Operation Battle of Brest

The 'Battle of Brest' was fought between US and German forces for the important port city of Best in north-western Brittany (7 August/20 September 1944).

Fought within the context of the 'Battle of Brittany', the Allied plan for the invasion of mainland Europe in 'Overlord' called for the capture of major port facilities, in order to ensure the timely delivery of the enormous amount of war matériel needed to supply the Allied invasion. It was estimated that the 37 Allied divisions scheduled to be operational on the continent by September 1944 would need 26,000 tons of supplies each day, and the main port which the Allies hoped to seize and put into their service was Brest in north-western France.

Early in World War II, after the Fall of France in 1940, the UK and USA embarked on the process of considering and planning an eventual invasion of Western Europe that to be put into effect when and if the USA entered the war. US and Canadian troops were to be shipped from North America to the UK, on the assumption that the latter was still in the war, until an Allied invasion of the continent could be mounted. A major issue in the entire planning process was how to keep the invasion forces supplied with the tens of thousands of tons of matériel it would need after they had landed, secured a lodgement and started to break out into the rest of northern France and thence the Low Countries and finally Germany. The capture of ports on the Atlantic coast of France was a necessity for the shipment of the required matériel straight from US and Canadian ports, and the most suitable candidates were clear invasion objectives. The capture of these port facilities was deemed crucial as any lack, or indeed just any major shortage, of the necessary supplies would strand the invading army in Normandy. For the initial phase of the 'Overlord' battle, large 'Mulberry' artificial ports were to be assembled on the initial invasion beaches, but these had limited unloading capacity, were vulnerable to the weather, and were considered a contingency until real ports could be captured and put into service.

The suitable ports were all ranged along the northern coast of France, in particular the port of Brest in Brittany, for long the primary French fleet harbour on the Atlantic coast and the westernmost port in France. The Allied strategists even considered it possible that, after its capture, supplies could arrive directly from the US to Brest, bypassing England and reaching the Allied armies moving to the east, toward Germany, much more rapidly than would otherwise be the case.

Other ports given consideration were St Malo on the northern coast of Brittany, Lorient and St Nazaire on the Atlantic coast, and Cherbourg and Le Havre in Normandy, which was finally selected as the area in which the 'Neptune' (iii) operation would land the Allied invasion forces. 'Sledgehammer', which included the capture of Cherbourg, had been considered by the Allies but was removed from consideration after the disastrous 'Jubilee' amphibious assault on Dieppe in the late summer of 1942. It was decided that a direct attack on any major port from the sea was not an option.

Realising this, the Germans began to construct fortifications around these ports earlier in the war using the resources of the Organisation 'Todt' construction corps, as part of the 'Atlantic Wall' concept. Some of these ports were also major U-boat bases and were rapidly upgraded with bomb-proof concrete U-boat pens. These fortifications had been surviving Allied air attack for some time. Local resistance groups operating in Brittany, especially in the area of Brest, sent agents to observe and report German naval activity, such as arrival and departure of U-boats and other Kriegsmarine naval ships. If the ports in which the U-boat bases were located were to fall into the hands of the Allies, the boats at sea on operations would have to fight their way around UK, pass Allied anti-submarine vessels and aircraft, to reach to ports in Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway or Germany still under German control, while docked U-boats would be captured or put out of commission.

Soon after the 'Overlord' invasion of Normandy was launched in 'Neptune' (iii), the components for the two 'Mulberry' harbours towed from England and deployed on the French coast for assembly. Unfortunately for the Allies, the more westerly of these artificial harbours was destroyed by a storm after less than two weeks. Supplies were then for the most part landed directly onto the beaches, but this was a process that was readily appreciated as being temporarily useful but inefficient and inadequate for the delivery of the matériel that would be needed for the longer campaign that was now starting.

Cherbourg, on the northern coast of the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy and the only major port in the Allied invasion area, was captured on 27 June by US forces which had landed on 'Utah' Beach, but the German garrison destroyed the harbour facilities before surrendering. Soon after this, the German forces in the Brittany peninsula were isolated by a north/south breakthrough accomplished by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army, exploiting the success of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army in 'Cobra'. Major General Troy H. Middleton’s US VIII Corps was then diverted into Brittany to capture Brest, secure the northern flank of the breakthrough and prevent German reinforcements to Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge’s (from 16 August Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s) Heeresgruppe 'B' from threatening the Falaise 'pocket' as well as fortifying the defences of Paris, the French capital. German troops trapped in Brittany retreated to the fortified ports in the peninsula as formations of the US 3rd Army advanced and surrounded them. The Brest garrison, Festung 'Brest' was placed under the command of Generalleutnant Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, a paratroop veteran of the 'Merkur' assault on Create and of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in North Africa. Ramcke’s forces comprised Ramcke’s own 2nd Fallschirmjägerdivision commanded from 11 August by Generalmajor Hans Kroh, Generalleutnant Karl Spang’s 266th Division, Generalleutnant Erwin Rauch’s 343rd Division and a miscellany of other German units, in all some 40,000 men.

The old fortress city of St Malo was captured by Major General Robert C. Macon’s US 83rd Division on 17 August, but its small port facilities had been destroyed by the defenders. A German garrison stationed on the nearby Cézembre island surrendered only after days of heavy shelling by warships and strong air attacks, by which time the island’s naval guns had been disabled. It was now abundantly clear that the Germans would deny the Allies the use of French ports as long as possible by defending the fortresses built around them and severely damaging their docks when defeat appeared imminent.

Troops of the VIII Corps reached the outskirts of Brest on 7 August 1944, and quickly surrounded and isolate the port city as they prepared to take it by storm. At this time the VIII Corps comprised Major General Walter M. Robertson’s 2nd Division, Brigadier General (from 30 August Major General) Donald A Stroh’s 8th Division, Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s 29th Division, the 35th Engineer Combat Battalion, the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions, the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, elements of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division and elements of Major General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armored Division, in all some 75,000 men. The battle proved extremely difficult, for the German garrison was well entrenched and including useful numbers of high-grade airborne forces as well as Kriegsmarine personnel ranging from U-boat and E-boat crews to battleship sailors, including survivors from damaged or sunk vessels, naval infantry of the Marine Stosstrupp Kompanie, and men of a disbanded Luftwaffe field division sent to reinforce the Normandy coast.

The German paratroopers fully lived up to their reputation, as the Allies had experienced previously in battles such as that for Monte Cassino. While some less capable units surrendered quite easily, the Fallschirmjäger defended their ground against considerable odds, heavy shelling, air attacks and US assaults. The attackers had many losses inflicted on them for every small advance they made into the city.

In accord with their military doctrine, the US troops tried to use their greater artillery firepower and air superiority to overcome the defenders instead of fighting them at close quarters. The Germans had stocked large quantities of ammunition for the defence of the city and had weapons of all calibres from light anti-aircraft to heavy naval guns dug into fortifications and sited in pillboxes. Elements of the specialised British 79th Armoured Division came in to attack the heavily fortified Fort Montbarey, which was taken after three days of fighting by US infantrymen supported by British Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks.

The fighting for Brest was intense, with the troops advancing slowly in house-to-house urban fighting. The fortifications, both original French and later German, proved very difficult to overcome, and heavy artillery barrages were fired by both sides. Eventually the old city of Brest was razed to the ground during the battle, with only some stone-built mediaeval fortifications left standing.

Ramcke surrendered the city to the Americans on 19 September after rendering the port facilities useless. These would not be repaired in time to help the war effort as had been hoped. The last German outpost surrendered at Audierne on 20 September. By this time, Paris had already been liberated by the Allied forces and the 'Market' and 'Garden' operations were already under way in the Netherlands.

When Brigadier General Charles D. W. Canham, the assistant commander of the 8th Division, arrived to accept Ramcke’s surrender, the latter asked the lower-ranking officer to show his credentials. Canham pointed to his nearby troops and said 'These are my credentials'.

The costly Allied capture of Brest resulted in the decision merely to surround rather than seek to take the remaining German-occupied ports in France with the exception of those that could be captured off the march. The exception was Le Havre, which was taken by elements of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army on 12 September 1944. Some of the Breton ports surrendered only on 9 May 1945, one day after Victory in Europe Day.

The whole 'Overlord' campaign developed in a fashion somewhat different from that originally planned, and the rapid advance of Patton’s US 3rd Army allowed the liberation of Paris earlier than had been expected.

Despite the fact that the US. Army committed 75,000 men, of whom some 10,000 became casualties, to the capture of Brest, not one Allied troop ship or supply vessel had docked in Brest by the time Paris fell to the Allies.

For the French people in Brittany, the presence of US troops was a joyous sign that the four years of oppressive German occupation had come to an end, or would soon do so. This was especially true for the local Jewish population who had been in hiding or on the run from the Germans, and others who had run foul of the Vichy French régime or the German occupiers.