Here's What You Need to Know: The U.S. VIII Corps exploited Operation Cobra and cracked a doorway into Brittany.
Lieutenant General Omar Bradley had reason to be pleased by the last week of July 1944. His First Army had scratched out a substantial foothold on the Normandy coast, capturing three times more French territory than his British allies. He had cut off the Cherbourg peninsula to the west and pushed his army south. His carpet bombing of the German Army south of St. Lo, Operation Cobra, helped crack the enemy line. But his four corps, composed mostly of infantry, were still only inching forward. It had taken him almost two months to advance approximately 80 square miles. He needed to win the war faster than this.
“I’ll take him into battle on a litter if we have to.”
To Bradley, the key to victory was capturing ports. With most of the Allied supplies coming across the beaches of Normandy, and only a trickle coming from the destroyed port at Cherbourg, he knew if he could push his army south, he could pivot to the west into Brittany and gain access to the ports of St. Malo, Brest, and Lorient. And the key to Brittany was the mountaintop town of Avranches, with the See River crossing north of the town and the Selune River crossing south. If the Cherbourg Peninsula was the forearm of a raised left arm, the Brittany Peninsula would be the bicep and Avranches would be the inner crook of the elbow, a vital town indeed.
Bradley’s First Army was becoming unmanageably large. So far in the war, American armies had usually consisted of two or three corps; the First Army now consisted of four. From east to west were the V Corps under Leonard Gerow, XIX Corps under Charles Corlett, VII Corps under Joe Collins, and the VIII Corps under Troy Middleton. Both the V and VII Corps had fought their way up from the Normandy beaches. The XIX and VIII were committed to the fight on July 3, but only managed to advance five to seven miles south in 17 days of fighting.
Behind Bradley, soldiers and weapons were pouring into Normandy. He knew that once he had more room, he would commit Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army to the fight. Patton, who had led troops to success in North Africa and Sicily, was a proven commander who pushed men forward through a combination of leadership, smart tactics, personal example, and profane language.
Major General Troy Middleton was relatively new to corps command but he was no stranger to combat. In 1915, he had fought in Mexico and led an infantry regiment in World War I as the youngest colonel in the Army, earning a Distinguished Service Cross. He left the Army in 1937 and later became the vice president of Louisiana State University. Called back into service in 1943, he successfully led the 45th Infantry Division through the capture of Sicily and into Italy. An arthritic knee sent him home, but he was called back to service by General Dwight Eisenhower, who needed his experience to help liberate France.
“I’ll take him into battle on a litter if we have to,” Ike reportedly told General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff. Now Middleton’s VIII Corps held the extreme right flank of the army with Joe Collins to his left and the Gulf of St. Malo to his right. At his disposal were four infantry divisions, the 8th, 79th, 83rd, and 90th, and two armored divisions, the 4th and 6th.
American Armored Divisions: Unproven Beasts
Infantry and armored divisions were two widely different weapons of war. In World War II, an infantry division consisted of three infantry regiments commanded by a colonel and supported by tank and artillery battalions, some 13,000 men. An infantry division moved at the pace of a soldier’s feet. Tanks supported the infantry wherever the going got tough. Armored divisions also consisted of three formations, each commanded by a colonel. They were called Combat Commands and were designated either A, B, or R (for Reserve). Each one consisted of a tank battalion and an armored infantry battalion, with armored field artillery battalions sometimes attached.
In an attack, the tank battalion, consisting of approximately 70 tanks, led the charge, followed by the armored infantry battalion, consisting of 1,000 soldiers riding in half-tracks, who dismounted to wipe out anything the tanks left behind. Armored divisions, with a total of more than 200 tanks, were designed for speed, maneuver, and hitting power.
But American armored divisions had yet to prove themselves in the war. In North Africa, the 1st Armored Division never got the knack for exploitation. In Sicily, the 2nd Armored Division was limited to supporting the infantry, and in Italy, the 1st was restricted to the roads as it moved up mountainsides. In Normandy, Collins had already deployed his 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions, but they fought in swampy areas and only partially committed to the fight. Troy Middleton knew what an infantry division could do, but he was not so sure about tanks and openly expressed his reservations about using armor for exploitation.
Armor Strikes in Operation Cobra
Operation Cobra’s ground attack kicked off on July 25, with Collins committing three infantry divisions into the breach made by the bombers. Despite poor gains, he committed his two armored divisions into the attack to speed things up. The 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions were bigger than the rest of the other American armored divisions (they had been organized as “heavy,” divisions with two large regiments before armored divisions were slimmed down to three smaller combat commands) and they had experience. Collins tasked the 3rd with capturing Coutances, the first major town on the route south to Avranches.
The next day, Bradley committed the VIII Corps to action but Middleton put the 8th and 90th Infantry Divisions into the van, advancing only a mile. Within 24 hours, Middleton realized that German resistance had crumbled, but minefields were holding up his infantry. Despite his reservations, he ordered his 4th and 6th Armored Divisions to lead the way.
Grow and Wood
The leaders of the 4th and 6th were two very different men. Major General John “P” Wood was an outspoken and passionate artilleryman who later became a tanker. He earned the nickname “P” for professor because he tutored so many of his fellow cadets at West Point. He served as an ordnance officer in World War I and attended the staff college at Langres in France with Patton before returning home. He served with Patton again at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and later became Patton’s artillery commander in the 2nd Armored Division.
An artillery specialist, Wood served in armored units from 1941 until he took command of the 4th Armored in May 1942. He endeared his men to him through his leadership, individual care of his soldiers, and by challenging superiors who found fault with his bold tactics. He was not above hugging his men when they did well, and he listened to them. When an officer told him that the white star on the front of American tanks was being used by the German tankers as a bull’s-eye, Wood ordered all the stars on the 4th’s tanks to be painted over black.
Stone-faced and businesslike Maj. Gen. Robert Grow, like Patton, had begun his career in the cavalry. But, unlike Patton, he shifted to armor development in 1930, spending much of his time with the mechanized cavalry at Fort Knox while Patton returned to the cavalry. Yet, for all his hard work developing tank tactics, Grow had earned Patton’s ire. During the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, where entire armies fought mock battles across the Cajun state, Colonel Grow told Patton how he had enjoyed a delicious oyster supper. Patton, knowing Grow’s men were on the march toward an objective, chewed him out for irresponsible behavior. It was a lesson Patton hoped the younger officer would remember.
“Get Rid of That Gun!”
Before sunrise on July 28, 1944, these two division commanders led their troops through the infantry and charged the Germans. Waves of tanks pushed through the hedgerow country, filling the air with the deafening roar of engines and the smell of gasoline. Half-tracks followed, packed with soldiers. Bringing up the rear were mobile artillery, tracked tank retrievers, and supply trucks. The war of maneuver had begun.
The armored spearheads sliced through battered German defenses and raced south to Coutances. The men of the 6th found enemy resistance light and advanced some eight miles before noon. The 4th did even better. Despite being delayed three hours in a minefield, its tanks broke free and reached Coutances before noon, only to find the Germans still in force. Elements of CCB under Brig. Gen. Holmes Dager began pushing south through the city, wrestling for control. Tanks blasted buildings as armored infantrymen dueled with German soldiers hiding in the rubble. Unhappy with his division’s progress, General Wood took the battle into his own hands.