THE ALLIES THRUST AND THE MORTAIN COUNTER-ATTACK

On August 1st, the Americans reorganized their operations. At the head of his newly-formed Third Army, Patton gave a phenomenal new impetus to the battle. In fewer than three days, seven divisions, the equivalent of 100,000 men and 10,000 vehicles, were moved through a narrow bottleneck that had been opened up south of Avranches, before fanning out in different directions. One of these army corps swept southwards through Brittany, a second headed for the Loire while the third veered round towards Le Mans.

During this time, the First US Army had run into problems as it headed east, up the Sée and Sélune valleys. Their attack was coordinated with one launched southwards from Caumont-L’Eventé by the XXX British Corps, as part of Operation Bluecoat. The rugged relief of this area of the bocage, with its narrow, twisting lanes and impenetrable hedges, slowed the Allied advance to a crawl, the Germans reluctant to relinquish even one square inch without a struggle.

On August 2nd, after five days of fighting, the Americans entered Percy and liberated Villedieu and Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouët, before entering Mortain the next day. For their part, the British captured Villers-Bocage and what was left of Aunay-sur-Odon, which had been devastated by aerial bombardments in June. After conquering Mount Pinçon with considerable difficulty, they started advancing on Vire from the east, but soon ran into fierce resistance from the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions.

Then came a bolt from the blue. In the morning of August 7th, the Germans launched a major armoured counter-attack on Mortain from both sides. Operation Lüttich had been planned from start to finish by the General Headquarters of the Wehrmacht, against the advice of the military leaders on the ground.
Its objective, imposed by Hitler in person, was to smash through American lines and reach the bay of Mont St Michel, some thirty kilometres distant, slicing through the Avranches bottleneck along the way. Cut off from their supplies, Patton’s troops would be isolated and become sitting ducks.

In order to achieve this, four panzer divisions were moved with the utmost secrecy, reinforced by infantry. Thanks to the element of surprise – as well as the thick morning mist -, the panzers broke out and advanced as much as ten or twelve kilometres in some sectors. Heavily bombed overnight by the Luftwaffe, Mortain was briefly recaptured. The 30th US Division bore the brunt of this frontal attack and had to fall back. Some of its units found themselves surrounded, like the famous “lost battalion”, which remained under siege on Hill 314, east of the town, for six days, heroically resisting repeated attacks from the SS.

Shortly after noon on August 7th, however, the mists finally lifted and there was a dramatic change in fortunes. Waves of Allied fighter-bombers attacked the German armoured columns, firing guns and rockets. The German divisions were pinned down and lost more than 150 tanks in the space of just a few hours. By the evening, it was clear that their attack had failed. At Mortain, Hitler had had his final throw of the dice in Normandy. And he had lost !