Operation Cobra was the name given to the American attempt to break out of the Normandy bridgehead established after D-Day in June 1944. Operation Cobra supported British, Polish and Canadians assaults to do the same in operations codenamed Atlantic, Spring, Totalise, Goodwood and Tractable.
The landings at D-Day had by and large been a huge success. The American losses at Omaha Beach had been the exception rather than the norm and despite these losses the US had captured their primary objectives by the end of June 6th. The D-Day landings had taken the Germans by surprise. Hitler had been convinced that the expected Allied landings would be in the Pays de Calais region. Therefore, a great deal of German military hardware was stationed there and not in Normandy. After D-Day, the Germans moved a great deal of equipment and men to Normandy. Therefore breaking out of the Normandy beachhead proved to be far more difficult that the actual landings at D-Day. By mid-June the Germans had reinforced many of their positions in Normandy and any advance inland was going to be difficult for the Allies.
For the British, Polish and Canadians, the city of Caen was a priority. The Allies viewed the control of the city as vital before they launched any projected sweep to Paris. However, the Germans also viewed the city as a linchpin to their defences in Normandy and were willing to fight to defend it.
The Americans wanted to use the attack on Caen as a smokescreen for their breakout from Normandy – Operation Cobra – and from Normandy into Brittany. The great prize in Brittany was the deep-water port of Cherbourg. While the Mulberry Harbour had done its job, it had only been a temporary solution to the Allies problem of supplying its huge force in France. The capture of Cherbourg, completed on June 27th, solved this at a stroke.
The general commanding US forces in Normandy was Omar Bradley. He had wanted Cobra to start in mid-July but poor weather meant that the start was delayed until July 25th 1944. Because the Germans had committed so many men and machines to maintaining control of Caen, the Americans faced a weakened German military.
As with Operation Goodwood, the actual advance of American ground forces on July 18th was preceded by a large aerial and artillery bombardment. It was expected that the shock value alone of such a bombardment would be enough to massively dishearten German forces. US artillery units in 7th and 8th Corps were given around 170,000 shells for the bombardment. Bradley also had 2,251 tanks at his disposal. 60% of these tanks were fitted with a saw-toothed scoop that allowed them to cut their way through the hedges (bocage) that had so hindered armoured advance to date in Normandy. German tanks invariably had to stick to the roads to allow for full mobility but many of Bradley’s tanks were now able to utilise the countryside to their advantage. The Germans had also used the majority of their tanks in an effort to repulse the British and Canadians attacking Caen, and these included the feared Tiger and King Tiger tanks. As a result, Bradley’s First Army faced just 190 German tanks.
The aerial offensive against German positions started on July 24th. However, as a result of poor weather, their own aircraft bombed a number of American positions and killed 25 soldiers and wounded 130. It was not the start to the attack that Bradley had hoped for. Some reports claimed that US soldiers on the ground fired on their own aircraft such was their anger.
The ground assault started on July 25th – sometime after Goodwood and Atlantic, much to the concern of the overall commander of land forces in Normandy, Bernard Montgomery. He had hoped for a co-ordinated attack on three fronts – two on Caen (east and west) with the Americans pushing west along the coastline to Brittany.
Once again the attack on the ground was preceded by an aerial attack. The US 8th Air Force had been tasked with carpet-bombing German positions to neutralise them before the US ground forces got to them. As with July 24th, some bombs were dropped on US positions with the result that 111 soldiers were killed and 490 wounded.
Despite the aerial and artillery bombardment, the Americans did not advance as far on Day One as they had hoped. 7th Corps gained just 2000 meters. The cause of this became clear. The bombing had caused a huge number of bomb craters. These alone hindered a forward advance. However, the Germans also managed to hide feared 88 mm guns in the rubble created by the aerial bombing. 88 mm guns had proved to be major ‘tank busters’ in the Normandy campaign and the First Army found that it had to tackle these one-by-one before it could advance – hence the slow advance. Also the damage caused by the bombing created a perfect terrain for German soldiers to engage in ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The Germans were not in a position to stop the US advance but they could delay it using these tactics.
However, intelligence gained from the battlefield clearly indicated that the Germans did not have any strength in depth nor did they have a consolidated battle line facing the Americans. It became clear to US commanders on the ground that they could easily bypass ‘hot spots’, leave them in the rear to be dealt with later, and continue with their move forward. By July 27th, 9th Division of 7th Corps found that they could advance free from German attacks.
On July 28th, the Germans attempted a counter-attack but it was a failure. By the end of the day the Panzer Lehr Division was, according to German records, “finally annihilated". German troops abandoned their vehicles and attempted to get out of the US stranglehold by foot. Crossing the countryside on foot and at night was considered to be a far safer way to safety than travelling by a vehicle of any description that would almost certainly attract the attention of either USAAF or RAF fighter aircraft.
The Americans certainly encountered German units willing to fight after this date but Bradley viewed these as irritants and concluded that they were more concerned with getting back to their own lines rather than defeating the US advance throughout Normandy and Brittany. The Americans were further helped by the British who launched Operation Bluecoat that was intended to tie down German units in the areas where the British were fighting.
The US entered Avranches on July 30th. Avranches was seen as the gateway to Normandy and Brittany, so its liberation was vital to Operation Cobra. The Germans launched their final counter-attack on July 31st but this was doomed to fail. The taking of Avranches saw the end of bocage countryside and freed up US mechanised units to use their speed and manoeuvrability, which had been so compromised by the terrain found in Normandy.
Even now, Hitler showed that he had no understanding of what had occurred in Normandy. He ordered the German officer in command of forces in Normandy – Marshal Kluge – to attack the Allies with a devastating counter-attack made up of eight Panzer divisions. At least four of these divisions had taken such a battering during Cobra that they probably were not capable of sustaining anything like a campaign against the Allies. Senior German officers protested to Hitler but were overruled. Operation Lüttich started on August 7th but ended as any form of real threat on August 8th. The Germans could only find 177 useable tanks and self-propelled guns.
American troops liberated Le Mans on August 8th and it became clear to Kluge that the entire German military in France was under threat. Even Bradley recognised that the Allies had the opportunity of destroying Germany’s military power in Nazi-occupied France, an opportunity that only came around for a military commander “every hundred years".
By August 19th, US, Polish, British and Canadian troops had nearly fully encircled soldiers from the German 5th and 7th Panzer armies at Falaise in the so-called Falaise Pocket. Between August 19th and 22nd, a gap in the east was used by German troops to escape and as many as 100,000 did. But by August 22nd, the gap had been closed and 50,000 German prisoners were taken along with nearly 350 tanks and 2500 other military vehicles. German resistance in Normandy had been broken and the drive to Paris could start.