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 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 over 8,500 tons of cargo ashore. 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 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 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 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