The city of St. Lô was the U.S. Army’s key to breaking out of Normandy into the French hinterland.
On the morning of July 11, 1944, the 116th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, advanced toward Martinville Ridge, two miles east of St. Lô. The German defenders were deployed in ideal positions along a sunken road fortified with barbwire and mines. The “Stonewallers” of the 116th—a Virginia National Guard regiment that traced its heritage to Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s command in 1861—attacked at 0600 hours, preceded by a furious one-hour artillery barrage. As the 116th moved toward the hedgerows, dozens of men were mowed down by enemy fire. Captain Charles Cawthon, 2nd Battalion executive officer, recalled the horror: “A pall of smoke was over the fields, holding in it the sweet, sickening stench of high explosives, which we had come to associate with death. The attacking riflemen, visibly shrunk in numbers, crouched behind the farthermost hedgerow while volumes of artillery, mortar, tank and machine gun fire flailed the fields beyond.”
By the time the Stonewallers finally penetrated the first line of defense, the rifle companies, normally numbering 150 to 180, had been reduced to about 60 men apiece. For the American GIs, this bloody struggle became an all too familiar scene throughout their advance on St. Lô— an operation that came to be known as the “battle of the hedgerows.”
By the end of June 1944, the U.S. First Army had successfully established a beachhead on the Normandy coast and captured the port of Cherbourg. Supplies and reinforcements were rapidly building up for a powerful offensive, designed to break out of the Normandy pocket. One of the first objectives was to capture the crossroads town of St. Lô and then use that location as a jumping-off point for a major breakout into the heartland of France. Taking the city, however involved a grueling struggle for gains—often measured in terms of a few hundred yards—through a succession of hedgerows against a bitterly determined enemy.
St. Lô was inhabited by approximately 12,000 people and located on the high ground above the Vire River. The older sections of town dotted the river bluffs, while the newer parts of the city spread across the Vire Valley and up the slopes of several encompassing hills, offering a commanding view of the city and surrounding countryside. Although Allied bombers had reduced the city to a pile of rubble, it still had significant military value. Branching out from St. Lô were a series of eight major roads and a rail line. On the western edge of town was an important bridge that spanned the Vire River.
The approaches to St. Lô were swarming with strongpoints, and a powerful occupation force, primarily survivors of the 352nd Infantry Division, which had been fighting the Americans since the first landings at Omaha Beach, was entrenched in the city and surrounding hills. As if that was not enough, the First Army would have to operate in terrain characterized by swampy fields, steep wooded hills and an extensive maze of hedgerows.
Some of the best German defenses in Normandy were not built by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel but by farmers more than 1,000 years before the battle. The terrain, locally called the bocage, consisted of small, irregularly shaped fields enclosed by ancient overgrown hedges. Grown primarily to keep cattle in and to mark boundaries, these massive lines of shrubbery grew up to 15 feet high, limiting visibility to one field at a time, and were extremely dense obstacles, even for tanks. They formed thousands of square miles of tough terrain connected by a network of sunken roads. Often the brush connected overhead, trapping the GIs inside a tunnel of vegetation. First Army commander Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley recalled, “It was the damndest country I’ve ever seen.”
Using the natural camouflage and concealment of the hedgerows, the Germans dispersed small, heavily armed antipersonnel and antitank units that dug in. The primary weapon of defense was the MG42 light machine gun, supported by artillery and mortar fire. At the corners of each field the Germans emplaced heavy machine guns to pin down attacking infantrymen in the open. Light machine guns were positioned to the front and flanks, to inflict casualties on advancing GIs seeking cover and concealment.
Bradley’s plan to seize St. Lô called for a broad front offensive designed to prevent the Germans from concentrating their forces. Major General Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps would capture the city of Coutances in the west, while Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett’s XIX Corps joined forces with the V and VII corps in an advance on St. Lô.
On July 3, the VIII Corps moved out from its jumping-off point toward Coutances. The Germans—taking full advantage of the high ground—employed 88mm antitank guns, tanks and machine guns to stop the American advance cold. General Dietrich von Choltitz’s LXXXIV Corps established a formidable line of defense near the town of La Haye du Puit, which dominated the approaches to Coutances. By early evening, Middleton’s corps had suffered more than 1,000 casualties with little ground gained. By nightfall on July 8, the VIII Corps had suffered an additional 3,000 casualties—nearly 40 percent of its available riflemen—and was still bogged down. At that point, Bradley was beginning to have second thoughts about his decision to launch the drive toward Coutances.
On July 4, Bradley shifted his focus to St. Lô. The first prong of the advance was led by the VII Corps commander, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, and the men of 4th, 9th and 83rd Infantry divisions. However, swampy terrain and narrow roads forced Collins to commit only one division at a time. The inexperienced 83rd Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon, led the attack, followed by the 4th and 9th divisions, respectively. The objective was to reach the Périers–St. Lô highway; from there, the corps could spread out and advance southwest toward St. Lô.
The attack was immediately met with German artillery and machine gun fire from Major Friedrich von der Heydte’s battle-hardened 6th Fallschirmjäger (paratroop) Regiment and elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. The results were devastating. On the first day of operations, the 83rd lost 1,400 men for a meager 200-yard gain. The swampy hedgerow terrain was hardly conducive to offensive action, and rain and cloud cover negated the possibility of any Allied air support.
On July 5, the battle recommenced along the Carentan-Périers road, but the 83rd Division’s attack units barely advanced a mile up the road at a cost of 750 casualties. In his book The Normandy Campaign, Victor Brooks described the Americans’ frustration: “Communication breakdowns, wrong designation of map locations, and less than inspired leadership turned what had already been an agonizingly slow advance into a glacial crawl.”
In an attempt to break the bloody stalemate, Collins ordered the more experienced 4th Infantry Division to the front line. The veteran “Ivy Division” accomplished little, however, and by July 7 the First Army had advanced less than 2l⁄2 miles.
As the VII and VIII corps were slugging it out against a determined enemy, General Corlett’s XIX Corps (the 29th, 30th and 35th Infantry divisions) began its offensive against Kampfgruppe (battle group) Heinze, the last force standing between them and St. Lô. The mission was to cross the Vire River and Taute-Vire Canal, then advance south toward St. Jean de Daye, a crossroads town fronting St. Lô.
The Vire was a rapid stream that was 10 feet deep and 60 feet wide with high, steep banks while the Taute-Vire Canal was 5 feet deep and 20 feet across, with gently sloping banks. The plan called for a two-pronged attack on St. Jean de Daye, located three miles from both the river and the canal. In order to achieve the objective, Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, commanding officer of the 30th Division, needed to get his men across both water barriers.
At 0300 hours on July 7, 32 assault boats from the 30th Division entered the river, preceded by a bombardment by eight field artillery battalions. As waves of GIs pushed across the Vire, German riflemen, machine-gunners and mortar crews opened up from the opposite banks. The much diminished enemy—stretched thin to defend a massive front—was unsuccessful against the larger American force and was forced to pull back to St. Lô. By nightfall, the capture of St. Jean was complete.
While the men of the 30th Division prepared for a thrust on St. Lô, the German high command was finalizing plans for a major counterattack. General Paul Hausser, commander of the German Seventh Army, responded to the American crossing of the Vire by ordering troops from the St. Lô garrison to temporarily block the XIX Corps advance until reinforcements arrived from Caen. This tactic was a temporary solution until Hausser could meet with the Army Group B commander, Rommel, to discuss strategy. Mindful of the critical situation facing him, Rommel decided to pull the tough Panzer Lehr Division out of Caen and bring it west to defend St. Lô. He also deployed the 2nd SS Panzer Division in the Vire-Taute region to slow down Hobbs’ advance until Panzer Lehr arrived on the battlefield. The German high command felt that if St. Lô capitulated, the whole front line might collapse.
To prevent Rommel from shifting his men over to the St. Lô sector, Bradley ordered the First Army to “attack all along the front.” Middleton’s VIII Corps—reinforced by the newly arrived 8th Infantry Division—pressed that attack on the right flank, and on July 9 La Haye du Puits finally fell. Meanwhile, Collins’ VII Corps renewed the attack along the Carentan-Périers road, but gained little ground at heavy cost. Major General Raymond Barton’s 4th Infantry Division lost 2,300 men in 10 days of fighting. The 83rd Division didn’t fare much better, losing 5,000 men in the same time span. Barton summed up the situation: “The Germans are staying in there just by the guts of their soldiers. We outnumber them 10 to 1 in infantry, 50 to 1 in artillery, and by an infinite number in the air.”
Aided by the cover of darkness and inclement weather, Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, the wily commander of the superb Panzer Lehr Division, was able to redeploy most of his vehicles to the final assembly area. By the evening of July 10, the Panzer Lehr and 2nd SS Panzer divisions sat poised for a dawn attack against General Hobbs’ 30th Division. Allied intelligence caught wind of the German counterattack, however, and a deadly game of chess ensued as Bradley ordered elements of the 9th Infantry and 3rd Armored divisions into position to counter Rommel’s move.
In the early morning hours of July 11, Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division, taking advantage of poor weather conditions, delivered a staggering blow to the Americans. The 902nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, supported by 20 tanks, attacked advance units of the U.S. 30th Division, while the 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment, supported by a dozen Panzerkampfwagen Mark V Panthers, slammed into elements of the 9th Division.
At the onset, the Panzergrenadiers gained the upper hand in the growing slugfest. Bayerlein’s powerful forces advanced behind the American lines and overran two battalion command posts, capturing several units of GIs assigned to guard the Vire Canal. By 0630, the Panzer Lehr Division had momentarily blocked the American offensive. Nevertheless, an endless supply of M4 Sherman tanks from the 3rd Armored Division—combined with the efforts of the 30th and 9th Infantry divisions—began to weaken the German attack. American GIs opened up with deadly crossfire from positions in the bocage, while the 899th Tank Destroyer Battalion challenged the enemy panzers. In the afternoon, the cloud cover cleared, and American fighter-bombers raced across the battlefield, pounding the remaining tanks. By nightfall, Bayerlein had paid for temporarily containing the First Army’s breakthrough with the loss of 500 to 700 men, including several battalion commanders, and 32 tanks.
Two years later, while interrogated as a U.S. Army prisoner of war, Bayerlein recalled that Panzer Lehr lost 50 percent of its attacking force—a low estimate in comparison to American claims. Bayerlein attributed the carnage to the exhaustion of his men prior to battle and the difficulty of operating Panthers in the confined bocage. The interrogation report stated that “his armor had to fight at maximum ranges of 200 yards because hedges concealed everything farther away.” In hindsight, light tanks could have performed better in the difficult hedgerow terrain, but Bayerlein did not bring them because his intelligence sources had informed him the area was suitable for tank operations. Consequently, the Panzer Lehr was severely crippled by the combined onslaughts of the U.S. 9th and 30th divisions, eliminating the possibility of a large-scale counterattack west of the Vire.
On the morning of July 11— as the Panzer Lehr Division was making its thrust behind the American lines—the First Army launched simultaneous attacks in an effort to close in on St. Lô. The 2nd Infantry Division (V Corps) attacked Hill 192, a promontory overlooking the St. Lô–Bayeux road east of the city. Defending that dominating observation post was a single battalion from Lt. Gen. Eugen Meindl’s II Parachute Corps. At 0600 the 2nd Division began its assault, overwhelming stubborn resistance to secure Hill 192 by noon. When the dust settled, the 2nd Division’s artillery alone had fired 20,000 rounds on the German position.
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Gerhardt, commander of the 29th Infantry Division (XIX Corps), began his attack in conjunction with the 2nd Division’s assault on Hill 192. That morning the 29th Division’s 116th Regiment advanced toward Martinville Ridge, located on the eastern outskirts of St. Lô. Paratroopers of the German 3rd Fallschirmjäger Division—recently arrived to reinforce the 352nd Division—waited patiently in the hedgerows for the Stonewall Brigade. As the Americans unknowingly entered the enemy kill zone, dozens of them were cut down by explosions and machine gun fire.
“My squad, as far as I remember, was really butchered up,” recalled Private John Robertson of Company F. “Some of us were blown forward, some backward. It was a big mess. When I regained my senses, I got up and started limping back. As I was slopping along thinking about why my shoe was full of water, I felt my leg and my hand went all the way to the bone. It was blood that I was slopping in.”
Throughout the remainder of the day, Gerhardt doggedly ordered his battalion and regimental commanders to continually assault the German defensive positions, regardless of casualties. After several attempts, the 116th finally broke through. That night, following a 3,000- yard advance, the weary Stonewallers dug in.
Many soldiers from the 29th “Blue and Gray” Division became casualties because Gerhardt tried to push through positions deemed untenable. “Uncle Charlie,” as he was known to the men of the 29th, was an uncompromising commander whose enthusiasm often exceeded his judgment. He either relieved or threatened to relieve commanding officers who were unwilling to attack because of high casualty rates.
The next day, July 12, Gerhardt ordered the 116th and 175th regiments to push along Martinville Ridge and bypass Hill 122, another key position located north of St. Lô. This heavily defended summit rose more than 300 feet above sea level and provided the Germans with excellent observation for control of mortar and artillery fire. Gerhardt’s decision would prove costly. As the men of the 29th Division made their way along the ridge, German observers on the high ground radioed artillery batteries atop Hill 122. Suddenly, a German artillery barrage pounded Gerhardt’s men as they advanced toward Martinville. By nightfall, the 29th Division had suffered more than 1,000 casualties with little appreciable gain.
At that point, Gerhardt realized that St. Lô could not be captured without first taking Hill 122, so he ordered his division, including clerks, cooks, drivers and other rear-echelon personnel, to fix bayonets and prepare to advance on the city. Some rifle companies were critically understrength, and at least one platoon was down to its last three men. Cynical whispers began spreading among the troops that “Gerhardt has a division in the field, a division in the hospital and a division in the cemetery.” Uncle Charlie did little to silence the sarcasm when he told his commanders to “expend the whole battalion if necessary as long as they capture St. Lô.”
Gerhardt planned a full-scale attack all across the 29th Division front—to commence on July 13—with the main force concentrating on Martinville Ridge. The 2nd and 3rd battalions of the 175th Infantry, supported by two companies of the 747th Tank Battalion, would lead the advance southwest, pass through the 116th and attack due west along the Bayeux highway into St. Lô. Prior to the attack, U.S. Army Air Forces fighter-bombers would soften up the German defenses.
Although the plan was militarily sound, it began to unravel from the onset. First, the airstrike was called off because of poor weather. Next, two companies from 747th Tank Battalion were unable to support the attack because of ammunition and fuel shortages. And last, communication problems between the 2nd and 3rd battalions bogged down the advance, resulting in a gain of a few hundred yards at a cost of 152 casualties.
Fortunately for the Blue and Gray, there were indications that the fighting was also taking its toll on the Germans. American artillery, called down to support troop movements, had apparently caught the Germans by surprise. The road was littered for miles with dead soldiers, dead horses and shattered enemy equipment. The foul smell of burnt flesh was everywhere.
While the 29th Division continued its advance on St. Lô, corps commander Charles Corlett ordered the 35th Infantry Division to capture Hill 122. On July 15, the 35th Division’s 134th Infantry Regiment reached the hill’s crest. The next day, the 35th Division secured the objective, just 3,000 yards north of the city.
With Hill 122 firmly in American hands, Gerhardt ordered all nine of his rifle battalions to advance on St. Lô. “This is a critical time,” he said. “We’re going to throw the book at them.” Major Thomas Howie, newly appointed to command the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, was ordered to attack La Madeleine, where troops of the 2nd Battalion had been cut off, and then make a thrust directly into the city. Prior to the pre-dawn July 17 attack, Howie told his men “to keep going no matter what.” Only two men per platoon were allowed to fire their rifles; the others were ordered to use bayonets and hand grenades. The idea was to achieve total surprise.
The 3rd Battalion jumped off before sunrise and quickly broke through the German line, reaching La Madeleine at first light. The highway into the city was now open. Howie called his company commanders together to discuss the situation. “We had just finished the meeting,” Captain William Puntenney, Howie’s executive officer, recalled. “The COs had just been dismissed, and before they could get back to their companies, the Germans began dropping a mortar barrage around our ears. Before taking cover in one of our foxholes, Major Howie turned to take one last look to make sure all his men had their heads down. Without warning, one of the shells hit a few yards away. A fragment struck the major in the back and pierced his lung. ‘My God I’m hit,’ he murmured, and I saw he was bleeding at the mouth. As he fell, I caught him. He was dead in two minutes.”
Captain Puntenney immediately took command of the battalion and called in artillery and airstrikes on the German positions. As the Blue and Gray reached the outskirts of St. Lô, they were met with heavy German machine gun fire from positions inside a cemetery. In the battle that ensued, American riflemen and tankers exchanged fire with German machine guns and 88s through a labyrinth of gravestones. Because of overwhelming fire superiority, the tide of the battle eventually turned in favor of the Americans, and the Germans pulled out.
The battle for the city turned each block into a miniature battlefield. Positioned in two- and three-story buildings, German snipers fired from the windows, while others tried to make last stands behind piles of rubble. On July 18, General Meindl began to see the writing on the wall and requested permission to evacuate the city. Mindful that his defenses were too weak to hold the city, theater commander Paul Hausser permitted Meindl to withdraw his men southward, save for a delaying force to hold off the Americans as long as possible. The next morning, after 18 days of hedgerow fighting, St. Lô finally fell.
Bradley had secured his jumping-off point for a major breakout offensive into the French heartland, but the victory had not come cheap, costing more than 15,000 American casualties.
Daniel R. Champagne is a history teacher and the author of Dogface Soldiers: The Story of B Company, 15th Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division. For further reading, try Beyond the Beachhead, by Joe Balkoski.
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.