The Cobra strikes

Operation Cobra

U.S. forces passing through the town of Coutances during Operation Cobra
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

The D-Day landings on Normandy’s beaches went off as well as the Allies could hope – even better, in fact, since casualties were lower than expected. Once the Allies established themselves along the shore, however, they found that their further advance inland was stymied by difficult terrain and stiff German resistance. For seven weeks, Allied forces failed to take any significant ground other than securing the Cotentin Peninsula and liberating the city of Cherbourg. (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Cherbourg) The plan to finally break out of the beachhead with a rapid attack and get further inland was named after the lightning-quick cobra.
 

Overview of the Normandy front in early July. Note Caen in the east and Saint-Lô in the west
(Image: public domain)

The Allied stall had several causes, the first being tenacious German defense. While deception operations before D-Day (Read our earlier article – Operation Bodyguard) sold Hitler on the idea that the invasion would occur at Normandy, German forces were quick to react once Operation Overlord began. Most of Germany’s tank reserves were held back on D-Day, but they were released shortly after and became a serious thorn in the Allies’ side.

German Panther tanks in a village in Normandy
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The second problem was the local terrain. Most of the ground in Normandy is flat, but several areas were flooded by the Germans, forcing Allied forces to stick to narrow and exposed causeways. Additionally, much of Normandy was (and still is) covered in bocage: a labyrinth of old, tall, extremely dense hedgerows and sunken paths separating open pastures. This terrain was perfect for placing defensive ambushes: it was practically impossible to see what was on the other side of a hedgerow, and the vegetation was so thick that the Allies needed explosives or tanks equipped with special cutting devices to open holes in them.

U.S. troops fighting along the hedgerows of bocage country
(Photo: U.S. Army)
The third problem was the city of Caen. Located some 8 miles (13 km) inland directly to the south of Sword Beach at the very eastern end of the beachhead, it was a city of strategic importance. General Montgomery’s original plan optimistically called for the city’s capture on D-Day. This not only would have deprived the Germans of an easily defended location, but also would have given the Allies a way further inland, as well as a large area of flat ground suitable for the construction of airfields. The attack on Caen failed, however, and the city would not be fully liberated until mid-July. German tank reserves were brought up to the city to prevent its fall, and the area became a strongpoint in the German defensive lines confining the Allies to the beachhead. To put its strength into context: roughly 110 German tanks were facing American forces in the west, but 600 were arrayed against British and Canadian attacks in the Caen area.
A German reconnaissance vehicle in Caen in July 1944
(Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)

By mid-July, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, commander of the First U.S. Army, was seriously concerned that the fighting in Normandy might turn into a static and incredibly bloody trench war similar to the Western Front of World War I. He had a meeting with British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, the overall commander of all Allied ground forces in Normandy, and Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey, who was in charge of British forces near Caen, on July 10. Bradley presented the two British officers with a plan for Operation Cobra, a breakout on the Western, American half of the frontline. The plan called for British help, and Montgomery instructed Dempsey to keep hitting the Germans at Caen, drawing as many German forces as possible to the area, and thus weakening their positions elsewhere.

From left to right: Generals Bradley, Montgomery and Dempsey in Normandy
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The plan was unusual by American standards. U.S. forces generally preferred to attack along a wide front. Cobra, however, called for a very narrow attack corridor a mere 7,000 yards (6,400 m) wide. The attack would begin near the town of Saint-Lô with an intense bombardment by artillery, fighter-bombers and heavy bombers that would hopefully either completely destroy or shock into uselessness all German defenses in a depth of 2,500 yards (2,300 m) behind the German front line. Around 1,100 artillery pieces, 1,600 heavy bombers and 1,000 smaller planes were assigned to the largest single carpet-bombing mission in history.
 
While preparing for the mission, many of the Sherman (Read our earlier article - The M4 Sherman) and Stuart tanks and M-10 tank destroyers were outfitted with “Rhino” cutting devices designed to cut holes in the bocage. A total of over 2,200 tanks and tank destroyers were detailed to the ground push alongside the infantry.

The front of an M5 Stuart light tank equipped with one of several types of hedgerow cutters
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
After several delays due to bad weather, Operation Cobra got underway on July 25. As planned, it was supported by British and Canadian pushes near Caen to draw German attention away from the American operation. Operations Goodwood and Atlantic, carried out by British and Canadian forces, respectively, were launched on July 18. The northern half of the city of Caen, located on the left side of the Orne River, was already in Commonwealth hands by this point. The two operations, which involved the largest tank battle ever fought by the British Army, managed to push the Germans out of the city’s southern half and capture some ground beyond, but a significant part of the area’s hinterlands was still in German hands on July 20, when Montgomery called off the attacks.
British Sherman tanks (including a Firefly and a Crab) shortly before receiving the advance orders at the start of Operation Goodwood
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
It must be noted that the events transpiring around Caen caused a rift between Montgomery and General Eisenhower, who was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, and the rift flared into a historical controversy still not fully settled today. As far as can be determined, Montgomery’s early plans made it clear that Goodwood was not trying to break through German lines, only tie down and weaken German armor. During the negotiations for air support, however, Eisenhower gained the false impression that Goodwood was trying to achieve a full breakthrough. Montgomery needed air support for Goodwood to stand a chance, and might have led Eisenhower on as a means to get it. Whatever the truth might have been, the two Commonwealth operations, as well as Operation Spring, a follow-up on July 25-27, did achieve their goal of keeping German tanks busy and far away from Cobra’s area.
Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Simultaneously to the Commonwealth attacks in the east, the Americans have secured Saint-Lô, the jumping-off position for the operation. After a brief period of poor weather, the skies have cleared up sufficiently on July 24, allowing for the 1,600-strong Allied bomber force to take off from England. The weather, however, took another turn for the worse just as the planes were getting close. Several bombers dropped their payloads on American positions due to the suddenly poor visibility, killing 25 men and wounding another 130. Some men were buried alive by the fountains of earth thrown up by the explosions and had to be quickly dug out. Some soldiers on the ground were so enraged by the friendly fire incident that they started firing on their own aircraft. The attack was quickly called off and postponed to the next day, July 25.
 
In light of the friendly fire incident, Bradley specifically requested that the bombers change their approach path the next day. Instead of coming in from behind the Allied lines (where early bomb drops would hit American soldiers), they were to make a detour and approach from the east, flying parallel to the front lines.
 
The bomber force did not do that the next day. They arrived from the north instead, flying over American lines at 9:38 a.m. Bomber commanders apparently tried to explain to Bradley that the path he was requesting was impossible to fly within the time and space constraints also imposed on them, but Bradley failed to understand this.
Lieutenant General Leslie McNair in Normandy shortly before Operation Cobra (read on for context)
(Photo: National Archives)
Once again, friendly fire hit the troops on the ground, only far worse than before: 111 men died and 490 were wounded. The most notable of the dead was Lieutenant General Lesley McNair. McNair was Bradley’s friend and was out in the front positions to observe the beginning of the attack when an errant bomb killed him, making him the highest-ranking American soldier to die in combat in Europe during World War II. He was temporarily buried in the temporary American-German cemetery at La Cambe (Read our earlier article - The German war cemetery of reconciliation) before being laid to final rest in the Normandy American Cemetery. (His only son, Douglas McNair, was killed in action on the island of Guam on August 6, 1944, 12 days after the death of his father.)
 
Eisenhower crossed the English Channel just to be in Normandy on the day Cobra launched. He returned to Britain in the evening, dejected over the American losses to American bombers and determined not to use heavy bombers in support of ground troops ever again. He told Bradley: “I gave them a green light this time. But I promise you it's the last!”
 
The infantry began to advance at 11 a.m., an hour after the bombardment commenced. As deadly as the bomber force was to Americans, it was incomparably more murderous to the Germans. A 6,000 yd by 2,200 yd (5.5 km by 2 km) area had been turned into a crater-ridden wasteland. Bocage hedgerows were not only blown away, but replaced by craters so deep that American vehicles had trouble crossing them.
Aerial photo of the destruction left by the carpet-bombing. You can see the bocage hedgerows and the craters left by bombs.
(Photo: National Archives)
The opening bombardment of Cobra rendered the Germans initially incapable of fighting back, but they soon started putting up a resistance. Unknown to the Allies, the elite German tank division Panzer Lehr happened to be in the area. They were badly mauled by earlier fighting, and were down to 2,200 men, 28 tanks in fighting condition and some 20 other armored vehicles. The initial bombardment killed a further 1,000 of their men, but they still started rapidly organizing points of resistance. The German 5th Parachute Division was also nearby and escaped the bombardment almost intact. Additionally, nearby German artillery batteries were located outside the bombardment zone and met the advancing Allied troops with intense fire.
An armored car of the 82ns Armored Reconnaissance Battalion driving through the village of Canisy, to the southwest of Saint-Lô, on July 26
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Nevertheless, the Germans were in no position to stop the Allied advance. Major General Joe Collins (Read our earlier article – General “Lightning” Joe Collins), who led VII Corps in the breakthrough, soon realized that the remaining German defenses were organized into isolated pockets rather than a cohesive line, which allowed the Allies to defeat these pockets one by one. The push started out slow (Collins’s VII Corps only gained 2,200 yards (2000 m) during the first day), not only because of the defenders, but also due to floods and swamps in the path of advance.
U.S. infantry and an M5 light tank passing a destroyed Panther on the road from Saint-Lô to Brittany
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Nevertheless, the first three days of fighting managed to mop up most of the German defenders, and the defensive lines collapsed by July 28. Allied units were pouring over the long-frozen frontline, with the Germans only mounting a few counterattacks to avoid being encircled. On August 1, the Third U.S. Army was activated under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton (Read our earlier article – The wars of George S. Patton) and swept like wildfire across the collapsed German lines into Brittany; this advance included the liberation of the famous island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel (Read our earlier article – The liberation of Mont-Saint-Michel).
 
A 15th century stone bridge across the Sélune River at the small village of Pontaubault played a vital role in the breakout since it constituted a bottleneck between Normandy and Brittany. (We visit the bridge on our
6-day Beaches of Normandy tours). When Hitler learned that the bridge could not be recaptured from American forces, he ordered its destruction. 56 nighttime air attacks were launched against the bridge, all of them unsuccessful. Despite the German counterattacks, Patton had pushed seven divisions (around 100,000 men and 1,500 vehicles) across the bridge and into Brittany in 72 hours. With no hopes of stopping the Allied tide, a great part of the German forces in France were eventually encircled and eliminated at the Falaise Pocket (Read our earlier article – The Falaise pocket) a few weeks later.
Our Passengers visiting the Pontaubault bridge
(Photo: Author’s own)

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A paratrooper landing at Mont Saint-Michel, France to honor paratroopers who descended on D-Day
(Photo: U.S. Army, Army Sgt. Hannah Hawkins)
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