|Despite the extensive artillery preparation and the employment of specialized armoured vehicles, the assault was not to be an easy one. The attack was to be mounted at night, with artificial moonlight created by pointing powerful searchlights at the clouds, direction keeping was to be performed with the assistance of gyro compass, tapes, lights and Bofors tracers.
Yet the motivation was great. While morale was being kept by the impressive perfomance of the Bomber Command, the Scottish 51st (Highland) Division under General Rennie received the extra push remembering their defence of the port in 1940, when its elements were trying, not always successfully, to embark on ships evacuating troops to Britain. 12,000 men of the French
|Clearing the Channel Ports
Operation Astonia - The Capture of Le Havre
|Le Havre was the second in a line of four ports to be attacked. Favourable circustamces caused the port of Dieppe to fall into Canadian hands without a fight, in contrast to the heavy casualties of the Allied raid of Dieppe in 1942.
Yet the ease with which Dieppe was captured was quite to the contrary of the situation at other points northeast along the French coast. Ports all the way up to the border with Belgium were assigned new designations by Adolf Hitler himself by separate directives, calling the ports "Festungen" or "fortresses" and readily ordering their garrisons and the commanders to make a last stand at the ports, if necessary, a failure to defend the ports to the last man would mean a death sentence for the "Festungskommandant".
The Festungskommandant in this case was Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth, whose sober estimate gave the garrison a chance to hold out for a single day should the conditions prove unfavourable. If not, the port could withstand the Allied attack for 72 hours. Colonel Wildermuth had much to make up for, as he was suspected of being involved in the plot to kill Hitler - and for a good reason, as he was not a fervent Nazi, but rather a reserved soldier of old-fashioned manners. Arriving from Italy on 14th August 1944, too late to make any serious contribution to the layout of the port's defences, he replaced Major-General Sauerbray.
The defences were rather unfavourable for the attackers - the port of Le Havre was one of the strongest points of the whole length of the Atlantic Wall and the natural and man-made obstacles were impregnable at the first sight. On the southern side, the city was outlined by the Seine estuary, on the western by the English Channel and on the eastern by the valley of the Lezarde River, intentionally flooded by the defenders, creating a 13 kilometres long lake, a practice extensively used by the Germans in northwest Europe. The remaining northern side of the perimeter was heavily defended by the German garrison, defences here included barbed wire, minefields (1,500 mines had been laid by the Germans) and concrete strongpoints with machine gun and anti-tank gun emplacements. An anti-tank ditch 6 to 7 metres deep and 3 metres wide, stretching across the whole of the area to the north of the city, was also a formidable obstacle.
There were 28 artillery positions within the city itself, but the majority of them were pointed seaward. Road blocks were constructed, pillboxes, fortified houses and concrete shelters also had to be allowed for during the planning of the operation. Prior to the attack, the garrison strength was estimated to be between 7,300 and 8,700 soldiers, including about 4,000 artillery and flak troops, 1,300 naval personnel and 4,500 infantry of varying quality, including the former security and fortress troops. The most valuable troops were a battalion of 36. Grenadier Regiment of the 245. Infanterie Division. The rest comprised members of the 5. Sicherungs Regiment and the 81. Festungabteilung, both of very low fighting value.
The success at Dieppe did not give the Allies a feeling of safety - the preparations for the assault were most impressive. The German defences were to be softened by strong artillery fire and the attack was to be mounted with the assistance of special vehicles, supplied by the British 79th Armoured Brigade, nicknamed "Hobart's Funnies". Despite the initial disbelief shared by most Allied soldiers involved in the operation, the special armour proved to be essential for the success of the operation.
By the time the assault started on 10th September 1944, a massive array of artillery had been summoned to soften the defences. A Royal Navy battleship, the H.M.S. Warspite, and a monitor, the H.M.S. Erebus, fired more than 300 hundred shells, their armament included the impressive 15" (381mm) guns, more than matching anything available to the German garrison. In addition, six medium and two heavy artillery regiments were called in to support the attack, their tasks including counter-flak fire against flak batteries during bombing raids, while the warships bombarded the coast with counter-battery fire.
In a three day campaign, 1,900 Allied bombers dropped more than 8,200 tons of High Explosive (H.E.) bombs on the city, causing little casualties, but severely disrupting communication lines within Le Havre, and 900,000 leaflets. Further 857 tons of H.E. bombs were dropped by the R.A.F. immediately before the actual attack, while rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon fighter bombers engaged tactical targets.
The assault was planned to be carried out in two stages. The priority during the first phase was to make gaps in the enemy defences with the assistance of flail, bridging and flame-throwing tanks of the 79th Armoured Division, while the second phase was to build on the gains of the first one. In addition to the specialized armour, there were also Ram Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers of the 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment, based on the chassis of the Canadian Ram tank design (basically a turretless Ram), which provided a great advantage to the attacking infantry formations. Support was also provided by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, which later also participated in the siege of Dunkirk together with the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group.
| and British armies eventually fell into German hands, including General Fortune of the 51st Highlanders.
The first assault was launched at 1000hrs on 10th September 1944, with the two ships again engaging the coastal batteries. Minefields were penetrated very quickly, despite some of the 29 destroyed flail tanks were destroyed after making an advance of only 50 metres. Six A.V's.R.E. (Assault Vehicles, Royal Engineers) were also destroyed - all of the vehicles were destroyed primarily by mines. All objectives were reached, gaps were cleared in the minefields, the anti-tank ditch was bridged and the routes were secured for the second phase.
The following day, the fighting was brought closer towards the centre of the city under the support of armour and rocket-firing Typhoons, although the last strongpoints of the outer defences did not surrender until 1400hrs, finally persuaded by the threat of flame-throwing tanks.
On 12th September, the centre of Le Havre was cleared by the 51st (Highland) and the 49th (West Riding) Divisions, taking out the last pockets of resistance and capturing the wounded garrison commander together with his artillery commander. The Allied casualties were below five hundred killed and wounded for the whole period since the containment of the port, while the Germans lost several hundred killed and 11,300 captured. The fanatism of German troops can be clearly shown on examples of German troops refusing to surrender in the face of the flame-throwing Crocodille tanks.
Field Marshal Montgomery later commented on this success in his memoirs, emphasizing that "Le Havre constituted one of the strongest fortresses of the Atlantic Wall and had been provided with most elaborate concrete defences, extensive minefields and other obstacles, but it had been reduced after forty-eight hours' fighting" (Field Marshal B.L. Montgomery, Normandy to the Baltic).
The port was destroyed to a great extent. Over 100,000 of its citizens were killed, executed or sent to concentration camps, more than 15,000 of its buildings were either destroyed or partly destroyed, while the port had 18 kilometres of its quays destroyed with 350 shipwrecks submerged or still partly floating in the waters of the harbour.