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Capturing the first deep-water port in Normandy

The liberation of Cherbourg

U.S soldiers escorting German prisoners of war in Cherbourg (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The city of Cherbourg is located at the northern tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy, France. It has 35,545 inhabitants today. Its port welcomes many cruise ships per year. The city has been of strategic importance over the centuries. The famous 17th-century French military engineer, Vauban, called it one of the "keys to the kingdom". Due to impressive maritime improvements and fortifications, it became a primary military port under Napoleon.

The coat of arms of Cherbourg (Photo: Wikipedia)
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During the American Civil War, on June 19, 1864, the Confederate ship, CSS Alabama, was sunk by the Union ship, USS Kearsarge, off the coast of Cherbourg. The wreck is still on the bottom of the sea but several items were recovered and restored, for instance a Blakely gun which can be seen in the Cité de la Mer naval museum. The French painter, Manet, painted the battle of the two warships under the name The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama the same year. It is on display in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cherbourg became the first American Civil War Heritage Site designated by the Civil War Preservation Trust outside the U.S.

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The painting by Manet, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (Photo: Wikipedia)

Cherbourg served also as an important stop for transatlantic liners in the early decades of the 20th century. For instance, the RMS Titanic stopped here on April 10, 1912 during its maiden voyage and sank five days later on its way to New York.

The map of the Cotentin Peninsula with Cherbourg located on the top in the middle (Photo: Wikipedia)

During the Second World War, the Germans arrived on June 17, 1940, close the end of the Battle of France. It was declared an open city by the City Council, and Generalmajor Erwin Rommel, commander of the 7th Panzer Division, accepted the surrender of the city. Following the surrender, the Germans further improved the fortifications with naval batteries and other strongpoints. They used the port as a basis of a flotilla of their E-boats. These highly maneuverable small ships were called Schnellboot (S-Boot for short) in German, literally “fast boats.” In Britain they came to be known as E-boats, with “E” standing for enemy. These German ships armed with torpedoes and guns and with a top speed of up to 40 knots patrolled the English Channel at night. During Operation Tiger, also known as Exercise Tiger, one of the large-scale dress rehearsals prior to D-Day in southern England at the end of April 1944, a small group of these E-boats launched from Cherbourg wreaked havoc among the unsuspecting Allied forces and caused the death of around 800 American servicemen.

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A German E-boat (Photo: Reddit)

A couple of years later, Cherbourg, the only deep-water port in the region, was the primary objective of the American troops who had landed at Utah Beach. It was supposed to ensure the continual arrival of supplies and reinforcements. The Germans were also aware of the importance of Cherbourg, and it was therefore turned into a fortress, just like Le Havre and Brest. Hitler declared it a Festung (Fortress in English) and ordered to hold out until the last soldier without surrender. He was convinced that the new German wonder weapons, like the V-1 flying bombs and the jet-powered planes, could change the tide of war. The task of defending Cherbourg fell to General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, a veteran of WWI and the Eastern Front. His deputy was Major General Robert Sattler who was the commander of Cherbourg until the appointment of von Schlieben on June 23, 1944. The naval commander of the German Kriegsmarine forces was Konteradmiral (vice-admiral) Walter Hennecke, who was responsible for the naval bases and coastal batteries in the sector, and later for the demolition of the port facilities. The 40,000 men of the three main units defending the Cherbourg area were from the 709th and 243rd Infantry Divisions, and the 91st Luftlande Division. The morale of the troops was low, many of the soldiers were inexperienced or over-aged or wounded and declared unfit for other fronts. Among their ranks, there were also several thousand former Soviet prisoners of war from Georgia and Ukraine held mostly untrustworthy by the Germans. The equipment and weapons were also mainly obsolete and taken from the French and the Russians, supplies were short and reinforcement by sea or land was hopeless due to Allied naval and air superiority. The divisions’ designated defensive lines were overstretched. Still, they were a force to be reckoned with, partially thanks to the battle-hardened German veterans from the Eastern Front.

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General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, commander of the German forces in Cherbourg in his battle-weary uniform (Photo: Ebay)

The task of liberating Cherbourg was given to the U.S. VII Corps led by Major General J. Lawton “Lighting Joe” Collins (he received his nickname after his radio call sign at Guadalcanal). After successfully securing the beachhead and taking Carentan, his troops moved to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula. Collins had four infantry divisions at his disposal for the operation: the 4th, 9th, 79th and 90th (the latter suffered from serious leadership problems leading to several changes in its leadership).

Major General J. Lawton “Lighting Joe” Collins (Photo: Wikipedia)

Taking the port became even more crucial when a huge storm almost completely destroyed the American artificial harbor, Mulberry harbor “A”, on Omaha Beach on June 19. The same day, the American divisions, with the help of the 82nd Airborne Division, managed to cut off Cherbourg from the rest of the Cotentin through reaching Barneville on the western end of the peninsula. In a couple of days, the divisions were advancing on Cherbourg. American troops encircled the city on June 21. After issuing a formal demand of surrender refused by the Germans, Collins launched a general assault on June 22. A large-scale Allied aerial and naval bombardment signaled the beginning of the siege. They were also helped with intelligence provided by the French Resistance. During the siege, two tragic friendly fire accidents occurred. 23 locals died when their shelter was hit by a bomb. Another 27 civilians were killed when they wanted to find a safe space from bombardment outside Cherbourg and were mistakenly bombed by American planes on a farm overlooking the city. The Americans had to use everything they had to fight the enemy. Their bravery is reflected in the two Medals of Honor earned during the battle. At the end of the house-to-house street fighting in the city and stubborn resistance from the 19th century hilltop fortification, Fort du Roule, the German commanders, von Schlieben and Hennecke with 800 of their men emerged from their bunkers and surrendered on June 26, first to Major General Eddy, commander of the 9th U.S. Infantry Division, then to Collins himself. Von Schlieben’s command bunker, located in a former French Navy bunker system, was found with the help of a German prisoner of war. When they refused to surrender, the Americans drove up two M10 tank destroyers to the armored entrance of the bunker and started to fire directly on the door. This was too much for the already exhausted Germans and they finally surrendered. Still, von Schlieben refused to order an overall ceasefire to his troops, thus further delaying the seizure of the city for a couple of days.

A postcard photo of Fort du Roule from 1930 (Photo: geneanet.org)

Despite the steady advance of Allied troops and the capture of von Schlieben, the harbor fortifications along with other scattered forces on the peninsula managed to hold out till July 1. Unfortunately for the Allied troops, the German efforts to render the port useless were highly successful. It took engineers weeks before they could turn it into operable condition. Colonel Alvin Viney, the American officer responsible for the reconstruction said: “The demolition of the port of Cherbourg is a masterful job, beyond doubt the best-planned demolition in history.” Hitler gave the Knight’s Cross to Konteradmiral Hennecke for the thorough demolition of the port. After a month of demining and repairs by engineers, the port, completely razed by the Germans and the bombing, welcomed the first Liberty ships on July 16 (for a long time they could not unload their cargo directly in the harbor but only by barges and DUKWs). The Americans could finally turn south to advance on St. Lo and to launch Operation Cobra to break out from Normandy.

The demolished interior of the port (Photo: Wikipedia)

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The harbor soon became the busiest port in the world, with traffic exceeding that of New York. It had also an important role in other logistics-related projects: firstly, the convoys of the famous Red Ball Express started from here, providing supplies to troops on the front, and secondly, fuel was supplied to its port through the underwater pipeline, codenamed Bambi, from the United Kingdom in Operation PLUTO (standing for Pipeline Under the Ocean).

U.S. personnel unloading railway cargo directly from ships (Photo: US Coast Guard)

Despite the liberation of the city, war still affected the life of Cherbourg. For instance, on December 24, 1944, the SS Léopoldville, a Belgian passenger liner converted to a troopship carrying soldiers of the U.S. 66th Infantry Division to the Battle of the Bulge, was torpedoed by a German submarine a couple of miles from Cherbourg killing 763 soldiers and the crew.
 
After the war, under the leadership of General de Gaulle, Cherbourg became a hub for nuclear ballistic missile submarine construction from 1964. The first submarine of this kind built here, Le Redoutable (“Formidable” in English), was launched in 1967 and can now be visited in the Cité de la Mer museum. Some scenes of the 2018 movie Kursk were shot on the submarine, telling the story of the disaster of the Russian submarine Kursk that sank in 2000. Fort du Roule, the former fortress, is now home to the Cherbourg Liberation Museum.

The submarine Le Redoutable in the Cité de la Mer naval museum (Photo: Smart-appart.fr)

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