Normandy: Monty Regroups
Topic: Military History
The consolidation of the Normandy bridgehead was complete by 12 June. The front was now some 60 miles in length and 25 miles deep at its widest point. On the Allied right was US First Army; on the left was British Second Army. During the second half of June the Americans concentrated on the capture of the Cotentin Peninsula with its port city, Cherbourg. The Cotentin was cleared by 20 June and the German garrison of Cherbourg surrendered on 26 June, though not before the city’s port facilities were largely destroyed. Thus the capture of Cherbourg was a pyrrhic victory. It took three months to make the port fully operational, by which time the Battle of Normandy was over and the front had moved far to the east.
In the British sector, a renewed drive on Caen broke down with heavy casualties in the second week of June. Second Army was now facing elements of several German panzer divisions on the approaches to Caen and it was clear that the city could not be taken by direct assault. However, American pressure farther west had opened up a gap in the German line. Montgomery sought to exploit this gap by pushing an armored division south to the town of Villers-Bocage, from which position it could move east against Caen, outflanking the German defense. This was a good enough plan, but faulty execution led to a humiliating fiasco in the Battle of Villers-Bocage on 13-14 June. Particularly disheartening for the British was the poor performance of the veteran 7th Armored Division, the Desert Rats of North African fame.
The British failure at Villers-Bocage ended Montgomery’s hopes of disrupting the German defense by seizing Caen. Slowly but surely, more German divisions were reaching Normandy. Many of these reinforcements were concentrated in the Caen sector where, as both sides realized, an Allied breakthrough would spell instant disaster for the Germans. Meanwhile, after clearing the Cotentin Peninsula and capturing Cherbourg US First Army turned south. But its bid for a quick breakout floundered amid the Norman bocage, terrain characterized by fields, meadows, farm buildings and small villages enclosed checkerboard-fashion by wide earthen banks thickly planted with hedges and trees. In effect, the bocage created innumerable miniature battlefields, each one of which had to be individually stormed and captured. Observation and mobility alike were greatly restricted and the close-quarters nature of the fighting partly negated the Allies’ air and artillery superiority. On the other hand, it was ideal terrain for the employment of machineguns, mortars and infantry antitank weapons. The German defenders were amply equipped with and expert in the use of all three.
The layout of the German defenses added to the Allies’ problems. In effect, they turned the bocage into a series of interconnected, mutually supporting strongpoints. Hamlets and farm buildings might be defended by an infantry platoon with two or three antitank guns. In the fields and meadows, a single dug-in tank with infantry support usually formed the defense. Mortars were positioned to deliver immediate suppressive fire in the event of an attack. Allied penetrations were instantly counterattacked, which usually succeeded in stalling the advance. A defense of this kind could be undermined, but only slowly and at the price of painfully high casualties.
Realizing that his bid for a quick breakout had failed and that Normandy was now an attrition battle, Montgomery revised his plans. While not abandoning his hopes of capturing Caen, he perceived that continued pressure by Second Army against the enemy’s sensitive right flank would pin down the Germans’ reserves, including most of the panzer divisions. This in turn would ease the task of First Army on the opposite flank, creating conditions for a breakout to the south and east. And so the campaign developed, but not for many weeks was the German defense sufficiently worn down to make the hoped-for breakout possible. The Battle of Normandy thus developed into a seemingly endless series of bitter, bloody, small-unit actions, with progress messured in yards. For the Allies, it was a painful experience, as between mid-June and late July both the American and British armies in Normandy demonstrated a want of battle effectiveness that caused much worry and many recriminations among the senior Allied leadership.
Posted by tmg110
at 8:10 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 17 April 2014 10:32 AM EDT