US bombers prepare the ground for Operation Cobra

RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.

RAF Molesworth (USAAF Station 107), Cambridgeshire, was the home of the 303rd BG from late 1942 until after VE Day in May 1945.

B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.

B-17 Flying fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.

After many delays, mainly caused by inclement weather which restricted flying, the Allies were now poised for a breakout in Normandy. The British in the east continued to engage the bulk of the Panzers, while the Germans were making every effort to transfer some across to face the Americans, where they anticipated new problems.

Now Omar Bradley decided that he needed the extra support of the heavy bombers to blast apart the German lines facing his sector. He flew to England to confer with the Allied Air commanders over their direct intervention on the battlefield. A plan was developed for 1,500 heavy bombers and 350 medium bombers, supported by 350 fighter bombers to pulverise 5 square miles of countryside.

However the weather continued to conspire against the Allies, when the attack was launched prematurely on the 24th.

This is the account of German medical sergeant Walter Klein:

On the morning of 24 July 1944, I just came back from the dressing station to the position when we were attacked by artillery. Our anti-aircraft platoon had two dead, three severely wounded.

My own company, the heavy company of Kampfgruppe Heintz, lost only one man. With the help of two stretcher-bearers and the medical unit of the neighbouring company, we went back to the dressing station, to bring the wounded there. We arrived there at about 0900 hours.

At 0915 hours there was such strong air activity over the combat line that we had to take the St Lo — Vire road to get back from the dressing station to the position. We had the prescribed insignia, and knew that the American aviators would not fire on us.

Over the sector held by my company were approximately 18 to 25 Lightnings, which were firing systematically on every hedge. Our position was situated in a wooded sector. We left the road to reach the position and took a sunken road. It was 1100 hours. According to orders I had to report back to the company command post, but on the sunken road I found five wounded parachute gunners of the 5th Para Division, injured by a splinter bomb.

What happened during the following hours was terrific. By our calculation, 1,000 to 1,200 bombers took part in the attack The effect was devastating; all our anti-aircraft guns and artillery were destroyed. Tanks that tried to get away were destroyed by pursuit planes.

When a wave of planes had passed, one could hear the crying of the wounded and shouting for help of medical personnel. I had just the time to carry one of my comrades, who had been wounded badly in the thigh, into the dugout when a second wave started bombing.

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

At 1930 I brought the last wounded to the dressing station. The unit had moved to another position. The general opinion of my comrades and even the officers was that, if the enemy made another attack, it would be our end. Only one heavy weapon was left and it only had six rounds of ammunition. Of our heavy trench mortars only two were left.

The St Lo front had suffered very much from this attack. Worse than the loss of weapons was the effect that the attack had made on our morale.

On 25 July, the Americans started to make the breakthrough. At daybreak, as on the day before, innumerable pursuit planes and artillery-spotting planes were over the battleeld. Almost every rifle pit was shelled. At 1400 hours, when I accompanied some wounded to the dressing station, I found that American tanks were already driving along the St Lo — Vire road.

B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.

B-17 bombers encounter heavy flak over the target area during a mission to Germany.

This account appears in Nigel Cawthorne: Reaping the Whirlwind

However if things were bad for the Germans they were also bad for the American 30th Division, who were on the receiving end of a good proportion of bombs that fell short. John Adams was one of the men in the trenches who narrowly escaped:

the attack was scheduled for July 24, 1944. However that morning dawned with overcast skies so the attack was postponed until July 25, 1944. Several squadrons of heavy bombers which had already left their bases in England did not get the word. We were expecting our planes to come in on a parallel course to the road and we had marked our front with reflective panel. Every allied vehicle had been repainted with a large white star which should be visible even at a high altitude. We were told the bombers would not bomb within 250 yards of the road. That’s not the way it happened!

I remember it as clear as things I did yesterday. I heard the sounds of the planes coming and was out of my hole cheering them on. Two things were wrong – one, they were not the fighter bombers we were told would come first; second, they were coming in on a perpendicular course which meant they would fly right over us. Some one called for us to get in our holes that bombs were being released. 300 heavy bombers dropped seven hundred tons of explosives with one salvo falling in the area I was in. Its hard to describe the noise and how we felt. The first blast pitched me around in my hole. I blacked out with the next blast.

When I came to it was all over, a medic was wiping blood off my face. he said it was hard to tell whether the blood was just from my nose or a trickle from my eyes or ears. he was marking me for transportation to the Hospital but I told him the attack was called off and I needed to account for my men and I could go later. The was, as it ended up I was still there to take what was left of the 3rd platoon into the attack the next day.

The 120th Infantry – my regiment had had 25 men killed, 131 wounded and thousands of men shaken up. I was one of those badly shook up but still going. I can’t remember anything until the morning of July 25. My guess is that I was exhausted and went to sleep.

See DonChesnut for John Adams’ full account, written in a letter to his grandson.

The devastating bomb load is released.

The devastating bomb load is released.

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