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Borows SD, Sep-1984. Cobra: The Normandy Breakout, Armor

Borows SD, Sep-1984. Cobra: The Normandy Breakout, Armor

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Published by: Foro Militar General on Mar 31, 2013
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COBRA:
The
Normandy Breakout
by
Captain Stephen
D.
Borows
One month after D-Day, Allied plan-ners had envisaged controlling thewhole of Normandy, including the ma-jor town of Caen. But by July, a millionAllied troops were still bottled up in abeachhead only
3%
miles deep thatcould be pushed back into the sea bythe opposing
650,000
Germans. Only
17
Allied airfields were in operation inthe beachhead area with just thirty-onefighter squadrons. And the airfieldswere subject to periodic shelling.General Eisenhower, Supreme Com-mander, Allied Forces in Europe,wrote to the Army’s Chief of Staff,General George Marshall, of his diffi-culties in achieving a breakout. Heattributed his lack of success to threefactors: One, the superior fightingqualities of the
SS
and parachute troopsof the German Seventh Army; two, theNormandy countryside that was idealfor defense and precluded the massiveuse of armor and, three, the terribleweather in the English Channel whichhad inflicted horrendous damage
on
Allied equipment, had broken up theartificial harbors at the beaches and, ingeneral, inflicted five times the damageto Allied equipment than the enemyhad done
on
D-Day.Among other negative results of theweather, the Allied ammunition supplyhad been reduced
by
one-third.The Normandy countryside was anextensive patchwork of tangled shrubsand trees up to fifteen feet
in
heightand three to four feet thick. Thesehedgerows, called
bocuge.
had been setby French farmers generations beforeto mark the boundaries of their fieldsand to protect their crops from the seawinds. The
bocuge
severely restrictedmobility and visibility and, combinedwith the fact that few good roads exist-ed in the area, gave the enemy greatadvantages in his defense. It seems thatthe D-Day planners had paid less atten-tion to the Normandy
bocuge
than theyhad to the beaches.It would fall to American ingenuityand technical know-how to solve theproblem of cutting through thehedgerows that imposed a style of warthat the Americans were unsuited for,both by temperment and training. Thiswas to be a war that demanded com-bined arms operations, something theAmerican Army had not practised to
Hit by an
88-mm
antitank gun as itapproached Avranches, an M4A3 of theU.S. 4th Armored Division burns in afield.
any great degree prior to the invasion.A solution to the
bocuge
problemcame from Sergeant Curtis Culin of the2d Armored Division’s 102d CavalryReconnaissance Squadron. Sergeant
Two Panther tanks of the Panzer LehrDivision knocked out in early July,1944, when they attempted to counter-attack.
24
ARMOR
September-October
1984
 
Shaded area on map
of
France pin-points tiny beachhead held by theAllies prior to Operation COBRAbreakout. Several earlier attemptsmade little headway.
Culin welded steel prongs to the frontof Allied tanks, which allowed thetanks to dig in and uproot a portion
of
the hedges. The prongs were hastilywelded up from steel girders that hadbeen part of the German beach defens-es.General Omar Bradley, 1st U.S.Army Commander, saw the Culin de-vice on July 14 and ordered it mass-produced. During the breakout opera-tions, three out of five
U.S.
tanks wereequipped with the “rhinoceros hedge-cutter” which proved to work, provid-ing much better mobility for the armor.Other improvisations, like externaltelephones
on
the rear decks of thetanks and infantry-frequency radiosinside the tanks, increased the Ameri-cans ability to tight as tank-infantryteams. The leading tanks in the offen-sive were equipped with VHF aircraft-frequency radios, and every armoredcolumn had an on-station patrol of
3
to4 P-47 fighter-bombers orbiting over-head
on
half-hour shifts, ready forimmediate air strikes. Very rarelywould the Luftwaffeever contest Alliedair superiority over Normandy. Thisadvantage would have a dramatic,though not decisive, effect in thebreakout.The Germans, despite the need forforces to contain the Soviet armies inthe East and to block Allied advancesin Italy, had amassed 20 divisions tooppose the 34 Allied divisions in Nor-mandy. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,Commander
of
Army Group B, wouldvery effectively check the Alliedadvance and would prevent them fromquickly breaking out onto the openplains where they could employ theirarmored superiority
to
advantage.On 28 June, the Germans dividedtheir forces into two groups to accomo-date their newly-arriving reinforce-ments and to meet the likely Alliedbreakthrough attempts.The logical place for a breakout wasin the east,
in
the British Second Armysector around Caen. The ground therewas flatter and more open, and a break-out there would threaten the commu-nications of all the German forces
in
Normandy. Therefore, Rommel placedfour corps under control of PanzerGroup Westin the Caen sector.British intelligence, however,underestimated the depth of the Ger-
--
-NUKMANDY
oPariS
5
BRITANY
France
I
f
The AlliedBeachheadJuly,
1944
1
w
pain
-
cale
,01
man front as well as the number of re-serves the Germans would be able tocommit to their area. Of the 13 divi-sions of Panzer Group West,
10
wereconcentrated
on
the 35-mile Caenfront. Among these were five
SS
PanzerDivisions, including 250 mediumPanther and 150 heavy Tiger tanks.Allied tanks were hopelessly outclassedby the Tigers.On 18 uly the British opened Opera-tion Goodwoodwith three armored divi-sions commanded by Lieutenant Gen-eral Sir Richard O’Connor. The attack,made east of Caen, followed a massive,2,100 plane air strike.The German defenses in the Caenarea were organized in depth, withinfantry forward and the panzers back,east of Caen. At a crucial moment ofthe attack, a Panther battalion of the 1st
SS
Panzer Division came up on the dis-engaged side of an armored brigade ofthe British
11
h Armored Division andoccupied critical high ground. Whenthe British brigade topped the open riseeast of Caen, near Cagny, it cameunder murderous antitank and tankgun fire. The British pushed forwardlong after they had lost their initialmomentum, and the 11th Armoredlost 126 tanks in the first day. They lost
ARMOR
a further
200
tanks before repulsing acounterattack that ended Goodwood
on
21 July.Operation Goodwood was regarded asa failure by General Eisenhower be-cause it failed to break out and to reachits tactical objectives. Goodwood didclean out the area east of Caen but at acost of
500
tanks.
To
the British SecondArmy paradoxically, the bloody Britishrepulse made the eventual Americanbreakout possible by confirming theGerman hunch that Caen was the cru-cial area. This contributed to the weak-ness of the German front in the
US.
First Army sector where the Germanshad placed only two corps.General Bradley was already plan-ning his version of a breakout to bemade
on
8 July. He planned an attack
on
a limited front close to the westernend of the beachhead area. It was to cutoff the German troops and pin themagainst the coast of the Cherbourg pen-insula. The plan was finalized on 13 Ju-
ly
and Operation Cobra was to begin on18 uly.The area chosen for this attack was
on
Major General Lawton Collins’ VI1
U.S.
Corps front of about 4.5 miles.General Bradley concentrated threeinfantry divisions (9th, 4th and 30th)
September-October
1984
25
 
for the assault with the 1st Infantry and2d and 3d Armored Divisions poisedfor exploitation and pursuit. Availableartillery tubes amounted to 83 for each1.6 miles of front.However, the key to
Cobra
was amassive aerial bombardment to satu-rate a zone of 7,000 yards by 2,500yards. This area was to be pounded forthree hours by more than 1,500
B-17
and
B-24
heavy bombers dropping3,300 tons of
HE;
more than 380 medi-um bombers dropping fragmentationbombs, and more than 550 fighter-bombers dropping 200 tons of HE andnapalm. The purpose of this air strikewas to severely disrupt, if not destroy,communications and create havoc inthe German lines.Once the initial rupture had beenmade, the U.S. VI11 and XIX Corpswould launch limited attacks to tiedown the surviving Germans and pre-vent their redeployment to seal off thegap. The 9th and 30th Infantry Divi-sions and part of the 4th Infantry Divi-sion of VI1 Corps were to make theinitial penetrations and secure theflanks of the breach, creating a “de-fended corridor.” The tanks would besent in through this corridor. The mo-torized 1st Infantry Division, with partof 3d Armored Division, was to boltthrough the hole and attack towardCoutances, while the remainder of 3dArmored Division was to make a wideend sweep toward that town and 2dArmored Division would sweep evenwider to the southeast.The Germans were already in amuch weakened state. In the fiercefighting since the invasion,
PunzerGroup West
and Seventh Army had suf-fered nearly 117,000 casualties, buthad received
less
than 12,000 replace-ments. Similarly, of the total 250 tankslost during this period, only 17 replace-ments had arrived at the front. Alliedair strikes had destroyed most if not allof the German reinforcements on theirway to the front.Counting upon this sheer numericaladvantage in troops and equipment,the Allies set the target date for theattack as 20 July, a two-day postpone-ment from the original date. A furtherpostponement until 1300 hours, 24 Ju-
ly,
was caused by bad weather. Thatmorning, however, Air Chief MarshalSir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, command-er of the Allied Expeditionary AirForce, decided that the weather wastoo overcast and unsuitable and can-celled the air strike. Unfortunately, theorder did not reach all the air units andmore than 300 bombers went aheadwith the mission. The results were trag-ic.The bombers were given a clearly-defined coordination Doint. the roadfrom St.
Lo
to Periers, but wereallowed to bomb only on a north-southline, rather than parallel to the frontwhich was roughly east-west. GeneralBradley had withdrawn his troops
800
yards from the marker road, but somebombs were released short of the aim-ing point and 25 Americans were killedand 131 wounded. The infantry divi-sions launched probing attacks afterthis abortive bombing, but achieved nosignificant results. A fresh start wasordered for 1100 the next day.Paradoxically, this miscarriage of the
Cobra
plan made the Germans over-confident; they believed they hadthwarted a major attack, and subse-quently relaxed their vigil. When thefull air bombardment began 22 hourslater, the Germans were doubly sur-prised. More than 4,150 tons of bombswere dropped and
Punzer Lehr
Divi-sion, which took the brunt of the airassault, ceased to function as an effec-tive force. Lieutenant General Fritz
J
I*nh*.)
above, and at eft and right,
U.S
9
units surge into Coutances, ar
4
early oDjective of the COBRA breakoutThe- tank above is a howitzer-armecSherman, favored for its 105-mm fire-power and heavier armor. Light tankslike the M5A1 and Shermans with themore common 75-mm gun often facecmurderous antitank fire from heavieiGerman guns in well-concealed defen.sive positions.
26
ARMOR
September-October
1984

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