Even with stiff resistance by German defenders, especially the 352nd Division at Omaha Beach, Allied forces expanded the beachhead from 5 to 20 miles inland and joined all five beaches into a single continuous front by 12 June. French Resistance forces supported the Allied effort by providing intelligence, sabotaging bridges and railways, and conducting harassment operations. Dempsey's Second Army began the drive toward Caen but met heavy resistance from German forces, including two panzer divisions. Meanwhile, Bradley's First Army moved up the Cotentin peninsula toward the important port city of Cherbourg. Units of the U.S. VII Corps assaulted Fort du Roule and, guided by the French Resistance, scaled the cliffs. By 27 June Cherbourg was secure, but the Germans had heavily damaged the port facilities, which were unusable for more than a month.
By the beginning of July, Allied progress in Normandy had been slowed by the hedgerows of the bocage country, strong German positions at Caen, and the logistical challenges of supplying the Allied forces over the beaches. Enjoying the advantage of overwhelming air superiority, the eight corps of 21st Army Group pushed south, seizing Caen on 10 July and Saint-L™ on 18 July. The capture of these two important cities set the stage for the Allied breakout west into the Brittany peninsula and east toward Paris.
The slow pace of their advance in France concerned Allied commanders who feared that fighting would bog down, resulting in trench warfare resembling that of World War I. Bradley believed the weak link in the German army defenses was General Paul Hausser's Seventh Army south of Saint-L™. Bradley's breakout plan, code-named Operation cobra, was temporarily put on hold so vital supplies could be sent to support the British Second Army's Operation goodwood, an attempt to penetrate German lines outside of Caen. Although goodwood did not achieve a breakout, it assisted cobra by holding two German panzer divisions in place and preventing their redeployment to the Saint-L™ area.
Heavy saturation bombing along a four-mile-wide corridor preceded cobra, as elements of Major General J. Lawton Collins's VII Corps attacked west of Saint-L™ on 25 July. Concurrently, Major General Troy H. Middleton's VIII Corps, located west of VII Corps, struck toward Countances. Within two days, VII Corps had pushed the German defenders back 10 miles, and on 28 July elements of the 4th Armored Division secured Countances. Sensing that the breakthrough was decisive, Bradley ordered Collins to continue the drive south toward the strategic city of Avranches. By the end of July, it too was in Allied hands, and the German Seventh Army was in a precarious position with its left flank exposed.
The capture of Avranches opened the Brittany peninsula to the Allies. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General George S. Patton's U.S. Third Army became operational on 1 August as part of an overall restructuring of the Allied command. Montgomery's 21st Army Group was now composed of the British Second Army and Lieutenant General Henry D. G. Crerar's Canadian First Army. Bradley assumed command of the new 12th Army Group composed of the American First and Third Armies. Patton's Third Army gained the greatest success, and Patton was certainly the outstanding general of the campaign for France. The Third Army displayed instant efficiency and turned Operation cobra, a local breakthrough, into a theaterwide breakout. The Third Army immediately exploited the opening at Avranches: Patton sent his VIII Corps to clear the Brittany peninsula, the XX and XII Corps south to the Loire River, and the XV Corps east toward Le Mans. These objectives were secured by 13 August.
While the Third Army moved against limited opposition, the German Seventh Army hastily reorganized to launch a counterattack toward Avranches, hoping to cut off the Third Army. Not only did this spoiling attack fail, but also it put the Seventh Army in a position in which it might be surrounded by the Allies. To accomplish this, Montgomery, who was still overall ground commander, ordered the Canadian II Corps to attack south as Patton's XV Corps drove north. The objective for both corps was the town of Argentan. Major General Wade Haislip's XV Corps reached Argentan on 13 August, but the Canadian II Corps progressed slowly and was more than 20 miles from the objective. Patton pleaded with Bradley to allow XV Corps to press northward, but the 12th Army Group commander refused, fearing that XV Corps might itself be cut off or that excessive casualties from friendly fire might result from XV Corps moving into a zone reserved for the Canadian II Corps.
Even though the gap between the towns of Falaise and Argentan was not closed until 19 August, the area was turned into a killing ground by constant Allied air attack, artillery bombardment, and direct ground fire from armored and infantry units. Although the German Seventh Army was savaged in these attacks, a great many German soldiers escaped. Failure to close the gap was one of the major mistakes of the war. Had the gap been sealed and the Seventh Army annihilated, the western Allies would have faced far less resistance as they pushed east toward Germany, and the war might have ended in 1944. Operations following cobra were so successful that most German forces in northwest France had to retreat to the Seine River. Paris was liberated on 25 August.
German garrisons doggedly held out in the northern port cities of Saint-Malo, Brest, Lorient, and Saint-Nazaire. Combat commands from the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions were insufficient to secure these heavily fortified ports quickly. Repeated assaults supported by air attacks and naval bombardments failed to dislodge the defenders. Saint-Malo was not taken until 2 September, and Brest fell on 19 September. In both cases, the Germans had demolished their port facilities. On the basis of these experiences, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) canceled planned assaults on Lorient and Saint-Nazaire, and German garrisons there held out until the end of the war.
The western Allies addressed concern about the exposed southern flank of their armies, the need to secure a large functioning port, and interest in cutting off what German forces remained in southern France in Operation dragoon, the invasion of southern France. British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill strongly opposed the plan because the cobra operation had proven to be such a huge success, but Eisenhower prevailed, and dragoon commenced on 15 August. Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's American Seventh Army landed in southern France just east of Toulon. Major General Lucian Truscott's VI Corps spearheaded the landing, and by 17 August had established a 20-mile-deep beachhead. The French II Corps followed with the task of driving west to secure Toulon and Marseille, which it accomplished by 28 August. VI Corps moved rapidly west and then north up the east side of the Rh™ne River—except for an armored group, Task Force Butler, that moved east of the Rh™ne River valley in an effort to envelop German forces gathering at Montelimar. By this time the German Nineteenth Army, led by general of infantry Friedrich Wiese, was pulling out of southern France. However, Truscott's corps inflicted severe material damage on retreating Germans, capturing 57,000 of them and liberating Montelimar by 28 August.
By 3 September, the Seventh Army had driven north almost 250 miles up the Rh™ne River. The 1st Airborne Task Force was used to seal the Swiss border; the French I Corps took up a position to the right of Truscott's VI Corps, and the French II Corps flanked the left. On 14 September, Patch's Seventh Army linked up with Patton's Third Army, sealing the open southern flank. On 15 September, the 6th Army Group was formed, with Lieutenant General Jacob Devers commanding. It was composed of the American Seventh Army and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny's French First Army. Besides securing the Allied southern flank, dragoon greatly aided the logistical situation by making available the large port at Marseille. Finally, southern France was cleared of German forces.
By the middle of September 1944, France had been liberated and German forces had withdrawn into the Netherlands and to the West Wall along the western German border. Although it had been severely bloodied, the German army in the west was not annihilated but was reorganizing and entrenching itself for a long fight. Unfortunately, the Allied drive east was so fast that lines of communication and supply could not keep up with the tactical advance. With insufficient supplies to advance all his army groups at once, Eisenhower now decided to support Montgomery's plan to cross the lower Rhine into Germany, Operation market-garden.
Robert W. Duvall
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