Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was facing one of his greatest battlefield challenges during the first week of July 1944. In spite of a large concentration of German tanks opposite Caen, the Allies continued to expand their Normandy lodgment. Several armored counterattacks against the British Second Army had failed. Worse, the decision to conduct a protracted defense south of Cherbourg also led to defeat. When the full force of the American VII Corps struck the Cotentin Peninsula in mid-June, the Germans were compelled to rapidly retreat and give up the important port city, which surrendered on June 25.
Cherbourg’s loss released four additional American infantry divisions for a renewed drive south toward Périers and St. Lô. Although the Americans found it very difficult to make significant gains in the hedgerows, the pressure they exerted on that portion of the front soon proved too great for Rommel to ignore. While additional divisions were en route from Brittany, they would most likely not arrive in time. Instead, Rommel was forced to divert panzer divisions from the Caen sector to shore up the depleted units facing the Americans until significant numbers of fresh infantry were available.
On July 7, the Americans crossed the Vire et Taute Canal north of St. Lô, prompting Rommel to shift Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein’s elite Panzer Lehr from the Caen sector. Bayerlein was an experienced commander whose combat record included service with Rommel in North Africa. He commanded one of the best equipped and trained armored formations in the German army, and the ‘Desert Fox’ doubtless considered his old associate ideally suited to conduct this important attack.
To gain the advantage of surprise, Bayerlein planned to move his division westward during the hours of darkness, transferring only a portion each night spread over the period of several days. Despite his careful precautions, the Americans discovered that the transfer was taking place. The U.S. First Army intelligence report for July 10 noted: ‘Favored by the weather, the enemy conducted a general withdrawal to a line running from 1 1/2 kilometers south of and generally parallel to the St. Lô-Périers highway. This withdrawal was covered by the commitment of Replacement Battalion 371 and the noisy march of Panzer Lehr across our front and its commitment in front of XIX Corps. It should be noted that this division frequently broke radio silence en route.’
Fortunately for Bayerlein, the Americans did not equate his arrival with an imminent counterattack. Instead, they believed Panzer Lehr would be split up into battle groups to augment German infantry units already trying to hold the line.
Even before the bulk of his division arrived, Bayerlein turned his attention to drawing up a plan of attack. His immediate mission was to restore the situation north of St. Lô. Bayerlein planned to accomplish this by securing the towns of St. Jean de Daye and St. Fromond in a pre-dawn assault. Once those initial objectives were secured, Bayerlein would bring up artillery to place observed fire on crossings over the Vire River and Vire et Taute Canal. With their route of escape blocked to the north and east, the Americans facing Panzer Lehr would either be forced to surrender or flee westward across swampy terrain after abandoning their heavy equipment.
After receiving their chief’s orders, Bayerlein’s regimental commanders developed their own detailed plans. Colonel Georg Scholze, commanding Panzergrenadier Regiment (PGR) 901, planned to push north to St. Jean de Daye with two battle groups in the lead and one trailing. After the lead elements captured the town, the trailing battle group would occupy the high ground (Hill 30) located one mile to the northeast. From there, artillery fire could be placed on all crossings over the Vire et Taute Canal. Scholze’s regiment would be reinforced by a company of armored engineers and Panzerkampfwagen Mark V (Pzkw. V) Panther tanks from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th companies of Panzer Regiment 6.
Lieutenant Colonel Willi Welsch commanded PGR 902. He envisioned a rapid push northward with two battalions attacking abreast to secure the village of Cavigny. After pausing to reorganize, PGR 902 would then seize the bridge over the Vire River at St. Fromond. Welsch’s regiment would be reinforced by a company of armored engineers and three companies of Pzkw. IV medium tanks from the 5th, 7th and 8th companies of Panzer Regiment 130.
In addition to the two Panzergrenadier regiments, Bayerlein was promised the use of SS PGR 3 (Kampfgruppe Wisliceny), Infantry Regiment 984 (Kampfgruppe Heintz), a battalion from SS PGR 38, Parachute Reconnaissance Battalion 12 and Engineer Battalion ‘Angers.’ Kampfgruppen Wisliceny and Heintz, along with Engineer Battalion Angers, would assist PGR 902. Scholze would be supported by elements of SS PGR 38 and Parachute Reconnaissance Battalion 12.
Even with those reinforcements, Bayerlein realized the attack would be difficult to pull off. Opposite his division were the U.S. 9th and 30th Infantry divisions. The former was an experienced formation that had seen combat in North Africa and Sicily. While the 30th Division’s first action was in Normandy, since arriving in June the former National Guard outfit had quickly proved to be a respected opponent. Both American divisions were reinforced by tanks and artillery from the 3rd Armored Division.
Bayerlein designated 0145 hours on July 11 as the start time for the attack. Although moving an armored column into the attack at night was risky, Panzer Lehr‘s commander hoped that the darkness would cloak his movements until the last possible moment. It would also prevent artillery spotting aircraft from directing the fire of the array of guns the Americans possessed. In preparation for the assault, a steadily increasing barrage of artillery and mortar fire was placed on the Americans during the afternoon of July 10. The incoming shelling was so intense that U.S. commanders were compelled to halt their own advance, and by early evening they had consolidated their positions in preparation to move out again at 0700 the next day.
Although the artillery barrage had given Bayerlein some time to prepare his attack, other problems continued to dog him. The staggered arrival of his division meant that many of his attacking units did not have sufficient time to reconnoiter key terrain along their own route of advance. To make matters even worse, some of the early arrivals were forced to fight small engagements with the Americans as they settled down for the night rather than make their own final preparations for the attack. Exhausted after the hasty advance to the jump-off point and their subsequent combat with the Americans, those units had to wait until complete darkness at 2300 before breaking off contact with the GIs and rejoining their parent units. The haphazard nature of his units’ arrival and the speed with which the attack had to be launched meant that Bayerlein possessed an incomplete picture of American dispositions and intentions. Now it would be the Germans’ turn to advance into the maze of the Norman hedgerows.Despite the many problems, Panzer Lehr advanced as ordered at 0145. Carefully picking their way northward, the Germans soon began encountering opposition. In the eastern half of the division zone, Captain Böhm’s 2nd Battalion, PGR 902, ran into the Americans shortly before 0300.
Believing that the Germans were unlikely to launch an attack of their own, when an outpost of the 30th Division heard the approaching German tanks, they believed they belonged to the 3rd Armored Division and allowed Böhm’s men to pass through their lines without a shot being fired. Unaware of the presence of the GIs, a company of Panzergrenadiers, supported by four Pzkw. IVs from Lieutenant Alphonse Peters’ 8th Company, Panzer Regiment 130, and a section of halftrack-mounted flamethrowers soon found themselves in the midst of Lt. Col. Paul McCollum’s 3rd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment.
In the crowded terrain, the movement of a column of armored vehicles could not go undetected for long, however. Corporal Marvin Hayes was guarding McCollum’s command post and was the first to detect the enemy in the Americans’ midst. After seeing several German vehicles stream past his post, a shaken Hayes entered the battalion command tent and said that he believed enemy tanks were in the immediate vicinity.
Startled staff officers began peppering the corporal with questions. Finally, McCollum urged everyone to quiet down. Unwilling to believe that the enemy was in any position to launch such a bold attack, the battalion commander explained that the vehicles were probably friendly. Hayes, however, responded by stating that he had distinctly heard German voices when the lead vehicle stopped for a few moments.
As the headquarters staff tried to discern the situation, a field telephone buzzed. The excited caller explained that a German armored vehicle was firing at Company K’s position as well as at a nearby friendly tank. This news sent McCollum’s staff scrambling for weapons and ammunition.
As the Americans attempted to sort things out and take action, Sgt. Maj. Harry Peters directed all the battalion’s rifle companies to position bazooka teams on nearby roads and trails.
Lieutenant Charles Pritchard, the battalion’s communications officer, was loading a jeep-mounted light machine gun when a Pzkw. IV halted only a few yards away from the command post. Pritchard squeezed the trigger when he saw a German in the cupola react to the noise of someone stepping on a dry branch. Seconds later, a bazooka rocket launched by Private George Talarico burst against the turret, followed closely by two more explosions as a Company D bazooka team also engaged the German tank.
Captain Chris McCullough, commanding Company I, soon appeared with several men. Private Talarico, accompanied by McCullough and Captain Cornelius Schaeffer, proceeded to assault two more panzers behind the leading Pzkw. IV. ‘I went down the hedgerow with another bazooka man from Company I,’ Talarico recalled. ‘We both fired at the [second] tank. I fired my carbine between bazooka blasts. Lieutenant Colonel McCollum was beside me and directed some of my shots.’ Captains McCullough and Schaeffer launched antitank grenades at the second panzer before rushing it. The two captains were so close to the German tank when they fired that McCullough was slightly wounded by the blast from his own rocket. Despite his wounds, McCullough managed to climb aboard the tank and stuff several hand grenades into the turret.
Staff Sergeant Alfred Hutman of Company D engaged the third panzer with his bazooka. The resolute McCullough soon joined him, opening fire with a rifle-mounted antitank grenade launcher. Although Hutman and McCullough both managed to score solid hits, the damaged Pzkw. IV rumbled off into the night. With the attack of their tanks checked by the determined American resistance, the accompanying enemy foot soldiers seemed to lose heart. Moments after the remaining panzer limped off, the surviving Germans near the command post departed, leaving behind their dead and wounded.
There would be no rest for Captain McCullough, however. He was heading back to his company aid station to have his wounds dressed when he heard a loud burst of firing. Forced to turn around by an unexpected roadblock, two German scout cars and a flamethrower-equipped halftrack sped toward the captain with machine guns blazing. Desperate to suppress the Americans in the hedgerows and make their escape, the German vehicles were indiscriminately spraying the hedgerows lining the road. As they got closer, McCullough hit the dirt and rolled into a roadside ditch just as a stream of flame passed overhead.
The barrage of enemy fire came to a halt, however, when Private Sigmund Wisnewski of Company D knocked out the halftrack and both scout cars with the .50-caliber machine gun he was manning. Furious after his narrow escape from being burned alive, McCullough grabbed a light machine gun from one of his men and proceeded to march along the line of disabled vehicles, spraying bullets at every bush and shadow that could conceal an enemy soldier.
While Böhm’s assault had been unannounced, the attack against Colonel Alfred V. Ednie’s neighboring 119th Infantry started out a bit differently. Rather than relying on surprise, an artillery barrage preceded the German advance in that sector. The shellfire struck the regimental command post. At 0630, the first of four concentrations of artillery fire hit the Americans and wounded one of the regimental dentists; the second burst of fire wounded an attached civil affairs officer; the third killed Major Edmund S. Kanses, the regimental surgeon; and the fourth severely shell shocked the regimental communications officer. In all there were 17 casualties.
Major Kuhnow’s 1st Battalion of PGR 902, which up to that point had avoided the forward elements of the 119th’s 2nd Battalion, soon bumped into Lt. Col. Edwin Wallis’ battalion command post near the village of la Coquerie. At 0700 a weary guard belatedly spotted a pair of Pzkw. IVs that had made their way to within 100 yards of Wallis’ headquarters.
Staff Sergeant Thomas Steele of the battalion’s antitank platoon mistakenly believed at first that only enemy foot soldiers were approaching. Rather than ready his 57mm antitank gun, he instead manned a .30-caliber machine gun mounted on a nearby truck. Steele soon realized his mistake when the lead Pzkw. IV opened fire and destroyed a nearby 57mm gun and its prime mover.
As tracer bullets swept past, Steele abandoned the machine gun and ran over to his 57mm gun. Operating the cannon by himself, he aimed his weapon at the muzzle flashes of the German tank as it fired on other American vehicles. Steele was joined moments later by Sergeant Fred Womack, who took over the duties of loader. Corporal Walter Scarborough arrived next with several additional rounds of ammunition and took over loading after Womack was wounded. Trading point-blank shots with the Germans, Steele and Scarborough stood to their gun and managed to score a direct hit on the enemy tank. With the road to its front blocked and hemmed in on both sides by the tall hedgerows, the second panzer was forced to retreat.
While the two resolute gunners caught their breath, assistance arrived in the form of Lieutenant Donald Wilson, the 119th Infantry’s Regimental Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon leader. Accompanied by Captain James E. Kerwin, the pair opened fire on the attackers. Caught between the fire of the two officers as well as Steele and Scarborough, the Germans began to retreat. The remaining panzer was later knocked out by a bazooka team from the 823rd Tank Destroyer (TD) Battalion.
The regiment was not out of the woods just yet. Despite the repulse, Kuhnow was determined to resume his advance, and he directed his men to conduct a flanking move to the east, where they soon collided with the 119th’s 3rd Battalion. As the battle raged, jeeps loaded with desperately needed ammunition braved the enemy fire to resupply the Americans.
The GIs kept fighting, but they were barely holding on. Still locked in combat with the Germans, at sunrise the hard-pressed Americans greeted the daylight with relief. By 0800 airborne artillery spotters were finally able to direct fire against the enemy panzers and infantry. At 0845 the 113th and 197th Field Artillery battalions began pounding a concentration of German tanks in front of the embattled 2nd Battalion. Unwilling to give up their attack just yet, however, the Germans responded in kind, returning the compliment shell for shell, particularly targeting elements of the 3rd Armored Division. The 33rd Armored Regiment’s Reconnaissance Company, for example, lost two vehicles and suffered one man killed and four wounded during the barrage. The 391st Armored Artillery Battalion had 12 wounded and lost three vehicles to the German artillery fire, which American officers described as ‘very accurate.’
When Combat Command B (CCB) of the 3rd Armored Division launched its own attack against the village of Belle Lande at 0910, it quickly ran into trouble. Rather than pushing the Germans back, the Americans lost six medium tanks to enemy antitank fire. Although the village had not been taken, the attack had achieved a victory of sorts. Deluged with artillery and facing the threat of another armored assault, Kuhnow ordered his battle group to fall back. Most of his battalion succeeded in retreating; however, one platoon from Lieutenant Jacobs’ 2nd Company of PGR 902 was forced to surrender to the 119th’s Company K.
Aided by tanks from the 3rd Armored Division, the 3rd Battalion, 120th Infantry, now mopped up the area that the Germans had passed through. In the process they freed several GIs who had been taken captive earlier in the day and captured 22 Germans who had been unable to join the withdrawal.
At 1420 the 3rd Armored Division got a small measure of revenge for their repulse at Belle Lande by knocking out two Pzkw. IVs that had been supporting Kuhnow’s battalion. By 1600 virtually all the Germans within the 30th Division sector had been driven away, killed or captured.
To the west, however, in the 9th Division’s sector, the fighting would be much more intense. Lieutenant Colonel Donald C. Clayman’s 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, discovered during the evening of July 10 that it had advanced farther than the neighboring 39th Infantry. Rather than relinquish hard-won ground, Colonel George Smythe, commanding officer of the 47th, ordered Clayman to deploy his Company K to cover the 1,800-yard gap between the two regiments. The woefully thin line of riflemen should have been reinforced by the 47th’s Antitank Company, but a misunderstanding left a critical crossroads unattended.
Passing through the unprotected gap at 0300, Captain Karl Philipps’ 1st Battalion of PGR 901 overran the 3rd Battalion aid station, which had been established near le Perry. One of the American medics related: ‘The Germans came in with their armor from the direction of le Desert….K-Rations, cigarettes and water were taken, but they were reluctant to touch the vehicles parked near the aid station. Thermite grenades taped to the steering column of these vehicles were thought [by the Germans] to be booby traps.’ Philipps ordered his men to take their captives along as the battle group continued on.
Meanwhile, Captain Schöne’s 2nd Battalion of PGR 901, led by the Panthers of the 2nd Company, successfully infiltrated through a second gap, this one between Major Woodrow Bailey’s 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, and Clayman’s right flank. In doing so, the Germans had completely isolated all of Clayman’s rifle companies. Soon afterward, small-arms fire from Schöne’s battle group forced the evacuation of the 3rd Battalion’s command post. While his rifle companies stayed in place, Clayman and his staff abandoned their vehicles and moved northeast until they linked up with Lt. Col. Wendell Chaffin’s 1st Battalion at la Caplainerie.
While both PGR 901 battle groups had made their way undetected through the forward American defenses, other German units supporting the Panzergrenadiers were not as fortunate. They encountered fierce resistance from the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 39th Infantry while moving northward along the le Desert-St. Jean de Daye road. A confusing blur of booming tank guns, exploding bazooka rounds, sputtering machine guns and flashing tracers erupted when the attackers struck the American defenses.
At 0300 an M-10 from the 1st Platoon of the 899th TD Battalion’s Company A spotted the leading Panther of the 3rd Company moving slowly along a secondary road near le Desert. The Americans permitted the panzer column to approach to within 200 yards before opening fire. The lead Panther burst into flames, illuminating three other enemy tanks behind it. The TDs set two more of them ablaze. The Americans were surprised to discover later that morning that German tank recovery teams had retrieved two of the three knocked-out Panthers without being discovered.
Seeking a bypass, a pair of Panthers from the 3rd Company approached to within 100 yards of the command post of Lt. Col. Frank D. Gunn’s 2nd Battalion, 39th Infantry. Lieutenant Howard R. Grenz, commanding the 2nd Battalion’s Ammunition and Pioneer (A&P) Platoon, placed his men in defensive positions around the command post. Bazooka teams took potshots at the enemy armor while GIs with rifles and machine guns engaged the supporting German infantry. The Panthers finally withdrew, but not before Lieutenant Grenz was killed and four other men wounded.
By 0400 Lt. Col. H. Price Tucker’s 1st Battalion, 39th Infantry, along with Companies F and G from the 2nd Battalion, had been forced into a circular defense centered on the village of le Desert. Fighting desperately, the Americans used 212-ton trucks to block nearby roads as bazooka teams and 57mm antitank guns engaged their heavily armored assailants.
With the arrival of daylight, both sides could see much more clearly who they were firing at. By 0642 Company A reported that it was completely surrounded by enemy infantry. Several Panthers finally forced their way up the le Desert-St. Jean de Daye road, severing contact between Company B in the village and Company C to the south. Rather than permit themselves to be overrun, the men of Company C retreated a short distance to the north. Daylight, however, meant that the GIs could now receive more accurate artillery support. Shortly after the first Piper L-4 liaison planes went aloft, salvo after salvo of high explosive rained down upon the attackers, effectively halting the German advance along the road by midmorning.
The failure of German follow-on units to expand the initial breakthrough resulted in both of PGR 901’s battle groups being isolated far behind American lines. After its initial success, Philipps’ battle group had continued northeast until it unexpectedly encountered Company E of the 39th Infantry between la Caplainerie and la Scellerie. The Americans took the advancing column under fire, forcing the Panzergrenadiers to dismount from atop the 4th Company Panthers. Deflecting small-arms fire and the occasional bazooka rocket, the armored vehicles continued advancing toward la Scellerie, in the process overrunning a roadblock manned by other elements of 39th Infantry’s 2nd Battalion. Philipps’ men, however, had to remain behind to slug it out with the Americans.
The 10 Panthers of the 4th Company, led by a single Pzkw. IV, had just passed through la Scellerie when the 3rd Platoon of Company A, 899th TD Battalion, spotted them. The leading M-10 opened fire, but was quickly destroyed by the Pzkw. IV. A second M-10 succeeded in knocking out the Pzkw. IV, blocking the road and preventing the enemy armored column from continuing northward. The Panthers then retreated to an orchard south of la Scellerie where they awaited the reappearance of Philipps’ Panzergrenadiers.
Apprised of the engagement between the TDs and Panthers near la Scellerie, Colonel Harry Flint of the 39th Infantry took steps to prevent the Germans from renewing their advance. At dawn the 3rd Platoon of Company A, 899th TD Battalion, assisted by the three medium tanks from Company G, 32nd Armored Regiment, and the 39th Infantry’s Regimental Mine Platoon, launched a limited counterattack to secure la Scellerie. Reaching the village at 0630, the Americans established a perimeter defense while awaiting the arrival of reinforcements.
Schöne’s battle group was not faring much better than Philipps’. After forcing the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, to abandon its command post, he had continued north toward le Mesnil Veneron. However, just west of the village of la Caplainerie, Schöne was forced to stop and deal with elements of the 47th Infantry’s 1st Battalion supported by two platoons of M4 Sherman tanks from Captain Abraham Kahn’s Company F, 32nd Armored Regiment.
The Panthers supporting Schöne continued advancing while the Panzergrenadiers dealt with the American infantry. The panzers lost one vehicle to a bazooka team, but the rest continued on, intending to outflank the American defenses. Manning a roadblock northwest of la Caplainerie, Sergeant Herschall Briles from Company C of the 899th TD Battalion recalled what happened next: ‘It looked like a piece of the hedgerow as it moved forward. It had camouflage all over it, and it was difficult to tell that it was a tank. My crew had a round of high explosive [HE] in the breech. We shot that at it, and strangely enough it penetrated the thick armor on the left front of the turret. The blast blew off all the camouflage and gave us a clearer target for our next round of armor-piercing [AP]. The AP went through at a point about two feet below where the HE had struck.’
After that, the remaining Panthers turned back rather than fight their way through the roadblock. The panzers supporting Philipps’ battle group had also been taking losses. When they spotted three German tanks parked in an open field near la Scellerie, a platoon from Company A, 899th TD Battalion, took action. After considering a plan of attack, the American platoon leader maneuvered an M-10 into a position where it could fire at their less heavily armored flanks. Three armor-piercing rounds were fired at the first target, all of which penetrated. One round was put into the upper side of the second Panther while the third was hit by a single round in the rear hull. All three burst into flames. The firing spooked a German halftrack into revealing its position. One shot sufficed to destroy that vehicle as well.
Cut off from its supporting armor, the 1st Battalion, PGR 901, found itself entangled in an increasingly lopsided engagement. Pounded by American artillery and mortar fire, Philipps’ battle group was relentlessly broken up into smaller fragments by late morning. Only a single infantry platoon managed to make it back to friendly lines. The remaining attackers, including Philipps, were either killed, captured or wounded.
Bayerlein’s chances of success diminished even further when American fighter-bombers began appearing overhead at 1000. Soon, the dreaded ‘Jabos’ were conducting punishing strafing and bombing attacks on the forward elements of PGR 901. Not only the Panzergrenadiers but also the heavily armored German tanks began to suffer. At least one Panther from the 2nd Company was knocked out near the command post that had been abandoned by the 3rd Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, earlier in the attack by what amounted to virtually a direct hit from a 500-pound bomb.
With the German attack checked, shortly after 1000 the 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry, received orders to push south to relieve isolated elements of the 3rd Battalion. Moving in a column of companies with a platoon of TDs from the 899th in support, Chaffin’s 1st Battalion methodically killed, captured or drove off any of the surviving Panzergrenadiers they found in their path.
Sensing that a trap was closing in behind them, by midafternoon the surviving Panthers of the 4th Company were ready to attempt a break for the safety of their own lines. Leaving the orchard, they headed due west toward la Caplainerie. Captain Kahn watched as seven Panthers approached his position, followed by a single Panther trailing behind the larger group. A platoon of Kahn’s tanks opened fire at 400 yards. A second platoon of Shermans, which had no clear field of fire, began blindly pouring fire in the general direction of the German tanks. Not to be outdone, nearby American infantry now opened fire with bazookas while U.S. fighter-bombers swooped down to strafe the retreating German column.
Sergeant Briles had dismounted and walked toward a nearby crossroads in an attempt to find out what was happening when he heard his crew yell, ‘Hey, Briles, look out!’ Glancing up, Briles saw the turret of an approaching Pzkw. V that had somehow crept by his first kill. He signaled for his crew to open fire before taking cover in a nearby ditch. Even at the range of 120 yards, it took five rounds to kill the advancing Panther. The first two were ricochets, deflecting off the upper front hull. The third hit was a ricochet, but it deflected downward off the turret front to penetrate the driver’s hatch. The Panther then returned fire, striking the M-10 with a solid hit that traversed the entire length of the American armored vehicle. One man in Briles’ crew was killed and two others wounded.
A second TD parked on the opposite side of the road opened fire. Its first round, the fourth to strike the Panther, was a ricochet. The fifth penetrated the lower front hull, finally setting the enemy vehicle ablaze. The second TD then observed another camouflaged tank approaching. The gunner quickly zeroed in, halting the enemy panzer after firing 10 rounds. Two other Panthers slipped into water-filled ditches while trying to turn around on a narrow side road and were immobilized. The three remaining Panthers headed south toward le Perrey but were forced to pull off the road when they found their escape route blocked.
By 1445 the 1st Battalion, 47th Infantry’s advance had flushed out the remaining Panthers. Trailing a short distance behind the advance guard, two M-10s from Company C, 899th TD Battalion, detected a pair of Panthers emerging from a nearby wooded area about one mile southwest of la Caplainerie. The M-10s destroyed them before the German vehicles could return fire. As the dust settled, the Americans then spotted another enemy tank moving along a tree-lined side road to the east. Both opened fire, knocking out a third Panther. The destruction of the 4th Company was now complete.
With his badly exposed men being chewed up by the combined firepower of American infantry, tank destroyers, aircraft and artillery, Bayerlein ordered his division to pull back. Rommel’s attempt to restore the deteriorating situation north of St. Lô had been a failure; the only result was the loss of irreplaceable tanks and Panzergrenadiers.
Americans who fought Panzer Lehr readily acknowledged the abilities of their opponents. ‘These are clearly a better type of German [soldier] than we had been fighting,’ one TD officer noted. Although they had achieved a breakthrough in places and fought well, it is arguable whether Panzer Lehr could have accomplished the difficult mission it was assigned. Bayerlein’s men were facing experienced foes with a proven combat record. The 30th Division had been fighting nonstop since June 15, suffering numerous casualties but gaining valuable experience in
the process. The 9th Infantry Division’s superlative performance prompted an officer from the 3rd Armored Division to remark: ‘[T]he American infantry did not let the enemy tank penetration bother them. They knew their own defense in depth of TDs and antitank guns had been set up. This defense in depth behind the infantry is SOP [standard operating procedure] and consequently the Panther penetration caused no demoralization.’
No less important a factor contributing to the defeat of the German counterattack was the physical characteristics of the hedgerow country that had frustrated American commanders no end. One captured German armor crewman complained about the ‘unwise tactics’ his superiors used by employing tanks in such terrain. ‘The Panther had a gun that was very effective at great ranges, and at such ranges they were safe from `ambush’ flanking fires that threatened them at every corner of every hedgerow,’ the tanker remarked. ‘The narrow sunken roads provided partial defilade for the big tanks, but they frequently got wedged into tight passages and found that the high hedges restricted traverse for [our] long-barreled 75mm guns.’
The hedgerows were impartial witnesses to the fighting in Normandy, offering protection to defenders and creating obstacles for attackers regardless of nationality. And while the Allies are frequently criticized for failing to take the existence of the hedgerows into account when planning for the Normandy campaign, Bayerlein’s failed attack demonstrated that despite four years of occupation, the Germans had failed to adequately prepare for these ancient Norman obstructions as well.
Although it was a long, frustrating summer, over a lengthy period of time Allied forces operating in Normandy were able to develop means of overcoming these complex natural obstacles. Hard-pressed by ever increasing Allied numbers and with counterattacks such as that of Panzer Lehr failing to halt the Allied buildup, the Germans never had a chance to overcome the difficulties presented by the hedgerows. Despite the best efforts of Panzer Lehr and other German formations, St. Lô fell to the 29th Infantry Division on July 18, 1944, and the stage was set for the eventual Allied breakout from Normandy.
This article was written by Mark J. Reardon and originally appeared in the December 2005 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!