Operation Lüttich – Considered

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While Patton’s Third Army was racing through Brittany and towards the south the U.S. First Army under Hodges continued its offensive in an easterly and south-easterly direction in order to widen the corridor of Avranches. General Hodges’s VII Corps took Mortain with its commanding high ground. A pivot had been established for the impending large-scale wheeling of the entire front towards Paris.

“Unless the door of Avranches is pushed shut again the German front in France will collapse,” General von Choltitz said to Colonel-General Hausser, the Seventh Army commander, early in August. But Army and Army Group were quite aware of the magnitude of the disaster. An attempt had to be made at all costs to seal the big gap of Avranches and to cut off Patton’s army from its rearward lines of communications.

At the Führer’s headquarters, too, the danger of the open door of Avranches was by now realized. General Patton’s bold manoeuvre had been watched with dismay and amazement. “Just look at that crazy cowboy general,” Hitler grumbled, “driving down to the south and into Brittany along a single road and over a single bridge with an entire army. He doesn’t care about the risk, and acts as if he owned the world! It doesn’t seem possible!”

Why then was it possible?

If one remembered the triumphs of the once-so-powerful German Army it really seemed incredible that this American general could now be playing cat-and-mouse with it in this manner. How was it possible? Surely there were some strong Panzer divisions left in France? And were these divisions unable to cut off a bottleneck of sixteen to nineteen miles? Was the entire campaign in the West to depend on a mere sixteen miles? It seemed absurd. Surely this must be the great chance for the German Command? Surely this could become the great turning-point, just when the enemy had banked a little too recklessly and contemptuously on his run of good luck? That, at any rate, was Hitler’s idea. It was shared by Colonel-General Jodl, Hitler’s chief of staff.

On August 2, General Warlimont, the deputy chief of the O.K.W. staff, arrived at Field-Marshal von Kluge’s headquarters. He brought with him Hitler’s order for Operation Lüttich—a thrust from Mortain against Avranches. Hitler demanded that of the nine Panzer divisions engaged in Normandy eight should be got ready for the attack. The Luftwaffe, too, was to throw into the battle “all available reserves, including 1000 fighters.”

So far so good. But what about the date? Field-Marshal von Kluge wanted to strike at once. Hitler wanted to postpone the launching of the offensive until “every tank, every gun, and every aircraft have been rounded up.”

Kluge telephoned Jodl: “We’ve got to strike at once. The enemy is getting stronger every day. He’s already got an entire army through the Avranches gap!”

Jodl’s reply reflected an astonishingly over-optimistic assessment of the situation: “Don’t worry about the Americans who have broken through. The more there are through the more will be cut off.” An answer fit for a history primer. One is reminded of the reply reputedly made by Leonidas, the leader of the Greek troops at Thermopylae, when informed that the Persians’ volley of spears and arrows would darken the sun. “So much the better,” he said, “then we’ll be fighting in the shade!”

Field-Marshal von Kluge and Colonel-General Hausser did not share Jodl’s optimism. They knew that any further delay would be the death warrant for their army. They therefore decided to start the offensive during the night of August 6-7. The entire hopes of the Western front rested upon Operation Lüttich.

Four Panzer divisions—the 2nd under General von Lüttwitz, the 116th under Count Schwerin, some units of the 1st S.S. “Leibstandarte” under Brigadeführer [Rank in S.S. troops equivalent to major-general.] Wisch, and the 2nd S.S. “Das Reich” under Gruppenführer [Rank in S.S. troops equivalent to lieutenant-general.] Lammerding—as well as a combat group of the 17th S.S. Panzer Grenadier Division “Götz von Berlichingen” and the remnants of the Panzer Lehr smashed at Saint-Lo made up the offensive force which was placed under the overall command of 47th Panzer Corps.

General Freiherr von Funck, the corps commander, wanted to use the night for the first big armoured thrust. He hoped to cover half the distance to Avranches in darkness. His 120 tanks were ready to advance along a ridge of high ground between the valleys of the See and Sélune; these streams, as it were, providing natural flank cover against enemy interference.

The 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to move off at 2400 hours. But only the right-hand assault group was in fact moving. The attack on the left wing was delayed by a bad hold-up. The tanks of the 1st S.S. Panzer Division had not turned up. On its way to the jumping-off line the Panzer regiment had got into a sunken lane a mile and a half long. As bad luck would have it, an enemy fighter-bomber which had been shot down crashed on top of the leading tank and completely blocked the road. A bad omen. In reverse gear the tanks had to back out of the lane. The manoeuvre took hours. Not till daybreak was the left-hand assault group ready to move into action.

The right-hand group, meanwhile, had raced on ahead with two tank battalions, Panzerjägers, and 304th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The Panzer grenadiers and engineers were riding on top of the tanks.

Then they came up against American anti-tank barriers on the roads. A quick burst of shell-fire. Attack by grenadiers on the American outposts. And forward again. The American main fighting line was overrun.

At Dove the 1st Battalion of the Panzer regiment ran into a mine-belt. Major Schneider-Kostalsky, the regimental commander, was killed by a mine. Engineers cleared the road.

On again.

Mesnil Dove fell. But there was an anti-tank gun left by the church, well under cover. That damned gun was holding up the entire attack. At last a 75-millimetre shell swept it away.

On again. Mesnil Adelee fell. The group was within four miles of its objective for the day. Once there, half the distance to Avranches would be covered. The armoured spearheads swept on towards the west.

Then the day dawned.

The left-hand assault group of Luttwitz’s Panzer division had not started out from its base line till shortly after 0200, because of the belated arrival of the S.S. “Leibstandarte” tanks. It thus lost the element of surprise. Soon it began to get light. True, a haze hung over the ground. The hills were shrouded in thick mist. Crossroads vanished from sight. But at least the fighter-bombers were being kept away from the battlefield.

Like Spectres, the massive Mark IVs, the sleek Panthers, and formidable Tigers materialized out of the mist in front of the American lines. The 2nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment took the stubbornly defended little town of Saint-Barthélémy by storm. A hundred prisoners were taken. But then the tanks of the “Leibstandarte” got stuck in front of a powerful barrier on the main road to Avranches. Strong formations of the 3rd U.S. Armoured Division refused to be dislodged.

Meanwhile the 2nd S.S. Panzer Division had broken into Mortain and overrun the anti-tank gun positions of the 30th U.S. Division. It was now storming the high ground outside the town.

But the heights could not be taken at the first rush. And then the momentum was lost. It became a tough struggle for every foot of ground. On the other wing, on the right flank of the offensive, the 116th Panzer Division ran into an antitank position of the Americans who had occupied the area around Périers on the preceding day. It could not make another yard’s progress.

Even so, by the time the morning haze lifted, Lüttwitz’s right-hand assault group was deep inside the Mortain-Avranches corridor. One more such push and the bottleneck would be sealed. Whether it could be kept sealed with the weak forces available was another question, but at least the vital artery of Patton’s army would be cut for a while. That might produce a sensational turn in the fortunes of war.

“Bad weather is what we need, Herr General. Then everything will work out all right,” Lüttwitz’s chief of operations said to him. But his wish was not granted. The early haze dispersed quickly. August 7 was ushered in with a cloudless sky. And in this sky, presently, appeared Eisenhower’s wonder weapons: fighter-bombers, Thunderbolt bombers, and rocket fighters. Innumerable swarms of them. They pounced on the columns of the 2nd Panzer Division at Le Coudray, half-way to Avranches. They swept over the roads and drove grenadiers, Panzerjägers, and engineers under cover. With uncanny precision the rocket-shells of the Typhoons smashed into their targets. Against this weapon even the otherwise invincible Tigers of 1st Panzer Division were helpless. Desperately the tank crews ducked inside their steel boxes. The grenadiers lay in the fields, motionless, so as not to become targets. Rarely had the absent Luftwaffe been cursed as much as along this road to Avranches.

“How can the Luftwaffe be absent from such a vital operation as this?” the commanders in the field were asking each other. The troops, in simpler words, asked, “If they’re not coming out for this, what are they waiting for?”

And why did they not come out?

Seventh Army knew, of course, that the offensive could not succeed without air cover against the enemy’s fighter-bombers. Air-General Bulowius had promised to make 300 fighters available. “In ceaseless sorties,” he had assured Hausser, “they will keep the skies clear above the area of operations.”

Yet not a single German aircraft showed up. Not, by any means, because Bulowius had gone back on his word. The fighter formations had indeed taken off from their airfields around Paris. But British and American fighters had intercepted them and engaged them in aerial combat immediately above their bases. Not a single unit reached the air space over the fighting front between Mortain and Avranches. With complete impunity the Allied airmen were able to hunt down the tanks, anti-tank guns, and grenadiers of the assault group of 47th Panzer Corps, and thus it came about that, for the first time in military history, a vigorous and successful land offensive was eventually halted from the air.

The German regiments were still defending the ground they had gained, contesting every patch of wood, every farmhouse, and every sunken lane. But the offensive had been broken—smashed from the air. Admittedly, General Bradley had to employ his entire VIII Corps against the German combat groups in order to exorcise the mortal danger; but exorcise it he did. After forty-eight hours the German grenadiers reeled back into their jumping-off positions, which they had left so hopefully during the night of August 6.

Excerpt from ‘Invasion! They’re Coming!’ New York: Dutton, 1963 ISBN 0887407161

Postscript 2011

Some interesting information from Swedish author Niklas Zetterling’s “Normandy 1944.” During the Mortain battle (7-10 August 1944) the British 2nd Tactical Air Force and the US 9th Air Force claimed 140 and 112 German tanks destroyed. Total German tanks deployed in all units was 177 (75 Pz.IV’s, 70 Pz.V’s and 32 Stugs). German documented losses were 46 tanks. They were examined on the ground by Allied teams and 9 of the 46 could be determined to have been hit from the air. 11 tanks were abandoned and 6 were lost to unknown reasons. Most of these were to lack of fuel or mechanical reasons. The others were lost to ground combat. The Germans did lose 86 other vehicles (SPW’s, trucks, prime movers, etc) and of those 24 were determined to have been destroyed from the air. During the period 6th Jun 1944 thru 16 Jan 1945 the British examined 223 Panthers. 14 were determined to have been destroyed from the air (11 by rockets and 3 by cannon). The evaluators said it was easy to determine an air hit from other losses. 63 were lost to AP hits, 8 to HEAT and 11 to HE. 60 were destroyed by crews and 43 abandoned (again was lack of fuel or mechanical). 24 were unknown but not air damage. During the battle of Normandy (June – August 1944) the British 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 fighter-bombers while the US 9th Air Force lost 897. But the author still concludes that the air weapon did its great damage to rail traffic which was the means by which the Germans moved troops, vehicles and supplies.