Siege of Brest, 6 August-18 September 1944

The siege of Brest (6 August-18 September 1944) was originally carried out in an attempt to give the Americans a good port in Brittany, but by the time it ended any hopes of using the Breton ports had ended, and the main purpose of the battle was to eliminate a potentially dangerous German garrison.

On 25 July the Americans began Operation Cobra, the attack that finally ended the apparent stalemate in Normandy, broke through the German lines and began the rapid advance across France. The original plan had been for Patton’s Third Army to be activated at this stage, and sent west into Brittany to capture a series of ports, including Brest, which would then be used as major supply bases for the Americans. Once Brittany was secured, Patton would join the rest of the Allied armies for a steady advance towards the Seine. When the breakout came, the Allies changed their plans. The western end of the German line had been shattered, and it was clear that they had a chance for a much more major victory. Most of Patton’s army would turn east, and take part in the dash east, behind the main German lines in Normandy. Middleton’s 8th Corps, which was transferred to Patton from the First Army, was the only one to be committed to Brittany.

The task of taking Brest was given to General Grow’s 6th Armoured Division. Grow received contradictory orders from Patton, his army commander, and Middleton, his corps commander. On 1 August Patton ordered him to dash for Brest bypassing any resistance. On 3 August, after a couple of days of this Middleton ordered him to stop to take St. Malo, but on the following day Patton arrived at Grow’s camp and ordered him to renew the advance. Middleton had based his order on a misunderstanding of where Grow actually was, and had already altered his orders by the time news of Patton’s intervention reached him. On 5 August the division bypassed a force of German paratroops at Carlaix, but were then held up by a force of around 500 Germans near Huelgoat, just over thirty miles to the east of Brest. It took the rest of the day to clear this force out of the way.

On 6 August the division’s two main combat commands took different routes. CCB ran into resistance south of Morlaix, but bypassed it, and ended up at Lesneven, fifteen miles to the north/ north-east of Brest. CCA had to follow minor roads, and ended the day twenty miles further east.

On the morning of 7 August CCB was ordered to push south to Brest. They reached Milizac, about seven miles to the north/ north-west of the city, but then came under heavy fire from the artillery in Brest. The slightly less powerful CCR reached Gouesnou, about four miles north of the city centre, late in the afternoon. Finally CCA arrived at Guipavas, about five miles to the east of Brest, late in the day.

It was immediately obvious that the port was too strongly held for a single armoured division to take, but Grow still issued a surrender ultimatum. This was delivered on the morning of 8 August, and was turned down. Further back Middleton and Patton once again disagreed on what to do next. Middleton didn’t think he had the resources to attack all of the major ports at the same time, and decided to focus on St. Malo first. The 6th Armoured Division was to maintain its position outside Brest, but no attack was expected. Patton disagreed, and ordered Middleton to send some infantry to join the armour, ready for an early attack. A battalion from the 8th Infantry Division was sent west from Rennes on the afternoon of 8 August.  

The perils of Patton’s style of advance now became apparent. On their rapid drive west the Americans had passed by the German 266th Division, which had been based at Morlaix. The Germans were also unaware that there were any Americans in the area, and decided to move west to reinforce the garrison of Brest. As a result they ended up attacking Grow’s division from the rear. The first reports of German troops in his rear reached Grow during 8 August, just as he was planning an attack on Brest for the follow day. The uncertainty about what was happening ended when the 266th Division’s commander, Generalleutnant Karl Spang, was captured by an American artillery battery. Spang had been entirely unaware that the Americans were anywhere near Brest and had been driving ahead of his division to arrange accommodation! 

At first Grow believed that he was in serious danger, and reported to Middleton that he was ‘under attack, codes in danger, may destroy’. However once the limited scale of the German attack became clear Grow was able to turn his division around and counterattack. The hapless German division was caught in its marching formation and was almost wiped out on 9 August, with 1,000 of them being captured. 

By this point it was clear that Grow’s division couldn’t capture Brest. The division was ordered to establish a cordon around Brest, outside the range of most German artillery. Grow continued to plan for an attack on the city, but an attempt to capture high ground near Gnipavas on 11-12 August, which he wanted as a base for his attack, failed. Patton also wanted to move Wood’s 4th Armoured Division from Lorient to Nantes, to free up his 20th Corps to join the dash east towards the Seine. As a result on 12 August Grow was ordered to split his division, leaving part outside Brest and moving part to Lorient. CCA and a battalion of infantry from the 8th Division remained outside Brest, while CCB and CCR replaced the 4th Armoured Division at Lorient and Vannes on 14 August. For most of the rest of August the Americans focused on keeping the Germans pinned down inside Brest.

Although Brest hadn’t fallen, the division had pushed forward 200 miles across Brittany, taken 4,000 prisoners and only lost 130 dead and 400 wounded. This was the single longest advance by any unsupported division during the European campaign. It had cleared the Germans out of most of the interior of Brest making it safe for individual troops to travel, destroyed the 266th Division and forced the surviving Germans into a small number of fortresses.

At the start of August Brest had been defended by around 15,000 men, mainly the 343rd Division and other miscellaneous troops. At the start of August the elite II Parachute Division under General Hermann B. Ramcke had been ordered to move east from Brest. The division ran into US armour at Carhaix and Huelgoat, but was then bypassed by the rapid American advance. Ramcke then decided to return to Brest, and his men reached the city reached the city on 9 August, entering from Doualas to the south-east. This brief expedition cost the division about 350 casualties. On 12 August Ramcke took over as commander of the port, with his predecessor, Col Hans von de Mosel, as his chief of Staff. By the time Grow attacked on 11-12 August the port was defended by around 35,000 men, with a hard core of army troops supported by Navy and Luftwaffe men.

The city was defended by half a dozen old French forts, which had been reinforced and modernised by the Germans. They had also built a large number of dugouts across the city and a ring of defences outside, including the normal mix of pillboxes, gun emplacements and minefields. Brest itself sits on the northern shores of a large sheltered bay, with a complex coastline. Just to the south-east of Brest was the Daoulas promontory, separated from the city by the L’Elorn river. The southern side of the bay was formed by the Quelern peninsula, separated from the Daoulas promontory by the L’Aulne river. The Germans had guns on both of these peninsulas. The Germans had coastal and field guns on both of these peninsulas, which were defended by the 343rd (Static) Division. Finally they had big coastal guns near le Conquet, on the coast to the west of Brest, which could also fire inland. General Fahrmbacher, the German commander in Brittany, had been ordered to take command in Brest on 7 August, but by then the two cities were cut off and he was unable to move.

The big question now for the Americans was should they still attack Brest. The evidence from Cherbourg and St. Malo suggested that the Germans would destroy the port facilities well before the city could be captured. The dramatic breakout that had followed Operation Cobra and the resulting battle of the Falaise Gap meant that by 17 August Eisenhower was ready to cancel the plan to pause at the Seine and by 20 August the plan was to dash to the Rhine, and prevent the Germans from making a stand anywhere in France. As a result Brest and the Brittany ports were being left behind much quicker than expected. Even so Eisenhower still believed that it was worth launching an attack on the city. Brest had been the main port of entry for US troops during the First World War, and the plan was to use it for reinforcements and supplies coming directly from the United States.

On 18 August Middleton  moved his HQ one hundred and twenty miles west, to Lesneven, only fifteen miles from Brest, so he could concentrate his efforts on the siege.

On 21 August he launched a preliminary attack into the Daoulas peninsula, starting at Landerneau at its north-eastern corner. After initial rapid progress the new Task Force B ran into fierce resistance at Hill 154 (LOCATION). This was finally overcome by a combined infantry, tank destroyer and artillery attack on 23 August, allowing the task force to clear the entire peninsula by the end of August. Middleton was then able to move his own artillery onto the peninsula, from where it could shell Brest to the north-west and the Quelern peninsula to the south-west. 

Middleton also had success on his right flank, On 27 August Task Force S cut the road west from Brest to le Conquet. Le Conquest and Lochrist were then besieged, and fell on 9 September.

The first major attack on the city came on 25 August. It involved three infantry divisions (2nd, 8th and 29th), Task Force A, troops from the FFI, several Ranger battalions, the obligatory heavy use of air power, and even fire support from a British battleship. The 2nd and 29th Divisions came from the First Army, and were experienced units that had been pinched out of the front as the Falaise pocket shrank. This first attack was hampered by a lack of artillery ammunition. Middleton had requested around 20,000 tons of ammo for the first three days of the battle. The Third Army had allocated only 5,000 tons. On 23 August Bradley and Patton visited Middleton’s HQ and agreed to provide 8,000 tons, although some of this would only arrive after the attack began. In the end not even this amount turned up, and the shortage of artillery ammunition would force Middleton to suspend operations.

Middleton attacked all around Brest. The 29th Division attacked on the right (west). The 8th Division made the main effort in the centre (north) and the 2nd Division attacked on the left (east). The attack began with a bombing raid by seven groups of medium bombers and 150 B-17 Flying Fortresses. HMS Warspite fired 300 shells at the coastal guns near le Conquet, then bombarded Recouvrance, on the western side of Brest. The three infantry divisions then attacked, but made little progress into the outer belt of fortifications. On the night of 25-26 August RAF heavy bombers attacked, and the infantry resumed the attack on 26 August. However by now artillery ammo was running short, and the attempt to push straight through the defences was replaced with attacks on individual strong points. Progress was generally slow, although on 28 August the 29th Division pushed east two miles along the road from le Conquest to Brest.

Middleton carried out another large scale attack on 1 September, once again supported by air attacks and a major artillery bombardment. Once again progress was slow, although on 2 August the 2nd Division, coming from the east, captured Hill 105 to the south-west of Guipavas, one of the strong points in the outer ring of defences. For the next week the three divisions carried out individual attacks, slowly closing in on the defenders. The Americans concentrated on a slow but steady reduction of individual German strong points. This was a slow process, but one by one the German positions were taken out by flamethrowers or demolition charges.

By 7 September Middleton finally had enough artillery ammunition to begin a second assault on the city (and on 10 September the attack was given first priority on supplies). The attack began on 8 September. Two days later Middleton’s corps was transferred to the newly activated Ninth Army (General William H. Simpson), which had been made responsive for protecting the southern flank of the 12th Army Group, and for Brittany.

The attack on 8 September captured a number of key positions on each divisional front, and around 1,000 prisoners. On 9 September the Americans broke into the city itself, with the 2nd and 8th Divisions getting into Brest and the 29th Division capturing the village of Penfeld, to the north of the city. Once inside the city they were faced by all of the problems of urban warfare. Individual forts had to be almost bombarded into destruction before the survivors would surrender.

The 8th Division reached the old city wall at Fort Bougen on 10 September. The walls resisted an artillery bombardment, so an attack planned for 11 September was cancelled. Instead the 8th Division was withdrawn from the city, to give the 2nd Division more space to operate. On 12 September the 29th Division, in the west, approached Forts Keranroux and Montbarey, on the western edge of Brest. Early on 13 September Middleton send in another surrender demand, but Ramcke turned it down. The fighting then resumed. Fort Keranroux was captured that afternoon, but Fort Montbarey was a more difficult task. A squadron of Crocodile flamethrower tanks from the 141st Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps, was committed to the attack. Four were committed on 14 September, but three were lost and the attack cancelled. After two days of preparation six Crocodiles led the attack on 16 September, this time with much more luck. Only 100 men surrendered from Fort Keranroux and only 80 from Fort Montbarey.

The fall of Fort Monbarey opened up a gap in the western defences of the city. By the end of 17 September the Germans only held the submarine pens and Fort du Portzic.

The Americans had to destroy around seventy five strong points before the garrison finally surrendered on 18 September. A total of 37,000 prisoners were taken, at the cost of 10,000 American casualties. The surrender was carried out in two halves. In the west Von der Mosel surrendered to the 29th Division, while in the east Colonel Erich Pietzonka of the 7th Parachute Regiment surrendered to the 2nd Division. Ramcke didn’t share the fate of his troops, but instead deserted them and fled across the bay. However the Quelern Peninsula was already in American hands, and Ramcke had to surrender on 19 September.

Once again the port was useless. The Germans had blocked the main channel with the remains of bridges and filled the harbour with scuttled ships. Most of the port facilities had been destroyed. By the time the Germans surrendered the Allied front was 500 miles to the east, and Antwerp had fallen intact to the British on 4 September. Brest was no longer required as a port, but at least the dangerous garrison had been eliminated.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 September 2020), Siege of Brest, 6 August-18 September 1944, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_brest_1944.html

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