It is easy to think that once the Allies stormed Normandy that they raced east towards Berlin. Just as easy to assume that the bloodied 29th might have had a respite from the carnage. In fact, there was a terrible price to pay to finish off the Germans in western France, centered on Brest.
The fight was not long but it was not easy. From late August 1944 to the middle of the next month, a series of direct assaults on well-fortified, desperate German strongholds in Brittany killed and wounded hundreds of Americans in what ended up being a less than critical capture of the ports of Brest, best known for its formidable sub pens.
Worse, several generals thought that this would be easy, mopping up undersupplied, poor morale German troops eager to surrender, leading the commanding officer of the American efforts to expect fast movements and quick results. Only the Americans were short of men and ammunition and many of the Germans, for much of the time, were not easily convinced of their need to surrender. Hundreds died on both sides. The 29th had to meld scores of replacements into each regiment, trying to train and assimilate them during their few days off the fighting line. This introduction to real warfare did help, yet it also underscored the desperate situation of combat units with sky-high casualty rates.
Major General Charles Gebhardt, Jr., the demanding commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division charged with taking Brest, pushed all his men hard, expecting quick results against an underestimated enemy. Instead, fighting with desperation and much greater numbers than intelligence estimated, the Germans displayed their commitment to the Nazi cause at great expense to the Blue and Gray, a proud fighting force from Maryland and Virginia, manned by many former National Guardsmen, underappreciated by surly West Pointers.. As Command Historian of the Maryland National Guard, Joseph Balkoski does the 29th a great service and honor with his detailed writing. The unexplained, unexpected disappearance of the general after the battle is over, for four days in southwest England for a little R & R, coupled with his plan to open a brothel in France for his weary men, left a sour taste in the mouths of his superiors and detracted from the hard-fought results of the fighting. Later, historians would argue that Brest was not needed by the Allies, but the decision to abandon plans for the port came about only after the battle, when most Allied troops were hundreds of miles east and north of now isolated, distant Brest.
The stories are told with the direct, crisp voice of the division historian, an experienced author of earlier histories of the fighting 29th. The maps are simple, even primitive, but illustrate the complicated movements. There are many foot soldiers, many unsung heroes, and good history lessons to be learned and remembered, with gratitude to the fighting men of the 29th.