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Note: For maps, see the United States Army Center of Military History "Green Book," Breakout and Pursuit 

May 27, 2013

By Jim Werbaneth

Today largely overlooked, the Brittany campaign was planned as a vital adjunct to the invasion of Normandy.  Its objective was to seize the region’s ports in order to provide logistical support to the overall Allied war effort in Northwest Europe and, though the Americans were able to clear most of the area, and take the once-vital port of Brest, Brittany never functioned as a supply source as intended.  Based on this, the campaign might be viewed as a failure, and indeed a counterproductive diversion of troops and resources.  While part of George S. Patton’s Third Army was fighting in Brittany, the majority was engaged in the envelopment of the main German strength around Falaise, followed by the pursuit to the Seine and beyond.  Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps could have been much better employed in this, the main Allied effort, instead of being sent on a futile offensive far to the west.  Yet the fact that Patton changed his plans quickly in reaction to changing circumstances and fresh opportunities demonstrates a high level of strategic agility.  The Brittany campaign could have been much worse, had Patton and his superiors stubbornly adhered to a plan that, once considered central to Operation Overlord, was overtaken by events just as it was being implemented.

Despite extensive and careful planning, the initial drive into Brittany took on the improvised character of a few, ill-suited units trying to do the work of an entire army.  Yet despite their disadvantages those units carried out their work very well, and their commanders showed that they could adjust plans to changing strategic conditions.  It can be argued that retaining all of the Third Army’s power, instead of just one corps, might have given the Americans a greater probability of success in Brittany, albeit at the expense of actions against the Argentan-Falaise pocket.  As it was, the Allies failed to close the jaws fully on the Germans there; despite frightful casualties, divisions were able to escape with enough of their cadres to be rebuilt.  All the while in Brittany, the Americans were able to liberate great expanses of territory, but were ineffective in capturing useful ports.


Brittany had figured in Allied plans and hopes for years before 6 June 1944.  During the dark days of June 1940, there was a plan to establish an Allied redoubt in the peninsula, as a last ditch foothold in France, behind a kind of “Torres Viedras Line” reminiscent of Wellington’s fortifications before Lisbon.  Even if this was breached, an inevitability in Churchill’s view, it could still hold for a few weeks, it would enable France to maintain contact with Britain, and facilitate the evacuation of French units to fight on, in Africa.[1]  This was coupled with the Prime Minister’s wish, under French influence, to dispatch new divisions to France as soon as they could be raised.  British Chief of Staff General Lord Hastings Ismay took a dim view of this, calling it a “castle in the air” that was “bound to be suicidal.”[2]

One consequence of France’s fall was that France’s ports, including those in Brittany, came under German control.  Soon after, Admiral Karl Dönitz established U-boat bases there, outflanking Britain’s defenses and shortening sailing distances to the North Atlantic.[3]  In turn Germany’s development of Breton submarine bases, and the stationing of capital ships at Brest, drew the attention of British, and then American, bombers.  The Eighth Air Force was assigned the task of bombing the hardened U-boat pens at Brest, La Pallice, St. Nazaire and Lorient, launching its first raid on 21 October 1942 against the last.  The main American bombing focus would remain the ports until June 1943.  Air warfare historian Richard G. Davis writes that the raids accomplished little, as the Eighth had no bombs capable of penetrating the concrete roofs of the pens.  Thus the raids accomplished little except to flatten the cities around the U-boats, “depriving the Germans in the pens the opportunity to dine out while causing ill will among the French populace.”[4] 

British attacks were similarly destructive.  In February 1943 for example, Bomber Command launched five raids against Lorient, four of them employing more than one hundred planes.  Not much was left besides the U-boat pens and, while these were intact, the bases lost some of their efficiency amidst the damage elsewhere in the city.[5]

Brittany then figured heavily in the Allied plans for Operation Overlord.  At the 1943 Quadrant conference in Quebec, the United States and Britain approved a draft of the invasion plan that put the capture of Brittany, and its ports, as the next objective after securing Cherbourg.  The plan gave the Allied commander, in this event Dwight Eisenhower, discretion about whether to seize Brittany or the Seine ports first, depending on the situation on the ground.  Yet it read: “It will therefore be most probably be necessary to seize the Brittany ports first, in order to build up sufficient forces with which we can eventually force passage of the Seine.”[6]

This plan emphasized the seizure of Nantes and St. Nazaire, followed by “subsidiary operations” against Brest and “the various small ports of the Brittany peninsula,” with the expectation that this would enable the supply of thirty Allied divisions.  Then, if opportunity arose, there could be another “subsidiary action” to liberate the ports on the Biscay coast of Brittany, in order to support more divisions, and also assist the feeding of the French civilian population.”[7]

The task of executing this part of the Allied plan went to George Patton.  Despite the persistent controversy due to his slapping of psychiatric casualties, notes Steven Zaloga, he was the “bold cavalryman” required for operations in Brittany, and subsequently he was transferred to Britain from command of the Seventh Army in January 1944.  In the initial phases of Overlord, Patton would remain in England while his former subordinate, Omar Bradley, commanded the United States First Army in France.  Then, once a lodgment was attained, the American forces would be expanded into the 12th Army Group, to which Bradley was to be promoted, with Courtney Hodges taking charge of the First Army.  Patton would then take over the new Third Army for the next phase, of breakout and maneuver beyond Normandy.[8]

Until then, his expected role, and that of the Third Army, was a closely guarded secret.  Patton’s official function was as commander of the First United States Army Group [FUSAG], a purely fictional entity concocted solely to deceive German intelligence into thinking that Overlord would fall on the Pas de Calais.[9]  Then a month to day after D-Day, Patton went to Normandy in preparation for his new, actual command.  Bradley launched Operation Cobra, the American effort to break out of Normandy on the western end of the Allied line, on 24 July.  With its success Third Army was activated and initiated its breakout on 1 August.[10]  Just as anticipated, Bradley achieved the breakthrough, and Patton assumed the mission of exploitation.  From that point though, the direction and objectives of his advance changed dramatically. 


The liberation of Brittany actually began much earlier, with the insertion of British Special Operations Executive [SOE] teams into France, where they worked with the Resistance.  Then Britain dropped 2,420 Special Air Service [SAS] operators into France, tasked with acts of free-lance sabotage against German targets of opportunity.  It did not sound especially promising, as the report on their activities summed them up as “little bits of killing here and there in addition to such things as putting water into gas tanks, letting air out of tires and generally playing around.”  The SAS unit assigned to Brittany was the 2ème Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes [2nd Light Infantry Parachute Regiment], the first French unit to return to its country as part of Operation Overlord, arriving on the night of 5 June 1944.  By the end of July, these French SAS operators were working with over 30,000 Breton Resistance fighters.  Though Bradley’s commanders especially were skeptical of the value of unconventional forces who they derisively termed “parasaboteurs,” the SAS troops were a highly useful asset in during the fighting in Brittany.[11]

The conventional campaign began at noon on 1 August, with the activation of the United States Third Army.[12]  It consisted of four corps: VIII Corps, which was rapidly approaching Brittany, along with XV and XX Corps.  A fourth headquarters, for XX Corps, had the administrative task of processing Third Army units from England to the Normandy beaches.  Supporting Third Army was the XIX Tactical Air Command.[13]

The day that Third Army became operational, Avranches fell to the advancing Americans.  Two days later, the BBC gave the signal for the Resistance to initiate guerrilla warfare in Brittany, and all groups there were put under command of the Third Army.  Quickly, some 6,000 members of the French Forces of the Interior [FFI, or Forces Français de l’Intérior] occupied the area  north of Vannes, seizing the railway line.  Then on the night of 4 August, 150 French SAS troopers dropped behind German lines to secure the railways east of Brest.[14]

Meanwhile, the conventional exploitation commenced, spearheaded by the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions.[15]  John Wood, one of Patton’s most skilled and aggressive commanders, circled  Rennes with the former division on 3 August and, with the 8th Infantry Division, made a daring attack the next day, forcing the Germans out.  The garrison retreated to St. Nazaire, reaching it five days later.[16]

The exploitation into Brittany was confused, even chaotic.  The distances travelled outpaced the capacities of units’ radios, cutting off communications.  Plus, while Patton was a cavalryman who embraced the headlong dash, his corps commander on the spot, Middleton, was cut of a different cloth.  Though an excellent officer, he was an infantryman, much more comfortable with a methodical approach.[17]  In short, the initial, mobile phase of the Brittany campaign was not his kind of war.  However, it would be hard to find an example through which this had a major, negative impact upon his performance; Middleton might not have had the training or the heart of a cavalryman, but he adapted.

The distances between the corps and army headquarters further contributed to a near-complete breakdown in communications.  Middleton wanted to displace his headquarters further forward, in order to maintain better contact with his divisions, but Patton’s staff urged him to stay within the limited range of their own field telephones; Middleton complied.  Yet as the armored spearheads raced forward, they outstripped the range of Middleton’s signals assets.  As early as the second day of the campaign, VIII Corps’ communications with its forward divisions were “practically nil.”  Then on the night of 3 August, German aircraft bombed out the few corps communication lines, and those to the Third Army headquarters.  Thus for about eight hours, VIII Corps existed in a virtual vacuum, with little influence on operations by its subordinate units.[18]

With communications restored, Middleton was able to impart his sense of caution, in this case well-founded.  As Wood’s Combat Command A closed on Lorient, the corps commander told him to hold the 4th Armored Divisions’ armor away from the fortress.  Reluctant to engage in urban, static warfare, Wood readily agreed, as the FFI reported that the Germans there were well-stocked with supplies, the position appeared extremely well fortified, and anti-aircraft fire was so heavy that American artillery planes could not observe fire.  However, from the German point of view, Lorient was not nearly as defensible as it seemed to the Americans.  The defenses were not yet organized, much of the perimeter was completely unoccupied, and what German troops there were, happened to largely untrained.  Further, the defenders’ logistics were taxed by about 10,000 French civilians in addition to 25,000 German soldiers.  As a result, the German commander believed that had Wood attacked between 6 and 9 August, he could have taken Lorient.  But by 10 August, the defense was adequate to secure the fortress in the event of an American assault.[19]

Ultimately, this was probably the most important missed American opportunity of the entire Brittany campaign.  This is apparent only in historical hindsight though, and based on the intelligence available, Wood’s decision is entirely understandable.  A headlong charge into Lorient would have been foolhardy without more accurate and detailed intelligence of German vulnerabilities.

The 6th Armored Division, under Major General Robert Grow, hurried up the peninsula toward Brest, closing on the big port on 7 August.[20]  His division suffered from the same problems that affected VIII as a whole; there were no well-established supply or communications lines, and German planes over Avranches threatened to interdict its own divisional trains.  The 79th Infantry Division had been assigned to follow Grow’s armor, but had been diverted to the larger battle in the east, with no other division available to take its place.  The 83rd Infantry Division might be sent into Britanny, but it would take several days to catch up with the 6th Armored.[21]  Thus, during the early, decisive period of the campaign, Grow and his troops were essentially unsupported by the infantry required to follow up upon their drive.

Grow gave the German commander, Colonel Hans von der Mosel,[22] an ultimatum to surrender Brest.  Von der Mosel refused, and Grow planned for an attack to begin on 8 August, with heavy air support.  However, he had to cancel the assault as the German 266th Division appeared in his rear area.  It was a static division, perhaps of regimental strength after dropping off troops with the garrisons at Dinan and St. Malo, and was on its way to reinforce the Brest garrison.  Though weak, it was able to disrupt the Americans enough to force Grow to cancel his attack.[23]

Grow tried to clear terrain near the city on 11 and 12  August, but failed.  It was apparent that the 6th Armored Division needed additional artillery to neutralize the guns in Brest, along with engineers to help clear the city, and air support, especially fighters and medium bombers.  Enemy artillery was too strong to allow the Americans to do more than to develop his outpost positions.  However, the corps-level heavy artillery that Grow particularly needed was engaged in the reduction of St. Malo, and was unavailable until it fell.  Further, Middleton advised Grow to simply “watch the situation” until the arrival of an infantry division.  Finally, on the evening of 12 August, Middleton ordered Grow to contain Brest with one combat command, while sending the other two to relieve the 4th Armored Division at Lorient and Vannes.[24]  With that, the hope of a quick seizure of Brest, if one had really existed at all, vanished.

St. Malo too might have been taken in an accelerated assault, but when it was initially bypassed, this gave numerous German small units the opportunity to take refuge within its perimeter.  Then, there was an absence of Allied naval patrols, enabling more reinforcements and supplies to be moved from the Channel Islands  Ultimately the US Army’s official historian, Martin Blumenson, concludes that “The growth of the garrison, which could not have occurred had the Americans thrust rapidly to the port upon entering Brittany, made reduction of the town a major task.”[25]

Nonetheless, it was one that the 83rd Infantry Division accomplished well, despite a skillful German defense, assisted by artillery on the nearby island of Cézembre..  VIII Corps’ own 8-inch guns were instrumental in the eventual outcome, engaging in direct fire, sometimes at pointblank range.  After almost two weeks, the St. Malo citadel fell on August 17; with light losses, the 83rd Division took the city and over 10,000 prisoners.[26]

Brest would be the next to fall, with the attack led by the newly-arrived 2nd and 8th Infantry Divisions.  At least as important to having fresh infantry divisions was the issue of logistics, especially artillery ammunition.  Based on American experiences at St. Malo, Middleton requested an initial stockpile of 8,700 tons, with a replenishment allowance of 11,600 tons for the first three days.  However, the Third Army thought that he overestimated both the strength of the German defenses and his artillery requirements, and allocated just 5,000 tons for the whole operation.  Furthermore, the staff set a target date of 1 September for the fall of the city.[27]  As it turned out, that was a grossly optimistic goal.

Bradley and Patton visited Middleton’s headquarters on 23 August to address the supply situation.  They agreed to send an additional 8,000 tons of artillery ammunition to VIII Corps, which they judged would be enough for a six-day operation.  Transporting any artillery ammunition was difficult though, due to the distances from Normandy to the tip of the Brittany peninsula, as well as competition with units fighting to the east.  Further, what Middleton considered minimum requirements his army and army group commanders considered wholly adequate; he learned this only on August 28, three days after he started his assault.[28]

Brest did not fall by 1 September as planned.  Instead, it held out until 19 September, with the last isolated pocket capitulating the next day.[29]  Not only was the victory appreciably beyond schedule but, in the words of Blumenson, “The capture of Brest gave the Allies a thoroughly destroyed city and a thoroughly demolished port.”[30]  Of about 16,000 homes in Brest, about 7,000 were destroyed, and 5,000 damaged so badly that they had to be demolished.[31]  Much of the destruction was the work of the German paratroop general Hermann Ramcke, a devoted Nazi who was both thorough and enthusiastic in his campaign of urban demolition.[32]  In addition, the defenses were heavily bombed by Allied airpower, though inadequate communications and a lack of technical expert input resulted in poor coordination.  Much damage was done to older masonry fortifications, but some German positions were invulnerable to air strikes.  Considering that Brest was intensively bombed, having a high and sometimes the highest priority for strikes,[33] one must conclude that an abundance of imprecisely directed Allied ordnance contributed to its destruction.


It is worth noting that even while VIII Corps was starting its drive through Brittany, Patton and Wood questioned the objectives of the campaign.  The ports were further from the front than those in Normandy, thus adding to the overhead of transporting supplies from them.  Further, the German destruction at Cherbourg before its surrender indicated that the defenders were willing and able to wrecking those elsewhere, reducing or eliminating their usefulness to the Allies.  Further, Patton saw the real opportunity in surrounding the German 7th Army to the east, rather than in Brittany, and thus directed his attention toward the Seine.  Patton accordingly presented his case to Eisenhower, Bradley and Montgomery on 3 August, and with their approval, began reorienting his army eastward. Accordingly he committed his other three corps, including the recently-arrived XV Corps, toward the south and east.[34]  Brittany was relegated to the status of a sideshow of doubtful value, while the liberation of France was determined around Argentan and Falaise.

Consequently, Patton’s heart was not in the campaign, and it enjoyed a low level of support.  It was a logical decision as, the potential logistical importance of the Brittany ports aside, this was always an ancillary effort to the main one of destroying the German army.  In fact, Patton had some temptation to call off the whole Brittany operation, including the battle for Brest.  One reason why he and Bradley persisted in the bombardment and assault was out of pride, and furtherance of the United States Army’s reputation.  Bradley confessed to Patton, privately, that Brest had to be attacked and taken “in order to maintain the illusion that the US Army cannot be beaten.”  To that Patton answered that “Any time that we put our hand to a job we must finish it.”[35]  This was a far cry from a belief that taking the objective would materially contribute to ultimate victory.

Thus the Third Army’s operations in August 1944 were divided in two ways, both working to the detriment of the Brittany campaign.  There was the physical division of VIII Corps from its mates, complicating logistics and communications.  Because of the distance between the two wings of the Third Army, Patton’s forces were fighting two entirely separate wars, with no hope of coordination between them. 

The second axis of separation was psychological.  Patton, along with Eisenhower and Bradley, considered operations around the Falaise pocket to be much more important, and thus deprived Brittany of attention.  It was a backwater almost from the start, while the eyes of higher command looked east and south.  In at least one instance, the preparations for the assault on Brest, these came together to deprive the 2nd and 8th Infantry Divisions of needed artillery ammunition.


When the Brittany campaign started, VIII Corps included two armored divisions, the 4th and the 6th, along with a brigade-sized mechanized Task Force A.[36]  The sole infantry division was the 83rd, which entered Brittany several days behind the armor, and this was in place of the 79th, which was diverted to east.  Thus when the campaign started, the corps was armor-heavy, with no standard, non-mechanized infantry divisions available.[37]  This was a corps configured for a mobile pursuit and explanation up the peninsula, and it accomplished this mission extremely well.  However, the ultimate objective was to seize the Brittany ports, a task that called for the greater staying power of the infantry divisions; if the Americans could not take the ports, and acquire them in functioning shape, then the campaign would be little more than punching in air.  In the end this is what happened, and much of that was due to the American commitment of forces that were not just inadequate in numbers, but were organizationally and doctrinally unsuited to seal the victory.

The Army placed great emphasis on fast-paced armored mobile operations in 1942, with the publication of FM 17-10 Armored Force Field Manual.  The work begins with tongue-twisting verbiage: 

The role of the Armored Force and its components is the conduct of highly mobile ground warfare, primarily offensive in character, by self-sustaining units of great power and mobility, composed of specially equipped troops of the required arms and services.  Combat elements of the Armored Force operate in close cooperation with combat aviation and with large units of ground troops in the accomplishment of a mission.[38]

By 1944, FM 17-100 Armored Division Manual was simplified to read: “The Armored Division is organized primarily to perform missions that require great mobility and firepower.”[39]  In any case, armor was intended for deep penetrations, especially along roads, and toward important objectives; it was not to be frittered away against secondary ones.[40]

American armored divisions were not extraordinarily large, and in fact were about 85% the size of their German counterparts’ paper strength, but had one key advantage; whereas early in the war the British, French and Germans tended to overload their armored divisions with too many tanks and too little infantry, by 1944 most American divisions had a near-perfect balance of armor, infantry and artillery.[41]  Yet they were not intended to fight sustained battles so much as engage in deep penetration and exploitation, especially around enemy flanks and through wholes torn in the line by other units.[42]  Finally, American doctrine encouraged decentralization, giving subordinate commanders wide latitude, “guided only by the broad general plan of the higher headquarters.”[43]  It was an approach that, in superficial theory at least, paralleled the German concept of mission-oriented command, termed auftragstaktik.

Unit organization reflected this.  On 5 September 1943, all but the 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions were reorganized into a “light” structure of combat commands: CCA, CCB, and a reserve CCR.[44]  Ideally, the intention was that these would be temporary, mission-based task forces, but in operation combat commands ended up as permanent combined arms teams, comprised of battalions used to working with each other.[45]

In Brittany, American armored doctrine succeeded brilliantly, as long as the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions could operate under ideal circumstances.  Bursting out from Normandy, they quickly overran the interior of the peninsula.  In addition, one might even see the chaos of the campaign’s early days as an advantage, in which the confusion experienced by VIII Corps and Third Army headquarters was reflective of the disruption suffered by the Germans.  Given their heads, Wood and Grow, and their combat command commanders, took full advantage of the freedom of action incorporated into armored doctrine to execute the general plan.  Therefore losing their communications with VIII Corps was not as damaging as it could have been, since these were generals and divisions trained to operate independently.

What they could not do though was engage in extended combat in cities.  Full-strength “light” armored divisions such as theirs had just 10,937 men, with 263 tanks (186 medium and 77 light),[46] hardly enough to assault fortresses or engage in extended urban combat.  The only real chance that the American armored formations had to take a Breton city was at Lorient, where the defenders were much weaker and disorganized than the Americans knew.  Considering both doctrine and the overall small size of American armored divisions, the decision not to plunge into the city was undoubtedly a sound one.

It was unfortunate that the only American division present when the defenders were at their most vulnerable happened to be an armored one.  Possibly, if an infantry force, such as the 79th or 83rd Divisions, been present, then Lorient might have been taken on the fly, as the German commander feared.  But even at that early stage of the campaign, VIII Corps had to compete with the others in the Third Army not just for troops, but also the supporting resources such as trucks, that could have accelerated the movement of an infantry division into the area.

In Brittany, one sees two kinds of war, each one demanding a different type of unit and doctrine.  In the beginning, the campaign demanded a highly mobile, disruptive, exploitation and pursuit.  Both American armored divisions, and their commanders, provided this admirably.  Then the campaign required something very different; infantry, backed by heavy artillery, to besiege the fortified ports and then fight within the cities.  The mobility of the armored divisions would be wasted in this kind of fighting, while the additional size and staying power of the infantry would be paramount.  It is a kind of paradox; it was a much more accustomed pattern for infantry to achieve a breakthrough, which would be made worthwhile by exploiting armor.  Indeed, this was how the Americans broke out of the Cotentin peninsula and into Brittany in the first place.

It was also a pattern established long before World War II, in which light cavalry performed the function of pursuing a defeated enemy.  In the American scheme of armored warfare in France, armor performed much the same function of light cavalry in conflicts past, especially the Napoleonic Wars.  In Brittany though, the sequence reversed itself, in that the pursuit came first.  Then it would take infantry, fighting in set-piece battles, to finish off what the mechanized forces started.  Instead of pursuit completing the task of battle and making victory worthwhile, battle had to be the capstone of pursuit.  Unfortunately in this campaign, the units required to do that were too late in arriving.  Thus the culmination of all of the American efforts was a wasteful battle for Brest, destroying an Allied city more to prove a point than anything else.  If there was one totally poor decision in the campaign, it was this one.

Zaloga is entirely correct in approving the choice of Patton to command the Brittany campaign, as he was indeed the quintessential bold cavalryman required for a rapid drive into the peninsulsa.  Yet the campaign was not one in which this sort of commander, or armor acting like the cavalry of old, was the optimal choice from start to finish.  At the end, it required the solid infantryman, supported by copious artillery.  In this way Troy Middleton was closer to the ideal than Patton.  In addition, his decisions not to send his armor into the cities aggressively, and his estimation of the role of artillery and its need for ammunition, were wise.

Middleton was in fact the most important American commander in Brittany, and with Patton’s attention largely elsewhere, it was with him that unity of command rested.  His performance was excellent, and he was ably supported by Grow and Wood.  This triad deserves the lion’s share of the credit for whatever success the Americans achieved in Brittany.  Patton’s contribution was surprisingly minimal, but then he was engaged in more important battles elsewhere.  In the end his contributions were to victory in France overall much more than to local victory in Brittany. 


The outcome of the Brittany campaign was not that anticipated during the planning for Overlord.  Brest’s port facilities were completely destroyed by the Germans, frustrating the Allies’ pre-invasion plans.[47]  Even before the battle there, Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force [SHAEF] planners recommended the abandonment of plans to use Lorient, St. Nazaire, Nantes and Quiberon Bay, which the SHAEF staff accepted on 7 September.  The same decision might have been made as well for Brest if the Americans had not been fighting for it; as it was, they elected not to use it on 14 September, even before capturing the city and discovering the scope of the destruction there.[48]

As it was, the Brittany ports were not as essential as expected.  Their destruction or retention by the Germans was more than compensated for by the Allies’ capture of Antwerp, Rotterdam and finally Amsterdam intact.  Antwerp alone could support up to fifty divisions, from a distance only one third as far from the front as Brittany.  At least equally important, the Allies were able to take Marseilles on the French Riviera, a port capable of supporting another fifty divisions.[49]  That port fell to French troops, recently landed in the south of France, on 28 August.[50]  With the capture of Marseilles and the other French Mediterranean ports, Brest and Brittany became far less important to the Allied cause.

At this time though, Churchill injected his own strategic vision, and in this case came very close to giving up all the success of southern France to reinforce all the failures of Brittany.  He never stopped trying to divert the troops and resources of the invasion of the Riviera elsewhere, including one proposal as late as 4 August, to redirect Operation Dragoon to Brittany from the Mediterranean coast.  It was a stunning notion, not just in hindsight, but at the time too, due to the lack of operational ports in the peninsula.  Additionally, the Prime Minister disregarded that the Allied logistical situation there was strained to the limit.  Therefore his proposal was to abandon an operation that yielded a logistical windfall for one that ended up no discernible logistical returns whatsoever, all the while burdening an overloaded system with still more units to sustain.  It is no wonder that the strategic discussions between Churchill on one hand, and the American commanders, especially Eisenhower on the other, became quite heated.[51]  In Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower himself terms it “one of the longest-sustained arguments that I had with Prime Minister Churchill throughout the period of the war,” going on to state that one exchange lasted several hours.[52]  In his own memoirs published, Churchill conspicuously ignores the logistical benefits of Operation Dragoon, and instead mourns that a “heavy price” was paid for it, in diverting support from the Allied armies in Italy at the moment of their possible victory.[53]  In this way, Churchill bemoans the reallocation of forces from a sideshow theater to the main one.  On the other hand, Eisenhower remained fixed on the theater of decision, France, while Patton had an early appreciation that Brittany would be a secondary element of it.

If there was any noteworthy benefit of the Brittany campaign, it had nothing to do with Allied supply plans.  The ports had been major bases for the Kriegsmarine, harboring both capital ships and, especially drawing the attention of Bomber Command and the Eighth Air Force, U-boats.  The Bay of Biscay and the English Channel were already dangerous places for the U-boats before 6 June 1944, and prior to the breakout into Brittany, Dönitz was already transferring U-boats from Brest and Lorient south, to La Pallice and Bordeaux.  By the end of August, these bases too were abandoned, and the surviving boats transferred to Norway.[54]  Some did return to the remaining bypassed fortresses of Lorient and St. Nazaire in November, and then February and March of 1945, but these were supply runs, for which their torpedoes were removed.[55]  Thus while the Brittany campaign did not win the Battle of the Atlantic, it certainly helped finish it by depriving the Germans of their most important submarine ports.  At the same time, this was something of an anti-climax, and not worth the commitment of ground units or supplies.

Outside of this indirect and perhaps questionable benefit, the campaign accomplished strikingly little.  Even the neutralization of the U-boat bases could have been attained by other means, such as by a combination of air strikes and natural logistical isolation as the front passed them by ― both of which occurred in any case.  For the Allies, Brittany provided negligible logistical support and, if anything, consumed more supplies than the offensive there was ever worth.  Then, since the Germans remained in two of the ports, there was an ironic resemblance to the Breton Redoubt proposed by Churchill and denigrated by Ismay.  One can see some German success in this, as they only surrendered with the capitulation of Nazi Germany ― Lorient on 10 May 1945, and St. Nazaire the next day.[56]  However, the initial American dive also demonstrated the fatuousness of Churchill’s “Torres Viedras Line” concept across the base of the peninsula, and the vulnerability of the Breton interior should an enemy attain a breakthrough.  The defenders might take refuge within their fortresses, but would take themselves out of the war in the process.

There were some strategic alternatives to the historically-executed plan that might have provided greater benefits to the Allies, or at least reduced the costs in blood and resources expended in Brittany.  First, the campaign could have been abandoned as soon as it began, or perhaps sooner.  The real area of decision was to the east, toward the Argentan-Falaise area, and the addition of VIII Corps would have increased the chances of an even more decisive victory, at the very least providing a potent reserve for the Third Army.  One also sees the benefits of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions replicating their drives not toward Brest, but perhaps for a deep solution east of Falaise.  Moreover, commitment to the main Third Army thrust would have reduced the logistical and command and control problems experienced by both the corps and army headquarters, as all command attention and supplies would have gone in one direction ― east.

The second was a fast, limited drive into Brittany, with the aim of destroying German units in the open, and compelling the rest to withdraw into the fortresses and strategic irrelevance.  This would have taken advantage of the armored divisions’ capacity for exploitation and pursuit, without committing them to extended battle in unsuitable terrain.  Whatever Germans survived in the ports would have been cut off from the supplies that could have sustained a dangerous breakout, and even if they tried, containing them could have been performed by the FFI.  Such an approach would constitute a large-scale raid by the Americans, assisted by the French, who would have the task of holding ground.  With the American divisions freed for operations elsewhere, they could have sustained operations closer to Paris, or hastened the Third Army’s advance into Lorraine.

The FFI surely would have been adequate for their role in the option.  The coastal cities were garrisoned by relatively weak German units, isolated from the Reich, and without ready resupply, including with fuel.  Therefore their mobility was limited, and even if they were able to venture beyond their perimeters, German ability to go far or fast would have been extremely limited.  The FFI, on the other hand, was buttressed by Anglo-French SAS and SOE teams to provide guidance and leadership.  Not to be disregarded either, they provided communications links to Britain, enabling the Resistance to make requests for their own logistical needs.  Then, in the unlikely event of a serious attempt at a breakout on the part of the Germans, they could have called upon American reserves to come to the scene.

The Resistance was very effective in assisting the Americans in Brittany.  The British historian Antony Beevor is especially lavish in his praise, stating that they and their Communist counterparts, the Franc Tireurs et Partisans [FTP], “did much more than Bradley asked of them.”[57]  Blumenson’s official history is also replete with examples of assistance given to the VIII Corps throughout the campaign. 
One particular example recounts how Task Force A especially operated in close coordination with FFI fighters, who stood out for controlling major highways, and then extending their control over smaller roads.[58]  Therefore the FFI could and did assert control over ground.  While none of  this means that French Resistance fighters were the equal in open combat of any conventional combat unit fielded by their allies, this does not necessarily preclude their use to screen second-rate, isolated, ill-supplied German units in static positions, or make defensive stands against them.  All things considered, this promised to be a wise use of the FFI, while freeing American troops for mobile operations closer to the Reich.

The last major option would have been to stick with the original plan, and devote all of the Third Army’s strength to Brittany.  Instead of having one armored-heavy corps attack two ports, St. Malo and Brest, sequentially, three corps with more infantry would have been capable of attacking three, probably St. Malo, Brest and Lorient, simultaneously, and with their own heavy artillery. The downside would have been eliminating any chance of a decisive envelopment at Falaise, and probably delaying the advance into Lorraine and Germany.  Considering that the seizure of Marseilles especially made the Brittany ports redundant, this option is probably the least desirable, and adopting it would have exchanged a truly decisive victory for an overabundance of port capacity.  Finally, it is hard to imagine Eisenhower, Bradley, and especially Patton, committing to concentration against a peripheral objective instead of a central one.  Therefore of all the possible alternate scenarios, this is the only one whose value should be discounted.  Patton and Bradley were correct in abandoning it in early August in favor of a more promising focus toward Falaise and Argentan.  Ironically, it was also the option most at the center of Allied plans before the invasion of Normandy.

Though incomplete, victory in Brittany demonstrates a strength of the Western Allied command.  Prior to D-Day, these ports were essential to Allied planning.  But when presented with an opportunity to attempt the annihilation of the German army, the Allies eagerly adjusted to new circumstances, and abandoned this element of their plan with no reservation.  As Eisenhower wrote of the immediate aftermath of the American breakout in late July: 

With a clean and decisive breakout achieved, Bradley’s immediate concern became that of inflicting on the enemy the greatest possible destruction.  All else could wait upon his exploitation of this golden opportunity, in the certainty that with the enemy destroyed everything else could be set right.[59]

Though many Germans escaped the Falaise pocket fought again, the decision to reduce the Brittany campaign to a secondary effort was the correct one.  Ultimately, it offered secondary benefits, and therefore was worthy of only secondary commitment.  It is fortunate that Patton, Bradley and Eisenhower had the insight to perceive that, and the flexibility to act upon it.

[1] Sir Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), 192.

[2] Lord Hastings Ismay,  The Memoirs of General Lord Ismay (New York: Viking, 1960), 141-144.

[3] Peter Padfield, War Beneath the Sea: Submarine Warfare During World War II (New York: Wiley, 1995), 85.

[4] Richard G. Davis, Bombing the European Axis Powers: A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive, 1939-1945 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 2006), 78-79.

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] “Digest of Operation ‘Overlord,” World War II Inter-Allied Conferences [CD-ROM] (Washington: Joint History Office, 2003), 98.

[7] Ibid., 104.

[8] Steven Zaloga, George S. Patton: Leadership, Strategy, Conflict [Amazon Kindle Edition] (Botley, UK: Osprey, 2010), loc. 392.

[9] Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 680.

[10] Zaloga, loc. 398-410.

[11] Antony Beevor, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (New York: Penguin, 2009), 47-48.

[12] Martin Blumenson, Breakout and Pursuit (Washington: Center of Military History, 1989), 345.

[13] Ibid., 345.

[14] Beevor, 380-381.

[15] Ibid., 381-382.

[16] Blumenson, 361.

[17] Beevor, 381.

[18] Blumenson, 351.

[19] Ibid., 364.

[20] Shelby L. Stanton, World War II Order of Battle (New York: Galahad Books, 1991),  56.

[21] Blumenson, 373.

[22] Ibid., 387.

[23] Ibid., 384.

[24] Ibid., 385.

[25] Ibid., 396.

[26] Ibid., 408-410.

[27] Ibid., 634-635.

[28] Ibid., 636.

[29] Ibid., 652.

[30] Ibid., 655.

[31] Richard Doody, “Brittany from the Great War to Liberation,” The World at War,  accessed 16 January 2013.

[32] Beevor, 385.

[33] Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate  (eds.), The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume III: Europe: Argument to V-E Day, January 1944 to May 1945 (Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1983), 263.

[34] Zaloga, loc. 425-446.

[35] Beevor, 386.

[36] “Third US Army Operations: Campaign of France August-September 1944, A Brief Summary,” Patton and His Third Army Living Historians,  accessed 18 January 2013.

[37] Blumenson, 373.

[38] FM 17-10 Armored Force Field Manual (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1942), 1.

[39] George Forty, US Army Handbook 1939-1945 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1995), 71.

[40] FM 17-10, 3.

[41] Guy Ferrailo, “The Organization of the U.S. Army: Europe, 1944-1945,” Strategy & Tactics Number 30 (January 1972), 13

[42] FM 17-10, 3.

[43] Ibid., 3.

[44] Stanton, 18.

[45] Ferrailo, 13.

[46] Stanton, 19.

[47] Davis, 423.

[48] Blumenson, 655.

[49] Davis, 423.

[50] Jeffrey J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith, Riviera to the Rhine (Washington: Center of Military History), 1993), 142.

[51] Beevor, 445.

[52] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1948), 281.

[53] Sir Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1953), 100.

[54] Padfield, 431.

[55] Doody.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Beevor, 381.

[58] Blumenson, 392-393.

[59] Eisenhower, 274.


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