THE BATTLE OF THE COTENTIN AND THE FALL OF CHERBOURG

Cherbourg was a strategic objective for the Allies. The success of the Overlord plan depended on its capture, as the port was to be used by ships coming straight from the United States, laden with the soldiers and equipment needed to reconquer Europe.

The first offensive, launched from Utah Beach along the N13 trunk road, was halted by fierce resistance from the Germans in Montebourg. Undaunted, the Allies launched another attack, this time towards the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula, where the enemy was least expecting them. On June 18th, the Americans reached the coast at Barneville, neatly cutting the peninsula off from the rest of Normandy. 40,000 Germans were trapped, their days of freedom numbered.

Swinging his VII Corps northwards, General Collins set off once more. Advancing rapidly, three divisions abreast, he liberated first Briquebec, then Valognes ‑ reduced to a desolate and dreary desert of rubble by aerial bombardments. As they advanced, the Americans discovered a large number of bases for launching V1 rockets, and even one V2 base in Brix.

On June 21st, the Americans reached Cherbourg’s outer defences. The city’s commander, Lieutenant-General von Schlieben, ignored a formal demand for surrender and gave orders for the port installations to be destroyed.

On June 23rd, the first defensive wall was broken. Two days later, Collins’ men swarmed through the city’s streets, while out to sea battleships and cruisers joined in a battle of the titans with the German heavy batteries. On the 26th, the Fort du Roule was taken. Von Schlieben and Admiral Hennecke, the naval commander, emerged from their underground headquarters and surrendered. The Germans entrenched in the naval shipyard held on for a few more hours, before joining the thousands of their comrades who were already prisoners. When Hitler learned that Cherbourg had fallen to the Americans, he flew into a terrible rage.

The bells pealed madly all over the city. Cherbourg had suffered comparatively little during the fighting, and its jubilant population gave their liberators an especially enthusiastic welcome. Until then, the GIs had only crossed towns and cities that had been reduced to ruins and were more or less deserted. Here, the atmosphere was very different and there was much fraternization and popping of champagne corks . On June 27th, thousands of Cherbourgeois acclaimed the victorious generals, grouped on the steps of the town hall.

The only problem was the state of the port, which was littered with mines and the wrecks of scuttled ships. On the booby-trapped quaysides, the rails had been torn up, the cranes toppled and the swing bridge sabotaged. The harbour station was in ruins. Teams of specialists worked non-stop. Even though it was to take several more months before the port of Cherbourg became totally operational, it was able to handle the first Liberty ships from the United States by the end of July. A few days after that, the PLUTO undersea pipeline was laid, carrying oil from the Isle of Wight to supply the terminal at Querqueville.