Saturday, August 17, 2019

Operation Cobra: The Georgia Guard and the Normandy Breakout July 25-31, 1944

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

Tanks of the 2nd Armored Division pass through the lines of the 120th Infantry Regiment, 30th Infantry Division July 26, 1926 near St. Lo, France.
The Georgia National Guard's 230th Field Artillery Battalion provided fire support for the 120th as well as forward observers who moved with the infantry.
Army Signal Corps photo.
On the front lines in Normandy, in the closing days of July 1944, the 1st Army, commanded by Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, had employed four corps composed of 15 divisions. Twenty-two American divisions had arrived in France, including those of Patton’s 3rd Army which was assembling on the Cotentin Peninsula. More than 500,000 tons of supplies had been landed in a herculean logistics effort designed to keep front line troops equipped with food and ammunition to continue to press the German forces at all points along a front ranging from St. Lo in the east to Lessay in the west.[i]

With British efforts stagnating near Caen, Bradley conceived Operation Cobra as means to establish a breakthrough of the German lines through aggressive initiative preceded by aerial bombardment. The main effort was to consist of the 4th, 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions who were charged with establishing and maintaining the breach of German lines following aerial bombardment by the 8th Air Force. The 1st and 3rd Armored Divisions would then take advantage of the breach to exploit the gap developed by the infantry.[ii] The Georgia Army National Guard’s 230th and 118th Field Artillery Battalions would provide fire support to the efforts of the 30th ID. Meanwhile, the VIII Corps on the right flank, would drive south to destroy the encircled German forces. The 8th ID, along with the Georgia National Guard’s 121st Infantry Regiment, would be part of this effort.

The week preceding the launch of Operation Cobra was a period of relative inactivity desperately needed by the men who had been fighting non-stop for six weeks. Units received badly needed replacements returning them to full strength, but with fresh untried troops. In the VIII Corps, the 8th Division and its 121st Infantry Regiment received its first replacements around July 14. The 90th ID, sister division of the 8th ID, had, over the previous six weeks, replaced more than 100 percent of its enlisted strength and 150 percent of its original number of officers.[iii]

During the lull that preceded Operation Cobra, Adolf Hitler survived an assassination attempt by high-ranking German officers. Allied intelligence concluded that following the unsuccessful attempt at Hitler’s life, the German leader would further coalesce power amongst his closest followers making further hope of internal revolution unlikely. Only complete defeat of German forces would depose Hitler, and that defeat would have to begin with a breakthrough along the front held by the First Army.[iv]

Preparing for Cobra
Operation Cobra was preceded by a massive bombardment of German positions. The
Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, 1942. Photo USAMHI
initial air strike was launched July 24, with more than 1,600 heavy bombers taking to the air. Due to poor weather, the initial drop was cancelled, but word did not reach all aircraft. Many of the bomber crews arriving over their designated targets found visibility too poor to drop their payloads. Nevertheless, more than 300 bombers delivered their bombs before the postponement message had been received.[v] While Bradley had initially conceived the air operation to strike parallel to the front lines, the bombers approached from the north, perpendicular to the lines of resistance. Due to the approach and poor weather, some aircraft dropped their payloads short of the intended targets. The bombs fell on the positions of the 30th Infantry Division killing 25 and wounding more than 130.[vi] A truck in Battery A, 230th Field Artillery Battalion was struck by exploding shrapnel. The next day the bombers returned, and again, Soldiers in the 230th FA to scramble to avoid exploding bombs that fell short of their battery positions.[vii]  Nearly 500 American Soldiers were wounded and over 100 killed, including Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair, Chief of the Army Ground Forces. A wireman in Headquarters Company, 118th FA discovered the general’s three-star helmet within the lines of the 118th.[viii] McNair’s death was a closely guarded secret and the general was hastily buried with only select senior officers attending the funeral.[ix] McNair was the senior most American officer killed in the European Theater of Operations.

Cobra is Launched
Despite the damage to friendly forces caused by the aerial fratricide, the ground assault was initiated at 11:00 am July 25th. The 30th ID moved to clear the road to St. Gilles to enable follow-on armored forces to proceed. The 230th FA fired propaganda leaflets into St. Lo encouraging German forces to surrender before the “ring was closed.”[x] Pressing forward, infantry regiments of the 9th and 30th Divisions moved to secure key terrain and routes for exploitation by succeeding units. Laden with extra rations, water and ammunition to reduce the resupply burden for logistics units, the infantry expanded a salient across an 8-mile front, punching more than 1.5 miles into German held territory.[xi] Nevertheless, the advance had thus far progressed only half of the distance to the objectives of St. Gilles and Marigny which represented key crossroads that must be seized and held in order to facilitate an armor breakthrough. [xii]

Map of operations from July 25-27, 1944. Movements of the 121st Infantry Regiment may be seen in the upper left of the map east of Lessay. The 230th and
118th FA supported the infantry advance just west of St. Lo. Blumenson, Map V.

The next day, the offensive resumed. Infantry of the 30th ID encountered heavy resistance south of the Perriers-St. Lo Highway north of Hebecrevon where German armor blocked their route of advance. Coordinated efforts between American infantry and armor eventually eliminated the position but lost three tanks in the process.[xiii] Having cleared the German blocking position the Infantry was compelled to advance forward without armor support. The 230th and 118th FA Battalions provided artillery support that ultimately enabled the infantry to seize Hebecrevon.

Tanks of the 2nd Armored Division pass through the lines of the 30th ID and roar into the breach near St. Lo. Archives

With Hebecrevon captured the VII Corps committed the 2nd Armored Division. Passing south of the Perriers-St. Lo. Highway the 2nd AD almost immediately lost a tank to a German anti-tank gun.[xiv] Nevertheless, the American armor moved inexorably forward, the steel wave brushing aside scattered resistance that lessened with progress. By mid-afternoon, the 2nd Armored had reached St. Gilles one of the original objectives of the campaign. Rolling on, the tanks proceeded to Canisy, effectively outflanking the German 352nd Division which was being pressed on its front by the infantry regiments of the 30th ID. The 352nd was forced to collapse to the southeast, further opening the breach.

The Homeland Newspaper headline proclaims 
"The Americans in S. Lo and Lessay"
Meanwhile, approximately 18 miles northeast of St. Lo, the infantry units of the 8th Infantry Division assaulted German forces to their front to effect a breach and prevent the Germans from dispatching reinforcements from their sector to St. Lo. The Georgia National Guard’s 121st Infantry Regiment pressed forward wheeling southeast between Lessay and Perriers with the 28th Infantry Division on their right flank. At the end of the day, the 121st had advanced one mile, while the 28th, moving to their right, had continued to wheel until it had secured the road and railroad connecting Lessay and Perriers significantly impacting the ability of the German Army to laterally shift forces. During the fighting, Pvt. Fred Cook, a Georgia National Guard Soldier in Company A, 121st Infantry was killed in action. He was 20 years old.

Pressing the Advantage
By the morning of July 27, American divisions were consolidating gains. The 30th Infantry Division moved to secure the flank of the breach to the east taking up positions along the west bank of the Vire River while the 9th Infantry Division secured the west flank. The rapid advance created pockets of resistance that follow-on units encircled and destroyed.[xv]

Staff Sgt. Carl Gowen and Cpl. Wallette Chancey. Georgia Guard Archives
Where the 2nd Armored Division had conducted passage of lines through the 30th Division to the east, the 3rd Armored passed through the 1st Infantry Division and roared south and west through Marigny. To the west, the 8th Infantry Division fought its way across the Lessay-Perriers Road driving the German 91st Division back on its heels. Nevertheless, the German resistance was tenacious and deadly. Company F of the 121st Infantry Regiment was pinned down by machine gun and sniper fire while attempting to maneuver through hedgerows. Staff Sergeant Carl Gowen, a Georgia National Guard Soldier from Ware County assessed the situation and determined to silence the enemy fire. Armed with a rifle and hand grenades, Gowen crawled under machine gun fire and dispatched a machine gun crew with hand grenades. After killing multiple snipers with effective rifle fire, Cowen started back to his company. He was killed by a sniper before he could return to his company. For his actions, the 21-year-old Gowen was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.[xvi] Other Georgia Guardsmen of the 121st who fell on July 27 were Staff Sgt. James Singley of Jackson’s Company A, Cpl. Wallette Chancey of the Albany-based Company H and Pvt. Edward Coleman, a 25-year-old Soldier from Hawkinsville who served with Company M.[xvii]

By the evening of July 27, the German position had become perilous. Two American armored divisions had broken through the German main line of resistance. Infantry regiments of the 1st Infantry Division and tanks of the 3rd Armored Division were threatening to cut off the Cotentin peninsula and effectively trap five German Divisions. With German resistance collapsing the 121st Infantry Regiment and 8th Division advanced seven miles south to Coutances.

The 230th and 118th Field Artillery Battalions continued to support the 30th division gains from firing positions north of St. Lo.[xviii] Despite the success of the breakout, German artillery still ranged American positions and shells dropped regularly amongst the Georgia Guard artillery units. Sergeant Tomlinson Russ, a forward observer from Battery C was killed by an artillery shell on July 30 that also wounded Sgt. William C. Clinkscales, also of Battery C.[xix] Lieutenant Mylous Golson and Cpl. Martin Moser of Battery A were wounded the same day. Golson, Moser and Clinkscales would eventually return to the battalion.[xx]

Actions of July 30-31, 1944 following the success of Operation Cobra. Blumenson, Map VII.

By the 31st of July, Operation Cobra had achieved its objectives. The 121st Infantry had reached Avranches and halted for rest and refit. The Third Army was activated the next day under the command of Lt. Gen. George Patton. General Bradley was elevated to command of the newly constituted 12th Army Group which encompassed the 1st and 3rd Armies.

The character of combat in France was about to radically change from one of brutal attrition and small-unit engagements t to one of maneuver. In the coming days, Patton’s divisions would pour into Brittany, trapping German forces and threatening the port city of Brest which had been the port of entry for Georgia Guard units arriving in France during World War I.  The 8th Infantry Division and the 121st Infantry Regiment would accompany this advance into Brittany and would be tasked with capturing the coastal city of Dinard.

Meanwhile, the units of the VII Corps, including the 30th Infantry Division and the 118th and 230th FA Battalions advanced south. The 30th ID would reach Mortain where they would be the focus of a concentrated German counterattack.

Subsequent chapters will examine the 121st Infantry’s advance on Dinard and the Battle of Mortain.

[i] Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1984, 209.
[ii] Blumenson, 215.
[iii] Blumenson, 201.
[iv] Blumenson, 211.
[v] Blumenson, 229.
[vi] Blumenson, 229.
[vii] Jacobs, John et al. On the Way: A Historical Narrative of the Two-Thirtieth Field Artillery Battalion Thirtieth Infantry Division. Poessneck, Germany: F. Gerold Verlag, 1945, 23.
[viii] Smith, Gordon Burns. History in Action: 118th Field Artillery, 30th Infantry Division 1942-1945, 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C.: Florida “Gator” Chapter, 1988, 39.
[ix] Blumenson, 236.
[x] Jacobs, 23.
[xi] Blumenson, Map V.
[xii] Blumenson, 241.
[xiii] Blumenson, 244.
[xiv] Blumenson, 254.
[xv] Blumenson, 251.
[xvi] The Gray Bonnet: Combat History of the 121st Infantry. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Company, 1946, 30.
[xviii] Smith, 44.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Ibid.

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