July 19, 1944 – This Day During World War ll – The Battle of Saint-Lô

July 19, 1944 – The Battle of Saint-Lô is one of the three conflicts in the Battle of the Hedgerows , which took place between July 7-19, 1944, just before Operation Cobra. Saint-Lô had fallen to Germany in 1940, and, after the Invasion of Normandy, the Americans targeted the city, as it served as a strategic crossroads. American bombardments caused heavy damage (up to 95% of the city was destroyed) and a high number of casualties, which resulted in the martyr city being called “The Capital of Ruins”, popularized in a report by Samuel Beckett.
Due to its strategic importance as a crossroads, a bombardment by the Americans, focusing on the railway station and the power plant, began on the night of June 6, and lasted into the morning of June 7. The objective was to cut off German reinforcements in Brittany from the front.
Warning leaflets were dropped the day before, but high winds dispersed them to neighboring communities, failing to alert local residents. Over two hundred prisoners were killed at the local prison, including seventy-six imprisoned French patriots (all that remains of the prison today is the gate).
The 29th Infantry Division attacked through the hedgerows to the northeast sector of Saint-Lô, near the Madeleine, taking heavy casualties. On July 15, the 1st Battalion of the 116th Infantry Regiment, led by Major Sidney Bingham (called the “lost battalion”), unwittingly advanced ahead of other division elements and found itself isolated 1,000 yards east of Saint-Lô for an entire day without ammunition and with little food. They had 25 wounded, with only three nurses, and were surrounded by German forces. Planes were called in to drop plasma. Martainville hill was continuously showered by German artillery. On July 17, the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry, under Major Thomas D. Howie, joined up with the “lost battalion” around 4:30 in the morning. Hidden by dense vegetation, the 3rd Battalion had orders not to return enemy fire, and use only their bayonets. The mission was successful, but Howie was fatally wounded by a mortar shell explosion. Their position was then heavily attacked, preventing any further movement that day.
On July 17, Captain William Puntenney, Major Howie’s executive officer, requested artillery and air support to disperse the German troops. Short of munitions, still at the crossroads of the Madeleine, they found themselves at a mine depot, abandoned by the Germans. Meanwhile, the 115th Infantry Regiment passed through La Luzerne, deploying at the bottom of the Dollée Valley. On July 18, a company from the 116th established position along the Madeleine and the Germans retreated west to Rampan. An operations group was placed under the direction of General Norman Cota to form Task Force C. Around 3:00 p.m., the tanks along the road to Isigny were followed by ranks of soldiers. They fought their way into the Bascule district of Saint-Lô, near the Saint-Croix (Holy Cross) church.
When Major Howie died of wounds, room was needed in the ambulance for the living wounded, and his body was placed on the hood of the lead jeep, symbolically making him the first American soldier to enter the city. His body was then placed on some rubble and draped in a flag, in a photo that was widely circulated. Andy Rooney, who witnessed the event as a Stars and Stripes reporter, called this “one of the truly heartwarming and emotional scenes of a gruesome and frightful war”.

Saint-Lô, 95% destroyed after the 1944 bombardments, known as The Capital of Ruins
Major Howie’s flag-draped body on the cathedral rubble

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