- James Houser
July 25, 1944 - Operation COBRA and the Breakout from Normandy
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
July 25, 1944. Preceded by the rolling thunder of Allied air power, an American corps smashes through the German lines in Normandy. Omar Bradley’s carefully planned Operation Cobra achieves a breakout from the intense close-quarters fighting of St. Lo, and launches the Normandy campaign into its final phase. This is the decisive month of the Battle for France.
On June 30, I explained the agonizing slowness of the Allied advance through Normandy. The abundance of veteran German units, dense hedgerow terrain that favored the defender, and the slow buildup of much-needed supplies onto the Normandy assault beaches all slowed Allied progress. Even the American capture of the port of Cherbourg on June 30 failed to break this logjam, since the port facilities were so damaged that few supplies could be brought through.
American and British units bit forward inch by inch through the thick Norman bocage throughout the month of July. On the American far right wing, the Eighth Corps struggled forward through Normandy’s swampy lowlands against veteran German airborne divisions, and the Fifth Corps to the west had run into a roadblock on the Vire River.
The main American effort of mid-July was the capture of the critical Norman town of St.-Lo, whose heights overlooked the rest of the battlefield. The capture of St.-Lo fell to the 29th Infantry Division, a Virginia and Maryland National Guard Division that had been in combat since D-Day. In the bloodiest American week of World War II to date, the 29th Division took St.-Lo on July 19, 1944 but suffered agonizing casualties in the process. It was during this battle that my grandmother Naomi’s brother, my Great-Uncle Julian, suffered a severe wound while serving as an infantryman in the 29th. It was Virginia’s worst week of the war.
The Battle of St.-Lo nearly exhausted American resources in mid-July, and soon Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters was facing the terrible prospect of a stalemate in Normandy. To prevent some sort of World War I-style deadlock developing in Normandy, the Allies needed a breakout – a decisive penetration of the German lines that would turn the campaign into a war of movement. The British forces on the eastern flank, commanded by General Montgomery, had tried to batter their way through German defenses with a series of tank attacks near Caen. The skillful German defense, poor British tactics, and open terrain caused many costly failures – particularly the disastrous spectacle of 500 burning tanks as a result of Operation Goodwood on July 18.
The difficulties in the British sector were all the more worrying since, after six years of war, their manpower was starting to run out completely. The British Army only had a few more months of good fighting left in it. The original plan for the Normandy Campaign had allocated most of the Allied armor units to the British sector in the east, since they had the more experienced units and the terrain was open and more favorable to early tank attacks. Since the British had repeatedly tried and failed to break out, the burden of achieving an end to the Normandy stalemate fell to the U.S. Army.
General Omar Bradley’s First US Army had clawed forward through the Norman hedgerows for almost six weeks, and due to the terrain had been unable to make best use of its firepower advantages or superior maneuverability. Nevertheless, progress had been made, and by mid-July Bradley was looking at the prospects for a breakthrough in his sector. If the armored breakout did happen, there was a man waiting in the wings to lead it – George Patton. To get Patton’s tanks rolling forward, blasting out of the dense terrain of Normandy and into the open country of northern France, Bradley would need to cause a rupture in the German lines that they could not repair. The only place to do this was in the area south of St.-Lo, where the Norman hedgerows finally ended and the ground opened up into suitable tank country.
For the Germans, the strategic situation was grim. The summer of 1944 had not just seen the Allied arrival in Normandy, but also the collapse of the Eastern Front in a series of monumental Soviet offensives. The successful defense of the Normandy bridgehead had in large part been due to superior German leadership in the person of Erwin Rommel, but on July 18 he was wounded by an air attack and replaced by a subordinate. Worse still, all the German strength had been allocated to resisting the British attacks near Caen. The German line had grown thin around the American sector, and thanks to the Soviet offensives in the east no reinforcements were forthcoming. In short, the German iron was hot, and it was the perfect time for the Allies to strike.
To launch the hammer blow, Bradley selected his best corps commander – Seventh Corps’ “Lightning Joe” Collins, the Guadalcanal veteran who had captured Cherbourg. To pave the way for Collins’ massive strike, Bradley decided to call in the truly big guns. He requested that the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force, normally allocated to attacking German industry and transportation facilities, saturate the German lines south of St.-Lo with a carpet-bombing strike. The Allied air commanders fiercely protested this misuse of their precious bombers, but Eisenhower’s political skills managed to secure their assistance. The use of strategic bombers on ground targets, though, would prove to be a double-edged sword.
The attack was originally scheduled for July 24, but bad weather caused it to be postponed to July 25. Bradley, his commander Eisenhower, and Chief of Army Ground Forces Lesley J. McNair had all gathered to witness the grand attack. After the saturation bombing of the German lines was completed, six American divisions – the 2nd and 3rd Armored, and the 1st, 4th, 9th, and 30th Infantry Divisions – would pile through the plastered German lines and make a beeline for the critical city of Avranches. Enough force at the weakened point, like a boxer going for the kidneys, would create a hole the Germans could not fill and hopefully cause the collapse of their whole Normandy position. The 9th and 30th Divisions would make the initial attack to mop up enemy resistance, closely followed by the 2nd and 3rd Armored along with the fully truck-borne 1st Infantry, which would penetrate deep into the German rear.
At 0938 on July 25, the German “Panzer Lehr” armored division had been rotated to the American front to rest and refit after defeating a British attack, since German intelligence did not predict a major American attack for a few days. Its commander, Fritz Bayerlein, was expecting a period of rest. He was about to be sharply disabused. 600 Allied fighter-bombers descended on the Panzer Lehr division, the American P-47 Thunderbolts hammering away with 50-caliber machine guns and dropping their 500-lb bombs, the British Typhoons launching their shrieking rockets into artillery positions and command posts.
Then came the hum of strategic bombers, the great four-engined monsters that had been smashing German cities for the last two years. Bradley had specifically directed that the airmen come east, out of the sun and parallel to the St.Lo-Periers road; this would establish a clear no-fire line and minimize the risk of friendly fire. Instead, most of the airmen came from the north, first crossing the American lines and then the German lines from overhead. This meant that a slight anticipation in releasing the bomb load would inevitably cause friendly casualties.
That was exactly what happened. The Eighth Air Force’s 1,800 heavies saturated a 6,000 by 2,000 yard area along the St.Lo-Periers road, but due to the inaccuracy of their bombs and the itchy trigger fingers of their bombardiers, many of the lethal payloads fell on friendly American units preparing to jump off for the attack. This sort of fratricide was unlikely for American close air support, since they were usually looking directly at their targets when they attacked, but was depressingly common for heavy bombers since they were looking from thousands of yards in the air through a remote bomb sight.
The result was the worst friendly fire incident in American history. Some of the Eighth Air Force’s bombs fell on the 30th Infantry Division, killing 111 men and wounding 490. Some of the enraged infantrymen opened fire on their own aircraft, and the incident permanently damaged the 30th’s relationship with the Army Air Force until the end of the war. The dead included Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, the commander of Army Ground Forces and the highest-ranking U.S. soldier to be killed in Europe.
The bombers had inflicted a terrible toll on Panzer Lehr, causing a thousand casualties, the destruction of communication and supply facilities, and the loss of many armored vehicles. Nevertheless, when the American infantry began to move forward they faced a surprising amount of resistance. Considering that the Germans were supposed to be annihilated by the attack, the 9th and 30th Divisions were disheartened by the continuing defiance of Panzer Lehr. Several U.S. units found themselves in fights against strongpoints that seemed to be almost untouched by the bombing.
This German resistance was illusory. Even if the few remaining survivors held on to the bitter end, that was only indicative of the traditional German fighting ability – not the actual state of the German defenses. By July 26, the German frontline was crumbling, and Lightning Joe Collins sent in the 2nd Armored and 1st Infantry Divisions to finish the job. They punched through like a knife through cardboard. Panzer Lehr had, in General Bayerlein’s words, been “finally annihilated” by July 27. The American offensive, despite friendly fire, terrible terrain and initially disappointing results, began to swing forward.
After a month and a half of bitter slogging through the mud and hedges of Normandy, American units were measuring their progress in miles instead of feet. As Eighth Corps joined in the battle and pushed through the swampy terrain of western Normandy, the German units in front of them disintegrated. Despite multiple counterattacks by German forces struggling to escape – dangerous counterattacks that cost many lives – the American tide was finally inescapable. The hapless German commanders were unable to patch together their unraveling frontline in western Normandy.
American armored columns surged forward, their Shermans and halftracks full of infantry capturing one town after another. Ahead of them, the Allied Air Forces plastered any German resistance, Thunderbolts of the 405th Fighter Group destroying an entire German armored column at Roncey and British Typhoons chopping up another at La Baleine. Rommel had long feared the full implications of Allied tactical air power, but had not been around to see it come home to the German soldier.
Some German counterattacks did manage to get through. The 2nd SS “Das Reich” Panzer Division, veterans of Kursk and murderers of the entire French village of Oradour only a month prior, tried to strike back against the American 2nd Armored Division. The American tankers fought back with skill and courage, and the M7 Priest self-propelled howitzers of the division artillery fired point-blank into a tank attack, blasting the German Panther tanks into smithereens. The advance continued. Throughout July, the 2nd Armored inflicted over 7,000 German casualties with less than 1,000 on its own.
The Germans continued to try and stop the 2nd Armored, but Allied air supremacy and the fierce fighting ability of American tankers, armored infantry, and artillerymen kept the American blitzkrieg moving forward. Soon the commitment of 3rd, 4th, and 6th Armored Divisions together made the German position untenable. As 2nd Armored fended off German counterattacks, the other divisions raced south behind its shield, like an offensive lineman clearing the way for the running back. The Allies were finally free of the bocage.
South the Americans raced, pounding ahead of the German defenders and even ahead of their own commanders. While the American tank columns scattered across the French landscape, Eisenhower knew the time had come for his most troublesome, most talented, and most mercurial pupil to take the helm. On August 1, 1944, Third Army officially came into being, with General George S. Patton at its head. While Bradley would continue to hold back the German counterattacks to his rear, Patton would race across France and turn this successful attack into the decisive stroke of the Normandy Campaign. This was Patton’s time to shine – where he would make his legend.
His new mission was not just to break out of Normandy, but to destroy the German army before it could escape. With that in mind, America’s greatest armored general turned his sights east to two landmarks: the Norman city of Falaise, and the French capital of Paris. The German army in Normandy was in desperate peril now: Patton was unleashed, with four armored divisions in his hand and no one to stop him.
The Cobra had taken a while to start, but now he had begun to bite. The Battle of Normandy was in its final phase, and the liberation of France was at hand.