Friday, September 20, 2019

The Fortified City: The 121st Infantry Regiment Returns to Brest, France

By Maj. William Carraway
Historian, Georgia Army National Guard

A US tank destroyer M36 fires its 90mm gun point-blank at a Nazi pillbox emplacement to clear a path through a side street in Brest, France. Brest France, 1944. Sept. Photograph.

The Lead Scout
Pfc. Gilbert Wallje at Jefferson Barracks
 in 1943. Courtesy of Timothy Harter
Private 1st Class Gilbert Wallje was a long way from home on the morning of September 8, 1944.
Just six days shy of his 24th birthday, the five-foot, five-inch Wallje was one of two lead scouts maneuvering ahead of Company L, 121st Infantry as the regiment moved towards Pontanezen Barracks, formidable works just outside the fortress port city of Brest, France. Wallje was one of the newest Soldiers of the 121st Infantry having arrived as a replacement Soldier in mid-July. Since then he had been in near constant action. Born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., Wallje, a former salesclerk trained with the 89th Division at Jefferson Barracks before shipping overseas. Days after arriving in France, Wallje was assigned to 1st Platoon, Company L, 121st Infantry. He participated in Operation Cobra and was part of the Lost Battalion at Dinard. Though only weeks into his combat service, “Bud” Wallje was already a seasoned veteran, but nothing could prepare him for the events of that September day.

Map of the approaches to Brest with the hand-
written notes of Pfc. James Lowman, Company F,
121st Infantry Regiment.
The 121st was no stranger to the fortified naval port of Brest. The regiment arrived in Brest Harbor for World War I service in October 1918. Its commanding officer, Col. James Thomas, who gave the regiment its nickname, Gray Bonnet, died there October 16, 1918.[i] Brest had withstood assaults for centuries. English and Dutch fleets had failed to take the port from the sea[ii] and formidable land defenses now confronted the Allied Soldiers of the VIII Corps who were assigned to take the town.
Soldiers of the 6th Armored Division had reached Brest more than one month before but had lacked the combat power to invest the city. Accordingly, the 8th Division had been dispatched west after the successful assault on Dinard. The 8th arrived in the vicinity of Kervallan August 20, 1944[iii]. After a series of probing actions, the 121st was placed in the center of a three-division line with the 29th to its right and the 2nd to its left.[iv] From its position in the center, the 8th Division and the 121st participated in assaults of August 25 and 26. Wallje described the actions of those days.

After about two days of patrolling it was decided that everyone (would) move up. Company L sent one platoon to reconnoiter a hill to our direct front. The First Platoon was ordered to go, along with one section of M Company heavy machine guns. We went up but very few came back. The next morning a patrol was sent up again, but Jerry had pulled back, so everyone moved up.[v]
Over the ensuing days, the 121st Infantry engaged German positions. Company A overran two German pill boxes September 1.[vi] Meanwhile, the other companies of the 121st advanced into a steady curtain of artillery fire. More than 600 81 mm mortar rounds were fired into the town of Kergroas before elements of Company I were able to take the town. [vii] German resistance was cunning and made effective use of deception. Sergeant John Minick and Lt. Henry Schwartz were alarmed to see a Sherman tank of the 6th Armored Division train its gun on Soldiers of Company I. The men moved swiftly to the tank and captured the five German Soldiers who had crewed it. One of the Germans was captured wearing an American uniform.[viii]

Father Son Tragedy
The American assault was greatly assisted by the efforts of the Army Air Corps which flew sortie after sortie against Brest and its surrounding fortifications. The presence of aircraft drew the attention of antiaircraft machine gun fire away from the attacking infantry allowing them to consolidate their positions. On one occasion, the antiaircraft fire scored a direct hit on an attacking American P-47 Thunderbolt. The aircraft burst into flames and crashed in a fireball just in front of the lines of the 121st Infantry. The pilot of the aircraft was Maj. Harry Stroh. He was the son of Maj. Gen. Donald Stroh, commander of the 8th Division.[ix]

Assaulting Pontanezen
Following a short reprieve, the Soldiers of the 121st were ordered to be prepared to participate in an all-out assault on September 8. Maneuvering in the center of the VIII Corps, the 8th Division and the 121st would assault Lambezellec heights by way of the Pontanezen Barracks. Rather than initiating a direct frontal assault on Lambezellec, the infantry would seize the barracks to the east then move upon Lambezellec from the flank.

Camp Pontanè̀zen. Brest, France. ca. 1919. Photograph.

On the morning of September 8, the 121st advanced on Pontanezen. The 3rd Battalion was in the lead with Company K and L abreast. Company K was raked by machine gun fire prompting the 1st Battalion to move up in support with flame throwers. These were employed with great effect against German pillboxes. Fifty German Soldiers were captured rather than be subjected to the clearing effect of the flame thrower.

Scouts Out
While Company K and 1st Battalion was unleashing a fiery hell upon fortified German positions, Wallje was advancing well ahead of Company L with another scout feeling the way forward on the approach to the Pontanezen Barracks. Suddenly there was a crack of machine gun fire from Wallje’s right. The St. Louis Soldier was struck six times by 8 mm machine gun rounds, one of which perforated his intestines. Collapsing, Wallje hugged the earth as rounds passed over him. Tank destroyers blasted armor piercing rounds into the walls of the Pontanezen Barracks. In response, Germans unleashed machine gun and artillery fire. For perhaps half an hour, Wallje and his fellow scout lay in the middle of a cacophonous exchange of fire before the advancing Soldiers of the 121st reached them. The Gray Bonnet Regiment pressed the attack securing the barracks.

Wallje was borne from the battlefield on a stretcher. After receiving treatment at the battalion aid station, Wallje was transferred to a field hospital and eventually evacuated to England where, after four months of treatment he was discharged. He received promotion to corporal and ended the war assigned to the 1075th Army Air Forces Base Unit in Miami, Fla.[x]

Fort Bouguen
Having taken the heights of Lambezellec, the 121st turned south to face the impregnable fortress of Fort Bouguen. The centuries old castle walls rose to heights of up to 35 feet and were surrounded by a moat. Following a breach by heavy artillery on September 10, the infantry surged forward gaining the walls and the moat but were driven back. Subsequent attacks of September 11 were also fruitless and prompted a change of tactics from seizure to containment. Accordingly, the 121st was moved out of the front lines for a brief period of rest before maneuvering south of Brest to maneuver up the Crozon Peninsula.

These Are My Credentials
Lieutenant General Hermann Ramcke after being captured by
US Army forces on 19 September 1944. Blumenson
The Crozon peninsula spread like a glove with four fingers due south of Brest. Army intelligence estimated between 1,500 and 3,000 Germans on the peninsula. On September 15 the 121st initiated the attack and sustained heavy artillery and mortar fire. Despite the heavy fire, the attack surged forward breaching enemy defenses. By the evening of September 17, 1-121 had entered the town of Crozon. German resistance on the peninsula collapsed shortly thereafter.

With the outcome obvious even to the most diehard hold out, Lt. Gen. Hermann-Bernhard Ramcke, commander of the garrison at Brest requested terms of surrender after having refused such terms less than a week previous. Brigadier General Charles Canham, deputy commander of the 8th Division was the senior officer present to accept the German general’s surrender. Canham as a colonel had served as the commanding officer of the 116th Infantry Regiment during the Normandy landing on Omaha beach. Shot through the wrist, Canham refused evacuation and instead remained on the beach encouraging his Soldiers forward. For his actions, Canham would receive the Distinguished Service Cross and the star of a brigadier general. Ramcke was unaware of this and was instead perturbed at the prospect of surrendering to an officer of lesser rank. Indignantly, Ramcke asked for Canham’s credentials. Canham gestured to his Soldiers saying, “these are my credentials.”[xi]

On September 23, Maj. Gen. Donald Stroh presided over an awards ceremony for the 121st Infantry Regiment. Soldiers of the Gray Bonnet Regiment received 11 Silver Stars and 62 Bronze Stars.[xii] The Crozon effort had extracted a terrible price. From Sept 5 to 19 the 8th Division suffered 72 killed and 415 wounded.[xiii] Three Georgia Guard Soldiers of the 121st were among those killed in action during the taking of Brest. Staff Sgt. Clarence Breeland of the Brunswick-based Company E was killed September 11, 1944. Private 1st Class. William Grey of Macon was killed September 7, 1944 while serving with Company C. Private 1st Class Elbert Griffin of the Albany Rifles of Company H, was killed September 12, 1944.

Staff Sgt. Clarence Breeland, Pfc. William Grey and Pfc. Elbert Griffin, 121st Infantry Regiment were killed in action during the campaign for Brest, France.
While the Allies had succeeded in taking Brest it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Germans had successfully destroyed the port facilities thus preventing the Allies the logistical port they desired.[xiv] After the costly siege of Brest, the allies would no longer attempt to take German held port cities preferring instead to isolating these pockets of resistance, many of which would be held until the end of the war.

For the 121st Infantry the war in France was over. From Crozon the Gray Bonnets would be sent to Luxembourg in anticipation of the drive to Germany.

Next Chapter: Huertgen, Hell with Icicles.

[i] 121st Infantry Regiment. The Gray Bonnet; Combat History of the 121st Infantry Regiment. Baton
Rouge, LA: Army & Navy Publishing Co., 1946, 37
[ii] Ibid, 37.
[iii] Ibid, 86.
[iv] Ibid, 41: This edition belonged to Pfc. James W Lowman of Company F, 121st and contains his handwritten notes throughout.
[v] Wallje, Gilbert. Undated letter courtesy of Timothy Harter.
[vi] 121st, 38.
[vii] Ibid,39.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid, 40.
[x] Wallje, Gilbert. Honorable Discharge. Courtesy of Timothy Harter.
[xi] Patterson, Michael Robert. Charles D. W. Canham, Major General, United States Army,
[xii] 121st, 46.
[xiii] Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1984, 652.
[xiv] Blumenson, 655.

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