This Day in History: The Battle of Cherbourg
On this day in 1944, Allied forces bombard Cherbourg, France. It had been mere weeks since the D-Day landings—but Allied leaders were bound and determined to recover Cherbourg from the Germans. They really needed that port!
They especially needed it after the events of June 19.
A huge storm struck Normandy that day. The damage was massive, and it threatened to cripple the Allied effort. General Omar Bradley would later describe himself as “appalled” by the destruction. Allied ships had been mangled and thrown onto the beaches. Supplies and ammunition had been lost. The artificial harbors that had been created after the D-Day landings were now damaged or ripped up.
“In four days,” Bradley concluded, “this Channel storm had threatened [Operation] OVERLORD with greater danger than had all the enemy’s guns in 14 days ashore.”
The situation was bad, but it could have been worse. Did you know that the D-Day landings were nearly scrubbed on June 6 due to concerns about the weather? The tides would not have been favorable again until June 19—the very day that the massive storm hit.
What if Allied forces had been attempting their landings in such weather?
Fortunately, none of that happened. Instead, Allied forces spent early June working their way across the Cotentin Peninsula, liberating cities such as Montebourg. One officer described what he saw: The newly liberated townspeople had been “living in the most extreme poverty. Clothing as such is unknown. All they have are rags. Dirty berets are the most common head dress for men. Women’s dresses are torn and dirty.”
What an overwhelming experience for the French people, too? Finally free after so many years of occupation.
Just as Montebourg was liberated, that massive storm began pounding the beaches of Normandy. Allied forces found themselves needing the port at Cherbourg more than ever. By June 21, they were sitting just outside the German defenses, prepared to strike.
American Major General “Lightning Joe” Collins issued one last appeal for surrender. The Germans were surrounded. Defeat was all but certain. Yet the German commander, Lt. General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, wouldn’t give up. He was under orders to hold the city—in part so he could decimate it. “[L]eave to the enemy not a harbor,” he’d been ordered, “but a field of ruins.”
The American attack began on June 22, and the final bombardment occurred on June 25. By June 26, they’d captured von Schlieben. Other strongholds began to surrender, one-by-one, over the course of the next few days. The final harbor fortifications surrendered on June 29.
Americans were in control of the city. But that really meant they were in control of a harbor that was virtually unusable. “The demolition of the port of Cherbourg is a masterful job,” an army engineer would say, “beyond a doubt the most complete, intensive, and best-planned demolition in history.” One historian concludes that what the Germans “had not smashed, they had booby-trapped with mines and explosives.”
It would be weeks before the harbor was even partially functional and months before it was up to full capacity.
Nevertheless, the victory at Cherbourg had given the Allies an important foothold. The liberation of Paris would follow just two short months later—and Victory in Europe Day was less than a year away.
Craig L. Symonds, Neptune: The Allied Invasion of Europe and the D-Day Landings (2014)
Gordon A. Harrison, United States Army in World War II—The European Theater of Operations—Cross-Channel Attack (Center of Military History United States Army; 1993)
Omar N. Bradley, A Soldier’s Story (Modern Library version; 1999)
Stephen E. Ambrose, The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower (2012 edition)
Steven J. Zaloga, Atlas of the European Campaign: 1944–45 (2018)