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East of the Vire River, France - June 29, 1944
Capt. Martin Blumenson
U.S. Army Historical Branch
Washington, D.C.

Web Editor's Note: A most apt secondary title for this article would be:
"The Ordeal of Brig. Gen. John J. Bohn, 3AD CCB".

From Army magazine, May 1957, as reprinted in the 3AD Association Newsletter
as two parts in June & August, 1957.


The exact meaning of coordination may best be illustrated by means of an example where little coordination existed. The story is embarrassing and discomforting, for the events added up to confusion on the battlefield. Yet the story is instructive as a practical example of what can happen when coordination is absent up and down the chain of command. In this instance, the muscular movement that resulted was disjointed. Poorly regulated, it became incoherent.

Bridgehead Established

It occurred in the hedgerow country of Normandy, and it began on 7 July 1944 when U. S. First Army was in the fifth day of an attack. Two corps were meeting strong resistance and were drawing German strength into their zones of advance. When the third corps, XIX, broadened the army attack that morning and committed the 30th Division to secure a bridgehead over the Vire River and the Vire-et-Taute Canal, relatively few Germans were in opposition. The 30th Division crossed the river and the canal, seized a bridgehead, and made evident to American commanders the existence of this soft spot in the German defenses. Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, First Army commander, acted at once. He took the 3d Armored Division out of army reserve and made it available to XIX Corps for commitment into the bridgehead.

Exactly what General Bradley had in mind was not clear. Whether he visualized the commitment of armor as being motivated primarily by offensive or defensive intent, he did not say.

Since General Bradley had an offensive mission, and since his other engaged elements had not achieved much forward momentum, the commitment of armor could be interpreted as the insertion of a slashing spearhead to exploit the penetration that the Taute-et-Vire bridgehead represented.

On the other hand, General Bradley correctly figured that the Germans would move troops to the Taute-et-Vire area and counterattack to restore the original line. Part of the 2d SS Panzer Division and a mobile brigade of light infantry were already closing in from the flanks to plug the gap until the powerful Panzer Lehr Division, ordered from another sector, could counterattack to eliminate the American bridgehead. Since General Bradley could not know how fast the Germans could act, he could have intended to use the 3d Armored Division to bolster the defensive strength of the bridgehead forces.

General Bradley did not state specifically what he desired because, in conformance with well-established doctrine based on custom and tradition, a commander does not dictate the details of a commitment. So he simply instructed the XIX Corps commander. Major General Charles H. Corlett, to support the 30th Division by reinforcing the infantry with armor.

The Corps Objective

General Corlett's mission was to seize high ground about seven miles to the south. By taking this high ground immediately west of St. Lo, he would facilitate the capture of that town -- an operation his corps was scheduled to get under way within a few days. Thus, General Corlett anticipated a limited exploitation of the bridgehead.

Unfortunately, General Corlett was severely ill and confined to bed at his command post. Though he had been expecting to receive the 3d Armored Division to exploit the success of the 30th Division, he had been unable to work out the details of the commitment with the armored division commander, Major General Leroy H. Watson. Nor was he able to supervise personally the actual passage of the armored troops across the river, into the bridgehead, and through the infantry positions.

General Corlett telephoned General Watson in the afternoon of 7 July and told him to cross the Vire River immediately and drive south.

"How far do you want me to go?" General Watson asked.

"The Germans have little or nothing over there," General Corlett replied. "Just keep going."

Confusion Between Commanders

At the very beginning of the action, then, there was a basis for misunderstanding. The army commander visualized a build-up of the bridgehead forces. The corps commander anticipated a limited exploitation of seven miles. The armored division commander understood that he was to make an unlimited drive to the south.

Ready in general for commitment anywhere along the army front. General Watson was surprised by his sudden attachment to XIX Corps. He had received no advance information alerting him specifically to that event. He had not discussed with General Corlett such arrangements as the actual force to be committed, the coordination of artillery fires, the construction of additional bridges, the passage of his troops through the 30th Division, and subsequent routes of advance. Nor had he conferred on these matters with the 30th Division commander. Guessing that the corps commander intended to commit the entire armored division, which happened actually to be the case. General Watson ordered the commander of Combat Command B, Brigadier General John J. Bohn, to make the initial entry into the bridgehead.

Several days earlier, trying to prepare for any likely eventuality, General Bohn's staff had submitted to division headquarters plans of action based on several possible commitments. The premise of one of these plans was exactly the situation that occurred. Unfortunately, division headquarters had scrapped that plan in the belief that such a development was improbable, and was less prepared to implement the actual situation than other non-existent ones.

Alerted for movement at 1615 hours on 7 July, General Bohn asked permission to phone the 30th Division to coordinate his river crossing with the infantry. He had had communications wire laid from CCB's assembly area to the 30th Division's headquarters in anticipation of such an emergency, but the armored division's chief of staff assured General Bohn that direct communication between CCB and the 30th Division was unnecessary. Since CCB would remain under control of the 3d Armored Division, the chief of staff himself would take care of any necessary coordination. Little, if any, coordination actually took place between the 3d Armored and the 30th Infantry Divisions. There was simply no time.

Two hours later, General Bohn received his march order. He led his troops toward the river five miles away. Commanding inexperienced troops who were moving toward their first combat action, and maintaining radio silence and blackout discipline, General Bohn could use only one road to get to the river. That road was narrow, rain-soaked, and jammed with other traffic. Furthermore, the combat command was larger and more unwieldy than those of the triangularized armored divisions that recently had been reorganized. The 3d Armored Division was an "old-type" unit, with two combat commands rather than three, 232 medium tanks instead of 168, and numbering, with its attached units, more than 16,000 rather than about 12,000 men. General Bohn's CCB contained more than 6,000 men, 800 vehicles and 300 trailers, a column over twenty miles long.

Delay at the River

At the river-crossing site, where rain fell steadily and enemy fire fell intermittently, General Bohn found only one bridge available. The 30th Division had constructed a pontoon structure and a floating treadway and had repaired an existing stone bridge; but enemy fire had knocked out the pontoon installation, and the treadway was being used for traffic coming out of the bridgehead. General Bohn had to share the stone bridge with the 30th Division, which was moving an infantry battalion across the river. With vehicles of both commands intermingled and with traffic periodically retarded by the enemy artillery fire, CCB did not get all its forces across the river until late in the morning of the following day.

Across the river, CCB had to find lodgment during the hours of rainy darkness in a small area crowded with 30th Division troops and closely hemmed in by an active enemy -- this without prior reconnaissance or coordination with the 30th Division.

As soon as the 30th Division's commander, Major General Leland S. Hobbs, had learned that CCB was to enter the bridgehead, he ordered his troops to clear the main road west of the river-crossing site and to give the armor the right of way. He envisioned CCB advancing westward to the St. Jean-de-Daye intersection and there turning left to drive southward along a good highway to the corps' objective. Such action would (1) capture the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads, the objective the 30th Division needed but had not taken to make the bridgehead secure; and (2) provide the infantry division with an armored spearhead for the attack to the high ground west of St. Lo. Though this operation might have been feasible, General Hobbs did not have operational control of CCB.

Control rested with General Watson, who was concerned by the fact that the enemy still held the St. Jean-de-Daye intersection. To take the crossroads and turn left there would expose CCB's right flank during its drive to the south. Minimum protection would necessitate going two miles straight on and capturing the village of Le Desert. Despite the seeming absence of strong enemy forces nearby, General Watson felt that an attack to secure the crossroads and Le Desert might involve CCB in a task that would delay and perhaps prevent its movement to the south. He therefore directed General Bohn to bypass the intersection by turning left and moving southwest immediately after crossing the river. This committed CCB to an advance over a network of unimproved roads and trails for a distance of from four to six miles. CCB would then emerge on the good highway three miles south of St. Jean-de-Daye and be ready to drive rapidly southward to the corps' objective.

Sending armor over secondary roads or across country for a short distance to bypass resistance was not unusual, and General Watson did not think that CCB would be unduly delayed by the terrain. Since the ground was presumed but lightly held by the enemy, he did not believe there was much risk of getting the tanks involved in the hedgerow tactics of fighting from one field to the next. He felt that the potential complications of pointing CCB diagonally across the zones of two regiments of the 30th Division would be minor. And finally, the relatively slight experience of armor in Normandy seemed to indicate that rapid advance along the narrow main highways was a rash procedure in view of the effectiveness of enemy anti-tank weapons.

The Armor Attacks

General Bohn launched his attack on the morning of 8 July. He had a narrow front of about a thousand yards. So he advanced in a column of reinforced tank battalions. While most of CCB remained in the rear, the leading battalion deployed into two parallel columns and began to move along country roads and hedgerowed lanes.

Almost at once this force met and destroyed five German tanks, as against the loss of one -- an auspicious opening. But the tankers soon became involved in the tortuous advance typical of combat in the hedgerow country. The roads were little better than trails, narrow, sunken in many places, and frequently blocked by fallen trees, overhanging hedges, or wrecked vehicles. The poorly surfaced alleys, already soft as a result of a month's heavy rainfall, could not withstand the weight of the Shermans and quickly became quagmires. In order to keep the parallel columns moving on a front more than one tank wide and prevent a single stalled vehicle from halting an entire column, the armor overflowed the lanes and entered the fields of the swampy Cotentin lowland. Here the mud was much worse. Furthermore, the hedgerows blocked progress and necessitated extensive breaching by demolition and bulldozer. By the end of the day, CCB had advanced only a mile and a half.

Thoroughly disappointed, General Watson informed General Bohn that such progress was unsatisfactory. He urged General Bohn to fit his method of advance to the situation, emphasized the need for speed, and insisted that he use the roads wherever possible.

Bridgehead Traffic Jam

General Bohn was in agreement, but had been unable to devote much attention to his front. He had been busy in the rear area trying to straighten out the confusion that was throttling an orderly organization of the bridgehead forces. In an area scarcely four miles wide and less than three miles deep were jammed seven infantry battalions, a tank battalion, and an artillery battalion of the 30th Division; an infantry battalion, three tank battalions, and two artillery battalions of CCB (a force of approximately 11,000 men); and an almost equal number of supporting troops of both units. In this overpopulated morass of mud, tank treads destroyed communications wire and the presence of armor in infantry regimental rear areas hampered supply operations. Infantrymen were surprised by the appearance of CCB tanks, and tankers were indignant to find riflemen occupying possible assembly areas. Both commands were in their initial combat action and nervous soldiers of both units aggravated conditions by firing weapons wildly in rear areas and on the flanks. Artillery units had not coordinated their fires, and in the absence of communications between the armor and the infantry, the artillery in support of one hesitated to fire for fear of shelling the other.

Representatives of both commands conferred that afternoon in an attempt to coordinate the effort in the bridgehead. But by this time CCA of the 3d Armored Division was crossing the river into the bridgehead to drive westward beyond the St. Jean-de-Daye intersection, secure Le Desert and protect CCB's flank and rear. Simultaneously, the corps commander, General Corlett, released an infantry battalion of the 30th Division from corps reserve, and the division commander, General Hobbs, brought these troops south across the Vire-et-Taute Canal and into the bridgehead for additional right-flank protection. The infantry battalion and CCA met at the St. Jean-de-Daye intersection and compounded the confusion.

In the hope of ameliorating the situation in the bridgehead, General Corlett applied the principle of unity of command. He attached CCB to the 30th Division on the evening of 8 July and thereby gave General Hobbs responsibility for the advance to the south. But believing that the Germans had had time to react, and feeling therefore that he could no longer expect a quick armored thrust to the high ground west of St. Lo, he set a new objective only three miles to the south -- Hill 91 at Hauts Vents. General Hobbs transmitted the new mission to General Bohn.

The Second Day

For the second day of attack. General Bohn passed the second reinforced tank battalion in his CCB column through the first. Passage was difficult because of the terrain, but by mid-morning the tankers were making slow progress through muddy fields and along narrow trails. Opposition was still slight, so General Hobbs ordered General Bohn to get his men out of the fields and moving on the lanes. General Bohn passed the order down. When the battalion commander seemed hesitant to abandon the slower and more cautious hedgerow method of advance, General Bohn personally started forward to change the manner of attack.

Traffic congestion and rain delayed General Bohn so that it was early afternoon before he reached the forward area. When he repeated his order to get the tanks moving on the roads, the subordinate commander demanded angrily whether General Bohn realized this was contrary to General Corlett's and General Watson's directives and contrary to the training of the tank-infantry teams. In reply, General Bohn took personal command of the battalion.

General Bohn reorganized the leading battalion to get the tankers onto the roads. Anxious to give some sign of progress, he dispatched eight tanks ahead of the main body. These tankers were to disregard communications with the rear, move to the main highway, turn left and south for several hundred yards to an intersection leading right and southwest to Hauts Vents, and seize Hill 91. Moving in single file down a country lane and spraying the ditches and hedges with machine-gun fire, the eight tanks soon vanished from sight.

Meanwhile, Generals Corlett and Hobbs were becoming insistent that the attack should be pressed with greater vigor. This stemmed from their anxiety over the possible approach of German forces. Aerial reconnaissance and intelligence reports from other portions of the front confirmed the movement of enemy armor toward the Vire-et-Taute sector. As cloudiness turned into drizzling ram and obscured the ground, General Corlett suggested that the troops in the bridgehead take special anti-tank measures. Soon afterward a rash of rumors made the troops uncomfortable over the possibility of an enemy armored counterattack.

Part of the 2d SS Panzer Division launched two counterattacks on the 30th Division's right flank near Le Desert -- a probing action late in the morning and a full-scale effort early in the afternoon. The attacks were contained, but rumors of disaster caused a few supporting units and some hysterical soldiers to fall back to the St. Jean-de-Daye crossroads.

Combat-Level Confusion

During the second counterattack, the eight tanks dispatched by General Bohn reached the main highway, but instead of making the correct turn to the left, the lead tank turned to the right and moved north. The seven others followed.

Just south of the St. Jean-de-Daye intersection, a tank destroyer company had emplaced its 3-inch guns to cover the main highway. Panicky stragglers told the tank destroyer crewmen that German armor had broken through the American lines a scant few miles away. A regiment nearby erroneously reported fifty enemy tanks moving north along the highway toward St. Jean-de-Daye. Air bursts from unidentified guns exploding in the vicinity seemed to confirm the presence of German armor, and the tank destroyer crewmen peered anxiously through the drizzle and listened for the sound of tank engines. They were fully alert when the silhouette of a tank hull nosed over the top of a small rise a thousand yards away.

There could be no doubt that this was the enemy. But a tank destroyer officer radioed higher headquarters to make doubly sure. The reply came at once: there were no American tanks in the area. By this time, several others had come into view. Firing machine guns and throwing an occasional round of high explosive into the adjacent fields, the tanks moved steadily toward the tank destroyer positions. At a range of 600 yards, the tank destroyers opened fire. The first round scored a direct hit on the lead tank.

It was, of course, the lead tank of the eight sent out by General Bohn. Before mutual identification could be made, two tanks were knocked out. There were ten casualties among tankers and tank destroyer crewmen. The six remaining tanks reversed direction, rolled south on the highway toward Hauts Vents, and again disappeared. Shortly before darkness the tankers reported they were on the hill objective. Though their radio transmitters were working, their receivers, for some perverse reason, failed to work.

The Advance Is Halted

Meanwhile, General Bohn succeeded in getting the bulk of his leading battalion to the main highway. He had also gotten the third battalion in his CCB column there by means of a cross-country movement. As both battalions began to drive rapidly toward the objective and it began to appear that CCB would complete its mission that evening, General Hobbs ordered General Bohn to halt about a mile short of Hauls Vents and set up defensive positions for the night.

General Hobbs reasoned that the Germans might counterattack again during the night, and therefore felt that defensive positions were more important. If CCB took Hauts Vents, the 30th Division would have to advance in a supporting attack to give CCB adequate flank and rear protection in an area where enemy strength was presumably present. Before continuing his attack. General Hobbs wished to reorganize his units. A temporary defensive posture would insure his desire.

As General Bohn complied and assumed defensive positions, he vainly tried to recall the six tanks on Hill 91. These tankers failed to receive his radioed instructions, but reported that American planes were strafing and bombing them in the last light of the fading day, an air mission requested earlier but delayed by bad weather. Fortunately, none of the tanks was harmed. They formed a perimeter in a field and waited through the night for the arrival of the remainder of CCB.

News that six tanks of CCB were on the objective was received at higher headquarters with some skepticism. Nevertheless, since the possibility existed and because there was some uncertainty about the precise locations of the CCB positions, corps and division artillery had difficulty planning and executing their normal harassing and interdictory fires for the night. When morning came, and no reinforcement had appeared, the six tanks turned back and rejoined CCB.

Result of Confusion

It took CCB two more days of strenuous attack to secure Hill 91 at Hauts Vents, and by then the full strength of the Panzer Lehr Division was counterattacking in the Vire-et-Taute area. The possibility of exploiting the Vire-et-Taute bridgehead by a deep armored thrust through a soft spot in the German defenses had vanished. An unusual opportunity had been missed. The slow and painful type of combat, with its high casualty rate, characteristic of the battle of the hedgerows, was to continue.

Why was coordination so strikingly absent in this action? The reason may perhaps be found in the relative inexperience of First Army. Though all commanders were applying the same tactical doctrine and though all troops had been trained in that doctrine, First Army was not yet a team. The individual commanders up and down the chain of command were not yet working together in that close coordination that requires a minimum of overt or articulate direction. It would be several weeks yet before the commanders at all echelons could anticipate the wishes of the next higher level and could therefore secure the necessary coordination of parts in cooperation and normal sequence so as to give harmonious results to properly functioning muscular movements.

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