Pursuit: Normandy, 1944

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Victory in Europe seemed sure and near for the Western Allies in late summer, 1944, as their armies broke out of a shallow beachhead on the Channel coast of France and rolled, seemingly unstoppable, across Normandy, Brittany, Flanders, on to Paris, and up to the borders of Germany itself. But here, braked by worn-out men and machines and an outrun fuel supply, the advance slowed and halted. The dark winter of the Ardennes followed, and it was spring before Germany was finally reduced to the smoking, starving ruin that constituted defeat.

During the August progress of arms across France, however, any suggestion that the end to five years of devastating war could be so delayed seemed pessimistic, even unpatriotic. No such suggestion was made by the Allied press and radio. The liberation of towns and destruction of enemy formations (unfortunately the two often overlapped) was proclaimed in stark black and white: valor and daring versus, at best, a diabolical cunning. A sense of swashbuckling abandon was conveyed; something of a game of Allied hounds coursing the German hare.

Perhaps a distant perspective of the giant scene gave this impression. Close up, however, at the armor and infantry points of the pursuit, the sensation was not that of chasing a hare, but that of following a wounded tiger into the bush; the tiger turning now and again to slash at its tormentors, each slash drawing blood.

This is a personal account of one of those pursuing points of infantry: the 2nd Battalion, 116th Regiment (the Stonewall Brigade), 29th Infantry Division. We joined the battle on July 28, three days after the massive Allied air bombardment that launched the operation called COBRA, designed to rupture the German lines on a four-mile-wide front west of St. Lo. COBRA developed into a breakout from the beachhead, and then into the great pursuit that at its height involved upward of two million men on the two sides. On August 15 the Allied invasion of southern France added another front to the massive battle.

On a battlefield of such enormous proportions, the actions of a single infantry battalion can provide only a small, closely cropped scene from a giant canvas of fire-breathing columns, writhing and twisting across a fair French countryside, trailing behind them broken men and machines, smoking villages, and trampled fields. This battalion scene, so relatively minute in time and space, covers fourteen days and some fifteen straightline miles from the village of Moyon to the ancient town of Vire; in width it rarely measures more than two hundred yards. But it was not composed without pain, and I believe it to be a fair sample of much of the great pursuit. No swashbuckling column we, but a dogged, trudging one, at times creeping and crawling.

The Stonewall Brigade’s fifteen miles cost over a thousand killed and wounded, of which the 2nd Battalion bore its about one-third share. This cost was not excessive by Normandy standards, and it was light compared to the more than thirtyfive hundred Stonewallers left along the twenty-mile stretch from Omaha Beach through St. Lo. Yet to lose within two weeks nearly half of the battalion’s seven hundred officers and men was enough to cause an immediate hurt militarily, and a lasting one personally.

The 116th is a Virginia National Guard regiment. Its hereditary title, Stonewall Brigade, was gained at the First Battle of Manassas in the Civil War under General Thomas J. Jackson. The regiment was mustered for World War II in 1941. By August, 1944, relatively few Virginians remained; many were in the military cemetery at La Cambe; more were in hospital or had been invalided home. These losses were made good with draftees from across the country and resulted in ranks as much Yankee as Virginian.

With the seniority gained from chance survival of its battles, I had advanced from company commander to battalion major and executive officer. The battalion commander was of tested combat worthiness. He was a professional product of West Point, but unorthodox and irreverent enough to lead amateurs whose approach to soldiering was aggressively temporary.

The eight days between the taking of St. Lo and joining COBRA were spent by the 29th Division in corps reserve, refitting with men and material. The 2nd Battalion’s bivouac was among orchards of ancient, gnarled apple trees outside the village of St. Clair-sur-1’Elle, which we had taken in a night attack just over a month before. The luxury of hot meals, showers, clean uniforms, and being away from the immediate vicinity of death and destruction obscured the discouraging fact that the crusade in Europe had advanced little more than three miles during that month of hard fighting and heavy losses. (There were vague reports of the July 20 attempt to assassinate Hitler, and a momentary hope that this might mean the collapse of the German army, but nothing came of it, and it was accepted that the war would have to be fought out the hard way.)

The weather that since D-day had alternated between damp cold and sultry heat turned pleasantly warm and bright. The sickening smell of cordite with which war infected the countryside had blown away, and our orchard was green and summer-smelling. For recreation, motion pictures ran all day in a blacked-out barn, the film spotty and jerky from constant use. These wartime films, like wartime writing, projected a streak of blatant unreality, but they were enjoyed, for this was the tenor of the times and we were all attuned to it.