The Battle for Brittany took place between August and October 1944. After breaking out of the Normandy beach head in June 1944, Brittany was targeted because of its naval bases at Lorient, St. Nazaire and Brest. U-boats and surface raiders had used these bases, despite a bombing campaign by the RAF, and the Germans had launched ‘Operation Cerberus’ from Brest in 1942. So their capture would have ended any concerns that the Allies might have had about their potential further use. They would also prove very useful to the Allies as they needed as many ports as they could to land the vast amount of supplies their men needed.
The Americans were given the task of liberating Brittany. The US 8th Corps, led by General Middleton, moved east to west across the north of Brittany with Brest as their major target. The US 20th Corps, led by General Walker, moved south the Nantes. The plan was for both units to link up at Lorient. Once Brittany had been liberated, the Allies had decided to build a new harbour at Quiberon, south-west of Lorient. They had concluded that the Germans would destroy all the harbours in Brittany before the Americans could liberate them and that Quiberon, sheltered as it was from the Atlantic Ocean, would be a perfect place to construct a new harbour.
With the Germans in disarray after D-Day, the drive into Brittany should have been relatively easy once the Cotentin Peninsula had been taken. The capture of the bridge at Pontaubault which crossed the River Sélune, south of Avranches, was a great bonus. However, arguments between Bradley and Patton as to how Brittany should be taken did not help the Americans. For example, as the US 8th Corps advanced, Middleton determined that he should keep up with his men to facilitate communication. However, Patton ordered that Middleton should stay near his army headquarters which resulted in him losing contact with his divisions very early on in the campaign. He wrote that his ability to contact his men was “practically nil”.
The 8th Corps rapidly advanced into northern Brittany. However, this success brought problems. The issue of communication is mentioned above. One other problem was the difficulty of supplying an army that was on the move. There was little time to set up supply bases and the whole issue of logistics became an ad hoc one.
|“Within a couple of days we were passing out rations like Santa Claus on his sleigh, with both giver and received on the move. The trucks were like a band of stage coaches making a run through Indian territory. We got used to keeping the wheels going, disregarding the snipers, and hoping we wouldn’t get lost or hit.”Member of a logistics unit|
The advance of the 8th Corps also brought with it a problem that involved the French Resistance. Whereas the resistance had played a major but invisible role at D-Day the campaign in Brittany was one where the French Resistance was to openly fight the Germans. A French officer based in London, Albert Eon, was flown in to lead the 20,000 men and women of the resistance based in Brittany. However, they needed modern equipment. This was parachuted in. The problem was that the Americans advanced so quickly that the equipment was frequently dropped in areas already taken by the Americans so that the resistance fighters had to wait for it to be moved up to them. Regardless of such glitches, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) did have its triumphs. FFI troops attacked and captured the Vannes airfield using armoured jeeps brought in by gliders; 150 Frenchmen took important rail bridges at and near Morlaix. Groups of FFI openly accompanied the Americans – their local knowledge about the layout of the land was very important to the Americans.
One reason for the speed of the Americans advance was German disarray after D-Day. Another reason was that the German commander in Brittany, General Fahrmbacher, had ordered all of his troops to the heavily defended ports – therefore, there were fewer Germans in the interior of Brittany than the Americans had thought. Hitler had designated the ports as fortresses “to be defended to the last man, to the last cartridge”.
When the 20th Corps entered Nantes on August 6th, they found its port facilities in ruins. On the same day, the Americans got into the outskirts of Brest. Reconnaissance showed that any attack on the heart of the city would be a major one. Brest was, as Hitler had ordered, a fortress. The city did not actually fall until September 18th – some 5 weeks after the American 6th Armoured Division had got into the city’s outskirts.
The Americans faced similar problems at St. Malo on the northern coast of Brittany. Intelligence from the Resistance informed the Americans that the Germans had 10,000 men in the ports. However, the Americans decided that there were only 5,000. In fact, St. Malo was guarded by 12,000 German troops. Local dignitaries tried to persuade the German commander at St. Malo, General Andreas von Aulock, to surrender the ancient city. He refused.
|“I was placed in command of this fortress, I did not request it. I will execute the orders I have received and, doing my duty as a soldier, I will fight to the last stone. I will defend St. Malo to the last man even if the last man has to be myself.”von Aulock|
St. Malo was also heavily defended – as was the surrounding area. The Americans encountered fierce opposition but they gradually advanced to the city’s citadel, where von Aulock had his headquarters. The construction of the citadel meant that 1000-pound bombs were of little use against its walls – likewise 1000-pound armour piercing bombs. A captured German army chaplain asked von Aulock to surrender his forces there. He refused with the comment “a German soldier does not surrender”. The Americans brought up two 8-inch artillery guns that fired from just 1,500 meters directly onto port holes and vents. The Americans were preparing to drop napalm onto the citadel when Aulock surrendered with 400 men. The Americans found him “unbearably arrogant”. However, von Aulock had succeeded in holding up the American advance by two weeks – even if the ancient city had been devastated – see photo above.
The Americans faced a similar resolve in Brest. They, along with the FFI, had to attack and destroy over 75 strong points in the city. It was slow and time consuming work. By the time of Germany’s surrender on September 18th, the Americans had lost 10,000 killed and wounded. Brest was destroyed – including its harbour. Rather than risk the same at Lorient and St. Nazaire, the Americans simply surrounded the ports for the rest of the war and kept the Germans where they were. Their surrender came at the end of the war. The need for the port facilities in Brittany became redundant when Antwerp was captured in November.