The Normandy Breakthrough
From the beginning of the campaign in Normandy, I agreed with Field Marshal Montgomery and General Bradley that our basic policy should be so to maneuver and attack as to pin down and destroy substantial portions of the enemy in our immediate front in order later to have full freedom of action. The alternative would have been merely a pushing-back, with consequent necessity for slowly battling our way toward the ultimate geographical objectives. By the third week in July, our forces were in position to launch the all-out attack, which, in accordance with this strategic idea, was to break through and destroy the enemy divisions then with difficulty attempting to contain us in our lodgement area. By throwing all our weight into an offensive at this stage, I felt confident that we should not achieve our objectives but that, in the long run, the cost of our victory would be the less.
The enemy's reaction had convinced us that we should strike hard with our left and then follow through promptly with our right-hand blow. In both cases, the whole weight of our air power was to be employed to support the ground attacks. We agreed also that the main attacks were to be supported by aggressive action all along the line to pin down the enemy's local reserves. He had no major reserves immediately available, and we did not fear any serious counteroffensive.
In the Second Army sector, vigorous thrusts in the Evrecy-Esquay area though the Odon bridgehead on 16-17 July were to be in the nature of a feint to distract the enemy's attention and to cause him to withdraw more of his armor westward across the Orne to meet the threat. Then, on 18 July, the main British-Canadian thrust was to take the form of a drive across the Orne from Caen toward the south and southeast, exploiting in the direction of the Seine basin and Paris. On the following day, General Bradley would launch his major attack across the Periers-St-Lo road at a point west of St-Lo. Having achieved a breakthrough, he was to swing his spearheads westward to Coutances, in order to isolate the enemy divisions between St-Lo and the coast, and then strike down through Avranches, creating, if possible, an open flank. By this means we could then operate into the Brittany Peninsula to open up the much-needed ports, while the German Seventh Army and at least part of Panzer Group West could be encircled and crushed between the U. S. forces to the west and the British and Canadians to the east.
The execution of this plan opened promisingly. The enemy, as we had hoped, was deceived as to our intentions on the Second Army front by the operations in the Evrecy-Esquay area on 16 and 17 July. The reserve which he had been trying to form with two armored divisions was hurriedly broken up and part of one of them was brought westward over the Orne to counter our threat. Consequently our drive to the south and southeast of Caen across the river on 18 July achieved complete tactical surprise.
The attack was preceded at dawn on that day by what was the heaviest and most concentrated air assault hitherto employed in support of ground operations. The operation was a fine example of Anglo-American air cooperation, in which over 2,000 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command and the U. S. Eighth and Ninth Air Forces took part, dropping a total of over 7,000 tons of bombs. While RAF Halifaxes and Lancasters dropped over 5,000 tons of bombs in less than 45 minutes on the area south of the river over which the ground assault was to be made, United States planes attacked the enemy concentrations to the rear and on the flanks. In the carpet bombing, fragmentation bombs were used to break the enemy resistance without causing extensive cratering which would have hindered the advance of our tanks. At the same time, a strong naval bombardment was made to supplement the air effort.
Although only temporary in effect, the results of the bombing were decisive so far as the initial ground attack was concerned. Actual casualties to the enemy, in his foxholes, were comparatively few, but he was stunned by the weight of the bombing and a degree of confusion was caused which rendered the opposition to our advance negligible for some hours. At the same time, the spectacle of our mighty air fleets roaring in over their heads to attack had a most heartening effect upon our own men. The attack was led by the 7, 11, and Guards Armoured Divisions under 8 Corps, commanded by Lieut. Gen. O'Connor. These struck across the river at 0745 hours, followed by the infantry of , Corps and Canadian 2 Corps on either flank. The enemy at first proved unable to regroup his armor to meet the thrust, while the 21st Panzer and 16th GAF Divisions, which bore the brunt of the attack, were too disorganized by the bombing to offer much resistance. By the afternoon, the II Armoured Division had reached the Bourguebus area, the Guards were at Vimont, and the 7 had advanced to the south beyond Demouville. Toward evening, however, enemy resistance stiffened and he was able to counterattack with 50 tanks south and southeast of Bourguebus. By nightfall, he succeeded in establishing a strong antitank screen with guns which had escaped the bombing, and this effectively halted our advance on the line Emieville-Cagny-Soliers. On the following days the weather, which had relented to permit the massive air effort of the 18th, broke once more, turning the low-lying country of the battle area into a sea of mud which afforded an effective check to further tank operations.
This break in the weather also delayed the First Army attack which was scheduled for 19 July. Here, as at Caen, General Bradley and I had decided that an overwhelming air bombardment was a necessary prerequisite to the success of our plans. It was not, however, until 25 July that the skies cleared sufficiently to permit this air effort. Meanwhile the men of the First Army were compelled to huddle in their foxholes under the dripping hedgerows in conditions of extreme discomfort, while the enemy, similarly entrenched behind the natural defenses of the country, was alert to every movement. It was not until after 6 days of waiting, more miserable to the American troops than any others in this campaign, that the opportunity for action carne on 25 July.
The Normandy Breakthrough ... Part 2