This was the Allied logistic operation to deliver stores to Major General Troy H. Middleton’s US VIII Corps of Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army (from 10 September Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army) fighting to take the key port city of Brest on the northern side of the Elorn river estuary in the Brittany area of north-western France (August/September 1944).
Earlier in the war, and indeed soon after the fall of France in June 1940, the USA had started to plan an eventual invasion of North-West Europe to be put into effect if and when the USA entered World War II, initially involving the movement of US and Canadian troops from the eastern seaboard of North America to the UK for the Allied invasion of the continent. A major issue was of course how to supply the invasion army with the huge quantities of matériel it would need as operations continued after the invasion. The capture of ports along the Atlantic coast of western Europe was a necessity, and those deemed most suitable for this purpose were obvious invasion objectives.
The capture of these ports, with their facilities still intact, was believed to be crucial as a lack of supplies could readily strand an invading army. For the initial phase of the battle, large 'Mulberry' artificial harbours would be erected off the invasion beaches, but these had limited tonnage handling capability, and were considered as short-term contingencies pending the capture of real ports and their return to service. Suitable ports could be found along the north coast of France, across the English Channel which would be crossed by the invading armies, in particular the port of Brest in Brittany, for a long time the main French naval base on the Atlantic coast and the westernmost port in France.
Allied planners considered it possible that supplies could delivered directly from the USA to Brest after its capture, bypassing the UK and so allowing a speedier delivery to the Allied armies moving east toward Germany. Other ports across the English Channel under consideration for this role were St Malo, Lorient and St Nazaire in Brittany, and Cherbourg and Le Havre in Normandy.
'Sledgehammer' had been considered by the Allies for the seizure of Cherbourg, but this concept was cancelled after the disastrous 1942 'Jubilee' assault on Dieppe, after which it had been decided that a direct amphibious assault on a German-held port was not feasible.
Not realising this, however, the Germans had started to construct major fortifications around these ports as part of their 'Atlantic Wall'. Some of these defended ports were also developed as major U-boat bases with bomb-proof concrete pens. These fortifications had been surviving Allied air strikes for some time and suffered only modest damage.
Almost immediately after the launch of 'Overlord', the components of two 'Mulberry' harbours were were towed from the UK and assembled off the invasion beaches. Unfortunately for the Allies, one of the artificial harbours was destroyed in a great storm less that a fortnight after its creation. Much of the required logistic effort was then perforce switched directly to the beaches, but this was not an efficient process. Cherbourg, on the northern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, was captured by US forces on 27 June 1944, but before surrendering the German garrison had destroyed the harbour facilities of what was by this time the only major port in the Allied invasion area.
Soon after this, the Germans in the Brittany peninsula were cut off when, on 13 August, the US 'Cobra' break-out and subsequent development to the south reached the northern shore of the Loire river and isolated the German garrison of St Nazaire on the river’s estuary.
By this time Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group Army had already dispatched Middleton’s VIII Corps westward into Brittany to capture Brest and secure the north-western flank of the breakthrough. The German forces trapped in Brittany retreated to the peninsula’s fortified ports and were soon taken under siege by the VIII Corps, now part of Patton’s new US 3rd Army.
St Malo fell to Major General Robert C. Macon’s US 83rd Division of the the VIII Corps on 17 August, but its port facilities were small and had in any event already been destroyed by the Germans. The German garrison of the nearby Ile de Cézembre surrendered only after days of heavy shelling by warships and powerful air attacks. It thus became clear that the Germans were preparing to deny the Allies the use of French ports as long as possible by defending the fortresses built around them and severely damaging their docks.
For its assault on Brest, where the Germans held the areas north and south of the great but almost landlocked bay facing west into the Atlantic, the 3rd Army gathered forces including Major General Donald H. Stroh’s 8th Division, which had reached Plabennec by 18 August, Major General Walter H. Roberson’s 2nd Division, which arrived at Landerneau on 19 August, and Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s 29th Division, which had taken up position just to the south of Lannilis by 23 August. With Brigadier General Herbert L. Earnest’s Task Force 'A' and French resistance units also ready in the area, Middleton could plan to begin his assault on Brest as soon as his formations had adequate supplies.
In this capacity, however, the stockpiling of adequate supplies was as much a problem for Middleton as it was for the commanders whose mobile formations were driving east from their bridgeheads across Seine river. By far the most serious shortage for Middleton’s siege-type operation at Brest was of artillery ammunition. The shortage had already played a major adverse role in the corps' fight to take St Malo, which had fallen only on 17 August, and a week before this Middleton had warned the 3rd Army that heavy ammunition expenditure would be inevitable at Brest. Patton promised that even though the 3rd Army was tightly rationed for the receipt of ammunition, he would ensure that the VIII Corps was supplied. When the 3rd Army asked for an estimate of the Brest requirement, Middleton based his reply on his corps' experience at St Malo and on the expectation of using four divisions (one armoured and three infantry) with the support of 13 corps artillery battalions. He requested an initial stock of 8,700 tons of ammunition, plus a replenishment allowance of 11,600 tons for the first three days.
The staff of the 3rd Army staff believed that this was too high, its reasoning being that the assault on Brest would require only two divisions and 10 corps artillery battalions for the assault on Brest, and that the VIII Corps had overestimated both the strength and determination of the German garrison.
Under the command of Generalleutnant Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, the 40,000-man garrison of the Festung Brest was centred on Ramcke’s own 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision and elements of Generalleutnant Karl Spang’s 266th Division and Generalleutnant Erwin Rauch’s 343rd Division.
With 1 September fixed as the target date for the seizure of Brest, the 3rd Army allotted only about 5,000 tons for the entire operation, which was less than one-quarter of what Middleton had said was needed for the first three days of the undertaking. Events proved that Middleton’s estimates had been better than those of the 3rd Army’s staff: three divisions and a separate task force, 18 corps artillery battalions, divisional artillery and tank destroyer battalions (bringing the total to 34 US battalions) were eventually committed.
The 3rd Army’s unwillingness to send more than 5,000 tons of ammunition to the VIII Corps reflected the critical nature of the supply transport situation for the 3rd Army’s primary drive to the east. Effective co-ordination between the 3rd Army and the VIII Corps was also rendered difficult by the steadily growing distance between the two headquarters: on 25 August the army and corps headquarters were 270 miles (435 km) distant from each other, and this distance increased on an almost daily basis.
In an effort to alleviate these difficulties, the 3rd Army arranged to have the Brittany Base Section of the Communications Zone provide direct administrative support to VIII Corps, and this led to a slight increase in ammunition stocks. When Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commanding the US 12th Army Group, and Patton visited the VIII Corps headquarters on 23 August, Middleton convinced his two immediate superiors that his formation urgently needed more ammunition, and Bradley and Patton immediately authorised the delivery of 8,000 tons, which they thought would be sufficient for the six days they though the reduction of Brest would require. Expecting that this allocation of ammunition would be delivered, Middleton launched his attack on 25 August. When the supplies did not arrive in the quantities which had been authorised, Middleton had to suspend operations: only three days later did Middleton learn that what he had regarded as a minimum, Bradley and Patton had considered an adequate maximum.
As a result of better co-ordination, improved arrangements for ship and rail transportation to the Brest area were made on 29 August. Even so, it was not until 7 September that the VIII Corps have enough ammunition in hand to permit resumption of a sustained full-scale attack. Even then, so many agencies were involved that no one knew the exact status of supply or what was en route or on order. Nevertheless, in the hope that a steady flow of ammunition had been established, Middleton launched another attack on 8 September.
He was not disappointed, for by 10 September Bradley had assigned the Brest operation first priority on supply. When the operation finally ended with the German surrender on 19 September, 25,000 tons of ammunition were located at the corps supply point, much of which was quickly reshipped to the active front, now many hundreds of miles away to the east. The difficulties in fulfilling the VIII Corps requirements were, of course, the direct result of a combination of the intense competition for supplies among the armies engaged in the pursuit and the severely limited overland transport available: thus the ammunition shortages in Brittany coincided with the fuel crisis that was slowing the pursuit.
The VIII Corps made use of the beach of St Michel en Greve, near Morlaix, to receive items delivered by LSTs, but this extemporised seaborne delivery effort was not adequate to supply all the corps' needs, and trains and trucks had to bring most of the supplies to Brest from Normandy. An airfield near Morlaix was used to bring in emergency supplies and to evacuate wounded men. Poor communications, great distances and the weather all had an adverse effect on the effort, but the core problem was the inadequate co-ordination for the Brest operation at all command echelons as a result of the overly optimistic initial belief that Brest would fall quickly.
Middleton knew that the defensive complex held by the Germans comprised the original French fortifications improved by the Germans, and the Americans had to fight their way through a series of fortifications that blocked all the approaches to the city. The German defenders also had a huge store of artillery ammunition for the large-calibre coastal batteries that had been modified so they could fire inland.
At the core of the defence was the 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision, whose high-grade infantry was supported by the lower-grade personnel of the 266th and 343rd Divisions, as well as support elements such as anti-aircraft and fortress units. However, it was the paratroopers who were at the heart of the defence and ensured that every inch of ground was contested. Middleton decided that there was no real purpose in the commitment of his tank strength, namely Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division, in the confines of Brest, so the battle devolved onto the infantry of the 2nd, 8th and 29th Divisions supported by numerous artillery battalions, the 2nd and 5th US Ranger Battalions, two battalions of tank destroyers (one towed and one self-propelled), and the specialised armour of the British 141st Battalion, Royal Tank Corps, of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division.
The Allies struggled for lack of adequate artillery ammunition throughout the battle, but did have excellent air support when the weather allowed.
Middleton’s main objectives to secure the path into the city were Hills 105 and 90, the two dominant terrain features of the area. The assault on Hill 105 was undertaken on 1 September by the 2nd Division on the north-east sector of the US investment of Brest. The hill was heavily fortified and held dual-purpose anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns that dominated the area. Even so, the infantry was able to take its objective on the first day with the help of the engineers. Hill 90 could not be assaulted until after the artillery ammunition stocks had been replenished, so the 2nd Division had to wait until 7 September to begin this assault. Hill 90 was fortified in the same manner as Hill 105 and, although it was very difficult fighting, by the end of the day this position had also been taken. Once these two hills had been captured, the US assault into the outskirts of the city became considerably easier.
As the US infantry began to drive into the city itself, the fighting became brutal and the infantrymen found themselves increasingly caught up in house-to-house fighting. The Germans had created a web of strongpoints throughout the city, and anyone venturing into the open was immediately cut down. Thus the only way the Americans could proceed was by the use of explosive charges to blow out the walls of the buildings, so the momentum of the advance, albeit slow, was continued into Brest.
The US advance was halted when it reached the fortress wall of the old city, a wall as much as 33 ft (10 ft) high and 16 ft (5m) thick in places. On 10 September the VIII Corps' artillery attempted to breach the wall with the direct fire of large-calibre guns, but was unsuccessful. Middleton decided not to undertake a direct assault on the wall as this would inevitably be very costly, and thus the Americans now sought to secure the wall on all sides before proceeding.
The last phase of the encirclement of the fortress’s wall began on 14 September as the 29th Division attacked Fort Montbarey, on the fortress’s north-western side, in an assault led by 15 Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks. The first attack was repulsed, but on the following day the fort fell. With the capture of Fort Montbarey the German positions began finally to collapse. On the night of 15 September US forces started to cross the old fortress wall and by 17 September they were closing in on the last pockets of German resistance. Ramcke surrendered on 19 September.
The Allies had suffered about 4,000 casualties in the battle, while the Germans had lost about 1,000 dead and 4,000 wounded before the last 38,000 men surrendered. By this time, however, the Germans had demolished the port so effectively that it could not be repaired until after the end of the war. Securing the port in working order had been the reason for the capture of Brest, and in that regard the operation had been a failure. The US victory had been achieved only at a very high cost, and for the remainder of the war the US forces were loath to attack any German-held port cities in France, but instead merely invested them.
So far as the Americans were concerned, the two most important of these in north-western France were Lorient and St Nazaire: the former was reached by Major General John S. Wood’s 4th Armored Division on 7 August, the 11,000-man German garrison being isolated by 9 August, and the investment of the latter was undertaken after it had been reached by the same formation on 13 August.
As events rapidly proved, moreover, the Allies did not need Brest, for by the time Brest surrendered Paris had already been liberated and the inter-related 'Market' and 'Garden' were under way in the Netherlands. The port city of Antwerp was secure and soon very many thousands of tons of vital supplies were entering Europe through this route.
© 2020 Christopher Chant
Last update: 30/09/20