In January 1944 Montgomery had insisted that the invasion front be broadened to include Omaha and Utah beaches. Part of his reasoning was the need for the Allies to seize the Cotentin peninsula and the port of Cherbourg early in the campaign. He had been unconvinced that the Mulberry harbours would be sufficient to supply the Allies with the munition build up that he believed they would need. Now with the engineers still struggling to bring the Mulberries back into operation after the storm, Cherbourg seemed more important than ever.
Hitler had ordered that the Cherbourg garrison fight to the death. But they were a disparate group of forces, poorly supplied and now cut off from the rest of German forces in Normandy.
Alan Moorehead was present as the US troops entered the town on the 24th:
It was an uplifting moment. We could see the buildings fringing the water’s edge, the warehouses along the docks, and beyond this, in the calm sea, the outer concrete breakwaters of the harbour. All the green land between us and the sea – about a mile – was swarming with Germans. They brought us to a sudden halt on the road by firing almost point-blank out of a stone farmhouse. On the right they kept up a running fight through the undergrowth with machine-guns.
And on the left, just as I was watching with my glasses, a thicket of trees suddenly opened up with great trailing balls of fire coming towards us. These were the German rockets. As their phosphorus burned away the air was filled with a breath-taking noise, a sort of whirling and tearing, and a second later the farmyard below us disappeared in walls of dust and smoke. About the same time half an acre of ground half a mile away appeared to rear itself slowly and lazily in the air until it formed an immense mushroom of smoke and the noise of the explosion came rushing across the field at us.
We were pinned down on a sunken road under almost continuous rifle and machine-gun fire. It kept hitting with vicious little whacks against the piled-up earth beneath the hedge. So long as we did not bob up above the level of embankment we were perfectly safe there in the strong June sunlight. The embankment was four feet thick and those shots that missed simply whizzed by harmlessly overhead.
Some of the infantry slept oblivious of the noise and the presence of the enemy in the next field. Some brewed coffee. Some edged up the hedge nearer and nearer to the Germans. The American general, who looks like a successful business man, was striding about, highly delighted with it all. “Come on”, he called to us, “if you want a good view, go up that hill”. All around us was the recent wreckage of battle: a group of dummy German guns made out of saplings, the still warm German dead lying at their foxholes, a burning cowshed, the dead beasts in the fields among the torn telephone lines, and the litter of mess-tins and empty meat cans scattered up the road.
A haze began to drift over Cherbourg towards the evening when the Americans advanced for their last run down to the sea. It had been as balanced and as decisive a break-through as any I have seen in this war – the power of the offensive machine against fixed positions. Coming up the the Regiment Command post one could feel the sense of expectancy and eagerness among the staff officers. The colonel said, “I think we are going to have better luck today”.
He selected a good observation point for us on his map, and added: “Right now there is a German ack-ack gun on it firing at our forward troops, but we will have it within an hour for you. Just wait till I get the artillery to dump something on it.” He picked up his telephone, and presently the dumping began. While we were waiting the colonel explained that little knots of Germans had been by-passed in our rear and had been holding out for three days. “But, hell”, he said, “you don’t go any place unless you by-pass”. All this took place under the low branches of an apple orchard in full leaf, and there were with us a couple of British Guards officers who had come up to see the fight.
Midday was zero hour, and as it struck, the colonel picked up his telephone and told his general: “We are all ready to go!”
Then it started. There was no great barrage, no cloud of aircraft, no great noise. The infantry simply vanished into the forest with the sound of the light, quick coughing of their machine-guns. Yet the next six hours were packed with more incident than I can put down here. At the start a French irregular came up to my jeep with a Russian in civilian clothes. He wanted the Russian shot as a spy. But we managed to dissuade him and pushed on.
Within an hour we had gone clean through the main German perimeter. On either side of the lane there were deep concrete dugouts with many abandoned enemy guns – places with running hot and cold water and electric lights. The hedges and trees were badly damaged by blast and the German dead lay spaced along the roadside ditches. About 4,000 yards from the city limits we came on the main German encampment, with some 20 or 30 camouflaged barracks sunk beneath the surface and linked with underground concrete passageways.
Some 400 Germans were holding on here, but they fled in panic as the Americans burst through the trees. A dozen shuddering and frightened horses stampeded about the sloping parade ground. In the officers’ quarters and the storehouses we found cases of brandy and tubs of butter, many radio sets, big stacks of office equipment, bottles of eau-de-Cologne and such an array of toilet things that you might think the German effeminate if you did not know him. And so we came through the outer defences of Cherbourg to the hills above the city – the infantry feeling their way along the hedges, the jeeps and the guns slowly trundling up the roads.
This account first appeared in the Daily Express and then in The War Illustrated on July 21, 1944.
The relief at capturing Cherbourg so quickly was short lived. By the time the port itself was captured on the 27th it was clear that the Germans had done terrible damage to the harbour facilities and it would be some time before it could usefully be used by the Allies.
Contemporary Newseeel footage of the battle in Normandy: