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Liveblogging World War II: July 24, 1944: Preparations for COBRA

WWIIEurope61 gif 890×689 pixelsRichard Atkinson: The Guns at Last Light:

Operation COBRA, that biggest thing, was Bradley’s plan, although not his plan alone. Montgomery for one had encouraged a sledgehammer blow on a narrower front than the Americans commonly preferred; this was sound advice, deftly delivered. “Take all the time you need, Brad,” the British commander had urged, pressing two slender fingers together against a map. “If I were you, I think I should concentrate my forces a little more.” Joe Collins, whose VII Corps would serve as the point of the spear, had chosen the precise spot to attack: a bocage copse just west of St.-Lô, on the old Roman road to Périers. Fifteen U.S. divisions—six in Collins’s corps alone—would blow through the battlefront to eventually reach Avranches, thirty miles south, opening the route to Brittany and the vital Breton ports. “Pursue every advantage,” Eisenhower had urged, “with an ardor verging on recklessness.”

That advantage lay mainly in airpower, particularly since artillery ammunition continued in short supply. A single heavy bomber carried the explosive punch of more than one hundred howitzers firing simultaneously, and Bradley wanted fifteen hundred heavies dropping sixty thousand 100-pound bombs within an hour on a rectangular swatch five miles wide and a mile deep—one bomb every sixteen feet. For a week he had made his case to his air brethren, even traveling to Leigh-Mallory’s headquarters at Stanmore in Middlesex on July 19, as GOODWOOD was coming unstitched. The use of small bombs with instant fuzes would prevent the deep cratering that had bedeviled tanks crossing the carpet-bombed terrain at Cassino and at Caen, Bradley argued. To forestall fratricide, the bomber fleets should fly parallel to the front, using the perfectly straight St.-Lô–Périers road for guidance. Army assault battalions would pull back eight hundred yards as a precaution against errant bombs, yet this would leave them near enough to rush forward before the enemy recovered his wits, as apparently had happened in GOODWOOD.

Very little in Bradley’s vision appealed to airmen. The Army Air Forces’ “Handbook for Bombardiers” included 125 pages on—among other arcane topics—ballistic coefficients, dropping angles, and Williamson’s probability, all of which suggested that the general’s proposed attack route was impossible. Fifteen hundred planes could not funnel into a one-mile corridor in the single hour that First Army allotted before the ground attack began; such a bombardment would take closer to three hours. Other technical problems also obtained, including the difficulties of dropping in the prevailing crosswind and of flying over intense antiaircraft defenses. Only if the planes attacked perpendicular to the front line—approaching from the north, over the heads of American troops—could they drop several thousand tons of bombs in an hour. Moreover, even in daylight and good weather, the margin of safety for dug-in troops was three thousand yards from the bomb line, almost two miles. Anything closer amounted to what one air commander called “bombing between the Army’s legs.”

Bradley agreed to pull his assault battalions back twelve hundred yards rather than eight hundred, but he balked at further concessions. Warned that 3 percent of the munitions would likely fall awry—some 1,800 bombs in the proposed COBRA payload—he accepted the risk. If GIs died, they were “nothing more than tools to be used in the accomplishment of the mission,” he later wrote. “War has neither the time nor heart to concern itself with the individual and the dignity of man.” As he had once told Ernie Pyle, “I’ve spent thirty years preparing a frame of mind for accepting such a thing”...