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FROM BEACHHEAD TO BRITTANY

The 29th Infantry Division at Brest

August - September 1944

by Joseph M. Balkoski

Author of Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, and Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy

Published by Stackpole Books



The Brittany Campaign, August - September 1944

Following the Normandy breakout in late July 1944, parts of Patton's Third Army turned west into Brittany, that ancient Celtic land protruding like an extended finger into the Atlantic, pointing directly at the New World. Their main objective was the port of Brest, one of France's most magnificent harbors, and the place where much of the AEF had debarked in Europe to join the Allies on the Western Front in World War I.

The 29th Infantry Division, was one of three US Army divisions to head for Brest, with orders to seize the harbor posthaste. Hopes were high that the campaign could be fulfilled in one week. But those hopes were dashed in a few days when the true nature of the enemy was revealed. Manning Festung Brest was a division of fanatical German paratroopers, who vowed to fight to the last bullet. In a battle marked by repeated frontal assaults against German strongpoints, the 29th Division began its crawl toward Brest on August 25, 1944, and hammered the enemy day after day at places like Keriolet, La Trinite, Hill 103, and Fort Montbarey -- places that have become hallowed in 29th Division history because so many 29ers were lost there.

Brest finally fell on September 18, 1944, at a cost to the 29th of more than 3,000 casualties. Heartbreakingly, the Allies by then had captured other ports, thus rendering Brest nearly useless and casting doubt on the decision to capture it in the first place. But the battle was more than a pointless sideshow. The 29th Division had liberated a city that had suffered cruel treatment from its Nazi occupiers over four years and ultimately contributed to the capture of nearly 40,000 German fighters -- a worthy accomplishment for any unit.

Selected Excerpts From From Beachhead to Brittany

FROM CHAPTER 1: BRITTANY

That the US Army had by the summer of 1944 matured into a first-class military organization, far superior to its opponents in mobility, was proven by the 29th Division's arrival near Brest approximately 36 hours after its departure from Normandy, intact and ready to join in an advance against the German defenses the following day. Countless training maneuvers, both in the States and in England, had obviously yielded considerable dividends to the men who had made this relocation work smoothly....A notable feature of Brittany was its inhabitants, a sturdy race of seafarers and peasants, many of whom believed passionately that their unique culture set them apart from the rest of France. Indeed, the Breton language, known as Brezhoneg, resembles the Celtic family of languages, such as Welsh or Cornish, much more than it does French. During World War II, Brittany's isolation and its citizens' independent streak made it a rich breeding ground of resistance to the Nazi occupation, a detail the 29ers immediately discerned as they pressed on toward Brest.

FROM CHAPTER 9: THE TRAGEDY IS COMPLETE

If the beginning of the end at Brest could be defined by a single moment, that moment came at 7:45 AM on Monday, September 18, 1944. At sunrise the alert 29ers of the 115th Infantry's Company E, under the command of 2nd Lt. Roderick Parsch, had peered through the ground fog toward the massive, fortresslike buildings of the French Naval Academy, the focal point of the enemy's last-ditch defnesive line in front of Brest's inner harbor. The GIs were on edge, for they held orders to execute a frontal attack against those buildings at 10 AM, and they knew the assault, which would have to be carried out across 600 yards of wide-open no-man's-land, would be grueling and costly in lives. But as sunlight gradually dissolved the mist, Parsch's men observed an astonishing sight. Someone was waving a large white flag back and forth from a window of the academy. It was an electrifying moment, and the 29ers willingly held their fire as four Germans emerged from the academy and steadily tramped toward the American lines.


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