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Weekend Reading: Max Gladstone's Choice of the Deathless

Liveblogging World War II: July 26, 1944: St. Lo Breakout

NewImageDon Marsh: St. Lo Breakout:

On the night of 25-26 July 1944 Combat Command "A" moved west and south to a new assembly area in the vicinity of Port Hubert, France, in preparation for the St. Lo Breakout. General Bradley's plan for the aerial bombardment did not go exactly according to plan. The aerial saturation bombing was scheduled earlier, but the weather postponed it until this morning. The front line troops were pulled back a "safe distance" of 1,200 yards as the result of a compromise between General Bradley and the Army Air Corps Bomber Command. The Air Corps wanted 3,000 yards, but Bradley insisted on 800 yards, not willing to risk losing this ground to the enemy after the bombing ceased. Hindsight later proved the American casualties would have been far less had the Air Corps prevailed and increased the "safe" distance to a minimum of 3,000--or more yards.

It was near 1000 hours when the bombers came over in a never-ending sky train in waves of heavy aircraft dumping their loads, including many bomb loads that went astray killing American GIs. Immediately the finger pointing began over who was responsible for this fratricide.

Those on the ground were not the only casualties as we watched a B-17 Flying Fortress that had been hit. He was coming down with all four engines dead, is one sight I can never forget. He was losing altitude and the props were not turning. Then they popped out the red flares meaning they had wounded on board. The pilot was doing all he could to glide the plane over our lines to crash land in friendly territory. We didn't see the exact spot he came down although they made it inside our lines. There was a helluva lot of air activity that day. We were watching from our foxholes and pulling for our guys to make it, knowing full well some of those flyboys would not make the 25-missions to return to the USA.

BG Rose gave the order at 26 0200B July 1944, with Combat Command "A" leading the Division, Corps and Army in making the breakthrough. CCA crossed the Line of Departure at 0945 hours. The attack began in a line of two battalions abreast; 2nd Battalion of the 66th on the right and 3rd Battalion of the 66th on the left. Infantrymen from the 4th Infantry Division's 22nd Regiment rode the backs of the Sherman tanks. Despite heavy resistance by all arms; the Command gained its initial objective, Le Mesnil Herman, by 27 0200B July 1944, having continued the attack throughout the night to do so.

Historians and biographers would later claim that "BG Maurice led the fangs of Operation Cobra" which is accurate, up to a point. After the 30th Infantry Division made the initial breech in the line, the 120th Infantry Regiment held the door open for Rose and CCA. However, the venom in the fangs was led by Rose's 66th Armored Tank Regiment; appropriately code named, Python, commanded by Rose's successor, the 66th CO, Colonel John Howell "Peewee" Collier. The tankers of the 66th Armored Regiment Companies, with the 22nd Infantry Regiment, along with the men from the 82nd Recon Battalion were actually the true fer de lance that smashed through the German defenses, made the penetrations and kept going!

Rose's tactics, as important as they were, totally relied on the company and field grade officers' decisions at ground level. In the fog of war, in close combat, guidance and directives from higher headquarters cannot make the split second decisions made by the man "on the line" with his hand on the trigger.

Rose's proven combat tactical plan was to probe, find that one weak spot, penetrate and drive forward as long as you have momentum. Rose was relentless in pursuit of the enemy and drove us night and day without let-up. Once we broke their line of defense open, we were facing Germans on both flanks and in front of us. For a time, we were out in front completely alone. The infantry had not caught up to protect our flanks. Talk about taking chances! We had our columns to the rear cut several times, but it did not alter Rose's strategy of "keep pushing!"

That first day and night was one I will never forget. The St. Lo Breakthrough had just begun in earnest and we had already seen so much fighting that day. We passed through the carnage from the slaughter of both German and American losses of men and vehicles. What our tanks and artillery didn't annihilate, our Army Air Corps fighter pilots in the P-47s and P51s did. The sight of burning destroyed tanks, both theirs and ours with men half draped out of the turrets. Their fellow tank crewmembers' scorched bodies lay beside the tanks where they had fallen as they attempted to escape. No prisoners were taken as I can recall.

General Rose never remained in the CCA Command Post while on the move. You could always find him with the lead task force. When he was out of radio communications, as he often was, messengers would be sent to locate him by jeep and motorcycle. One such night in the firefight for Canisy, the XO, Lt. Col. Bailey, ordered Lt. Moll to send four of us in the Wire jeep to find him up ahead with the lead Task Force.

As I wrote home to my folks later trying to describe what I had experienced, I found it difficult to put into words, but here is part of my letter I wrote them on August 7, 1944:

Another incident that occurred during that push of ours was when we drove through a "city of fire" caused by bombing and shelling in advance. Four of us (Jones, Hull, Veno and myself) were in a jeep as we tore through that wall of flame on both sides of us. All this in the early hours of the morning and we had been without sleep for over forty-eight hours at the time. After we had passed through and got up the road some distance, without finding Rose, we had to double back and contact the rest of our column.

We same four started back in the jeep and a guard halted us inside the city saying there was a Kraut Tiger tank running loose in town.

We had halted in a town square, which was encircled with buildings on fire. The infantryman came out of the shadows of a building with his rifle leveled at us. Jones gave him the password and got out of the jeep to ask him if he had seen General Rose. Veno, driving the jeep, with Hull and myself in the back, knew we were silhouetted in light of the fires, decided to back into the shadows in the direction we came from. Jones, seeing the jeep leaving ran over and in his best southern Alabama twang said, "Veno, I will swat you up alongside your head with my Tommy gun if you ever think of leaving me behind again!"

So instead of playing tag with that big baby, we moved up the road some more, found an empty house and slept til dawn. Four of us walked into the house that night, but there were five of us there in the morning. A Kraut had slept in the room next to us all night! He walked out in the morning and surrendered to one of our officers, Captain W. W. Lawler, 41st Inf.

When you're part of a Spearhead in a drive you feel like the guy who put his head in the lion's mouth. You never know when the jaws will swing shut and some of the pockets of resistance that we have to bypass enroute can sure cause some hellish nights for all concerned. We were moving up a road one night when one of the "small pockets of resistance" proved to be a little stronger than first expected. There were ten Tiger/Panther tanks supported by infantry and they cut off our column. In general, everyone remained calm and we dug in on the spot.

We coiled in the field and set up a perimeter defense. Those of us in the wire section were assigned to a two-man listening post for guard duty. Sitting back-to-back we watched the fields of grain wave back and forth with the light breezes in the bright moonlight, expecting any moment to see a German crawling towards us. No movement was detected and no alarms were made. The night passed without a shot being fired.

What made things tough when darkness was about to fall was that is when the Kraut bombers came over. You can almost set your watch by them nightly. Just around ten-thirty you can hear that heavy approaching drone that sounds like an overloaded truck crawling up a steep hill in low-low gear, cutting in and out. Anyhow they came over, dropped their flares, and began their run. Then they hung around to strafe us. The longer they stayed the more inspiration they gave me for digging in.

One day I dug three foxholes and each time we'd stop I'd dig in next to a hedgerow the first thing. I'd no sooner get the damn hole dug down and then back under when we'd get the order to move up again. Most of the time that advance was only a couple fields over, or a thousand yards or so.

As I later wrote, it was all an unforgettable scene. In the aftermath, there was nothing alive on that single stretch of road. A lot of the time you saw the dead and dying, but not this time. Anything, man or beast that had been alive once was now dead with bodies torn, dismembered, disemboweled, burnt, decapitated, flattened from tanks driving over bodies and mutilated beyond one's imagination. One tank stands out more than all others in my mind: the turret had been blown off, the charred remains of what had been the driver was all that was left in the tank. I could see a pair of burnt hands grasping the controls. Only the hands. The arms and torso were gone. The man's head was missing. What was left of his hips, pelvic area and legs were burnt black and charred in his seat. This was one of our tanks and one of our men. An unforgettable battlefield abattoir.

The nearby fields were littered with dead animals, more innocent victims who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can never forget the horse-drawn German gun carriages and the wagons of all descriptions that were shot to pieces on that one stretch of road. The ghastly look on the face of the horses is still etched in my memory. Their eyes held that look of the horror of war. I looked away from the pitiful sight for fear I would see the same reflection of my eyes. The beast of mankind killed the innocent beasts. Rigor mortis sets in rapidly and soon their legs would be pointed to the road of death, their bellies bloat from the gas in decomposition and contribute to the aroma of death. This is the stench we remember all too well. The odor of burnt flesh is the worst. You want to shower to get the smell out of your clothing, hair and mind, but showers are a luxury soldiers in war seldom get to experience.

Sooner or later you get to wash your clothes, but how do you cleanse your mind of such horrible memories? You don't, you bring it home with you, among your souvenirs you can keep in a special place in a far corner of your mind. The door is never locked so you can visit the memory, if you are so inclined. Some do, some don't. Years go bye and you have never given it any thought, then out of the blue something clicks in your brain and the whole scene appears again in Technicolor. To me the burning question is always "why?" If I ever figure out an answer, I'll write it down so that others don't forget.

Next came the battle for Villebaudon and the vital crossroads. The Krauts put up fanatical resistance and hammered us with "screaming meemies", the name we gave their Nebelwerfer rockets. You might question their pinpoint accuracy, but not the impact nor the terrifying noise they made coming in. Rapid firing of six rockets and mobile, they launched them with several batteries firing simultaneously without let up. Between the rockets, mortars and the 88 mm artillery pieces they employed they had their effect and took their toll.

Although our pilots were eliminating a lot of obstacles in our path when they come down to bomb and strafe well, they too sometimes pull boners I know. One guy let go a 500-pound egg (bomb) right above us. I was in my hole at the time and heard it coming. I rolled over and flattened out as much as possible in those cramped quarters. It seemed like a lifetime before it hit and as its whine grew in volume I could have sworn it was coming straight for my hole. I felt the rabbit in me and I wanted to get up and run anywhere do anything to get out of that hole. There was nowhere to go and it would have been fatal mistake. I felt a strong concussion and then as the dirt began to cover me I thought each clod was a piece of the bomb fragments and I was about to die. I thought my number was up. It all happened in a few seconds and when the rumpus died down I shook the dirt off and got up. I was wringing wet with cold sweat. We were pinned down in an open field of hedgerows when it exploded less than 10 yards from us. What a relief to learn that I wasn't scratched and I was still very much alive it was really a terrifying experience to say the least. Afterwards, we laughed about it and I had a few words to say to our fellow Air Corps liaison tank crew, named Cut Break, under the command of 1stLt. Philip B. Reisler, assigned to CCA for "Air-to-Ground-Close-Coordination!" Attacks were made on the Command by enemy bomber aircraft each night without letup...