World War II: Did America Pay Too High a Price in Taking Brittany?

January 18, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINormandy LandingsBrittanyMilitary History

World War II: Did America Pay Too High a Price in Taking Brittany?

As Allied troops dashed east after breaking out from the Normandy beachhead, the VIII U.S. Corps was bogged down in an attempt to take the ports.

Here's What You Need to Know: About the only positive thing the seizure of Brest accomplished was the elimination of a strong group of aggressive, first-rate enemy soldiers on the Allies’ line of communication.

At age 86, with a full and successful career behind him, General of the Army Omar Nelson Bradley sat down to write his uncensored memoirs. Although he had written a memoir of his World War II service earlier (A Soldier’s Story), he felt the need to be fully candid and open about his experiences.

One of the things he was to describe was his regret at the amount of time, effort, and blood that he had expended in the prolonged seizure of France’s Brittany Peninsula. He recalled that the “frustrating Brittany campaign” might have been better if the Allies had not fought it at all.

As he wrote, “We might have been well advised at this point to give up the good fight and let Brest remain in German hands, contained by our newly arriving green infantry divisions or by the French Forces of the Interior, which had ably assisted Patton’s run through Brittany.”

Thirty-five years earlier, the situation seemed different to those on the ground in France. The Allies had determined that seizing a defended port by direct amphibious assault was impractical—a lesson driven home by the 1942 Canadian raid at Dieppe. Instead, at Normandy the Allies would assault over open beaches, bringing a pair of temporary ports (“Mulberry” harbors) with them. The intent was to seize French ports quickly to allow logistics to keep up with the projected Allied advance to Germany.

As is usual in war, plans failed to match events. The Allies became stalled in Normandy, one of the temporary ports was destroyed by a storm, and the beaches, while difficult, sufficed for the first two months of the invasion, along with the port of Cherbourg, which was captured early but was badly damaged by the Germans. Things soon changed again when the Allies launched Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy and into the French interior.

It was this breakout that launched the Brittany campaign. The original Allied plans called for securing the entire Brittany Peninsula as a part of the initial lodgment area. Although much delay had ensued, the original plans were still in effect and, as the First U.S. Army broke out of the Normandy beachhead, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s newly arrived Third U.S. Army raced past its flank and moved east and south. The southern thrust was the VIII U.S. Corps under the command of Maj. Gen. Troy H. Middleton.

This thrust into Brittany would give the Allies a total of 500 miles of French coastline, including some good ports at Rouen, Le Havre, Cherbourg, St. Malo, Brest, Lorient, and Vannes. Several smaller harbors would also come under Allied control. All of these would be under the protection of Allied air power based in Britain, while at the same time providing additional, closer air bases for the advancing armies.

The turn into Brittany was led by the U.S. 4th and 6th Armored Divisions, followed closely by the 8th Infantry Division. The initial advance, once a breakthrough had been achieved, was surprisingly swift. The two armored divisions rounded up some 4,000 German prisoners while the infantry division added 3,000 more to the POW enclosures. American losses numbered fewer than 700 from all causes.

German disorganization was obvious and rampant. Destroyed and abandoned enemy equipment, including guns, tanks, and trucks, littered the roads and countryside and formed the chief obstacle to the American advance. Clearly disorganized German units were fleeing into the Brittany Peninsula. Even the Germans described it as a “Riesensauerei”—one hell of a mess.

The initial Allied attack on July 25 had started slowly due to strong German resistance, but as the German reserves, already inadequate, were used to delay one of the Allied thrusts, another quickly pushed forward. By August 1, 1944, the front had broken wide open. The German LXXXIV Corps was smashed, and the II Parachute Corps was defeated, as was the parent Seventh German Army. American troops stood at the entrance to the Brittany Peninsula.

Hitler’s reaction to Cobra was to delay as much as possible the Allied advance to gain time to rebuild his defenses deeper inside France. To this end he ordered his troops to destroy all transportation facilities, locomotives, railway lines, and bridges. His second step was to order his “Fortress Policy” into effect.

This latter plan was designed to deny the Allies the essential port facilities they needed logistically while at the same time keeping his hold on advance submarine bases from which his naval forces could strike at the Allied supply lines across the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean.

In preparation for this, from 1943 onward the ports of France, Holland, and Belgium had been heavily fortified by the Germans for just such an eventuality. Each was assigned a commander who had personally vowed to fight to the death to defend his fortress. So far, only Cherbourg had fallen to the Allies, and only after a bitter fight that destroyed a good deal of the port.

Now the Allies had seized the small ports of Avranches and Pontaubault on the Contentin Peninsula and were about to threaten major ports in Brittany, including St. Malo, Brest, Lorient, and St. Nazaire.

Disappointed in what he considered the too rapid fall of Cherbourg, Hitler renewed his directive and ordered each port held “to the last man, to the last cartridge.” This order, unpopular with the German Army, nevertheless was put into immediate effect, tying up about 750,000 German troops.

Hitler, satisfied that his Fortress Order would prevent the Allies from gaining the vital Brittany ports, ordered his field commander, Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, to ignore the Brittany front and concentrate his forces on slowing the Allied drive to the Seine River.

To obey these orders, Kluge requested permission to move the 2nd German Parachute Division from Brest to the east and the 319th German Infantry Division, then occupying the Channel Islands as well. Hitler refused to evacuate the Channel Islands, but did give permission for the paratroopers to leave Brest.

But it was too late. Even as the first German paratroopers began to move, they encountered the advance elements of American armor approaching the port city. They had no choice but to withdraw into the defenses of Brest. As they did so, more and more reports of American armor advancing into Brittany reached them.

These same reports reached von Kluge, and he abandoned the idea of moving the paratroopers. Looking for some force to at least attempt a defense of Brittany—if for no other reason than to tie down Allied forces—he turned to General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher, commanding XXV Corps.

Fahrmbacher had fought the Americans before in the Contentin Peninsula and did not relish another round. Although at one time Brittany held some 100,000 German troops, most had been sent to fight in Normandy. Left to Fahrmbacher in August were the 2nd German Parachute and the 343rd Infantry Divisions. Elements of the 266th and 265th Infantry Divisions, the latter holding the ports of Lorient, St. Nazaire, and Nantes, were also available. The usual collection of coast artillery, antiaircraft, antitank, engineer, navy, and air force units were also included under Fahrmbacher’s XXV Corps. Additionally, he picked up straggler units from the 77th and 91st Infantry Divisions that had escaped from Normandy into Brittany.

Hitler’s Fortress Order dictated that these field forces would remain under the command of their leaders as long as they operated outside the delineated confines of the particular fortress. Once they were pushed into the fortress, all forces, including the field forces, came under the command of the fortress commander. In most cases, the defenses of these fortress ports faced the sea, the expected focus of attack.

Fahrmbacher and his headquarters moved to Lorient. On August 7, von Kluge ordered him to move to and take command of Brest, but already the lines of communication were cut and XXV Corps remained in Lorient. With land and sea routes cut and communications difficult if not impossible, each fortress essentially fought alone. In effect, Fahrmbacher would become fortress commander of Lorient.

American planners had always intended for the XIII U.S. Corps and one or two others to turn into Brittany and clear the ports. German disorganization offered the Americans the chance to use only VIII Corps for this role. Middleton’s corps had fought in Normandy as a part of the First U.S. Army under Bradley, but on August 1, 1944, with the activation of the Third Army, it became a part of Patton’s army.

Patton was under orders to secure the Brittany Peninsula, particularly the ports of St. Malo, the Quiberon Bay area, and Brest. Army engineers were alerted to prepare to open these ports as soon as they were secured by VIII Corps.

Patton was to cut across the base of the peninsula, thereby isolating it from the rest of the German Army. Next, he planned to clear central Brittany, open lines of communication, and reduce German defenses to the isolated pockets of resistance around the ports. The plan assumed that once the German port defenders were isolated they would surrender after a token resistance.