Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Saint-Lô, Battle of (11–19 July 1944)

Key battle following the 6 June 1944 Normandy Invasion. Saint-Lô was the hub of an extensive road net that allowed the Germans to rapidly shift men and weapons east and west to meet American attacks. Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commanding the U.S. First Army, needed the road from Saint-Lô west to Périers as a line of departure for an offensive (code-named cobra) to break out of the Normandy bocage of hedgerow country. The bocage consisted of small fields and orchards surrounded by underbrush-covered earthen dikes from 3 to 5 ft thick and from 6 to 9 ft high, with numerous narrow sunken lanes. These brush-crowned embankments walled in the fields and provided excellent positions for the German defenders.

On 11 July, Major General Charles H. Gerhardt's 29th Infantry Division began the attack to take Saint-Lô and the Martinsville Ridge to its east. The 35th Infantry Division attacked on its right, and the 2nd Infantry Division (V Corps) on its left. Defending was General der Fallschirmtruppen (U.S. equiv. lieutenant general) Eugen Meindl's II Parachute Corps of the 3rd Parachute Division and badly battered Kampfgruppen: battle groups of varying sizes from the 266th, 352nd, and 353rd Infantry Divisions under command of the 353rd.

The 116th Infantry attacked on the left and the 115th Infantry on the right in the 29th Division's zone, using assault groups composed of infantry, tanks, and engineers methodically to attack and seize each field. Many tanks were now equipped with steel prongs hastily welded to the fronts of their hulls to help them through hedgerows and to punch holes in which to place explosives. By the end of the day, the 116th decisively penetrated German defenses, but heavier resistance stopped the 115th. However, the 2nd Division seized Hill 192, which overlooked the Saint-Lô area.

Attacking U.S. forces made little headway between 12 and 14 July. On 15 July, the Germans stopped both regiments. Starting at 7:30 p.m., however, the 116th again began making headway, but it was halted for the night by higher headquarters. The 2nd Battalion failed to receive the order, and although it was cut off, it was not attacked. Meanwhile, that same day, the 35th Division seized the north slope of Hill 122 about a mile north of Saint-Lô.

On 16 July, the 115th was again thwarted, and the 116th defeated two German counterattacks. On 17 July, the 115th continued attacking the high ground on the Martinville Ridge, commanding the German rear area. Major Thomas D. Howie's 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, attacked southwest, and by 6:00 a.m. it had taken the village of La Madeleine without opposition, relieving the regiment's 2nd Battalion. La Madeleine was about 500 yards from Saint-Lô itself.

The 2nd Battalion was supposed to attack into Saint-Lô, but it had suffered too many casualties to do this. Howie then took the mission. Shortly after he issued his orders, he was killed, and his executive officer, Captain William H. Puntenney, assumed command. Severe German artillery and mortar fire followed by a counterattack thwarted the attack plan. U.S. artillery and mortar fire and air strikes then defeated the German counterattack. However, both the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 116th were now isolated from the remainder of the division. By the end of the day of 17 July, however, the 29th Division was on the inner slopes of hills that led directly into Saint-Lô. On the morning of 18 July, the 35th Division reported that the Germans had pulled out everywhere in its sector.

Task Force C—commanded by Brigadier General Norman D. Cota, assistant division commander of the 29th Infantry Division, and composed of reconnaissance, tank, tank destroyer, and engineer units—was tapped to seize the town. Cota was to obtain infantry support from the nearest available infantry unit just before entering the town. That was 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry (less one platoon designated to contain a small number of German holdouts). By 7:00 p.m., Saint-Lô had been secured. Major Howie's men carried his body into the town and placed it on the rubble surrounding what had been the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Pockets of resistance still remained, and the Germans poured in mortar and artillery fire. Cota was wounded, and some 200 of the 600-man task force became casualties, but the capture of Saint-Lô and the adjacent high ground solidly protected the U.S. First Army's left flank as it penetrated the German lines and prepared the way for Operation cobra.

Uzal W. Ent


Further Reading
American Forces in Action Series: St. Lô (7 July–19 July 1944). Washington, DC: Historical Division, War Department, 1946.; Johns, Glover S., Jr. The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô. Harrisburg, PA: Military Service Publishing, 1958.; Weigley, Russell. Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaigns of France and Germany, 1944–1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.
 

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