The battle of Saint-Lo (7-19 July 1944) was an essential preliminary to the eventual American breakout from Normandy, and saw them struggle through the bocage country to reach the starting point for Operation Cobra.
After the initial D-Day landings the first main American Overlord objective was to clear out the Cotentin Peninsula, to the west of the beaches, and take the port of Cherbourg to the north. The second objective was to advance south and capture the key road junction of Saint- Lo, an essential build-up to the planned breakout on the Allied western front (Operation Cobra).
The first task after the initial landings was to join up the individual beachheads. The first task for the US forces was to close the gap between Utah and Omaha beaches. General Gerow’s 5th Corps, which had landed on Omaha Beach, was given the task of taking Isigny, in the eastern part of the gap. This fell to the 29th Division on the night of 8 June with the support of heavy naval gunfire.
Over the next few days 5th Corps pushed south to the high ground overlooking the Aure river, and then towards Caumont, seventeen miles inland. Caumont is just over 12 miles to the east of Saint- Lo, and roughly the same distance inland, but it fell to the Allies on 12 June, more than a month before Saint- Lo. This is partly because the Germans fought hard to keep control of Carentan and thus limit the connection between the two US beaches, and even launched a counterattack there on 13 June, and partly because Gerow was already in contact with the British on his left, and needed to maintain firm contact with them. On 13 June this first push south was stopped by Bradley, who wanted to focus the limited supplies that could be landed over the beaches on the attack into the Cotentin.
On 14-15 June two new US Corps became operational. In the west General Middleton’s 8th Corps took over the southern flank of the advance across the Cotentin, with the task of protecting the rear of the troops moving north towards Cherbourg. In the centre of the US line General Charles H. Corlett’s 19th Corps became operational. Gerow’s 5th Corps remained in place on the left of the US line. Corlett was given the 29th and 30th Divisions, while Gerow got the 1st and 2nd Division and the 2nd Armoured Division.
Over the next few days the Americans carried out a series of limited attacks in the Vire valley, and by 18 June they were only five miles from Saint- Lo. However on 19 June the great storm hit, destroying the Mulberry Harbour on Omaha Beach, and dramatically cutting the quantity of supplies that could be moved to Normandy. As a result all three corps on the southern US front had to go onto the defensive, while the limited supplies supported the fighting in the Cotentin. An 8th Corps attack planned for 22 June had to be cancelled because of the lack of supplies.
On the German side the western end of the front was controlled by the Seventh Army, while the eastern flank, facing the British, was controlled by Panzer Group West (a split made on 28 June). Seventh Army had two corps – LXXXIV Corps nearest to the west coast and II Parachute Corps around Saint- Lo. By the start of July the overall Allied plan to draw the Panzers east to face the British and Canadians had worked. On the Caen front the Germans had around 250 medium and 150 heavy tanks (Panthers, Tigers and some Tiger IIs). On the American front they only had 50 medium tanks and 26 Panthers. The Germans hoped to restore the balance somewhat by moving around 35,000 fresh infantrymen to Normandy to replace the panzer divisions in the front line, allowing a reserve of nine armoured divisions to be created. They would never be able to achieve this – every time they began to move the tanks out of the front line, another British or Canadian attack around Caen would force them back into the line.
By the start of July Montgomery had issued his formal plans for the next stage of the campaign. While the British and Canadians would draw the main German armour into a battle of attrition around Caen, Bradley would pivot his army around Caumont, push south along the west coast of Normandy heading for Avranches. Once enough space was available Patton’s 3rd Army would be activated and would sweep into Brittany. The Allies would then advance along a fairly broad front towards the Seine. This plan was based on the assumption that the Germans would act rationally, and once it was clear that the battle of Normandy had been lost would retreat in good order to the east. In the end Hitler would insist on a counterattack (Operation Luttich) and force his commanders to move their troops west instead of east. This gave the Allies the chance to carry out a massive outflanking movement, and Patton was ordered to dash east instead of west, heading toward Falaise, but this was still several weeks in the future.
In the meantime Bradley prepared for the first stage of the push south. This would be a three-pronged assault, with three of his four corps being given one of the three possible lines of advance across the limited areas of dry land (separated by large flooded marshes). In the west 8th Corps was to attack on 3 July, take La Haye du Puits and then Coutances. In the centre 7th Corps, having taken Cherbourg, was to advance towards Periers. On the left 19th Corps was to attack third, heading for Saint- Lo. The 7th Corps and 19th Corps attacks would be delayed, mainly to allow elements of both corps to get into place.
The 8th Corps attack (Middleton) began on 3 July, but made much slower progress than hoped. The attack involved three divisions – the 79th Infantry nearest to the coast, the 82nd Airborne in the centre and the 90th Infantry on the left. The two flank divisions were to advance towards a point south of La Haye de Puits, allowing the 82nd Airborne to be removed from the front ready for its return to Britain. Instead of pushing twenty miles to Coutances, after five days they had only reached La Haye de Puits, four miles to the south of their starting point. The three divisions involved had suffered 5,000 casualties. Over the next seven days they advanced three miles and reached Lessay, but at the cost of another 5,000 casualties. At that point Bradley cancelled the attack.
In the centre Collins’ 7th Corps was to push down the road from Carentan south-west towards Periers. However the line of advance was so narrow that only one division (the 83rd would attack first) could be deployed at a time, and the initial attack on 4 July was a costly setback. The Americans pushed forward 200 yards, suffered 1,400 casualties and took only two prisoners. On 5 July they advanced almost a mile at the cost of 750 casualties. There was then enough space to feed a second division in (the 4th), but after eleven days and 8,000 casualties the offensive stopped well short of Periers.
Although these two attacks had failed to achieve their main objectives, they had forced the Germans to commit the 2nd SS Panzer Division to the defensive battle.
The start of the main battle of Saint- Lo is normally dated to 7 July, the day that the third of Bradley’s attacks began. At the start of the day the 19th Corps held a position that was split by the Vire River, which flows generally north from Saint- Lo, reaching the sea between Carentan and Isingy. To the west of the river the Americans had reached the Taute-Vire Canal, which runs south-west from Carentan to the Vire. On the east bank they had pushed some way further south, so part of their front line faced west across the Vire and part of it south towards Saint- Lo. At the southern tip of this position the Americans were within three miles of Saint- Lo, while in the west they were ten miles from the town.
On the German side the Vire marked the boundary between LXXXIV Corps in the west and II Parachute Corps in the eaSt When the attack began the area west of the Vire was held by a small part of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. and Kampfgruppe Heinz.
The American plan was for a two stage attack. The first was to an attack south across the Taute-Vire canal and west across the Vire by the 30th Infantry Division, supported by the 743rd Tank Battalion. Its task was to push south to the road west from Saint- Lo to Coutances, which would place it on high ground west of Saint- Lo. The second phase was for an attack by the 29th Infantry east of the Vire, heading for Saint- Lo.
The attack began will, with successful crossings of both the canal and the river. New bridges were soon built, and by the end of the day a firm bridgehead had been established. Progress was so encouraging that towards the end of the day Bradley decided to commit the 3rd Armoured Division to the battle, with orders to push south to the road west of Saint- Lo.
On the German side the danger of a breakthrough was also appreciated. They decided to rush parts of the 2nd SS Panzer Division east across the Taute, to prevent the Americans from expanding the bridgehead. In the meantime the Panzer Lehr division would move to the area to launch a counterattack with the intention of destroying the new American bridgehead.
Combat Command B of the 3rd Armoured Division crossed into the bridgehead on the night of 7-8 July. Some delays were caused as the tanks attempted to pass through the 30th Division, but they were then able to push south and attack towards the highway. However the unit’s commander decided to use minor roads close to the Vire instead of the main highway, in an attempt to avoid heavy German anti-tank guns. As a result progress was slow, and the tanks only advanced about a mile and a half on 8 July. The commitment of the armour also angered the commander of the 30th Division, who believed that it had slowed his own advance. Further to the west an attempt to clear the eastern banks of the Taute failed, so Combat Command A of the 3rd Armoured was ordered into the bridgehead, to protect its western flanks against a counterattack.
A mix of general confusion and wet weather prevented the Americans from taking advantage of the weakness of the German lines on 8 July. On 9 July the first elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division arrived, and launched a counterattack which was fought off with the help of the artillery. By the end of 10 July they were close to Haut Vents and Pont-Hebert (only four miles to the north of Saint- Lo), but a chance for a more significant advance had been lost
By 11 July the Panzer Lehr division had reached the area. It was now the German’s turn to struggle in the hedgerows. Panzer Lehr launched a counterattack, but on the first day they lost one third of their tanks in battles against two US divisions. By the end of the second day of the attack the division had lost so many tanks that the offensive had to be cancelled. The surviving Panzers joined the defensive battle.
The Americans were now able to resume their slow but steady advance. After six days they had advanced six miles (at a cost of 6,000 casualties), and were overlooking the road west from Saint- Lo to Periers.
The Second Attack
Bradley now came up with a new plan. The advance towards Coutances was cancelled, and instead he began to prepare for an attack on a narrow front, in the hope that a massive attack supported by heavy air power could break the German lines. However before the main attack could begin, he needed to capture the Saint- Lo to Periers road, and to take Saint- Lo, a crucial road junction.
The Germans were also aware of the value of St Lo, and it was defended by the II Parachute Corps, made up of the 3rd Parachute Division on their right and three kampfgruppen under the overall command of the 352nd Infantry Division on the left. The Germans were defending a series of hills to the north and north-east of Saint- Lo.
Bradley’s new plan involved the 19th and 5th Corps. On the right two divisions from the 19th Corps (29th and 35th) would attack Saint- Lo, while on the left the 2nd Division of 5th Corps would attack Hill 192, a key area of high ground four miles to the east of St Lo, on the road to Berigny. To add a certain amount of confusion to later accounts of the fighting, 19th Corps lost responsibility of the area west of the Vire before this attack, so the corps actions in this part of the battle would all take place east of the Vire, and involve different units to the earlier fighting.
The 2nd Division had already suffered 1,200 casualties during a three day attack on Hill 192 in June. However the new attack, which began on 11 July, was more successful. By noon the Americans had captured the summit and were digging in.
On the 19th Corps front the 29th and 35th Divisions were attack side by side. The 35th Division was to attack on the right, aiming for the Vire as it flowed north-west away from the city. The 29th was to attack on the left, heading directly for Saint- Lo.
Corlett’s plan was to use the 29th Division to attack Saint- Lo from the east, advancing along a ridge that was now protected by the 2nd Division on Hill 192. The division’s targets would be Hill 122 to the north of the city, the Martinville ridge east of the city and the hills to the south-east of Saint- Lo. The hope was that once the city was almost surrounded the Germans would withdraw. The main thrust would come on the left, towards the Martinville ridge.
The 29th Division was able to capture the Martinville ridge on 11 July, but when it turned west to head towards Saint- Lo it came under heavy fire from the south, hitting its exposed left flank. In addition the Germans were able to set up a new defensive line, which ran north from the high ground south-east of Saint- Lo, across the Martinville ridge, and on to Hill 122. On 12 July the 29th Division made very little progress, and suffered 500 casualties. Despite these heavy losses, the division was ordered to attack once again
On the right the 35th Division was newly arrived in Normandy. Their initial attack, towards the Vire north-west of Saint- Lo, was carried out under observation from Hill 122 on their left. On 11 July the division pushed forward a mile and a half in two hours, but then came to a halt. The division made similar slow progress on 12-13 July, delayed by their own inexperience, the difficult countryside and a German strong point at Carillon, held them up. However they were able to make progress close to the Vire, and the defenders from the German 352nd Division reported that they were suffering heavily and would soon need to retreat through St Lo or they would be trapped in the loop of the river.
By now it was clear that the 29th Division couldn’t take Hill 122. Corlett decided to commit the 35th Division’s reserve battalion to the battle, shift the divisional boundary to the east, and give them the task of taking the hill. The new attack began on 15 July, and by midnight the hill had fallen. The Germans counterattacked twice on 16 July, but the Americans were able to push them back both times. By the end of 16 July the hill was firmly in American hands, and Saint- Lo, only a mile to the south, could be seen clearly.
On 16 July one battalion from the 29th Division managed to advance 1,000 yards ahead of the main front and reached the eastern edge of Saint- Lo (after an order to halt arrived too late to be useful). However they were then discovered by the Germans and pinned down by heavy artillery and mortar fire. Early on 17 July Major Thomas D. Howie’s battalion managed to reach the isolated battalion, but Howie was killed before he could lead his men in an attack into the town. Both sides now believed that they were in trouble. The Americans had two battalions trapped in enemy territory and attempts to make contact with them failed. However to the Germans this was a dangerous advance that placed an enemy battalion behind their lines. The commander of the II Parachute Corps asked for permission to withdraw from Saint- Lo. In theory only Hitler had the authority to give permission for this, but the request arrived at Rommel’s Army Group B just after Rommel himself had been critically injured in a road crash caused by an Allied air attack on his car. The HQ was thus in some confusion, and the requested permission was given. On the night of 17-18 July the Germans withdrew from Saint- Lo, leaving only a handful of outposts.
The Americans finally captured St Lo on the afternoon of 18 July after an attack by both divisions. To their surprise the city was almost undefended, and the bridges over the Vire still intact, increasing its value as a transport hub.
19th Corps had lost 6,000 men during the battle for Saint- Lo. However the slow costly battle of the hedgerows was just about over. The next major American attack would be Operation Cobra, the massive assault that finally broke the German lines, beginning the breakout from Normandy.