Battle for Brest

Battle for Brest

:"This article is about the "1944 Battle for Brest in France". For other uses, see Battle of Brest (disambiguation)."Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle for Brest
partof= Operation Overlord, Battle of Normandy

caption= A US M18 Hellcat in the streets of Brest in September 1944
date=7 August, 1944 – 19 September, 1944
place=Brittany, France
result=Allied victory
combatant1=flagicon|United States|1912 United States
combatant2=flag|Nazi Germany|name=Germany
commander1=Troy H. Middleton
US VIII Corps Commander
commander2=Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke
Fortress Brest Commander
strength1=US 2nd Infantry Division
US 8th Infantry Division
US 29th Infantry Division
Task Force A
VIII Corps attached units
strength2=40,000 - 2nd Fallschirmjäger-Division, 266. Infanterie-Division and 344. Infanterie-Division
casualties1=4,000 []
casualties2=KIA 1,000+ (est)
WIA 4,000
POW 38,000

The Battle for Brest was one of the fiercest battles fought during "Operation Cobra", the Allied breakout of Normandy which began on 27 July 1944, during the Battle of Normandy during World War II.

Part of the Allied plan for the invasion of mainland Europe called for the capture of port facilities, in order to ensure the timely delivery of the enormous amount of war material required to supply the invading Allied forces (it was estimated that the 37 Allied divisions to be on the continent by September 1944 would need 26,000 tons of supplies each day). The main port the Allied forces hoped to seize and put into their service was Brest, in northwestern France.

The ports issue

Early in the war, after the Fall of France in 1940, the United States began planning an eventual "Invasion of Western Europe" to be put into effect when and if they joined the war. American and Canadian troops would be moved from US to England (as long as the United Kingdom was still in the war) until an Allied invasion could be mounted into the continent. A major issue was of course how to supply the invasion army with the tens of thousands of tons of materials it would need after it landed. The capture of ports in the European Atlantic coast was a necessity, 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 Harbours) would be erected by the beaches, but they had limited tonnage unloading capabilities, and were considered just as a contingency 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 harbour in the Atlantic coast and the westernmost port in France. The Allied strategists considered even possible that, after its capture, supplies could arrive directly from the US to Brest, bypassing England and reaching the Allied Armies moving east, towards Germany, much faster.

Other ports across the English Channel were Saint Malo, Lorient, and Saint Nazaire in Brittany and Cherbourg and Le Havre in Normandy (which would eventually be selected as the Invasion area). Operation Sledgehammer, the capture of Cherbourg, had been considered by the Allies, but it was cancelled after the disastrous 1942 Dieppe Raid. It was decided that a direct attack to a port from the sea was not an option.

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


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

Cherbourg, at the tip of the Contentin Peninsula in Normandy, was captured by the Americans who landed in Utah Beach, but before surrendering the German garrison destroyed its ports facilities. It was so far the only major port in the Allied invasion area.

Soon after, the Brittany peninsula was isolated by a north-south breakthrough accomplished by George S. Patton's Third United States Army during Operation Cobra, and US VIII Corps was 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" (lit. "Fortress Brest" - the way the German propaganda referred to surrounded cities), was put under the command of General der Fallschirmtruppe Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, a paratroop veteran of Afrika Korps. The forces consisted of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger-Division, 266. Infanterie-Division, 344. Infanterie-Division and other Wehrmacht elements, some 40,000 troops in all.

The old fortress city of Saint-Malo was captured by 83rd Infantry Division ("Ohio") on August 17th, but its small port facilities were sabotaged by the defenders. A German garrison stationed at nearby Cézembre Island only surrendered after days of heavy shelling by warships and strong air strikes, when their naval guns were already disabled. It was clear that the Germans would deny the Allies the use of French ports as long as possible, by defending the fortresses built around them and damaging the docks as much as possible.

Brest was reached by American troops on August 7, 1944.

The Battle

Brest was surrounded and eventually stormed by the U.S. VIII Corps. The fight proved extremely difficult, as the German garrison was well entrenched and partially made up of elite Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) forces. 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 heavy losses 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, on their side, 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 in fortifications and in pillboxes.

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

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

General Ramcke surrendered the city on September 19, 1944 to the Americans after rendering useless the port facilities. 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 under way in the Netherlands.

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 in August 1944. Some of these Breton ports surrendered only by May 9, 1945, one day after Victory in Europe Day.


The whole Overlord campaign developed somewhat differently than originally planned. Patton's US Third Army's quick advance allowed the Liberation of Paris earlier than expected, but by September 1944 supplies were beginning to run short.

Cherbourg was the only port that was repaired in time to be used. The port's capacity was approximately 2,000 tons a day in mid-July and 12,000 tons by August 1944.

Decision was made to favour the British forces under Sir Bernard Law Montgomery by reducing the supplies to other forces, including Patton's. The disastrous Operation Market Garden launched by Montgomery soon after, however, resulted in the Allies' rapid advance stalling and allowed the Germans to reorganize and even counterattack (Operation Wacht am Rhein). By then, however, the port of Antwerp in Belgium was supplying the Allies.

After the war, the West German government paid reparations to civilians in Brest who had been killed, starved, or left homeless.


If more supplies could have been delivered through intact French ports to British and American forces, the Allies could have potentially invaded the industrialized western part of Germany before the winter of 1944-45, bringing the Third Reich to an earlier collapse. On the other hand, further developments in WWII indicated that the logistics of carrying supplies across France by land was also a great obstacle, due to insufficient numbers of trucks and the destruction of the railroad network (see Red Ball Express).The delay in the invasion of Europe (postponed from 1943 to 1944 due to the lack of LCTs) had allowed the Germans time to reinforce their coastal defense system (known as the "Atlantic Wall"). The ports' fortifications made the reality the soldiers found around them much different in 1944 than the one the planners foresaw back in 1942, when they believed these ports could be captured relatively intact and used accordingly.

"These Are My Credentials"

When U.S. Brigadier General Charles Canham arrived to accept his surrender, General Ramcke 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, and that phrase has become the division's motto.

Further reading

* Dobler, Michael 'Closing with the enemy', which contains a study of combat in Brest
* Kuby, E. 'Nur noch rauchende Trümmer' (German - the author was an enlisted soldier in Brest)
* Buchheim, L.G. 'Die Festung' (literary treatment of the author's experiences as a German war reporter during the battle for France)
* Kirkpatrick, Charles 'D-Day: Operation Overlord: from the landings at Normandy to the liberation of Paris', 'The Buildup' Chapter, ISBN 0-8317-2188-X

ee also

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