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)

1200px-Saint-Lo_1944_-_Capitale_des_Ruines_-_couleurs

Saint-Lo : Bombardement de 1944

Conseil Régional de Basse-Normandie / National Archives USA

Confusion: The Organization of the German High Command During D-Day and the Weeks Afterwards (Part 1)

+

There was one person in charge of the Allied invasion of Europe and subsequent campaign to defeat Nazi Germany: General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Forces. All Allied military forces came under his command with an occasional exception. Most important, Eisenhower was backed by three key men: Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, US President Franklin Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. When he had to flex his muscles to bring subordinates into line, he had a lot of muscle behind him.

The Germans, who have a reputation as organized and efficient, had a command structure resembling a bowl of spaghetti thrown against a wall. In a report written for the Allies after the war and published in a fascinating volume, Fighting the Invasion: the German Army at D-Day, General Günther Blumentritt, who served as Chief of Staff to Herr General Feldmarschal Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefehlshaber West or ‘OB West’ (C-in-C West), wrote about the command structure which I have summarized below.

OB West reported to OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or German Armed Forces High Command), which had operational responsibility for war on the Western Front. Subordinated to OB West were Army Groups B and G which controlled all subordinate German Army forces in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. (The Military Governor of France and the Military Governor of N.France/Belgium, which had their own special units and security troops, reported directly to OKW.)

+

However, OB West only had authority over German troops in France, Belgium, and Holland as it regarded coastal defense. Only if an actual invasion occurred, would the German Army commanders in Belgium and France be completely subordinated to OB West. The German Army commander in the Netherlands did not come under the authority of OB West in the event of invasion. He reported directly to OKW. However, the majority of front line German Army combat units in Holland came under the command of Army Group B and not the German Army commander in Holland.

The Germans had a shortage of troops but not of Field Marshals. Rommel (seen above on right), the unbeatable Desert Fox, was sitting around in Germany while the unbeatable German Afrika Korps was being beaten – and later surrendered to the British 8th Army. (Eventually, the entire Deutsche Afrika Korps ended up as POWs in the United States.) So Hitler sent Herr General Feldmarschal Rommel to France to assume command of Army Group B, which already reported to Herr General Feldmarschal von Rundstedt (seen above on left) in his capacity as OB West. So theoretically Rommel was subordinated to von Rundstedt but all German Field Marshals had the right to contact Hitler directly so it wasn’t clear that Rommel really was subordinate to von Rundstedt and both of them gave orders to Army Group B and these orders often conflicted.

+