Military history

CHAPTER NINE

25 June – Overlooking the port

As General Collins made his plans for the final assault on Cherbourg, thousands of GIs tried to rest in their foxholes on hills surrounding the port. Lee MacCardell, correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, came across one group of soldiers as they dug in for the night:

‘The Joes looked like they could stand a Saturday night bath anywhere, those with beards looked like burlesque tramps. All were beginning to tire a little. Many a Joe hadn’t taken his shoes off for a week, his feet were killing him. He would have given ten bucks for a pair of ten-cent socks. Aside from canned rations and hand grenades, which filled all the pockets of his grimy, mud-stained fatigues, he carried only what he wore plus his canteen, a shovel, an ammunition belt, an extra bandolier, a knife, a bayonet and his rifle.’

Weary GIs make coffee in the outskirts of Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-190794-S

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Two Russians who had been forced to work for the Germans slip through the lines to meet up with the American troops. NARA-111-SC-190748

All three of VII Corps’ divisions were poised on the heights overlooking Cherbourg and General Collins had arranged with the Air Force to drop propaganda leaflets offering surrender terms:

‘Those who will surrender will not be harmed. Throw down your arms. Come out waving leaflets or some other white object.’

It was known that many of the troops guarding the city were Eastern Europeans with dubious morale and Collins was hoping to entice some of them to give themselves up.

At first light the Adjutant of Cherbourg’s Naval Hospital approached a patrol of the 9th Division accompanied by a captured American Air Force officer. The pair were escorted to General Eddy’s headquarters and asked him to spare the hospital from shelling. Plasma was handed over to help care for wounded American soldiers in the Adjutant’s care and he was also given an ultimatum to pass on to General von Schlieben:

‘The Fortress Cherbourg is now surrounded and its defences have been breached. The city is now isolated.... You are tremendously outnumbered and it is merely a question of time when Cherbourg must be captured. The immediate unconditional surrender of Cherbourg is demanded....’

General Bradley had arranged naval support for the final assault on the city and a task force of three battleships, four cruisers and a number of destroyers had moved into position on 24 June. The ships waited until VII Corps confirmed its troop dispositions but the first attempt to provide support for the ground troops ended in failure. As the task force sailed close to the coastline, German shore batteries opened fire with deadly accuracy, straddling several ships with their salvoes. The Naval Commander took immediate evasive action and switched his guns to counter battery fire as his ships turned out of range. Festung Cherbourg had proved that it was still capable of repulsing an attack from the sea; the only consolation was that 9th Division had been able to locate several enemy batteries in the Cap de la Hague area.

9th Division

Изображение выглядит как колесоOn 60th Regiment’s front, flares and the sounds of digging raised concerns that Kampfgruppen Mueller was preparing to counterattack from the direction of Ste Croix-Hague. Patrols were fired on as they investigated and Major Houston’s patrol came across a ‘Goliath’, a two metre long remote controlled mine. After reporting the device to the engineers the GIs continued on their way; a few minutes later the ‘Goliath’ exploded leaving a fifteen metre wide crater.

Engineers disarm Goliaths, remote controlled explosive devices. NARA-111-SC-190621

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Colonel Rohan’s main objective was to prevent German troops retaking captured positions and roadblocks supported by anti-tank guns and light tanks were posted on every road and track. Patrols completed the cordon and Rohan warned his battalion commanders to keep their men on the move: ‘... you get just as many casualties sitting still as you do moving.’

3rd Battalion investigated a strongpoint close to Tonneville during the afternoon but when Company I came under heavy fire, Colonel Rohan withdrew his troops and called on the Navy for assistance. The combination of shells from warships and the divisional artillery subdued the position. Patrols later reported that Tonneville was in ruins and the local population believed that the German soldiers had fled towards Cap de la Hague.

47th Regiment objective for 25 June was to clear three Napoleonic fortresses overlooking the outskirts of Cherbourg. 3rd Battalion faced Redoubte des Fourches, a huge fortification protected by barbed wire and rooftop pillboxes. A short artillery bombardment paved the way for Lieutenant-Colonel Clayman’s attack and as shells slammed into the fort, the ammunition dump exploded into flames. White flags had already begun to appear on the roof of the fort by the time 3rd Battalion advanced and although a few shots were fired, the garrison soon surrendered. Redoute des Fourches burned out of control as the prisoners emerged and the exploding ammunition made it too dangerous to take tanks past the fort. 3rd Battalion would have to wait until the fires had died down.

The spoils of war; GIs display a Nazi flag they have just found. NARA-111-SC-191014

47th Regiment attacked the Napoleonic forts to the west of Cherbourg.

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Coastal batteries dug into the cliffs protected Cherbourg from an amphibious assault. NARA-111-SC-190509-S

2nd Battalion faced Fort de Couplets, standing high on an isolated hill protected by a dry moat and barbed wire. A squadron of P-47’s bombed the fort to begin with, and as the artillery and mortars shelled the hilltop position, tank-destroyers blasted paths through the wire entanglements. The preparatory bombardment shattered the German morale and white flags appeared on the walls of the fort as Company E started to climb the slopes. Fifteen minutes after the assault started eighty-nine men surrendered. Company F had also cleared the fort at Hameau du Tot and had found abandoned artillery pieces and huge piles of munitions in the village of Equeurdreville to the northeast.

39th Regiment had spent the night patrolling the outskirts of Octeville and even though members of the French underground had questioned the local population, only one patrol reported meeting the enemy:

‘Started talking to them before they were sure they were Germans, our patrol fired several shots and Jerry took off. All houses along the route were empty, no pillboxes, trenches or roadblocks were found.’

The situation on Colonel Flint’s front was vague but as soon as 39th Regiment advanced 3rd Battalion came under fire from across the Divette valley as it crossed the Octeville heights. Lieutenant-Colonel Stumpf had to wait for artillery support before he could resume the advance towards Octeville. Meanwhile, 2nd Battalion pushed quickly into Octeville the village, capturing a group of soldiers guarding an ammunition dump. One prisoner reported that there were ‘no heavy weapons, just machine guns, wire and steel obstacles’ in front of the battalion but as soon as Lieutenant-Colonel Gunn’s men began the descent into the city, rooftop anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The 20mm flak canons wreaked havoc as they fired indiscriminately up the hill and although a German tank had been spotted lurking around the city cemetery, Colonel Flint had ruled out armoured support for Gunn’s men. Many of the AA guns were stationed close to the Maritime Hospital and there was a danger of hitting the building. Clouds of smoke and dust drifting over the city were making it difficult for artillery observer on Fort Neuf to identify targets. Fearing heavy casualties, Colonel Flint ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Gunn to hold his position until the 3rd Battalion had been able to move up.

Artillery observers look on as their guns shell the city of Cherbourg. NARA-111-SC-190859

While 39th Regiment reorganised in Octeville, 47th Regiment was ordered to cut the coast road to prevent German soldiers leaving the city and while Company E moved towards the beach, the rest of 2nd Battalion headed towards the Arsenal. 88mm guns, mortars and Nebelwerfers covered the German infantry as they made a careful withdrawal towards Rue Gambetta. Progress was slow but Colonel Smythe’s men worked their way forward clearing block after block of snipers and anti-tank guns. The battalion’s 81mm mortars scored an important success when the infantry spotted a number of Nebelwerfers on the city’s cycle track; a short barrage destroyed seven of the deadly weapons.

The rest of the Regiment headed into the city in the face of heavy fire from rooftop 20mm anti-aircraft guns. The infantry crept forward from doorway to doorway locating pillboxes, calling forward the armour once an enemy position had been located. A pillbox in front of the Naval College stopped 1st Battalion’s advance and it took 15th Combat Engineer Battalion bulldozers several hours to carve a route through the rubble for the tank-destroyers. General Eddy encouraged Colonel Smythe to ‘keep plugging’ but a second bunker covering the Maritime hospital refused to surrender, enduring dozens of direct hits from the tank-destroyers. After two hours Lieutenant-Colonel Clayman conceded defeat and withdrew his men to a safe distance. The artillery would have to ‘bust it open’.

As it began to grow dark cracks began to show in the Germans’ morale, 47th Regiment had already taken hundreds of prisoners, clearing large parts of the city suburbs:

‘Determined resistance was met along all the way and the fighting was fierce for every yard gained... Slow going, fighting all the way, Germans appear to be letting up, a lot of prisoners.’ 39th Regiment’s failure to push beyond Octeville left Colonel Smythe’s right flank exposed and General Eddy gave the order to withdraw, the two Regiments would complete the task in the morning.

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A Sherman tank rolls through the ruins looking for snipers. NARA-111-SC-191085

79th Division

313th Regiment’s patrols had managed to penetrate the suburbs during the night and had found few signs of organised resistance; the German troops had either fled or surrendered as Colonel Wood’s men approached. The patrols withdrew at first light as the guns in the lower levels of Fort du Roule came to life once more. The fort had to be taken before 313th Regiment could move into the city.

Fort du Roule, Pillboxes line the wall of the Napoleonic fortress. NARA-111-SC-200571

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While 39th Regiment cleared the Octeville Heights, 314th Regiment struggled to advance towards Fort du Roule.

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P47 Thunderbolt.

A squadron of P47s flying low overhead signalled the start of 314th Regiment’s attack on Fort du Roule. The cliff top position was a prominent target but many of the planes still overshot their target and their bombs exploded harmlessly on the hillside. Artillery and mortars fired a covering barrage of high explosive and smoke shells at the fort as Colonel Robinson’s men moved into the valley. German infantry emerged from a hidden trench and fired on 3rd Battalion as it began to climb towards the fort. With the artillery fully employed shelling the summit of the hill, Colonel Robinson ordered 2nd and 3rd Battalions’ support weapons to open fire on the position. The combined firepower of the machine gun and mortar platoons forced the Germans to retire. Only a handful escaped, the rest were cut down as they ran. 3rd Battalion quickly occupied the trench and dug in to wait for the 2nd Battalion.

2nd Battalion’s advance had stalled in the face of heavy machine gun fire and as the two leading companies tried to reach Point 44, mortars and artillery on the Octeville heights began shelling their positions. For two hours Lieutenant-Colonel Huff’s men endured the barrage of shells and bullets as they regrouped for a second attack. This time 3rd Battalion was able to provide covering fire and once Company F had reached Point 44 the machine gun fire abated allowing the rest of the battalion to advance. After clearing a few of the bunkers (finding a large stock of champagne and cognac in one) 2nd Battalion pushed onto the ridge, leaving 1st Battalion to deal with the rest.

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314th Regiment faced pillboxes and barbed wire as it climbed the promontory to reach Fort du Roule.

Company F headed towards Point 46, a heavily defended anti-aircraft position on top of the cliff, while the rest of the battalion advanced towards Fort du Roule, codenamed Point 45. 3rd Battalion gave covering fire as Company G worked their way along the southern face of the promontory, clearing a number of outlying bunkers. Company E headed straight for the fort, and once they had crossed a deep anti-tank ditch, Lieutenant-Colonel Huff’s men faced a maze of barbed wire and pillboxes. At first the situation looked promising as a white flag appeared above one bunker. Major Miller encouraged the men inside to surrender but as soon as they emerged with their hands up, a nearby pillbox opened fire cutting them down. It proved that many soldiers holding the bunkers protecting Fort du Roule were willing to fight to the last man.

As Company E crawled forward one platoon was caught in a hail of machine gun bullets, killing and wounding several men. The survivors struggled to find cover on the bare slope and as casualties mounted, Corporal John D Kelly volunteered to go forward alone and knock out the bunker:

‘Arming himself with a pole charge about ten feet long, with fifteen pounds of TNT affixed, he climbed the slope under a withering blast of machine-gun fire and placed the charge at the strongpoint’s base. The subsequent blast was ineffective, and again, alone and unhesitatingly, he braved the slope to repeat the operation. This second blast blew off the ends of the enemy guns. Corporal Kelly then climbed the slope a third time to place a pole charge at the strongpoint’s rear entrance. When this had been blown open he hurled hand grenades inside the position forcing survivors of the enemy gun crews to come out and surrender.’

Corporal (later Sergeant) Kelly’s actions helped the rest of Company E work their way forward towards Fort du Roule. He was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor but it was awarded posthumously as he was mortally wounded five months later.

Satchel charges and grenades blasted the bunkers throughout the morning and by midday Lieutenant-Colonel Huff’s men were closing in on the fort’s courtyard, having taken over 500 German soldiers prisoner. The garrison of the main building refused to surrender and made use of the huge stocks of ammunition and supplies in the lower levels of the fort. Company E kept inching forward and by 15:00 Colonel Robinson was pleased to hear that the courtyard had been taken. Men had also broken into the fort and cleared the top level but still the men on the floors below refused to surrender: ‘Situation unchanged. Very little fire from sealed positions, 2nd Battalion bringing in 250 prisoners.’

Soldiers look on as engineers try to silence the guns on the cliff face while the port burns in the distance. NARA-111-SC-200570

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Once the cliff top had been secured, 3rd Battalion advanced into the Divette valley, a narrow pass flanked by the Octeville heights and Fort du Roule. Company K was immediately pinned down by machine guns protecting a 88mm AA position high on the slopes. The recently promoted company commander, 1st Lieutenant Carlos C Ogden, refused to let his men be cut to pieces and climbed towards the enemy position armed with a rifle, hand grenades and rifle grenades. Despite being wounded twice, he destroyed the flak gun with a rifle grenade before eliminating two machine gun nests with hand grenades. His bravery allowed Company K to resume its advance. Lieutenant Ogden was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his part in the capture of the Fort du Roule.

Down in the valley below, Company L had charged across an open field to reach a pillbox, throwing grenades and satchel charges through the firing slits. The men inside refused to surrender and held Company L at bay until nightfall.

While the rest of 314th Regiment made slow progress towards and past Fort du Roule, Company F had spent the last six hours pinned down in front of Point 46 east of the fort. The first sign that the men on the cliff top wished to surrender was seen at dusk. However, as the GIs edged forward it became clear that some men wanted to fight on:

‘Fortification 46 showing white flag but as our troops advance to take prisoners, they come under fire from 88mm gun.’ Ninety men eventually surrendered an hour later when they ran out of ammunition.

Even though the top floor of Fort du Roule had been taken, the rest of the garrison refused to surrender. Attempts to negotiate failed and while some of Colonel Huff’s men tried to break down the doors with explosives, others tossed grenades and satchel charges down the cliff face to try and damage the guns below. AA guns on Octeville heights across the valley prevented volunteers from climbing onto the cliff face to reach the embrasures at the base of the fort. Engineers temporarily silenced the guns by dangling pole charges down the cliff on pieces of wire and detonating them with a makeshift triggers.

General Collins surveys the city from the roof of Fort du Roule.

With the menace from Fort du Roule finished, General Wyche decided it was time to explore Cherbourg and as it began to grow dark 313th Regiment made its way down the hill into the suburbs with the following orders:

‘Do not stop, do not loot, strong security on flanks. Take prisoners, Cannon Company fires to be lifted on flares... Not much fighting expected. If we do fight, get AT guns into action, do not waste men.’

The advance was unopposed and by nightfall Colonel Wood’s men had occupied the southeast corner of the city. It meant that 313th Regiment was ready to push deep into the heart of the port in the morning.

The advance into Cherbourg begins. NARA-111-SC-190809-S

4th Division

As 4th Division closed in on Cherbourg, General Barton withdrew 8th Regiment from the line so it could concentrate on clearing the Trottebec valley. Meanwhile, 22nd Regiment had increased its grip on the high ground east of the city, rounding up hundreds of prisoners around Bretteville and on the coast north of Hill 158. 12th Regiment would make the final push into the eastern suburbs of the city.

Colonel Luckett’s 3rd Battalion was already firmly established in Tourlaville, following its daring drive the previous night. The rest of the Regiment needed to advance towards the sea, clearing the ridge overlooking the village and seize a coastal battery before it could enter the port. Fighter-bombers paved the way and as Major Johnson went ahead to assess the garrison’s reaction he was relieved to see white flags flying above the casemates. He could also see that while the direct route to the battery was too exposed, a wooded ravine offered a sheltered approach. The tanks waited at a safe distance, and 1st Battalion moved forward:

‘From a distance two white flags could be seen above the fort. As the leading companies entered a wooded draw just in front of the objective they were fired on from the fort by mortars and 20mm, and six men were wounded. The white flags still waved over the fort.’

The six wounded men were all part of Major Johnson’s command group and for the second time in the campaign the battalion was left without a staff and no means of contacting its artillery. Tanks would have to be used.

After reorganising his men, Johnson personally guided the Shermans to the rear of the battery and while they repeatedly fired their 75mm guns at the bunkers, the GIs worked their way through the complex. A German major waving a white flag marked the capitulation of the battery and while Major Johnson negotiated with his opposite number his men completed their search. Three casemated eight-inch guns looking out to sea formed the backbone of the fort. 88mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns protected the battery from air and ground attack. Johnson’s men also discovered an officers’ club and a hospital crammed with wounded men. Major Johnson allowed the German medical officer to stay with his patients, but the rest were evacuated immediately. 1st Battalion had captured over 400 men and an important position covering the eastern approaches to Cherbourg.

12th Regiment closes in on the eastern suburbs of Cherbourg.

1st Battalion’s next objective was le Becquet on the coast and as the GIs made their way down the steep cliffs into the village, a civilian pointed out a 20mm AA gun on the seawall. A white flag marked the position but as Johnson watched through his binoculars it disappeared from view. A similar treachery had earlier wiped out his staff and this time Johnson was taking no chances. Lieutenant Esschbacher, the Cannon Company liaison officer radioed the coordinates of the AA position through to his howitzers. A few minutes later the German position was silenced. As 1st Battalion entered le Becquet the local population lined the main street and showered the GIs with flowers as they marched past. Fort Ile de Pelée, one of the Napoleonic forts on the harbour’s breakwater, opened fire as 1st Battalion advanced along the coast towards Cherbourg; the divisional artillery quickly silenced the guns.

Once 1st Battalion had cleared the coastal battery on the ridge overlooking Tourlaville, 3rd Battalion had started to explore the roads to Cherbourg. Company I was only supposed to patrol a short distance into the city before turning towards Bourbourg on the coast. However, the company commander missed the road junction he required and led his men over a mile into the Marais district of the city before noticing the mistake. The error uncovered an interesting development. The Germans had evacuated the district, leaving the area in front of 12th Regiment clear of enemy troops. On hearing the news, General Collins ordered General Barton to move quickly. VII Corps’ commanding officer watched the final phase of the battle from the hills southeast of the city:

‘Off to the left were the steep cliffs of the highlands that run right up to the back door of the city. Another of our divisions was rapidly closing in on this area from the south and we could see smoke from the fires being directed into Fort du Roule. Over to the right were the inner and outer breakwaters with the old French forts guarding the entrance from the sea. Beyond the haze of smoke we could see part of our battle fleet engaging in shelling the seacoast batteries west of the town. Within this flame, the city lay in a bowl from which billows of smoke poured up in the places where the Germans were destroying stores of oil and ammunition. As we watched one of our heavy batteries fired a perfect concentration onto a German position just west of Fort des Flamands. It was a thrilling and in a sense, awe-inspiring sight. I knew that Cherbourg was ours and directed Tubby [General Barton’s nickname] to push one of his Regiment’s into the eastern section of the city before that night.’

The local population turn out to greet their liberators. NARA-111-SC-190414-S

As Colonel Luckett looked out across the burning city from a German bunker above Tourlaville, he was joined by Major-General Barton and General Roosevelt. Barton was confident that 12th Regiment’s attack had been meticulously planned and gave its commander his full support, ‘It’s your show Jim... Run it anyway you see fit... I’ll back you one hundred percent of the way.’

A GI surveys the burning city. Fort du Roule, on the left, has recently fallen to the Americans. NARA-111-SC-190971

Tanks blew holes in the German barricades and the engineers cleared mines from the along the railway while the infantry waited to advance. 2nd Battalion was first off the mark, moving quickly along Rue du General Leclerc into the Les Mielles area. Nebelwerfers retaliated, firing a barrage of oil-filled shells; the range was too far and the missiles exploded harmlessly behind the battalion. 3rd Battalion followed, working its way through the industrial area along Boulevard Maritime. Company K’s advance came to a halt as it crossed Rue Etienne Dolet; pillboxes on the Quai du Normandie had a clear view of the quayside and the company commander redirected his men to follow Company I along Rue Carnot.

The two battalions cleared their objectives in record time and, General Wyche’s permission pushed on into 79th Division’s area, reaching Rue de la Bretonnière. 1st Battalion’s came under fire as it crossed Rue Carnot en route to Fort des Flamands, the Napoleonic fort protecting the eastern approaches to the port. The French Resistance had warned Colonel Luckett about a number of pillboxes along the seafront and the information had been confirmed by an unexpected source:

‘1st Battalion was assisted by a woman member of the British espionage, who gave detailed descriptions of the fortifications which were the objective of the battalion. She warned that the attack should not be attempted with infantry alone, since the Germans in concrete dugouts were twelve metres underground.’

It was too dark to deploy tanks and while Major Johnson organised his men, 155mm howitzers fired a supporting barrage, each gun firing one round per minute:

‘The first artillery concentration fell at 23:24, exactly on the designated line, one block in front of the troops, and blew up an ammunition dump. The second concentration moved forward 100 yards and the third one hundred yards further, setting fire to buildings in the area. The final concentration was delivered at 23:34 and at 23:40.’

4th Division advances to the sea front.

The walls of Fort des Flamands. NARA-111-SC-191047

Fort des Flamands from the inside, showing the devastating effect caused by bombing and shelling.

Guarding a silenced pillbox on the quayside. NARA-111-SC-191004-S

The bombardment was devastating. Buildings burst into flames and collapsed in heaps of rubble while Company C followed as close as it dare. Some men reached the bunkers and, while others gave covering fire, pushed pole charges through the firing slits. The men inside showed no signs of surrendering and as casualties began to mount, Major Johnson ordered his men to regroup. The Germans had other ideas. As Company C crawled back to safety, dragging their wounded with them, flares were fired, illuminating the area. The battle raged throughout the night as 1st Battalion fought to rescue their men trapped around the bunkers, but the deadlock was only broken when tanks arrived at first light. As Major Johnson positioned the Shermans ready for a final assault, white flags started to appear; 350 soldiers eventually filed out of the pillboxes.

German engineers had demolished large parts of the port before they surrendered. NARA-111-SC-191503

As VII Corps worked its way into the streets of Cherbourg, German engineers continued to systematically destroy the port facilities and throughout the night GIs watched as the city rocked with explosions:

‘Cherbourg waterfront glows with the destruction of installations by the enemy. The Germans were busy destroying installations and it was difficult to tell at the time which explosions were their demolitions and which were our artillery fire. Early in the night Fort des Flamands went up in flames, followed a little later by the Amcot Aircraft works, the Gare Maritime, Fort de Chavagnac and other buildings.’

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