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Noted for Your Morning Procrastination for July 31, 2014

Liveblogging World War II: July 31, 1944: Breakout Through Avranches

NewImageRichard Atkinson: The Guns at Last Light:

The first glimpse of Lieutenant General George S. Patton, Jr., for many soldiers came in Avranches, where he leaped from his jeep into an umbrella-covered police box and directed convoy traffic through a congested roundabout for ninety minutes. Assigned by Bradley to oversee VIII Corps’s drive south, Patton had helped shove seven divisions past Avranches in seventy-two hours, cigar smoldering as he snarled at occasional Luftwaffe marauders, “Those goddamned bastards, those rotten sons-of-bitches! We’ll get them.” When a subordinate called to report his position, Patton bellowed, “Hang up and keep going.” In a Norman landscape of smashed vehicles, grass fires, and charred German bodies, he added, “Could anything be more magnificent? Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, how I love it.”

At noon on Tuesday, August 1, his U.S. Third Army officially came into being, with nine divisions under three corps. At the same instant, Bradley ascended to command the new 12th Army Group, complementing 21st Army Group while still subordinate to Montgomery. Bradley’s former deputy, Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, succeeded him as First Army commander. “We are advancing constantly,” Patton told his staff. “From here on out, until we win or die in the attempt, we will always be audacious.”...

Bradley had bluntly warned him: “You know, George, I didn’t ask for you.” But Bradley soon found himself impressed by a man who seemed more “judicious, reasonable, and likeable than in the Mediterranean.” To his soldiers, Patton promised that the enemy would “raise up on their hind legs and howl, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s the goddamn Third Army and that son-of-a-bitch Patton again.’” Now here they were, sluicing into Brittany with open flanks and a vulnerable rear. “I had to keep repeating to myself, ‘Do not take counsel of your fears,’” Patton told his diary on August 1. To Bea he wrote that combat “always scares and lures me, like steeple-chasing.” He ordered laminated battle maps of the sort he had carried in Tunisia and Sicily—ten by twenty inches each, with a scale of eight miles to the inch. When the set was delivered, he scowled. “It only goes as far east as Paris,” he complained. “I’m going to Berlin.”

First he was going to Brest, and no special map was needed to see that Brest lay west while Paris and Berlin lay east. Only the seizure of a Normandy beachhead ranked higher in importance for OVERLORD planners than the capture of Brittany and its ports: St.-Malo, St.-Nazaire, Lorient, Brest, and Quiberon Bay, for which another grandiose artificial harbor was envisioned. Delays in shaking free of Normandy, as well as the cautionary tales of Mulberry A and scorched-earth demolitions at Cherbourg, failed to dampen the ardor of Eisenhower and his logisticians. Patton’s army was to take Brittany. But the collapse of the German left wing gave Montgomery pause, and as early as July 27 he had suggested that the campaign in Brittany might require only a single corps. Neither Bradley nor Patton took the hint.

Patton, whose doghouse status made him leery of challenging Eisenhower’s master plan, wagered Montgomery £5 that GIs would be in Brest by Saturday night, August 5. Claiming “a sixth sense by which I can always know to a moral certainty what the enemy is going to do,” Patton insisted that “there aren’t more than ten thousand Krauts in the entire [Brittany] peninsula.” That was wrong by a factor of at least six.

But to his 6th Armored Division, then 150 miles from the objective, he issued a two-word order on August 1: “Take Brest.” On the same day, Third Army’s other spearhead, the 4th Armored Division, raced forty miles south from Avranches to the outskirts of Rennes, the Breton capital and a nexus for ten trunk roads. Here an epiphany struck Major General John S. Wood, the beetle-browed division commander. Known as P.—for “Professor,” because he had tutored his classmates at West Point—Wood had attended the academy to play football after graduating from the University of Arkansas, where he studied chemistry. A devoted rose gardener and a linguist who had read both De Gaulle and the German panzer mastermind Heinz Guderian in the original, Wood often buzzed above the battlefield in a Piper Cub with red streamers flapping from the wingtips so that his men below could recognize him. “We’re winning this war the wrong way,” Wood declared. “We ought to be going toward Paris.” The French capital was only sixty miles farther from Rennes than Brest; Brittany was a cul-de-sac, while Paris led to the Reich. Wood ordered two 4th Armored columns to outflank Rennes and cut seven of those ten roads; the city fell on August 4. Proposing to reach Chartres—150 miles east—in two days, Wood radioed Patton, “Dear George... Trust we can turn around and get headed in right direction soon.” Instead he was dispatched west into Brittany for a bloody siege at Lorient...

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