Seventy-two years ago Monday, the United States and its allies began the invasion of France on a day that would become known as D-Day. Thousands of men jumped from aircraft into the French countryside, while thousands more landed on shell-raked beaches from wooden landing craft. Many of them would be wounded or killed.
June 6, 1944, and the days after, became a storied moment in American history. The United States would come to see D-Day as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
But there’s a chapter in this history that often gets lost in its retelling: a little-known operation called Cobra that set the stage for victory in France but began by killing and wounding hundreds of Americans, including a top-ranking general, in one of the worst friendly-fire incidents in U.S. military history.
Cobra’s aim was for the U.S. 1st Army, helmed by Gen. Omar Bradley (a Missouri native), to punch south through German lines around the village of St. Lo.
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To Bradley’s east, British forces were tied up around the town of Caen, so Cobra would put pressure on the Germans’ western flank, and if all went well, would allow allied forces to move simultaneously south toward Brittany, and east, encircling German forces around Falaise.
Besides heavily entrenched German Panzer divisions, the allies’ main problem was the terrain in northern France — namely massive bands of shrubbery lined by mud walls, known as hedgerows.
Waist-high and easily defendable, hedgerows provided the Germans with ready-made defensive positions that eventually drove the American troops to weld scrap metal to the front of their tanks to help plow through them.
For Operation Cobra, though, Bradley decided he would rely on a massive bombing run on a roughly four-mile stretch of road, thinking the bombardment would open up the German line and allow U.S. troops to pour through en masse.
Cobra marked one of the first, and soon to be only, times that a large concentration of bomber aircraft would directly support maneuvering units on the ground. Until that point in the war, the United States had mostly conducted what was called “area bombing” and after Cobra, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower prevented anything like it from happening again.
The bombing run would consist of 550 fighter-bombers and almost 2,000 B-17s: hulking four-engine strategic bombers that could drop 4,800 pounds of ordnance onto a target.
The target area needed to be carefully marked because it was close to U.S. infantrymen waiting to attack from the north. So to mark the area, shaped like a rectangle, the U.S. commanders planned to put colored smoke on the corners.
Paul Fussell, a historian and World War II infantryman who died in 2012, wrote extensively about Cobra in his book “The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe.” According to Fussell, the attack was slated for July 24 but was delayed a day because of overcast weather.
Despite the delay, a number of the bomber aircraft took off and, after approaching the target from the wrong direction — attacking perpendicular to the road instead of parallel — dropped their bombs, killing 25 U.S. soldiers from the 30th division. To make things worse, as Fussell writes, a breeze began moving the smoke line over the American troops.
The next day, on July 25, Cobra started in earnest, and again the brunt of aircraft from the U.S. 8th Air Force approached the strip of road from the wrong direction. This time the aerial bombardment, assisted by 1,000 artillery pieces, pulverized the line, killing 111 American soldiers and wounding almost 500.
In his book, Fussell quoted the famed combat correspondent Ernie Pyle, who was observing the operation from a farmhouse 800 yards behind the front line.
“And before the next two hours had passed, I would have given every penny, every desire, every hope I’ve ever had to have been just another 800 yards further back,” Pyle wrote.
“From then on for an hour and a half that had in it the agony of centuries, the bombs came down. A wall of smoke and dust erected by them grew high in the sky. . . . Then we were horrified by the suspicion that those machines, high in the sky and completely detached from us, were aiming their bombs at the smokeline on the ground — and a gentle breeze was drifting the smokeline back over us!”
As U.S. soldiers tried to avoid the bombardment, either by breaking their position or digging deeper into the earth, the German Panzer division opposite the Americans bore the brunt of the air attack.
“My grenadiers and the pioneers, my anti-tank gunners, they’re holding. None of them have left their positions, none,” German Gen. Fritz Bayerlein told his higher-ups, as quoted by Fussell. “They’re lying in their holes, still and mute, because they are dead. Dead. Do you understand?”
“My front lines looked like the face of the moon,” Bayerlein went on to say later. “And at least 70 percent of my troops were out of action — dead, wounded, crazed, or numb.”
On the U.S. front line, as the planes rumbled off into the distance, American troops searched desperately for Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, who had come from England to watch the operation. Even though he was well behind the intended bombing area, McNair was found blown 60 yards from his foxhole, identifiable only by the three stars festooned to his collar, according to Fusssell.
At the time, McNair was the highest-ranking U.S. soldier to be killed in Europe.