The siege of St. Malo (4-17 August 1944) was an unexpectedly costly battle during the American liberation of Brittany that ended with the port in American hands, but with its facilities totally destroyed by the Germans.
In the aftermath of Operation Cobra (25 July 1944) the Americans abandoned their plans to send all of Patton’s newly activated Third Army into Brittany, and instead decided to send most of his army east to exploit the collapse in the German lines, while Middleton’s’ 8th Corps was sent west into Brittany.
The fortress of St. Malo actually included several communities. The ancient walled town was on the eastern shores of the Rance estuary. To the south was the fishing port of St. Servan and to the east the tourist resort of Paramé. On the western side of the river was the resort of Dinard where the Germans had guns. The Germans also had heavy guns on the islands of Cezembre, 4,000 yards off the coast. This area was protected by a semi-circle of fortifications that ran from the river to the south to the east to the east, including a powerful artillery position built into a quarry on St. Joseph’s hill. There was also the Citadel, a casemated fort on the river between St. Malo and St. Servan, which became the German HQ. The garrison of around 12,000 men was commanded by General Andreas von Aulock, who was determined to put up the sort of resistance that Hitler had demanded from all of the port commanders. However Aulock didn’t want to involve the civilian population in the siege, and just before the Americans arrived he ordered them to leave. Most of the population thus left before the battle began.
There was some confusion on the American side about when St. Malo should be attacked. Patton preferred to dash straight for Brest and the key Brest-Rennes railway, but both his immediate superior Bradley and immediate subordinate, General Middleton, commander of the 8th Corps, wanted to capture St. Malo first. The advance along the north coast was given to General Grow’s 6th Armoured Division, and after some confusion Patton got his way. Grow thus bypassed St. Malo and advanced rapidly towards Brest. This disagreement did cause some delays. By the end of 3 August the division had captured Mauron, some forty miles to the south of St. Malo, and was poised to push on to the west. Middleton’s orders forced Grow to stop his advance and prepare to move north. Patton arrived at Grow’s HQ at around 11am on 4 August and ordered to drive west to resume. At least half a day was thus lost.
However Middleton had also set up Task Force A, which had the task of securing the key railway bridges. This force was held up by heavy German resistance while passing St. Malo (after being asked to probe north to find out how well the port was garrisoned), and called for help. Middleton decided to send General Macon’s 83rd Infantry Division to deal with the garrison of St. Malo. The 330th Infantry from the 83rd Infantry had to fight its way past Dol-de-Bretagne, thirteen miles to the south-east of St. Malo on 4 August, but joined Task Force A on the following day.
The siege began with a disastrous fire. As the Americans approached the city, guns from Cezembre fired on them, but instead hit the spire of the cathedral, destroying it. Fires then broke out, probably accidently at first, but the SS refused to allow anyone to try and put them out. Things weren’t helped when the Americans cut off the water supply to the port. The fires burnt for the next week.
On 5 August Task Force A and the 83rd Division carried out a joint attack on the Chateauneuf-St. Benoit-des-Ondes line, which cut across the peninsula about six miles to the south-east of St. Malo. Chateauneuf, at the western end of the line, was captured, but resistance was determined, making it clear that the Germans intended to make a stand. Late in the day Task Force A was ordered to disengage and continue with the push west, while the rest of the 83rd Infantry was ordered up to St. Malo.
Macon used most of his division to attack east of the Rance, while an attached infantry regiment was sent to attack Dinard. The attack was carried out by the 329th Infantry on the left, the 330th in the centre and the 331st on the right. The attack on 6 August made limited progress, and General Middleton decided to commit the 121st Infantry from the 8th Division and a medium tank company as well as extra artillery and air support.
The attack east of the river continued on 7 August. In the centre of the German line the 330th Infantry ran into the strong defences of the St Joseph position, with guns emplaced in a granite quarry on a commanding hill. On 7 August the Americans were unable to even get into position for an assault, and it took two days of bombardment by artillery and tank destroyers to force the garrison of the quarry to surrender. Eventually 400 survivors surrendered on 9 August. This allowed the Americans to attack on both flanks. On the right the 331st Infantry pushed north to reach the sea at Parame, while on the left the 329th Infantry pushed towards the Citadel, but were unable to capture it. Around 3,500 prisoners were taken during this phase of the battle. By the end of 9 August the Americans thus the two outlying communities - St. Servan to the south of St. Malo and Parame in the east. However the Germans still held St. Malo itself, the Citadel, Dinard and the island of Cezembre.
To the west General Rudolph Bracherer, the commander at Dinard, carried out a skilful defence south of the resort. On 7 August the newly arrived 121st Infantry was sent to attack west of the Rance. The garrison at Dinan, just inland from the estuary, surrendered to the Americans. The 121st then pushed north, but found that every approach route was protected by roadblocks, barbed wire and strongpoints. On the afternoon of 8 August the 121st’s 3rd Battalion reached Pleurtuit, four miles from Dinant, but the leading troops were then cut off by a counterattack. After the fall of St. Joseph General Macon turned his attention to the Dinant front. The 331st Infantry was moved across the Rance to join the attack, and Macon took command in person. At this point he believed that the 121st Infantry had underperformed, but when his own troops attacked on 11 August they made very little progress, and he had to admit that the reason for the slow progress was the skill of the German defence. However the Americans were also fighting well – the isolated 3rd Battalion held on for three days until the 331st Infantry finally linked up with it on the afternoon of 12 August. The two regiments finally reached the suburbs of Dinard on 14 August, and the town was finally captured on 15 August, along with Bacherer. The Americans took 4,000 prisoners in the battle for Dinard.
This just left St. Malo itself. The historic core of St. Malo was protected in almost every direction by water. To the north was the sea, to the west the river and to the south and east large man-made docks. The main approach road was along a narrow spit of land between the sea and the docks, guarded at the western end by the chateau of Anne of Brittany.
On 9-12 August one battalion from the 330th Infantry attacked the fort of St. Ideuc, just to the east of Parame. This fell on 12 August, and on the following day the Americans captured the fort of la Verde, a little further to the north on the coast. At the same time another battalion from the 330th attacked along the narrow causeway. The Casino, at the eastern end of the causeway, fell on 11 August. The chateau was then bombarded for two days but without any obvious impact. The entire 330th Infantry attacked along the causeway on the morning of 14 August. They bypassed the Chateau, and quickly captured the burning ruins of the town. The defences of the Chateau surrendered in the afternoon.
American troops advanced along the causeway under the cover of artillery fire and smoke from the fires, and captured the old town.
The Germans now held a few offshore islands and the Citadel. This was a very heavily fortified area, on a separate peninsular to the south of the old town, surrounded by water on three sides. The Citadel now came under fire from ten battalions of artillery (including 8imn guns, 8in howitzers and 240mm howitzers) and increasingly heavy bombs, but without any apparent impact. At one point a night attack managed to get thirty men into the inner courtyard, but they could see no obvious damage! A captured German chaplain was sent into the Citadel to ask Aulock to surrender, but his answer was that ‘A German soldier does not surrender’.
The end finally came when two 8in guns were moved to within 1,500 yards of the fort and used for direct fire against the various portholes and vents. Some of these shots penetrated into the Citadel, undermining the defender’s morale. Finally, on 17 August, just before another air raid was due to hit, this time using napalm bombs, Aulock finally surrendered. Four hundred men surrendered with him.
The last Germans were now on the island of Cezembre. They held out against heavy artillery fire and heavy bombing, taking shelter in tunnels built into the rock. They finally surrendered on 2 September after the fire from HMS Warspite and heavy artillery on 1 September destroyed the water distilling plant. Another 320 men surrendered.
Aulock had managed to hold out for two weeks. During that time the harbour facilities had been destroyed so badly that they couldn’t be repaired in time to be of any use. He had also held up an entire division, slowing down the attack on Brest.