Historian Kevin Hymel’s most recent article, “Armored blitz to Avranches,” was just published on Warfare History Network. In the article Kevin covers how the U.S. VIII Corps exploited Operation Cobra and cracked a doorway into Brittany, and General Omar Bradley got exactly what he was looking for: a way to win the war faster. Read on!
Armored Blitz to Avranches
By Kevin M. Hymel
Lieutenant General Omar Bradley had reason to be pleased by the last week of July 1944. His First Army had scratched out a substantial foothold on the Normandy coast, capturing three times more French territory than his British allies. He had cut off the Cherbourg peninsula to the west and pushed his army south. His carpet bombing of the German Army south of St. Lo, Operation Cobra, helped crack the enemy line. But his four corps, composed mostly of infantry, were still only inching forward. It had taken him almost two months to advance approximately 80 square miles. He needed to win the war faster than this.
To Bradley, the key to victory was capturing ports. With most of the Allied supplies coming across the beaches of Normandy, and only a trickle coming from the destroyed port at Cherbourg, he knew if he could push his army south, he could pivot to the west into Brittany and gain access to the ports of St. Malo, Brest, and Lorient. And the key to Brittany was the mountaintop town of Avranches, with the See River crossing north of the town and the Selune River crossing south. If the Cherbourg Peninsula was the forearm of a raised left arm, the Brittany Peninsula would be the bicep and Avranches would be the inner crook of the elbow, a vital town indeed.
Bradley’s First Army was becoming unmanageably large. So far in the war, American armies had usually consisted of two or three corps; the First Army now consisted of four. From east to west were the V Corps under Leonard Gerow, XIX Corps under Charles Corlett, VII Corps under Joe Collins, and the VIII Corps under Troy Middleton. Both the V and VII Corps had fought their way up from the Normandy beaches. The XIX and VIII were committed to the fight on July 3, but only managed to advance five to seven miles south in 17 days of fighting.
Behind Bradley, soldiers and weapons were pouring into Normandy. He knew that once he had more room, he would commit Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army to the fight. Patton, who had led troops to success in North Africa and Sicily, was a proven commander who pushed men forward through a combination of leadership, smart tactics, personal example, and profane language.
Major General Troy Middleton was relatively new to corps command but he was no stranger to combat. In 1915, he had fought in Mexico and led an infantry regiment in World War I as the youngest colonel in the Army, earning a Distinguished Service Cross. He left the Army in 1937 and later became the vice president of Louisiana State University. Called back into service in 1943, he successfully led the 45th Infantry Division through the capture of Sicily and into Italy. An arthritic knee sent him home, but he was called back to service by General Dwight Eisenhower, who needed his experience to help liberate France.
“I’ll take him into battle on a litter if we have to,” Ike reportedly told General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff. Now Middleton’s VIII Corps held the extreme right flank of the army with Joe Collins to his left and the Gulf of St. Malo to his right. At his disposal were four infantry divisions, the 8th, 79th, 83rd, and 90th, and two armored divisions, the 4th and 6th.
American Armored Divisions: Unproven Beasts
Infantry and armored divisions were two widely different weapons of war. In World War II, an infantry division consisted of three infantry regiments commanded by a colonel and supported by tank and artillery battalions, some 13,000 men. An infantry division moved at the pace of a soldier’s feet. Tanks supported the infantry wherever the going got tough. Armored divisions also consisted of three formations, each commanded by a colonel. They were called Combat Commands and were designated either A, B, or R (for Reserve). Each one consisted of a tank battalion and an armored infantry battalion, with armored field artillery battalions sometimes attached.
In an attack, the tank battalion, consisting of approximately 70 tanks, led the charge, followed by the armored infantry battalion, consisting of 1,000 soldiers riding in half-tracks, who dismounted to wipe out anything the tanks left behind. Armored divisions, with a total of more than 200 tanks, were designed for speed, maneuver, and hitting power.
But American armored divisions had yet to prove themselves in the war. In North Africa, the 1st Armored Division never got the knack for exploitation. In Sicily, the 2nd Armored Division was limited to supporting the infantry, and in Italy, the 1st was restricted to the roads as it moved up mountainsides. In Normandy, Collins had already deployed his 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions, but they fought in swampy areas and only partially committed to the fight. Troy Middleton knew what an infantry division could do, but he was not so sure about tanks and openly expressed his reservations about using armor for exploitation.
Armor Strikes in Operation Cobra
Operation Cobra’s ground attack kicked off on July 25, with Collins committing three infantry divisions into the breach made by the bombers. Despite poor gains, he committed his two armored divisions into the attack to speed things up. The 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions were bigger than the rest of the other American armored divisions (they had been organized as “heavy,” divisions with two large regiments before armored divisions were slimmed down to three smaller combat commands) and they had experience. Collins tasked the 3rd with capturing Coutances, the first major town on the route south to Avranches.
The next day, Bradley committed the VIII Corps to action but Middleton …
Travel on The Normandy Campaign: Beaches and Beyond Tour
Want to learn more about this chapter of WWII history? Travel on our new Normandy Campaign: Beaches and Beyond Tour. This tour explores the Normandy breakout, codename Operation Cobra, the Allied plan to take Brittany and trap the remaining German army in Normandy.