a German sniper found his mark, killing the officer.

Colonel Wood was at the front line preparing for the attack on la Mare à Canards, meanwhile, back at the Regimental Command Post Major McConnell was struggling to make sense of the confusing radio reports:

‘The command post consisted of a captured German Ford delivery truck and thirty foxholes, in a wet gully strewn with hay off a country lane below Hau de Haut. Neither the Old Man – the Colonel – or his staff were around.’

McConnell was sat on his folding chair in the middle of the command post, charting unit movements on a huge map board. Before long, communications were cut and Colonel Wood set off back, accompanied by two staff officers and a platoon of men, to assess the situation. As they travelled south, it was obvious that enemy patrols were still operating along the road. Major Arnaud later described the journey back through the German positions:

Keeping a lookout for snipers in on the road to Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-190827

‘I am telling you we came through there going like hell when we discovered the Germans had come back, unknown to us and threatened to cut us off... As we were passing a fort a German officer jumped out and yelled “surrender.” I swung old Betsy [his Tommy gun] around and pulled the trigger. When we finally got through we had killed four Jerries and taken one officer and nine enlisted men prisoners.’

The group failed to locate McConnell and his makeshift headquarters and Wood finally contacted divisional headquarters via an artillery telephone. 313th Regiment was supposed to have attacked the la Mare à Canards position at 09:30 but with no means of contacting the front line, General Wyche had concede that it would be was impossible unless Colonel Wood could recapture the reoccupied bunkers.

Stragglers formed the backbone of Wood’s force and, with a platoon of tanks and a section of anti-tank guns to give supporting fire, the assault on the Chèvres position began under the watchful eye of General Wyche. It was a repeat of the previous day; only this time the tanks could cross the anti-tank ditch. As the Shermans negotiated the narrow breach, a German anti-tank gun opened fire:

‘One tank was hit by the Germans and set afire. Its crew got out safely. Another German shell knocked the track off a second tank, immobilising it, but the other two kept going. McCabe’s Anti-tank Company manhandled two 57s up a narrow lane into position behind shell-scarred stumps and blasted brush, from where they could fire on the captured fort. The Old Man was with them, pointing out the target and directing the fire. Gunners laid it two by two – two rounds of high explosive, then two rounds of armour piercing shells.’

Sergeant Charles Jones drove his tank to the rear of the bunkers, blasting the steel doors open with a dozen rounds of 75mm armour piercing shell. One man was cut down as he tried to make his escape, three others emerged with their hands up. Captain John McCabe, the anti-tank section commander, later reported what the GIs discovered inside:

‘... we discovered they had a lower level of sub-basement we didn’t know about. Two groggy Germans crawled out of a hole under one of the smaller pillboxes after we had blown its top. There were two other dead Germans in the hole. They must have been down there while we were in the fort. We don’t know how many may have been down there under the main fort. We couldn’t go down into its subterranean tunnels last night because fumes from the demolition charges are poisonous. But we think we understand now why the fort was re-manned so quickly after we had taken it for the first time last night. After we had passed the fort they simply came up the stairs, closed those armour-plated doors and started to fight again. Can you beat it?’

Lieutenant Robert C Johnson spiked the remaining 88mm gun before blowing the bunkers to pieces with TNT charges.

314th Regiment experienced similar difficulties maintaining a safe route to the rear. German troops roamed freely behind the lines, targeting supply trucks with 88mm and machine gun fire. The attacks increased as it began to grow light forcing Colonel Robinson to recall his soft vehicles until 2nd Battalion had secured the Regiment’s rear. 3rd Battalion’s staff were confined to their foxholes when a hidden 88mm targeted the command post; it took Major Koch and Captain West the entire morning to locate and then silence the gun position.

Anti-tank guns engage a German strongpoint. NARA-111-SC-190399

Despite the amount of enemy activity behind 79th Division’s lines, General Wyche persevered with his plans and at 09:30 dive-bombers flew low over la Mare à Canards, targeting Strongpoint F. An artillery barrage followed, but 313th Regiment quickly found that the bombardment had failed to have the desired effect. 88s, mortars and machine guns brought Colonel Wood’s advance to an abrupt halt. On 314th Regiment’s front, observers could see that the fighter-bombers had missed their targets and Colonel Robinson requested a second air strike, to give his men a chance. Unfortunately, 3rd Battalion did not receive the order to wait and advanced as planned, occupying part of the objective.

In the confusion that followed, General Wyche arranged a second attack by the Air Force while company commanders tried to recall their men out of the bombing zone. In some cases the message was never received and while the artillery fired smoke 1,000 metres north of the target in the hope of diverting the planes, forty-eight P47 fighter-bombers, each carrying two 1,000lb bombs, were heading for la Mare à Canards.

Many planes heeded the smoke but a few bombed 313th Regiment’s positions; putting an end to its advance. On 314th Regiment’s the second air strike failed to knock out the German positions, but as 1st Battalion engaged Strongpoint F, one company penetrated a weak spot in the enemy line and pushed on alone towards La Loge, a tiny hamlet overlooking Cherbourg harbour. For the first time American troops were able to look down on their objective; finally it appeared as though the end was in sight.

4th Division

For the second night running German troops had infiltrated 8th Regiment’s lines, forcing Battalion commanders to rely on their artillery to keep the enemy at bay. Poor communications and harassment of the supply lines delayed 70th Tank Battalion, leaving 1st Battalion to advance unsupported. It had only advanced a short distance when it stumbled on a strongpoint; Lieutenant-Colonel Simmons would have to wait until the Shermans arrived. 1st Battalion’s progress through the maze of hedgerows was slow (it took six hours to advance 1,000 metres), and an after-action report sums up the difficulties faced by the GIs as they fought their way through the ‘bocage’ around Cherbourg:

‘In effect, hedgerows subdivide the terrain into small rectangular compartments which favour the defence and necessitate their reduction individually by the attacker. Each compartment thus constitutes a problem in itself. On approaching such a compartment, the scouts must be particularly watchful, especially on the corners, where the enemy is frequently found commanding approaches from adjacent compartments. Fire from automatic weapons, light mortars and rifle grenades, directed at corners and along the hedgerows themselves, whether or not an enemy was known to be present therein, was found to be frequently effective.

‘The entire operation resolved itself into a species of jungle or Indian fighting, in which the individual soldier or small groups of soldiers played a dominant part. Success comes to the offensive force, which employs the maximum initiative by individuals and small groups.’

While Lieutenant-Colonel Simmons’ men pushed slowly west of Foret de l’Ermitage, German infantry infiltrated the battalion positions, forcing the 81mm mortar platoon to abandon their weapons. This left 1st Battalion in an exposed position close to a German strongpoint. Fearing further counterattacks, Simmons’s withdrew his men to a safe distance and by nightfall his mortars were back in action.

Lieutenant-Colonel Strickland postponed his advance until 70th Tank Battalion arrived and when 3rd Battalion finally moved forward, the leading companies discovered that the Germans had been planning their own attack:

‘Apparently they were in position and just about to attack when 3rd Battalion’s assault hit them. As the American tanks and infantry moved through the woods and down into the draw, they found the Germans laying head to heels in the ditches and along the hedgerows. For a few minutes there was a wild melee with shooting in all directions. Then the enemy, completely surprised and caught in the open by our tanks, were routed. The battalion drove through the fleeing Germans and killed a large number. Many of the Germans lay still in the ditches playing dead and were killed or captured by the reserve company.’

3rd Battalion took advantage of the rout and pushed north quickly but the breakthrough had not gone unnoticed. As Strickland’s men advanced past a V1 installation, artillery and mortar shells began to rain down, allowing the Germans time to regroup. The advance was over and as the rest of the battalion repulsed a counterattack, one company headed back to deal with bunkers surrounding the V1 ramp. With the help of flamethrowers, Bangalore torpedoes and satchel charges Strickland’s men took 228 prisoners.

In 12th Regiment’s sector, Colonel Luckett finally received the piece of news that he had been waiting for. A patrol led by Sergeant Bledsoe had found an unguarded ford across the Saire stream that was suitable for tanks. At last there appeared to be a way to break the deadlock and shake free from Bois du Coudray. Bledsoe returned to the ford with seven Sherman tanks, loaded with ammunition, supplies and orders to attack, and with the help of infantry scouts they found 3rd Battalion’s isolated position on the west bank of the stream.

It was too late to follow Colonel Luckett’s orders as planned but Captain Linder was determined to carry out the mission and turn Kampfgruppen Rohrbach’s line. After detailing the tank scouts to look after the wounded, 3rd Battalion set out towards le Mesnil-au-Val. Hedgerows confined the Shermans to a single-track road, so Captain Linder came up with a plan to sweep the fields on the line of his advance. His men deployed either side of the road, searching for enemy positions and the whole column moved forward a field at a time. When the GIs came under fire, a tank entered the closest field to the German position and sprayed the hedges with machine gun fire, reversing back on to the road as the enemy melted away. Meanwhile, German infantry continually harried the rear of 3rd Battalion’s column, forcing Linder to conduct a fighting withdrawal. Company L successfully protected the battalion’s rear and when the Germans turned on the battalion aid station, medics joined the infantry to drive off the attack.

An aerial view of Cherbourg harbour. Fort du Roule is on the right, perched high on a cliff top.

German infantry pause for a moment during a move to new positions.

At the head of the column the Shermans scored an important success as they closed in on their objective, destroying two 88mm guns protecting a crossroads. As 3rd Battalion approached the Saire stream, the German troops opposing the rest of 12th Regiment surrendered at the sight of infantry and armour approaching from the rear and as white flags began to appear, 2nd Battalion finally waded across the steam.

Having broken the deadlock, Colonel Luckett was anxious to push towards Cherbourg before Oberst Rohrbach discovered the breakthrough. While 2nd Battalion cleared a number of anti-aircraft positions covering a radar installation, Luckett gave Captain Linder his new mission: he wanted him to advance towards Tourlaville. It was growing dark by the time 3rd Battalion had reorganised and using the same tactics as before, Linder’s men patrolled the fields while the Shermans crawled along the road. When the light had failed, the tanks had to withdraw to rearm but Colonel Luckett urged Linder to take Hill 140, a vantage point overlooking Tourlaville.

As 3rd Battalion approached the summit of the hill, it was greeted with machine gun and mortar fire. The tanks would not be able to return until morning, so Captain Linder called on the artillery for support. The first rounds fell astride the road leading up to the German position and as Companies I and K crept as close as they dare to the line of shell bursts, Linder ordered artillery to increase their range one hundred metres at a time. Crawling forward, hugging the barrage for protection, 3rd Battalion closed in on Hill 140 until they were within striking distance. In the final charge Linder’s men found many of Germans sheltering in their bunkers; another strongpoint had fallen on the road to Cherbourg.

GIs hunt for a sniper in the hedgerows. NARA-111-SC-191351

After two days of frustration Colonel Luckett was delighted to hear that the important piece of terrain had been taken. However, Oberst Rohrbach was not prepared to give up the hill without a fight. Throughout the night mortars and artillery mercilessly pounded 3rd Battalion’s positions, only ceasing fire to let the infantry advance. On more than one occasion Linder’s men relied on their bayonets and hand grenades to drive the Germans away from their newly won position. The attacks eventually subsided in the early hours, leaving Hill 140 in the hands of 3rd Battalion.

Medics treat the wounded at a makeshift aid station. NARA-111-SC-190816

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