Here's What You Need to Know: Facing the German onslaught, General Hodges had basically just one division—the 30th Infantry, nicknamed Old Hickory.
By the morning of July 27, 1944, General Omar Bradley’s First U.S. Army had won the “Battle of the Hedgerows” in Normandy and stood ready to break out to the south. It had taken four corps, ultimately employing 12 divisions, to do it, and the cost had been appalling —XIX Corps alone had suffered 10,077 casualties. The forthcoming operation, codenamed Cobra, was designed to outflank SS General Paul Hausser’s depleted Seventh German Army and finally rid northern France of the hated Boche.
“The Left Flank has Collapsed”
A day later half a dozen German infantry divisions had been cut to pieces and U.S. columns were pouring down the roads between Coutances and the River Vire. Even the Americans were astonished by their success. Two days later, August 1, General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army became fully operational, and his 4th Armored Division, after advancing 40 kilometers in 36 hours, reached Avranches. The German Commander in Chief West, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, warned Berlin, “The left flank has collapsed.”
Bradley, who was now commanding the U.S. Twelfth Army Group, ordered his successor in First Army, General Courtney Hodges, to seize the Vire–Mortain sector, while Patton was to turn west into Brittany. In a characteristic feat of organization and personal leadership, George Patton funneled seven divisions down one road and across the one bridge at Avranches in 72 hours.
It is not the author’s intention to discuss the higher strategy of the Normandy campaign with all the arguments about wasted efforts in Brittany and large and small envelopments. For the purposes of this article, it is sufficient to say that Mortain was captured by August 2, and the following day Bradley ordered Patton to leave minimal forces in Brittany and use his main strength to drive eastward. Rennes was secured on the 4th, and the overall Allied ground commander, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, issued a directive that ended, “The broad strategy of the Allied Armies is to swing the right flank towards Paris and to force the enemy back to the Seine.”
The Mortain Counterattack
Montgomery was not the only person to issue a new directive on August 4. Hitler did the same. He ordered von Kluge to launch a counteroffensive from the Vire–Mortain area, aimed first at Avranches, with the objective of cutting off all American forces to the south of that line, and then northeast to the Channel coast to drive the Allies back into the sea. It was a highly imaginative plan, but both von Kluge and Hausser knew that it would be impossible to assemble the forces necessary for such an offensive before the collapse of the entire front to the west of the River Orne. They also knew that there was no point in arguing!
Hitler insisted that eight of the nine panzer divisions in Normandy should be used in the offensive, along with the entire reserves of the Luftwaffe, but that the attack should be delayed until “every tank, gun and plane is assembled.” Every detail was specified, including the exact roads and villages through which the assaulting troops were to advance. General Gunther Blumentritt, von Kluge’s chief of staff, complained after the war, “All this planning had been done in Berlin with large-scale maps and the advice of the generals in France was not asked for, nor was it encouraged.” The operation was codenamed Luttich (Liege). The Americans called it the “Mortain counterattack.”
In accordance with Hitler’s directive, at 1935 hours on August 5, the commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte (Bodyguard) Adolf Hitler—usually shortened to Leibstandarte or LAH—received an order to dispatch his two panzer battalions and two of his panzergrenadier battalions, plus a self-propelled artillery battalion, to the area to the southeast of Vire, that same night. This elite division had already suffered heavy casualties during July and was at this time still heavily engaged southeast of Caen. Nevertheless, within five hours it had been relieved by an infantry division and the designated units had begun their move to the west. For the time being, the rest of the division remained in Army Group B reserve.
When Patton’s tanks approached Le Mans the following day, von Kluge began to panic. It was clear that the German southern flank was wide open, but he was reassured by Berlin that he “should not worry about the extension of the American penetration, for the delay [in launching the counteroffensive] would mean cutting off so much more.”
Assembling the Counterattack
Von Kluge and Hausser knew that the Führer Order was sounding the death knell of the German Seventh Army and that any delay in launching the counterattack would only exacerbate matters. They therefore resolved to attack during the night of August 6, long before all the necessary forces could be assembled. They were encouraged in this decision by a visit to Seventh Army on the afternoon of August 6 by a Luftwaffe general, who said 300 fighters could be committed over the attack area on August 7. Although this new plan fell far short of Hitler’s vision of a campaign-winning counterstroke, he surprisingly agreed to the earlier attack.
The Germans had detected only one U.S. infantry division and part of an armored division in the path of their attack. Against this relatively small force von Kluge and Hausser planned to use General Hans von Funck’s XLVII Panzer Corps with the 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich with a battlegroup from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, and, they hoped, those parts of the Leibstandarte already mentioned. According to Hausser in his postwar interrogation, “The main body of the 1st SS Panzer Division … was to serve as a second wave in the attack on Juvigny.”
Von Funck’s counterattack was to be launched between the Sée River in the north and the Sélune in the south. Although not significant barriers, these small rivers would at least give the flanks of the offensive some protection. The main German thrust was to be in the center, through St. Barthélemy and Juvigny, initially by General Smilo Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzer Division. Since his division had suffered some 40 percent casualties to its combat strength, von Lüttwitz was to be strongly reinforced by the Leibstandarte’s 1st SS Panzer Battalion and by another panzer battalion and antitank company from the 116th. This was expected to give von Lüttwitz a strength of about 100 tanks.
It was envisaged that by the time the breakthrough by 2nd Panzer had been achieved, the rest of the Leibstandarte would have arrived and be able to lead the final advance to Avranches. The remainder of the relatively fresh but by now seriously weakened 116th Panzer Division, with only about 25 tanks, was to protect the northern flank by advancing from the area west of Sourdeval to engage enemy forces north of the Sée. Its initial objective was le Mesnil-Gilbert.
SS Brigadier Otto Baum’s reinforced 2nd SS Panzer Division was only about 60 percent combat effective and had fewer than 30 tanks. Its task was to capture Mortain by encirclement and then advance west and southwest to St. Hilaire, while Panzer Lehr’s reconnaissance elements looked after the southern flank.
“I Must Say This is a Poor Start”
Although well under 200 tanks would be available for the assault on August 7, it was hoped that a sufficient number of tank reinforcements and replacements would be furnished during the advance by the arrival of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions and a tank Battalion of the 9th Panzer Division.
At 1630 hours on August 6, SS Major General Teddy Wisch, commanding the 1st SS Panzer Division LAH, reported that his tanks, having driven 70 kilometers, would need refueling and that anyway, they could not possibly arrive in the planned assembly area before 2200 hours.
Two hours before the designated H hour of midnight, von Funck reported to Hausser that the leading elements of the Leibstandarte were still at Tinchebray, some 20 kilometers short of their required positions. The remainder of the route, through St. Clement, was narrow and winding, with high banks skirting the poor roads and a deep valley to be crossed. It was obvious that there was no chance of the 2nd Panzer Division receiving its extra LAH tanks in time for the planned attack. Similarly, Lt. Gen. Graf von Schwerin’s 116th Panzer Division had failed to produce its share of extra forces for 2nd Panzer, with the result that von Funck asked that von Schwerin be sacked.
Inevitably, von Funck, Hausser, and von Lüttwitz were extremely unhappy with the way things were going—the latter was missing not only his extra tanks but also an assault gun brigade and additional artillery that had been promised from the II Parachute Corps. Hausser is recorded as saying, “I must say this is a poor start. Let’s hope that tonight’s loss of time will be compensated for by fog tomorrow morning.”