The campaign in the Cotentin Peninsula (6-20 June 1944) was the first major Allied advance after the D-Day landings, and ended with the capture of the port of Cherbourg, seen by the Allies as one of the most important objectives of Operation Overlord. The capture of a major port was seen as an essential part of the post D-Day build-up in France, and the seaborne assault had been extended west to Utah Beach to allow for an early advance towards Cherbourg. The Germans did not expect the Allies to land on the eastern coast of the Cotentin because they had flooded large areas of low lying ground, both just behind the beaches and along the Merderet River in the centre of the peninsula, and so the coastal defences on Utah Beach were some of the weakest in Normandy.
The campaign started on D-Day itself. The landing on Utah Beach was added to the plan relatively late, and was carried out in order to put American troops at the foot of the Cotentin peninsula, while the two US airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st were used to secure the inland flank of the attack.
The beach landings were to be carried out by the 4th Infantry Division of General Collins’ VII Corps. The 8th, 22nd and 12th Regiments were to carry out the attack. The biggest potential problem they faced was that the countryside inland from the beaches had been flooded, so the only lines of advance for vehicles were along a limited number of causeways.
The 101st Airborne Division had the task of seizing the causeways that crossed the flooded and marshy ground just inland of Utah Beach, to make sure that the Germans couldn’t destroy them, trapping the US forces on the coast, or use them as defensive positions, funnelling the attacking Americans into narrow lines of attack.
The 82nd Airborne Division was to land further inland to capture the area around Ste-Mère-Eglise and Pont-l’Abbé (almost half way across the peninsula), and secure crossings over the Merderet River, which ran from north to south along the middle of the Cotentin.
Utah Beach was defended by the 709th Infantry Division, but this unit was spread out across the east and northern coasts of the Peninsula. The area inland from the beaches was defended by the 91st Airlanding Division. The 243rd Infantry Division was also nearby, defending the west coast of the Cotentin.
The landings on Omaha Beach were also connected to the attack on the Cotentin. Omaha Beach was chosen as a target because it was the least bad option on the stretch of coast between the three Anglo-Canadian beaches and Utah Beach.
The landings on Utah Beach turned out to be the easiest of any of the D-Day landings. This was at least in part because the tide had pushed the landing craft south, to a very lightly defended part of the beach. The DD tanks were also successful, with 28 of the 32 allocated to Utah Beach landing safely fifteen minutes after the first wave of infantry. By the end of the day over 23,000 men had been landed on Utah Beach at the cost of only 250 casualties!
The airborne assaults were rather more chaotic. The 101st Airborne had been allocated three landing zones, from north to south A, C and D. Rather impressively almost nobody landed in Drop Zone A, but a mix of troops allocated to A and C were scattered around the surrounding area. At Drop Zone C more troops actually landed in the right place, although again it was a mix of troops from A and C. Drop Zone D was more successful, with a sizable number of troops in the right place and most of the rest close by.
The 82nd Airborne had three landing zones. Drop Zone O was east of the Merderet, close to Ste-Mere-Eglise. Zones T and N were west of the river. Drop Zone O was the most successful, with a high proportion of troops landing in the tight place, and most of the rest clustered quite close by. West of the river things didn’t go as well. Most of the troops for Zone T ended up dropping too far to the east, in the flooded area around the Merderet. The troops allocated to Drop Zone N were scattered almost randomly over a very large area. However after some hard fighting the airborne achieved most of its main objectives, as well as causing a great deal of confusion on the German side.
Once the beachhead was secure the US plan was for a two staged assault. The first stage would be the advance west across the peninsula, the second the advance north to attack Cherbourg.
The first priority after D-Day was to join up the two US beachheads. The initial objectives were Carentan in the western part of the gap and Isigny in the eastern part. Isigny fell to the 29th Division on the night of 8 June, but Carentan wasn’t fully secure until 14 June. The town fell to the airborne on 11 June, but on 13 June the Germans counterattacked with a force from the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division and 6th Parachute Regiment and got close to the town. This was their last attempt to retake Carentan.
On the first few days after D-Day the American troops on the Cotentin might have been vulnerable to a major counterattack launching using troops brought up from Brittany if one could have been launched before the capture of Carentan on 12 June closed the gap between the Utah and Omaha Beach landing zones. Once again the confusion caused by the scattered airborne landings helped the Americans. General Dollman, commander of the German 7th Army, didn't realise that there had been a landing on the east coast of the Cotentin until late on D-Day, and so the troops in Brittany weren't ordered to move until nearly 11pm. They were unable to move until the following morning, and then came under constant heavy attack from Allied aircraft. More confusion was caused when a large flight of American aircraft dropped dummy paratroops west of St. Lô. This convinced Rommel that a second seaborne invasion was about to hit the west coast of the Cotentin and on 7 June he ordered all available reinforcements to move to that area, to the south west of the real battle. This order remained in place until the morning of 8 June, by which time German communications were in chaos and the units involved were out of touch.
Securing the Northern Flank
Although the initial objective was to push west across the peninsula, the Americans also needed to force the Germans away from the northern end of the Utah beachhead. Some of the hardest fighting in the immediate aftermath of D-Day came in this are just to the north of Utah Beach. The Germans had fortified a ridgeline that ran from Quineville near the coast, south-west through Montebourg and Le Ham to the Merderet River. The Germans also had strong points further south, at Azeville, Crisbecq and Ozeville (all in the coastal sector), as well as along the beach. The ridge was defended by elements from the 709th, 243rd and 91st Divisions.
Rommel also began to move reinforcements from Brittany to the Cotentin and western end of the beachhead, including the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier, 77th Division, II Parachute Corps, 265th Division and 6th Parachute Regiment, but they would arrive piecemeal, preventing him from carrying out any major coordinated counterattack.
The attack on the Montebourg ridge was carried out by the 4th Infantry Division and the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment from the 82nd Airborne.
On D+3 (9 June) the US 4th Infantry Division broke through at Azeville and began to push north towards Quineville, heading up the east coast of the Cotentin. The fort at Azeville was a major barrier, made up of four large concrete blockhouses. It was attacked by the 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry and fifteen tanks. It took most of the morning to actually reach the blockhouses, and by then only one of the tanks was left. A fierce battle followed, before eventually the surviving garrison of 169 men surrendered.
On the night of 11-12 June the battery at Crisbecq, north-east of Azeville and south of Quineville was abandoned, and its personnel retreated to Cherbourg. The same took place around Le Ham and along the Merderet. Quineville and the nearby ridge fell on 14 June, securing the northern flank of the beachhead. Something of a lull now followed in this area, as the Americans concentrated on the push west across the peninsula.
By 12 June the Americans were winning the battle of the build-up in the Cotentin. The Germans now had three divisions in the peninsula, although one had already lost 4,000 of its 10,555 men. In contrast the Americans had the original 4th Division, the reinforced 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the 9th and 90th Division had already landed and the 79th Division was crossing the beaches. In addition they had one of the few senior commanders who didn’t find the bocage country restrictive – 'Lightning Joe' Collins – who had led a division in the jungles on Guadalcanal and New Guinea. Collins was used to operating with limited armour and artillery support. Collins devised an effective tactic for fighting in the hedgerows. Aware that his opponents on the Cotentin had little or no counterattacking potential Collins advanced with his regiments in columns of battalions, each with a 1000 yard frontage. The lead battalion was relieved two or three times each day, so every part of the regiment was used, but none for too long.
On 12 and 13 June Collins attacked at the northern and western ends of his beach head. On both days his troops entered the town of Montebourg, on the road to Cherbourg, only to be repulsed, but in the south they crossed the Douve seven miles to the west of St. Lo and built a bridge over the river. This move convinced Rommel that Collins was about to launch an offensive south-west across the peninsula, and early on 14 June he ordered all available troops to move to the Douve to defend against that attack.
14 June also saw Rommel split his forces in the Cotentin into two. A small force was to be left in the north to defend Cherbourg (Group von Schlieben, with the 790th and 243rd Divisions with the remaining troops from the battered 91st Division), while the larger force was to defend the wetlands north of La Haye du Puits, at the southern end of the peninsula (Group Hellmich, with the 77th Division and all troops to the south and west of the American positions on Merderet River). However Rommel would be unable to implement his plan, partly because Hitler intervened and partly because the Americans moved too quickly. On 17 Hitler flew to Soissons to meet with Rundstedt and Rommel. He ordered them to launch a counterattack towards Bayeux and the coast, to split the Allied beachhead. He also wanted Cherbourg to be held at all cost. One result of this decision was that the 77th Division couldn’t be moved from the northern front to the western front, leaving the area between the Americans and the west coast dangerously lightly defended. Hitler also interfered in the detail of Schlieben’s positions, and ordered him to prepare a new defensive line that stretched across the full width of the northern end of the peninsula, between St. Vaast-la Hougue in the each and Vauville in the west, which he was to use instead of the pre-prepared positions and much shorter line of the Cherbourg Landfront (this largely followed a line of hills about five miles from the port and contained fixed defences).
The Push West
On 15 June the US 8th Corps (Troy Middleton) became operational. The new corps gained control of the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne, amongst others. During the advance on Cherbourg the 8th Corps would be given the task of defending the southern side of the American positions in the Cotentin. Collins’ 7th Corps was given the task of taking Cherbourg.
The main push west began on 14 June, from a bridgehead over the Merderet at La Fiere (west of Ste-Mere-Eglise) that had been secured by the 82nd Airborne after some hard fighting. The attack was to be carried out by the 9th Division on the right, which was to push towards Ste. Colombe and the 82nd Airborne Division on the left, which was to advance along the Pont l’Abbe to St. Sauveur-le-Vicomte road – targeting one of the major roads in the western half of the peninsula. After slow progress on 14 June, the 82nd Airborne sped up on 15 June, as the German 91st Division began to crumble. On 15 June Dollman reported to Rommel that the line of the Cotentin resembled a bow at breaking-point. On 16 June the Airborne, at the tip of the American advance, reached the Douve River, facing St. Sauveur and discovered that the Germans were pulling out. The town was occupied that afternoon, and the overall pace of the advance accelerated to bring more troops up to the Douve.
The Americans pushed west towards St. Sauvuer-le-Vicomte, on one of the major roads in the western half of the peninsula. Partly because of Hitler’s decisions, and partly because Allied air power made it so difficult for the Germans to move their units, the area between St. Sauvuer and the coast was largely undefended.
On 17 June the 82nd Airborne was to attack south from Pont l’Abbe (to the east of St. Sauveur). The 9th Division was to attack west from St. Sauveur. Its 60th Infantry Regiment was to push west from Nehou (north of St. Sauveur), towards high ground that overlooked the west coast while the 47th Infantry would advance towards St Lo-d’Ourville, to protect the left flank of the 60th. They advanced so quickly that their orders were changed to include an advance to the coastal road, with the 60th heading towards Barneville-sur-Mer and the 47th to Grande Huanville (where the road turned inland to head towards La Haye-du-Puits.
This decision paid off on early on 18 June when a column from the German 77th Division, which was attempting to escape from the northern part of the peninsula, was destroyed by fire from the 60th’s position on the hills. During this period all of the artillery of the 77th Division was lost. However on 19 June about 1,200 men from the 77th Division were able to escape south after they briefly recaptured a bridge over the Ollande River.
Troops from the 3rd Battalion, 60th Infantry Regiment (9th Infantry Division), 746th tank Battalion and 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion, captured the town of Barneville-Carteret on the west coast on 18 June. The rapid advance west caught the German 91st and 77th Divisions before they had been able to either move north to Cherbourg or south to Rommel’s preferred defensive line, and both divisions were almost destroyed.
The 4th, 9th and 79th Divisions were given the task of moving north, advancing line abreast. The 4th Division, on the right, was to ignore the remaining coastal positions and head straight for Cherbourg. The 9th Division was to advance on the west coast. The 79th Division was to attack in the centre of the peninsula. The rapid collapse of the German lines in the west meant that the only organised resistance was expected to be on the 4th Division front, where the German lines were still intact (if badly outflanked).
On 19 June the three divisions carried out a reconnaissance in force, which met with very limited resistance. On the left the 9th Division reached their objectives at Rouville-la-Bigot and St. Germain-le-Gaillard, almost half way from their starting point to Cherbourg, by noon. In the centre the 79th Division ran into resistance around Valognes (ten miles to the south of Cherbourg), and was able to make less progress. On the right the 4th Division ran into more organised resistance on the line from Montebourg (four miles to the east of Volognes) to Quineville. However that night the Germans abandoned Valognes and Montebourg, as General Schlieben was well aware that any attempt to make a stand in the east would just mean that those troops would be outflanks from the west and lost. The Germans pulled back into the fortified lines around Cherbourg.
Siege of Cherbourg
The siege of Cherbourg began on 20 June. On that day the 9th Division made the first attack on the outer defences, but were thrown back. In the centre and right the 4th and 79th Divisions concentrated on getting up to the outer line of defences, then paused for the night. 21 June was largely spent preparing for the main attack, which began on 22 June.
The attack began with a massive air attack, involving Typhoons from the RAF’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, fighter bombers from the US 9th Air Force then an attack by all eleven groups of the US 9th Bomber Command. This attack weakened the morale of the already shaken German defenders, although the infantry attacks on 22 June made limited progress. In most places the 9th and 79th Divisions were able to push past the outer line of German defences, but got held up well short of their objectives. Over the next two days the Americans continued to make slow but steady progress, and by the end of 24 June they had reached the last line of villages outside Cherbourg.
On 25 June the Allies carried out a massive naval bombardment of Cherbourg. This was followed by a series of attacks that got into the western and eastern suburbs, while in the centre the upper levels of the dominating Fort du Roule were captured, although the lower levels, with the coastal guns, remained in German hands.
On 26 June Fort du Roule was cleared, allowing other troops to enter the centre of the city. On the same day General Schlieben was forced to surrender, after spending a day trapped in tunnels at St Sauveur, near his command post, by Allied artillery fire. He refused to order the surrender of the entire garrison, but the knowledge that their commander had been captured undermined most resistance. His deputy, Generalmajor Robert Sattler, surrendered the Arsenal on 27 June, after a psychological warfare unit undermined his willingness to fight on. The last forts in the harbour held on until 29 June, but their defenders were isolated and helpless for the last few days.
The final fighting came at Cap de la Hague, where over 6,000 Germans held out for a few days after the fall of Cherbourg. They were attacked by the 47th and 39th Infantry Regiments of the 9th Division on 29 June, with the 47th attacking from Henneville and the 39th from Octeville. The 60th Infantry Regiment attacked from Ste-Croix-Hague.
The 47th Infantry advanced along the north coast, the 60th Infantry in the centre and the 4th Cavalry Group on the left. The main fighting came to the south-east of Beaumont-Hague, but this ended on 30 June. The last troops surrendered just before midnight on the same day, including Oberst Keil, commander of the last defenders.
The invasion of the Cotentin had an important secondary benefit. The area was filled with V-1 and V-2 launch sites and other installations, none of which became operational before falling to the Allies.
The capture of Cherbourg didn’t have the main benefit that had been expected. Work on destroying the port had begun on 7 June, and it took the Allies until mid-August to clear it. The first transport ship docked on 12 August but the port didn’t return to anything like its full capacity by the autumn, by which time the Allies had already broken out of Normandy, liberated most of France and were approaching the German frontier.