The Inland Push

Breakout from the Beaches

After the successful invasion of Normandy, the Allied forces focused on moving farther inland and capturing strategic cities and ports. These included the port of Cherbourg, and the cities of Caen and St. Lô. The first city to be taken was Cherbourg because of its strategically important port. The port would be needed to supply the armies with supplies such as food and ammunition for future operations.

The battle for Cherbourg began on the morning of June 19, 1944 and would be conducted by VII Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins. The plan was to attack the German positions with three divisions, the 4th, 19th and 9th. By June 24, the men of the VII Corps had reached the city and were ready for the final assault, which took place the following day on June 25, supported by a naval bombardment. Between June 26 and 27, the 79th and 9th Divisions worked to clear the city and German commanders began to surrender their commands. All resistance came to an end on June 27 at approximately 10:00 A.M., but victory came at the cost of over 12,000 Allied casualties from the three main assault divisions.

The Battle for Caen did not go as well. Originally Caen was supposed to be taken on June 6 by General Montgomery’s 21st Army Group to open up the land to the south of the beaches. During the Battle for Caen, Operations Epsom, Charnwood, and Goodwood all failed to capture the city and Caen was not captured until July 11. After almost a month of fighting, the devastation was horrible. Major Hargreaves wrote to his family: “I cannot describe the horror of that landscape. Cows, horses and humans had been lying out there for weeks, it being impossible to get out and bury them.”

Finally, on July 7, the battle to take St. Lô began. In his book D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Anthony Beeover describes General Omar Bradley as seeing the “capture as essential ‘to gain suitable terrain from which to launch operation Cobra.’” Hedgerows in the area slowed the Allied advance down tremendously. Hedgerows were large mounds of dirt and vegetation separating fields that made it extremely difficult to spot the enemy and gave the Germans wonderful defensive positions. Finally, on the night of July 17, German forces evacuated the area, leaving St. Lô unprotected. On June 18, American troops entered the city. This secured the left flank of the Allied position and would allow for Operation Cobra to take place. However, Allied victory came at a cost as the United States suffered over 50,000 casualties in the hedgerows and city of St. Lô.

Operation Cobra

Operation Cobra took place seven weeks after D-Day and it was to begin with Allied aircraft bombardment of German positions. Due to poor weather, which resulted in allied bombers not being able to reliably take off, the operation started a day later than originally planned. This decision did not come easily to General Bradley; every moment given to the Germans only meant that they were going to be able to dig into position more and would be harder to expel once the assault took place. Despite this, Bradley understood that in order for the Army Air Forces to effectively attack the German units and fortified positions, the aircraft needed to have the best possible chance for success. On July 24, 1944, Allied bombers began attacking enemy positions in preparation for the ground assault that was to begin on July 25. While the skies had cleared somewhat on July 24, they had not cleared entirely, making it difficult for the American Eighth Air Force to properly identify many of its targets. This unfortunately led to hundreds of American servicemen on the ground being injured or killed by American bombs.

On July 25, 1944, Allied air power continued weakening enemy defenses and attacked German artillery positions with greater ferocity than that of the day before. Allied heavy bombers from the Eighth Air Force weakened German defensive positions considerably in the attack. Some Allied servicemen were killed accidentally as a result of the extensive bombardment on German positions near Allied lines. One of those who died was Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who was visiting his men at the front lines in order to inspire them. Lt. Gen. McNair was a friend of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. After receiving news about his friend’s death, Gen. Eisenhower ordered that heavy bombing would never be used before a tactical assault anywhere near American lines. Lt. Gen. McNair would be the highest-ranking officer to die in the European Theater of Operations of World War II.

After the heavy bombardment concluded, the assault from American ground forces began. Despite the massive bombardment from the Eighth Air Force, the Germans were still capable of mounting a formidable defense. The Germany infantry heavily defended several areas with tanks and field guns. These areas being held by German defenders required significant Allied manpower and equipment to remove them, resulting in the Allies gaining little ground during the first day of the Operation Cobra. On July 26 and 27, Allied forces were slowed by German defenders and German minefields. Not to be discouraged, Allied forces continued fighting on. While not directly supporting ground forces, the Eighth Air Force continued to attack German positions and equipment away from the areas being directly engaged by Allied ground forces. The attacks that were performed by the Eighth Air Force stopped the Germans from adequately reinforcing the lines that they had left open and stopped any sizable counterattack. Further complications arose for the German defenders as German command believed that the bombardment and initial attacks performed by the Allied forces were a ruse for the true assault that was believed to come from the town of Caen.

On July 28, 1944, Allied forces overcame Germany’s initial resistance to Operation Cobra. However, the second layer of German defenses and defenders, which received a small number of reinforcements by July 29, attempted to halt the Allied advance. While the second tier of German defenders delayed progress, Allied forces still managed to take ground and pushed forward to the interior of Normandy. The Germans however would not relent without a fight. The German defenders tried to retake territory during the night and assaulted Allied positions. The largest element of the German defenders there had been reinforced with what the German command was willing to give up from their defensive positions south of Saint-Lô–Periers road. They assaulted the Allied forces with men, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Despite this attack, which continued to the end of July, Gen. Bradley and his staff were undaunted. The strength of numbers and equipment of the German forces were too small to pose any true threat at retaking Allied territory or repelling the Allied assault.

Unable to determine where German tank power should be concentrated, the German command was not able to reinforce and resupply the German ground forces that were engaged at the time. In addition, American warplanes were continuing their bombardment of German artillery positions behind the line of combat, further adding to the problems experienced by the German assault force. After the failure of the assault, the Germans began abandoning their positions and retreating on foot, leaving behind much of their equipment. By July 31, Allied forces had successfully repelled and dislodged any remaining German forces from their fixed positions and had begun descending into southern Normandy.

The Fight to Paris

After Operation Cobra, the Allies drove further into Normandy. The Germans continued to put up defenses with Hitler refusing to accept defeat. By the beginning of August, American, British, and Canadian troops moved through Normandy with greater success and fought onwards toward Brittany. Allied entrance into Brittany had a profound impact on its defenders with one German officer recalling how it “had a shattering effect, like a bomb-burst, upon us.”

Despite slim chances of turning the war around, the Wehrmacht continued to attempt delaying actions making the Allied march in Brittany, and specifically the march to the city of Brest, surprisingly difficult. Such skirmishes depleted Allied resources and slowed progress, frustrating Bradley and Montgomery to no end. Even so, by the second week of August, Patton’s divisions liberated Brest, signaling the Allies’ successful presence in Brittany.

As American and British troops battled their way through France, they also liberated towns and cities along the way. For the most part, Allied forces were greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm or subdued thankfulness from French civilians; for them, a four-year nightmare was coming to an end. One member of the 5th Infantry Division remembers the liberation of a tiny French town in the woods: “As we came closer we could see the shadowy forms of French men and women and children, lining the roadway, not talking, some crying softly, but most just gently clapping, extending for several hundred feet on both sides of the road. A little girl came alongside me. She was blonde, pretty, and maybe all of five years old. She trustingly put her hand in mine and walked a short way with me, then stopped and waved until we were out of sight.” French civilians had endured years of devastation and horror with the French landscape scorched terribly. Allied liberations of French communities, whether large or small, were unwaveringly significant.

Though not always easy or swift, August still saw the consistent advance of Allied troops further and further into French territory. Despite this, Hitler could not be deterred. During the final months of war, when German plans for victory rang futile, Hitler still held fast to delusional strategies hoping to halt the Allied advancement. In this case, he ordered a counter-attack against George Patton’s forces near the city of Mortain. However, Operation Lüttich failed to deliver a decisive blow against the Allies, as the Americans responded with a robust attack of their own. Operation Lüttich’s failure prompted the dismissal of Germany’s commander, Günther von Kluge.

As Allied forces overcame German defenses in Normandy and Brittany, Allied leaders planned and executed a subsequent invasion in Southern France at the port of Marseilles. The August 15th landings of Operation Anvil sent German forces into a hasty withdrawal; furthermore, France’s puppet-government, the Vichy Regime, crumbled. As Germany’s situation worsened, Hitler finally allowed for a retreat from Normandy. Intense fighting occurred in the Falaise Pocket as Allied forces clashed with the Wehrmacht’s remnant. By this time, the Allies exercised control over most of France, but they failed to deliver the decisive blow as German forces successfully retreated across the Seine River.

Throughout the Normandy campaign, conflicting goals and squabbling typified Allied leadership. Strong personalities on both the British and American sides made agreeing to a unified plan of action difficult. With France coming under Allied control, American and British leaders shifted their focus, and also their arguments, to the ensuing campaign in Germany. Thus, the liberation of Paris largely fell to Charles de Gaulle and his Free French Forces. Beginning on August 22, de Gaulle and his men reclaimed the capital that had fallen to Nazi forces roughly five years earlier. Although there was still much more fighting to take place, the Allied invasion that began on D-Day reached an important crescendo when French flags graced Paris once again.