Operation Bombardment of Cherbourg

The 'Bombardment of Cherbourg' was a US and British naval gunfire bombardment of German installations in and around the port city of Cherbourg in northern France (25 June 1944).

The bombardment was undertaken in support of US Army units, mostly of Major General J. Lawton Collins’s VII Corps, engaged in the 'Battle of Cherbourg'. In doing so, the Allied naval forces engaged in a series of duels with coastal batteries and provided close support to infantry as they fought to gain control of the city. The bombardment was initially scheduled to last just two hours but was lengthened by one hour to support army units attempting to break into Cherbourg’s city streets. After the bombardment, German resistance lasted until June 29, when the port was eventually captured by the Allies. Afterwards, the task of clearing the port for use lasted several weeks.

When the Allies managed to secure their 'Overlord' beach-heads and then a somewhat larger lodgement after the 'Neptune' (iii) landings in Normandy, the Germans adopted a strategy to contain the Allied forces in Normandy and deny them the nearest major port of Cherbourg and thereby starve them of supplies. By the middle of June, US infantry formations had sealed off the Cotentin peninsula, but their advance had stalled and the Germans began to demolish the port’s facilities. In response, the Allies renewed their efforts to capture the city, and by June 20 three infantry divisions under Collins’s command had advanced within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the German positions defending Cherbourg. Two days later, the general assault began and on June 25, a large naval task force began a concentrated bombardment of the town to help neutralise the threat of German coastal artillery and to provide support to the assaulting infantry.

The task force was divided into two groups, each consisting of a variety of warships including battleships, cruisers, destroyers and minesweepers. Each ship was assigned a series of land-based targets. German land-based artillery fire was accurate out to a range of some 15,300 yards (14000 m), and in some cases was able to bracket ships manoeuvring at speed. Several Allied ships were holed, but the German effort was hampered by faulty ammunition. In several encounters, after being hit the heavy ships were able to withdraw after Allied destroyers obscured them with smoke.

After the action, Allied reports agreed that the most effective aspect of the bombardment was the fire that was provided by the smaller ships. Under the direction of army spotters, these ships were able to engage point targets up to 2,000 yards (1830 m) inland, which proved invaluable in providing close support to the assaulting Allied infantry. In contrast, while the force’s heavy guns disabled 22 of 24 assigned naval targets, they were unable to destroy any of them and, consequently, infantry assaults were required to ensure that the guns could not be reactivated. When the city fell, the neutralised casemated guns, which the Germans could have turned inland towards advancing Allied troops, were still aimed out to sea.

Once their commanders had come to the conclusion that the Allied assault in Normandy was the primary invasion and not a decoy to distract them from a major landing in the Pas de Calais, the Germans sought to limit the development of the Allied lodgement while they prepared a counter-offensive. To preserve naval assets, the Cherbourg-based Schnellboote torpedo boats were transferred to St Malo. Four destroyers from Brest made for Cherbourg to follow the Schnellboote, but were sunk or disabled in the 'Battle of Ushant'. By June 14, the Germans were attempting to deny the Allies use of Cherbourg’s major port facility by blocking, mining and demolishing its harbour. The violent English Channel storm that thrashed apart the 'Mulberry A' artificial harbour raged until June 22. Logistic movement ashore was temporarily crippled, and the Allies desperately needed Cherbourg’s port in their possession.

From 18 June, the Cotentin peninsula was sealed off by Allied infantry who had advanced to the peninsula’s western coast, but the German line was stabilised and the US advance stalled. Cherbourg was held a garrison of 40,000 men under the command, from 23 June, of Generalleutnant Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben. Adolf Hitler believed that the Allied invasion would fail if it had no access to Cherbourg’s harbour facilities, and ordered it made impregnable, according it Festung (fortress) status, and the US ground forces eventually lost more than 2,800 dead and 13,500 wounded in taking it.

The Germans had emplaced coastal guns in and around Cherbourg in 20 casemated batteries: of these, 15 had guns of 150-mm (5.91-in) calibre or greater, and three had 280-mm (11.02-in) weapons. There were many 75- and 88-mm (3- and 3.465-in) guns, some of which could be trained inland toward an advancing foe. To support the ground assault, the US Rear Admiral Morton L. Deyo began assembling a naval bombardment plan on June 15. As the planning proceeded, a storm late in June raged in the English Channel, scattering Deyo’s task force out to open sea and into British ports; the warships then reassembled in Portland harbour in Dorset. On the Cotentin peninsula, the US VII Corps' advance, after some progress, was stalled by entrenched German resistance.

The proposed naval bombardment was complicated, because the advance of the 9th Division, 79th Division and 4th Division had brought them within 1 mile (1.6 km) of the city. An army liaison officer on board the US heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa to represent Collins proved useful in expediting communications between different services and commands, and the planned three-hour naval bombardment bombardment was shortened to 90 minutes. The targets were limited to those selected by the army.

To support the Allied advance over the Cotentin peninsula and the planned assault on the German fortifications, on 25 June a Combined Task Force 129 of Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk’s US 12th Fleet was organised under Deyo’s command. It was to suppress coastal batteries that the Germans might turn on advancing infantry, and support infantry calls for fire. The navy was additionally tasked to co-ordinate with the army air force bombers to interdict ammunition resupply and, as infantry closed, follow direction from spotter aircraft.

The task force was divided into Battle Group 1 and Battle Group 2. Battle Group 1, under Deyo’s command, was to bombard Cherbourg, its inner harbour forts and the area to the west in the direction of the Atlantic, and comprised the US battleship Nevada, the US heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa and Quincy, the British light cruisers Glasgow and Enterprise, the US destroyers Ellyson, Hambleton, Rodman, Emmons, Murphy and Gherardi, and the British minesweepers Sidmouth and Bangor. Under the command of Rear Admiral Carleton F. Bryant, the smaller Battle Group 2 was assigned Target No. 2, the Batterie 'Hamburg' located near Fermanville, inland from Cape Levi and 6 miles (9.7 km) to the east of Cherbourg. Nevada of Group 1 was to use the 10 14-in (355.6-mm) guns of her main battery to silence what was described as 'the most powerful German strongpoint on the Cotentin Peninsula', and Battle Group 2 would then complete the destruction and pass westward to join Deyo’s group. Group 2 comprised the US battleships Texas and Arkansas, the US destroyers USS Barton, O’Brien, Laffey, Hobson and Plunkett, and the US minesweepers Auk, Broadbill, Nuthatch and Pheasant. There was also an anti-submarine screen comprising the British destroyers Onslow, Offa, Onslaught and Oribi, and the British escort destroyers Melbreak and Brissenden.

The minesweepers of the US Minesweeping Squadron 7 and the British 9th Minesweeping Flotilla were provided to clear the path to the shore for the task force. Channel 'L' was extended beyond the extent used for 'Neptune' (iii) along the eastern and northern coasts of Cherbourg to protect Task Force 129 as they closed for the bombardment. The minesweepers repeatedly came under fire from shore batteries during their operations. During the bombardment, as the batteries were silenced, minesweepers cleared channels toward the harbour seaward from the 10-fathom line.

Overhead, Major General Elwood R. Quesada’s 9th Army Air Force was tasked with providing fighter cover. Additional aircraft provided anti-submarine and combat air patrols. Grumman Avenger single-engined warplanes of the Fleet Air Arm supplemented an additional British six-destroyer anti-submarine screen and the British 159th Minesweeping Flotilla.

As a result of concerns by ground commanders leading to the bombardment, all planned long-range shots on seaward batteries were cancelled and it was decided that only on-call fire would be delivered. Inter-service negotiations made three of the German batteries dedicated navy targets and added any batteries firing on the ships. The ships were to have spotter aircraft over Cherbourg’s targets. During ship approaches between 09.40 and 12.00 the ships were to fire only if themselves taken under fire. Infantry fire co-ordination was provided in the air and on the ground. Lockheed P-38 Lightning twin-engined warplanes of the 9th Army Air Force flew from southern England for naval combat air patrol, fighter-bomber attacks and on-call close support of the infantry. Collins arranged for shore fire-control parties to join infantry units as they approached German fortified objectives. During 'Neptune' (iii), the standard operating procedure for shore fire-control parties was based on the provision of nine such parties per infantry division. A naval gunfire liaison officer was attached to each regimental fire-control centre. A naval gunfire officer was attached to each divisional headquarters in charge of all shore parties in his division.

Every firing ship was provided with an army artillery officer to maintain current information about the position of Allied troops, and to determine whether to fire at any given target at the time. The army liaison officer decided the safety of firing at each target, while the ship itself controlled the fire. The shore fire-control party observed the fall of shot and corrected fire with a clock code. In all cases, it was the responsibility of the ship to determine whether any given shoot would endanger Allied personnel or positions, and this was possible because, as noted above, each bombarding ship was provided with an army officer who tracked positions of the Allied forces ashore.

Air spotters operated in pairs, one as a spotter and the other as an escort, each capable of both missions. Each pair could communicate with one another and with the same ships. Every bombarding ship was provided the radio capability to communicate with all varieties of aircraft radios.

The third-method of fire control involved a combination of air to ground to sea communicationin which army air observation aircraft spotted for a control party on the ground, which relayed the information to the ships undertaking fire missions.

At 09.40, the ships of Group 1 arrived at a point some 15 miles (24 km) to the north of Cherbourg. In the van, minesweepers cleared approach channels for both battle groups, Group 2’s column steaming parallel to that of Group 1 but several miles farther to the east. The ships arrived into the seaward fire-support areas without being themselves engaged or receiving any calls for fire. As 12.00 passed, the task force steamed slowly toward the in-shore fire support areas at the minesweepers' 5-kt speed. German salvoes from the village of Querqueville, 3 miles (4.8 km) to the west of Cherbourg, began to fall among the deployed minesweeper. Four British Fairmile C motor gun boats began making a smoke screen for the approaching minesweepers. Glasgow and Enterprise, with Supermarine Spitfire single-engined fighters in the spotter role, started to return fire with their 6-in (152.4-mm) guns on the German batteries firing on the minesweepers. Within a mere 30 minutes, every minesweeper had been straddled, but none was hit. Deyo then recalled the minesweepers, which lay-to out of range for the rest of the action.

At 09.55, Bryant’s Group 2 entered Fire Support Area 2. Spotter aircraft for Texas and Arkansas were on target, ready to open fire, and the plan called for Nevada to fire on Target 2, the Batterie 'Hamburg' with its four 240-mm (9.45-in) guns. Deyo’s flash message surprised Bryant, for it cancelled Nevada's long-range bombardment, postponed the opening if the battleship’s fire to 12.00 at shore request or in self-defense, and called for Group 2 to join Group 1 by 12.00.

US troops had overrun two smaller targets, and spotters described them as 'surrounded by dead Germans'. The strong currents off Normandy slowed the battleships behind minesweepers drifting off course in the current. Arkansas established radio contact with its shore fire-control party, closed the range to 18,000 yards (16460 m) and opened fire on the Batterie 'Hamburg' with her antiquated fire-control system. Texas could not connect with her shore party and so stayed in line with the minesweepers. Arkansas's salvoes did no damage, so as Group 2 steamed into the battery’s arc of fire, the German guns were able to fire. The minesweepers were all bracketed. The destroyer Barton was holed by a ricocheting but dud shell from another battery that landed in her aft Diesel room. She returned fire on the disclosed battery without air or shore spotting. All minesweepers were splashed with near misses. The destroyer Laffey took a dud in her port bow by the anchor: the damage-control party pried the shell loose and threw it overboard.

Group 2 now began firing generally at the Batterie 'Hamburg', which was obscured by smoke. Texas was straddled by three rounds at her bow, swung to starboard, and evaded three shells over her stern. As she manoeuvred, she was straddled at intervals of 20 to 30 seconds by a newly uncovered battery just to the north-east of Batterie 'Hamburg'. The large battery itself was focusing on minesweepers and destroyers. The destroyer O’Brien was hit on her bridge, knocking out her radar, and so steamed out to sea blindly through a smoke screen. Minesweepers and the three damaged destroyers were recalled, the destroyers firing their 5-in (127-mm) guns as harassing fire until they were out of range.

At 12.20, Group 1’s destroyers laid smoke to protect the heavy ships in Fire-Support Area 3, then closed the shore to gain more effective fire on the Querqueville battery. German fire concentrated on Glasgow and Enterprise, hitting the former twice, but she was able to rejoin. After two hours of duelling, all four German guns had been temporarily neutralised. Air spotters followed the operations: pairs of Spitfire fighters were able to loiter over their targets for 45 minutes, but only half were able to reach the area, while the others were driven off by Flak, turned away with engine trouble, or could not find their targets. Soon after this, Texas was struck by a 280-mm (11.02-in) shell which hit the top of the ship’s armoured conning tower: the shell did not penetrate the armour but did explode, ripping up the deck of the bridge. The ship’s helmsman was directly below the blast and was killed, the only combat fatality to occur on board. Captain Charles Adams Baker was outside the bridge when the ship was hit and escaped the blast unharmed. Soon after the order was given to abandon bridge and the surviving members made it down to the armoured conning tower to continue the battle.

At 12.12, the first call for fire arrived from the VII Corps' shore fire-control parties. Following their corrections, Nevada and Quincy, armed with 14- and 8-in (355.6- and 203.2-mm) guns respectively, eliminated the fortified target in 25 minutes, and then continued against targets of opportunity for about three hours. Also armed with 8-in (203.2-mm) guns, Tuscaloosa was distributing her fire among targeted strongpoints directed by shore fire-control parties, when Flak hit its two Spitfire spotters., which were forced to retire. In the first hour, Ellyson identified coastal battery fire near the town of Gruchy, and Glasgow and her air spotter silenced the battery with 54 rounds. The destroyer Emmons answered the fire of Fort de l’Est on one of the harbour breakwaters, but by the time the target was silenced, a well-camouflaged battery began walking fire closer to the ship at a range of 15,000 yards (14765 m). Rodman laid smoke, and Emmons withdrew.

At 13.20, some 10 minutes before the scheduled end of the bombardment, seeing that the mission had not yet been accomplished, Deyo signalled the VII Corps 'Do you wish more gunfire? Several enemy batteries still active.' The Querqueville battery had come back to life and taken Murphy under fire, straddling the destroyer four times in 20 minutes. Tuscaloosa came to the destroyer’s aid, scoring a direct hit on the battery. With her deck covered with splinters and splashes from near misses, Murphy dodged behind a smokescreen. Ellyson and Gherardi joined in. Quincy fired for 30 minutes, then Nevada silenced the battery again. Later, as the task force withdrew, the battery opened fire again. The task force’s ships not the German responses for their endurance, but more than that for the splinter damage to their upper works from a host of near-misses. The battery near Gruchy came to life again, and Glasgow and Rodman returned the fire. The batteries in and around Cherbourg seemed able to fire accurately at any ship within 15,000 yards (13715 m), and Rodman pulled out of range.

Men of the US Navy had been assigned to army units as shore-party spotters to direct all fire more than 2,000 yards (1830 m) inland. The infantry support fire could then safely reach along roads far inland, blowing German tanks into 'scrap', pillboxes into 'powder' and gun emplacements into items 'tossed skyhigh'. German shore batteries were in turn laying well-placed fire, churning the seas with near misses bracketing Deyo’s ships.

In Group 2, making westward to join Group 1, Texas was steering evasively to dodge near-misses and straddles when a 280-mm (11.02-in) shell, again a dud, struck the hull and lodged alongside a sailor’s bunk. At 13.35, one of the large-calibre guns of Batterie 'Hamburg' was knocked out by Texas which, with Arkansas continued through the afternoon firing at the Batterie 'Hamburg' and another nearby battery. When the ships strayed back into the German guns' arc of fire, the three remaining guns of the Batterie 'Hamburg' took Texas under fire, and a nearby 105-mm (4.13-in) battery acquired Arkansas. Both ships manoeuvred, the two remaining destroyers made smoke, and all escaped without damage.

At 14.02 the VII Corps replied to Deyo with 'Thanks very much – we should be grateful if you would continue until 15.00.' The VII Corps was on the verge of breaking into Cherbourg’s city streets. At the eastern end of the inner breakwater, the Fort des Flamands had eight 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose guns which were holding up a regiment of the 4th Division. Shore fire-control parties called for naval support, and Hambleton began firing with her 5-in (127-mm) guns, but large-calibre rounds from the Batterie 'Hamburg' began to drop around her at a range of 14,250 yards (13030 m). The destroyer retired, then Quincy was able to silence the target fort. Nevada turned from the Batterie 'Hamburg' and joined in the attack on targets on the western side of Cherbourg whose guns could have been turned landward on advancing infantry. For more than 20 minutes the battleship was repeatedly straddled, including two hits which holed her superstructure and another that missed by as little as 25 ft (7.6 m).

One hour later, following Collins’s new deadline of 15.00, Deyo ordered a ceasefire and began withdrawing from the bombardment area. Group 2 headed back to Portland in southern England at 15.01. Tuscaloosa Deyo’s flagship, received another call for fire. The targets were 75-mm (2.95-in) field guns in casemates on the dock at the entrance to Cherbourg’s naval arsenal: Tuscaloosa continued to fire even as she manoeuvred out to sea, at a range of 25,000 yards (22860 m), and again another 1.5 miles (2.4 km) farther out without loss of accuracy.

On 29 June, as the final German resistance in Cherbourg was overcome, Collins wrote to Deyo stating that during the 'naval bombardment of the coastal batteries and the covering strong points around Cherbourg…results were excellent, and did much to engage the enemy’s fire while our troops stormed into Cherbourg from the rear.' After an inspection of the port defences, an army liaison officer reported that the guns that had been targeted could not be reactivated, and those that could have been turned landward were still pointed out to sea when the city had fallen.

While reports taken from German prisoners speak of the fears they experienced during the naval bombardment, there is no evidence that naval gunfire caused great destruction to the German guns. As a result of the guns' survival, infantry had to be used to capture them. Nevertheless, the naval gunfire was effective in neutralising the German batteries, disabling 22 of their 24 assigned targets, and during the bombardment there were long periods during which German gun positions fell silent. This was later attributed to the demoralising effect that the bombardment had on the German gunners rather than any destructive effect on the guns. The fire support provided by the task force’s small ships proved to be more effective, and according to Allied reports after the bombardment this was the most effective aspect of the bombardment.

The volume of fire was notable and of consequence. The Allies' overall commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, later wrote that 'the final assault was materially assisted by heavy and accurate naval gunfire.' von Schlieben reported to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commander of Heeresgruppe 'B', that further resistance had been useless as a result, at least in part, to 'heavy fire from the sea', while Admiral Theodor Krancke, the commander of the Marineoberkommando 'West', recorded in his war diary that one of the contributing causes to Cherbourg’s fall was a 'naval bombardment of a hitherto unequalled fierceness'. German reports of the effect of naval bombardment were broadcast over the German telegraph service and recorded that the Allied naval fire curtain was one of their trump cards and in a crisis, it was more accurate and it could be sustained on target, fulfilling the role of a floating artillery arm. The reports also discussed the role of the smaller Allied vessels, remarking that they had firepower that should not be underestimated, and included the words that 'a torpedo boat…had the firepower of a howitzer battery, a destroyer that of a battery of artillery'. The reports went on to compare a cruiser to a regiment of artillery and state that battleships with 380- to 400-mm (14.96- to 15.75-in) guns had no equal in land warfare, and could be matched only 'by an unusual concentration of very heavy batteries'.

The German report said that Allied troops had a 'particular advantage' from ship formations that provided the mobility to concentrate artillery on any point on the battlefield, and then change their placement to whatever the fighting required. The Anglo-American naval forces made '…the best possible use of this opportunity'. A single coastal battery could come repeatedly under '…quite extraordinary superior firepower'. A force of several warships could concentrate fire at batteries when they were the focal point of combat, creating an 'umbrella of fire'. Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber 'West', assessed Allied naval gunfire support as 'flexible and well directed [in] support of the land troops…ranging from battleship to gun boat…as quickly mobile, constantly available artillery, at points…as defence against [German] attacks or as support for [Allied] attacks'. He added that bombardments were skilfully directed by air and ground spotters, and that the Allied naval gunnery had a great rapid-fire capacity at range.

The German batteries were unsuccessful engaging ships of the task force inasmuch as ships holed and bracketed by near misses were not sunk. For the most part, manoeuvring ships were able to maintain their positions in mineswept lanes, and countermeasures included the use of smoke, the jamming of German radar and effective counter-battery fire. Nevertheless, US naval doctrine was modified after the operation. More attention was paid to the achievement of effective long range fire. According to Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the commander-in-chief of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force, if the German gunners had not been hampered by faulty ammunition 'they might well have inflicted heavy damage to [the Allied] ships at the relatively close range…'. Before June 1944, the US Navy’s main experiences in the war had been in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, and according to the US official naval historian these experiences had resulted in an assumption that the modern fire-control systems of US ships allowed them to close with and defeat coastal batteries at will. But in the Mediterranean the shore batteries had not been 'well and resolutely' served, and Japanese coastal defence gunners had been inadequately trained. As a result of the Cherbourg operation, the historian concluded that, even with modern directors for naval gunnery, a casemated gun is 'exceedingly difficult for a rapidly maneuvering warship to destroy with a direct hit, although a shower of salvos around the coast defense position will silence the guns temporarily'. Deyo’s after-action report recommended that long-range bombardment with aircraft spotting would be required to silence casemated batteries, stating that either good air spotting or shore parties were needed for effective naval bombardment, especially when strong currents add to the navigational problems of a task force under accurate shore battery fire.