Thursday, August 22, 2019

Germany’s Desperate Gamble: The Georgia Guard and the 30th Division at Mortain, August 7-13, 1944

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard
On the route of march of the 30th Division, the 118th FA and 230th FA Battalion 
Soldiers passed this destroyed Sherman Tank and German Stug.

German Situation
In the early morning hours of July 31, 1944, German forces were falling back from St. Lo west to Avranches. American armor was streaming through several breaches followed by the inevitable crush of infantry. At the headquarters of OB West, Generalfeldmarschall Gunther Von Kluge monitored the increasingly bleak situation. Having ordered his Seventh Army to withdraw he was also trying to retrograde the LXXXIV Corps, but his headquarters was unable to establish contact.[i] Two of his panzer divisions had been smashed by the aerial bombardment that preceded Operation Cobra before any of their tanks could fire a shot. Another five divisions had been virtually destroyed and five more divisions, positioned in Brittany, were cut off and subject to annihilation.[ii] The situation was grave from Kluge’s perspective and that perspective was informed by a lifetime of military service in two world wars.
Generalfeldmarschall Gunther Von Kluge, 
commander of OB West.  National Archives.

Kluge enlisted in 1901 and served on the Western front during World War I.[iii] He rose through the ranks during the interwar period and by 1939 was a lieutenant general commanding the 4th Army. Kluge’s 4th Army participated in the invasion of Poland and France. Transferred to the Eastern Front, Kluge commanded the 4th Army during Barbarossa, the Battle of Moscow and was promoted to command of Army Group Centre. Seriously injured in a car accident in October 1943, Kluge was unable to return to duty until July 1944 whereupon he was placed in command of OB West after his predecessor had been relieved for expressing that the war in the west was lost.[iv] By July 31st, Kluge had reached the same conclusion. More than 20,000 Germans had been captured during Operation Cobra, and American forces were driving unassailed through Brittany and for the flank of German forces holding Caen.[v] Realizing that his forces could no longer offer an effective defense, Kluge realized that someone would have to tell the Fuhrer.[vi]

American Situation
While Kluge was considering Adolf Hitler’s reaction to events in France, Soldiers of the 30th Division went into corps reserve near St. Romphaire south of St. Lo and enjoyed three days of much needed rest after 51 days of combat. Having passed through the ruined corpse of St. Lo, the 230th and 118th FA Battalion, formerly of the Georgia Army National Guard, arrived in the reserve area and received clean uniforms. The enterprising executive officer of the 118th FA, Maj. H. S. Bowden procured tentage and erected a tent to show movies[vii] while the 230th FA had to enjoy their picture shows in a local barn.[viii] 
Soldiers of the 30th Infantry Division enjoy a USO show featuring movie star 
Edward G. Robinson, who recently starred in the World War II set piece Tampico. 
Quartermaster units erected shower tents and the men enjoyed a much welcome hot shower. Popular actor Edward G. Robinson visited St. Romphaire with the USO, entertained the troops and signed autographs. It was a welcome change from constant combat interspersed with brief rest periods in hand-dug foxholes. Near the end of their rest period, Maj. Gen. Leland Hobbs, 30th ID Commander spoke to the Soldiers of the 230th FA telling them they had fired as many rounds as any in Normandy. Hobbs’ words were received with appreciation and trepidation as many interpreted his words to be a harbinger of movement.

The German Plans Develop
In less than two weeks, Fuhrer Adolf Hitler had survived an assassination attempt and learned of the disintegration of German defenses in France. Growing increasingly isolated following the failed attempt on his life, and losing patience and faith in his generals, Hitler assumed personal role in directing the German response to allied gains. On August 2, he ordered Kluge to retake Avranches, France and to cede no more territory to the allies.[ix]

Kluge objected that the German forces would be better served by retiring and establishing a defensive line along the Seine River, but dutifully relayed the Fuhrer’s orders. He was then faced with the prospect of pondering how to carry out the order. Surveying his order of battle, he could not find a unit that was not decisively engaged along the front lines with the American 1st and British 2nd Armies. He could not shift forces from Caen in the East without weakening the lines facing British forces there. A glimmer of hope came when Hitler permitted Kluge to shorten his lines allowing him to free up units. Additionally, one panzer and seven infantry divisions were moving to Normandy as reinforcements.[x]  With these considerations, Kluge proposed four panzer divisions, the 1st SS, 2nd SS, 2nd and 116th be committed to the attack. His proposal was approved, and Kluge ordered the XLVII Panzer Corps in motion. These Divisions were pulled from the line, and by August 6, were assembled east of Mortain, France along with two infantry divisions and the remnants of the Panzer Lehr Division.[xi]

The 30th Infantry Division Moves South
 Mortain in 1944.
At 1:00 on the morning of August 6, the 230th moved out, travelling through Percy and Villedieu before arriving in a small village west of Mortain, France.[xii] The 118th moved out under the cover of a fog that had descended overnight. The 118th reached Percy at 7:30 the morning of the 6th and were motioned forward by military police of the 30th MP Company, formerly of the Georgia Guard. Travelling south, the roads became increasingly choked with French refugees fleeing with their precious household items stowed in carts or in automobiles.

The terrified looks on the faces of the fleeing French civilians created a sense of foreboding that was countered upon relieving the Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division who assured them that the sector was quiet and would give the 30th Division no trouble.[xiii] The 118th began to dig fire positions in support of the 117th Infantry Regiment. Nearby, the 230th FA had completed their firing positions and were prepared to provide fire support to the 120th Infantry Regiment.

By the early afternoon, the Georgia Guard artillery units had dug in and established liaison with their supported units. All seemed calm.

Just after 4:00 pm, the sound of approaching aircraft drew no particular attention as the men had grown accustomed to the constant drone of P47 Thunderbolts passing overhead. This lack of concern abruptly ended when rockets and machine-gun fire from a dozen German FW-190 fighter aircraft shrieked into their firing positions causing the men to dive into their foxholes.[xiv] Less than 24 hours after relieving the 1st Infantry Division from this safe sector, the men were beginning to doubt the prognosis of the Big Red 1. These doubts intensified that evening when Battery B of the 118th received a fire mission from an observer with the 117th Infantry Regiment. The fire mission called for high explosives, troops and tanks in the open. Over the next two hours the battery fired more than 430 rounds, the fire missions interrupted only by strafing and bombing runs by Luftwaffe aircraft.[xv]

German gains on August 7, 1944.  Blumenson, Map X.

German Steel and American Resolve

Shortly after midnight on the morning of August 7, tanks of the 2nd SS Panzer Division surged forward overrunning Mortain with little opposition. The German thrust had bypassed the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry Regiment positioned on Hill 317 just east of Mortain. Isolated from the rest of the 30th Division, the Soldiers were afforded a panoramic view of attacking German tanks to their south. First Lt. Charles Barts and 2nd Lt. Robert Weiss, forward observers of the 230th FA were present with the 120th. Taking advantage of the clear view of the German attack the men called fire missions to the 230th FA who commenced to fire the first of the 8,000 rounds it would fire over the course of the Battle of Mortain.[xvi] 
German armor knocked out near Mortain.

Elements of the 2nd SS Panzer Division continued their drive west towards St. Hilaire, securing the southern flank of the advance and threatening to carry the attack to Avranches.[xvii] North of Mortain, the 2nd Panzer Division bypassed the 117th Infantry Regiment and drove west to le Mesnil-Adelee. There rapid advance was checked just west of the town.[xviii] Spread out as they were, the columns of the 2nd SS and 2nd Panzer Divisions were ripe targets for the 118th and 230th FA. Round after round crashed down upon the armor columns. British Typhoon fighter-bombers released bombs and rockets on the line of Panzers whose blazing hulks and columns of thick smoke gave witness to the effectiveness of the artillery and aerial bombardment.[xix]

By the afternoon of August 7, the German advance had largely ground to a halt due to effective artillery fire, complete air superiority over the battle space and serendipitous location of adjacent units. The 1st Army was able to rush reinforcements to seal off the gaps preventing an all-out penetration of the kind realized during Operation Cobra.[xx]

Horrified by the destruction being visited upon the attacking divisions, Kluge was dumbfounded when Hitler dispatched orders on the afternoon of August 7 that the attack be pressed “regardless of risk.”[xxi] Communicating Hitler’s orders to his subordinates, Kluge observed, “I foresee that the failure of this (continued) attack (to Avranches) can lead to collapse of the entire Normandy front, but the order (from Hitler) is so unequivocal that it must be obeyed.”[xxii]

Lt. Col. Lewis Vieman, commander
of the 230th FA
Meanwhile, the Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 120th were encircled by German armor and infantry on their hilltop position east of Mortain. Running desperately low on ammunition and in need of medical supplies for the growing number of casualties, the forward observers radioed their condition back to the 230th. Receiving the message, Lt. Col. Lewis Vieman, commander of the 230th, conceived a bold plan of supplying the battalion. Maj. Richard Evans and Capt. Bruce Stern directed that smoke rounds be hollowed out and filled with medical supplies – plasma, bandages and morphine. These shells were then fired on a trajectory to land within the lines of the besieged 2-120th.[xxiii]  The first of these shots were fired on August 10, and although the plasma bags shattered on impact, the retrieval of bandages and morphine by the surrounded Soldiers greatly improved morale.[xxiv]

By August 11, it was clear that the German attack had failed. The 118th FA efforts shifted from supporting front-line troops to harassing retreating German columns.[xxv] 

The next day, 300 Soldiers of the 2-120 along with the two 230th FA observers walked off Hill 317. They were all that remained of the force of 700 that had been placed there on August 6.[xxvi]

By August 12, the German Panzer columns were in full retreat. Moving with the column eastward were Lt. Webster Lee and Sgt. J. L. Bushnell of the 230th FA who had been captured on August 7.[xxvii] They left behind more than 100 smoldering tanks in the Mortain sector, tanks that would be desperately missed in the coming weeks as the Allies moved to envelope what remained of German resistance in the Falaise Gap, which would prove to be the decisive battle of the Battle of Normandy. [xxviii] Georgia Guardsmen of the 118th and 230th FA were justifiable proud of the role the played in the action that led to the closing of the Falaise Gap. First Lt. John Jacobs, historian of the 230th noted that when Lt. Gen. Kurt Dittmar was captured in Germany in 1945, he remarked that the war had been lost in the west when the attack at Mortain failed.  Jacobs observed “Yes, he remembered which division was at Mortain – the 30th.”[xxix]

While the Americans rejoiced at their apparent victory, the danger was not yet over. On the evening of August 12, Capt. Shelby Hildebrand, commander of Battery A, 118th FA was killed by small arms fire while checking the security of the battalion perimeter.[xxx]

Five days later, with Allied forces tightening their grip on encircled German forces in the Falaise Gap, a staff car arrived at the headquarters of OB West. Kluge received Field Marshal Walter Model who delivered the news that Kluge had been relieved of command.[xxxi] Suspicious of Kluge’s refusal to continue offensive action against the rapidly closing Falaise Gap, Hitler had ordered Model to replace Kluge who was to return to Germany to face the Fuhrer’s judgment.

The next day as he prepared to depart his headquarters Kluge drafted a letter for the Fuhrer.

“…The German people have suffered so unspeakably that it is time to bring the horror to a close… I have steadfastly stood in awe of your greatness, your bearing in this gigantic struggle…If fate is stronger than your will and your genius, that is Destiny. You have made an honorable and tremendous fight. History will testify this for you. Show now that greatness that will be necessary if it comes to the point of ending a struggle which has become hopeless…”[xxxii]
While enroute to Metz. Kluge swallowed a potassium cyanide capsule. He was buried at home with no fanfare and no public accolades. The Fuhrer failed to heed the advise of his field marshal and the horror and suffering would continue in Europe until Germany’s unconditional surrender more than nine months later. By then, The Fuhrer, like Kluge would be dead by his own hand. But until that time, the war would go on.

Subsequent chapters will focus on the arrival of the Georgia National Guard’s 179th and 945th Field Artillery Battalions on Utah Beach and the 121st Infantry Regiment's efforts to take Dinard.

[i] Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1984, 323.
[ii] Blumenson, 442.
[iii] Barnett, Correlli. Hitler's Generals. Grove Weidenfeld Publications. 1989, 395.
[iv] Barnett, 405.
[v] Blumenson, 331.
[vi] Blumenson, 323.
[vii] Smith, Gordon Burns. History in Action: 118th Field Artillery, 30th Infantry Division 1942-1945, 2nd Edition. Washington, D.C.: Florida “Gator” Chapter, 1988, 46.
[viii] Jacobs, John et al. On the Way: A Historical Narrative of the Two-Thirtieth Field Artillery Battalion Thirtieth Infantry Division. Poessneck, Germany: F. Gerold Verlag, 1945, 24.
[ix] Blumenson, 420.
[x] Bumenson, 421.
[xi] Blumenson,423.
[xii] Jacobs, 24.
[xiii] Smith, 48.
[xiv] Jacobs, 25.
[xv] Smith, 49.
[xvi] Jacobs, 26.
[xvii] Blumenson, 462.
[xviii] Blumenson, 463.
[xix] Smith, 49.
[xx] Blumenson, 475.
[xxi] Blumenson, 464.
[xxii] Blumenson, 465.
[xxiii] Jacobs, 26.
[xxiv] Blumenson, 489.
[xxv] Smith, 52.
[xxvi] Blumenson, 489.
[xxvii] Jacobs, 27.
[xxviii] Blumenson, 490.
[xxix] Jacobs, 27.
[xxx] Smith, 52.
[xxxi] Blumenson, 531.
[xxxii] Blumenson, 536.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive