Battle for Brest

The Battle for Brest was fought on the Western Front during World War II. The 1st part of the Allied plan for the invasion of mainland Europe called for the capture of port facilities. The main port the Allied forces hoped to seize was Brest, in northwestern France. and put that it into their service.

Early in the war, the United States and the United Kingdom began planning an eventual “Invasion of Western Europe”, when and if the United States joined the war. American and Canadian troops would be moved from North America to England until an Allied invasion could be set into Motion.

One major issue was how to supply the invasion army with the tens of thousands of tons of material it would need after it landed. The capture of seaports on the European Atlantic coast was necessary and the most suitable ones were clear invasion objectives. The capture of these port facilities was deemed crucial because the lack of supplies would easily strand an invading army. For the initial phase of the battle, large artificial ports (Mulberry Harbors) would be erected on the beaches, but they had limited tonnage unloading capabilities and were considered temporary until real ports could be captured and put into service.

Suitable ports could be found along the northern coast of France, across the English Channel which would be crossed by the invading armies, in particular, the port of Brest in Brittany, for a long time the main French Fleet harbor on the Atlantic coast and the westernmost port in France. The Allied strategists even considered it possible that, after its capture, supplies could arrive quicker, directly from the US to Brest, bypassing England and reaching the Allied Armies moving east, towards Germany.

But the Germans, realizing this, began building fortifications earlier in the war through their Organization Todt, as part of the Atlantic Wall concept. Some of these ports were major U-boat bases as well and had bomb-proof concrete submarine pens built. These fortifications had been surviving Allied air strikes for some time.

Battle for Brest

NW France by mid-August, 1944. The Allies manage to occupy the Breton countryside and are already moving east towards Paris. The blue arrows represent the approach routes to Brest and other ports

Soon after Normandy was invaded, the Mulberries were towed from England and deployed on the French coast. Unfortunately for the Allies, one of them was destroyed in a storm after less than two weeks. Supplies were then mainly landed directly via the beaches, but this process was not as efficient.

The Americans who landed on Utah Beach, captured Cherbourg, at the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy,  but the German garrison destroyed its harbor facilities before surrendering. Cherbourg was the only major port in the Allied invasion area. Soon after, the Germans in the Brittany peninsula were isolated by a north-south breakthrough accomplished by George S. Patton’s Third United States Army, exploiting the success of Operation Cobra and the US VIII Corps, were diverted into Brittany to capture Brest and secure the northern flank of the breakthrough.

Wehrmacht troops trapped in Brittany retreated to the fortified ports in the peninsula, as US Third Army troops moved in and surrounded them. The Brest garrison, Festung Brest, meaning “Fortress Brest”, as German propaganda referred to surrounded cities, was put under the command of General der Fallschirmtruppe Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, a paratroop veteran of the Afrika Korps. His forces consisted of the German 2nd Parachute Division, 266th Infantry Division, 343th Infantry Division and other Wehrmacht elements, in all some 40,000 fighting men.

Battle for Brest

General der Fallschirmtruppe Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke

 

Brest was surrounded and eventually stormed by the U.S. VIII Corps,7 August 1944. The fight proved extremely difficult, as the German garrison was well entrenched and partially made up of elite Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) forces.

The Battle For Brest

Military Hospital in Brest – Oct 1944

The German paratroopers lived up to their reputation, as the Allies had experienced previously in battles such as Monte Cassino. Whilst some less capable units surrendered quite easily, the Fallschirmjäger defended their ground under considerable odds, heavy shelling, air strikes and American assaults. The attackers had many losses inflicted on them for every small advance they made into the city.

As per their military doctrine, the Americans tried to use their superior artillery firepower and air superiority to overcome the defenders, instead of fighting them hand-to-hand. The Germans had stocked a considerable amount of ammunition for the defense of the city and had weapons of all calibers (from light flak to naval guns) dug into fortifications and in pillboxes. Elements of the specialized British 79th Armoured Division came in to attack the heavily fortified Fort Montbarey. Flamethrowing Churchill Crocodile tanks along with US infantry took three days to overcome the fort.

the battle for brest

Flamethrowing Churchill Crocodile tank

 

The fighting was intense, with the troops moving from house to house. The fortifications (both French and German built) proved very difficult to overcome, and heavy artillery barrages were fired by both sides.

Eventually, the old city of Brest was razed to the ground during the battle, with only some medieval stone-built fortifications left standing.

General Ramcke surrendered the city on 19 September 1944 to the Americans after rendering the port facilities useless. These would not be repaired in time to help the war effort as it was hoped. By this time, Paris had already been liberated by the Allied Armies, and Operation Market-Garden was already underway in the Netherlands.

“These Are My Credentials”

When U.S. Brigadier General Charles Canham arrived to accept Ramcke’s surrender, the latter asked the lower-ranking man to show his credentials. Canham pointed to his nearby troops and said: “These are my credentials”. Canham was at the time the deputy commander of the U.S. 8th Infantry Division; that phrase has since become the division’s motto.

The costly capture of Brest resulted in the decision to only surround the remaining German-occupied ports in France with the exception of those that could be captured from the march, instead of storming them in a set-piece battle. The exception was Le Havre, which was taken by the British 2nd Army on 12 September 1944. Some of these Breton ports surrendered only by 9 May 1945, one day after Victory in Europe Day.

 

Naples Museum Of Military History


References

  • Joseph Balkoski. From Beachhead to Brittany: The 29th Infantry Division At Brest, August–September 1944. ISBN 0-8117-0325-8
  • Bllumenson, Martin (1961). Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History.
  • Buchheim, L.G. Die Festung. (literary treatment of the author’s experiences as a German war reporter during the battle for France)
  • Dobler, Michael. Closing with the Enemy, which contains a study of combat in Brest
  • Delaforce, Patrick. Churchill’s Secret Weapons: The Story of Hobart’s Funnies, Leo Cooper Ltd 2006 ISBN 978-1-84415-344-2
  • Gawne, Jonathan, The American in Brittany, 1944, Histoire et Collections, Paris, France, 2002, ISBN 2-913903-21-5.
  • Kuby, E. Nur noch rauchende Trümmer. (German – the author was an enlisted soldier in Brest). A radio play translated into English at erichkuby.info/Hoerspiel.pdf .
  • Hitler’s Sky Warriors by Christopher Ailsby

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