Operation Battle of Cherbourg

The 'Battle of Cherbourg' was the US campaign to take the northern French port of Cherbourg and thus part of the 'Battle of Normandy' during 'Overlord' (6/30 June 1944).

The battle was fought in the immediate aftermath of the Allies' successful landings in 'Neptune' (iii), and involved Allied troops, mainly US, in the isolation and subsequent seizure of the fortified port, which was considered vital to the campaign in North-West Europe.

When they drew up the plan for the 'Overlord' invasion of north-western France, the Allied staff considered that it would be necessary to secure a deep-water port to allow reinforcements, supplies and matériel to be shipped directly from the continental USA as, in the absence of any such facility, equipment packed for movement would first have to be unloaded at a British port, unpacked, waterproofed and then reloaded onto landing craft to be transferred to France. Located on the northern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, just to the west of the two US beaches in 'Neptune' (iii), Cherbourg was the largest French port accessible almost directly from the landings.

The Allied planners decided initially not to land directly on the Cotentin peninsula as this sector would be separated from the main Allied landings by the valley of the Douve river, which had been flooded by the Germans to deter airborne landings. On being appointed overall land commander for the invasion in January 1944, General Sir Bernard Montgomery reinstated the landing on the south-eastern corner of the Cotentin peninsula, partly to widen the front and therefore prevent the invasion force from becoming sealed into a narrow lodgement, but also to enable a rapid capture of Cherbourg.

In the early hours of 6 June US airborne forces (Major General Matthew B. Ridgway’s 82nd Airborne Division and Major General Maxwell D. Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division) made parachute and gliderborne landing at the base of the Cotentin peninsula inland of 'Utah Beach'. Although the landings were scattered, they nevertheless secured most of the routes by which Major General J. Lawton Collins’s US VII Corps of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army would advance from 'Utah Beach'. Major General Raymond O. Barton’s US 4th Division landed on 'Utah Beach' shortly after dawn with only a small number of casualties.

In the immediate aftermath of the landings the priority for the forces at 'Utah Beach' was to link with the main Allied landings as the beaches farther to east. On 9 June the 101st Airborne Division managed to cross the Douve river valley and took Carentan on the following day day. After severe house-to-house fighting in the Battle of Carentan, the airborne troops were able to take the town, ensuring that the Allies had a continuous front as their initial beach-heads were consolidated into the beginning of a substantial lodgement. On 13 June, the integrity of the front was maintained despite a German armour-reinforced counterattack resulting in the so-called 'Battle of Bloody Gulch'.

This success allowed the VII Corps to advance westward to isolate the Cotentin peninsula by reaching Carteret and Portbail on its western coast. An additional three divisions had landed to reinforce the VII Corps, and Collins drove his troops hard, replacing units in the front lines or removing officers if progress was slow.

The German forces facing the VII Corps were a mix of regiments and Kampfgruppen from several divisions, many of which had already suffered heavy casualties in combat with US airborne troops in the first days of the landings. Very few German armoured or mobile troops were available for despatch to this part of the front because of the threat to Caen farther to the east, and for a number of reasons including the Allied interdiction of all types of transport, infantry reinforcements arrived only slowly. Tactically, the German flooding of the Douve river valley now worked against them because it secured the Allied southern flank.

By 16 June there were no further natural obstacles in front of the VII Corps. Meanwhile, the German command was in some confusion: Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander of Heeresgruppe 'B', and other commanders wished to begin a withdrawal in good order into the 'Atlantic Wall' fortifications of Cherbourg, where they could have withstood a lengthy siege. Adolf Hitler demanded that the German formations and unit continue to hold their present lines even though this risked disaster. Late on 17 June Hitler agreed that the troops might withdraw but specified that they were to occupy a new and militarily illogical defensive line spanning the entire peninsula just to the south of Cherbourg. Rommel protested against this order, but nevertheless dismissed General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher, commanding the LXXXIV Corps in Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army, whom he thought was trying to circumvent it.

It was on 18 June that Major General Manton S. Eddy’s US 9th Division reached the peninsula’s western coast and thus isolated the German forces in the Cotentin peninsula from the possibility of any reinforcement. Within 24 hours, the 4th Division, 9th Division and Major General Ira T. Wyche’s 79th Division were driving to the north on a broad front. There was little opposition on the western and eastern ends of the front across the peninsula, and the exhausted defenders around Montebourg, on the main road to the north, collapsed. Several large caches of V-1 flying bombs, as well as a V-3 ballistic missile installation at Brix, were discovered by the Americans.

In just two days the US divisions were within striking distance of Cherbourg, in which Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, who was formally appointed as fortress commander only on 23 June, commanded a 21,000-man garrison. However, many of these men were hastily drafted naval personnel or from labour units, while the fighting troops who had retreated to Cherbourg, including the remnants of von Schlieben’s own 709th Division, were exhausted and disorganised. Food, fuel and ammunition were all in short supply. The Luftwaffe dropped small quantities of supplies, but to the disgust of the troops these comprised largely items such as Iron Crosses, intended to bolster the garrison’s morale. Despite his impossible situation, though, von Schlieben rejected a summons to surrender and began carrying out demolitions to deny the port to the Allies.

Collins launched a general assault on 22 June. Resistance was stiff at first, but the US forces slowly cleared German units from their bunkers and concrete pillboxes. Allied warships bombarded fortifications near the city on 25 June. On 26 June, a British elite force, No. 30 Commando also known as the 30th Assault Unit, launched an assault on Octeville, a suburb to the south-west of Cherbourg. This was the location of the German naval intelligence headquarters at Villa Meurice, which the commandos captured along with 20 officers and 500 men. On the same day the 79th Division captured the Fort du Roule, which dominated the city and its defences, and this brought to an end all organised German defence, and von Schlieben was taken prisoner. The harbour fortifications and the arsenal surrendered on 29 June, after a ruse by Allied officers, Captain Blazzard and Colonel Teague, who convinced the German officers to surrender the peninsula after a bluff about the manpower and ordnance they had at their disposal. Some German troops cut off outside the defences held out until 1 July.

The Germans had so thoroughly wrecked and mined the port of Cherbourg that Hitler awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross to Konteradmiral Walter Hennecke the day after he had surrendered for 'a feat unprecedented in the annals of coastal defence'. The port was not brought into use, initially on only a limited basis, until the middle of August, although the first ships were able to use the harbour from a time late in July. Nevertheless, the Germans had suffered a major defeat as a result of a rapid Allied build up on their western flank and Hitler’s rigid orders. Dollmann, commander of the 7th Army, died on 28 June after being informed that he was to be court-martialled: the death was possibly the result of a heart attack, but may have been suicide by poisoning.