Two weeks after the landings in Normandy the Americans had a secure bridgehead. The attack on Cherbourg was in progress. But the outbreak to the south encountered heavy opposition from the Germans. Every house, village or town needed a hard fight. There was a roughly frontline to draw from Montebourg in the north, via Carentan, Isigny, Trevieres, Bayeux, the north of Caen and the east river bank of the Orne near Ranville.

Left, Trévières, June, 1944 and (right) the serene silence of the present.

It was not only the Germans that slowed the progress of the Allies, also the terrain was a struggle to come by. The 7th Army Corps was slowed down because of the swampy terrain's around Carentan, and the 19th Army Corps had to find a way around the hedges, the so called 'bocage'. If he wanted to have the greatest benefit of his tanks and other motorised units, General Bradley had to find a way to break out of this terrain.

General Omar Bradley (left) and Maj.Gen. Lawton Collins
talk on the capture of Cherbourg

The road Saint-Lô to Coutances seemed the best option. Saint-Lô was heavily defended. On 3 July the Allied 8th Army Corps made their first attack. But the bad weather and the German defence stopped the progress after 5 kilometres in three days! Meanwhile the 7th Army Corps headed on the 4th of July from Carentan to Périers. These troops did even worse, in three days they only managed 2 kilometres. The 19th Army Corps opened their attack on Saint-Lô on 7 July. These troops had as their first target the hills east of the town. Strong German units were unbreakable, especially in the north-east at 'Hill 192'. In the morning of 11 July, at 05.00 hours a barrage of fire from artillery opened up, an hour later the field cannons joint in.

Field battery's open fire at 'Hill 192'

After every barrage of four minutes the units moved 100 metres forward. In the hail of grenades and bombs the Germans had to stay put in their tunnels that were dug into 'Hill 192'. They had no change to return fire. Finally American engineers blew up the tunnels and covered the surviving Germans under one and a half metre of earth.


General Bradley planned to make a break to the south around July the 20th. But before he could make that move, he had to secure Saint-Lô. An operation code name was given on 13 July, 'Operation Cobra'.

After the massacre on Omaha Beach and the breakthrough towards Saint-Lô, almost the whole of 29th Division was replaced by fresh troops. The attack on Saint-Lô was planned for July 17. Leading the first attack was Major Thomas D. Howie, commander of the3rd Battalion of the 116th Regiment, 29th Division, and connected with the 2nd Battalion, ordered his men to fix the bayonet to the rifles and keep hand grenades at the ready. From every platoon, only one in two was given the order to fire it, it had to be a surprise to the Germans that there were is twice as much troops than they expected. At the first light, the first troops of the 29th broke through the German lines, occupied the high ground, just a kilometer from Saint-Lô.

Major Tom Howie

Major Howie had a meeting with the company commanders to conduct the next step. When the meeting broke up, German mortars started falling down among the officers. When Howie checked every men was in hiding, a mortar exploded near him, and a piece of shrapnel planted itself in a lung of Howie. Two minutes later, Howie died in the arms Captain William Puntenney.

Major Tom Howie his body is covered with the Stars and Strips

After the barrage had stopped, German Fallschirmjäger attacked the battalion. But the American artillery and the called in fighter-bombers prevented an overrun. The men of Howie took after that the town of Saint-Lô, only to see that the town was completely destroyed by the American bombers. There was some scattered fighting Fallschirmjäger before the town was secured on 18 July.

De Saint Croix with the Major Tom Howie
(the church is after the war restored)

General Gerhardt, commander of the 29th Division, ordered to bring the body of Major Howie to be brought into Saint-Lô on the hood of a Jeep. Here it was placed atop of the rubble of the Saint Croix church and covered with the Stars and Stripes. Citicens from Saint-Lô brought flowers, and the body stayed there until 19 July. Cornelius Ryan, famous writer for the book 'The Longest Day (amog others),wrote a piece of the incident for the Collier's Magazine on the first American in Saint-Lô, under the headline of The Major of St. Lo (the name was not given free for some time by the American Army).

Saint-Lô in ruins

The town of Saint-Lô was totally destroyed, but there was a new frontline. Roughly from Lessay, on the west coast, via Saint-Lô, to Caen. This became the starting line of the new operation. On 19 July Bradley leaves for England to discuss his plans. He wants a preliminary bombardment south of Périers to Saint-Lô, a rectangle area of 7 km width and 2½ deep. Bradley suggest light bombs to avoid unnecessary large bomb craters that could slow down his tanks. Further more, he wants the ground troops just 800 metres from the starting line, and demands therefore accurate dropping by the airforce. But the commanders of the airforces want to fly a route south/north to avoid the heavy flak and they like to see that the troops on the ground are at least 3000 metres behind the starting line, they fear otherwise for casualties on the American troops. This is way too far back in the opinion of Bradley. After an endless debate they agree to pull the troops 1450 metres back. A total of 2500 planes are to participate in the attack. They will drop 5000 tonnes of high explosive, phosphor and napalm bombs. Due to bad weather, the date for 'Operation Cobra' was postponed from 20 July to 24 July. Unfortunately, on that day, the bad weather obstructed a precision bombardment. They tried to call the bombers back, but only a part of the planes received the message. 300 bombers executed their mission. The outcome was disastrous. Bombs were scattered over a large area and even were dropped behind the starting line. They had hit the waiting American troops and killed at least 25 men and 131 wounded. Because the Germans were 'woken up' by this preliminary bombardment the American troops were stopped in their advance.

Green and blue arrows show the route for 'Operation Cobra'

The next day, 25 July, 1500 heavy bombers and 550 fighter-bombers once again bombed the whole area. Once again were not only German troops hit, the local people suffered heavily and the Americans got again their share of the 3500 tonnes of their own bombs. Lieutenant General Lesley McNair, commander of the American ground force was killed during this bombardment. On 26 July the tanks moved forward to start the offensive on the ground. The 1st Infantry Division heads for Marigny. But the progress was slow due to the heavy defence put up by the Germans, the advance was stopped 1.5 km before they reach Marigny. It was a long way to Coutances. At the left flank the progress was somewhat smoother. Fighting Group-A advanced rather fast without to much resistance. In the afternoon the troops arrived in St-Gilles and head straight away for Canisy.

In Roncey retreating Germans were hit hard
Then and Now

But the advance to Coutances from Saint-Lô was a struggle. The hedges of the bocage slowed down the attacking troops terrible. These delays were a benefit to the German troops. Almost all of the German units of the 84th Army Corps, under the command of von Choltitz, retreated from the west through the thin line of southwards advancing Americans. But the retreat was sometimes chaotic, long columns were stuck in the small villages and on the small roads. In the town of Rocey such a German column was under fire for at least six hours by Allied planes. Over 100 tanks and 250 other vehicles were destroyed. German troops were on the run and pulled back to the south and east.

Bradley decided not to consolidate or to give the men a rest. He pressed the troops to head for Avranches. From there they would turn inland east and press on for Mortain and entangle the Germans. Montgomery meanwhile was ready to break out of Caen to bring pressure on the Germans from the north. The Allied command could not yet foresee that this would lead to a destructive pincer movement. The Allies where unaware that Hitler was planning a counterattack, and to drive more German troops into the trap. General Patton was appointed to lead the 3th Army. First he pulled back the infantry and ordered the 4th and 6th Armoured Division to keep the pressure on the Germans.

Coutances was liberated on 28 July
Then and Now on the D7

Finaly Coutances was liberated on 28 July. Now the town had fallen into American hands, the road to the south was open, and the troops headed for Avranches. On 29 July the American troops role into Avranches, it was lightly defended. A pleasant surprise because of it's strategic importance. Avranches was a junction of several roads. During the celebration of the victory the Americans found themselves in a nasty predicament. On the coastal road approached a German column, some vehicles wore a red cross. Convinced that this was a transport of wounded, the American let them pass. Suddenly the 'wounded' opened fire from there vehicles. The response of the Americans was quick, the Germans surrender when they saw the predicament they were in. When the Americans troops 'resolved' a few more of these 'encounters', Avranches was and stayed in firm hands.

Avranches 1944, no signs of destruction today

But the Germans realised that the American frontline to the south, was extreme thin. Before the line is re-enforced they have to counter attack. Thanks to the action performed by Patton, the fall of the west-coast of Normandy was quick. Without hesitation Patton moved southwards with his tanks. Lower rank officers got their orders roughly and could make there own decisions, and were allowed to improvise. This was one of the reasons of the quick decent to the south. Every junction had a high officer that was directing the traffic. Pattons tanks swarmed into Brittany while the German bombers were kept at distance with anti-aircraft guns. In 72 hours seven division moved over the road from Avranches into Brittany. But Brittany became a target of less importance and later on, only one army corps stayed in that area.

An M4 Sherman tank in Avranches as monument

Target Avranches seemed into reach for the Germans. But 'Hill 317' was in a firm grip by the Americans. The Allied troops were not sure of this attack was for real, and hesitated to accept reinforcements of 4th Armoured Division. But if Avranches would fall into German hands, the First and Third Army were threatened to be split. Fighter-bombers were sent in and destroyed at least forty of the seventy German tanks that had broken through. For the German troops, that were dug in around Mortain, it was a shock to learn that 600 British and Canadian tanks were on their way to Falaise. German tank units that were needed in the west and south had to stay in the northern sector. A bigger problem arose for the Germans units that were in an offensive action against Avranches. They were threatened to be encircled, so they had to retreat. On August 11th the counterattack on Avranches was cancelled.

Monument in the heart of Avranches for General Patton


After the war the great rebuilding started so there is not much left that reminds us of the fierce fighting that took place around these parts of Normandy. Everywhere are monuments and memorials and on the route to Avranches you'll notice the well known markers beside the road (see the home-page with the 00-marker at UTAH Beach).

To continue the battle and the closing at the 'Falaise Pocket';