June 30, 1944 - Hedgerow Fighting in Normandy & the Capture of Cherbourg
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 30, 1944. The American army advancing through the countryside of Normandy has finally secured the surrender of the German fortress city of Cherbourg on the Atlantic coast. The bitter fighting across the difficult, dense terrain of Normandy has proven to be far worse than anyone could have predicted. The Western Allies are waking up to an awful truth – D-Day was the easy part.
Americans have a cultural obsession with D-Day, the Allied landings in France on June 6, 1944, to the point that in the mediasphere it overshadows almost every other event of World War II. Saving Private Ryan is partially to blame for this, but not completely; almost all the named characters die in the latter part of the movie, in the weeks after D-Day. Likewise, the vast majority of Allied casualties in Normandy did not occur on D-Day itself but on the days, weeks and months that came afterwards. The problem is not even in media, but in perception: the opening scene of Private Ryan is harrowing and so gripping that it overshadows the entire rest of the movie. Likewise, the drama and scenery and nearly mythical reverence of D-Day overshadows the whole rest of the war in Europe.
The Battle of Normandy lasted two and a half months, and D-Day began it but did not end it. The greatest heartache, most terrible casualties, and largest achievements occurred in what came after. D-Day was only the beginning, and it would be almost a year of difficult battles before the surrender of Germany. The bloodiest month in 1944 was not June, when D-Day happened – it was July, when the worst of the Normandy fighting took place.
The overfocus on D-Day was not just in the public mind. The Allied commanders had placed so much time, energy, and material into planning the amphibious invasions of June 6 that they gave relatively little thought to what came afterwards. They figured that D-Day was the hard part, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower was even halfway prepared for D-Day to fail. When it succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, Allied commanders were ecstatic.
Then came the next few days.
It became clear to the American G.I. and the British Tommy that they had vastly underestimated the problems of fighting in Normandy. The Normandy countryside that looked so simple from the aerial photographs was broken up by giant hedgerows and small towns. The country was known as the “Bocage”, meaning “box land.” The Norman farmers had for centuries used the great mounds of earth and dense underbrush to separate their lands from those of their neighbor – talk about your privacy fences – and over that period these “boxes” of territory had developed into a separate terrain feature. The enormous hedgerows of the Bocage combined with the general swampiness of the land to turn the American sector of Normandy into a claustrophobic, mazelike morass of mud, thistle and shadows.
The British sector around the city of Caen – the eastern side of the Allied line - was much more open, well-suited for offensive operations. The Germans realized this as much as the Allies did, and they concentrated the vast majority of their panzer forces in the region confronting the British. Field Marshal Montgomery, the British commander in Normandy, spent his time and his men’s lives banging his head into the brick wall of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s defenses. Elite SS Panzer divisions walled him off from making any progress into the open Norman countryside near Caen, and despite Allied air superiority the Germans were skillful at camouflage and defense. Most British attacks, poorly planned frontal assaults, ended up impaling themselves on German Tiger tanks and 88mm antitank cannon, despite the enormous bravery and pluck of the Tommies.
The Americans were condemned to grind forward through the Bocage, and the Germans did not make it easy for them. The Bocage was excellent defensive ground, perfect for ambushes and stalwart defense. The Americans faced the ad hoc mixture of German units that was typical for 1944 – a large number of fragmented infantry formations burnt out in Russia and filled up with teenage conscripts, bolstered by a handful of elite, tough formations like the Paratroop divisions or the SS Panzergrenadiers. The fighting was day and night, muddy, dirty, and hellish. The Bocage restricted attacks to narrow lanes and roads, each of which was swept by the ubiquitous German machine gun, artillery piece or the occasional tank.
American infantry and tanks found it difficult to advance; in the Bocage, the M4 Sherman that was so robust in open country was a large target for a German antitank gun or handheld rocket launcher. The infantrymen had trained extensively for D-Day, but not so much for the constricted and limited Bocage.
General Omar Bradley commanded the 1st Army in Normandy, and his main goal before doing anything else was to capture the port of Cherbourg, at the tip of the Cotentin peninsula. One of the main reasons for choosing Normandy as the site of the great amphibious attack was the Allies’ need for a port facility that could supply their troops – until they got it, the huge amount of food, clothing, ammunition, fuel and weapons that the Allies needed had to be hauled in directly over the landing beaches.
Supply is often the last thing the general public considers in war, but to Bradley, Montgomery and Eisenhower it was the first priority. The limited supplies that could be brought in over the D-Day beaches placed an upper cap on how many divisions they could commit to Europe – it was just doable to supply about 20 divisions, but not many more. This could turn into a problem very fast if the Germans began building up units in Normandy faster than the Allies could. The war in the Bocage for the Americans, and the costly armored slugging matches for the British, could turn into a permanent stalemate like the Western Front of World War I if they couldn’t build up strength faster than the Germans. This was what Rommel hoped: if he couldn’t throw the Allies into the sea entirely, the next best thing was to lock them down in heavy defenses to keep them from breaking out of the Normandy beachhead.
The capture of Cherbourg was Priority One: the Allies needed that port. The task fell to Bradley’s 7th Corps, commanded by his best subordinate - Joseph “Lightning Joe” Collins. Joe Collins was one of the United States’ best commanders of World War II, rivaling Patton for aggressiveness but with better judgment and the mind of a thorough planner. Collins had commanded the 25th Infantry Division in the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Pacific, and the source of that still-existing division’s nickname – “Tropic Lightning” – was also the source of his, for the speed with which they both attacked in the Pacific.
Collins quickly pushed as many American infantry divisions as he could into the Utah Beach zone before pressing on into the hedgerow hell of the Normandy Bocage. Starting with the 4th Infantry Division, Collins picked up the scattered 82nd and 101st Airborne which had dropped on D-Day and joined them to his command. The 101st Airborne faced a stiff challenge in their fight to take the key town of Carentan: the German 6th Parachute Regiment, elite and battle-hardened. Rommel began transferring troops to the Carentan sector, including SS and other Parachute units, but Allied air attack and French resistance sabotage delayed their arrival. The 101st battered their way into Carentan and even held off a German tank attack until they could link up with other American forces to their east, connecting the Omaha and Utah forces for the first time on June 12.
Nevertheless, the Allies were hitting a brick wall elsewhere. Montgomery’s bid to have the British forces capture the key city of Caen ran into trouble on June 13, when his attack was given a sucker-punch by large German panzer forces, including the Tiger tanks of Michael Wittmann. Poor British tank tactics caused their attack to fail. Bradley’s troops moving out from Normandy beach, under the 5th Corps, were slowed and then stopped by dogged German resistance in the Bocage. Only a week after D-Day, it already looked like the Allies were beginning to enter a stalemate.
The only bright spot was Lightning Joe. On June 14, he unleashed his troops in a drive to cut the Germans in Cherbourg and the Cotentin Peninsula off from the rest of the German army. While some divisions, such as the 4th and 9th Infantry and the elite 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, performed brilliantly, others were not so lucky. The 90th Infantry Division, a Texas-Oklahoma unit referred to as the “Tough ‘Ombres,” had command and teething problems as soon as it entered battle. Not all units are created equal, and the poor 90th suffered from an indifferent commander and bad discipline.
The 90th Infantry Division represents one of the great American command challenges of World War II. Compared to the British, Germans, or Soviets, most American generals were experiencing their first tour in large-unit command when they entered Normandy. Only a very few like Collins, Bradley and Eisenhower broke from this mold. Among these men was Major General Jay MacKelvie, the commander of the 90th. MacKelvie was an artilleryman with little knowledge or experience in infantry combat.
When the 90th entered combat on June 10, it singularly failed to perform. After three days of fighting, and despite heavy reinforcements from tank and artillery units, the 90th only managed to advance several hundred yards. When Collins visited the division on June 13, he was annoyed to find no regimental or battalion headquarters, or any evidence of planning or fighting. Furious, Collins had the 90th Division pulled out of the fight and replaced with the experienced 9th, and within 24 hours had relieved both MacKelvie and two regimental commanders. Only a week after landing, Collins had fired one of his top subordinates.
Modern soldiers in the Army may not believe this, but in World War II relief was not the end of a soldier’s career. MacKelvie went back to what he did best – artillery. He took up leadership of the 80th Infantry Division’s artillery after being fired from division command, and ended up commanding the V Corps Artillery by the end of the war. Another legendary infantry general, Terry Allen, was fired from command of the 1st Infantry Division by Patton in Sicily, before being given a second division command – the 104th – and leading it through Europe and into Germany. The US Army of World War II was all about second chances for men who still had potential – but as a general, you performed or you lost your job. The 90th went through another commander, and a lot more hardship, before it wound up in the hands of Major General Raymond S. McLain. Under his direction it became one of the best American divisions of the war, serving with distinction under Patton in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Lightning Joe” managed to claw his way across the Cotentin Peninsula to the Atlantic, cutting the Germans in the north around Cherbourg off from the bulk of their army to the south. Then Collins began to press his men north to the port city itself, pushing the Germans into an ever-tighter ring. Days of combat were already beginning to tell on the men of 7th Corps. By June 20, they had reached the outer ring of Cherbourg’s defenses, and on June 21 Collins broadcast an ultimatum to the defenders demanding surrender.
If the Bocage had been rough on everyone, the fortresses and pillboxes of Cherbourg wouldn’t exactly be a picnic. Collins had tried to bring in the Navy to use the big guns on their battleships and cruisers to flatten the concrete bunkers, but the Navy had been fought to a standstill by German coastal artillery. Collins coordinated with the 9th Tactical Air Command of General Pete Quesada to pummel the city as his infantry slowly pushed into the urban center. The Germans still did not surrender. It looked like they would have to do it the old-fashioned way.
The GIs of 4th, 9th, and 79th Infantry Divisions began grinding into the suburbs of Cherbourg. The 4th had landed on Utah beach two weeks before, and had spent every single day of those weeks in combat against tough German opposition. It was already wearing thin, and they still had a long way to go to Germany. The German garrison of Cherbourg was having supplies shipped to them by U-Boat and by airdrop, but this was not enough to sustain them under increasing American air and artillery bombardment. Rommel began to accept reality – Cherbourg, despite his best efforts, was about to fall. He began to order all documents burned and valuable property evacuated by sea.
Most critically, port demolition work had to begin. If the Germans were going to lose Cherbourg, they would make sure the Allies could never use it.
The final assaults on the forts began. The 314th Infantry, 79th Infantry Division, assaulted Fort du Roule and had to knock out one steel-and-concrete bunker after another before forcing its surrender on June 25; its members earned at least two Medals of Honor that day. The rest of the 9th and 79th Divisions blasted their way into the city center, dropping explosive charges down the mouths of fortified caves. Some of the caves were reinforced with massive steel doors; when nothing else worked, an M10 tank destroyer with a 3-inch gun was rolled up to blast the doors open at point-blank range. Out came General Schlieben, the German commander, who surrendered to Collins on June 26. Only by June 30, though, was the last German resistance cleared.
Collins’ capture of Cherbourg was a major win for Bradley, Eisenhower, and the Allies, but not as major as they would have liked. The Germans had thoroughly wrecked the port of Cherbourg before Collins had secured it, and despite back-breaking effort by American engineers the port would not be ready for major usage until mid-August. Hitler was delighted with the wreckage done to Cherbourg, handing out awards for it, but predictably furious the garrison had not held out longer.
Joe Collins’ 7th Corps had lost 13,000 casualties in the fight to take Cherbourg – more than the much larger Allied force had lost on D-Day. The poor 4th Division had lost almost half its men in the long days of fighting. For this price they had bagged a decent chunk of the German force in Normandy, including 39,000 prisoners for a total of 55,000 enemy casualties.
The Battle of Normandy dragged on, though. I hope that this narrative has shown that while D-Day was important, it didn’t settle the issue, and it wasn’t the end of Allied problems. The capture of Cherbourg was only one more stop on the bloody road to Paris, and then to Germany. It wasn’t the beginning of the end – but maybe it was the end of the beginning.