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Nations at war
Gawne, Jonathan. Americans in Brittany, 1944: The Battle for Brest. Paris: Histoire & Collections, 2002
Preface; photos; maps; organigrams; tables; sidebars; Acknowledgements
Jon Gawne's latest book is a big, colorful, almost magazine-like volume very much in the mold of other books from Histoire & Collections. The pages are dense with striking photos, TOE diagrams, maps, sidebars, and other colorful elements, giving the book an impressionistic, almost kaleidoscopic appeal.
That somewhat disconnected approach is reinforced by the way Gawne organizes his chapters. Instead of telling the story of the campaign in Brittany in a straightforward chronological sequence, the author divides the chapters so that most of them cover a specific American unit.
Chapter 1 - Brittany
Chapter 2 - The 4th Armored Division
Chapter 3 - Task Force A
Chapter 4 - The 6th Armored Division
Chapter 5 - The 83rd Infantry Division
Chapter 6 - Task Force B
Chapter 7 - Rangers and Task Force Sugar
Chapter 8 - The opposing sides
Chapter 9 - The artillery war
Chapter 10 - The 8th Infantry Division
Chapter 11 - The 29th Infantry Division
Chapter 12 - The 2nd Infantry Division
Chapter 13 - In the city
Chapter 14 - The Crozon Peninsula
Chapter 15 - The fighting is over
Each chapter, in addition to Gawne's narrative, is packed with assorted supporting materials. This approach makes for a very visual, heavily illustrated experience. The pages look great and they're all filled with interesting nuggets of information, but the drawback is that the flow of the main narrative is constantly diverted by a barrage of images and sidebars every time a page is turned. Readers need to be adept at multi-tasking in order to navigate such data- and image-rich environments. The chapter on the 29th Infantry Division is a good example.
The chapter's seventeen pages contain about forty photos (each with a caption about a paragraph in length), three colorful maps, a pictogram of Fort Montbarey, about seven sidebars ranging in size from a paragraph to a full page (including "Sherwood Hallman, Medal of Honor," "Sgt Van Roosen, Co. H/175th Infantry," "Lieutenant Rideout at Kerrognant," and "Major General Charles H. Gerhardt"), two models wearing reconstructions of wartime uniforms and equipment, a TOE of the 29th and an organigram of a typical US infantry battalion, and more. The pages are beautifully laid out, but in many cases the accumulation of captions and sidebars and other material comes close to overwhelming the flow of the narrative, which is often squeezed into a corner with just a couple of paragraphs per page.
By way of comparison, The 115th Infantry Regiment in World War II devotes about fifty pages of solid text, interrupted by a few maps, to the operations of just that one regiment in Brittany. (It's also interesting to note that two of the black-and-white sketch maps in Binkoski's unit history also appear in Gawne's book, but with much splashier full-color graphics.)
Gawne apologizes not once but twice in his Preface about space limitations which mean "...I was only able to mention the main actions or events that were well-documented."
Despite such constraints (the book contains 160 pages and, as mentioned, many of the pages are crowded with photos and maps and models wearing uniforms), Gawne manages to include plenty of material, largely from the American perspective, that will be unfamiliar to most readers. Here's a typical account of an American assault:
On 8 Sept. the 175th and 115th attacked the new German
line. The 116th had sent its 3rd Bn. to assist Task Force Sugar
and the remainder moved into division reserve. After a hard
day of lighting the 115th had captured three German strongpoints. The first was an anti aircraft emplacement at Kerrognant. It had been organized as a strongpoint and is sometimes
referred to in records as Fort Kersonant.
Like many of the strongpoints around Brest. Kerrognant was
an antiaircraft (AA) position with concrete bunkers and reinforced weapons pits. Located on high ground with a commanding view of the area, the AA guns had been set up to fire
against both air and ground targets and the /one around it had
clear fields of fire. However, once the ridge to the north was
captured by the 2/1 15th. they had a good view of the approaches to the German position. Previous air and artillery bombardment had put most of the AA guns out of action. The Kerrognant strongpoint was organized to hold out independent of
support from Brest, and was thought to be the command point
for all other German defensive positions in the area.
The 29th Division had taken a lot of casualties since D-day.
In 2/115th it was estimated that at least 50% of all men were
recent replacements received at the start of the Brest campaign.
Most of the rifle companies were low in strength. In E/115th
the three normal 41-man platoons consisted of 21, 31, and only
18 men in the 3rd platoon.
The attack began with some good luck for a patrol from
G/115th that had been sent to reconnoiter the village of Le
Beuzit, located just to the north of Kerrognant. They surprised
a German machine gun crew who was eating lunch, shot two
of them, and captured that position. The patrol leader, Sgt. Finder, who realized he had broken into the enemy lines immediately sent back word and the company moved up into the village without having to fight for it. Further patrols sent out were
stopped by German guard dogs who sounded an alert.
According to the battalion records the planned artillery
barrage on 8 Sept., directed at the strongpoint, was off target and only three rounds hit the position. Instead, four
Sherman tanks from A/709th fired at the German emplacements for 10 minutes. At 1010 hrs. Companies E&G/115,
which were at roughly half their authorized strength,
charged the position, firing their weapons from the hip and
yelling the division battle cry "29 - Let's Go!" All available supporting weapons, including the heavy machine gun
section from H/115, provided covering fire to keep the enemy down. As they reached the final hedge line they claimed
to see some of the German defenders running away.
E/115th was then pinned down by machine gun fire
and their advance stalled. G/115th, commanded by
Lt. Robert Rideout, was also stopped momentarily. Hearing that E/115th was unable to advance
Lt. Rideout got an engineer platoon to come forward and, in the next three hours, clear a path through the minefields. Then Rideout brought
up one of the Shermans and guided it through.
About 1600 this first tank was knocked out by
a Panzerfaust hit to the turret. Two of the crew
clambered out and fell on the ground dazed. A small
group of infantrymen close by realized that the Germans were going to machine-gun the tank crew survivors,
so they broke cover and brought the two burnt and blinded men back to safety. As they were carrying back the
tankers one died from his severe burns.
Most of E/115th remained pinned down, but by pushing his men forward Lt. Rideout was able to get G/115th
to move up to the German defenses. Sniper fire from the flank was stopped
when a few GIs discovered a carefully camouflaged sniper platform in a
At 1800 hrs, E&G were finally able to enter the center of the strongpoint,
which had been reduced to rubble from previous bombs and shelling. By
this time most of the Germans had fled south down a deep trench line and
sunken road, leaving this key position to the Americans. With Kerrognant
captured the 115th was able to move south to a chateau that had also been
converted to a strongpoint. This position was only lightly held and the two
companies were able to capture it without much of a fight. This brought
the Americans to Fort Penfeld, an old fortification with earthen emplacements.
Again air and artillery fire allowed the 115th to capture the position,
which put the 29th Division right up to the fork in the Penfeld River.
To the west the 175th found few strong German defenses and advanced
500 yards. A German searchlight position, used in the air defense of Brest,
was found undefended and the Americans swiftly occupied it. Again on 9
Sept. the 115th pushed forward, this time capturing the village of Penfeld,
but the 175th made little progress. The 29th Division spent 10 Sept.
reorganizing and preparing for a major assault the next day. Its 29th sector was
shifted to the right and the 115th was relieved from the line by units of the
8th Infantry Division.
On 11 Sept. only small gains were made against the German defenses.
A major problem for the division was the two forts of Keranroux and
Montbarey. These lay directly in the path of the 29th and there was no way to
advance around them. These two forts dominated the last ring of hills
northwest of the city. The forts appeared to be mutually supporting, so an attack
against one would result in the other providing defensive fire.
While his book can't provide that level of detail for every aspect of the campaign, it's clear that Gawne has packed as much as possible into the space allotted to his text, partly by using a small font size. For anyone who just wants to read the author's account of the battles, this graphically oriented approach, with the main narrative taking a backseat to the larger production, might be a bit annoying. Most readers, however, will be pulled right into the photos and captions and maps and diagrams, even if the text itself requires a bit more effort. The pages look good, the photos are fresh and interesting, all the graphics are beautifully executed, and the overall level of information is quite high. In sum, this is probably the single best volume available about the campaign in Brittany, definitely superior tofor examplethe corresponding chapters in Patrick Delaforce's recent, disappointing Smashing the Atlantic Wall.
The only serious shortcoming with Americans in Brittany is an unfortunate lack of footnotes, bibliography, and index, making it difficult or impossible for readers who care to look more deeply into the sources Gawne utilizes in his account.
Finally, it's probably worth noting that the title is a little confusing on two levels. First despite the emphasis on "Brest" in the title, the book really is about the entire campaign in Brittany. Second, for readers trying to track down a copy of the book, the exact title is a little unclear. Depending on whether you rely on the cover or the title page, it's tough to decide if the preferred title is "Americans in Brittany: The Battle for Brest," or "The Battle for Brest: The Americans in Brittany," and the extra "1944" could slip into various spots. Different booksellers seem to have adopted slightly different versions of the title, so you might need to search for multiple variations.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Histoire & Collections or its American distributor, Casemate.
Thanks to Casemate for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 4 August 2002
Copyright © 2002 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone