Capturing St. Lo: the Terrible Arithmetic of War

Frankreich, St. Lô, Zerstörungen

June 1944: damage to the town of St. Lo in Normandy. By the end of the battle of St Lo in late July of 1944, the town had been completely destroyed.

(Photo courtesy of the German National Archive)

One of the most important Allied objectives in Normandy was the town of St. Lo which sat astride a strategic crossroads which the Allies desperately needed to capture. The Germans just as desperately sought to keep the Allies from capturing the town. After coming ashore, it took many weary days of brutal fighting  until American troops finally captured St. Lo on 18 July 1944.

While one will find many different and usually contradictory figures on the casualties during the campaign, historian Russell F. Weigley, writing in his magisterial work, Eisenhower and His Lieutenants: the Campaigns of France and Germany 1944-1945, says the US Army sustained 40,000 killed or wounded in the campaign. Additionally, more than 10,000 US soldiers suffered from combat fatigue severe enough to cause them to be pulled out of the fighting line. Some recovered, some did not.

According to Weigley, 90% of the casualties from the aforementioned figures were in the front-line rifle companies. In the 90th Division the rifle companies suffered 100% casualties among their infantrymen in the six week battle. More appalling, company grade infantry officers, which includes lieutenants and captains in the 90th suffered a casualty rate of more than 150%.

In real terms, this means that every single rifleman who began the battle was killed or wounded and had to be replaced and that every single company grade infantry officer was killed or wounded and had to be replaced and of those replacements, half were killed or wounded.

Casualties as a percentage among company grade officers such as lieutenants and captains were so high because they moved around a lot more than the men.

Source: Eisenhower and His Lieutenants: the Campaigns of France and Germany 1944-1945 by Russell F. Weigley

Omaha_Beach_wounded_soldiers,_1944-06-06_P012901

American assault troops of the 3d Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st U.S. Infantry Division, who stormed Omaha Beach, and although wounded, gained the comparative safety offered by the chalk cliff at their backs. Food and cigarettes were available to lend comfort to the men at Collville-Sur-Mer, Normandy, France. 6/6/44. 

( photo number SC 189910-S courtesy of the US Army Center for Military History)

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Saint-Lo : Bombardement de 1944

Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/