Cherbourg, France June 26, 1944

On June 19–22, 1944, a violent gale featuring 32‑knot winds 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, one off Omaha, the other off Gold, on D‑Day+8 (June 14). Measuring two miles long by one mile wide, 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 over 8,500 tons of cargo ashore. Allied plan­ners appeared correct in their con­vic­tion that the arti­ficial harbors, each of which could unload seven ships simul­ta­ne­ously, were essential for the success of Operation Overlord.

The June 1944 gale, the worst to hit the Chan­nel in 40 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. Gone was the Mul­berry harbor at Omaha Beach—deemed irrep­a­rable. The other one at Arro­manches (center of the Gold Beach landing zone), better protected, was never­the­less damaged. 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 40 miles from the smashed Mulberry harbor at Omaha Beach and firmly in German hands.

On this date, June 26, 1944, U.S. infantry divi­sions, aided by P‑47 Thunder­bolt dive-bombers, cap­tured the heavily defended hill­top bas­tion that domi­nated Cher­bourg and its harbor, Fort du Roule. Below the fort was a battery of 105mm guns in case­mates built into the hill­side. The city’s 21,000‑man garri­son under Maj. Gen. Karl-Wilhelm von Schlie­ben, some of whom were Ost­truppen “volun­teers” (actually Polish and Soviet 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.

The Fall of Cherbourg, France, Late June 1944

Fall of Cherbourg, June 1944: Street fighting, CherbourgFall of Cherbourg, June 1944: Fort du Roule, Cherbourg harbor, after destruction

Left: U.S. soldiers dodge enemy fire on Cher­bourg’s battle-ravaged streets. Hitler, who made his last visit to France on June 16–17, 1944, on the eve of Cher­bourg’s capture, ordered Maj. Gen. von Schlie­ben to leave “Fortress Cher­bourg,” pop­u­la­tion 39,000, a “field of ruins.” It was typi­cal for Hitler to per­sonally appoint each for­tress com­man­dant to his post; each was required to sign and return a sworn affi­da­vit stating that he would hold his for­tress to the last man, no matter how woe­fully inad­e­quate his defense force might be. The pena­lty for falling short was implied in the very nature of the affi­da­vit. Von Schlie­ben’s boss two rungs up, 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.” By then, though, Rommel and his boss, Field Marshal Gert von Rund­stedt, had come to recog­nize the hope­less­ness of defending Cher­bourg and the rest of North­west France and went so far as to tell Hitler that. Rommel even had the temerity to advise Hitler to end the war as soon as possible.

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.

Fall of Cherbourg: German prisoners, late June 1944German capitulation of Cherbourg, late 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 sur­ren­dering 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 his core, notwithstanding Rommel’s prediction that it was bound to happen.

Right: For losing Cherbourg, one of the largest ports in France, von Schlie­ben was ridi­culed in Nazi circles as a poor speci­men of what a com­man­der should be. Fif­teen months earlier then-Colonel von Schlie­ben was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for bravery before the enemy and for excel­lent merits in com­manding troops on the East­ern Front. On June 23, 1944, Rom­mel con­ferred the post of Com­man­dant of “For­tress Cher­bourg” on his Seventh Army’s 709th divi­sional com­mander, Maj. Gen. von Schlie­ben. Poor von Schlie­ben’s 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 in the photo: 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