Apex Predator: The American Army in Normandy
The History of Battle: Maneuver, Part 18
The assault on Normandy On June 6, 1944 is likely the single most dramatized moment in American military history. It has so far been depicted in three famous big budget productions - the amphibious landings in Saving Private Ryan, the airborne drop in Band of Brothers, and the entire package in the 1962 war epic, The Longest Day. With the addition of countless video game adaptations and the deeply entrenched trope of Greatest Generation lore that permeates American culture and politics, it is safe to say that Americans have a stronger impression of the D-Day landings than they do any other event in the American martial tradition.
This makes it rather difficult to discuss the battle for Normandy in an emotionally neutral light. Some people want to center the discussion on the beach because it is familiar, but this stems from a sort of childlike desire to hear our favorite stories told again. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it is not particular interesting from an intellectual or historical standpoint. Others, from outside the American perspective, like to hear Normandy debunked or retold - either because they are tired of the Anglo-Canadians being shoved aside or left out of the heroics, or because they are tired of American supremacy and want to diminish past American glories. Perhaps these are understandable impulses, but again they fail to be very interesting.
Normandy ought to instead be thought of as a major departure in the trajectory of the American armed forces. As we previously discussed, early American attempts to go toe to toe with the Wehrmacht went rather poorly, with US forces leaning heavily on superior firepower to salvage botched operational situations. The Kasserine Pass, in particular, was a harrowing experience for rookie American troops, and the famous biopic Patton begins with American forces in Africa languishing in a sorry state, with the titular General being rushed in to whip them into shape.
In Normandy, however, the US Army was transformed into an entirely different sort of animal. Rather than frantically calling in firepower to stabilize tenuous situations, the Americans developed operational techniques that simply crushed the Germans, running through them “like crap through a goose”, as Patton put it. The Wehrmacht always prided itself on its superior prowess in maneuver and its dominance in fluid operations, but in Normandy they were surpassed, humiliated, and destroyed in a campaign which launched the United States into its era of military supremacy and unparalleled swagger.
We can broadly think of America’s operational conduct of the war against Germany as occurring in two distinct phases. The first phase, essentially comprising the campaign in North Africa and the early encounters in Italy, revolved around learning how to contend with the German panzer package - in these initial operations, American forces faced a steep learning curve in combat against a veteran and lethal Wehrmacht, and American commanders in places like the Kasserine Pass or the beaches at Salerno tended to lean heavily on America’s awesome reservoirs of firepower as an answer to more agile and decisive German forces. This first phase could be thought of as a reactive stage, with the Germans doing most of the maneuvering and the Americans using superior firepower and air assets to counter them.
In the second phase, the US Army emerged as a first class combined arms force in its own right, capable of moving like lightening when it wanted to. Having first learned in the Mediterranean theater that they had the assets in the toolbox to paralyze the Wehrmacht and beat off its attacks, the American forces in France would demonstrate a potent capacity of their own to maneuver and to deploy a devastating assault package. In other words, 1942-43 was about learning to defeat the German armored force and suffocate German maneuver, and 1944-45 was about the US Army learning to maneuver in its own way. Armies are, after all, learning and evolving organisms, and the US Army that fought in France was in many ways unrecognizable from the inexperienced force that had washed ashore in Africa.
Before we can look at the specifics of the American operations in France, it may be fruitful to note two idiosyncrasies of the US Army as it relates to operational maneuver - namely, that it was both materially easy and frequently unnecessary.
On the first count, we ought to note that of all the combatants in World War Two, the United States had by far the easiest time with mechanization and motorization, speaking from a technical perspective. America is one of the great oil producing nations of the world - and this was especially true in the 1930’s, when middle eastern production was not yet unleashed. At the outbreak of war, the USA was responsible for over half of the world’s oil production. As a result, American was a highly motorized society, with mass adoption of the private car and commercial trucking, and a correspondingly titanic automobile industry.
The upshot of all this was that uniquely among all the belligerent parties, the United States found it almost trivially easy to motorize its ground forces - churning out trucks, halftracks, recovery vehicles, and jeeps by the tens of thousands. This made the order of battle against the Germans oddly asymmetrical; whereas the Wehrmacht had to carefully count and curate its precious mobile formations - the Panzer, Panzergrenadier, Light, and Motorized Infantry divisions - the US Army never needed these designations simply because the mass of its Infantry Divisions were motorized by default. The US Army, also most unlike the Germans, further benefitted from an enormous truck lift capacity - the idea of using livestock to haul crates of ammunition or drums of fuel up to frontline units was completely alien to Americans. As an organically motorized force, the US Army simply had no need to think deeply about how to allocate mechanized units.
What all of this meant, in a word, was that the US Army could move like lightning when it wanted to. Unlike the Wehrmacht, this was not a military that was conditioned to be constantly looking for seams and space to move; by nature, the American army was a firepower intensive organism that chewed through the enemy with fearsome material superiority and front-width offensives. However, when opportunities presented themselves and delicious gaps emerged in the German position, the Americans could move faster than anybody in the business, with fully motorized infantry, fuel to spare, and an overawing air force that could extend combat support deep into the battle space.
The Germans would learn that, despite their vast experience and competence fighting mobile operations, this would be a dangerous game to play with the late war American Army. This was truly a case of “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” - a small breach could quickly turn into a catastrophe given the latent American powers of mobility, especially when a hard driving commander like Patton was at the wheel.
Bradley Breaks Through: Operation Cobra
At this point, a quick editorial note and perhaps an apology is due. While the most well known and pivotal moment in the Anglo-American 1944 campaigns was the famous invasion of Normandy and especially the landings of June 6, it is not my intention to discuss them in great detail here. Our focus in this series has been on operational maneuver, and the D-Day landings do not fit this theme - they will feature in a subsequent series on naval and amphibious operations.
I think that it is probably not necessary to expend great energy on the landings at this point. While the scene on the beach is the most famous vignette of the war in the west - and in particular for Americans - it may come as a surprise that the landings were without question the easiest stage in the battle for Normandy. Only one of the five landing beaches (Omaha) was especially well defended (allied intelligence had failed to detect the presence of the German 352nd Infantry Division at Omaha), and the other beaches saw allied forces get ashore with relatively little difficulty. Contrary to the popular myth that the Germans failed to counterattack because Hitler was sleeping in, there was only a single panzer division (the 21st) anywhere in proximity to the landing beaches on June 6th, and its attempts to organize an adequate counterattack were utterly foiled by a mixture of allied air power and naval gunnery.
Thus, the events of D-Day itself were relatively drama free, from an operational perspective. In contrast to the usual impression of carnage (which was certainly real enough to the men who fought through it on Omaha Beach) the landings were achieved with only a fraction of the expected casualties, and a vastly superior allied force more or less swatted away the overmatched German resistance. In fact, apart from Omaha Beach, allied losses were shockingly light - over 150,000 men came ashore on the first day at a cost of perhaps 10,000 total casualties, of whom less than half were killed. Given the scale of this war, in which millions were dying annually, this was a small sum - and the shine of the victory was made even brighter in light of the fact that the Germans had been preparing their “Atlantic Wall” for nearly two years with pretensions of defending at the water’s edge. Instead, the German defense was bashed open in a single day with low allied casualties. This was a great victory.
The mood among allied command on June 7th, therefore, was much closer to euphoria than to gloom. The sense was that losses had been light and the time had come to build momentum. Instead, the allies ran into trouble almost as soon as they began to push out from the beach.
The initial German response to the D-Day landings was initially a bit scattered, largely because German planners expected the Allies to land at Calais, where they could seize an operational port. Even with allied troops pouring ashore in huge numbers, there was still some question in German brains as to whether Normandy was only a diversion. Notwithstanding these doubts, the nervous system of the Wehrmacht was still capable of lighting fast reactions, and by the end of June 6 there were already German units beginning to scramble into the battlespace, fighting fiercely. Within the first week the Germans had established a more or less coherent defensive line, and at no point did the allies threaten to immediately break out directly from Normandy into the open.
There were, of course, already signs that the brewing fight would not go well for the Germans. On paper, the Germans had an extremely powerful armored force in France - the Wehrmacht had, after all, chosen specifically to accumulate panzer assets in the west for the purpose of countering the allied landing. A comprehensive inventory revealed nine Panzer divisions and a single Panzergrenadier division, armed with some 1,400 armored vehicles. The tip of the spear was the 1st SS Panzer Corps, armed to the teeth with privileged access to new equipment and recruits.
On the tactical level, German Panzer forces - and especially the veteran heavy Panzer regiments with their Tigers and Panthers - were the best assets in the war, and therefore on paper the prospect of nine panzer divisions crashing into Normandy ought to have been terrifying to the allies.
Wars, however, are not fought on paper, and the Germans found it much harder to deploy to the front than the lines on the map would suggest. To begin with, the Panzer forces were scattered all over France, and rushing them all into Normandy would have been difficult even under ideal circumstances, which these certainly were not. The allies enjoyed total air supremacy from the outset, and this fact greatly complicated the movement of the German approach columns. Commanders were obliged to distribute their forces across a variety of different routes and do most of their marching at night. The mere sound of aircraft in the area was enough to make German columns bail off the road and take cover under trees, and everywhere there were wrecked bridges and shell-holed roads.
So while the Wehrmacht would have preferred - and indeed they tried - to rush their Panzers to Normandy and crush the Allied bridgehead, the arrival of German reinforcements was more like a trickle which could not get quickly organized for concentrated action, and most units arrived having already taken losses to allied aircraft along the way. To take but one example, the commander of Panzer Lehr Division, General Fritz Bayerlein, arrived in Normandy with his staff to discover that he was out of contact with both his Panzers (which were slowly dribbling into the area in dispersed columns) and his Corps commander, Sepp Dietrich, because Dietrich had also recently arrived and was still setting up his command post at some as yet unknown location. A General unable to either give or receive orders because he did not know where either his division or his corps commander were: emblematic of an army struggling to operate under a hostile sky.
German reinforcements trickling into the theater in a steady stream; allied forces coming ashore in ever greater numbers - a potentially combustible mixture, but the outcome satisfied nobody. Both forces at this point had ambitions of some sort of decisive engagement. The allies had notions of breaking out of Normandy quickly, and the Germans wanted to get forces in place quickly to counterattack and “drive them into the sea”, as the formulation went, but neither army could achieve what it wanted. Instead, German units arrived in theater too slowly to squash the beachhead (not that this would have been possible anyway, given allied naval artillery and aircraft) but quickly enough to wall the allies off in Normandy. Instead of breaking out to the south, the allies found themselves painstakingly carving out a position some 20 miles deep and 65 miles long.
The Normandy battlespace at the end of June had acquired a rather peculiar and quaint character, with a strange degree of symmetry. Two German armies had arrived on the line and now stood abreast across from two allied armies, locked in a positional struggle. On the west end of the line, German 7th Army faced the US 1st Army, and to the east 5th Panzer Army blocked the British 2nd Army.
It was at this juncture, as the front began to cohere, that the allied campaign was stymied by sheer rotten luck and oversight.
There had never been any particular reasoning that went into the allied deployment pattern, which had the Anglo-Canadian forces landing on the easternmost beaches and the Americans landing in the west. The assignment of the beaches had been simply an extension of the way that allied forces were arranged pre-invasion in England. British forces had been staged in southeastern England around areas like Dover and Brighton (indeed, many had been there since the end of 1940, in anticipation of a potential German cross-channel invasion) and the arriving Americans simply set up shop along the western part of the channel coast where there was room, nearer to ports like Dartmouth, Portland, and Poole. To avoid tangling up the invasion force, the assignment of beaches simply mirrored the staging in England, so that the Americans remained on the allied right (to the west) and the British remained on the left.
This seems all well and good - a simple practicality. However, the arrangement of the allied line proved to be of great consequence, because once they tried to push off the beach they discovered that there was nothing symmetrical about the terrain at all. On the allied left (the eastern, British zone), Normandy opens up onto an idyllic rolling plain, interspersed by small hamlets and the occasional orchard or tree line - in other words, the ideal terrain for mechanized operations.
Western Normandy, however, was the veritable opposite - a nightmarish patchwork of small farms and fields separated from each other by the legendary hedgerows. The latter are dense, intergrown hedges comprised of variegated trees, shrubs, bushes, and ivies, frequently planted on top of earthen embankments. While the term “hedge” may invoke the image of delightful topiary, in Normandy they were mighty tangles of plant matter some 10-12 feet high and several feet thick. In times of peace hedgerows have the dual effect of both fencing in the pastures and farmlands - conveniently marking the boundaries between properties and keeping livestock confined - and sheltering the fields from the wind. In 1944, however, the hedgerows served to compartmentalize the battlefield into thousands of tiny fortresses, ringed with dense shrubbery which could conceal firing positions, machine guns, antitank emplacements, and marksmen, and which were frequently so thick that even tanks could not easily pass through them.
Thus, while the British faced an open plain ideal for mechanized maneuver, the Americans on the allied right faced little more than an enormous siege and the prospect of endlessly trying to reduce German positions in small unit actions - a handful of squads, a machine gun and a mortar on each side, one field at a time.
The difference between the two sectors of front could hardly have been more stark. It can literally be seen on satellite imagery; western Normandy is a deep and verdant green, and close inspection reveals small pastures and fields latticed with hedges, while eastern Normandy is a tawny plain of rolling wheat fields. For all purposes, these were two entirely different battlespaces.
The problem for the allies was that they were deployed in the opposite of the ideal arrangement. The American Army was, for obvious reasons, the far more vigorous, rich, and powerful force. America was far richer and more potentially powerful than Britain in baseline calculations, and in any case Britain had been fighting the war for five years by this point, had taken far more casualties, lost far more material, and was generally running low on replacements and maneuver assets. This tended to make the entire British army increasingly casualty-averse, cautious, and tired.
Thus, the lower-energy ally - less able to take advantage of favorable maneuver terrain - was the one lined up on the open plain, while the ally with far more combat power and fighting energy was trapped in the hedgerow country, facing an excruciating positional battle. In contrast, the Germans did deploy their assets in something approximating an optimal way. The Wehrmacht rushed its premiere assets - the panzer units - to plug the open terrain to the east, putting a tired and apprehensive British force face to face with a wall of Panzer divisions.
The result of the disastrous allied deployment was an almost immediate stalling out of the Normandy operation and mounting casualties, with both Americans and British running into severe difficulties of very different kinds.
For the Americans, the problem was the unimaginable difficulty of slogging through the hedgerows, which afforded tremendous advantages to the German defenders concealed beneath the foliage. In contrast to our general impression of the Normandy beaches as the scene of the great drama, it was only after the Americans got off the beach and into the bocage (as the hedgerow country is sometimes called) that casualties began to explode - and explode they did. In the six weeks following the landing, frontline American infantry divisions suffered 60 percent casualty rates among their enlisted men and 70 percent among the officers. The worst damage, by far, was suffered by the 90th Division, which lost a whopping 90 percent of its rifle platoon personnel and endured a mind-boggling 150 percent casualty rate among its company grades (lieutenants and captains) - a number which essentially implies full attrition plus 50 percent losses among replacements. In total, the US Army took some 40,000 casualties in the weeks following the landing - a price which bought them a grinding, exhausting, infuriating advance of some 20 miles.
To the left of the Americans, the British had an equally difficult time, but for a very different reason. The British faced terrain friendly to the attack, but they shared the space with no less than nine panzer divisions which, in a word, soundly defeated every British attempt to break out. In particular, the British found that trying their luck in close quarters against the German heavy panzer battalions was a horrific idea.
The mismatch found its ultimate expression on the morning of June 13, when an entire British armored brigade found itself mixing things up in the little town of Villers-Bocage with Waffen-SS Lieutenant Michael Wittman of the 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. Wittman managed to take the British by surprise as they advanced up the road in a column - a pair of shots from his Tiger destroyed the lead British tanks and trapped the remainder on the road; Wittman and the rest of his company then drove parallel to the paralyzed column, firing as they went. Eventually, Wittman drove into the column, shooting several tanks and simply running over smaller vehicles. The Tiger shooting spree must have seemed like an eternity to the British warriors trapped in its fury, but the entire thing took less than fifteen minutes, at the end of which some 24 tanks, nine halftracks, and a few dozen trucks, cars, and guns had been destroyed by Wittman and his company.
This was a microcosm of the basic problem - the British could not cope with the tactical superiority of the elite Panzer units (which remained the best mechanized forces in the war, man for man and tank for tank), while the Americans had been tragically deployed in a secondary section of front characterized by impossible terrain. As a result, by the beginning of July neither allied force had captured its first major objective in Normandy (Caen for the British, St. Lo for the Americans).
Now, perhaps all of this may give the impression that the Germans were winning. They were not. The front had coagulated into a grinding, attritional struggle that cost the allies high casualties and slowed their advance. That much is all true. The issue was that the attrition cut both ways, and of course the Germans could not afford that burden in the long run. Even in the area around Caen, where the SS Panzer Divisions fought viciously and brilliantly and repeatedly defeated British attempts to take the city, the math was simply bad news for the Wehrmacht. These Panzer forces were, after all, the single most valuable asset still in the German stable, and here they were being used for positional defense. Even a successful defense was hardly consolation for the fact that the Germans were using their precious panzer divisions not for some decisive counterattack, but simply to hold a positional defense against an enemy with far more time, men, material, and firepower than they. This was a classic scenario in which a series of tactical successes adds up to an operational disaster.
Both the allies and the Germans, therefore, had a strong desire to unlock the front. The Germans wanted to restore mobility to the theater so that they could seek some sort of decisive battle, and the allies wanted to break out so that there might at last be room to fully deploy their superior fighting power. By mid-July, there was already a backlog of 250,000 men and a whopping 58,000 vehicles loitering in Britain simply because there was not enough room in the Normandy beachhead to deploy them.
The task of solving this problem, on the allied side, fell upon General Omar Bradley, field commander of the US First Army. The solution that he landed on was rather fascinating, on a conceptual level, in that it combined the emerging motif of overwhelming American firepower with a concentrated and echeloned attack - in other words, an American version of Soviet Deep Battle.
Bradley resolved to select a narrow section of German front and crush it. The ensuing plan, named Operation Cobra, had two critical elements - namely, assembling a powerful, two-wave mechanized package, and planning an overwhelming aerial bombardment to pulverize the Germans in the sector selected for breaching. We can review the two elements in turn.
On the ground, Bradley organized an extremely powerful assault force, arranged in a way that would have been intimately familiar to Soviet planners. The first wave consisted of three infantry divisions, assembled on a very narrow front - 6,000 yards wide in total, or just 2,000 yards per division. Although labeled “infantry divisions”, the US Army (as we have mentioned) was able to equip these formations with a level of mechanization and firepower that far surpassed its competitors. The second wave, slated to exploit the breach in the German lines once it was opened, consisted of two armored divisions and an additional infantry division. Altogether, this six division package was designated US 7th Corps under General Joseph Collins, but in terms of fighting power this was essentially a full field army rather than a corps.
The arrangement of 7th Corps for Cobra looked virtually identical to the way the Red Army liked to stage for offensive operations, with two groupings - which the Soviets would have called Echelons - including a firepower-intensive breaching force in the first wave and a heavily armored and fully motorized exploitation force in the second wave. Bradley had, simply as an improvised battlefield expedient, laid the groundwork for the American equivalent of deep battle - but he would make it even more deadly, thanks to America’s uniquely unlimited ability to expend explosive ordnance.
The potent striking power of US 7th Corps was to be paired with one of the most awesome displays of airpower in the entire war, and indeed in history. Bradley had identified a 6,000 yard wide section of German front (a little under 3.5 miles). He now marked a rectangle around this sector on the map and asked the air force to absolutely plaster it with explosives.
Unfortunately, there was some controversy when it came to the bombing program.
The frontline essentially ran along the main east-west highway out of the town of Saint Lo, with the Germans and Americans glaring at each other from opposite sides of the road. This would be an extremely congested operating environment, not only on the ground, but in the air as well. The total strike package assigned for Operation Cobra included no less than 2,200 aircraft, including 1,500 heavy four-engine bombers. These planes would be asked to plaster a target area of only five square miles - affectionally dubbed “the carpet.” The potential for mistakes would be huge with so many planes airborne at the same time, trying to hit a small target that was only a few hundred yards away from American ground forces.
Bradley wanted to use the east-west road as a visual marker to reduce the potential for screwups. He viewed the road as a clear marker of the frontline that would be easily visible from the air, and he wanted the air force to fly parallel to the road, making their bombing runs on a west to east orientation. This would maximize their time over German positions and ensure that they did not overfly Bradley’s own assault force in its staging areas. The air force, however, was less than enthusiastic about this proposition - maximizing their time over the Germans also meant maximizing their exposure to flak. Bradley’s request for a parallel run was overridden, and the air force planned to approach the kill box perpendicularly - that is, flying over the top of Bradley's ground forces.
The start of the operation, slated for July 23rd, could not have been more ominous. As the enormous aerial strike force began to take to the skies, they spotted a storm blowing in and were recalled to base. One squadron of bombers somehow failed to receive the return to base order and began their bombing run, but they missed the kill box altogether and bombed positions of the US 30th Infantry Division. After waiting for the bad weather to clear out, Cobra was restarted on July 25th, and the first wave of American bombers once again released their payloads too soon and again bombed Bradley’s ground forces. In one of the more gutting twists of the war, this friendly-fire bombing killed the Commander of US Army Ground Forces, General Lesley McNair, who had gone to the frontline to encourage and inspect his boys. Thus, the highest ranking American officer to be killed in the European theater was killed by the US Army Air Force.
However, the bombers which accidentally dropped on their own positions were a tiny minority of the enormous Cobra strike. The great remainder roared over the designated carpet and began to transform it into a killing zone. A cloud of heavy, four-engine bombers - 1,500 in all - formed a death storm over the kill box and dropped a grand total of 60,000 bombs in the space of an hour: 1,000 bombs per minute, mostly 100 pound fragmentation bombs, every minute, without ceasing. Once the enormous bombing program had ended, Bradley’s ground force opened up with over 1,000 artillery pieces just to make sure the Germans were awake, and the tanks and infantry poured in. The enormous bombardment caught major elements of three German divisions - Panzer Lehr Division, 2nd Panzer, and 5th Fallschirmjager (airborne) - in an apocalyptic firestorm. Bradley had specifically requested the use of fragmentation bombs so that the roads would not be too cratered for his tanks and trucks to use, but the sheer mass of the bombing was sufficient to cause huge casualties and leave most of the German defenders completely stunned and incapable of resisting the ground assault.
The commander of Panzer Lehr Division, General Fritz Bayerlein, endured the American carpet bombing and gave one of the best accounts of what it is like to live through such an intense battering. There was no thought of resisting or taking any action other than hiding; he recalled looking to the sky and seeing the storm of bombers heading towards him, and then only a mad scramble as everyone ran for cover. The following hour was entirely disorienting, with zero visibility or communication possible amid the smoke, dust, and intense noise. By the time the bombing lifted, Beyerlein reported that his frontlines looked like the surface of the moon - “all craters and death” and he estimated that 70 percent of his personnel were either “dead, wounded, crazed, or dazed”. Little wonder that Panzer Lehr caved in almost immediately as Operation Cobra’s ground assault got underway.
After spending the first two days of the assault establishing and widening the breach in the German line, Bradley began to “insert the second echelon”, as his Soviet allies would have put it. The insertion of the American armored divisions into the battle on July 27 is the signal event which tore the German front wide open and put the US Army on a wild drive into the German rear. The following day (July 28) they captured Coutances and overran Panzer Lehr’s command post. On the 29th, they drove through Lehr’s repair shop - deep in what should have been the division’s rear area - and then out into open air. Normandy had been broken open.
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