Operation Cobra: How the 82nd Recon Battalion Led the Charge From Normandy

Watching over the reconnaissance scouts were a number of nimble but completely unarmed spotter aircraft flown by pilots assigned to the 2nd Armored Division Artillery. Flying out ahead of the armored column, these “Maytag Messerschmitts” (one nickname for the lightweight liaison planes) could both provide early warning to ground commanders and request immediate close air support in the form of P-47 Thunderbolts from U.S. IX Tactical Fighter Command. Air liaison officers riding with the 82nd Recon were also in contact with these flights of fighter-bombers, standing by to destroy the deadliest targets.

Traffic congestion, made worse by heavily cratered roadways, initially slowed the attack force’s progress. Once past Canisy, though, the column picked up speed. The first objective: Quibou, one and a half miles distant.

Just outside that tiny hamlet, Company A encountered the Panzer Lehr Division. Here, 16-year-old radioman Private William A. “Chicken” Nawrocki’s jeep took a wrong turn and blundered into a German tank. While two fellow GIs managed to run off amid the confusion, Nawrocki saw that he was cornered. Wisely, he raised his hands in a sign of surrender.

Not far away, Private Carl Wood’s armored car came face to face with another panzer. Its crew, Wood recalled, “were as surprised as we were and they immediately started getting inside to position their 7.5 [cm cannon] and to fire on us at point blank range.” Driver Francis O’Neill immediately shifted into reverse and “moved rapidly, faster than I ever dreamed that anyone could drive one of these armored cars backwards.”

Wood’s vehicle escaped unharmed, but this Mk.V later destroyed Sergeant Drake’s Company B assault gun while it was attempting to run through the line of fire. That incident caught the attention of four P-47s orbiting overhead; after a quick radio call, the warplanes swooped down to attack. “They came in with the bombs at about 1,000 feet,” Wood wrote later. “It was to the back of us, and it seemed like we had to duck, they came in so low.”

The Thunderbolts made short work of their prey, extracting a measure of revenge for those three Americans and their assault gun lost earlier.

Moving cross-country, Company B also ran into German armor north of Quibou. First Platoon, under 1st Lt. James J. O’Connor, spied the captive Nawrocki lying spread-eagled on the front deck of a panzer. While O’Connor’s crews distracted the enemy tankmen with machine-gun and 37mm cannon fire, Nawrocki managed to slip away. The lucky ex-prisoner was later evacuated for medical treatment.

Bypassing pockets of resistance for CCB to mop up, the recon men had by 1100 hours moved forward another two and a quarter miles to the village of Dangy. In the lead armored car was 1st Lt. Danford Bubolz.

“There was some firing going on as we entered the village,” Bubolz recollected. “One German fired at me from a doorway about 20 feet from my left side and put a hole through the neck of my jacket, but he missed because he did not allow for the movement of my vehicle. I ducked down into the turret and then came up again with my .45 pistol and slammed a couple rounds into the doorway, forcing him back in.”

A sergeant from the next armored car in line killed the troublesome German soldier as they rolled by. Altogether that afternoon, troopers destroyed five half-tracks, a tank, several wheeled vehicles, some horse-drawn supply wagons, and one 1935 Buick repurposed as an ambulance. Unfortunately, Dan Bubolz received severe wounds to both legs when a truck loaded with land mines exploded as he was attempting to clear it off the road.

The 82nd Recon pronounced Dangy secure at 1500 hours. Colonel Merriam then received a radio message from the 2nd Armored Division’s command post: “Speed up.” 

CCB’s rapid gains had prompted a change in mission. “Lightning Joe” Collins now believed Brig. Gen. White’s combat command could cut the foe’s route of retreat and ordered him to drive for the coast. It was a big job, especially since the Germans had gotten a head start. Only a hell-for-leather advance would ensure the Americans won this race.

Company B’s jeeps, assault guns, and armored cars soon roared off for Pont Brocard, just two miles down the road. Along the way, they passed a nondescript farmhouse that happened to be the Panzer Lehr Division’s command post. From inside, its commander, Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, watched these reconnaissance vehicles speed by. How, Bayerlein asked his staff, did American soldiers get this far behind our lines so quickly?

The German officers did not have much time to ponder his question, though. Moving closely behind Company B was a phalanx of M4 tanks, CCB’s advance guard. While the recon scouts often held their fire on the move as a way of preserving stealth, CCB’s tankers felt no such reluctance to expend ammunition. Identifying the farmstead and its collection of command cars parked outside as a lucrative target, they sent shell after shell into it. Diving out a window to make his getaway, Bayerlein escaped alone into the gathering darkness.

Merriam’s battalion had by midnight made it to Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly, more than seven miles from its starting point. Once past Panzer Lehr’s few remaining strongpoints, his fast-moving troopers now faced mostly an assortment of astonished rear echelon personnel and the odd combat outfit caught attempting to retreat. The attached engineer company, for example, captured 32 soldiers and several horse-drawn artillery pieces that stumbled into its bivouac position after dark.

That evening, the recon men “coiled up” (i.e., established a night defensive perimeter) in the fields surrounding Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly. While tired soldiers stood watch or grabbed a few hours of sleep, headquarters personnel on both sides labored into the wee hours.

Staff officers at 2nd Armored’s command post hustled to send forward reinforcements.  They eventually released the division reserve, plus a spare infantry battalion, to buttress CCB’s hastily established strongpoint defense. It was also decided that Merriam’s unit would resume its original mission of blowing up bridges along the River Seine.

German Seventh Army headquarters also hummed with activity. General Hausser saw his command was about to become torn in two, but extremely poor communications prevented him from doing much to prevent this disaster. Before the phone lines went out, Hausser directed all combat divisions west of St. Lo to commence a fighting withdrawal.

His planned line of retreat, however, brought those outfits straight up against the 2nd Armored Division’s strongest roadblocks. Hausser finally realized his mistake, but by then the damage had been done. Many German formations were already on the move and could no longer be contacted by telephone, radio, or messenger.

As all land lines were still down, Hausser felt he had to personally issue new, correct withdrawal orders to the Seventh Army commanders most threatened by this attack. At dawn on July 28, he set out by car to meet those officers, but he never made it.

Later that morning near Lengronne, a patrol from Company C, 82nd Recon, fired on Hausser’s staff car as it drove into view. Had the U.S. gunners known who was inside that vehicle they would surely have ensured its destruction; as things stood, getting to the Seine bridges had a higher priority than finishing off a fleeing automobile. Hausser got away, having learned for himself just how far the recon troopers had penetrated the Seventh Army’s rear area.

It was now Company C’s turn to lead the dash, with two borrowed M4 tanks out front. Third Platoon Leader 2nd Lt. Morton C. Eustis fought from the back deck of one Sherman, “mowing down Jerries with a .50 caliber machine gun,” as he later wrote his mother.

Another Company C lieutenant “raising merry hell” that day was Merle A. Hanson. His scout section fell upon a huge fuel dump near Cerences, scattering its defenders before destroying 20,000 gallons of precious gasoline with thermite grenades. “Our C Company had captured, killed and wounded 130 men,” Lieutenant Hanson claimed of the afternoon’s activity. “We had shot up at least 30 trucks and small vehicles, and made many French peasants very happy when we broke the German hold on their countryside.”

Hanson also remembered how those villagers’ joyous expressions disappeared once they observed Company C withdrawing from its river outposts later that afternoon. The American advance had halted, and now U.S. commanders were working to prepare their overextended units for likely collisions with large numbers of well-armed, organized enemy soldiers all bent on escape. At 1800 hours, Lt. Col. Merriam drove out to personally order his far-flung recon companies back to their bivouac positions near Notre-Dame-de-Cenilly.

While Merriam was out coordinating his defense, a band of retreating German foot soldiers struck the 82nd Recon’s command post. Organized by Sergeant Prawdzik, the normally noncombatant drivers, radio operators, code clerks, and cooks all grabbed their individual weapons and hurried into position along a hedgerow. Walking behind the GIs, Prawdzik encouraged them by repeatedly hollering, “Get a move on, trooper, get a move on!”

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