Cherbourg, France · June 26, 1944

On June 19–21, 1944, a violent gale hit the two huge Mul­berry arti­ficial har­bors that the Allies had built in Eng­land, towed across the Eng­lish Chan­nel under danger of wind, weather, and enemy air attack, and planted off the Nor­mandy invasion beaches on D‑Day-plus eight (June 14). The pre­fab­ri­cated har­bors with their sheltered waters and their pontoon-supported ramps to the beaches were intended to deliver greater sup­plies of men, armor, vehi­cles, and muni­tions than landing craft could. Indeed, in just five days between June 14 and 18 the Mul­berry harbor off Omaha Beach had moved a daily aver­age of 8,500 tons of cargo ashore. Allied plan­ners appeared correct in their con­vic­tion that the arti­ficial harbors were essen­tial for the success of Operation Overlord.

The June 1944 gale, the worst to hit the Chan­nel in forty years, in­flicted losses greater than the enemy had been able to exact on the Allies: 800 ships were sunk or beached and more than 140,000 tons of supplies destroyed. The set­back was colos­sal. GIs were down to two days of ammu­ni­tion. The nearest replace­ment harbor, Cher­bourg, at the tip of the Coten­tin Penin­sula, was 25 miles from Utah Beach, the most westerly of the five Allied invasion beaches, and firmly in Ger­man hands.

On this date in 1944 U.S. infan­try divi­sions, aided by P‑47 dive-bombers, cap­tured the bas­tion that domi­nated Cher­bourg and its harbor, Fort du Roule. The city’s 21,000‑man garri­son under Lt. Gen. Karl-Wilhelm von Schlie­ben, some of whom were Polish and Rus­sian “volun­teers” (actually former POWs in Ger­man uni­forms), surren­dered piece­meal due to commu­ni­ca­tions break­downs between Wehr­macht (German armed forces ) units. Allied mopping-up opera­tions on nearby Cap de la Hague Penin­sula were com­pleted by July 1, which was also the last day the enemy could conceiv­ably have reversed their sagging for­tunes in Normandy.

The Allied vic­tory was tem­pered by the dis­covery that the deep-water harbor of Cher­bourg, suddenly so cri­ti­cal to sus­tain and rein­force Allied forces in Nor­mandy, had been system­at­ically wrecked by Ger­man engi­neers starting on June 7, the day after D‑Day. The main harbor basins were not cleared until Septem­ber 21, causing a log­jam of mate­riel and vehi­cles and a short­age of fuel that forced the Allied advance east­ward to sputter out near the Ger­man fron­tier. Von Schlie­ben’s effi­cient demo­li­tion of Cher­bourg’s har­bor bought the Third Reich just three extra months before Germany’s apoc­a­lyptic collapse in April and May 1945.

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The Fall of Cherbourg, France, Late June 1944

Street fighting, Cherbourg, June 1944Fort du Roule, Cherbourg, after destruction

Left: U.S. soldiers dodge enemy fire on Cher­bourg’s battle-ravaged streets. Hitler had told Lt. Gen. von Schlie­ben to leave Cher­bourg a “field of ruins.” Von Schlie­ben’s boss, Field Marshal Erwin Rom­mel of Army Group B, com­man­ded the gene­ral “to fight until the last car­tridge in accor­dance with the order from the Fuehrer.”

Right: Fort du Roule garrisoned Cher­bourg’s south­ern approaches. Excep­tional bra­very by Amer­i­can infan­try­men crumbled the fort’s defenses, and white flags popped up every­where. On June 26, von Schlie­ben was cap­tured at his make­shift under­ground head­quarters after U.S. tank destroyers fired into his bunker.

German prisoners at Cherbourg, end of June 1944German capitulation of Cherbourg, end of June 1944

Left: The city’s German defenders, which had originally held Utah Beach, were mostly over­aged, under­trained, and ver­bunkert (suffering from bunker paralysis), as von Schlieben complained to Rommel before he surrendered the city to U.S. Lt. Gen. J. Lawton “Lightning Joe” Collins, commander of the U.S. VII Corps. Cherbourg’s quick capitulation to the Allies, only 20 days after D‑Day, shook Hitler to the core.

Right: For losing Cher­bourg, von Schlieben was ridi­culed in Nazi circles as a poor speci­men of what a com­mander should be. His fate was similar to that of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, hap­less defender of Stalin­grad, as Hitler pursued his mani­a­cal search for scape­goats following one Wehr­macht loss after another. Left to right: Rear Adm. Walter Hen­necke, com­mander of the sea defenses through­out Nor­mandy; von Schlie­ben (middle, facing camera); and Collins during the official capit­u­la­tion of German forces in Cherbourg.

Contemporary Newsreel Footage of the Allied Drive to Take Cherbourg, June 1944