August 25 - September 19, 1944

The July 25, 1944 Cobra breakout to open country led to a dilemma.  Should Patton's 3rd Army swing east around the German army or should it follow pre-invasion plans to liberate Brittany and turn it into a logistical base for the Allied armies?  In the end, they did both.  Patton ordered the 6th Armored Division west to capture Brest on August 1st.  On August 6th, Patton reported to his army group commander, Omar Bradley, that the 6th Armored Division had captured Brest, but the next day, it was revealed to be untrue.  A German parachute division under Maj. Gen. Ramcke joined Brest's defenders on August 9th, and Ramcke took command of the German force.  On August 12th, the 6th Armored Division was ordered east, abandoning its efforts to capture Brest.

The German army in Normandy was belated encircled on August 21st as the Falaise Gap was closed, and Paris was liberated on August 25th.  The Allied armies continued east, with the vital port of Antwerp liberated on September 4th, even as efforts in Brittany continued.  St. Malo had been the first target, captured in battle from August 4th through 17th with the island offshore that blocked harbor access surrendering only on September 2nd.  Lorient and St Nazaire would be bypassed, and a projected artificial port at Quiberon Bay was canceled.  Brest, however, was the great prize - the former home port of the French Atlantic fleet.  The Allies envisioned ships direct from America unloading troops at Brest's deep water port.

The city was defended by three German divisions - a parachute division and two static infantry divisions.  The Germans were well aware that the Allies needed a major port to make the invasion successful and so had fortified not only the seaside of Brest but also the land face - in two defensive lines.  Hitler had ordered the defenders to fight to the last bullet.  Fortunately, the civilian population had been evacuated.  

On August 20th and 21st, as the Falaise Gap was closed, army group commander Omar Bradley ordered VIII Corps under Troy Middleton with three American divisions along with the 2nd and 5th Rangers and supporting units to proceed to Brest and capture the city.  Moving by trucks, including ones from the quartermaster corps, the troops arrived in front of Brest in 36 hours after a journey of roughly 200 miles.  On the way, they passed the new Brittany American Cemetery at St James.


On August 25th, RAF bombers raided Brest, but the Germans were little effected.  The infantry divisions also began their attacks that day.  On August 27th, the 116th Regiment of Gerhardt's 29th Division attacked a German strongpoint along the northern portion of their outer defenses near Keriolet.  The attack entered the German defenses but was ultimately repulsed.  Bodies remained unburied for days, then the 116th was pulled out of line and moved south to attack another section of German lines.  At the time of my visit, the site of the Keriolet fighting was planted with Christmas trees, a product that funded my trip.

Brittany Coast and Task Force S

With Germans scattered behind American lines and defending potential landing sites along the Brittany coast, Gen Gerhardt created Task Force Sugar under Lt Col Arthur Sheppe to deal with these Germans.  Departing on August 25th, the task force was composed of a few men from the 175th Regiment, miscellaneous mechanized cavalry, tank destroyers, engineers, British signals, and the 2nd Ranger Bn.  The 5th Rangers would also get involved with clearing the Breton coast.  Some locations saw resistance, others surrendered quickly to avoid falling into the hands of the French.  On September 6th, the 5th Rangers with tank destroyer support captured Fort du Dellac, taking 39 prisoners at the cost of one man wounded.  The clearing of the coast is an interesting story and a good excuse to tour the coast and its many forts.

Attack on the German Inner Defense Line

The Americans suffered from supply and ammunition shortages just like their comrades heading east toward Germany, but progress continued toward Brest.  On September 12th, Troy Middleton, commander of VIII Corps sent a message to the German commander, Ramcke, asking for his surrender.  A fervent Nazi, Ramcke declined, and the Americans soon began a bombardment followed by an attack on the German inner defense line.  The western approach to Brest was tasked to the 29th Division, which had landed on Omaha Beach on June 6th and battled to St Lo.  On September 12th, the 115th Regiment of the 29th Division attacked the high ground on the right side of the photo.  The regiment also attacked Fort Montbarey while the 175th attacked Fort Keranroux and Sugar Loaf Hill, which was also fortified.  The attack continued into September 13th, but the Americans did not capture Fort Montbarey.  The two regiments lost 161 men in a day, so the 29th Division commander, General Gerhardt, put the 116th Regiment into line to continue the attack.

Main Gate in Rear of Fort Montbarey

Construction began on Fort Montbarey during the American Revolution, and it is named for the Minister of War at the time.  Designed as part of a series of forts to protect the landward approaches to Brest, construction continued until the French Revolution was beginning.  The Germans incorporated these old forts into their inner defense line.  Although 18th century fortification may look quaint, in a number of cases, forts of that era stood up well during the Second World War.  Fort Montbarey is one of those examples.  

A minefield of modified 300 pound naval shells had been laid in front of the fort.  Beginning at 11pm on September 13th, men from the 121st Engineers began detecting mines and preparing them for demolition, working in craters formed from previous aerial bombardment. At 8:30 the next morning, the engineers detonated the mines, and the attack then began along the lanes cleared through the minefield.  Leading the way was the 1st Bn, 116th under Maj Tom Dallas.  Phosphorus smoke rounds helped suppress German fire.  At 4:45pm, flame throwing "Crocodile" tanks of B Squadron, 141st Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps - Hobart's Funnies - along with conventional tanks, were committed to battle.  The tanks penetrated the German line around the fort, and one of them continued half a mile toward Brest before it was immobilized in a ditch.  The crew returned to Allied lines with an impressive haul of German prisoners.  Three other tanks were put out of action, and the remainder fell back to their starting point.  Nevertheless, infantry surrounded the fort, and the Americans had penetrated far to its rear.

On September 15th, an assault on the fort was not militarily necessarily, but an impatient Gen Gerhardt ordered the fort captured for symbolic reasons.  The engineers continued to clear the mines so that the Crocodiles could shoot flame into the fort's firing slits.  Early on September 16th, the attack began, and fort's moat and walls on two sides were in flames.  The walls, however, kept the American infantry from storming the fort.  A 105mm howitzer was brought to within 20 yards of the main gate and fired white phosphorus into the fort, causing great damage.  Finally, a tank destroyer fired on a tunnel connecting the fort to an outwork and breached it.  Twelve Germans emerged to surrender.  Maj Dallas used his sidearm to convince one of the surrendered Germans to return to the the fort with a message asking the Germans to surrender.  The German commander refused, so Dallas messaged back that he was going to blow them all to Hell.  The Americans planned just that and procured scaling ladders along with a ton of dynamite to be used at a tunnel near the north wall.  After the body of a veteran 29th Division man was recovered from the ditch, at 5pm the charge was blown, and the north walls fell into the ditch.  Infantry charged into the fort, suffering no losses as the Germans surrendered to them.

Brest - Penfeld

On September 17th, the 29th Division penetrated the old inner fortifications of Recouvrance, visible here across the Penfeld, the body of water that had long been home to France's Atlantic fleet, and looked over to the fortress on the other side that was liberated by the 2nd Division.  The destroyed city of Brest was now liberated, but the port itself was thoroughly destroyed.

 To control and use the harbor, the Allies had to capture the territory all around the harbor.  On August 30th, the peninsula on the east side of the harbor was captured.  The more distant Roscanvel Peninsula to the west had to wait until September 19th.

Fort des Capucins

With the fall of Brest proper, Ramcke fled the city by boat to Pointe des Capucins.  There, he prepared to fly to Lorient by floatplane., but men of the 13th Regiment of the 8th Division were approaching Ramcke's headquarters late on September 19th.  With no fighting slits or weapons available to him, and with an American assault in the offing, one of Ramcke's staff put out the white flag.  The 8th Division's assistant commander, General Canham, was not worthy for Ramcke to surrender to, so he thought.  Ramcke asked for Canham's credentials, so Canham pointed to his infantrymen, and said, "These are my credentials."  Ramcke would later claim that he distracted the American with alcohol as his men sent a final message to the Nazi leadership detailing the destruction of the port of Brest.

Brest From Pointe des Espagnols

From the tip of the Roscanvel Peninsula further north you can see Brest, the harbor, and the fortified U-Boat pens.  Although now all in American hands, Brest would not be used as was intended.


Brittany American Cemetery at St. James

The battle for Brest remains controversial, and historians debate its wisdom to this day.  As the final Germans surrendered at Brest, Operation Market Garden was seeking a bridgehead over the Rhine.  The Allied armies advancing east toward Germany had made Brittany a backwater.  There were approximately 10,000 American casualties in Brittany, most of them at Brest, but none of the ports were ever used to supply the Allied armies.  Although Brest had become unnecessary for the logistical support of the Allied armies, the assertion that the troops could have been used in the advance toward Germany is debatable.  The troops that had been sent east couldn't be supplied; adding more would simply complicate the situation.  Antwerp was liberated surprisingly early, yet the river approaches to Antwerp were neglected, and despite its lack of damage, the port of Antwerp didn't see the first supplies unloaded until late November.  Antwerp was conveniently close to the front.  Relying on newly captured ports had its risks, though, and the Seine and Channel ports would supplement Cherbourg and the Normandy beaches until Antwerp was opened.  In the first week of September, Allied logistical planners had advised that Brest not be attacked, but the advice was not taken.  Brest was captured as sort of an insurance policy in case of a failure to develop ports closer to the front lines.  Whether this insurance was worth the premium paid is open to question.

Copyright 2015 by John Hamill

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