Brittany Campaign, August 1944

The Brittany Campaign of August 1944 saw the Allies rapidly conquer most of the Breton peninsula in the aftermath of the American breakout during Operation Cobra, but the key ports either remained in German hands, or in the case of St. Malo, were so badly damaged that they were unusable. 

The original Allied plan for the aftermath of any breakout had been to send all of Patton’s 3rd Army into Brittany. The Allies wanted to capture the German naval bases at Lorient, St Nazaire and Brest to end any threat to the invasion shipping, and the ports of St Malo and Nantes. All five would then be put into use as supply ports. A sixth port was to be built in Quiberon Bay. The expectation was that the Germans would eventually conduct an orderly retreat to the Seine, so the Allies would have to prepare for a methodical advance of their own. Only once Brittany had been secured, would Patton turn east, join the US First Army and the British and Canadians and push the retreating Germans east towards the Seine. The Germans also had a sizable garrison in Brittany, which couldn’t be left in the rear of any Allied advance. On D-Day General Wilhelm Fahrmbacher’s 25th Corps was 100,000 strong (although most of his better troops had moved to Normandy by the start of August).

In the end the battle of Normandy didn’t quite work out as expected. The Germans fought to pin the Allies into Normandy for longer than expected, moving reinforcements to the Normandy front from Brittany. By the end of July Fahrmbacher had about a third of his original force left. When the end came in Normandy it was thus more sudden and more dramatic than expected. After slowly pushing south to Saint Lo, General Bradley decided to launch a heavy attack on a very narrow front, supported by a massive air attack. Operation Cobra began on 25 July, and after a slow start on the first day broke open the western end of the German lines. The Americans quickly began to push south, reaching Avranches on 30 July. It now became clear that the Allies had a chance to totally destroy the German armies in Cobra by pushing east from Avranches into the lightly defended German rear areas. Patton’s orders were changed. One corps, General Middleton’s 8th Corps, would carry out the invasion of Brittany, while the rest of Patton’s 3rd Army would dash east into the heart of France. A second corps, General Walker’s 20th Corps, was sent south across the end of the Brittany peninsula, before turning east to join the dash.

American Tanks in Brittany, 1944
American Tanks in Brittany, 1944

Most of the American objectives were on the coast. Going anti-clockwise from the top-right around the coast were St. Malo and Morlaix, leading to Brest at the western tip, then coming back along the south coast Lorient, Quiberon and St. Nazaire. The only important inland target was Rennes, the capital of Brittany, in the middle of the mouth of the peninsula. The Germans had two divisions at Brest, part of one division at Morlaix and scattered elements of a division at Lorient, St. Nazaire and Nantes. Another division was on the Channel Islands, but Hitler refused to allow it to return to the mainland, so it saw little or no action. The survivors of the 77th and 91st Divisions, escaping from the fighting in the Cotentin, retreated into Brittany and were posted at Dinard and Rennes respectively.

On 31 July Marshall Kluge, the German commander-in-chief in France, ordered Fahrmbacher to send all available mobile troops from Brittany to hold the key bridge at Pontaubault,, then to counterattack north to Avranches. Fahrmbacher didn’t really have the troops to carry out his orders, and the best he could do was sent the survivors from the 77th Division to try and secure the bridge. By the time they arrived the Americans had already captured it, and there was no chance of the small force successfully taking it back. Once the American invasion began Fahrmbacher simply ordered his men to retreat into the various fortress ports and effectively gave up control of the overall battle, instead becoming simply the commander at Lorient.

On the Allied side there was some confusion in the command chain. On 1 August, just at the start of the campaign Patton’s 3rd Army had been activated. As a result Bradley had been promoted from command of the US 1st Army to command of the 12th Army Group and replaced by General Hodges. Bradley was thus in overall command of US ground forces, although remained under the command of Montgomery for a little longer. Next in line was Patton, commander of the newly activated 3rd Army. His ideas on how to conduct the campaign would sometimes differ from Bradleys, but much of his attention went to the dramatic dash east across France. Next in line was General Middleton, commander of the 8th Corps. His ideas were often more in line with Bradley’s than with Patton’s. The initial advance into Brittany would be carried out by two armoured divisions from Middleton Corps, General John S. Wood’s 4th Armoured Division and General Robert W. Grow’s 6th Armoured Division. Wood and Grow would often get contradictory orders from the men above them.

These disagreements were in place right from the start of the campaign. Bradley wanted a fairly orderly advance. One division would advance along the north coast, taking St Malo and then Brest while the other would advance south-west to Rennes, then towards Quiberon and Lorient on the south coast. Patton agreed on the southern prong, but wanted to skip St Malo and go straight for Brest. He wanted to capture the key port before the Germans could do too much damage, and also take as much of the key Brest to Rennes railway intact as possible. Middleton supported Bradley’s views, and saw the capture of St Malo as his first objective. At divisional level General Wood’s 4th Armoured was allocated to the southern flank and General Grow’s 6th Armoured to the northern flank. Wood would have preferred to take part in the dash east, and didn’t really want to go beyond Rennes. Grow was with Patton, and expected to advance directly to Brest. Unfortunately these contradictions weren’t addressed before the campaign began, and would cause some delays. Middleton also set up a third force, Task Force A, which had the task of taking several key bridges on the Rennes-Brest railway.

Soon after taking Avranches, the Americans captured a bridge over the Selune river at Pontaubault, 4 miles further south. This was right in the ‘hinge’ between Normandy and Brittany, and gave American troops access to Brittany. By 1 August the Americans had captured bridges across the See & Selune rivers, and had secured the entrance to Brittany.

4th Armoured

On 1st August Wood’s 4th Armoured began the invasion, advancing forty miles to Rennes. They found the city defended by 2,000 men from the German 91st Infantry Division, which put up stiff resistances. Wood called for infantry support, and troops from the 8th Division were ordered forward to support the attack on Rennes. In the meantime Wood decided to outflank the city to the west. His plan was to circle around the city, ending up facing west. He would then push on to Chateaubriant, thirty miles to the south-east, then push east to Angers. This plan was sent to Middleton early on 3 August, but soon after it was sent clear orders from Middleton arrived. Wood’s task was to take Rennes then advance south-west to Quiberon Bay, to isolate Brittany, and secure the bay for possible use as a major supply base. By the time this order arrived, the division had already begun the move around Rennes. By the late afternoon his leading troops were at Ban-de-Bretagne and Derval, with the lead troops forty miles south of Rennes! On 4 August the 4th Armoured pushed north-east, to isolate Rennes from the east, while the newly arrived infantry completed the occupation of the city. The German defenders of the city slipped away south to join the garrison of St. Nazaire.

After a brief debate, clear orders came down from 3rd Army HQ  reminding Wood that his role was to push south-west to Vannes and Lorient. This ended any thoughts of a push east. However the division then had to wait for Vannes to be cleared so more fuel could reach the tanks. On 5 August the division began to push south-west. The movement began at 1400 and Vannes fell easily seven hours later. However on 7 August the division’s CCB reached the outskirts of Lorient, and found the port was too firmly held to fall to a quick attack. He requested infantry and artillery to take over the siege, but had to spend most of the next week blockading the port. Once reinforcements arrived Wood was ordered east to take Nantes, as Walker’s corps was now needed for the dash east to Chartres. Nantes fell to Wood and the French Forces of the Interior without a fight on 12 August.

6th Armoured

The northern advance began a little more slowly. On 1 August Grow’s 6th Armoured was held up by traffic congestion around the key bridge at Pontaubault. Patton came to meet him there, and ordered him to drive straight for Brest, bypassing any resistance, in the hope that the port could fall within five days (to win a bet with Montgomery). The day did see the division capture a key bridge at Pontorson, officially entering Brittany. On 2 August Grow’s men were able to push west at some speed, and on 3 August overcame a German strongpoint at Mauron. However on the same days they received orders from Middleton to stop and prepare for the assault on St. Malo. On the following day Patton once again visited Grow’s HQ and was angered by the order to halt. He ordered Grow to get moving again, and his troops reached the outskirts of Brest by 6 August. They then had a nasty surprise when the German 266th Division, retreating west from Morlaix, accidently ran into Grow’s rear, but after a brief scare the German division was quickly defeated. Grow was then given the task of containing the German defenders of Brest and Lorient. His division remained in Brittany for the rest of August, but focused on keeping the Germans pinned down in the ports (with the aid of the FFI).

Task Force A

Task Force A initially had a hard time. The force was only 3,500 strong, and was built around the 1st Tank Destroyer Brigade. The task group had no infantry, but the hope was that the forces of the French Resistance (the FFI) would carry out many of these roles. The group’s initial objectives were three bridges near St. Brieuc (about half way along the north coast) and two near Morlaix (in the north-west of the peninsula), and any other resistance was to be bypassed.

The group ran into heavy resistance around St. Malo, and had to call for help to avoid being dragged into battles that weren’t part of its main task. Middleton sent General Robert C Macon’s 83rd Infantry Division to support them, diverting the division from the attack on Brest. The 83rd Infantry captured Dol on 4 August, and reached the St. Malo area on the following day.

Task Force A was then free to move west, capturing the railway as far west as Morlaix without too many problems. On 6 August they approached St. Brieux, which turned out to be in the hands of the FFI. The three bridges were captured intact and some troops left to guard them. The key target was at Morlaix – a 1,000ft long, 200ft high railway viaduct. Until the morning of 8 August the German 266th Division had been based at Morlaix, and would have been a difficult opponent for the task force, but that morning the division began its disastrous march towards Brest. When Task Force A approached Morlaix later on the same morning, they thus found the town almost undefended, and the key viaduct was captured without a fight.

The Task Force had thus completed its main objective. The key railway line had been captured intact, and 1,500 prisoners taken. The failure to take Brest meant that their achievement was of less significance than expected, but it was still impressive. The Task Force then went on to clear most of the northern coast, including the bay of St. Michel-en-Greve, which was used to land supplies.

This left the 83rd Division with the difficult task of taking St. Malo. The port held out for two weeks, defended by a determined garrison commanded by General Andreas von Aulock. By the time it finally fell, the port facilities had been destroyed.

The Sieges

By the end of August the invasion of Brittany had not produced the desired results. St. Malo had been captured, but the port had been destroyed. Brest, Lorient and St. Nazaire were still in German hands, and work couldn’t begin on the port at Quiberon. In the east the Allies were making much more rapid progress. The Germans had been pushed back across the Seine, and Paris had been liberated, and the importance of the Brittany harbours was rapidly reducing. Even so, the Allies decided to make a major effort to capture Brest. At first the Third Army retained responsibility for the area, but on 10 September General William Simpson’s Ninth Army took over, to allow Patton to focus on the pursuit to the east.

When the Americans first arrived outside Brest the garrison was actually weaker than they realised, but some initial probing attacks were repelled, and the chance to take the port quickly possible lost. On 9 August the II Parachute Division entered Brest, coming from the Doualas peninsula, which was still in German hands. The first attack on the city was made on 25 August, using three infantry divisions. However a shortage of artillery ammunition meant that this attack had to be reduced in scale after one day. While more artillery ammunition was secured the three infantry divisions kept pushing, slowly capturing the outlying defences of the port. Enough ammo had been gathered to allow a second major attack to begin on 8 September. On 9 September the first American troops entered the city, but the defenders fought on. The attack turned into a series of individual sieges of strongpoints, with around seventy five individual fortifications have to be destroyed before the city finally surrendered on 18 September. As expected the long siege had given the Germans plenty of time to destroy the port facilities. By the time Brest fell the Allies had decided not to use the Breton ports. SHAEF’s planners recommended abandoning plans to use Lorient, Queberon Bay. St. Nazaire and Nantes on 3 September, and their recommendation was accepted on 7 September.

None of the other Breton ports were attacked seriously for the rest of the war. As a result the garrisons of Lorient and St. Nazaire were able to hold out until the final German surrender, and became some of the last places in France still in German hands.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 September 2020), Brittany Campaign, August 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaign_brittany.html

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