Why were so few Luftwaffe attacks flown against the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944?

Why were so few Luftwaffe attacks flown against the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944?



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Why were so few Luftwaffe attacks flown against the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944?

I understand there were roughly 200 aircraft available in France/Belgium, and yet there were only 2 aircraft that strafed one of the beaches? The answer I found via google was "the aircraft were held back until reinforcements could be brought up from Germany."

I am wondering if there were other reasons. For example:

  • Fuel availability
  • Allied air superiority over the beaches
  • Holding the aircraft in reserve for the anticipated invasion at Calais

The Allies seemed to be expecting the Luftwaffe, judging by the number of barrage balloons over the beaches. Why was the Luftwaffe held back when the Allied invasion forces were at their most vulnerable?


The Allies had air superiority (as quant_dev commented) is the basic explanation. I'll try to add some details.

First of all, ground support trained pilots were in short supply. Most pilots stationed in France were trained on bomber interception, not close ground support. Pilots/units with this training were usually stationed on the Eastern Front. Training for pilots in general was limited due to shortages of instructors, training aircraft and fuel. Instructors, particularly those in non-interceptor roles, were increasingly assigned to combat units. By the end of 1944, all flight instructors were reassigned to combat units.

German pilot ranks were also decimated by several months of aerial combat against the technologically better P-47 and P-51 fighters and better trained Allied pilots. Over 2000 German fighter pilots had died in combat in 1944 prior to the invasion. This left less experienced pilots for the most part with the job of mounting a defense. They did manage to launch about 100 sorties during the invasion but these were generally ineffective, as you noted.

Adding to this was confusion over the nature of the invasion. As you also noted, German commanders thought that the Normandy invasion was a feint to mask an invasion in the Calais area by Patton's (fictional) First U.S. Army Group. Thus they held their ground and air reserves to meet this perceived threat.

If the strategic bombing of Germany hadn't been as successful, the invasion would have been a much more iffy proposition than it was.


That only two aircraft attacked on June 6th is a myth perpetuated by the movie The Longest Day. What we see in the movie was the attack of two FW-190A8 of Jagdgeschwader 26 "Schlageter", piloted by Oberstleutnant Josef Priller (wing commander of JG 26) and Unteroffizier Wodarczyk.

Priller survived the war (at the rank of Oberst, Inspector of Day Fighters (East)), wrote a history of JG 26 from his point of view, and actually worked as technical advisor on the movie set of The Longest Day.

You can see him (his character at least), played by Heinz Reincke, talking about how his squadrons were relocated away from the coast due to incessant bombing of the forward airfields (that order been given on June 4th).

That, plus the 30-to-1 numerical superiority of the Allies in the theater, are good reasons why there was comparatively little Luftwaffe activity.

However, there were several other missions. The YouTube channel Military Aviation History has a very nice video summarizing Luftwaffe operations on D-Day.


Of course, the two planes pictured in the movie are not even remotely looking like FW-190's. They appear to be Bf 108's, which were unarmed. ;-)


Not true, my father was at Arromanches on D-day and over following days. They were attacked repeatedly by Ju-88 aircraft dropping Oyster mines within the Mulberry harbour at Arromanches. My rather had a B&W photo of one such aerial mine impacting the sea inside the harbour

He said on one occasion a Ju-88 attacked so low its propellers lifted plumes of spray off the sea behind it.

My father also recalled that his ship (LCH-187) fired on a low flying Spitfire with no invasion stripes. This aircraft was definitely a captured Spitfire flow by Zirkus Rosarius


The Weather Forecast That Saved D-Day

In contrast to the bright morning about to dawn over Portsmouth, England, on June 4, 1944, gloom settled over the Allied commanders gathered inside Southwick House at 4:15 a.m. Years of preparation had been invested in the invasion of Normandy, but now, just hours before the launch of D-Day operations, came the voice of Group Captain James Stagg urging a last-minute delay. As Operation Overlord’s chief meteorological officer, the lanky Brit was hardly a battlefield commander, but the ultimate fate of D-Day now rested in his decision-making.

Allied troops packed tightly into an aquatic landing craft wait for their turn to face the Germans at Normandy.

The disappointed commanders knew that the list of potential invasion dates were only a precious few because of the need for a full moon to illuminate obstacles and landing places for gliders and for a low tide at dawn to expose the elaborate underwater defenses installed by the Germans. June 5, chosen by Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower to be D-Day, was the first date in a narrow three-day window with the necessary astronomical conditions. The massive Normandy landings, however, also required optimal weather conditions. High winds and rough seas could capsize landing craft and sabotage the amphibious assault wet weather could bog down the army and thick cloud cover could obscure the necessary air support.

The critical, but unenviable task of predicting the English Channel’s notoriously fickle weather fell to a team of forecasters from the Royal Navy, British Meteorological Office and U.S. Strategic and Tactical Air Force, and as D-Day approached, storm clouds brewed inside the meteorological office. 

Observations from Newfoundland taken on May 29 reported changing conditions that might arrive by the proposed invasion date. Based on their knowledge of English Channel weather and observations, the British forecasters predicted the stormy weather would indeed arrive on June 5. The American meteorologists, relying on a differing forecasting method based on historic weather maps, instead believed that a wedge of high pressure would deflect the advancing storm front and provide clear, sunny skies over the English Channel.

Group Captain James Stagg

In the early hours of June 4, Stagg believed foul weather was only hours away. He sided with his fellow British colleagues and recommended a postponement. Knowing that the weather held the potential to be an even fiercer foe than the Nazis, a reluctant Eisenhower agreed in the early hours of June 4 to delay D-Day by 24 hours.

On the other side of the English Channel, German forecasters also predicted the stormy conditions that indeed rolled in as Stagg and his fellow Brits had feared. The Luftwaffe’s chief meteorologist, however, went further in reporting that rough seas and gale-force winds were unlikely to weaken until mid-June. Armed with that forecast, Nazi commanders thought it impossible that an Allied invasion was imminent, and many left their coastal defenses to participate in nearby war games. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel even returned home to personally present a pair of Parisian shoes to his wife as a birthday present.

German Luftwaffe meteorologists, however, relied on less sophisticated data and models than their Allied counterparts, says John Ross, author of “The Forecast for D-Day: And the Weatherman behind Ike’s Greatest Gamble.” “The Allies had a much more robust network of weather stations in Canada, Greenland and Iceland of weather ships and weather flights over the North Atlantic and observations by secret agreement from weather stations in the neutral Republic of Ireland,” he says. 

Those weather stations, in particular one at a post office at Blacksod Point in the far west of Ireland, proved crucial in detecting the arrival of a lull in the storms that Stagg and his colleagues believed would allow for an invasion on June 6. As rain and high winds lashed Portsmouth on the night of June 4, Stagg informed Eisenhower of the forecast for a temporary break. With the next available date for an invasion nearly two weeks away, the Allies risked losing the element of surprise if they waited. In spite of the pelting rain and howling winds outside, Eisenhower placed his faith in his forecasters and gave the go-ahead for D-Day.

Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower speaking with troops before the invasion of Normandy.

The weather during the initial hours of D-Day was still not ideal. Thick clouds resulted in Allied bombs and paratroopers landing miles off target. Rough seas caused landing craft to capsize and mortar shells to land off the mark. By noon, however, the weather had cleared and Stagg’s forecast had been validated. The Germans had been caught by surprise, and the tide of World War II began to turn.

Weeks later, Stagg sent Eisenhower a memo noting that had D-Day been pushed to later in June, the Allies would have encountered the worst weather in the English Channel in two decades. “I thank the Gods of War we went when we did,” Eisenhower scribbled on the report. He could also have been thankful for Stagg overruling the advice of the American meteorologists who wanted to go on June 5 as planned, which Ross says would have been a disaster. 

“The weather over Normandy contained too much cloud cover for Ike’s greatest strategic asset, the Allied air forces, to effectively protect the landings from German armor, artillery and infantry reserves. Winds were too strong for the deployment of paratroopers to secure bridges and crossroads inland from the beaches thus preventing German reinforcement of coastal positions. Waves were too high for landing craft to put soldiers and supplies ashore. The key element of surprise—location and time—would have been lost, and the conquest of western Europe could well have taken another year.”


The Luftwaffe’s Secret Squadrons During World War II

Along with several German planes abandoned by the Nazis, U.S. First Army troops found this P-47 with German markings at an airfield near Goettingen, Germany.

Andrew J. Swanger
September 1997

The history of the German Luftwaffe in World War II has been examined by scores of authors and eyewitnesses. The case of Kampfgeschwader (Battle Wing) 200, or KG 200, is a different story, however. The real story of this special Luftwaffe unit has remained shrouded in mystery, and most members maintained their silence after the war. The commander of the unit, Colonel Werner Baumbach, a winner of the Knight’s Cross and a celebrated Junkers Ju-88 bomber pilot, did not even mention KG 200 in his memoirs, Broken Swastika.

KG 200 was a unique unit, which operated a wide variety of aircraft—from the Blohm und Voss Bv-222 Wiking (one of the the largest flying boats of the era) to the Junkers Ju-52, Ju-90, Ju-290 and Ju-188, the Heinkel He-111, and even captured British and American aircraft such as the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.

The earliest incarnation of KG 200 was Special Squadron Rowehl, a unit subordinate to the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization. Colonel Theodor Rowehl, who had been a reconnaissance pilot in World War I, heard rumors that Poland was building new forts along its border with Germany. Now a civilian, Rowehl began flying photoreconnaissance missions over Poland in civilian aircraft. (Military planes were not allowed to fly in that area.) The Abwehr was impressed with Rowehl’s photographs and paid him to continue his flights. From 1930 to 1934, Rowehl flew solo reconnaissance flights as a civilian. A short time later, he put together a squadron of airmen that was given an official military designation. His efforts led to the creation of a unit operating for the Luftwaffe’s 5th Branch (air intelligence). The new unit flew high-altitude photoreconnaissance missions over all of Europe, Africa and the Soviet Union in a wide variety of military and civilian aircraft.


KG200’s operational aircraft included six Junkers Ju-188s and a pair of captured and renovated Boeing B-17s, redesignated Dornier Do-288s. (National Archives)

During the late war period, when the Abwehr fell under a cloud of mistrust due to anti-Hitler activities, the prestige of the squadron suffered through its association with the intelligence arm. Captain Karl Edmund Gartenfeld, a specialist in long-range reconnaissance and navigation and in inserting agents behind enemy lines, formed his own new unit in the summer of 1942. By 1944 his squadron, the 2nd Test Formation, had grown to a group of four squadrons.

KG 200 was officially formed by order of the German air force high command on February 20, 1944. In March 1944, the 2nd Test Formation was united with the 1st Test Formation, a research squadron. This combined unit came under the command of then Lieutenant Colonel Werner Baumbach and was renamed KG 200. The 2nd Test Formation became the first group of the new KG 200, and Gartenfeld was replaced by Major Adolf Koch. Within days, 32 types of aircraft were ready for use, complete with 17 fully trained crews. Heavy training began at once, and by the end of July 1944, five new crews were ready, and refresher classes had been provided for 75 additional crews. Even at this early stage special missions were already being flown.

KG 200 was divided into several sections, each of which had subsidiaries across the German empire. The first group (I/KG 200) handled agent work the first squadron (1/KG 200) handled long-distance operations 2/KG 200 covered short-range operations from various “outstations” 3/KG 200 was concerned with transport and training duties and was based at the Baltic island of Ruegen, later Flensburg 4/KG 200 handled technical matters. The second group (II/KG 200) provided pathfinders, radar-jamming aircraft, bombers and Mistel composite aircraft 7/KG 200 handled replacement and training for II/KG 200.

The first two groups of KG 200 were the only ones ever fully developed, although several other projects were planned. III/KG 200 was to have fitted Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighters with torpedoes but never did. IV/KG 200 was the training and replacement group for KG 200 and trained the nearly 100 “self-sacrifice” pilots who flew the Reichenberg modified V-1 suicide weapons. KG 100, which handled Fritz X and Hs 293 guided missiles, was also associated with KG 200. The fifth long-range reconnaissance group flew Ju-90s and Ju-290s on their missions. The test unit of the Luftwaffe commander flew high-altitude reconnaissance and testing aircraft and also conducted evaluation flights of captured Allied aircraft.

2/KG 200 covered different combat fronts from various outstations. The headquarters of each outstation was located in a wooded area, and the airfield had to appear abandoned during the day in order to avoid unwanted Allied scrutiny. Outstation Carmen, in northern Italy, covered the western Mediterranean, the southern Mediterranean, and North and West Africa. Outstations Klara and Toska handled the Eastern Front, and Detachment Olga covered Western Europe, England, Ireland and Iceland (and later took over Carmen’s areas as well).

By 1944, because of the increasing action on the Western Front, Detachment Olga at Frankfurt am Main was very busy. Olga was commanded by P. W. Stahl, an experienced pilot who had flown supply missions in the fall of 1942 to Finnish long-range reconnaissance units operating deep in Soviet territory. His book, KG 200: The True Story, is one of the few accurate accounts of the unit.

Despite its importance, Outstation Olga was little more than a rough runway beside a forest. The command post consisted of two huts hidden in the woods. The operational aircraft included six Junkers Ju-188s and a pair of captured and renovated Boeing B-17s, redesignated Dornier Do-288s. Enemy “Jabos,” as the Germans called Allied ground-attack aircraft, were overhead so often that personnel took the precaution of dodging from tree to tree, never appearing in the open during daylight.

Detachment Olga was responsible for landing agents in France, which was under Allied control. The KG 200 pilots usually dropped agents by parachute, but on some flights they would drop a personnel drop device—a metal and plywood container holding three agents and their equipment that would parachute to earth. The KG 200 pilots made supply runs to keep their covert activities in operation.

Agents were trained at the Reich Main Security Office’s well-fortified luxury hotel, on a mountain in southwestern Poland. The hotel was ringed by guards and could be reached only by cable-car. Upon graduation, the new agents were sent to KG 200 for transport to their areas of operation.

These secret missions were only flown at night, and the runway lights were turned off as soon as the aircraft had taken off or landed. Under cover of darkness, as they dropped their passengers or acted as airborne listening posts, the KG 200 pilots and planes were relatively safe from attack. Landing was another matter the airfields often came under attack and were extensively damaged while the KG 200 pilots were in the air, making landing impossible and leading to the loss of airplanes and crews.

Pressed by a shortage of long-range aircraft, KG 200 used captured Allied aircraft—given German markings—to fly their missions. Phyllis Marie, a Boeing B-17F, was one example. Phyllis Marie went down with battle damage on March 8, 1944, at Werben, Germany. The plane was captured and repaired from the large stock of B-17 spare parts that the Germans had amassed during the years of heavy daylight bombing attacks by U.S. planes. Phyllis Marie was painted with German markings, but otherwise it remained unchanged. U.S. forces recaptured the plane on a runway at Altenburg on May 4, 1945.

By July 1944, the war was turning against the German Reich on all fronts. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, commander (under commander in chief of the SS, Heinrich Himmler) of all SS intelligence operations and head of the Reich Main Security Office, informed the KG 200 operations officer that he needed to provide a plane that could fly almost to Moscow, land and unload cargo and people, all unnoticed. The purpose of that mission, code-named “Operation Zeppelin,” was to kill Josef Stalin. The aircraft chosen for the job was the Arado Ar-232B—a four-engine version of the Ar-232A Tatzelwurm (Winged Dragon)—known as the Tausendfüssler (Millipede) because of the 11 pairs of small idler wheels under the fuselage that were used to land on unprepared fields.

On the night of September 5, two agents, their baggage and their transport were loaded aboard, and the Ar-232B took off. The agents intended to reach Moscow, where they had a place to stay. They carried 428,000 rubles, 116 real and forged rubber stamps and a number of blank documents that were meant to gain them entry to the Kremlin so that they could get close to Stalin.

There was no word from the plane until long past its maximum projected flying time, and it was assumed lost. Then a radio message came from one of the agents: “Aircraft crashed upon landing, but all crew members uninjured. Crew has split up into two groups and will attempt to break through to the west. We are on the way to Moscow with our motorcycle, so far without hindrances.” The two would-be assassins were later captured at a checkpoint when a guard became suspicious of their dry uniforms on a rainy day. Some of the German crew did manage to make it back to friendly lines, but others had to wait until the end of the war to return.

Bizarre schemes and deceptions such as the Stalin assassination plot came from both sides. In October 1944, an agent who had been dropped behind Russian lines suddenly resumed contact with his controller in Germany with an astonishing story to tell. He was in contact with a large German combat group𔃀,000 men strong–that was hiding in the forested and swampy region of Berezino, roughly 60 kilometers east of Minsk. The Germans, under the command of a Colonel Scherhorn, had been caught behind Russian lines during the Wehrmacht retreat that summer. German intelligence accepted the report as true. KG 200 was dispatched to provide the German troops with supplies that the German high command hoped would allow Kampfgruppe (Battle Group), and for Scherhorn to break out and return to German lines. Not until April 1945 did the Germans learn that “Colonel Scherhorn” was in fact a Soviet operative using the name in an elaborate ruse.

KG 200 was also in charge of the German suicide pilots. The Germans mirrored the Japanese kamikaze efforts with the Reichenberg IV suicide bomb. The concept was developed by a glider pilot who was a veteran of the famous 1940 assault on the Belgian fortress of Eben Emael. As the war turned against Germany and his fellow pilots were slaughtered, he thought that if glider pilots were to be sent to perish, they should be armed with a suitable weapon to bloody the enemy. The Reichenbergs were to be piloted by “self-sacrifice men.” Thousands of men volunteered for vaguely defined “special operations,” and 70 of them were sent to KG 200.


“Reichenbergs” were a manned variant of the V-1 buzz bomb, designed to be piloted by "self-sacrifice men." (National Archives)

Although these men were trained on gliders, they were to fly a manned variant of the V-1 buzz bomb. The V-1, also known as the Fiesler Fi-103, was already in mass-production for its primary purpose as a flying bomb. The German Research Institute for Gliding Flight at Ainring modified the V-1 to carry a pilot. By 1945, however, the attitude toward using the flying bomb had changed so much that only criminals or pilots who were in a depressed state or were ill would be allowed to fly Reichenbergs.

As early as 1942, researchers also began to develop Mistel (mistletoe), a piggyback aircraft—a smaller aircraft mounted above a larger, unmanned aircraft such as a medium-sized bomber. After a series of false starts, the combination settled upon was a Messerschmitt Me-109 or Focke-Wulf Fw-190 fighter atop a Junkers Ju-88 bomber. The machines were joined by a three-point strut apparatus, which was fitted with explosive bolts that would sever the connection when the carrier aircraft—armed with an 8,377-pound hollow-charge warhead in the nose—had been aimed at its target. The warhead would detonate on impact in an explosion that could penetrate 8 meters of steel or 20 meters of ferroconcrete.

By May 1944, the first operational Mistels were delivered to 2/KG 101, a unit closely affiliated with KG 200. The unit was originally slated to attack Scapa Flow in northern Scotland, but the Allied invasion of Normandy changed that plan. On the night of June 24, 1944, Mistels were dispatched against targets in the Bay of the Seine, in the English Channel. Although one of the Ju-88s had to be jettisoned prematurely, the remaining four pilots had successful launches and sank several block ships.

Luftwaffe planners placed all Mistels under the aegis of KG 200 and Colonel Joachim Helbig, an expert Ju-88 pilot. Task Force Helbig was handed a daunting and audacious plan—it had been decided that the Mistels would be used to single-handedly cripple the Soviet war industry. The operation, known as Plan Iron Hammer, was the 1943 brainchild of Professor Steinmann of the German Aviation Ministry, who had pointed out the benefit of raiding selected points in the Soviet infrastructure in order to damage the whole. Iron Hammer was meant to attack the Soviets’ Achilles’ heel—their electrical generation turbines. The Soviets relied on a haphazard system of electrical supply with no integrated grid, which revolved around a center near Moscow that supplied 75 percent of the power to the armament industry. The Germans sought to destroy an entire factory system in one quick blow.


Near the Junkers airfield between Stassfurt and Bernberg, Germany, Army units found this “Mistel” Junkers Ju88/FW 190 combination. (National Archives)

The mission called for KG 200 to launch strikes against power plants at Rybinsk and Uglich and the Volkhovstroi plant on Lake Ladoga. The planes were to drop Sommerballon (summer balloon) floating mines. In theory, a Sommerballon would ride the water currents until it was pulled straight into the hydroelectric turbines of a dam, but the weapon never performed as designed. In addition, the unit soon became short on fuel, and the operation was halted.

Iron Hammer was resurrected in February 1945, with several new twists. The Soviets had overrun all the advance bases included in earlier planning, so the attack would have to be launched from bases near Berlin and on the Baltic. Mistels would now be the primary weapon. Furthermore, Iron Hammer had become a part of a master strategy to regain the initiative in the East. After the strike rendered the Soviet production centers impotent, the Wehrmacht would wait until the Soviets had exhausted their front-line materiel. Freshly rearmed Waffen SS divisions would swarm northward from western Hungary, attempting to drive straight to the Baltic Sea and catch the advance elements of the Red Army in a huge pincer movement. After the Soviets had been eliminated and Central Europe was safe, the Germans would negotiate a separate peace with the Western Allies, and the struggle against Bolshevism could be continued. Iron Hammer was never launched, however. American daylight raiders destroyed 18 Mistels at the Rechlin-Laerz air base. With this main strike force gone, the entire mission was rendered moot even before Iron Hammer was officially canceled.

On March 1, 1945, Hitler appointed Colonel Baumbach to the post of plenipotentiary for preventing Allied crossings of the Oder and Neisse rivers. At his disposal were Mistels and Hs-293 guided bombs. On March 6, an Hs-293 hit the Oder bridge at Goeritz. The same bridge was attacked two days later by five Mistels escorted by Ju-188 bombers. The Ju-188s scattered air defenses, and the Mistels destroyed two bridges.

These victories and those in following days did little to change the inevitable outcome of the war. KG 200’s remaining pilots and machines were shuffled to various air bases in futile attempts to destroy the Oder bridges. In Berlin, Baumbach was replaced by another officer, who released the KG 200 headquarters group on April 25, 1945. Some men changed into civilian clothes and attempted to reach the Western Allies, while others proceeded to Outstation Olga to continue the fight.

The American advance into Germany forced the relocation of Outstation Olga from Frankfurt am Main to Stuttgart, and then again to the Munich area, where the unit settled inside a Dornier aircraft factory. Stahl and company continued their duty until the situation became untenable. He issued discharge papers and a final service pay and said goodbye to his men.

After the war, the Allies sought out members of the ‘ominous secret group,”sure that they had been involved in spiriting Nazi officials out of Europe. The continuing mysteries and half-truths about KG 200 prompted Stahl to write KG 200: The True Story, “to clear up this business of ‘Hitler’s spy Geschwader.”’ He also attempts to justify his unit’s record: “The fact that not a single former member of KG 200 has ever been accused of any specific misdeed, nevermind prosecuted, speaks for itself.”

This article was written by Andrew J. Swanger and originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!


In June 1944, There Was One Way To Save the Normandy Beachhead: Take Cherbourg

It was the storm that forced the battle. On June 19, 1944, a massive gale hit the English Channel, sweeping in from the west, hitting the gigantic artificial harbors the Allies had built on their D-Day invasion beaches. By daylight on the 20th, the artificial roads and piers had disappeared under waves that reached eight feet high. For three days, the storm tore at the British breakwaters off Arromanches and the American ones at St. Laurent-sur-Mer, destroying the American harbor entirely and badly damaging the British piers. More than 140,000 tons of supplies were destroyed, and 800 ships lost or beached.

When General Omar Nelson Bradley, who commanded the U.S. First Army and later the 12th Army Group, visited the battered artificial harbor, he wiped sea spray from his eyes and kicked the sand in frustration. “Nothing pained us more than the beaches. Each day the deficit mounted until we fell thousands of tons in arrears, especially in ammunition.” Down to three days’ supply of ammo, Bradley postponed his drive south until the port city of Cherbourg was taken. In the meantime, ammunition would be rationed, if necessary.

The general strode around the ruined harbor and said to a naval lieutenant, “Hard to believe a storm could do all this.”

The lieutenant responded, “General, we would much sooner have had the whole damned Luftwaffe come down on our heads.”

The losses were greater than anything the Germans had been able to inflict on the Normandy beaches with their V-weapons, bombers, and midget submarines, and the Allied offensive now seemed stalled. The Americans were down to two days of ammunition, and the British were three full divisions short. Only a fifth of the planned quantities of supplies could be landed on the remaining artificial harbor on the British invasion beaches. A replacement harbor was urgently needed. The nearest one was Cherbourg. Without it, the invasion of Normandy might fail.

Cherbourg: Crucial Harbor in Normandy

The capture of Cherbourg had been a central factor in the planning of the invasion of Normandy since the site had been chosen in 1942. The famed harbor had been used by Atlantic freighters and passenger liners ranging from tiny coal boats to the massive Titanic. It had been a mile off this harbor that, in 1864, the Union warship Kearsarge defeated the Confederate raider Alabama during America’s Civil War. The latter ship had been preying on Union merchant shipping in the English Channel.

Now, with its piers, docks, and cranes, Cherbourg was the logical first target port to be seized after the Allies came ashore in Normandy on D-Day, June 6. Everyone who could read a map could see that. The problem was, Adolf Hitler could read a map, too.

With the Americans streaming in through the bocage country, driving across the Cotentin Peninsula, headed straight for Carteret and the opposite Baie du Mont St. Michel, it was obvious that the American strategy was to cut off Cherbourg from reinforcement, then move on the isolated port city and seize it from the rear. Just as obviously, Hitler was determined to defend Cherbourg like every other position he might lose: to the last man and last bullet.

Von Schlieben’s Defenses

To do so, Hitler ordered Lt. Gen. Wilhelm von Schlieben, who commanded four divisions on the peninsula, to hold Cherbourg. If he could not, the city had to be captured as a “field of ruins.” Schlieben, described by his later British interrogators as an obedient toady, went straight to work.

Von Schlieben had the parts of four divisions under his command: the elements of his own battered 709th Infantry Division, which had originally held Utah Beach the 243rd Infantry Division, which held the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula parts of the 77th Infantry and the 91st Air Landing Divisions, which had been cut off by the American advance and other odd outfits: the 30th Mobile Brigade, the Seventh Army’s tough mechanized Sturm Battalion, two battalions of French R35 and S35 tanks (training outfits that had been activated after the invasion), battalions of nebelwerfer rocket artillery, and a variety of fortress command units in the city itself, including a battalion of German Marines.

Most importantly, von Schlieben had under his command a fairly modern fortress in Cherbourg itself. The city was surrounded by a ring of hills upon which the Germans had deployed strongpoints with machine-gun, antitank, and 88mm gun emplacements, along with tank barriers. Behind that stood older French forts that had held up the Nazi offensive of 1940, now reinforced with heavy guns and German engineering. The guns were a mixed bag—one battery consisted of two captured British 3.7-inch antiaircraft guns, part of the loot at Dunkirk. Batteries named “Querqueville” and “Hamburg” could fire out to sea with 280mm shells that could damage American and British warships sent in to provide covering fire.

Lee McCardell, covering the advance for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, wrote, “So-called pillboxes in the first line of German defenses … 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 surrounding ground, the forts were heavily armed with mortars, machine-guns, and 88mm rifles. Around the forts lay a pattern of smaller defenses, pillboxes, redoubts, rifle pits, sunken … mortar emplacements permitting 360-degree traverse, observation posts and other works. Approaches were further protected by minefields, barbed wire and anti-tank ditches at least 20 feet wide at the top and 20 feet deep. Each strongpoint was connected to the other … by a system of deep, camouflaged trenches and underground tunnels.”

Even so, the Germans had key disadvantages. Most of the 21,000 defenders came from second-line divisions and lacked both equipment and determination. The 709th had very few vehicles and had been battered since D-Day. A fifth of the defenders were Polish and Russian former prisoners of war who had put on the German uniform rather than starve to death in Nazi POW camps. One Russian, who commanded several such “Ost” units, when drunk admitted to “wanting a bit of plunder.” Supplies were short, air cover nonexistent, and every road could be hammered by ubiquitous American and British fighter-bombers or warships.

Nonetheless, Cherbourg would not be an easy nut to crack, and in charge of the offensive would be one of the U.S. Army’s best leaders, Lt. Gen. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, who had already won his spurs by defeating the Japanese on Guadalcanal. Now this veteran of two amphibious campaigns was leading the U.S. VII Corps, heading north to crush the defenders of Cherbourg.

Three Divisions Under Lightning Joe Collins

Collins had three divisions available: the veteran 4th Infantry, which formed the first wave at Utah Beach the 9th Infantry, which had fought in North Africa and the new 79th Infantry, which was as well trained and equipped as the other two. All were backed up by independent tank battalions, plenty of artillery, squadrons of fighter-bombers, and warships from the U.S. and Royal Navies offshore, including the massive battleships USS Texas and USS Arkansas, whose 14-inch guns could crush the fixed German coast defenses.

Collins was the son of an Irish Catholic immigrant who wound up in New Orleans as a Union drummer boy in the Civil War. Born in Algiers, Louisiana, Collins got into West Point through his uncle, political boss and longtime New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman. A member of the class of 1917, he was appointed chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Delos Emmons, who replaced the luckless General Walter Short as commander of the Hawaiian defenses. Collins got his brigadier general’s star in February 1942, and command of the 25th “Tropic Lightning” Division in May 1942, leading the Army on Guadalcanal. His superb performance gave Collins command of VII Corps and the invasion of Utah Beach, which was highly successful.

Collins was ahead of the storm and the game. Two days before the storm hit, he was planning his attack on Cherbourg. His plan was to line up his three divisions: the 9th on the left, the 4th on the right, and the 79th in the center, and grind up the peninsula to the city, with the two veteran divisions acting as pincer hammers with the 79th as the anvil in the center. Cherbourg would be attacked from three sides, with naval support. Simple and deadly attrition would do the job.

Assault on Cherbourg

The attack went in on the 19th, ahead of the storm. The 9th Infantry attacked on the left, sweeping through the German defenses quickly, reaching their objectives at Rauville-la-Bigot and St. Germain-le Gaillard before noon. The 4th Cavalry Regiment faced a little more opposition but reached its objective of Rocheville. To hold the gap between the 9th Infantry and the 79th, Collins borrowed the 1st Battalion of the 359th Infantry Regiment from the 90th Infantry Division. So far the 90th had performed poorly, but this battle might give the division’s men a chance to shape up.

Major Randall Bryant, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, led his men, surprising himself and his team by bouncing a bazooka round off a road and into the belly of a German tank.

By mid-afternoon, the 9th Infantry was ready to continue the attack and moved ahead with the 39th Infantry Regiment reaching Couville and the 60th reaching Helleville. That evening, the 4th Cavalry Regiment entered St. Martin le Gréard. The 9th Infantry was doing well.

Meanwhile, the 79th attacked from its line of Golleville to Urville, and its 313th Infantry Regiment reached its objective, the Bois de la Brique, west of the small city of Valognes, against slight resistance. The 315th was supposed to bypass Valognes, but resistance held it up. The 79th contained the city from the west.

The veteran 4th Infantry Division headed north backed by the 24th Cavalry Squadron, which screened the right flank. The Americans jumped off before daylight, anticipating having to face the tough Sturm Battalion and the 1,000-odd men of the 729th Regiment. Private William Jones, of the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, helped dig out Germans holding on near Montebourg. “They would lay there and fire at you until they ran out of ammunition and they would jump up and surrender. They were real dedicated people,” he said later.

Shermans Against German Anti-Tank Weapons

The Germans fought back from deep entrenchments, and it took until dawn before the attack could continue with tank support. When the Sherman tanks showed up, the Germans withdrew. Company B, 70th Tank Battalion, circled the Germans from the rear, battling concealed antitank guns.

Bob Knoebel, a gunner in a lead Sherman, said, “We were going from one side of the road to another, and our tank was instantly on fire. In fact, I glanced in back of me and flames were already up in the air, just that quick.”

Knoebel bailed out and slid down the sloping front of his tank, landing on the road. Just ahead, German soldiers brandished their weapons and beckoned Knoebel and his lieutenant to become prisoners. Knoebel and his lieutenant ran away instead, reaching another tank, whose commander urged Knoebel to join his crew. Knoebel slipped into his gunner’s slot, and the tank rolled out, trying to flank the antitank gun that had knocked out Knoebel’s old tank.

Instead, Knoebel’s new tank was hit by German panzerfaust antitank shells, which knocked it out, and Knoebel was hit in the legs. He crawled into a nearby ditch, but the Germans finally captured him.

Private Harper Coleman, a D-Day veteran, also in 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry, said, “This was the way it was for most of the time, one hedgerow to the next on your stomach, or lower, if you could. Many incoming shells to all sides and Burp … guns all the time. We would advance some distance and bog down when no one could go forward. After some time there would be the next order to start another attack. This went on day and night.”

Streets Strewn With Rubble

By 6 pm, the 8th Infantry Regiment was near Valognes, and the 22nd entered the deserted town of Montebourg. The 22nd Infantry found the city destroyed and civilians—dirty, frightened, and bewildered—hiding in cellars.

“They are living in the most extreme poverty,” wrote Lieutenant John Ausland to his family. “Clothing as such is unknown. All they have are rags. Dirty berets are the most common head dress for men. Women’s dresses are torn and dirty.”

The streets were so rubble choked that engineers had to bring up bulldozers to clear them. Engineer Sam Ricker said, “When we entered Montebourg, there wasn’t anything there but rubble. It was our job to clean the roadways out. Most of the time we took a bulldozer and they moved all this debris to the sides where trucks and jeeps and different vehicles could advance.”

The 4th moved along through the heavy storm that pounded the D-Day beaches. “The rain and wind made conditions unbearable for the men in the field,” one soldier wrote.

But the weak German resistance was not a sign that they were collapsing. Von Schlieben was carrying out his orders to withdraw to Cherbourg, offering just enough resistance to keep the Americans moving slowly.

That the Americans did. On June 20, the 4th Infantry finally popped out of the murderous bocage country and into Valognes, finding the city choked with rubble but the Germans gone. It was worse than Montebourg, and the bulldozers took several days to clear the roads. They kept moving until they reached their objective at the Bois de Roudou, just in front of the main German defense line.

Two regiments of the 79th also headed north up the N13 highway until they hit the main German line. The Germans fell back so fast that the Americans captured four intact light tanks and an 88mm gun at one point and eight more tanks at another.

188 Tons of Supplies

The 9th Infantry had a harder time, intending to cut off the most northwesterly part of the Cotentin Peninsula, the Cap de la Hague, which was perceived as a possible last-stand area for the Germans. The 60th Infantry’s advance was rapid until noon, when heavy German artillery fire stopped the veteran 60th Infantry from reaching its initial objective, Hill 170.

The 1st and 2nd Battalions attacked abreast north and south of the Bois de Nerest and came under heavy German fire from 88mm and 20mm guns. Lt. Col. James D. Johnston, commanding 2nd Battalion, was mortally wounded by shellfire. Maj. Gen. Manton Eddy, who commanded the division, altered his plan and attacked to the north, taking positions on the crossroads formed by the junction of the les Pieux and Cherbourg roads. With those arteries in hand, the Americans tried to turn east but were stopped in their tracks. “Road marches were over,” wrote official historian Gordon Harrison. “Hard fighting lay ahead.”

The VII Corps now faced a belt of concrete and field fortifications in a semicircle four to six miles from Cherbourg. With their usual thoroughness, the Germans covered every approach route into the city, with antitank obstacles in stream beds and antiaircraft guns configured for land defense. To defend these entrenchments, von Schlieben formed Kampfgruppe Mueller, under Lt. Col. Franz Mueller, using pieces of the 243rd Division. This outfit held the line from Vauville to Ste. Crois-Hague. Next came the 919th Infantry Regiment and the 17th Machine-Gun Battalion under Lt. Col. Guenther Keil. Next was the 739th Regiment under Colonel Walter Koehn and then the 729th under Colonel Helmuth Rohrbach.

The defensive positions were strong the troops, however, were inferior. Some battalions were down to 180 men. Von Schlieben told his bosses that he needed three full divisions with tanks and regular resupply to hold Cherbourg. He had none of the above. At least he had plenty of ammunition for immediate needs, and the German Navy tried to help out, delivering supplies by E-boat and U-boat, while the Luftwaffe used 107 transport planes to drop 188 tons of supplies into the besieged perimeter.

Cherbourg Encircled

As rain and wind poured down on the front, the Americans used June 20 and 21 to tighten up the line and reorganize. From extensive aerial reconnaissance, the French Underground, and radio intercepts, the Americans had a fairly complete grasp of the German defenses.

Meanwhile, the 4th Infantry continued to move ahead, trying to cut the main road from Cherbourg to St. Pierre-Eglise, but German resistance kept them 500 yards short of their objective, Hill 158.

On the 21st, the skies cleared and the 8th and 12th Infantry Regiments attacked northwest into the main Cherbourg defenses, heading for high ground 800 yards northwest of Bois de Roudou. The 8th first had to clear out V-1 launching sites and found the defenders very determined, holding out in concrete shelters. The 1st and 3rd Battalions fought their way out of the woods, and the 2nd Battalion brought in tanks to finish cleaning out the defenders. Some 300 prisoners were taken in the attack.

The 12th Infantry was stopped by a blown bridge, so it halted for the day. By end of the 21st, Cherbourg was sealed off, with all three U.S. divisions ready to attack. With supplies short and the American artificial harbors, codenamed Mulberry, wrecked, taking Cherbourg was even more vital. Collins told his men that the attack was “the major effort of the American army.”

“It Was Really a Hellhole”

That night, Collins tried diplomacy to take Cherbourg. He broadcast a surrender demand to the defenders in German, Russian, Polish, and French, giving von Schlieben until 9 am on the 22nd to capitulate. Von Schlieben did not answer the request.

To rip up the German fixed defenses, Collins called for the IX Bomber Command and the British 2nd Tactical Air Force to hammer the defenders. After the British Hawker Typhoons and North American P-51 Mustangs did their job, the Ninth Air Force’s Lockheed P-38s and Martin B-26 Marauder bombers pounded the German strongpoints.

The American plan called for the 9th and 79th Divisions to attack into the city while the 4th Division sealed Cherbourg. The 9th Division’s objective was Octeville to Cherbourg’s west, while the 79th would grab Fort du Roule, the Vauban-style French-built fort that garrisoned the city’s southern approaches. H-Hour was to be 2 pm.

At 12:50 pm, the RAF attacked, their Typhoon rockets creating an incredible din for 20 minutes, which cost the British 24 fighter-bombers to flak. Then wave after wave of American heavy bombers roared in, 375 in all, hammering the German fortifications with armor-piercing bombs and high explosives.

Lieutenant Gabriel Greenwood, a 27-year-old fighter pilot in the 405th Fighter Group, described the defenders’ antiaircraft barrage: “It was as though the earth had erupted and spread … up into the sky through our planes. I never saw so much flak, tracers, flares, or felt so many concussions before.” Nonetheless, Greenwood made his attacks. “It was really a hellhole. A battlefield in all its awful magnificence.”

The American pilots struggled through flak and smoke created by the earlier attacks and had trouble spotting targets. Lieutenant Edward Michelson, zooming along at 300 mph in his P-38, saw a scene of chaos. “The ground fire was so intense it seemed the only safe place to be was below treetop level.”

Another pilot, Captain Jack Reed, got his plane filled with shrapnel. “We were on the deck in a ravine and all hell broke loose,” he said. He saw two P-38s near him get turned into fireballs in seconds.

Lieutenant Alvin Siegel of the 358th Fighter Group dropped his bombs on gun emplacements and then saw a truck on a road as he pulled out. “I peeled off and dove,” he said. “At that altitude I just barely had enough time to line up on the truck, squirt a short burst of fire and pull up immediately. I had to pull up right away to keep from going into the ground. I looked around and the truck was burning mightily and black smoke was curling up into the air. There must have been some type of munitions in the truck that made it burn so black.”

But the attacks were not all successful. There were numerous “friendly fire” incidents, and by 1:30, forward American positions were asking that the air attacks be stopped. The fighter attacks ended at 2 pm when the troops went forward.

The medium bombers hit the Germans blind to provide the attackers with a rolling barrage. The bombers smacked the Germans but also hit their own troops, making the 9th Infantry suspicious of close air support for the rest of the war.

The bombing did little good. While it disrupted German communications, killed German soldiers, and kicked up a lot of gun positions, it did not pulverize the defenses. The attacks were neither well coordinated with the advance nor accurate.

Breaking the German Defenses

As a result, all three divisions made slow advances against the German defenses, which showed ample determination. The 47th Infantry headed for Bois du Mont du Roc, while the 60th headed for Flottemanville. The Americans bypassed defenders, relying on their practiced “holding attack” tactic. In this, one battalion would engage defenders and pin them down, while a second and third moved around to cut the Germans off. It worked, but it was slow work. “It became necessary to destroy these prepared positions one by one,” the division historian wrote.

Private First Class Dominic Dilberto’s I Company of the 39th Infantry found the air force had done its job in their sector, discovering dead Germans in a blasted position. “Their bodies were bloated, black and emitted a sickening stench,” he said. “This area was dotted with huge coastal emplacements. In one such pillbox, we found a dazed German officer just sitting there waiting for us. He was our first prisoner.”

Dilberto and his crew were lucky. Pfc. Lloyd Guerin, a replacement in the 9th, was assigned to deal with a sniper whom a tank had just flushed out. “He might as well have told me to build a stairway to heaven,” Guerin said later. “I didn’t know what to do.” He and a pal crawled 100 yards up a ditch. “I looked back and the other guy wasn’t there. When I got a little further the sniper stopped firing. I don’t know what happened—either someone shot him or he left. But the tankers said it was okay, so I went back. The squad leader asked me what happened, and I said, ‘Job completed,’ or something like that.”

The 79th Division moved forward, three regiments abreast, up the N13 highway, and ran into a strongpoint that straddled the road at les Chevres. The 3rd Battalion of the 313th Infantry attacked the strongpoint on the left, while the 1st attacked frontally in the usual holding attack, which broke the German line. Next came the German fortified antiaircraft position at la Mare a Canards, and the 313th had to stop there.

The 314th fought in draws east of Tolelvast until dark, when a battalion slipped around the Germans. Here, the 314th was a few hundred yards from the main German Army switchboard but did not know it. The bunker was not discovered, and for a day or so the Germans had an excellent observation post right behind American lines.

The 79th relied on artillery fire to blast holes in the German wires and communications, but the larger forts were impervious to even large-caliber shells. Lieutenant Bryon Nelson, an artillery forward observer, called in fire on the German pillboxes. “The 155mm projectiles literally bounced off the pillboxes,” he said. The Americans had to dig out the Germans by crawling under their fire, and relying on satchel charges, grenades, and flamethrowers.

McCardell told his Baltimore newspaper readers that the typical American soldier “hadn’t had his shoes off in a week. His feet were killing him. He would have given $10 for a clean pair of 10-cent socks. Aside from canned rations, he carried only what he wore plus his canteen, a shovel, an ammunition belt, an extra bandolier, a knife, his bayonet, and his rifle.”

At one point, Colonel Bernard B. MacMahon’s 315th Infantry faced a major defensive position at Les Ingoufs. A Polish deserter showed MacMahon that the guns there had been destroyed, so MacMahon gambled on psychological warfare. He brought up loudspeakers to demand a German surrender. Out came large numbers of German soldiers, waving white flags, arms raised. A group of five German officers followed them, asking if MacMahon could save German honor and everybody’s lives by firing a few phosphorous shells into the position so their commander could feel he “had satisfied his obligation to the Führer and surrender.”

MacMahon had no phosphorous shells. Well, how about five phosphorous grenades? MacMahon could find only four. They were duly tossed into a cornfield, and the garrison and field hospital surrendered, sending 2,000 German, Russian, and Polish POWs into the bag.

“You German SOBs, You Killed My Buddies”

The 4th Infantry had a tougher time, attacking toward Tourlaville with confused fighting. The Germans mounted infiltrating counterattacks into the rear of the American forward battalions. The 22nd Infantry was surrounded for a while and had to fight to keep its supply routes clear. On the left flank, the 8th Infantry had to capture high ground east of La Glacerie in the triangle between the Trotebec River and its main tributary. The 8th came under heavy fire from Germans behind the ubiquitous Normandy hedgerows and artillery. It lost 31 killed and 92 wounded. Treebursts tore men apart.

Lieutenant John Ausland called in fighter support, but the 12 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts that answered the request missed La Glacerie’s emplacements. “The Germans simply came out of their dugouts after the bombardment was over and started firing. Later in the day, with the help of tanks, the battalion captured the stronghold and took over 60 prisoners,” he said. “While some of the guns had been destroyed by air bombardment, most of them were intact.”

The victory upset Lt. Col. Carlton McNeely, who commanded 2nd Battalion, 8th Infantry. One of his subordinates, Captain George Mabry, found McNeely sitting behind a tree, head in his hands, crying. Mabry sat next to McNeely and asked what was wrong.

“George, it tears me up to see so many of our fine young men being killed like that,” McNeely said.

Mabry agreed but urged McNeely to put his feelings aside and say, “You German SOBs, you killed my buddies, I’m going to get 10 more of you for that. We cannot afford to let the death of our friends affect us so much because it will affect our ability to fight and lead.”

McNeely saw the point. After talking for a while, he regained his composure.

The 12th Infantry had a tough time, too. Lieutenant Ralph Hampton, a forward observer, said of the hedgerow country, “You couldn’t see more than 50 yards. You had to use a map to know where you were. The map had lines on it for each hedgerow—looked like a spider’s web. Those hedgerow battles were very severe, with ‘screaming meemies’ and poor observation.”

The Americans struggled to defeat well-concealed antitank guns and defenders lying in wait with panzerfaust rocket launchers, the first disposable antitank weapon. The German panzerfaust crews blew up Sherman tanks before the Americans knew the Germans were there. Clarence McNamee, a tank crewman in B Company, 70th Tank Battalion, saw one of his company’s tanks take a direct hit from an antitank gun. The tankers abandoned their vehicle and ran behind it, which was the wrong thing to do. The next German shell hit the tracks of the damaged tank and killed the crew members. “It was sickening,” McNamee said later. “While killing became second nature, this was a friend. He had played accordion for us just the night before.”

“It is Your Duty to Defend the Last Bunker”

The American advance on the 22nd was slow against desperate and determined German resistance, but Collins saw signs the Germans would crack. A lot of POWs were coming in, including some of the odds-and-sods that Von Schlieben had to use for defense: labor troops, military police, coast artillerymen, and Russian and Polish “volunteers” who had little desire to lose their lives against Americans.

Some Germans endured. One teenager from the Reich Labor Service wrote of the bombing, “An inferno descended—roaring, shattering, shaking, crashing. Then quiet. Dust, ash, and dirt made the sky gray. A horrific silence lay over our battery position.”

Von Schlieben knew the game was probably a loser, too. But Hitler tried to buck up his spirits with a harsh message on the 22nd, which read, “Even if the worst comes to the worst, it is your duty to defend the last bunker and leave to the enemy not a harbor but a field of ruins … the German people and the whole world are watching your fight on it depends the conduct and result of operations to smash the beachheads, the honor of the German Army and of your own name.”

Von Schlieben was not impressed. He reported to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, his boss at Army Group B, that his men were exhausted in body and spirit, the port garrison was over-aged and undertrained, and many men were suffering from verbunkert, or bunker paralysis, being unwilling to fight outside their ferro-concrete positions. Many of his troops from the 77th and 243rd Divisions lacked leaders and were mostly drains on his food and ammunition supply. Von Schlieben signaled, “Reinforcement is absolutely necessary.”

Rommel pondered what to do. He toyed with shipping the tough 15th Parachute Regiment from Brittany to Cherbourg by E-boat, lighter, and U-boat, but Allied naval supremacy shut that down. He pondered airdropping in the paratroopers, but they had not trained in that role, nor did Rommel have enough Junkers Ju-52 transports to do the job, and the droning tri-motored planes could not penetrate the Allied air umbrella either. The best the Luftwaffe could do was to parachute in bags of Iron Crosses that von Schlieben requested to present to his men. Cherbourg was on its own. At least von Schlieben and the Allied air force were doing the job Hitler wanted, blasting the port into ruins.

Hard Fighting For the 4th Division

Next day saw heavy fighting. All three divisions moved in through wrecked towns and villages. The 9th Infantry’s 39th Infantry Regiment cleared fortified positions west of Beaudienville, which had been bypassed. The 47th Infantry stormed Hill 171, capturing 400 prisoners. The Americans were now inside the outer defense ring, standing astride the ridge leading to Cherbourg. The 60th Infantry waited out a long-delayed artillery bombardment on Flottemanville and captured the town with little resistance. The 79th kept moving up, working around German defenses, battling German infiltration parties.

The 4th Division did not reach its primary objective of Tourlaville but made progress with its tank support. The American Shermans rolled into fields and steamed over German riflemen, which broke their will and resistance. The 3rd Battalion of the 8th Infantry launched its attack just as the enemy was about to launch its own, which enabled the Americans to rout the concentrated Germans with heavy fire.

The 4th Division had a hard day. Lieutenant Paul Massa, another forward observer, was operating with the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry. On the morning of June 23, he and his men were advancing about a hundred feet behind armor of the 70th Tank Battalion. The Sherman tanks sprayed the hedgerows with machine-gun fire. Suddenly there was an explosion, and the lead tank was hit. “The tank stopped, his motor roared like it had slipped out of gear, and then the lid of the turret flew open and the crew scrambled out. All except one man. He was trapped inside, and I heard his screams as he burned to death.”

Later, Massa found himself lying in a ditch sweating out an artillery bombardment when he found, of all things, a newspaper clipping that showed a photograph. “The caption told how Mrs. Natalie Pugash and her daughter of Tampa, Florida, were making a victory garden, while 1st Lt. Joseph Pugash was serving overseas with the Army.” Massa was pleased—Pugash was a pal from Artillery Officer Candidate School and in a nearby unit. Massa hung on to the clipping. Moments later, Massa’s radioman, Corporal Fishman, hopped into the ditch, and said, “Lieutenant Pugash is dead. His body is on the other side of this hedgerow.”

Massa said later he felt like he had been hit over the head by a sledgehammer. “If Fishman had said that my own brother was dead, it would not have hit me any harder. By this time, I had seen too many dead friends. I couldn’t bring myself to go look at Joe’s body.”

By dusk, the Americans had moved into the outer ring of the Cherbourg fortress, and von Schlieben knew the score. He radioed on the morning of the 24th that he had no more reserves and ordered his men to fight to the last cartridge. The fall of Cherbourg was inevitable. “The only question is whether it is possible to postpone it for a few days.” He also requested additional Iron Crosses with which to decorate his men, and more bags full of the medals were parachuted in by the Luftwaffe.

On June 24, the VI Corps continued to close in on the city. The 9th Division overran three defended Luftwaffe installations. German fire was heavy, but when the American infantry came up, defenses crumbled. The 47th Infantry helped the 39th capture an antiaircraft emplacement, then turned north to the old French fort of Equeurdreville, and the German battery north of it, the Redoute des Forches. They got there by dusk but postponed the attack until daylight.

The 314th Infantry attacked with support from dive-bombing P-47s to clear la Mare a Canards and move within sight of Fort du Roule. Three attempts to take the fort were frustrated, but the 313th, on the flank, cut down resistance west of La Glacerie and Hameau Gringot, hauling in 320 prisoners and several artillery pieces.

The Cherbourg defense was starting to collapse under the sheer weight of American firepower and the efficiency of American holding attacks, but the Germans continued to show their expertise in last-ditch stands, especially in the east against the veteran 4th Infantry. East of La Glacerie, German light artillery, antiaircraft guns, and mortars threw back the first American attack. The Americans tried again with tank support, and the Germans pulled out, another one of their specialties.

“Combat Efficiency Has Fallen Considerably”

The 8th Infantry lost 37 killed, including the commander of the 1st Battalion, Lt. Col. Conrad Simmons. The 12th Infantry also lost the commander of its 1st Battalion, Lt. Col. John W. Merrill, who had taken over the battalion only the day before. At Digosville, the Germans held an artillery position, so the Americans called in 12 dive-bombing P-47s to winkle them out. The Germans withdrew, leaving behind six field pieces because they were unable to move them. Tourlaville was occupied without a fight that evening, and the 12th Infantry hauled in 800 POWs.

Lieutenant Massa walked away from other survivors at Tourlaville and studied the route of advance. “Fragments from large-caliber shells mutilated and mangled human bodies. Dead men had huge holes through their bodies, and arms or legs torn off. One man was in a sitting position, with the top of his head neatly removed. The inside of his head was empty, as though everything had been scooped out,” he said later.

Von Schlieben’s new report to his bosses read, “Concentrated enemy fire and bombing attacks have split the front. Numerous batteries have been put out of action or have worn out. Combat efficiency has fallen off considerably. The troops squeezed into a small area will hardly be able to withstand an attack on the 25th.”

Next morning saw the U.S. and Royal Navies enter the battle, with three battleships, four cruisers, and screening destroyers trading salvos with the German coastal batteries.

At 4:30 am, the warships, battle ensigns snapping, steamed into action behind minesweepers. The English Channel was now dead calm after the storm. “The sea was glassy smooth under light airs, which barely increased after daylight,” wrote naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison. “There was a light haze which, as the ships approached the French coast, was enhanced by smoke from artillery fire and demolished bomb targets, blown over the water by an 8-knot southwest breeze.”

With Consolidated B-24 bombers and Grumman TBM Avengers flying antisubmarine patrol to the west and P-38s overhead for top cover, the warships bore down on three key batteries.

Then came the wait to fire or be fired upon. The Americans were not to fire until noon unless requested or fired upon, to avoid friendly fire incidents. But the Germans did not open up. Finally, the Germans opened fire at 12:05 pm, attacking the minesweepers. HMS Glasgow and HMS Enterprise, two light cruisers, answered back, and at 12:51 a German 150mm shell smacked into Glasgow’s port hangar. Four minutes later another hit her after superstructure. She pulled out of line, but Glasgow continued to fire on the aggressor, Battery 308, hurling 318 rounds of 6-inch shells to temporarily silence the Germans.

At 12:12, the battleship Nevada, a veteran of Pearl Harbor and D-Day, opened fire with her 14-inch guns, and 18 rounds later got the word from her spotter plane, “Nice firing. You are digging them out in nice big holes.” Ultimately, Nevada would fire 112 rounds of 14-inch and 985 rounds of 5-inch shells.

The bombardment went on for 90 minutes, with the British and American warships suppressing the German batteries. The Querqueville battery seemed to have a charmed life, surviving the fire of a battleship and four cruisers. Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo, commanding the force, was amazed at the large number of near misses, and a sailor on the cruiser USS Quincy remarked, “It’s just like throwing rocks at a bottle—no matter how many you throw, you can’t hit it.”

Artillery Duel With Battery Hamburg

The battleships Texas and Arkansas took on Battery Hamburg, and it seemed every hummock and hill had a German gun. The battery consisted of four 280mm (11-inch) gun turrets with powerful armor, protected by six 88mm antiaircraft guns. Texas and Arkansas traded rounds with the German battery, and a German shell hit the destroyer Laffey—it turned out to be a dud, and the damage control team pried it loose and hurled it overboard.

One of the hidden advantages the Americans had in the battle was the German use of slave labor in their factories … the sklavenarbeiter had no desire to see Germany win, so they sabotaged production as much as possible, often filling shells with sand or dirt instead of gunpowder.

Another shell hit the water on the destroyer Barton’s shoreward side and ricocheted into her hull, ripping through bulkheads. This 9.4-inch (240mm) shell also turned out to be a dud.

Soon both sides were blazing at each other. Battery Hamburg next nailed the destroyer O’Brien, when a 280mm shell sheared away the ladder to her bridge, scattering her signal flags and ripping into her combat information center. It killed 13 men and wounded 19. O’Brien’s skipper was Commander William Ward Outerbridge, who had commanded the destroyer USS Ward in the famous duel with the midget submarine at Pearl Harbor. He turned his ship north immediately and avoided further damage with help from a good smoke screen.

Taking three quick hits and near misses on battleships, the Americans and British decided to open the range. The Germans still tried to do damage. A gust of wind cleared the smoke screen away from Texas.

A Saturday Evening Post correspondent, Martin Somers, wrote, “A destroyer begins to lay a smoke screen. The destroyer just ahead of us gets four near misses. Water spouts high around her. An 11-inch shell misses us by 300 yards, but the enemy’s shooting improves rapidly. Four near misses … bracket us. We’re hit below the water line on the port side twice, but the 6-inch shells bounce off the heavy armor. The fierce blast of our own guns mingles with the explosion of near misses from the batteries.”

At 1:16 pm, a Battery Hamburg shell skidded across the top of the Texas’s conning tower, wrecking the bridge, killing the helmsman, and wounding 11 men. Texas’s genteel skipper, Captain Charles A. Baker, was thrown to the deck but not injured.

“Crash, shriek, and the sky has fallen, it seems. The enclosed bridge is suddenly dark, as glass, shrapnel and debris of all sorts fly around us. Clouds of yellow brown smoke obscure everything, and we simply do not know what has happened,” Somers wrote.

The executive officer in the conning tower promptly took control, keeping Texas in the game, hurling a shell at Hamburg that pierced her armor and knocked out one of the big guns. Another shell landed in the cabin of ship’s clerk, Warrant Officer M.A. Clark, but failed to explode. Somers went down to sick bay to check on the wounded. The seriously injured had “broken and torn legs and arms, causing great loss of blood. All were suffering from intense shock. Without transfusions they would not have had a chance to survive.”

The bombardment raged for another hour, until 3:01, when Admiral Deyo ordered his ships to pull out, for fear that their shells might hit advancing American troops. Collins was pleased with the result, writing later to Deyo, “I witnessed your Naval bombardment of the coastal batteries and covering strongpoints around Cherbourg … the results were excellent, and did much to engage the enemy’s fire while our troops stormed into Cherbourg from the rear.” They had tied down the German batteries and silenced some, buying time for the ground troops to close in and assault the positions.

Collins, watching from a hill outside the city, said, “It was a thrilling and … an awe-inspiring sight. I knew definitely then that Cherbourg was ours.”

White Flags From German Defenders

Meanwhile, VII Corps continued its advance. Under Major Gerden Johnson, the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, pushed hard north of Tourlaville against a coastal battery, which put out white flags. Johnson’s men moved forward with “Company B on the left disappearing down into a wooded draw. Suddenly Company B came under a barrage of mortar and 20mm anti-aircraft fire from the hill where the white flags were observed to still be waving. The barrage lasted for approximately 15 minutes.”

The barrage also took out the bulk of the battalion headquarters. Johnson rose from the mess and brought up some Sherman tanks, telling them to open fire on the defenders. The Shermans did so, and at 1:30 pm the garrison surrendered for real. The Americans showed restraint and took in 400 men and three massive 8-inch guns. The other two battalions entered Cherbourg itself that evening, hampered by scattered fire and mines. The 1st/12th fought all night to cut down pillboxes east of the Fort des Flamands. Early on the 26th, the Americans brought up tanks, and the 350 Germans in the pillboxes surrendered.

With that, the 4th Infantry’s part in the liberation of Cherbourg was done, but the fighting still raged. On the city’s west side, the 47th Infantry pushed through Cherbourg’s suburbs, heading for a fort at Equeurdreville. The fort stood atop a hill surrounded by a dry moat. But it was being used only as an artillery observation post and was not well defended.

On the morning of the 25th, a company of the 2nd/47th attacked the fort with mortar cover. In 15 minutes, the Germans were waving white flags. Simultaneously, the 3rd/47th attacked the Redoute des Forches with heavy artillery support. The German right collapsed, and the 9th Division streamed through, capturing more than 1,000 men.

Two Medals of Honor in Cherbourg

Von Schlieben had more bad news for his bosses: “Loss of the city shortly is unavoidable … 2,000 wounded without possibility of being moved. Is the destruction of the remaining troops necessary as part of the general picture in view of the failure of effective counterattacks? Directive urgently requested.”

On the afternoon of the 25th, Von Schlieben reported, “In addition to superiority in material and artillery, air force and tanks, heavy fire from the sea has started, directed by spotter planes. I must state in the line of duty that further sacrifices cannot alter anything.”

Rommel was stuck. All he could do was radio back, “You will continue to fight until the last cartridge in accordance with the order from the Führer.”

Meanwhile, the 79th Division continued its advance, aiming at Fort du Roule, the primary outer fort. The most formidable of Cherbourg’s defenses, Fort du Roule was built into the face of a rocky promontory above the city in best Vauban style. Its guns commanded the whole harbor and were in lower levels under the edge of a cliff. Above them were mortars, machine guns, and concrete pillboxes covering an antitank ditch.

To defeat this, the Americans sent in P-47s to bombard the position, but this had little impact. Next the Americans tried field artillery, with some effect. The 2nd and 3rd/314th attacked from the south but were pinned down by small-arms fire 700 yards from the fort. The Americans massed their .50-caliber machine guns and opened up on the defenders, shredding them and forcing the survivors to retreat. The 2nd Battalion then attacked through the 3rd Battalion’s cover, under heavy German machine-gun fire.

Now American valor shone. Corporal John D. Kelly’s platoon of E Company, 2nd/314th, was immobilized by German machine-gun fire from a pillbox. Kelly grabbed a 10-foot pole charge, crawled up the slope through enemy fire, and fixed the charge. It did not go off. He returned with another charge and this time blew off the ends of the German machine guns. Kelly returned up the slope a third time, blew open the pillbox’s rear door, and hurled hand grenades into it until the Germans emerged and surrendered.

At the same time, Company K of the 3rd/314th was also stopped by heavy German 88mm and machine-gun fire. Lieutenant Carlos C. Ogden, who had just taken over the company from its wounded commander, armed himself with rifle and grenades and advanced alone under fire toward the enemy emplacements. Despite a head wound, Ogden continued up the slope until from a place of vantage he fired a rifle grenade that destroyed the 88mm gun. With hand grenades he then knocked out the machine guns, receiving a second wound but enabling and inspiring his company to resume the advance. “I knew we were going to get killed if we stayed down there,” Ogden said later.

Both Kelly and Ogden were awarded the Medal of Honor. Kelly died of wounds in a subsequent action, on November 23, 1944, and lies buried in the U.S. Military Cemetery in Epinal, France. Ogden reached the rank of major before retiring from the Army, died in 2001, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Surrender of General Von Schlieben

Bravery of this nature further crumbled the German defenses, and white flags and surrenders started popping up in Fort du Roule. By midnight, the 314th controlled the fort’s upper defenses.

The 313th attacked from Hameau Gringor into the flats southeast of Cherbourg but could not get much farther, as they came under fire from the lower-level Fort du Roule guns, still not captured. To put the fort out of business, the Americans lowered demolitions from the captured top area, and used point-blank fire from antitank guns. Staff Sergeant Paul A. Hurst led a demolition team around the cliff’s west side, which finally overwhelmed the fort’s stubborn defenders.

The 47th Infantry had a hard time with a fixed defense, too, battling the old arsenal, which was studded with antitank, antiaircraft, and machine guns. Bad weather and heavy smoke from German demolition teams prevented the use of artillery. General Eddy, commanding the 9th, delayed his assault until the 27th.

It turned out to be a wise move. On the 26th, the 39th Infantry learned from a POW that von Schlieben was dug in at an underground shelter at St. Sauveur on Cherbourg’s southern outskirts. Von Schlieben had fled his tactical headquarters because of American shelling. At 3:06 pm, he fired off a last message to Berlin: “Documents burned, codes destroyed.”

Two companies of the 39th hustled over to take the general, hoping that he would then surrender the fortress. The Americans dashed through artillery and rocket fire to the tunnel entrance and sent in a POW to ask for von Schlieben’s surrender. The demand was refused. The Americans brought up two tank destroyers to fire into the bunker, and Eddy wrote later in his diary, “The tank destroyers’ projectiles had caused so much dust and fumes … that the German soldiers, once finding that the white flag had been raised, began to pour out. These Germans were in such a rush that they denied the General his wish for a more formal surrender. The avalanche of soldiers carried him and his party with it.” Out came von Schlieben, the top naval commander in Cherbourg, Rear Admiral Walther Hennecke, and 800 prisoners.

Von Schlieben accepted lunch from Eddy but would not order a general surrender for the fortress. He could not his communications had broken down. Just to add to his misery, Von Schlieben’s next meals consisted of K-rations, and there was no shower in the farmhouse where he was held, and the vehicle carrying his trunk from Cherbourg collided with a truck en route to the U.S. First Army’s command post. The general’s uniforms were strewn across the road and souvenir-hunting GIs got most of the gold braid and rank badges before MPs could pick them up.

20,000 More POWs

The 39th kept moving and bagged another surrender, 400 Germans dug in at Cherbourg City Hall. They surrendered when told that von Schlieben had gone in the bag. The Americans also promised protection from French snipers. Along with them was a mass of ragged male and female slave laborers who had built and maintained the fortress.

Lieutenant Byron Nelson, the 79th’s forward observer, entered the town and walked into a tavern called Emil Ludwig’s, right on the beach, alongside his division’s top brass. They found a picture of Hitler hanging on the wall. A colonel took it down and ground his heel “right in Der Führer’s face.” Nelson knew who had won this battle, he said later, “The lowly infantryman.”

Von Schlieben’s surrender had a domino impact on the remaining German positions. Next day, Eddy planned a three-battalion assault on the arsenal, but sent in a psychological warfare unit first to ask Maj. Gen. Robert Sattler, Cherbourg’s deputy commander, who headed the arsenal’s defense, for surrender. Told that von Schlieben had given up, Sattler ran up white flags, and the 47th Infantry took 400 more POWs without a fight.

Some 20,000 German prisoners tossed down their coal scuttle helmets, flipped on their peaked caps, and shuffled into captivity four abreast. Sergeant Hank Henderson, a 4th Infantry medic, watched them go by. “One little German corporal stepped out of ranks and said, ‘I would like to see that automatic artillery in action before you shoot me.’ He thought it was automatic because our batteries fired so rapidly,” Henderson said. Nearly speechless, Henderson told the corporal the artillery was not automatic and nobody was going to be shot.

“Best-Planned Demolition in History”

But 6,000 Germans still fought on in Cap de la Hague west and east of the city. To the east, the 22nd Infantry moved against the well-defended Maupertus airfield, attacking at 11 am on the 26th with all three battalions. It took the Americans all day to take the airfield.

After that, the 22nd turned to attack Battery Hamburg, which had stood off the Navy effectively. With fire from the 44th Field Artillery Battalion, the battery was soon silenced, and 990 Germans surrendered, filling the already swollen POW camps. With that, German defenses in the west Cotentin collapsed and armored cavalry found the area unoccupied.

Cap de la Hague was a tougher nut, with an estimated 3,000 troops defending it. On June 28, the 9th Division went in to sweep the area, while the 79th headed south to rejoin VIII Corps and the planned breakout.

The Americans attacked on the morning of the 29th, with the 47th Infantry on the north coast and the 60th in the center, on the main cape highway. Little resistance was found until the troops reached Beaumont-Hague, with GIs clambering through fortified but unoccupied positions to seize a ridge at Nicolle. From there, they assaulted a main German position with artillery support and bagged 250 prisoners.

The Germans were still fighting back, though, relying on antitank ditches and guns to stop the Americans in the open terrain. The 3rd/60th blasted through the Germans with tank destroyer and tank support and overran the key road junction on June 30. By the end of the day, the mop-up was complete, with about 6,000 POWs going in the bag, twice the number expected. The Cotentin Peninsula was liberated. Cherbourg was free. And the port was a wreck.

“The demolition of the port is a masterful job, beyond a doubt the most complete, intensive, and best-planned demolition in history,” wrote Colonel Alvin G. Viney, who prepared the original engineer plan for port rehabilitation. With nearly a month to blast open the port, von Schlieben’s demolition teams had done their work well, starting as early as June 7, the day after D-Day.

All basins in the harbor were blocked with sunken ships. The harbor was strewn with mines. Gare Maritime, which controlled the electricity and heating plant for the port, had been demolished. Some 20,000 cubic yards of masonry were blasted into the large, deep basin used in peacetime for liners like the Queen Mary. The entrance to this basin was blocked by two large ships. Quay walls were damaged. Cranes were demolished. The ocean poured through a cratered breakwater. “The whole port was as nearly a wreck as demolitions could make of it,” said the U.S. official history. Hennecke got an Iron Cross from Hitler for his efficiency.

The only good news for the Americans was that the city itself and its rail lines were in decent shape, so the Americans could move supplies and equipment into Cherbourg to clear the harbor speedily. And the city had fallen much earlier than expected, so the Americans had time to start unclogging the port.

Tallying the Losses on Both Sides

They also had time to count the cost. In the battle for the Cotentin and Cherbourg, VII Corps had lost 2,800 killed, 5,700 missing, and 13,500 wounded. German casualties were more difficult to count, but some 39,000 men had been taken prisoner. These would be shipped to American and Canadian POW camps across the Atlantic.

There the defeated men of Cherbourg met up with more determined German POWs, Afrika Korps veterans, and U-boat crews who were still full of Nazi elitism. They did not believe the Allies were winning the war. When the bedraggled Cherbourg POWs began pouring into camps in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Manitoba, they set their longer-held brethren straight—the Allies were stomping Germany thoroughly. It was a shock for men who had also fought with Rommel, albeit in happier times in North Africa.

Von Schlieben wound up in British hands, at the senior officers’ camp at Trent Park, where he and other generals whined to each other about their failures, as British wire recorders picked up every conversation for intelligence purposes. “With his pink complexion, round boyish face, huge bulk and lumbering gait he gives the appearance of an overgrown, mentally under-developed school-boy type who will bully his inferiors and toady to his superiors. At first very truculent. Polite firmness proved successful. Has more bluff than guts. Like most prisoners of war he is much inclined to self-pity. Conversation with him revealed colossal ignorance. He said the Russians were a primitive people who had achieved little. Scotland was a completely unknown place to him. He asked if it were hilly or flat,” the British assessment of von Schlieben wrote. He was freed in 1947 and died in Giessen in then West Germany in 1964.

Also devastated was Col. Gen. Friedrich Dollmann, who commanded the Seventh Army. Cherbourg fell under his command, and two days after the surrender Dollmann was found dead in his headquarters’ bathroom near Le Mans. Officially, he died of a heart attack. But his senior officers believed he committed suicide out of shame over the loss of Cherbourg.

Also upset was Hitler. Despite the “field of ruins,” Cherbourg had not held out as long as expected, and von Schlieben’s quick capitulation marked him down as a poor specimen of Nazi leadership.

Collins did better. Ahead for him was promotion to full general in 1948 and appointment as U.S. Army Chief of Staff in 1949. He served as U.S. representative on the NATO Standing Group after that, retired in 1956, and served as a consultant with Pfizer & Co. until April 1969. He died in 1987.

“Everybody Take 24 Hours and Get Drunk”

Now came the difficult task of cleaning up Cherbourg harbor, a Navy task, under Rear Admiral John Wilkes, who arrived on July 14, along with a few hundred Navy Seabees. They went to work, backed by six British and three American salvage vessels and scores of minesweepers, all veterans of port-clearing operations in North Africa, Palermo, and Naples. Some 133 mines were swept by July 13, but not all. By August 12, three American and one British craft were sunk.

The first freight was landed at Cherbourg on July 16, when Navy DUKWs began discharging cargoes from four Liberty ships on a specially cleared beach. But the main basins were not cleared until September 21, a three-month delay, which meant that the invasion beaches still had to be used to unload supplies. von Schlieben had done his work well. The log jam of supplies would mean that the Anglo-American advance, short of fuel, would sputter to a halt near the German frontier.

But on June 30, as engineers from the 101st Airborne Division rolled into town to help reduce strongpoints, these issues were all in the future. The engineers found massive damage to the city, but much of it intact. GIs puzzled over that French social artifact, the sidewalk urinal, and queued up to use the old Wehrmacht brothels, thoughtfully left intact and in business. Troops were warned about contracting venereal disease.

Instead, they culled souvenirs, of which there were plenty. The best one was a massive underground wine cellar liberated by the 9th Infantry Division. At first, General Eddy tried to keep his men from drinking it then he realized how impossible that was. Besides, his men had just fought a harsh and horrific battle.

“Okay,” he finally said. “Everybody take 24 hours and get drunk.”

This article by David H. Lippman first appeared in the Warfare History Network on November 29, 2016.


The Falaise Gap

Cobra led directly to the last great battle of the Normandy campaign, the closing of the Falaise gap.

Falaise Pocket map.

After striking south, American forces turned east, getting behind the German soldiers still trying to contain the Allies on the coast. Tens of thousands of Germans were surrounded on three sides by the Allies in a pocket of land west of the town of Falaise.

The Allies aimed to surround them by sending Canadian and Polish troops south to cut off the neck of the pocket and link up with the Americans.

Air power again came to the fore. As the Canadians and Poles advanced, they were supported by fighter-bombers attacking German positions. The Axis troops trying to flee through the gap also came under attack, pilots making the most of a target rich environment to hurt the Nazi war machine.

Germans surrendering in St. Lambert on 19 August 1944

Again, there were mixed results. The Germans took heavy losses, but the Allies also suffered, as a lack of coordination between air and ground forces led to friendly fire incidents.

However, the gap was closed, and the final great act of the Normandy campaign was complete. The RAF and USAAF, which had played a prominent role throughout, turned their eyes east for the advance on Germany.


13 Comments

Basically correct.
Rommel’s plan had a much better chance of being effective than Gehr’s. A central armored force would have to be moved forward by train (AFV) and road (PzGr and artillery). The Allies were shooting up any train they spotted and any traffic on the road, so either bad weather or night would be needed to move the central armored reserves to near the coast. The actual movement of German divisions was so hindered that the divisions arrived with substantial losses to their transport and, more important, strung out. It took days to get one division to the front and assembled.
This means that only infantry formations would be on the coast and the armored reserve would arrive piecemeal. The Allies would have been able to push inland much faster and possibly have cleared the hedgerow country along the coast.
A major German armored force would have to be hidden. If the Allies spotted a concentration of German divisions then Eisenhower had the authority to use the strategic air forces against it. Strategic bombing of concentrated German armored divisions would have destroyed the German reserves. Considering the Allies were reading the German encripted radio messages (via ULTRA) I don’t see how the Germans could have kept their concentration secret.
Even IF the Germans had managed to move close enough to the coast to launch an attack, probably at night, it would have to have been through the Norman hedgerows and once near the coast under Naval gunfire. Again, concentrating the German armor would have led to its destruction as a viable combat force.

I go with Rommel. Read DISASTER AT D-DAY- the Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944.

Hey I was wondering if I could discuss Tractics with you. Rob Kuntz and I were discussing it the other day with Bill Hoyer and I was wondering if we could exchange emails?

Not related to the Panzers at Normandy but is related to D-Day. Can anyone confirm Italian troops were fighting against the Allies in Normandy?

Gene, you might check Jim Heddelsten’s Commando Supremo site. He authored several articles for Italy in World War II on our partner site, HistoryNet.com.

Consider the experience of the Germans in early-mid 1944 with respect to amphibious landings – and Rommel’s logic becomes very clear.

Sicily, Salerno and Anzio all demonstrated the importance of immediately stopping the invaders at the water’s edge. At times, naval gunfire support was critical in the survival of the last two invasions and air support was successively more important each time.

It is easy to argue about this with the advantage of 20/20 highsight. We know about Ultra, and we have a great deal more experience with amphibious operations. Rommel didn’t. He worked from what he knew, and I suspect his plan would have worked.

Rommel’s response to von Rundsted, et.al. was “You’ve never tried to move armored formations against an enemy with air superiority.” What Rommel faced at El Alamein was very different than that faced by generals with experience on the Russian Front.

The German Generals with Russian front experience failed even more dramatically than Rundstedt in September 44. Russian veterans such as Blaskowitz and Båke squandered the brand-new Panzer-Brigades uselessly, not only because of their troops’ lack of training, but because of their ‘Russian-stock’ experience. Lack of reconnaissance and over-reliance on armour, superior numbers and ‘shock tactics’ failed to work against determined US and French troops, resulting in the biggest loss of German armour since Kursk. Rommel would have done better, but by then was dead.

I will read the book based upon a few things the author put into the excerpt!

I had the extreme pleasure 30 years ago of devoting 18 months of my life to researching and designing the board wargame THE LONGEST DAY for the Avalon Hill Company. I spend many hours in the captured German archives section of the National Archives. (It was pure joy!) Based on that research, I put several alternative WHAT IF scenarios into the game, one of which was exactly what the author proposed in the excerpt: Move 12th SS Panzer into the Isigny area. Had that been done, history may well habve been writ differently. Among some of the gems I uncovered were:

1. The Allies did not know that the 352 ID was behind Omaha Beach. (intermingling of regiments with the 716 staitc division added to the confusion.)

2. There was a Luftwaffe Sturm Flak Korps (the other 2 were in Russia) consisting of 144 mobile 88mm AT/AA guns in the area behind the Omaha and British beaches. In the first days, anecdotal British reports of “severe effect of fire from 88s” was the only contemporary evidence that this formation existed. The Allies were clueless.

3. Much of the German General Support artillery behind the front was provided by the considerable firepower of 3 Nebelwerfer Brigades that the Allies identified as “chemical smoke projector” units. Their throw weight was tremendous. Again, the Allies were clueless and did not prioritize their targeting.

4. FWIW, I have seen no evidence of Italian combat troops in Normandy in June 1944. Sounds a litle late. About 20 Russian POW battalions (Osttruppen or Hiwi) have been well documented in the area on D-Day.

I think locally positioned armour could have succeeded but only as part of a combined response, namely harassing attacks in the Channel by the Kreigsmarine and in the skies by the Luftwaffe. The finite capabilities of the landing forces would have been divided on three axis.

The effect of partisans and communist forces can not be discounted in this treatise. It would not have simply been 12.SS, 116.Pz and other armoured units battling the landing forces, but rather the German forces having to use resources to guard against attack and sabotage.

You would think after years of fighting the Russians and getting steady diet of ‘maskirovka’ the Germans could have spun a little themselves.

If Rommel had moved 12SS to the Vire estuary area, 12SS would have definitely intervened to crush the Omaha landings and probably moved to block 4th ID coming off Utah, engaging the 81st and 101st AB in the process. That would have changed history.

However, the Cdn 3ID and 2nd AB would have taken Carpequet Airport and British and Canadian forces would have captured the high ground to the south of Caen before Panzer Lehr could arrive. That would be a game changer.

With Gold, Juno and Sword beachs secure, British and American forces could pivot to encircle the 12SS forces to the east of the Vire estuary and destroy them while the American forces off Utah would be fighting a whole separate battle, but be in no danger of being driven into the sea.

Canadian and British forces with no Germans on their right flank, and with British armoured formations penetrating deeply into France would outflank Panzer Lehr and the late to arrive 2nd Panzer. I do believe the allies would be on the Seine by June 30th in this scenerio of moving 12SS to the Vire estuary.

Panzer Lehr…..Caen Sword/Juno Sectors
Hitler Jugend…Liseaux East Orne LZ’S
21st Pz………….Vire Estuary Omaha Sector/
Pz Stug Abt. Von der Hydte Carentan

I have to disagree, Don. If the 12 SS, or any major armored unit, had reached the beaches in force the invasion would have been in great peril and all available allied forces would have had to have been deployed against them. In fact such breakthrough almost did occur. An infantry kampfgroup from the 21st Panzer division broke through to the beaches on the late afternoon of June 6. It forced the British drive on Caen to be delayed.

That was one battalion! Can you imagine the entire 12 SS smashing its way to the coast and rampaging up and down the beachheads? Catastrophe!

With 12 ss straddling the Vire Estuary to protect both the Contenin Peninsula and the Omaha Area, Rommel probably would not have moved the detached paratroop regiment up from Brittany. 12 ss was a formidable formation but the weakened Cdn 2nd Inf Div and 2nd Arm Bgde coming off the beaches fought the numerically superior Hitler Youth to a standstill. They could not smash through to the coast. They were not supermen. 12ss was forced on to the defensive.

Isolate 12ss at Omaha and with some formations moving on Utah, and the successful British landing at Gold, with 7 armored div and an additional armored Brigade could pivot and pin 12ss to the coast, The Germans would be getting hammered from the air and bombarded from the sea, and cut off from resupply. The outcome would be their annihilation.

21st Panzer reached the coast between Juno and Sword as there were no allied forces to stop them. The beaches were not joined up. It was a drive relocation to the coast, not a break through, and when British Fireflys, artillery and warships concentrated fire on this force,it fled back to Caen as it was taking casualties and losing tanks. The British drive on Caen was delayed by a huge traffic jamb on Sword beach that delayed landing the armored battalion that was to advance on Caen for hours. The British Infantry Brigade that was supposed to be on the left flank of the Canadians where 21st panzer drove through was diverted, two battalions to the Orne to reinforce the paras and one to reduce a fortress at Lion sur Mer.

True, the Americans would take terrible casualties at Omaha, but Caen would be encircled by mobile forces off Gold, including Americans landed there (Bradley’s plan B) and 12ss would cease to exist. The Mobile warfare that would have developed behind Caen against the highly mechanized allied forces backed by air power was not the Germans forte.


Feldgrau.net

There were just two Luftwaffe aircraft over the landing beaches on 6 June. Other missions were ordered. Some reconissance over the Channel to determine the size of the Allied fleet, and some reconissance/bombing missions. Some of these were canceled before take off, others aborted, chased away, or shot down.

In Northern France and Belgium the Luftwafe strength was approximatly 200 aircraft, but only about 140 were combat aircraft and fit for combat. There were Luftwaffe contingency plans for 'surging'' aircraft from the Reich to France were the Allies to invade. The bulk of the aircraft already in France/Belgium were held back on 6th June until the situation became clear and reinforcements from Germany arrived.

Most of the Luftwaffe activity in subsequent days was at night. Regular bomb raids were made on the beachhead during June. Daylight missions were a few reconissance sorties, and some interceptor missions.

Post by FalkeEins » Sun Aug 19, 2007 8:01 am

6 June the Allied air forces flew 14,674 combat sorties, Luftwaffe managed 319

I./JG 2 was nearest fighter Gruppe to the Allied beachheads based in Cormeilles-en-Vexin sixty km from the coast.

I've trnaslated an account by Lt Wolfgang Fischer of 3./JG 2 describing the sortie he flew

" we were woken at 04h30 and taken to the airfield from the hotels in the town (Nancy) where we were quartered. We were airborne a short while later and flew to Creil (north of Paris) at around 05h00 to have our Fw 190s fitted with underwing rocket launchers. We took off again at 09h30 to strafe shipping off 'Gold' beach. There was 7/10 cloud cover as we overflew the Seine estuary, which allowed us to close on our targets and launch our rockets. We could see a huge number of enemy fighters orbiting over the landing beaches. My rockets probably scored a direct hit on a "Victory" class troop landing vessel. we fled the scene and returned to Chamant near Senlis (south of Creil )after this sortie.."


JG 2 clashed with Allied aircraft towards middday. At 11.57 Kommodore JG 2 Major Bühligen shot down a P-47 near the Orne estuary. A major battle took place in the afternoon, when ground attack Typhoons were encountered near Caen. Four of them fell in a few minutes' fight. Two more Typhoons were brought down by evening. Lt. Fischer continued


"..there were no further sorties that afternoon and the pilots of I./JG 2 spent the afternoon bathing at the swimming pool in Senlis.. a joint sortie with III./JG 2 was organised for the early evening against gliders on the ground near the Orne estuary under Gruppenkommandeur III./JG2 Hptm. Huppertz who landed at our field with five machines at 19h30..as we aproached Bernay we spotted a formation of a least twelve (335th FS/4th FG ) Mustangs strafing German infantry near a bridge over the Risle. using the evening mist and setting sun for cover we climbed to 1200m to take up a position for a classic bounce..the ensuing combat lasted just minutes as we were each able to select a target before diving down on them… 8 P-51s were shot down with no losses on our side . "..


JG 2 was the principal Luftwaffe unit in action against overwhelming Allied air power on June 6. Overall, the unit shot down eighteen Allied aircraft (the entire Luftwaffe claiming 24 on that day), JG 2's most successful day in the entire campaign in Normandy. Kommandeur Hptm. Huppertz reported five claims before crashing to his death south of Caen just two days later shot down by a P-47. His replacement was another veteran, Hptm. Josef "Sepp" Wurmheller. He was shot down and killed barely two weeks later. Lt Fischer himself was shot down by flak the following morning over the beaches, bailed out unharmed and was taken prisoner


D-Day: the successes and failures in focus

A: In a way it was a miraculous choice. Eisenhower [the supreme commander] had a very difficult decision to make but in fact it worked very well.

When he took the decision the weather was appalling, with wind and rain battering on the windows. However, the Allies had weather stations in the western and northern Atlantic, and so were able to see a gap in the weather which the Germans couldn’t see. This is why Rommel [commander of the German defences] was away from his headquarters on 6 June, thinking that the Allies wouldn’t invade on that day, and why many of the German divisional commanders were at Rennes actually looking at a possibility of doing a command exercise against a landing in Normandy.

The Kriegsmarine [German navy] didn’t send out any patrols that night because they thought the weather was too bad. In fact the weather wasn’t too bad for the landings, but it was bad enough for the Germans to have their eyes slightly off the ball.

If the Allies hadn’t crossed on 6 June they would have needed to postpone for another two weeks, and that would have taken them into the worst storm the channel has seen in over 40 years. One assumes the meteorologists would have been able to pick that up but if not it could have been the most appalling disaster in military history.

So the decision to go on 6 June was definitely the right one. It was a brave decision and thank God they said, “Right, let’s go!”

Q: Were the Germans ready to meet the Allied invasion?

A: They had certainly seen it coming. The whole question for them was whether the landings were going to be in Normandy or in the Pas de Calais region. Plan Fortitude, the Allied deception operation, was perhaps the most brilliant that has ever been devised.

It succeeded far beyond what the Allies dared hope in persuading the Germans that Normandy was just the first phase and that the real attack was going to come with a First Army Group led by General Patton in the Pas de Calais. This meant the Germans held back the bulk of their 15th army in the Pas de Calais. Had they not done so the Allies would have faced a very difficult time indeed because reinforcement would have been much more rapid.

In the event the Germans brought divisions up from central and southern France to meet the invasion, rather than across from the Pas de Calais.

Q: In your book you explain that the Allied casualties on D-Day itself were significantly lower than anticipated. Why do you think this was?

A: It was partly because they took the Germans by surprise and also because the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine were less effective than they had thought. The RAF and the USAF did an extraordinary job in keeping the Luftwaffe on the ground, with deep patrols right into France.

As for Kriegsmarine, it only managed a few attacks by E-boats [torpedo boats]. The Allies had been expecting massive losses of minesweepers because if they had been ambushed by German destroyers they would have been intensely vulnerable. Yet not a single minesweeper was sunk.

The casualties for drowning were not in fact that high and most of the casualties on landing came from landing craft which were turned over or tanks being swamped by the waves. Even on Omaha beach, despite the great American myth, casualties were lower than expected and on the Gold, Juno and Sword beaches the Allies got away very lightly.

Q: Was the relative lack of casualties on D-Day due more to German shortcomings than Allied success?

A: Yes, I think that is true. There were in fact failures in the Allied plans, which had depended on knocking out the German defences with shelling and bombing. The Allied shelling from naval artillery went on for too short a period to take out many of the defences.

It would also have been much better to have destroyers going in close to bombard rather than having battleships shelling for a couple of hours offshore. The American air commanders said their bombing could be so accurate that it would knock everything out, but the bombing on D-Day was in most places completely wasted.

At Omaha for example, the Americans didn’t want their bombers to fly along the coast because they would be exposed to flak. Instead they came in over the invasion fleet and of course they were afraid of dropping their bombs on the landing craft so they held on a few seconds more, meaning their bombs fell on open countryside rather than hitting the beaches.

Considering how few of the defences had actually been knocked out by the bombers’ assault, it was a miracle that the casualties were so light. It was a nasty shock for many of the invading troops to arrive and find the gun emplacements were still in action.

Q: Were the Allies well-prepared for the battle for Normandy that followed the D-Day landings?

A: The preparations for the crossing of the Channel were the most intense and meticulous that have ever been made for any operation. However, there wasn’t much forethought about the second phase, and this is where things started to go wrong. The Allies had had a lot of time to prepare, but there was this feeling of ‘let’s get ashore’ without a clarity of thinking about the immediate follow-up.

On the British side, General Montgomery’s plan was to seize Caen on the first day but the troops needed for such an operation were simply not organised enough in advance. If you are going to get your troops 10 miles inland and capture a whole city in a day, which is a very ambitious task to say the least, you have to make sure that your infantry are mounted in armoured personnel carriers or something like that to keep up with the tanks.

The trouble was that the tasks allotted were far more than could be realistically achieved. Then the Germans pushed in their panzer [tank] divisions as quickly as they could and the two sides found themselves in a battle of attrition. The British were supposed to seize enough land to start building airfields but this became impossible as they didn’t have the room. They hadn’t advanced far enough.

Q: Therefore would you say that the British thrust into Normandy did not go as well as planned?

A: Montgomery would have insisted that his master-plan had never changed but then Montgomery, often out of quite puerile vanity, could never admit he had been wrong about anything. He had wanted to seize Caen, advance to Falaise and then break through to Paris. That was always the stated objective and either he didn’t really plan to do that or he got it badly wrong.

I think he probably got it wrong and couldn’t admit that when the British were blocked in by German panzer reinforcements.

At this point Montgomery realised that by anchoring the panzer divisions on his front it would give the Americans the chance to break through in the west. It had always been considered a possibility that the Americans would achieve this breakthrough but it was also thought that the British would break through around Falaise. There is however evidence that Montgomery was not prepared to risk such an attempt, knowing the casualties it would cause.

The Americans became very angry about this, feeling that the British weren’t making the effort or taking the risks and there is an element of truth in that. There was a bitter anti-British feeling among the American commanders over Montgomery’s behaviour that contributed to the worst crisis in Anglo-American relations during the whole of the Second World War.

Q: Do you think there was any way that the British could have got to Paris first?

A: In the circumstances I think it was unlikely simply because of the concentration of panzer divisions against them. They did nearly break through on a couple of occasions but these attempts were often badly handled.

Operation Goodwood [18–20 July], for example, was very poorly planned and when the tanks charged through it was described as the death ride of the English armoured divisions. There was a catastrophic loss of tanks on the first day. However Goodwood did tie down panzers before the big American launch of Operation Cobra on 25 July and so the American possibility of success there was greatly increased.

Q: Despite the setbacks, Cobra succeeded and the Allies managed to seize Paris before their stated objective of 90 days after D-Day. What were the key reasons for their victory?

A: Once they were ashore, Allied victory became inevitable. They had a clear superiority of forces. By the end of August they had landed two million men, while at the same time the German army was being ground down in a battle of attrition.

The Allies also had massive artillery, and I don’t just mean artillery on the ground, but also naval artillery which was able to smash so many counterattacks. They had overwhelming air power. Allied air forces were able to destroy the German resupply system so they were constantly short of rations, fuel and ammunition. This had a huge effect on the German fighting capacity.

Q: We’ve discussed Montgomery’s failings already, but how well did the other Allied commanders perform in the battle for Normandy?

A: American general Omar Bradley, who has often been accused of being uninspired, was actually a lot better than, certainly some British, historians have given him credit for. Where one could criticise Bradley perhaps was his obsession with a broad front strategy, ie not attacking in individual concentrations but assaulting right the way across the whole of the base of the Cotentin peninsular.

This strategy contributed to the large number of American casualties. However, Bradley did recognise the necessity for a concentrated attack just west of St Lô for Operation Cobra.

Eisenhower wisely put George Patton in command of the Third Army to make the breakthrough. Patton was the ideal general for this as his leadership, energy and push was just what was needed for one of the most devastating campaigns in history. This didn’t make him a nice man but a good ruthless general is not going to be a very nice man and Patton was a pretty demanding commander to put it mildly.

Q: What about Eisenhower as supreme commander?

A: He was heavily criticised by Montgomery both at the time and afterwards. “Nice chap, no soldier,” was Montgomery’s view. But Eisenhower actually showed extremely good judgement on all the major issues.

One has to acknowledge a huge achievement in keeping such a very disparate alliance together with such conflicting characters. Whether Eisenhower should have taken a more detailed control of events is a question of what you regard as the role of a supreme commander. I think he was quite right to let the commanders make their own decisions, having established an overall strategy.

Q: How well did the British and American troops fight in the battle?

A: This is a big area of debate, particularly among historians. There has recently been a swing back to the view that the British and Canadian troops performed better than people in the past have given them credit for, and I believe there is some truth in that.

Yet one has to accept the fact that the armies of democracies could not possibly fight in the same way as those of totalitarian regimes where the degree of indoctrination was simply overwhelming. They were not going to be as fanatical or as self-sacrificing. Both British and American psychiatrists were struck by how few German prisoners were suffering from combat fatigue in comparison to their own side. The Americans for example suffered 30,000 combat fatigue casualties in Normandy.

There were I think flaws in the Allies’ training, and I believe the Americans learned more on the job than the British did. The British suffered from the regimental system which resulted in a failure to integrate infantry and armour in a way that was necessary for that kind of fighting in northern France. You cannot suddenly put together an infantry battalion and an armoured regiment and expect them to work together. It takes a lot of training and preparation and the British hadn’t done that.

Q: How do you rate the German defence of Normandy?

A: It was quite simply brilliant in making use of what they had available. Their infantry divisions on the whole were pretty weak so these were bolstered by little pockets of tanks, panzer grenadiers and anti-tank guns taken from the panzer divisions.

Panzer commanders were appalled about this because their whole military ethos was based on the idea of keeping a division together, but these parcels were extremely effective in the defence of the bocage [an area of dense hedgerow]. They were able to inflict considerable casualties on the British and the Americans here by using camouflage and mines and also some very nasty fighting.

And this brings me to a point that I believe has been hugely overlooked in the past: the fighting in Normandy was comparable to that on the Eastern Front. The German casualty rates in the battle for Normandy were 2,300 men per division per month and it was actually lower in the east.

The savagery in Normandy was intense and the killing of prisoners on both sides was much greater than has been considered up until now. One has only got to read a lot of accounts of American paratroopers they weren’t taking prisoners in many cases. Then there was the British attitude towards SS prisoners which was one of, “I don’t think he’s going to make it back to the prisoner of war camp…”

Q: The fighting on the Eastern Front was notorious for civilian casualties. Did this also happen during the battle for Normandy?

A: There was not deliberate killing of civilians on the Western Front, unlike the east, but civilian casualties were still appalling. One has to face up to the fact that more French were killed in the war by Allied bombing and shelling than British civilians killed by the Luftwaffe and V-bombs.

In the bombing beforehand over 15,000 civilians were killed and during the fighting in Normandy there were at least 20,000 French deaths, which is a huge number.

Q: Could the Allies have reasonably reduced the high number of civilian deaths?

A: Yes I’m afraid I think they could. The British bombing of Caen [beginning on D-Day] in particular was stupid, counterproductive and above all very close to a war crime.

There was an assumption I think that Caen must have been evacuated beforehand. Well that was wishful thinking on the part of the British. There were over 2,000 casualties there on the first two days and in a way it was miraculous that more people weren’t killed in Caen when you think of the bombing, and the shelling which carried on for days afterwards.

Here again there was a lack of thinking things through. If you are intending to capture Caen on the first day then you need to be able to penetrate its streets with your troops. Why then smash them to pieces? In fact, exactly as happened at Stalingrad, the bombing created terrain for the defender as well as being morally wrong.

There have also been heavy accusations against the Americans in Normandy for their indiscriminate use of artillery. The Americans have always believed that you save lives by using massive artillery bombardments beforehand, and I’m certainly not saying they should have done the whole thing without artillery because Allied casualties would have been horrific.

Yet there were occasions, as for example at Mortain [on 12 August], where the Americans destroyed the town in a fit of pique even as the Germans were retreating, simply because they had had such a bloody time there. That I think was deeply shocking.

Q: As a whole, how successful would you say the Allies were in the battle for Normandy?

A: If you look at it overall it was a triumph in that they secured their stated objective of being on the Seine by D plus 90. From that point of view it was a success but whether they could have avoided many of the mistakes along the way is certainly a matter for debate.

Q: Was it more the future of postwar Europe than the defeat of the Nazis that was at stake at D-Day?

A: Yes I believe so. Germany was certainly going to lose the war by that stage and in fact one could have said that a German loss was irreversible from much earlier on.

It was very much a question of the postwar world. If, for example, the invasion fleet had sailed into the great storm and been smashed, that might have delayed the invasion until the following spring by which point the Russians could well have been west of the Rhine.

This, though, is counterfactual history, which is not something I’m keen on.

Q: Decades later, the Normandy landings continue to fascinate people. Why do you think this is?

A: I think it can easily be explained by the sheer scale and the sheer ambition of the invasion itself. Even though Stalin was bitter about the Allied failure to launch a second front earlier, he had to acknowledge that it was one of the greatest operations the world has ever seen.

The landing of so many thousands of troops on an enemy-occupied country, all in one day, having crossed a very large channel to get there, is unprecedented in history and that is why people remain so interested in it.

When you go to Normandy today there are cemeteries and memorials everywhere and of course museums. I think it must have more museums per square mile than almost any other area of any country in the world. And it’s not just British and Americans who visit. You can see from the different registration plates in the car parks the fascination that the battle for Normandy continues to hold for people from all over the world.

Antony Beevor is the world’s bestselling military historian and the winner of numerous awards. His previous works include Stalingrad, Berlin, Crete and The Battle for Spain. He is also a visiting professor at Birkbeck College.

To listen to our podcast, in which Beevor discusses his book on D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, click here.


The Allies’ big idea: the largest air battle of the Second World War

For D-Day to succeed, the Allies had to wrest control of the skies over western Europe from the Luftwaffe. As James Holland recounts, the February 1944 'Big Week' raids, which collectively made up the largest air battle of the war, helped secure that aerial supremacy

This competition is now closed

Published: November 29, 2018 at 6:00 am

Tuesday, 11 January 1944: high over Germany, as an American combat bomber wing battled its way home, a lone P-51 Mustang, one of the US Eighth Air Force’s new fighters, was single-handedly defending the entire formation from enemy fighter attacks.

Its pilot was Major Jim Howard, who had been leading the 354th Fighter Group that afternoon. As he had first dived down on the enemy along with the rest of his group, he had seen a Messerschmitt Bf 110 heading straight for the bomber wing’s lead B-17 Flying Fortresses – and had opened fire. A moment later he raked a Messerschmitt Bf 109, then sped after another fighter and opened fire, seeing the pilot bail out. In less than a minute he had shot down three enemy fighters.

Howard had found himself alone, and was about to withdraw, when he realised there was no sign of the fellow American fighters due to take over escorting the bombers. So he climbed back up, throttling back and turning to take on any enemy fighter that tried to get near the B-17s. For more than half an hour, the American stayed with the Fortresses, diving and aggressively attacking any German fighter that appeared, driving them off again and again. Only when all the enemy fighters seemed to have gone did Howard finally waggle his wings to the B-17s and head for home. Not a single Fortress of the 401st Bomb Group had been shot down while Howard protected them. In the course of that mission, meanwhile, he had shot down four confirmed and very probably two more aircraft, and seen off as many as 30 enemy fighters.

Howard’s was an exceptional display of flying, but it also demonstrated how good Allied fighter pilots had become. By the start of 1944, American and British fighter pilots were joining their squadrons with 350 hours of flying in their logbooks, while US squadrons now had as many as four times the number of pilots and planes needed to keep 16 aircraft airborne on any mission. Fighter pilots in the US Eighth Air Force were confident and adept, and had superior aircraft to the enemy. In contrast, new Luftwaffe pilots were arriving into their units with as few as 110 flying hours under their belts, and thanks to Germany’s chronic fuel shortages had little chance to practise. In fact, these young pilots had little chance full stop. They were being slaughtered.

However, although the Luftwaffe’s glory days were over, it remained worthy of respect. Factories were producing thousands of new aircraft each month, while the Germans had recently developed a sophisticated air defence system (involving a combination of radar, radio, ground observers, and control rooms that included glass lighted screens to plot air traffic over occupied Europe). No Allied aircraft could fly over the Reich without the Luftwaffe knowing about it. There were now some 15,000 anti-aircraft guns defending Germany, while hundreds of day and, crucially, night fighters were being directed to intercept Allied bombers, which were suffering horrifically.

This all contributed to a sense of crisis engulfing the Allied air forces. Not only was the bomber offensive against Germany not working decisively, but the Allies didn’t have the air superiority over western Europe needed for Operation Overlord, the continental mainland invasion planned for early summer.

While Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, remained convinced that area bombing – the blanket bombardment of entire neighbourhoods – could win the war, US and British war chiefs accepted there could be no invasion of France until they had cleared the skies. This meant gaining air superiority not only over the Normandy beaches, but also over a large swathe of north-west Europe. Success or failure would depend on whether the Germans could launch a massed counter-attack within days of the landings, before the Allies could successfully reinforce any bridgehead. In the nine weeks leading up to D-Day, therefore, Allied forces had to carry out a heavy ‘interdiction’ operation: blowing up bridges, roads and, especially, railways and marshalling yards.

This interdiction campaign was to be largely the preserve of the tactical air forces: two-engine medium bombers and ground-attack fighters, which would be operating at lower heights than heavy bombers and with greater accuracy. To perform successfully, they needed to be doing so in skies where the Allies held air superiority. At the beginning of 1944, US and British chiefs were a long way short of achieving this. The clock was ticking.

Unlike Harris, the Americans understood that disabling the Luftwaffe was a matter of urgency. In the second half of 1943, Germany’s growing defensive strength had shown that only heavily escorted B-17 and B-24 bombers could get to their targets. Losses on raids to aircraft factories, once to Regensburg and twice to Schweinfurt, deep inside Germany and beyond fighter range, had been substantial.

This was the crux: the Allies had to hammer the German aircraft industry, but most of the factories supplying the Luftwaffe were deep in the Reich, where the daylight bombers and even Bomber Command at night could not reach effectively. What was needed, urgently and in large numbers, was a long-range fighter. Only in the nick of time did the Allies realise that the solution was under their very noses.

Mustang sallies

The RAF had had the opportunity to make the Spitfire long-range, but due to Bomber Command’s continuation of night bombing had not thought it necessary. However, in 1943, US technicians had equipped a P-51 Mustang with a Rolls-Royce Merlin 61 rather than its standard Allison engine, and the fighter’s performance and fuel economy had improved astonishingly. Additional fuel tanks made little difference to its speed or manoeuvrability. Suddenly, in the Mustang, the Allies had a fighter capable of flying nearly 1,500 miles – to Berlin and back with ease. This was a game-changer, as Jim Howard would prove on 11 January 1944.

At the end of November 1943, the United States Strategic Air Forces issued a new directive, Operation Argument, an all-out offensive against the Luftwaffe and the enemy’s aircraft industry. Raids were held back, however, by the poor weather that descended on Europe that winter. Not until the third week of February 1944 was there a break – and the chance to deliver the spell of high-pressure bombardment required.

By February 1944, the Eighth Air Force was considerably larger than it had been in November 1943, and the fighters were also employing better tactics. General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, the new head of the American air forces in Europe, had ordered fighters to hunt down, engage and destroy Luftwaffe planes rather than to close-escort all bomber formations, and also to attack airfields on the ground. The bomber commanders were appalled by what they saw as a lack of protection for their planes, but it was unquestionably the right decision. By the third week in February, the Americans had the tactics and skills, as well as the aircraft, with which to deliver a mortal blow to the Luftwaffe.

Operation Argument began with Harris’s reluctant cooperation. Bomber Command targeted aircraft plants in Leipzig on the night of Saturday 19 February. It was a bloody sortie. Among those shot down was Flight Lieutenant Julian Sale’s crew from 35 Squadron who – like most who failed to return – were shot down by night fighters using upward-firing cannons that raked the vulnerable undersides of their aircraft. It was the second time Sale and his navigator, Gordon Carter, had bailed out over enemy territory they had made it back the first time, but would not be so lucky on this occasion (Sale died, while Carter became a prisoner of war). Flight Lieutenant Rusty Waughman and his 101 Squadron crew did reach home safely. “Pretty deadly trip,” he noted in his logbook. “Lost 78 aircraft.” This was a huge number from one mission and a reminder, if any were needed, of the deadly power of the Luftwaffe’s night-fighter force.

Nonetheless, Leipzig was hammered and was to be hit again the following day. On Sunday 20 February, Big Week, as it would come to be known, got under way in earnest with the heaviest round-the-clock Allied attacks ever witnessed. US bomber crews had to get up at 3am. “Awakened very early today,” noted Larry ‘Goldie’ Goldstein, radio operator in a B-17 in the 388th Bomb Group, “and expected a long, rough mission, even long before briefing.” He was not wrong. To cause maximum strain on the Luftwaffe, the Eighth struck multiple targets, with the 388th Bomber Group attacking Poznań in Poland.

Also flying was Major Jimmy Stewart, Hollywood star and now a squadron commander in the 445th Bomb Group of B-24 Liberators. Both Stewart and Goldstein made it back that day, but the carnage was considerable and the raging air battle across Europe saw episodes of extraordinary bravery. No fewer than three Congressional Medals of Honor were won, the only time in the history of the US air forces that more than one was awarded for a single mission. One recipient was Lieutenant William Lawley, who managed to fly his battered B-17 and surviving crew back and crash-land safely, despite suffering multiple head, leg and arm shrapnel wounds, and with a decapitated co-pilot beside him. Lawley had been lucky: the other two medals were posthumous.

Stuttgart was the next target on Monday 21 February, with many of those in action the previous day, including Goldie Goldstein and crew, flying yet again. Tuesday 22 February saw another maximum effort, and this time the Eighth was joined by the 15th Air Force, operating from Italy and attacking aircraft plants at Regensburg and Prüfening. While the bombers from both Italy and England suffered, so too did the Luftwaffe, who were rising up, as the Allies hoped, to meet this immense and concentrated onslaught.

Heavy toll

One of those German pilots was Oberleutnant Heinz Knoke. His fighter group, Jagdgeschwader 11, should have had 36 fighters, but could muster a mere five that day. Knoke was hugely experienced, having been shot down five times already the same could not be said for his wingman, Feldwebel Krueger. Together they dived down on some Fortresses and Knoke saw a bomber erupt into flames – then, a moment later, a Messerschmitt flamed downwards too. “It was my wingman, the young corporal,” noted Knoke. “This was his first mission.”

Bad weather prevented further flying on Wednesday 23 February, which gave the groundcrews time to repair battle-damaged aircraft. “Heavies from Italy and Britain plaster bomb-drunk Reich,” ran the headline in the US forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes. The Luftwaffe leadership was in a state of shock. The Germans had lost 58 fighters on the Sunday alone, and a further 32 and 52 on subsequent days. Messerschmitt plants in Leipzig were badly damaged.

Big Week continued on Thursday 24 with attacks on Gotha, while Bomber Command also struck Schweinfurt. Before the surviving RAF crews were back on British soil, the Eighth was preparing for another day of bombing. “No rest as the air blitz on German aircraft production continues,” noted Goldie Goldstein. “Up and at them again today.” It was his third mission that week and another he was lucky to survive. So too was Jimmy Stewart, whose B-24 Liberator was badly hit over Nuremburg. Behind him, he saw another B-24 burst into flames, dive and smash into the bomber beneath it, so the two flaming aircraft fell at once. Back on the ground, Stewart looked up at his scarred Liberator and said to one of his crew, “Sergeant, somebody could sure get hurt in one of those damned things.”

Big Week ended that night, when Bomber Command sent 594 heavy bombers to hit the Messerschmitt plants at Augsburg. Some 2,920 buildings in the town were destroyed in this culmination of a week of unprecedented violence. A further 5,000 were severely damaged, including the MAN diesel facility, with more than 3,000 casualties recorded.

Big Week was finally over, as the weather closed in once more. The massive air assault had dealt the Luftwaffe a catastrophic blow. Aircraft losses amounted to a staggering 2,605 in February 1944 alone, but the most signifi-cant impact was on Germany’s stock of pilots. Such attrition was totally unsustainable. Experienced flyers were being removed while the new boys were arriving with scant training and little hope of survival. As more pilots were shot down in March and April, the Luftwaffe largely withdrew into the Reich. By April, the all-important air superiority requirement had been met, and the invasion of France could proceed. The critical damage, however, had been done in the great air battle of Big Week.

James Holland is a historian and broadcaster. His books include The Battle of Britain: Five Months That Changed History (Corgi, 2011).


Why didn't the Germans use anti personnel bombs on D Day?

Why didn't the Germans use anti personnel bombs on D Day?

The German SD 2B Schmetterling was also used effectively against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, beginning in June 1941. The SD 2B, fitted with the (70)A chemical/mechanical long delay and anti-disturbance fuze with a selectable self-destruct time from four to thirty hours, constitutes one of the earliest self-destructing scatterable mines. Nevertheless, the Germans forbade the use of SD 2s with anti-disturbance fuzes against retreating opponents due to the hazard to friendly forces. The SD 2 with anti-disturbance fuze was intended for use against targets behind enemy lines for “harassing effect” only. The Germans “at least understood the value of these little bombs against military formations. Colonel S. M. Lovell, a member of a British military mission to the U.S.S.R. who had the duty of advising on bomb disposal matters, had found that the Russians attached the greatest importance to the butterfly bomb… Used in high concentrations it had cost the Red Army great numbers of casualties and effectively held up the movement of formations. Russian soldiers had been reduced to detonating bombs by rifle fire, a method certain to cause casualties since the butterfly’s fragmentation range was a hundred yards, at which distance it presented, at best, a poor target-and the rifleman was bound to have his face toward the bomb.”

During the campaign in North Africa, Field Marshal Rommel employed scatterable mines. On 5 April 1941 Major Heymer, one of his staff officers, “had been sent on a mission with two aircraft to mine the tracks east of Mechili”, presumably to further isolate this post in preparation for an attack. During the period August to September 1942, the Luftwaffe dropped “many thousands” of ‘butterflies’ just in the 2nd New Zealand Division area, but caused few casualties. At the end of October during Operation Lightfoot, German aircraft dropped SD 2s on the 2nd New Zealand Division’s artillery, apparently in one of the first attempts to re-seed a minefield that the British 8th Army had breached earlier in the battle. The Luftwaffe also employed SD 2s in Tunisia and Italy.

During the difficult days at Anzio in February 1944, “The enemy used increasingly large percentage of anti-personnel ‘butterfly’ bombs in his night attacks, which caused casualties throughout the beachhead.” Soldiers serving at Anzio referred to the German pilots who regularly dropped strings of antipersonnel bombs that crackled as they dispersed, Popcorn Pete. These landed in every corner of the beachhead. “Between January 22 and March 12, antipersonnel bombs dropped from German planes killed 40 men and wounded 343.” On 7 February, a German plane under attack by British Spitfires jettisoned its cluster bombs. In the tightly backed beachhead, these fell on the 95th Evacuation Hospital, killing 28 and wounding 64. “Two raids on March 17 killed 16 and wounded 100.”

During preparations for the invasion of Europe, the British were deeply concerned about the use of butterfly bombs against the marshalling and embarkation areas. “No such attacks were made either on the ports and their surroundings or on the close-packed Caen Peninsula (in Normandy). The neglect of such an obvious, effective and economical weapon at such a time was never to the author’s knowledge, been satisfactorily explained.” Impressed by the effectiveness of the SD 2, the US attempted to copy it as the M83.

Considering how good they were against groups of soldiers marching or running or just in close proximity with one another not only in the East but in Italy and North Africa, why weren't they used at D Day against the Allied forces?

What if they did use butterfly bombs against the troops on D Day?

How effective would it have been? Would casualties have been higher than they were?

Or would the planes dispersing the bombs be shot down before they could make an impact?