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Normandy After D-Day: June 7-30, 1944

Slow Progress Through France

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

But airpower could not be decisive alone. The Germans already in Normandy were dug in well enough to survive strafing, rocket, and bombing attacks on their lines. They could move enough men, vehicles, and materiel at night to keep on fighting. Once in Normandy, their mobility was somewhat restored, because they could move along the leaf-covered sunken lanes. The frequently foul weather gave them further respite. Low clouds, drizzle, fog -- for the Germans, ideal weather to move reinforcements to the front or to reposition units. And there were more of those days than there were clear ones.

Over the first ten days of the battle, the Germans fought so well that the Allies measured their gains in meters. By June 16, the euphoria produced by the D-Day success was giving way to fears that the Germans were imposing a stalemate in Normandy. These fears led to blame and recriminations among the Allies.

The difficulty centered around the taking of Caen. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery, commanding the ground forces, had said he would take the city on D-Day, but he had not, nor did he do so in the following ten days. Nor was he attacking. The British Second Army had drawn the bulk of the panzers in Normandy to its front. It was at Caen that the Germans were most vulnerable, because a breakthrough at Caen would put British tanks on a straight road through rolling terrain with open fields headed directly for Paris. Therefore the fighting north of Caen was fierce and costly. But there was no all-out British attack.

The Americans, themselves frustrated by their glacial-like progress in the hedgerows, were increasingly critical of Montgomery. Monty sent it right back. He blamed Gen. Omar Bradley, commanding U.S. First Army, for Allied problems, saying that the Americans should have attacked both north toward Cherbourg and south toward Coutances, "but Bradley didn't want to take the risk." Monty added, "I have to take the Americans along quietly and give them time to get ready."

Normandy, the land of fat cattle and fine orchards, and thus of excellent cheese and outstanding cider, had gone from pastoral idyll to battlefield overnight. War came as a shock to the Normans, who had quite accommodated themselves to the German occupation. We get some sense of how it was for the Normans before and during the battle in a top secret report from OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in London direct to President Franklin Roosevelt. Dated June 14, it was based on "an entirely reliable source," an unnamed Frenchman who went into Normandy for a day and interviewed residents.

Highlights: severe gasoline shortages immobilized many German vehicles and even entire units; the general belief among both Frenchmen and Germans was that the Normandy landing was but the first of a series and the next one would be at Pas-de-Calais; people were well fed and clothed; the behavior of the Germans during the four years of occupation had been "extremely correct"; "there is no food shortage apparent in the restaurants, although prices are very high. Source states that the wine cellar of the Lion D'Or hotel is excellent."

The political gossip had it that "de Gaulle is regarded as a symbol of French resistance, but not liked personally. Pétain is not hated by the majority of persons with whom source spoke; he is regarded merely as a poor, tired, old man. A picture of him in the Mayor's office has been replaced by one of Marshal Foch."

All over France, citizens were looking at the portrait in their hôtel de ville (city hall), wondering about the right moment to take Marshal Pétain down and put Marshal Foch -- or, perhaps, who knows? -- General de Gaulle up. Or maybe Stalin. All over France, Gaullist and Communist-dominated resistance groups were wondering about the right moment to strike -- against the Germans and in a simultaneous bid for power in France.

At the top, through June, the Allied high command squabbled. At the front, the soldiers fought. They got through to the west coast of the Cotentin on June 18, to Cherbourg on the 20th. It took a week of hard fighting to force a surrender on the 27th, and even then the Germans left the port facilities so badly damaged that it took the engineers six weeks to get them functioning. Meanwhile supplies continued to come in via LSTs.

With Cherbourg captured, Bradley was able to turn U.S. First Army, now composed of the V, VII, VIII, and XIX Corps, in a continuous line facing south. St.-Lô and Coutances were the objectives of this second phase of the Battle of Normandy. To get to them, the GIs had a lot of hedgerows to cross.

To get through the hedgerows, junior officers in the tank units had been experimenting with various techniques and methods. One idea that worked was to bring to the front the specially equipped dozer tanks (tanks with a blade mounted on the front similar to those on commercial bulldozers) used on the beaches on D-Day. They could cut through a hedgerow well enough, but there were too few of them -- four per division -- to have much impact. A rush order back to the States for 278 additional bulldozer blades was put in, but it would take weeks to fill.

In the 747th Tank Battalion, attached to the 29th Division, someone -- name unknown -- suggested using demolitions to blow gaps in the hedgerows. After some experimenting, the tankers discovered that two fifty-pound explosive charges laid against the bank would blow a hole in a hedgerow big enough for a Sherman tank to drive through. Once on the other side, the tank could fire its cannon into the far corners, using white phosphorus shells, guaranteed to burn out the Germans at the machine-gun pits, and hose down the hedgerow itself with its .50-caliber machine gun. Infantry could follow the tank into the field and mop up what remained when the tanker got done firing.

Good enough, excellent even. But when the planners turned to the logistics of getting the necessary explosives to the tanks, they discovered that each tank company would need seventeen tons of explosives to advance a mile and a half. The explosives were not available in such quantities, and even had they been the transport problems involved in getting them to the front were too great.

An engineer suggested drilling holes in the embankment and placing smaller charges in them. That worked, too -- except that it took forever to dig holes large enough and deep enough in the bank because of the vines and roots, and the men doing the digging were exposed to German mortar fire.

A tanker in the 747th suggested welding two pipes of four feet in length and six inches in diameter to the front of a tank, reinforced by angle irons. The tank could ram into a hedgerow and back off, leaving two sizable holes for explosives. The engineers learned to pack their explosives into expended 105mm artillery shell casings, which greatly increased the efficiency of the charges and made transport and handling much easier. Some tankers discovered that if the pipes were bigger, sometimes that was enough to allow a Sherman to plow right on through, at least with the smaller hedgerows. Other experiments were going on, all across Normandy. The U.S. First Army was starting to get a grip on the problem.

It was also growing to its full potential. The buildup in Normandy, slowed but not stopped by the storm of June 19, was proceeding in fine shape. By June 30, the Americans had brought in 71,000 vehicles over the beaches (of a planned 110,000) and 452,000 soldiers (of a planned 579,000). The shortfall in soldiers was felt exclusively in supply and service troops: the combat strength of the First Army was actually greater than originally planned. It had eleven divisions in the battle, as scheduled, plus the 82nd and 101st Airborne, which were to have been withdrawn to England to prepare for the next jump, but which were retained on the Continent and kept in the line through June. The British Second Army also had thirteen divisions ashore, including the 6th Airborne.

The Americans had evacuated 27,000 casualties. About 11,000 GIs had been killed in action or died of their wounds, 1,000 were missing in action, and 3,400 wounded men had been returned to duty. So the total active duty strength of U.S. First Army in Normandy on June 30 was 413,000. German strength on the American front was somewhat less, while German losses against the combined British-Canadian-American forces were 47,500.

That the GIs were there in such numbers, and so well equipped if only partly trained, was the great achievement of the American people and system in the twentieth century and equal to the greatest nineteenth-century achievement, the creation of the Army of the Potomac. In 1864 and again eighty years later the American democracy gathered itself together and although sorely tested by three years of war was able to provide the men and matériel Grant and Eisenhower each needed to carry out a war-ending offensive.

In most cases the GIs were much better equipped than their foe. Some German weapons were superior, others inferior. In vehicles, the United States was far ahead, in both quality and quantity. The Germans could not compete with the American two-and-a-half-ton truck (deuce-and-a-half) or the jeep (the Germans loved to capture working jeeps, but complained that they were gas-guzzlers). The German factories making their vehicles were a few hundred kilometers from Normandy. Their American counterparts were thousands of kilometers from Normandy. Yet the Americans got more and better vehicles to the battlefront than the Germans did, in less time.

Copyright © 1997 by -Tubbs, Inc. Afterword copyright © 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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