The Road to Brest: City Under Siege

Mission Photo Album

The bridge near Brest that Lt. Mike Powell must protect from destruction.

The bridge near Brest that Lt. Mike Powell must protect from destruction.

Lt. Mike Powell has braved a sniper-infested town, stolen a King Tiger tank and blasted his way across Brittany towards the western-most tip of France. Now he’s on foot once more, fulfilling Col. Stanley Hargrove’s prediction that this “daring plan” to capture a key bridge near the port city of Brest will “ultimately rest on the actions of one man.”

According to Hargrove, three divisions of the U.S. VII Corps are poised to push toward Brest, which he calls the second-largest French port. Hargrove claims the city’s German commander has more than 50,000 troops and has turned several coastal defense batteries around to fire inland.

He instructs Powell to capture a “key estuary crossing into the region,” so the Allies can quickly move troops and armor into the area. But, because the Allies don’t have enough armor to punch through the German defenses, the King Tiger must hold the bridge until the 6th Armored Division shows up.

Powell takes aim at a German soldier about to detonate the bridge.

Powell takes aim at a German soldier about to destroy the bridge near Brest as he waits for the King Tiger to arrive and secure the estuary crossing.

Hargrove tells Powell that the French Resistance reports that the bridge is wired to explode, so he must sneak to a location overlooking the bridge to protect it until the King Tiger arrives.

As the tank approaches the bridge, Powell must snipe German soldiers running for the detonator and call in artillery strikes on enemy armor once the Tiger II is in position.

While three infantry divisions led the attack on Brest (the 2nd, 8th, and 29th), Gen. Troy H. Middleton’s VIII Corps was in the area, not the VII Corps (though at least the 2nd and 8th divisions later joined the VII Corps).

Whether Brest was the second-largest French port during World War II is uncertain, but it was a fortress city with a deep-water harbor on the northern shore of a sheltered 90 square mile (145 square kilometer) body of water known as a roadstead and had been a major base for the French Navy.

Gen. Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, the highly-decorated commander of the Brest garrison, had about 30,000 troops defending the city and had re-purposed naval guns and other artillery to protect his men. According to this account of the battle for Brest by Martin Blumenson, heavy guns near Le Conquet, France, which had been meant to defend against sea-borne attacks, could be used to defend a land attack on Brest, about 10 miles (16 km) to the east.

Powell’s mission takes place on Aug. 20, 1944, a time when Allied command estimated that Brest was defended by 16,000 Germans, and even though the actual number wasn’t known until mid-September when the siege was over, it still isn’t close to Hargrove’s estimate of 50,000.

The location of the bridge is vague, so such a bridge may have existed somewhere near Brest, and while some of the 6th Armored was near the city (like Powell’s tank crew), most of it was closer to Lorient, and infantry led the assault.

Little mention is made of bridges in the area, but the Americans fought hard to capture heavily-defended hills nearby, denying the Germans observation posts and gaining the VIII Corps positions overlooking the city.

The Allies figured the Germans would destroy as much of the port as they could before allowing it to be captured, but still desired to eliminate the German naval and u-boat base there.

The U-boat bunker in Brest. Photo from

The U-boat bunker in Brest. Photo from

According to Blumenson, Middleton asked for 8,700 tons of ammunition and 11,600 tons to replenish his supply after three days, but was only allotted 5,000 for the whole operation. Third Army staff apparently believed German resistance at Brest would be weak and the city would be taken by Sept. 1.

On Aug. 23, Middleton convinced generals Omar Bradley and George S. Patton that he needed more supplies, and they authorized 8,000 tons for a six-day campaign.

Two days later, Middleton launched his main attack, but the three divisions didn’t make much progress despite naval shelling from the H.M.S. Warspite and heavy bombing. Blumenson says that when no further headway was made the next day, the Americans’ tactics changed “from a simultaneous grand effort to a large-scale nibbling.”

Middleton resumed a sustained attack on Sept. 8, and on Sept. 9, soldiers reached the streets of Brest. Blumenson says that on Sept. 10, Bradley named Brest the No. 1 priority for supplies. Even so, the German defenders, who had been ordered to fight to the last man, contested every building and street, forcing the Americans to move through neighborhoods by blowing holes in walls.

On Sept. 13, Middleton asked Ramcke to surrender, but Ramcke refused, and Middleton told his men to “take the Germans apart.”

According to Blumenson, Brest was defended by about 75 strong points, the strongest being old French forts like Fort Montbarey, which had earth-filled walls 25 feet (7.6 meters) thick, a dry moat about 50 feet (15 meters) wide, a garrison of 150 men, and 20 mm cannons covering a minefield of 300-pound (136 kg) naval shells with pressure plates.

Fort Montbarey, one of 75 German strong points around Brest.

Fort Montbarey, one of 75 German strong points around Brest.

It took two days to take the fort. Victory was won when three Churchill Crocodiles (flamethrower tanks), reached the moat and flamed the walls while engineers placed 2,500 pounds (1,133 kg) of explosives at the base of the wall and other artillery fired at the main gate.

The gate was breached and the explosives tore apart the wall, stunning the 80 remaining Germans, who surrendered. The Americans, who had taken 80 casualties during assault preparations, suffered none in the final assault.

On Sept. 17, only the u-boat pens and one fort remained, and both surrendered on Sept. 18. Ramcke escaped across the harbor and surrendered on Sept. 19.

In all, the Americans had taken 9,831 casualties and taken 38,000 prisoners, more than 20,000 of which were combat troops, Blumenson says, noting that some Germans had prepared for capture by shaving, washing, putting on clean uniforms, and packing suitcases.

As expected, the Germans had totally wrecked the port, destroying anything that might have been of use to the Allies. The Americans had helped, demolishing the area with bombs and shells, including firebombs that incinerated almost every building in downtown Brest.

A post-war photo of Brest, showing its destruction.

A post-war photo of Brest, showing its destruction.

Although the Allies had been concerned about their ability to supply an invasion of Germany from the D-Day beaches and Cherbourg, planners had recommending abandoning the idea to use other Atlantic ports on Sept. 3, and plans for Brest were withdrawn on Sept. 14, Blumenson says.

The 15,000 Germans at Lorient and 12,000 at Saint-Nazaire were contained until the end of the war, but Blumenson argues Brest had to be taken because Bradley claimed containing it would’ve required “more troops than we could spare on an inactive front.”

With the capture of Brest, the Allies’ attention shifted towards Germany, and, as Hargrove predicted, the German presence in France was all but finished.


~ by John on November 3, 2014.

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