April 21, 2014

Patton Unleashed

On 6 June 1944 the Allies landed successfully in Normandy. After securing the initial beach-heads the Allied Armies pushed inland to a depth varying from five to twenty miles. At the beginning of July the British Second Army occupied positions from the mouth of the Orne river to the vicinity of Caumont and the U.S. First Army from Caumont to the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula. 

Normandy front at the beginning of July
Normandy front at the beginning of July.

According to OVERLORD the Allies needed to expand their foothold so as to include Normandy, Brittany and their respective ports. This area was needed for the accumulation of men and material necessary for the drive against Germany. Seizing this area was the Allied objective at the beginning of July.

M4 Sherman “Rhino”
2. M4 Sherman “Rhino”, 
fitted with hedgerow cutter.

The U.S. First Army launched its offensive on 3 July. The terrain was ideal for the defenders. The battles in the hedgerows were savage and the progress slow. The American offensive came to an end on 19 July, with the capture of the city of Saint Lo. Despite their efforts the Americans gained only a few miles and they were still contained by the Germans. To break the stalemate General Bradley, First Army’s Commanding General, conceived a plan where the ground offensive would be supported by massive air bombardments. The plan was named COBRA.

The plan called for three infantry divisions to make the initial penetration close behind the air bombardment and create a “defended corridor” for the exploiting forces. The operation was launched on 25 July and by the evening of 27 July the German front had been penetrated. Now the Americans had to exploit their initial success. 

First Army operations, 24 July – 4 August 1944
3. First Army operations 24 July – 4 August 1944.

Third Army Enters the Scene
Montgomery, Patton and  Bradley
4. Montgomery with Patton and Bradley 
in Normandy on July 7, 1944.

General George S. Patton was appointed Third Army commander in the spring of 1944. Before and during the landings the presence of Patton and his Army in England tricked the Germans into believing that the Allies were going to land on the Pas-de-Calais. On 6 July Patton crossed the English Channel.

A new organization scheme was needed for the continuation of the operations. On 1 August the 12th Army Group became operational, under General Bradley. It was composed of the First Army, under General Hodges and Patton’s Third Army. First Army retained command of the V, VII and XIX Corps, while Third Army took over the VIII Corps, already in the fight, and the new XII, XV and XX Corps. Also Patton’s Army would be supported by the XIX Tactical Air Command.

General Bradley ordered Patton to clear the whole of the Brittany Peninsula. General Patton made the following plan:
  • He would drive southwest from Avranches through Rennes to Quiberon Bay in order to cut the Brittany peninsula near its base and prevent the reinforcement or escape of German forces thus isolated.
  • Next, he would seize the central plateau of the peninsula. With the Germans penned into a few port cities, it would be relatively easy to force their capitulation.
  • Once the ports were in American hands, the Third Army would be free to turn east, where the decisive battle of the European campaign would obviously be fought.
The Brittany peninsula
5. The Brittany peninsula.
Thus, Patton visualized his primary mission as clearing the peninsula, his incidental mission as securing Quiberon Bay and Brest first and the other ports later, his eventual mission as driving eastward toward Paris and the Seine.

Patton's method for securing Brittany was to unleash armored columns in the peninsula. The 4th Armored Division was to drive through Rennes to Quiberon. The 6th Armored Division was to go all the way to Brest. A third column, formed by activating a provisional unit called Task Force A was to advance to Brest to secure the vital railroad that follows generally the north shore.

Patton saw his immediate objectives far in advance of the front, for his intent was to slash forward and exploit not only the mobility and striking power of his armored divisions but also the German disorganization. Prone to give his subordinates free rein, Patton expected them to exercise independent judgment and tactical daring. Confident of the ability of armor to disrupt enemy rear areas and to sustain itself deep in enemy territory, he felt that the ultimate objectives were immediately pertinent and attainable. There seemed little point in slowly reducing Brittany by carefully planned and thoroughly supervised operations unraveled in successive phases. As a result, Patton granted his subordinates a freedom of action that permitted the division commanders to be virtually independent.

Securing Brittany
The fight in the hedgerows
6. The fight in the hedgerows.

On 1 August, General Wood's 4th Armored Division thrust southwestward toward Rennes, the capital of Brittany. Rennes was about the halfway point between Avranches and Quiberon, the assigned objective. General Patton ordered Wood to go beyond Rennes to Quiberon in order to seal off the entire Brittany peninsula.

General Wood believed that the main action in western Europe would take place not in Brittany but in central France. Few enemy forces remained in Brittany, so why proceed westward to the Atlantic ocean and a dead end? Securing Rennes was important. Blocking the base of the Brittany peninsula south of Rennes was important too. If these missions could be combined with a maneuver that would place the 4th Armored Division in position to drive eastward rather than westward, the division would be able to make a more vital contribution to victory.

General Wood decided that the 4th Armored Division should bypass Rennes. Early on the morning of 3 August, two columns had started to outflank Rennes. By late afternoon the heads of the columns had arrived at Bain-de-Bretagne and Derval, thirty and forty miles south of Rennes, respectively. The armor had covered somewhere between sixty and a hundred miles against almost no opposition. On 5 August, the 4th Armored Division captures Vannes, thus effectively cutting off the Brittany peninsula at its base.

By 7 August the 4th Armored Division had reached Lorient at the Atlantic coast.

4th Armored Division’s advance towards Rennes and the Atlantic
7. 4th Armored Division’s advance towards Rennes and the Atlantic.

Despite his wishes General Wood remained fixed at Lorient until the 15th of August. At that day the 4th Armored Division was relieved by the 6th Armored. During the first twelve days of August, the 4th Armored Division took almost 5,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured almost 250 German vehicles. The division lost 98 killed, 362 wounded, 11 missing; 15 tanks and 20 vehicles.

From Brittany to Falaise
General Wade H. Haislip
8. General Wade H. Haislip, 
commander XV Corps.

The disintegration of the German front presented the Allies with new opportunities. The conquest of Brittany could be completed with one Corps, while the bulk of the Third Army could turn eastward and envelop the German Seventh Army west of the Seine. All the bridges on the Seine river had been destroyed by air bombardment, so the Germans with a water obstacle behind them and unable to cross it would be destroyed.

XV Corps was to spearhead Third Army’s advance. By 9 August XV Corps had advanced to Le Mans and then it turned north and by 12 August it had seized Alençon. At that time Patton authorized a drive north toward Argentan and Falaise, where the American forces would meet the Canadians coming from the north. The Falaise pocket was sealed on 19 August; some 50,000 Germans were captured. Those who managed to escape did so without their heavy equipment. 

The Falaise pocket
9. The Falaise pocket.

From the Seine River to the German Border
Soldiers of the 5th Infantry Division  advance toward Fontainebleau
10. Soldiers of the 5th Infantry Division
advance toward Fontainebleau supported
by an M10 of the 818 TD Battalion.

Crossing the Seine river was the next objective for Patton’s Army. The XV Corps established a bridgehead at Mantes-Goussicourt on 19 August. Three more bridgeheads were established the next six days. The advance continued with the XII Corps on the right and the XX Corps on the left. Patton’s Army was directed to the east, towards the German border. A series of water obstacles lies between the Seine and the Rhine, the ultimate prize. The Marne, the Vesle, the Aisne, the Meuse and the Moselle rivers. Although the terrain was ideal for defense the Germans lacked the strength to organize serious resistance and Patton knew it. The Marne was crossed on 28 August and the Meuse on 31 August.

Third Army's eastward advance during the last week in August had been a spectacularly fast movement against disorganized opposition - pursuit warfare at its best. The Americans had the exhilaration of striking toward distant objectives and maintaining an incredibly rapid movement to deny the enemy the ability to organize and defend natural terrain obstacles.

Patton’s intention was to attack toward the Moselle between Metz and Nancy, and from there the Rhine River was barely a hundred miles away. But this was not the case.

On 30 August the 12th Army Group had notified the Third Army that no appreciable gasoline stocks would be forthcoming until at least 3 September. The army became bone dry. Individual tanks were dropping out of combat formations for lack of gasoline. The chance of a speedy resumption of the pursuit east of the Meuse, a hope that depended on motorized columns, appeared nil. According to decisions taken earlier the Third Army was only the subsidiary Allied effort and the precious fuel stocks were directed to the main effort in the north. When gasoline became available again in the first week of September and General Patton's troops attacked eastward toward the Moselle, they discovered that strong and organized German forces opposed them. 

The Moselle river marked the end of Patton’s spectacular advance across France.

Third Army’s advance from the Seine to the German border.
11. Third Army’s advance from the Seine to the German border.

Patton's advance

Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. U.S. Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations. 1961. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1993.
Harrison, Gordon A. Cross-Channel Attack. U.S. Army in World War II: The European Theater of Operations. 1951. Reprint. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, U.S. Army, 1993.
Hogan, Jr., David W. Northern France: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War IIU.S. Army, Center of Military History, 1995.
Patton, George S. War as I knew it. Athens: Eurobooks, 2009.
Wellard, James. General George S. Patton, Jr.- Man Under Mars. New York: Dodd Mead & Company, 1946.

Photos attribution
1., 7., 11. CMH Pub 7-5-1
2. http://www-cgsc.army.mil/, via Wikimedia Commons
3., 9. CMH Pub 72-30
4. Morris (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, via Wikimedia Commons
5. Foxpry, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Archives de la Mache, Saint Lo, via Wikimedia Commons
8. Wikimedia Commons
10. http://www.history.army.mil/, via Wikimedia Commons

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