The fall of St. Lô
In July of 1944, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel of the German Nazi forces, faced one of the greatest battlefield challenges of his Wehrmacht career. In spite of a large concentration of German tanks opposite Caen, the Allies were expanding their Normandy lodgment. Several armored counterattacks against the British Second Army had failed, and the decision to conduct a protracted defense south of Cherbourg also led to defeat. When the full force of the American VII Corps struck the Cotentin Peninsula—a strategic promontory in the English Channel—the Germans were compelled to rapidly retreat and give up the important port city.
Cherbourg’s loss released four additional American infantry divisions for a renewed drive south toward Périers and St. Lô inland. On July 7, the Americans crossed the Vire et Taute Canal north of St. Lô, prompting Rommel to shift Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein’s elite Panzer Lehr (a German armored division) from the Caen sector. To gain the advantage of surprise, Bayerlein planned to move his division westward during the hours of darkness, transferring only a portion each night spread over the period of several days. Despite his careful precautions, the Americans discovered that the transfer was taking place. The noisy march of Panzer Lehr across the Allied front was noted by the U.S. First Army.
With their route of escape blocked to the north and east, the Americans facing Panzer Lehr would either be forced to surrender or flee westward across swampy terrain after abandoning their heavy equipment.
Bayerlein designated 0145 hours on July 11 as the start time for the attack. Although moving an armored column into the attack at night was risky, Panzer Lehr‘s commander hoped that the darkness would cloak his movements until the last possible moment. It would also prevent artillery spotting aircraft from directing fire from the array of guns the Americans possessed.
With the arrival of daylight, both sides could see much more clearly. By 0642 Company A reported that it was completely surrounded by enemy infantry. Several Panthers (Panzerkampfwagen Mark V tanks) finally forced their way up the le Desert-St. Jean de Daye road, severing contact between Company B in the village and Company C to the south. Rather than permit themselves to be overrun, the men of Company C retreated a short distance to the north. Daylight, however, meant that the GIs could now receive more accurate artillery support. Shortly after the first Piper L-4 liaison planes went aloft, salvo after salvo of high explosive rained down upon the attackers, effectively halting the German advance along the road by midmorning.
Cut off from its supporting armor, the PGR 901 (901st Panzergrenadier-Lehr-Regiment) found itself entangled in an increasingly lopsided engagement. Pounded by American artillery and mortar fire, the group was relentlessly broken up into smaller fragments by late morning. Only a single infantry platoon managed to make it back to friendly lines.
By 1445 the 47th Infantry’s advance had flushed out the remaining Panthers. Badly exposed and being chewed up by the combined firepower of American infantry, tank destroyers, aircraft and artillery, the Panzer Lehr division began to pull back. Rommel’s attempt to restore the deteriorating situation north of St. Lô had been a failure; the only result was the loss of irreplaceable tanks and Panzergrenadiers. St. Lô fell to the 29th Infantry Division on July 18, 1944, and the stage was set for the eventual Allied breakout from Normandy.
Battle of Arracourt
The Battle of Arracourt took place between U.S. and German armored forces near the town of Arracourt, Lorraine, in eastern France between 18 and 29 September 1944. As part of a counteroffensive against recent U.S. advances, the German 5th Panzer Army had as its objective the recapture of Lunéville and the elimination of the XII Corps bridgehead over the Moselle River at Dieulouard. With local superiority in troops and tanks, the Germans anticipated quick defeat of the defending Combat Command A (CCA) of the U.S. 4th Armored Division.
From 20 to 25 September, Fifth Panzer Army ordered the 111th Panzer Brigade and the 11th Panzer Division into a series of disjointed attacks against the Arracourt position. On 20 September, an Army observation pilot, Major “Bazooka Charlie” Carpenter, took to the air with his bazooka-armed Piper L- 4 Cub, nicknamed Rosie the Rocketer, to attack the enemy. As low clouds and heavy fog lifted around noon, Carpenter spotted a company of German Panther tanks advancing towards Arracourt. The Cub pilot dived through German ground fire in a series of attacks against the German panzers, firing all of his bazooka rockets in repeated passes. After returning to base to reload, Carpenter flew two more sorties that afternoon, firing no fewer than sixteen bazooka rockets at German tanks and armored cars, several of which were hit. His actions were later credited and verified by ground troops with knocking out two Panther tanks and several armored cars, killing or wounding enemy soldiers, and destroying six enemy tanks, including two Tiger I (initially designated Panzerkampfwagen VI) heavy tanks. Carpenter’s actions also forced the German tank formation to retreat to its starting position, in the process enabling a trapped 4th Armored support crew to escape capture and destruction.