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Near Bitburg, Germany, 1945: GIs from the 4th Armored Division cross the undefended 'dragon's-teeth' of a pacified section of the Siegfried Line. Note the two medics (centre) with unusual helmet markings showing the red cross with only a thin white edge; the radioman with an SCR 300 and accessory pack; and the use of gasmask bags as haversacks (see Plate G2).

The mismatch between German and US tanks is typified by the mid-November 1944 engagement between the US 2nd Armored and German 9th Panzer divisions at Pfuffendorf in Germany. Without air support and with no room to manoeuvre, two battalions of 75mm and 76mm Shermans (100-plus tanks) from the 67th Armd Regt were forced to fight just 20-25 PzKw IVs, Panthers and Tigers in a frontal engagement. To have a chance, the M4s tried to close to bring their guns into effective range. One 76mm Sherman fired 14 rounds into a Tiger before disabling it, and was immediately destroyed by the 88mm gun of another Tiger. The 67th Armor claimed five German tanks destroyed for the day; the timely arrival of the 90mm M36s of the 702nd TD Bn cost the Germans 15 more tanks; but the 67th lost 38 M4s, 19 M5s, and over 350 men in this engagement.


The Normandy landings

During the early morning of D-Day, 6 June 1944, some 2,500 bombers and 600 warships pounded the German 'Atlantic Wall' defences on the coast of Normandy between the Vire and Orne river estuaries (most of the bombardment falling too far inland to be of much value). Operation Overlord, under the supreme command of Gen Dwight Eisenhower, put three British and Canadian divisions ashore on 'Gold', 'Juno' and 'Sword' beaches at the eastern end of the 50-mile stretch, with British 6th Airborne Division dropped by night to secure the flank and bridges inland. The US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were night-dropped behind the beaches designated for the US 1st Army (Gen Omar Bradley); despite bad scattering they secured vital road junctions and interdicted enemy reinforcements. To the west, the US 4th Infantry Division landed on 'Utah' beach at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, losing less than 200 men. On 'Omaha', about 11 miles further east, the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions, 2nd and 5th Rangers were stopped cold on the beach, suffering more than 2,000 casualties - 50 to 95 per cent in some assault units. A handful of squads and platoons led by every rank from private to brigadier-general eventually forced their way up the bluffs, attacking German positions from the flanks and rear until the main beach exit points were cleared; and the two savaged divisions lurched forward into Normandy. By nightfall somewhere between 150,000 and 175,000 Allied troops were ashore in France.

Normandy, summer 1944: two medics and a rifleman from the 35th Division examine a dead German. The rifleman (left) has sawn off his E-tool handle for ease of carrying; his 'beer gut' is probably ammo and rations stuffed into his field jacket to save wearing a pack. Note that the kneeling medic has a second red cross brassard attached to his helmet net - a not uncommon sight. The medic partly visible in the background has turned his Parsons jacket inside-out to show the darker wool lining rather than the more visible light duck exterior.

Over the next three days the 2nd Infantry and 2nd Armored Divisions were landed into the slowly expanding bridgehead; soon a new division was landed about every two days. The Cotentin was cut off by 18 June; Cherbourg - a priority objective - fell after a five-day defence on 27 June but the harbour was not fully operational until 7 August.

Operation Cobra

Penned into the narrow bridgehead and taking heavy casualties, the Allies needed to break out of the difficult borage countryside - of small fields bordered by massive hedgerows and sunken lanes — in order to make full use of their superiority in numbers, firepower and mobility. Repealed and costly British and Canadian attempts to take Caen, the eastern anchor of the German defence, did not succeed until 9 July, but did draw the weight of German armoured forces into their sector. To the west the strategic town of St Lô fell to the 29th Infantry Division on 18 July. Operation Cobra, the US break-out assault west of St Lô, was preceded by aerial 'carpet bombing', which obliterated the defending Panzer-Lehr Division (but also killed some 500 US troops of the 30th Infantry Division, and the visiting LtGen McNair). The Americans poured through the breach, seizing Coutances on 28 July and Avranches on the 31st. The US 3rd Army (Gen George Patton), activated on 1 August, swept into Brittany. Hoping to break the neck of the US advance, Hitler ordered his available Panzer forces to attack at Mortain on 6 August. One battalion of the 30th Infantry Division lost about half its men holding Hill 317, but its FOs called down aircraft and corps artillery fires; supported by the 9th and 4th Infantry Divisions, the 30th lost little ground, and the mauled Germans were forced back. Despite this dangerous attack the Allies continued their rapid exploitation attack into France.

Brest, France, July 1944: riflemen from the 2nd Infantry Division during the prolonged street fighting for this port city. Several wear the M1928 pack; the man second from left wears the limited issue two-piece camouflage uniform (see Plate C3).

The battle for France

By mid-August 1944 an opportunity appeared to cut off German forces near Falaise; at first thinking most of the enemy had withdrawn, the Allies were slow to seal off this pocket, but even so Falaise cost the Wehrmacht some 50,000 men and thousands of vehicles and guns. While the British and Canadians advanced along the Channel coast the US 1st and 3rd Armies began to race eastwards across France; the Seine was crossed on 24 August and Paris fell on the 25th. Another 25,000 Germans surrendered near Mons, Belgium, on 3 September; by D+90 days the Allies were occupying objectives that had been planned for D+340. On 11 September, Patton's 3rd Army linked up with Gen Patch's 7th Army advancing from the landings in the south of France on 15 August (Operation Anvil), and a unified Allied front faced the Germans from the Channel to the Mediterranean.

However, the advance now began to sputter to a halt, caused not by German resistance but by over-stretched Allied supply lines from Normandy. The situation got worse when the British received priority of supply to support their attempts on the vital port of Antwerp and the airborne seizure of the lower Rhine (Operation Market Garden - in which ultimately failed gamble both US airborne divisions participated). By the end of October 1944 the 1st Army had captured its first German city, Aachen (21 October), and several toehold breaches were made in the Siegfried Line, the German border defences. In the nearby Hurtgen Forest the US Army allowed three divisions in succession to be ground up by the stubborn defenders. Still begging in vain for sufficient fuel and ammunition supplies, the US armies only slowly consolidated their advance. This autumn pause, called by the Germans the Miracle in the West', gave the enemy time to build and re-equip units for the defence of the Reich.

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