The Battle for Brest (7 August 1944 – 19 September 1944) was one of the fiercest battles fought on the Western Front during World War II. Part of the Allied plan for the invasion of mainland Europe called for the capture of port facilities, in order to ensure the timely delivery of the enormous amount of war materiel required to supply the invading Allied forces. It was estimated that the 37 Allied divisions to be on the continent by September 1944 would need 26,000 tons of supplies each day. The main port the Allied forces hoped to seize and put into their service was Brest, in northwestern France.
Brest was surrounded and eventually stormed by the U.S. VIII Corps. The fight proved extremely difficult, as the German garrison was well entrenched and partially made up of elite Fallschirmjäger (paratroopers) forces.
Military Hospital Brest France Oct 1944
The German paratroopers lived up to their reputation, as the Allies had experienced previously in battles such as Monte Cassino. Whilst some less capable units surrendered quite easily, the Fallschirmjäger defended their ground under considerable odds, heavy shelling, air strikes and American assaults. The attackers had heavy losses for every small advance they made into the city.
As per their military doctrine, the Americans tried to use their superior artillery firepower and air superiority to overcome the defenders, instead of fighting them hand-to-hand. The Germans had stocked a considerable amount of ammunition for the defense of the city and had weapons of all calibers (from light flak to naval guns) dug in fortifications and in pillboxes. Elements of the specialised British 79th Armoured division came in to attack the heavily fortified Fort Montbarey. Flame throwing Churchill Crocodile tanks along with US infantry took three days to overcome the fort.
The fighting was intense, the troops moving house to house. The fortifications (both French and German built) proved very difficult to overcome, and heavy artillery barrages were fired by both sides.
Eventually the old city of Brest was razed to the ground during the battle, with only some old medieval stone-built fortifications left standing.
General Ramcke surrendered the city on 19 September 1944 to the Americans after rendering the port facilities useless. These would not be repaired in time to help the war effort as it was hoped. By this time, Paris had already been liberated by the Allied Armies, and Operation Market-Garden was already under way in the Netherlands.
The costly capture of Brest resulted in the decision to only surround the remaining German-occupied ports in France with the exception of those that could be captured from the march, instead of storming them in a set-piece battle. The exception was Le Havre, which was taken by the British 2nd Army on 12 September 1944. Some of these Breton ports surrendered only by 9 May 1945, one day after Victory in Europe Day.
WWII - European Theater of Operations/Northern France Campaign (1944)