That achievement, Bradley’s greatest, came when he was commanding the 12th Army Group in the Allied invasion of Europe. True, he stumbled badly in his failure to plan for warfare in the bocage just beyond the beaches of Normandy; and, also true, his subsequent obsession with capturing Brest in September 1944, well after Brittany had ceased to have immediate strategic importance (thanks to Bradley’s own generalship), squandered resources that would have been better invested in the eastward push. Yet it was Bradley who drew up Operation Cobra, the intricately coordinated breakout from Normandy and the springboard to European liberation. As a commander of combat on a vast scale, this was his masterpiece—yet Operation Cobra has drawn controversial postwar assessments, many turning on the question of Patton’s role in the operation.
Stalled in hedgerow country during the long weeks following D-Day, Bradley abandoned advancing along a broad front and instead concentrated on a 6,000-yard front five miles west of Saint-Lô. Intensive aerial bombardment, closely coordinated with the advance, was to soften the German defensive line, through which the infantry would tear a gap for armor to roll through to the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. This would cut off the German LXXXIV Corps, which held the highway between Saint-Lô and Perriers-Lessay. Once this road was open, the breakthrough could continue along it and be expanded into the general breakout on which the entire invasion hinged. Thus Operation Cobra, as Bradley conceived it. On July 23, 1944, Patton noted in his diary, “Cobra is really a very timid operation…[but] it is the best operation which had been planned so far, and I hope it works.”
The launch of Cobra was bedeviled by bad weather. Scheduled to step off on July 21, it was twice postponed because thick cloud cover grounded the bombers. When weather officers predicted a clear day for July 24, Bradley authorized the bombers to take off from their English bases, but when clouds persisted over the target areas, he ordered their recall. One group failed to get the message and dropped their ordnance through the clouds, directly on the U.S. 30th Division, inflicting heavy casualties. Bradley relaunched on July 25, with the same disastrous result.
He went to bed that night thinking that Cobra would prove an abortive failure. He was wrong. The air attacks continued through July 26, and the infantry advanced according to plan, sending battered German defenders into full retreat. On the morning of July 27, “Lightning Joe” Collins, commanding VII Corps, pushed his armor through the gap torn by bombers and infantry assault, just as Bradley had planned. Bradley had his breakthrough and did not hesitate to exploit it, rewriting operational orders at noon on July 27. Originally, VII Corps was to have advanced to Coutances, cutting across VIII Corps’ route of advance. Now he ordered both corps to roll down the Cotentin Peninsula together, pushing all the way to Avranches, from which all of Brittany could be overrun.
Up to this point, Patton had been idling in the wings, and up to this point, Bradley had gotten along without him. In truth, Bradley was not pleased to have Patton in his command. When Eisenhower informed Bradley at the end of April 1944 that he had cabled General Marshall his intention to send the troublesome Patton back to the States, Bradley “fully concurred” and also agreed with his selection of Courtney Hodges to command Third Army, which had been created expressly for Patton. Bradley believed that “Patton was a superb field general and leader—perhaps our very best,” but his “many human and professional flaws…held the potential for…disaster.” The depth of Bradley’s misgivings about Patton may be gauged not only by his willingness to see a brilliant combat commander sacrificed, but to condone his replacement by Hodges, an officer about whom Bradley had begun to “fret privately” when he was tapped to command First Army in Bradley’s army group.
All this changed when, having finally achieved a faster and bigger breakthrough in Normandy than he had imagined possible, Bradley needed to transform Operation Cobra from a local breakthrough into a full-scale breakout. Having presented himself to Eisenhower in a state of abject contrition, Patton had been reprieved and was restored to command of Third Army. Now Bradley could not get him into action soon enough. On July 28, he assigned Patton to unofficial command of Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps until August 1, when Third Army would be officially activated with that corps as part of it. Middleton was competent and stable, a slow and steady engine suited to heavy hauling. Patton was volatile and brilliant, a hot machine fit for racing—which was just what Bradley wanted now.
Many historians give Patton the credit for transforming Cobra into the ambitious operation that launched the 12th Army Group’s magnificent advance across France and into Germany. But the fact is that Patton joined Cobra only at Bradley’s invitation and insistence, and only after Bradley himself had begun to expand the operation.