The Battle for Festung Brest

Cobra

The Battle for Festung Brest

By Rich Hamilton

The Brittany Campaign…

The Battle for Brest may have been the fiercest battle fought as a result of Operation Cobra. The assault on the city lasted thirty-nine days before the city finally fell on 19 September 1944. Of all the objectives for the assault on Brest the only one that was achieved was the capture of the city. In all other regards the operation was a failure for the Allies.

The original plan for the Normandy breakout had called for the US 3rd Army to capture the important ports located in the Brittany peninsula. However, General Bernard Montgomery, the Allied ground commander, ordered a major change in the original plan on 4 August 1944. Since the German defenders had collapsed as a result of the breakout of Operation Cobra most of the 3rd Army was ordered to turn east toward the Falaise Gap.

Only the US VIII Corps advanced into the Brittany peninsula with the important port city of Brest as the main objective of the advance. 

At first the advance on Brest was a race, with the US 6th Armored Division leading the way. The going was so easy that on 6 August General Patton reported to a sceptical General Omar Bradley that Brest had been captured. General Bradley stated later that he was not surprised to find out the next day that Brest had not been taken as Patton insisted.  

US forces began their final move on Brest on 7 August 1944 and encountered heavy resistance from a very well organized defence.

Brittany Campaign

The commander of VIII Corps, General Middleton, reported that the defence network was the original French works that had been improved upon by the German defenders. The Allies encountered a complex series of fortifications that blocked all the approaches to the city. The German defenders also had a huge store of artillery ammunition for the costal batteries that had been modified so they could fire inland. 

US infantry and SP artillery on the move At the heart of the German defensive network was the 2. Fallschirmjägerdivision led by General Herman Ramcke. In support were the 266. and 343. Infantrie divisions with various other supporting elements mostly in the form of anti-aircraft batteries and Festung kompanies. This elite corps gave the German a solid backbone to ensure that every inch of ground was contested.

The American’s pulled the 6th Armored Division out of the line and the core of the assault group was 2nd, 8th, and 29th Infantry Divisions.

In support were numerous artillery battalions, 2nd and 5th US Ranger battalions, and two battalions of tank destroyers, one towed and one self-propelled, with elements of the British 141st Battalion, Royal Tank Corps. Through out the battle the Allies would struggle with having enough ammunition for their artillery, but the Allies did have excellent air support when the weather allowed.

The main objectives to secure the path into the city were hills 105 and 90. These were the two dominant terrain features of the countryside. The assault on hill 105 took place on 1 September 1944 by the US 2nd Infantry Division. The hill was heavily fortified and held dual-purpose anti-aircraft guns that dominated the area yet the infantry were able to succeed on the first day with the help of their engineers. Hill 90 could not be assaulted until after the artillery stores were replenished so the 2nd Infantry Division had to wait until 7 September to begin this assault. Hill 90 was fortified in the same manner as Hill 105 and, although it was very difficult fighting, by the end of the day the position was taken. Once these two hills were taken the drive to the city out skirts became much easier.

Assault on Hill 105 Scenario...

Once the Allied forces began moving into the city itself the fighting became brutal and the American infantry had to fight house to house. The Germans had created many strong points throughout the city and anyone venturing into the open was cut down immediately. The only way the Americans could precede was to use explosives to blow out the walls of the buildings. It was in this way that progress through the city was made.

The Allied advance was halted when it reached the fortress wall of the old city. In some places the wall was reported to be thirty feet high and fifteen feet thick. 

The assault on Brest
On 10 September Corps Artillery attempted to breach the wall using large calibre guns in direct fire, but this failed. It was decided that a direct assault on the wall would not be attempted because it would be too costly. From this point on the Allies would secure the wall on all sides before proceeding.
Street fighting

The last phase of the encirclement of the fortress wall began on 14 September as the Allies attempted to assault Fort Montbarey. The assault was led by 15 Churchill “Crocodile” flame tanks. The first attack was repulsed, but on the following day the fort fell. With the capture of Fort Montbarey the German positions finally began to collapse. On the night of 15 September US forces began crossing the old fortress wall and by 17 September they were closing in on the last pockets of German resistance. General Ramcke surrendered on 19 September 1944 and 20,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner.

At long last, after brutal and bitter fighting, the Allies achieved their objective, the capture of the city of Brest.

However, the Germans had rendered the port useless and it would not be repaired until after the war had ended. Securing the port in working order had been the reason for capturing Brest and in that regard the operation had been a failure. General Bradley would later say that taking Brest had been important because it had cleared the shipping lanes. This had been accomplished at a very high cost, and for the remainder of the war the Allies never attacked another fortified city. They simply surrounded them, sealed them up and let their garrisons sit.

The Allies turned out not to need Brest after all. By the time the city fell Paris had already been liberated and Market Garden was under way. The port city of Antwerp was secure and soon the thousands of tons of needed supplies would be entering Europe through this route. However, given the impressive fortifications of Brest it was a major achievement for the Allies.

Surrender
Festung Brest: The Assault on Hill 105 Scenario...

Sources:

Bradley, Omar, A Soldier’s Story, Henry Holt & Co., New York: 1951.

Blumenson, Martin, Liberation: World War II, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA: 1978.

Personal account: http://home.thirdage.com/military/friends2idww2/07_Whitehead.html
“BRITTANY/FORTRESS BREST --THEIR SEIGE AND SURRENDER: The Battle of Brest: Chapter 7” by Alfred Whitehead II

General Middleton’s After Action Report:
http://pagesperso-orange.fr/alain.liscoet/recitan.htm  


Last Updated On Wednesday, April 21, 2010 by Mike at Battlefront