Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Gray Bonnets in Brittany: The Battle for Dinard August 7-16, 1944

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard


A World War II Collar Disc of the 121st Infantry Regiment with maps of Brittany, France

Patton Unleashed
On July 31st, 1944, the 121st Infantry Regiment entered corps reserve at LaHay Pesnel, a small French town approximately five miles north of Avranches. While the 121st and the 8th Infantry Division got some badly needed rest, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, freshly arrived on the Contentin Peninsula was unleashed upon Brittany. Patton dispatched the 4th Armored Division, his old command from pre-war stateside service due south from the vicinity of the 121st assembly area near Avranches to the vital road and railroad hub of Rennes. The 4th AD then proceeded south to take Nantes on the Loire River approximately 20 miles east of the German held coastal town of St. Nazaire. Having reached Nantes on August 12, the 4th AD had traveled 90 miles and effectively sealed off Britanny. The Germans still in place in coastal port cities of St. Malo, Dinard and Brest were cut off from reinforcements.

 
Map of Brittany showing the progress of the 4th and 6th Armored Divisions. Bluemenson

Meanwhile, the 6th AD was charged with taking the fortified coastal port of Brest which had served as a major port of entry for U.S. forces in World War I. Pattton met with Maj. Gen. Robert Grow, commanding 6th AD and informed him that he had made a wager with General Bernard Montgomery, commanding 2nd Army, that Patton’s forces could reach Brest in five days.[i]

An outside observer considering Patton’s bold order to “take Brest” may have found the tasking impossible when judged against the slow steady advance that had defined the Normandy Campaign. Nevertheless, Patton reasoned that as an exploiting operation, his forces would have much greater impact the faster they traveled. In terms of basic physics, Patton was going to move his armored forces at great speed in order to land with resounding force upon the fortress city and deprive the Germans of the ability to reinforce.[ii] It was hoped that the combination of lightning maneuver and audacity would cause the capitulation of the city and its valuable port facilities. The Allies were in desperate need of a port to admit the supplies needed to sustain the advance. The port of Cherbourg on the Contentin peninsula had been destroyed by the German defenders and it would be months before its facilities could be repaired.
The 6th AD started their advance on August 3, its three combat commands moving parallel along separate routes. In a virtuoso performance of maneuver and bypass, the 6th AD drove west avoiding the German strongholds of St. Malo and Dinard in their drive for the coast of France. Follow-on forces would reduce these enemy strongholds and prevent them from gaining the rear of the 6th AD’s advance.

The 6th AD reached the outskirts of Brest the evening of August 6; however, Crow had no intelligence as to the preparation, array of forces of plan of the German defense that lay ahead of him. Artillery fire from Brest confirmed that he did not possess the element of surprise. Crow attempted to bluff the Germans into surrender and probed Brest’s outer defenses without success.[iii] Realizing that the 6th AD would require additional combat power, Patton ordered the 8th Division to dispatch a battalion to Brest.[iv] The battalion departed August 8, while the rest of the 8th Division prepared for movement into Brittany.

John Taggart of Cordele, Ga. was killed
August 13, 1944 while fighting with
Company L, 121st Infantry. Georgia Archives
Despite the arrival of an infantry battalion from the 8th Division, the 6th AD was still unknowingly facing far superior forces. In addition to the 343rd Division, 2nd Parachute Division and fractured elements of other German units the commander at Brest had the advantage of the ancient fortress and its rocky terrain and network of caves. In addition to possessing an eminently defensible position, the commander had nearly 35,000 troops at his disposal, far more than faced him in the armored formations of the 6th AD.[v] For the time being, Crow abandoned efforts to seize Brest and instead arrayed his forces to prevent German forces from escaping. Time was on the side of the Americans.

The Gray Bonnets Advance
While the 6th AD was probing the lines at Brest, the 121st Infantry Regiment had moved to the vicinity of vil de Bourg.[vi] The regiment was temporarily transferred to the 83rd Division which was part of the follow-on effort to reduce St. Malo. The efforts of the 83rd had been delayed by heavy artillery positions in Dinard which could range the American Forces with plunging, flanking fire. The 121st would move to reduce Dinard and eliminate the heavy artillery threat to forces assaulting St. Malo.[vii]


Soldiers of the 121st Infantry Regiment rest on the march to
Dinard.  Georgia Guard Archives
Just after 1100 hours on August 7, the 3rd Battalion, 121st, encountered the first resistance of the drive to Dinard just north of Pleslin. German machine gun fire from the vicinity of arrested the forward progress of the 3rd Battalion. Forward observers with the 121st called in fire missions and artillery began to pummel Tremereuc as 1st and 2nd Battalion moved up to provide support. The U.S. Artillery barrage prompted an immediate artillery response from German guns farther north. As the afternoon wore on, the artillery fire continued unabated. The 121st consolidated its position and prepared for an advance the following morning.

At 7:00 on the morning August 8, The 2nd and 3rd Battalions assaulted defensive positions but made little progress due to German machine gunners and snipers hidden in French barns and homes. Artillery trained on one of these houses and blasted it only to discover that the house was a façade for a concrete pill box. Round after round of 105 mm ordnance and the efforts of engineers failed to clear the obstacles on the 2nd Battalion front.

With the 2nd Battalion stuck fast the 3rd Battalion maneuvered into an opening in German lines, paralleled a set of railroad tracks and struck north to the vicinity of Pleurtit. The 3rd Battalion was comprised of units with long histories in South Georgia. Company I carried on the tradition of the Baldwin Blues, which was organized in Milledgeville in 1810. Battalion Headquarters and Company K were based in Dublin. The Cordele Rifles of Company L and the Hawkinsville-based Company M rounded out the battalion.[viii]

The following evening, German forces slipped behind 3rd Battalion. Surrounded, and unable to move, the 3rd Battalion was subject to an unrelenting barrage of infantry fire which pinned them to the ground and prevented them from maneuvering. Worse, exploding shells had severed the lines of communication between the 3rd Battalion and the regiment. Nevertheless, Col Jeter, commander of the 121st Infantry Regiment was able to discern the fate of the battalion from unanswered communication and swiftly ordered 1st and 2nd Battalions to move to support the “Lost Battalion.”

Before its sister battalions could begin movement the 3rd Battalion was subject to intense ground assault by armored and infantry forces. Beginning on the morning of August 9, German attacks were launched in all directions. A direct hit on the battalion command post killed the operations officer and motor transportation officer. Shortly thereafter, a German tank emerged from cover and opened fire from a distance of 500 yards killing several Soldiers. Pvt. Francis Gardiner, a bespectacled Soldier of Headquarters Company went into swift action firing a 57 mm gun. The second round fired by Gardiner struck the turret killing the crew.[ix]

Similar engagements occurred throughout the defense zone of the 3rd Battalion with casualties mounting steadily. Medics established a makeshift hospital in a French farmhouse that became known as the Purple Heart Hotel.[x]

Pfc. John Dewitt Jones of Cordele, Ga.
was killed August 13, 1944 while fighting with
Company L, 121st Infantry. Georgia Archives
By August 10, the 83rd Division was making an all-out effort to reach the 3rd Battalion. Tank destroyers and infantry forces were brought up but were unable to link up with the battalion. Two more days would pass, and the battalion would continue to fight off enemy armor and infantry assaults and contend with an ever constant rain of artillery and mortar rounds. On the morning of August 12, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, augmented by armor, stepped off in a coordinated effort to reach the 3rd Battalion. During the assault, Lt. Col. Burton Morrison, commander of the 1st Battalion was wounded. Captain Arthur Kaiser, leading the assault of the 2nd Battalion led his men through heavily mined barbed wire-choked fields, machine gun and mortar fire ultimately leading them on a bayonet charge against enemy positions. The assault resulted in heavy enemy casualties and the capture of nearly 30 German Soldiers.[xi]

Elements of the 83rd Division eventually made contact with the 3rd Battalion on the afternoon of August 12. The Lost Battalion had been cut off from its regiment for nearly four days and endured repeated assaults and constant artillery bombardment but held the line.


TSgt. John Hamlin of Company A,
121st was killed August 14, 1944.
Georgia Guard Archives
With the 121st reunited and the 83rd ID concentrating combat power, the assault on Dinard was planned for August 14 with the 1st and 2nd Battalions advancing on line while the 3rd Battalion followed in reserve. Advancing in the face of heavy artillery fire, the 121st advanced and by 3:00 that afternoon, the 1st Battalion, once again under the direction of Lt. Col. Morrison, had passed through Dinard and reached the shore of the Atlantic Ocean whereupon they began receiving fire from islands off the coast. The Germans positioned on these islands would soon be subject to a new form of aerial bombardment: napalm.

By the evening of August 14, Dinard was in Allied hands though snipers and pockets of resistance still inflicted casualties. The next day the 121st loaded up into trucks for transportation to their next objective: The fortress of Brest.

The narrative will rejoin the 6th AD and 121st at Brest, but first, the 179th and 945th Field Artillery Battalions will arrive on Omaha Beach and will enter the fray.



[i] Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1984, 370.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Blumenson, 382
[iv] Blumenson, 384
[v] Blumenson, 387
[vi] 121st Infantry Regiment. The Gray Bonnet; Combat History of the 121st Infantry Regiment. Baton Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Co., 1946, 33
[vii] Ibid.
[viii] Carraway, William. "The Georgia Guard on the Eve of War: May 1939." May 23, 2019. http://www.georgiaguardhistory.com/2019/05/the-georgia-guard-on-eve-of-war-may-1939.html.
[ix] 121, 34.
[x] 121, 35.
[xi] 121, 36.

4 comments:

  1. My wife is on the ICU at Columbus Piedmont and me and my son you know they only let you in the ICU from 0800 to 1300 then you cant go back again until 1600 to 1800 or 2000 to 2200 so the time between as we are staying on Ft Benning have been checking out Patton's 3rd stuff and historic eq.and the infantry museum what a eye opener and rich historic value Georgia has i served in Co H 121 INF ABN LRS and we used to be 122 INF. I am proud to wear My CIB & CMB on my uniform both for the 121 INF & 48th BDE.

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