NAVAL ASSAULT ON CHERBOURG

Bombardment of Cherbourg, June 1944

A heavy German coast artillery shell falls between USS Texas (BB-35), in the background, and USS Arkansas (BB-33), while the two battleships were engaging Battery Hamburg during the bombardment of Cherbourg, France, 25 June 1944.

Photographed from the USS Arkansas.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

The defenses of Cherbourg remained formidable. The city and its harbor sat in a kind of bowl surrounded by a series of ridges that commanded the lines of approach. On the western side of the city was the old Citadel, and on the east was Forte des Flamands. In the center was the powerful Forte du Roule, built on a high bluff overlooking the city. Between these strongpoints, the Germans were dug deep into the ground. The Americans would have to target each defensive position individually, with the infantry maintaining a steady covering fire while engineers crept around to the flanks with satchel charges. It could be done, but it would take time as well as lives, and time was now of the essence. Von Schlieben, Commander of the Garrison, had received orders to begin destruction of the harbor facilities as early as June 10, 1944 even before the campaign for Cherbourg began. Hitler told him that it was his duty “to defend [Cherbourg] to the last bunker and leave to the enemy not a harbor but a field of ruins.” Von Schlieben’s objective, therefore, was not so much to defend the city as to delay its fall long enough for his engineers to thoroughly destroy the harbor facilities. Every day that the Germans remained in control gave them another day to continue their ruthless sabotage.

To speed the fall of the city and minimize damage to the harbor, Bradley asked Ramsay if the Navy could use its long-range guns to target the German strongpoints. The biggest guns that Collins had were 155 mm (6-inch) artillery pieces, and he did not have enough of them. But the Navy had 8-inch guns on the heavy cruisers, and 12- and 14-inch guns on the battleships. Perhaps the Navy could hit the German positions from seaward.

Though Ramsay was less than enthusiastic about pitting ships against coastal fortifications, he asked Kirk to work up a plan. Two months before, in the wake of Exercise Tiger off Slapton Sands, Kirk had urged Ramsay to use the American battleships to destroy the German E-boat pens at Cherbourg. On that occasion, Ramsay had turned him down, and the decision had provoked some bitter words and lingering resentment. Now Kirk saw this as a chance to show what those big battleships might have done—and still could do—to hardened German defenses.

For the naval assault on Cherbourg, Kirk formed Task Force 129 under Rear Admiral Morton Deyo, the fifty-seven-year-old career officer who had commanded the bombardment group off Utah Beach on D-Day and who bore a passing resemblance to John Wayne. Deyo divided his task force into two groups. Group One, under his direct supervision, included many of the same ships he had commanded on D-Day: the battleship Nevada, the heavy cruisers Tuscaloosa and Quincy, and the British light cruisers Enterprise and Glasgow, plus six destroyers. Group Two, with Rear Admiral Carleton F. Bryant in command, consisted of the battleships Texas and Arkansas plus five destroyers. Their overall mission was not to capture Cherbourg or even to smash it up. After all, the whole point of the campaign was to seize the port facilities intact—or as intact as possible. Rather, their job was to support Collins’s ground attack by eliminating some of the hardened defensive positions and suppressing the enemy’s heavy guns.

To do that, Deyo proposed first to attack the German coastal batteries that protected the seaward approaches to the harbor. Allied intelligence reported that these consisted of twenty concrete casemates housing guns that ranged in size from 155 mm (6 inches) all the way up to 280 mm (11 inches), and for the security of his command, these would have to be suppressed before the ships could turn their attention to the landward defenses. The Germans had only four of the big 280 mm guns, all of them in Battery Hamburg behind Cap Lévi, about six miles east of the city, and they would be the responsibility of Bryant’s two battleships. Many of the smaller 6-inch guns were clustered around the village of Querqueville, three miles west of the city, and Deyo expected that his cruisers should be able to take care of them. Once the coastal batteries were silenced, the task force would take positions off the city to respond to call-fire requests from Collins’s men ashore. Deyo planned to stay there for at least three hours, from noon to 3:00 p.m. on June 25.

At almost the last moment, however, Bradley and Collins decided that they did not want Deyo’s ships to shoot at all except in response to specific requests from spotters ashore, and even then, they were not to fire more than two thousand yards inland. Recalling the friendly-fire casualties during the air assault three days before, Collins wanted to ensure that none of those big 12- and 14-inch shells came crashing into his own front lines, which were now less than a mile from the city. As Deyo put it, employing the passive voice, “Concern was felt lest we fire into our own troops.” In addition, Bradley and Collins decided that the Navy ships should fire for only ninety minutes, not the three hours Deyo suggested Deyo objected to these restrictions, noting that they left the initiative entirely to the Germans and, at the outset at least, made his ships passive targets. Collins relented to the extent that he agreed the ships could shoot back if they were fired on, as long as the Navy gunners were sure of their targets. Of course, that still left the initiative to the defenders, and while Deyo remained unhappy, he had no option but to carry out his orders. He was to show up off the city at noon on June 25, establish radio contact with fire-support parties ashore, and respond to requested call fire. He could defend himself if fired upon, as surely he would be, but otherwise he was to wait for instructions. He was to stay for only ninety minutes, then withdraw.

The ships assembled at Portland on June 22, just as the Channel storm was dissipating. That storm added a certain urgency to their mission, since the damage sustained by the Mulberry harbor off Omaha Beach seemed to make the capture of a full-sized seaport even more urgent. Kirk impressed upon Deyo and Bryant that “it was necessary to capture Cherbourg with the utmost dispatch.” The ships got under way in the predawn darkness, between four and five in the morning, on June 25. The sun rose as they crossed the Channel, and in the aftermath of the storm, the day dawned clear and bright over a sea one witness recalled as being “like a piece of glass.”

There would be no stealth in this attack. The whole operation would take place at midday under bright sunshine. The only cover for the big ships would be provided by the accompanying destroyers, which were to “dash between the cruisers and battleships and the beach and lay a thick smokescreen.” The men went to general quarters at nine-thirty that morning, and an hour later the two task groups approached the shore separately, slowing to five knots in order to follow the British minesweepers to their firing positions. Deyo’s Nevada group took up its initial position in Fire Support Area #1 about twenty-eight thousand yards (sixteen miles) due north of Cherbourg. At noon, he moved up to Fire Support Position #3, only twelve thousand yards from the city. Meanwhile, Bryant’s Texas-Arkansas group moved into Fire Support Area #2, east of Cap Lévi.

Despite the restrictions imposed by the Army, Deyo and Bryant were confident of success. They were certainly aware that guns ashore had a number of inherent advantages over guns afloat. Shore batteries sat on a stable firing platform; they did not have to maneuver or worry about their engines being hit; and of course they were much less vulnerable since they constituted a smaller target, were often protected by thick walls of steel and concrete, and could not sink. These were the factors that initially fed Ramsay’s reluctance to accept the assignment. Yet in the twelve months prior to D-Day, U.S. Navy gunners had grown increasingly confident, not only in their ability to put heavy ordnance on target but also in their superiority over shore batteries—even batteries of large-caliber guns. At Sicily, Salerno, Anzio, and elsewhere, Allied naval guns had demonstrated their ability to suppress and even dominate the shore batteries of the defenders. This new-found confidence would be severely tested at Cherbourg, however, mainly because the four 280 mm guns in the Hamburg Battery were bigger than any the Navy had faced so far, they were housed in heavy concrete and steel casemates, and they were manned by sailors from the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, who were equally confident of their ability to sink ships.

The Allied ships were all in position by noon. Because of the requirement to withhold fire until the Army requested it, the Germans opened the battle, firing on the ships of Deyo’s Group One from the batteries in and around Querqueville at 12:06. From the very first salvos, the German gunners proved to be remarkably—even alarmingly—accurate. The first salvo straddled the destroyer Murphy (DD-603), and one 6-inch shell hit the Walke (DD-723). That shell shattered the Walke’s glass windshield on the open bridge and sent large pieces of broken glass flying almost the entire length of the ship. A sailor manning a 40 mm mount amidships was outraged when the glass shards flew past him, and he hollered: “Those dirty———are shooting glass at us!” Only minutes later, shells landed all around the USS Quincy, and HMS Glasgow was hit twice. The Nevada herself was bracketed by a three-gun salvo, with one shell landing only a hundred yards off her starboard quarter. At 12:09, just three minutes into the battle, the deck officer on the Nevada noted dryly in the ship’s log: “Enemy is getting the range rapidly.”

Deyo ordered counterbattery fire, but it seemed to have little immediate effect, for the Nevada was straddled six times in the five minutes between 12:40 and 12:45. An ensign on board insisted later that the Nevada was straddled by enemy salvos a total of twenty-seven times that afternoon. A sailor whose battle station was in an AA mount on the superstructure recalled seeing the shells arcing in toward the ship through the clear blue sky. He watched as one shell passed “between the Nevada’s masts” and landed only a few yards off the side, “sending up a huge geyser of water and scattering shell fragments against the ship’s hull.” The Nevada’s captain, Powell Rhea, maneuvered radically in an effort to throw off the German gunners, calling down to the engine room for emergency speed that allowed the old battlewagon to work herself up to twenty-one knots, a turn of speed she had not shown since before Pearl Harbor.

Meanwhile, Bryant with the ships of Group Two, including the battleships Texas and Arkansas, approached Cherbourg from the east. Bryant’s assignment was to neutralize the big guns at Battery Hamburg behind Cap Lévi, then join Deyo off the city. Bryant knew that Battery Hamburg had been positioned to cover the seaward approach to Cherbourg Harbor, and as a result, its guns could track only to a point about thirty-five degrees east of due north. His plan, therefore, was to open fire while his ships were still east of that arc and slowly hammer the battery to pieces. That plan was undone at the last minute by the order not to open fire until fired upon or until contacted by a fire control party ashore. As it happened, however, the Arkansas established early radio contact with spotters ashore who had the Hamburg Battery under direct observation. That allowed the Arkansas to close to eighteen thousand yards (ten miles) and open a “slow deliberate fire” on the Hamburg Battery at 12:08. Explosions from her 12-inch guns erupted all around the target, but there was no response from the enemy. Some in the American battleships wondered whether the German gun positions had been abandoned.

The Germans were merely biding their time. Bryant’s ships crept westward until they were inside Hamburg’s arc of fire, and then at 12:29 the Germans opened up. The guns in Battery Hamburg significantly outranged those on the Arkansas and Texas, and as at Querqueville, their marksmanship was “extremely accurate.” The destroyer Barton (DD-722) was hit on the second salvo at 12:30 when a 9.4-inch shell ricocheted off the water and crashed into her hull, smashing through several bulkheads and coming to rest inside the ship. But it did not explode. Then, only seconds later, another salvo landed just in front of USS Laffey (DD-724). Again, one of the shells ricocheted off the water and smashed into the hull of the American destroyer, and it, too, failed to explode. Ordinarily an 11-inch shell, or even a 9.4-inch shell, could break a destroyer in half, sinking her almost at once, and to some the fact that neither of these shells exploded was nothing less than providential. Bryant later speculated that the shells may have been manufactured at the famous Skoda Arms Works in Pilson, Czechoslovakia, where anti-Nazi patriots risked their lives to sabotage them. If so, the Americans off Cherbourg were much in their debt.

Despite their flawed shells, German marksmanship was unnervingly accurate. They fired in three-gun salvos, and they proved very adept at adjusting fire. A salvo aimed at the destroyer O’Brien at 12:51 landed six hundred yards long; only seconds later, a second salvo was three hundred yards long; a third straddled her; and at 12:53 she was hit—and this shell did explode. Thirteen men were killed outright, and nineteen more were wounded. That shell also knocked out the O’Brien’s radar, leaving her blind in heavy smoke amid several radically maneuvering vessels. To avoid a collision, the O’Brien’s skipper, Commander W. W. Outerbridge, temporarily retired northward. When he returned to the fight later, he shifted his ordnance to air-burst shells in the hope of forcing the German gunners to keep their heads down.

Just as the gunners at Querqueville focused on the Nevada, those in Battery Hamburg concentrated much of their attention on the Texas. The Texas was bracketed on the third salvo, and as Bryant put it, “They had us pretty well pinpointed.” The salvos came in at unrelenting intervals every twenty to thirty seconds while the Texas maneuvered radically. Bryant thought the incoming shells had a kind of “seductive sound—a soft swish, almost a caress” while they were en route. Then they hit the water with “the most ungodly smack you ever heard—sharper than that of your own guns firing.” Alas, not all of them hit the water. One 9.4-inch shell struck the Texas, plowed through several deck levels, and came to rest in the warrant officers’ stateroom directly above the ship’s magazine for 14-inch ammunition. It, too, was a dud. Another shell hit the top of the Texas’s armored conning tower, and this one did explode, smashing up the bridge area, killing the helmsman, and wounding eleven others. Captain Charles Baker, having just ordered a turn to starboard, had left the bridge to watch the maneuver when the shell struck, or he, too, would have been a casualty.

At 1:10, under the impetus of this rapid and accurate fire, Bryant ordered the task group to turn away northward while the destroyers Plunkett and Hobson made smoke to cover their withdrawal. The small minesweeper Chickadee also ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to lay a protective smokescreen. Texas and Arkansas circled to starboard and continued to fire from twenty thousand yards (just over eleven miles), but the guns in the Hamburg Battery had a range of forty thousand yards, and Bryant’s maneuver did little to retard either the frequency or the accuracy of their shelling.

While they dueled with the German batteries, the Navy ships also responded as best they could to call-fire requests from Collins’s forces. The smaller batteries near Querqueville received a lot of attention, since those guns could be turned to face landward as well as out to sea. The destroyer Ellyson closed to within a mile of one battery and fired twenty-seven rounds of 5-inch ordnance “full salvos and rapid fire” in a single minute. The Ellyson ceased fire only because the ensuing smoke so obscured the target that the spotters could no longer see it. Either the object of the Ellyson’s fury was wrecked or the German gunners decided to lie low for a while, because the battery ceased firing.

By 1:20, the ships had been on station for eighty minutes, and according to their orders they were supposed to retire at 1:30. It was obvious, however, that the German defenses had not been suppressed, and Deyo radioed Collins to ask, “Do you wish more gunfire?” Collins may have been away from his headquarters when the query came in, for he did not reply until 2:05, when he answered, in effect, “Yes, please.” He asked if the Navy ships could continue firing until 3:00, as Deyo had initially suggested.

Because most of the Querqueville batteries had been silenced by now, at least temporarily, Deyo ordered the Quincy to steam eastward and join Bryant in the ongoing battle against Battery Hamburg. Some of the smaller batteries near Cap Lévi had been suppressed, but the Hamburg Battery remained defiantly active even though it was now the target of nearly every ship in Bryant’s group, plus the Quincy. With eight ships firing at once, their shells created great clouds of smoke and dust around the target, and the spotters could not tell which ship had fired which shell, making corrections impossible. The Navy gunners simply fired into a curtain of smoke. Only when they spotted the bright orange stab of a muzzle flash could they determine the location of an enemy battery, and even that provided merely a bearing to the target. In spite of these difficulties, at 1:35 the Texas finally landed a 14-inch shell directly on one of the big German guns, putting it out of action. The other three, however, continued to fire, and soon the Texas was bracketed again. At 2:51, Bryant ordered the task group to turn away for the second time while the destroyers again made smoke.

Before it was over, the Texas fired more than two hundred 14-inch shells and the Arkansas fired fifty-eight 12-inch shells at the Hamburg Battery. Quincy and the five destroyers added more than six hundred 8-inch and 5-inch rounds. Yet at three o’clock, when Deyo ordered a general withdrawal, three of the big guns there were still in action. The Tuscaloosa continued to fire until she was beyond range, but so did the Germans, and because their range was longer, they got the last word. At 3:10 a shell that was almost a taunt landed just twenty-five feet from the Texas, flinging sea-water and shrapnel across her deck. Again Bryant ordered the destroyers to make smoke. As the Kriegsmarine gunners in Battery Hamburg watched the Allied task force disappear over the northern horizon, they may well have congratulated one another on having driven off the enemy.

Bryant put the best face he could on the operation in his official report, writing that although his ships were “hopelessly outranged and continually harassed by enemy fire over a period of two hours and twenty minutes,” they were “smartly handled and continued the engagement until ordered to withdraw.” Ramsay, too, was complimentary, praising the “skill and determination” of Deyo’s command. Yet in the aftermath of the naval assault on Cherbourg, it was evident to nearly everyone that despite recent experiences in the Mediterranean, heavy-caliber coastal artillery, strongly fortified and well served by trained crews, remained a very tough opponent for guns afloat. After the war, Bryant himself wondered if the naval attack had “advanced the surrender [of Cherbourg] one hour.”

It may well have. Though the naval assault on June 25 did not cause the Germans to throw up their hands, it almost certainly had an impact, however indeterminate, on the defenders. Like the aerial assault three days before, the naval bombardment further eroded the already flagging morale of the German garrison. Even von Schlieben was losing his nerve, and he wired Rommel to ask, “Is the destruction of the remaining troops necessary?” Seeking permission to negotiate, he declared, “I must state in the line of duty that further sacrifices cannot alter anything.” It didn’t matter. Rommel wired him back: “You will continue to fight until the last cartridge in accordance with the order from the Fuehrer.” Von Schlieben would obey, however reluctantly, though both he and the men he commanded fully appreciated the hopelessness of their situation. Surrounded on three sides by Collins’s ground troops, bombarded from the air, and now assailed from the sea, many—perhaps most—looked only for a swift end to the battle. And a swift end to the battle was exactly what Collins had in mind.

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