The XX Corps Battle at the West Wall
After weeks of severe fighting, troops of the Third Army finally had come up against the fortifications of the German West Wall. On 3 December, following the seizure of the Saarlautern bridge, the 1st Battalion of the 379th Infantry, 95th Division, captured two bunkers that commanded the exit from the span.1 Although somewhat isolated, the twin bunkers were part of the West Wall system; their seizure marked the beginning of a slow, bloody attempt to chip and pry an opening that would lead to the Rhine.
The XX Corps entrance into this formidable fortified zone was not the first made by the Allied arms. As early as 11 September advance guards of the 5th Armored Division operating on the right wing of the First Army had captured the first bunkers in the West Wall position. (Map IV) This initial penetration was made in a sector some eighteen miles northeast of Trier, near Wallendorf, which, like many parts of the West Wall at the beginning of September, had not yet been fully manned. Subsequent German reports indicate that CCR (reinforced) of the 5th Armored Division went clear through the West Wall before being driven back by a hastily organized counterattack.2 It is not clear whether the, Americans on the spot realized at the time what they had done.3 Aerial reconnaissance failed to show many of the overgrown positions in the West Wall, and most of the intelligence reports on the subject dated back to 1940.4 As a result the Allied maps of September 1944 possessed only very general tracings of the West Wall and often were
Hitler had set the Third Reich to building an "impregnable" wall in the West in 1936. At that time only the fortifications reaching from the Moselle south and east to the Rhine were called the "West Wall," but in 1938 Hitler extended the name to the entire system-a fact probably unknown to the composers of the popular marching song of 1940 when they immortalized the "Siegfried Line." A series of extensions had been planned at either end of the West Wall in 1940, but the quick German victory in France and the necessity of moving the defenses of the Third Reich forward to the Channel and the Atlantic forced these plans into the discard.6 A little work on the original West Wall between the Moselle and the Rhine was done during the succeeding years; however, no real effort was made to strengthen the entire line prior to 20 August 1944, when Hitler issued a decree for a levy of "people's" labor to put these fortifications in repair. Concrete, steel, machinery, and manpower-not to mention the heavy arms required for antitank defense-all were in very short supply in the autumn of 1944, but by December the West Wall had been somewhat strengthened in those areas where the Allied forces had not won an early foothold.
The West Wall, as it existed in 1944, had its northern terminus at Roermond, near the southeastern corner of the Netherlands. The fortified zone extended south through the Aachen sector, where a second zone backed up the first as a double barrier to any advance into the Cologne Plain; continued along the eastern border of Luxembourg; looped to the east bank of the Sarre, which it followed to a point northeast of Forbach; then turned gradually east until it reached the Rhine in the vicinity of Karlsruhe. Here the West Wall
Throughout its length the West Wall zone had been planned with an admirable eye for ground. Where the terrain denied cross-country movement by large mechanized forces the German fortifications were relatively weak and scattered. Where the ground offered a corridor to the attacker the fortifications were the strongest and provided mutual support by works in great density. It is true that the West Wall was of 1940 vintage and that warfare had made considerable advances by the fall of 1944. German staff officers recognized several weaknesses in the four-year-old system. First, it lacked the antitank defenses necessitated by the newer, heavier tanks. Second, many of the smaller works were not adequately protected against aerial bombardment, and the whole line had insufficient antiaircraft artillery. Next, the bunkers seldom were built to mount guns of calibers larger than 75-mm., and the smaller pillboxes could not use the 1942 model machine gun in embrasures constructed for the MG 34. Furthermore, the entire system was so complex as to require a considerable familiarity with the individual works by those who manned them. Germany's lack of manpower in 1944 forbade the necessary training period in the West Wall; as a result most formations entered the fortifications with the Allies hot on their heels and with no time to coordinate the defense of their own particular sector. In addition, co-ordination of fire plans and tactical dispositions was made, difficult by the lack of communications equipment-switchboards, wire cables, radios, and the like-in the fortified zone. Finally, the original German plans had been predicated on one division in each four miles of the line, plus large field forces in reserve.7 In early December 1944, however, the First Army would defend the West Wall with an average force of one division-much under the 1940 strength-per ten miles of front. Elsewhere single German divisions held as much as twenty-mile sectors in the West Wall.8 All these factors contributed to a reasonable skepticism by many German field commanders as regards the "impregnable" nature of the West Wall. Rundstedt, for example, freely characterized the West Wall fortifications as "mouse traps." But many of their points
The section of the West Wall which the XX Corps proposed to attack was now regarded by the Germans as the strongest in the entire West Wall system. Two factors had worked to make it so. In January 1939 Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, then Commander in Chief of the German Army, had prepared an estimate of the French plan of attack in the event of war. Brauchitsch and the General Staff concluded that the French would make a strong attack between Merzig and Saarlautern, aimed at reaching the Rhine Valley. (Map XXXVII) As a result of his recommendations this particular part of the West Wall was strengthened;9 subsequently more works were added in the last part of 1943 and the early months of 1944. As for the second factor: the Allies had reached the West Wall in the strong Aachen area before much of anything was done to rearm the fortifications or build auxiliary field works;10 in the Merzig-Saarlautern sector, however, the Germans had been given time to arm the line and strengthen the original works with trenches, wire and some additional reinforced concrete.
In the area between Beckingen and Ensdorf, where the XX Corps would launch its attack, the forward part of the West Wall zone bordered the east bank of the Sarre River. At some points the bunkers and wire reached to the river; at others they lay as much as half or three-quarters of a mile inland. This forward zone was thickest in and around the cities of Fraulautern, Saarlautern-Roden, and Dillingen, here averaging nearly a mile in depth. Farther to the east the German works continued, although in much less strength, to a second main zone which began on the higher ground some five or six miles
Hoernlein's LXXXII Corps, deployed in the West Wall positions in front of the American XX Corps, had been badly shattered during the battles west of the Sarre, but had withdrawn across the river in good order. In the north the 416th Division had regrouped and now held the Orscholz line and the Sarre-Moselle triangle as an anchor for the main West Wall defenses. East of the Sarre the 19th VG Division was deployed with its right flank touching the Orscholz line and its left resting on the village of Beckingen. The 73d Regiment held the north wing, the 74th Regiment held the south, and the 59th Regiment was assembling in the rear at Dueppenweiler. The 19th VG Division had been reduced to one-third its normal strength by the time it reached the West Wall and was reported as "completely fought out," with only 630 infantrymen left.13 Officer losses had been extraordinarily high throughout the division and much of its heavy equipment had been lost west of the river. The replacements handed the 19th when it crossed the Sarre were uniformly rated as poor. They included a Luftwaffe security battalion of some six hundred untrained men, a fortress battalion, and a Volkssturm battalion. The latter was relegated to the Hilgenbach Stellung in the rear. This was the standard disposition of the Volkssturm during the first days of the December fighting, although occasionally a company would be caught in the forward line before it could be relieved and the American intelligence officers would have a field day predicting that these old men and beardless youths were harbingers of the imminent dissolution of the German Army.14
An additional division had been promised the First Army. This was the 719th Division (Generalleutnant Felix Schwalbe), which on 4 December began to detrain at Saarbruecken after a move south from Holland. The 719th had been employed in the Netherlands as an overage garrison unit, but had been caught up in the fighting there just before the switch to the First Army. The infantry were considered poor, although they proved better than anticipated, and the division artillery train was characterized as the "Artillery Museum of Europe."18 So hard beset was the whole First Army front that for some days the higher German commands could not decide where the various trainloads of the 719th should be committed. The division was shuttled forward and back in answer to orders and counterorders until the Army
The forces listed above were obviously not strong enough to garrison the West Wall defenses properly. On 4 December the First Army reported that it could not man all of the works in the forward zone and would have place the available troops in the first line of bunkers. Defense in depth, therefore, the tactic on which the West Wall was based, would really mean retirement from one layer of fortifications to another in what amounted to linear tactics. Hitler himself had intervened to order that there be at least one man in each and every pillbox or bunker, but this order-though several times repeated-had little practical effect when the single occupant was an old man or a boy from the Volkssturm. Psychologically, however, the defenders of the West Wall were in a position to make a stubborn fight. This was the "last line," here the German soldier fought to defend German soil, and here he had the greatest amount of artificial protection that he could hope to find.19
The 95th Infantry Division Expansion of the Saarlautern Bridgehead
The capture of the Saarlautern bridge was followed on 4 December by a rapid regrouping in the 95th Division sector intended to exploit this new and unforeseen situation. The 3d Battalion of the 379th Infantry crossed the bridge, which the German gunners still were trying to destroy, and attacked obliquely to the right toward the suburb of Fraulautern. This fortified area lay in the West Wall and formed a barrier to future American deployment and maneuver east of the river. (Map XL) The 21st Panzer Division had finally gathered a small force to counterattack, and about 1000 the American 1st and 3d Battalions were hit by two companies of infantry, reinforced by five tanks.20 The American tank destroyers, which had been rushed across the bridge the day before, here proved their worth, knocking out two of the German tanks and so discouraging the rest that they turned and fled;21 the enemy infantry were driven off by the American riflemen and machine gunners. After this
FRAULAUTERN. Circles indicate pillboxes.
[Between pages 554-555]
It must be noted here that American air power was of relatively little use in complementing the efforts of the artillery arm during the fighting in the bridgehead. Almost continuous bad weather during the first weeks of December permitted the heavy and medium bombers to intervene only on occasion; when they did come into the area they were forced to bomb through the overcast, with generally unsatisfactory results.23 The fighter-bombers, working
While the 379th Infantry (-) pushed out from the Saarlautern bridge, the 378th Infantry advanced to the near bank of the river on the southeastern edge of Saarlautern. Although the regiment had been engaged against the enemy in the southern suburbs as early as 3 December, its right flank was held in check for some hours. Lisdorf, the town south of Saarlautern from which the 378th was to launch a crossing attack, was not taken until 4 December. General Twaddle then ordered the 377th up from reserve, with instructions to relieve the rear elements of the 379th inside Saarlautern, as well as the troops of the 378th at the edge of the city. When the reserve regiment came up, the 378th assembled in Lisdorf, on the west bank of the Sarre, preparatory to an assault crossing set for the morning of 5 December.
The 378th Infantry, using two battalions in the assault, made a successful predawn crossing as planned, receiving only a small amount of small arms fire. The German West Wall fortifications at this point did not extend as far as the river bank, but when the 3d Battalion, moving on the left, came up against the first belt of pillboxes outside the village of Ensdorf the enemy fire increased sharply. Nevertheless this first phase of the attack inland moved slowly ahead; by noon the 3d Battalion had penetrated the forward line of pillboxes and was at the edge of Ensdorf. The 1st Battalion, on the right, crossed the railroad line south of the village but here was halted by direct fire from concrete works whose weapons covered the open ground beyond. All told, the two battalions captured fourteen or fifteen pillboxes during the first day's operations- but the toughest sections in the West Wall yet were to be engaged.
North of Saarlautern, the 2d Battalion of the 379th crossed the bridge on the early morning Of 5 December, passed through the lines of the 1st Battalion, and attacked toward Saarlautern-Roden. The 2d Battalion reached the edge of the city before receiving the-usual German counterattack, and this was repulsed. Four pillboxes, built to cover the southern entrance to Saarlautern-Roden, checked further advance. The remainder of the daylight hours
The fighting on 6 December gave the troops of the 95th Division a real taste of the difficulties attendant on forcing a way through the West Wall. In Saarlautern-Roden, Fraulautern, and Ensdorf, the enemy contested every yard of ground, every house, and every street, filtering behind the American lines in small groups each time a pillbox or a block of houses was taken, and forcing the American infantry to turn back and fight for each strong point two or three times. In the northern sector the 2d Battalion of the 379th was hit during the early morning by an intense shelling estimated to be about fifteen hundred rounds in a matter of three hours.24 It refused to be disorganized or demoralized and fought its way slowly, house by house and room by room, into Saarlautern-Roden. The 1st Battalion, which had come forward on the right of the 2d, paralleled its dogged advance, but at the end of the day was stopped short by "a warehouse full of Germans." The 3d Battalion was able to report a net gain of only one city block in Fraulautern.
The two battalions of the 378th Infantry in the Ensdorf sector also found the going slow and the enemy determined. While the 3d Battalion hammered away at strong points within the town the 1st Battalion reduced fourteen pillboxes in the zone south of Ensdorf. Here the flat, open terrain,was barren of cover and the 1st Battalion found that all movement in daylight was answered by sharp fire and led to high losses. As a result, the gains made by this battalion were confined to the hours of darkness, when the German pillboxes could be engaged without incurring needlessly heavy losses. The 2d Battalion of the 378th had not yet been able to cross the river, because the enemy gunners had brought the Lisdorf crossing site under extremely heavy fire. Never-
The 90th Infantry Division Crosses the Sarre
Even before the 95th Division began the fight to make a crossing at the Sarre it had become apparent that the strength of the German forces deployed in front of the XX Corps might make it impossible for the 95th Division to roll up the enemy defense line facing the 90th Division at the river. Therefore, on 2 December, General Van Fleet and his staff began to make new plans and troop dispositions with an eye to an attack in which the 90th Division would secure its own bridgehead. Across the river in front of the 90th Division was a high, steep hill mass, extending from a point opposite Rehlingen northwest to Merzig. (Map XXXVII) Observers on the west bank of the Sarre could tell that this high ground was covered with pillbox positions and laced with trenches, but the detailed and pinpoint information essential to an assault against such well-fortified terrain was lacking. The absence of this vital information, coupled with the obvious tactical advantage possessed by the defender on the hill mass, led General Van Fleet to conclude that the cost of an attack at this point would be far too great. Southeast of Rehlingen the far bank of the Sarre led back into more moderate high ground. Since this sector appeared to offer fewer obstacles to the attacker, the 90th Division commander asked General Walker to shift the right boundary of the division to the south, forming a new line extending from Wallerfangen on the west bank, along the Prims River, an eastern tributary of the Sarre. This change placed the heavily defended German city of Dillingen in the 90th Division zone of attack east of the Sarre and would not completely remove the threat posed by the enemy artillery, but it would permit General Van Fleet to maneuver his assault forces beyond the range of small arms and light artillery fire coming from the hill mass north of Rehlingen.25
The high ground on which the 90th Division stood permitted excellent observation across the Sarre but was so rugged as to restrict riverward traffic to the roads at Itzbach and Wallerfangen, in effect forcing the 90th to make any crossing attempt near these two sites. The Sarre, normally some two hundred feet wide, has flooded its banks, increasing the difficulties of an attack crossing. Beyond the river the West Wall defenses began at the very bank and continued eastward, with great pillbox density, to an unknown depth. Between the Sarre and the Merzig-Saarlautern rail line, which here paralleled the river, extended a flat, open space about fifteen hundred yards across, defended by trenches and pillboxes. Opposite the 358th lay the cities of Dillingen and Pachten, known to be strongly fortified and defended just north of the twin cities, in the 357th zone, the ground rose from the rail line to a moderately
On 5 December the 90 Division commander met with his staff and line officers and mapped out the plan for the attack. The 357th and 358th, left and right respectively, would attack abreast, each using two battalions. The 359th, after making a demonstration by intense fire to attract the enemy's attention farther north, was to pass through a bridgehead won by either of the assault regiments, or attack straight across the Sarre if circumstances seemed to warrant such a maneuver. The initial objective for the division would be the high ground between Dueppenweiler and Piesbach, that is, the highest section of the ridge line north of the Prims River. This objective lay a little over four miles beyond the Sarre. According to the plan of maneuver the 358th Infantry would first have to capture Pachten and Dillingen, then block any enemy approach along the narrow corridor formed by the valley of the Prims, and finally drive down the ridge to Piesbach.26 The 357th was given the task of striking rapidly eastward to seize a hold on the segment of the ridge defined by two little streams, the Haien Bach and the Kondler Bach. Once in position on the ridge, the 357th was ordered to block hostile efforts from the north and hold until the 358th had cleared the twin cities, whereupon the two regiments would attack abreast along the ridge to the initial division objective. No detailed planning was possible, or attempted, for operations beyond the Dueppenweiler-Piesbach line. Each of the assault regiments was given an engineer battalion as reinforcement for the crossing attack. Five battalions of field artillery were available to reinforce the organic artillery of the 90th, and an additional six battalions were grouped so as to support either the 90th or 95th. Behind these battalions was emplaced still more corps and army artillery. Finally, the greater part of six tank destroyer battalions was disposed along the west bank so as to give close fire support in the corps zone during and after the crossing attack.
In the days just prior to 6 December, American intelligence estimates had been rather optimistic, which explains in part the ambitious nature of the
While the 90th Division made preparations for the attack, the combat command of the 10th Armored Division, holding the river line farther north, engaged in a demonstration, firing around the clock in an attempt to pin the attention of the enemy to that sector. General Walker ordered that the shelling be continued until the afternoon of 5 December. By that time the hostile artillery was reacting with intense counterbattery fire, although this may have been an attempt to screen troop movements which American observers had noticed as early as 4 December to be taking place behind the German lines.
About 0100 on the morning of 6 December the troops selected to make the crossing moved silently through the darkness down to the water's edge. The 1st Battalion (Maj. W. E. DePuy) of the 357th was in position on the left and moved to a crossing site just southeast of Rehlingen. (Map XLI) The 2d Battalion (Maj. B. O. Rossow) assembled at a site slightly south of a demolished railroad bridge that lay below Bueren. In the zone of the 358th, the 1st Battalion (Maj. A. L. Nichols) gathered at the river north of Wallerfangen; the 3d Battalion (Maj. J. S. Spivey), on its left, climbed down the vertical cliffs at Oberlimberg to reach a position for the crossing. About 0415 the leading waves shoved off in assault boats.28 Surprise was complete, except for an incident on the, left where the accidental firing of some .50-caliber machine guns in Rehlingen brought hostile fire down on the 1st Battalion of the 357th. At 0430, as the leading American infantry hit the enemy bank, the XX Corps artillery opened fire, laying counterbattery and neutralizing fire on thirty-nine German battery positions which had been plotted earlier. A total of over six hundred guns (field artillery, tank destroyers, and regimental
PACHTEN. Circles indicate pillboxes.
[Between pages 562-563]
cannon) expected 8,000 rounds in forty-five minutes.29 As daylight broke, the 359th Infantry and the 10th Armored Division opened fire on the fortifications visible across the river, and the 161st Smoke Generator Company added a demonstration with fog oil as if covering preparations for additional crossings north of the 90th Division zone.
The American advance across the flats east of the river moved forward in uneven cadence. Machine gun fire searched the open ground. Hostile guns and mortars lobbed shells on the infantry, despite the intense concentration of American counterbattery fire. Pillboxes barred every forward movement, yet there was a marked lack of German co-ordination. In the 357th zone the 1st Battalion advanced about a mile and a quarter on the left. During most of the day, however, the infantry on the right were pinned down in such shallow foxholes as they could scoop out of the clay, widely dispersed with little chance of reorganization, and harrassed by sorties from pillboxes that they could not approach.30 The gist of the reports filtering back across the river to the 357th Infantry command post was that the situation was "fluid"; beyond this little could be said.
The 358th Infantry attack toward Pachten and Dillingen initially promised success. The 1st Battalion moved forward on the road north of the Prims River. The 1st Battalion moved forward on the road north of the Prims River. Here the enemy offered little opposition until the battalion reached its River. Here the enemy offered little composition until the battalion reached its first phase line, the railroad tracks at the edge of Dillige, where the battalion halted to reorganize before the assault into the city. Losses had been slight, although the right flank of the battalion, resting on the Prims River, was under enfilade by Germans on the south bank. The 3d Battalion, heading toward Pacheten, came under fire as it crossed the open ground south of the city; but it hurried forward, bypassing the pillboxes studding the approaches, and succeeded in fighting its way into the first rows of houses just short of the tracks.31
DILLINGEN. Circles indicate pillboxes.
The events of the last days in the Saarlautern sector had caused much concern at all of the higher German headquarters. Hitler reacted in characteristic fashion by ordering that immediate punitive measures be taken against all persons involved in the loss of any West Wall position, since, as he expressed it, the West Wall was "the strongest defense of the Reich." The Army Group G commander and the C-in-C West warned that the Americans might break through the Saarlautern zone and roll up the inner flanks of both Army Group G and Army Group B in an eccentric attack. They varied such reports with warnings that the First Army might be enveloped by a concentric attack via Saarlautern and Sarreguernines. Balck asked for reinforcements but had little success. Rundsitedt finally allowed the First Army to retain the 11th Panzer Division and the 404th Volks Artillery Corps, both of which had earlier been ordered north to the Aachen front. He dispatched some 11th Panzer tanks from the Sarreguernines sector to reinforce the troops at Saarlautern. Throughout the LXXXII Corps area officers were combed out of the staffs and headquarters in order to provide one officer for each bunker.32
Meanwhile some changes were in process within the Army Group G command. Balck himself continued to weather the storms, such as those unleashed
Mellenthin, who had arrived in Army Group G in September as Balck's chief of staff, also was relieved, on 5 December, by Generalmajor Helmut Staedke, a veteran of the Eastern Front. Mellenthin, however, had lived up to his earlier reputation as an able staff officer and apparently was relieved for reasons of army politics. He had at various times criticized Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, chief of staff at OKH, and the latter finally was able to secure Mellenthin's dismissal from the General Staff Corps. Eventually, as things grew worse in February of 1945, Mellenthin was brought back in favor and made chief of staff in the Fifth Panzer Army.34 General Feuchtinger, the 21st Panzer Division commander, also had won black marks because of the failures of the 21st's counter measures on 5 and 6 December. Word was given out that he had lost his drive and should be relegated to an administrative post, but somehow Feuchtinger held on to his division.
As a result of the steady worsening of the situation in the Saarlautern sector Hitler had sent a personal order that the peregrinating 719th Division should be committed there, Ten tanks also had arrived from the 11th Panzer Division, plus a few tank destroyers and some motorized engineers. The bulk of these reinforcements was thrown into action against the 90th Division on 7 December with orders to destroy the Dillingen-Pachten bridgehead. The first German effort was made shortly after dawn when two companies of engineers and four Mark IV tanks drove into the positions held by the 3d Battalion of the 358th at the edge of Pachten. American guns and infantry broke up this
In the sector held by the 357th the 2d Battalion made an attack that brought it up on the right of the 1st Battalion; the two thus formed a salient reaching out about eight hundred yards to the northeast of the Pachtner Koepfe. The supply routes back to the river, however, were very precarious and the Americans delayed a further advance until the ground which had been won could be consolidated.35 The 357th was just in process of reorganizing when the enemy launched a counterattack south from Beckingen, apparently trying to roll up the exposed left flank of the division. This assault was the German main effort, made by some 1,100 infantry who stubbornly pressed forward until artillery and small arms fire had stricken at least one hundred and fifty dead before the American positions. The Germans finally withdrew in disorder, but a few had filtered through to the rear of the regiment.36 Behind the thin perimeter formed by the 1st and 2d Battalions, the reserve battalion fought to reduce the pillboxes still active and to destroy the snipers and little knots of determined German infantry who were hindering movement on the roads ledding back to the river. Meanwhile assault teams made determined efforts to clear a corridor through the thick concentration of pillboxes north of Pachten which thus far had barred contact between the two American regiments, but with little success.
At the close of 7 December the 90th Division still lacked a vehicular bridge across the Sarre, although an improvised footbridge was in use. German observation posts on the heights north of Rehlingen had a complete view of
During 8 December the enemy held the initiative. The 2d and 3d Battalions of the 358th Infantry in Pachten were harassed by continuous local attacks made by the 21st Panzer Division infantry, as well as by extremely severe shelling; however, the Americans were able to inflict substantial losses on the enemy whenever the latter sallied out of his fortified positions. The 1st Battalion attempted to continue the attack eastward, but when the battalion crossed the railroad tracks it was hit by fire from the warehouses along the open siding area and driven back. A part of C Company later managed to cross the tracks and seize a hold on the Dillingen railroad station. Farther south some of the 1st Battalion troops fought their way into the municipal slaughterhouse, west of the railroad, which had assumed considerable tactical importance because of its position in enfilade on the right flank of the 358th. These successes represented all the American gains in the bridgehead.39
At the first light of dawn on 8 December troops of the 719th Division launched a vicious assault from the northeast and east against the 357th Infantry, apparently intending to erase the 90th Division lodgment area on the east bank of the Sarre.40 About six hundred German infantry and at least a
This kind of close combat took its toll in the American ranks as well as in the German. The rifle strength of the 357th Infantry already was perilously small as the result of the ravages of trench foot. Unlike the zone held by the 358th Infantry, the northern sector had very few buildings in which the infantry might take cover. A large part of the 357th Infantry had stood or lain for hours in water-filled foxholes and trenches. Each casualty, whether caused by a bullet or crippled feet, further weakened the overextended American front. The reserve battalion could not be used to fill the gaps in the main line of resistance: it had been dissipated, a squad at a time, to garrison the captured pillboxes in the American rear. At the close of the day the ranking battalion commander, Lt. Col. J. H. Mason, sent word back across the river that the situation was "critical," and the regimental commander gave orders to withdraw the overextended and weakened battalions to a shortened line.42
Operations on the South Flank of the XX Corps
At the beginning of December the right wing of the XIII SS Corps held a salient northeast of St. Avold athwart the boundary between the XII and XX Corps. The XII Corps drive in the Sarreguemines sector and the XX
The XII Corps left was deployed in echelon and thus somewhat protected against the enemy in the Warndt, although the commitment of the 10th Infantry on the extreme right of the XX Corps initially had been ordered to give cover for the 80th Division. The subsequent Sarre crossing in the Sarreguemines sector had swung the XII Corps wide of the Warndt, leaving the corps cavalry and 6th Armored Division patrols to screen along the Rosselle River on the shoulder of the German salient. The main part of this difficult, enemy-held terrain lay in the zone of the XX Corps, uncomfortably close to the Saarlautern bridgehead.
The XX Corps plan to place General Irwin's 5th Division on the corps right, as soon as a part of the 5th could be relieved at the Metz forts, was put in motion on 1 December. Irwin's command was assigned a narrow zone on the right of the 95th Division. The 5th Division right in turn was covered by the 6th Cavalry Task Force, which had been employed earlier as a screening force in the Forêt de St. Avold. General Walker intended that the 5th Division should advance to the Sarre, clearing the Warndt salient as it progressed, and arriving on the river between Buss and Voelklingen. As yet General Patton had not definitely decided to release Irwin's division for use across the Sarre.
The fortified area in which the 95th Division had begun a penetration was one of the strongest sectors of the entire West Wall. The city of Saarlautern itself had been cleared without much difficulty, since it lay on the west bank of the Sarre River and did not constitute a part of the West Wall proper. But the suburbs on the east bank, Saarlautern-Roden, Fraulautern, and Ensdorf, were most heavily fortified and their defenses well integrated. (Map XL) Pillboxes and bunkers constituted the main obstacles to an advance through this sector. Spread in great density, these works were found everywhere: they guarded the approaches to the fortified towns, they were built to command cross streets, and they nested inconspicuously between ordinary dwellings. Some pillboxes were small, with only one or two firing apertures for small arms and machine guns. Other pillboxes and bunkers had as many as sixteen rooms, extending for two or three levels below the ground. These works were built of reinforced concrete, some having roofs and walls that were ten feet thick; most were impervious to anything but a direct hit by heavy artillery or an aerial bomb. The high-velocity projectiles fired by the 90-mm. gun generally were unable to cope with these works, as shown by the experience of one crew, serving a self-propelled 90-mm. gun, which fired seventy-five rounds at a range of less than one hundred yards without breaching or neutralizing the pillbox target. Many of the reinforced concrete works were skillfully camouflaged, giving the harmless appearance of manure piles, mounds of earth, and ordinary buildings. In one case a bunker simulated the appearance of a suburban railroad stationwith ticket windows appropriately marked. It was discernible as a fraud only when the attackers were within rifle range. Some of the pillboxes and bunkers inside the towns could not be precisely located until all of the surrounding buildings were razed by shelling and bombing. Besides having formal field works of the pillbox or bunker type, the enemy had turned ordinary dwellings, shops, and factory buildings into miniature forts by the use of sandbags, wire, and concrete reinforcement.45 Most of these defensive works were occupied initially by third-rate troops from the Volkssturm companies, but as the tide of battle moved into the city sectors these troops were replaced by first-line units. In addition, roving assault guns, dual-purpose 88's, and tanks reinforced the city defenses,
ENSDORF. Circles indicate pillboxes.
[Between pages 572-573]
The American attack, both here and in the zone of the 90th Division, was hampered by the fact that the main German defenses crowded so close to the east bank of the Sarre As to prevent proper tactical deployment for assault in front of the fortified line and seriously hamper the amassing of supplies within close supporting distance of the assault forces. Poor weather denied the troops on the ground the kind of tactical co-operation by the air force which had made the going easier for the infantry in the early battles across France. Limited observation and the difficulty of moving medium and heavy field artillery across the river and into a bridgehead still under small arms fire at many points further curtailed the conventional use of the combined arms in assault against the West Wall.
Nearly every pillbox or bunker captured by the Americans entailed some reduction in the actual rifle strength on the firing line. At no time were sufficient explosives available to demolish any large number of these enemy works. The engineers welded shut the steel doors and casernates on some pillboxes, but there was never sufficient welding apparatus to make this a general practice. Bitter experience soon taught the Americans that each captured pillbox or bunker must be occupied to prevent German infiltration and the reoccupation of a presumably "dead" work. The type of close combat which continued for so long in the Saarlautern bridgehead, and in the Dillingen area as well, not only resulted in numerous combat casualties, but also was distinguished by a high rate of sick and combat-fatigue cases. This kind of fighting was disheartening enough for veterans; it was worse for the inexperienced soldier. In the case of the 95th Infantry Division, for example, the body of the division- as it stood in November- had had two years of training in the United States. Now, like the rest of the American divisions actively engaged on the Western Front, the 95th Division had to rely more and more on green replacements who were being thrown into battle with generally no more than basic or refresher training. These replacements did not suffice to fill the gaps in the ranks, for an alarming shortage was already making itself felt as the replacement depots and battalions ran dry.
During 8 and 9 December the 95th Division fought on, house to house and pillbox to pillbox, but with little to show for its efforts.46 Behind the battalions the Sarre River was rising rapidly; by 9 December it had swollen to a width of between four hundred and five hundred feet in the 378th area, which as yet had no bridge and could be supplied only by strenuous efforts on the part of the assault boat crews. The Saarlautern bridge served to supply the other two regiments across the river and made it possible for the whole of the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion and 778th Tank Battalion to reinforce the attack, with considerable impetus to the morale of the infantry.
This brief spurt forward came to an end on 12 December, although the 377th took several more blocks in Fraulautern. At the close of this day the 378th Infantry was able to report that after four days of fighting it had taken a cluster of four interlocking pillboxes. Such was the measure of advance in this battle. During the next few days the 95th Infantry Division made a little progress through Ensdorf and Fraulautern.50 The Germans were fighting with what seemed to be little cohesion or direction, although the individual soldier showed stubborness and determination.51 But if the enemy was weakening, so was the 95th Division. As early as 12 December the combat efficiency of
The 378th Infantry was not included in the relief on 17 December because General Patton had ordered the regiment to continue the fight for a bridgehead in the Ensdorf area. Here the river was returning to its normal channel,
The progress of the 95th Infantry Division in the attack east of the Sarre River had been marked on the Third Army situation maps in terms of yards won or lost. But to the staff and line of the 95th the story of this bitter fight was best expressed by the number of buildings and fortifications wrested from a determined enemy. During the period 1 December to 18 December the 95th Division had captured 146 pillboxes and 1,242 defended houses or other buildings. In addition the division had taken over three thousand prisoners and inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy (estimated by the Americans, albeit superficially, at over five thousand dead and wounded). In the same period the 95th Division had lost close to two thousand officers and men in battle, plus at least six hundred hospitalized as nonbattle casualties, these losses totaling one third of the combat strength with which the 95th Division had started the December operation.54
The 90th Division Fight at the West Wall Continues, 8-19 December
On 7 December General Van Fleet had decided to commit his reserve, the 359th Infantry, in the Dillingen bridgehead battle (Map XLI) This decision to reinforce the flagging efforts of the attacking force east of the Sarre was strengthened on the following day by reports coming in from the 357th which indicated that the situation on the exposed left flank was growing steadily worse. At noon on 8 December the reserve regiment began to assemble around Bueren and Itzbach in preparation for a crossing that night, leaving its supporting weapons and a small detachment from the cannon
During the night of 8-9 December the 359th moved down to the river. The crossings were made as planned, one battalion following the other as the assault craft were released, and at 0700 the 3d Battalion, bringing up the rear, finished debarking on the east bank. The two battalions in the lead had marched inland immediately, passing through the right wing of the 357th and crossing the railroad tracks. At dawn the battalions began the attack up the pillbox-infested slopes to the east, with the 1st Battalion on the right (and about a thousand yards north of Dillingen) and the 2d Battalion on the left. These fresh troops attacked with vigor and determination, but no speedy advance was possible so long as the enemy, behind reinforced concrete, held the ground above.56 By dark, however, the leading infantry were within two hundred yards of the Haien Bach, a small stream that here ran north and south along the edge of the Huettenwald. The 3d Battalion, under orders to gain contact with the 358th Infantry, made its attack due south toward Pachten. Immediately, it came under fire from the pillboxes in the long, slender enemy salient which, reaching nearly to the Sarre, had frustrated earlier attempts to link up the American forces in the 90th Division zone. This fortified area was strongly manned and hard to penetrate. The pillboxes were grouped so as to give mutual support and the whole position was reinforced by two forts, or large bunkers, so strongly constructed that they had successfully withstood direct hits by shells from the American 240-mm. howitzers. The approach taken by the 3d Battalion lay across flat ground completely barren of cover and swept by fire. At the end of this first day the battalion could report no
Although the advance by the 359th Infantry lessened the German pressure on the right flank of the 357th during 9 December, the situation on the left and center of the latter's thin line grew more desperate by the hour as assault after assault hit at the American positions and bounced back, each claiming casualties among the defenders. The 1st Battalion, aligned east of the Beckingen-Pachten road, was in a particularly precarious state. Its ranks were so reduced that some men whose feet were too swollen by trench foot to permit walking were carried by their comrades to the forward foxholes. The platoon from C Company which had been stationed at the road block positions astride the Beckingen-Pachten road was the target of persistent German attacks. At dawn each morning the enemy maneuvered in on the platoon and attacked to wipe out the detachment. But each assault was repelled and this anchor for the left wing of the 357th Infantry held fast.57
The 358th Infantry continued to battle along the railroad tracks in Dillingen. The 3d Battalion resumed its efforts to clear the buildings west of the tracks, using a captured 75-mm gun and twenty-two rounds that fitted the piece to blast the houses in which the enemy fought most stubbornly. This enemy gun was the only field piece that the 90th Division possessed east of the river, and the sole item of antitank artillery. In the center the 2d Battalion initiated a futile assault to cross the railroad. Company F discovered a tunnel under the tracks, but the men who got through were cut off and captured by the Germans on the other side. The 1st Battalion, on the right, was subjected to heavy attacks by superior forces in the slaughterhouse area, the fight surging back and forth in the buildings at this strong point without any decisive result.58
Behind the 90th Division the Sarre was still at flood stage. Late in the afternoon of 9 December the engineers began rafting operations in the 358th Infantry zone, ferrying across a few jeeps and light antitank guns. In the
SLAUGHTERHOUSE AREA IN DILLIGEN. Circles indicate pillboxes.
[Pages 580 & 581]
December 10 was a day of snow and rain, chilling and soaking the men in the foxholes. It was also the day on which the entire force of the 719th Division finally was brought to bear against the 90th Division bridgehead defenses. Balck's threats and fulminations had accomplished little as to rerouting the wandering 719th or remedying the disorder that had resulted from the conflicting missions assigned the division. On 9 December the bulk of the 719th had been rounded up and was in process of assembling in the woods east of Saarwellingen. But when the division began the march west to its attack positions a traffic jam resulted; the division artillery, nineteen light and eleven heavy guns, could not be moved forward to support the scheduled attack. The Army Group G commander was furious, started court martial proceedings, and issued the strictest kind of injunctions for the 719th to make a full-scale attack on the morning of 10 December.60
Just before dawn the 719th and the 19th VG Division began piecemeal attacks all along the American line, while the German artillery, numbering some 110 guns, increased its shelling to a tempo the 90th Division had not heretofore encountered in the bridgehead. The 90th Division, with all its rifle battalions committed, was not able to take the initiative and during most of the day could only hold grimly to its positions. The 357th Infantry was hard hit, since the main effort by the 719th was thrown against it, but continued to beat off each assault.61 The 359th Infantry fought a seesaw battle in
Supply for the 90th Division continued to be handled by assault boats, for the river dropped abruptly and stranded the heavy ferry, which German guns then damaged when veering winds blew away the smoke screen at the crossing site. The shoestring nature of the supply lines on the left flank and their continued interruption by German raiding parties made General Van Fleet decide to regroup the 357th. To do this he ordered the 1st and 2d Battalions to redress their lines on a shortened front, and withdrew the 3d Battalion from the attack on the fortified salient, setting it to secure the supply roads close behind the battalions in the line. He further ordered the 359th to continue the attack to the east, but to use its 3d Battalion to force a way to the 358th in the sector north of Pachten.65
The following day brought the successful completion of the scheme of maneuver outlined on 10 December by the division commander. The 3d Battalion of the 357th finished mopping up the pillboxes and knots of enemy riflemen which had harassed the rear of the regiment all through the operation. For the first time the left-flank of the 90th Division was stabilized. The 358th and 359th finally made contact and established a lateral corridor through the German fortified salient. This feat was accomplished by a combination of accurate artillery fire, daring infantry assault tactics, and a kind of "homegrown" psychological warfare. The 8-inch and 240-mm. howitzers that had been brought to bear on the German pillboxes produced real results on 12 December, smashing some by direct hits and badly shaking the nerves of the defenders in the rest. A combat patrol sent out from the 359th on the previous day, and written off for lost when it failed to report, turned up in possession of one of the key pillboxes, making the task of the following assault teams much easier.68 The 358th pressed into service a Luxemburger known as "the
VEHICULAR TREADWAY FERRY in the 358th Infantry zone was left stranded by the receding river on 9 December, but became operational again three days later.
old Kraut." He succeeded in convincing the occupants of five strong pillboxes that wisdom was the better part of valor, after condign threats that they would all "be blown to hell." The first contact between the 358th and the two regiments in the north was made about 1530. Fortunately the winds now favored the Americans, the smoke screen held, the vehicular ferry was again put into operation, and by late afternoon one company each of tanks and tank destroyers had been put across. Two tank platoons were sent at once through the corridor to the 357th. Although all but four of the tanks mired down before they reached the regiment, their presence brought a considerable lift to the flagging spirits of the men in the foxholes.69 Meanwhile the 358th turned its attention toward Dillingen and began preparations to resume the
In reports on the morning of 12 December, the "combat efficiency" of the 90th Division was rated at 43 percent, the result of the exhausted condition of the troops and the acute shortage of replacements. It is true that the arrival of the armor and antitank support plus the final tie-up of all three regiments raised morale appreciably during the day. But the chief difficulties facing the division still obtained: gravely reduced rifle strength in the battalions and the necessity of holding on to the innumerable pillboxes after their seizure for here, as in the 95th Division bridgehead, demolition supplies were insufficient to destroy more than a very few of the captured enemy works.
General Van Fleet decided to concentrate the limited strength of the 90th Division in a determined effort to complete the capture of the city of Dillingen. Devastated though the city was, it would offer some cover from the winter cold and rain and provide a defensive position more easily held than the open terrain on which the American main line of resistance now was drawn. Once Dillingen was secured the 357th Infantry could be withdrawn from its exposed sector and aligned as flank protection in the Pachten-Dillingen area. Furthermore, the capture of Dillingen would put the 90th Division in possession of the Prims River crossing at the south edge of the city from which a main highway, skirting the swamp land to the west, led to Saarlautern-Roden and possible contact with the 95th Division.70
General Van Fleet set 15 December as the date for the renewal of the attack, giving time for the 90th to regroup and build up its stock of supplies and ammunition east of the Sarre. The last was no easy task, for the bottom had gone out of the muddy road between the river and Pachten; to make matters worse, at noon on 14 December the German guns again knocked out the vehicular ferry. Nevertheless, by the night preceding the attack ample supplies were at hand and enough vehicles had been crossed to relieve the infantry engaged as carrying parties.
The Saarlautern-Dillingen bridgehead meanwhile had lost its paramount place as the greatest threat to the German forces under Army Group G. The offensive by the American Seventh Army along the west bank of the Rhine had gained momentum on 11 December and promised to drive straight
Needless to say Balck could expect no help from the armies in the OKW strategic reserve. Requests for help from the Nineteenth Army only resulted in the brusque statement by Jodl that no troops could be taken away from Himmler. Balck did the only thing he could do and commenced to strip the rest of the Army Group G front in order to reinforce General Hoehne. With his eye on the double zone of fortifications in the Saarlautern sector Balck gave orders that the remainder of the 21st Panzer Division and all of the 404th Volks Artillery Corps were to be relieved from the bridgehead battle and sent to the south. The First Army commander, General Obstfelder, pleaded and even argued, then fell back on the conventional alibi that he lacked the gasoline necessary to move these troops out of his area. By various dodges Obstfelder managed to delay the departure of the 21st and the 404th, but by 15 December only the rear elements of these units were left in the Saarlautern-Dillingen area. In the meantime OB WEST had secured the 526th Replacement Division to take the place of the 21st Panzer Division, but the movement of the former was long delayed and on 15 December only a few of its troops had arrived in front of the XX Corps bridgehead.72
Early on the morning of 15 December the 90th Division attack to mop up Dillingen jumped off as planned under a dense smoke screen put down by the 4.2 mortars. Two battalions of the 358th Infantry led off in an assault across the railroad tracks and fought their way under terrific enemy fire into the streets and houses of Dillingen, followed closely by tanks and tank destroyers. Within a few hours the Germans began to break and when night
After the drive into Dillingen the German forces, now stripped of the 21st and 404th, failed to react with their usual counterattack tactics and a lull developed along the front.75 General Van Fleet purposely postponed any continuation of the attack at Dillingen since he wished to give the 5th Division time to relieve the 95th Division in the Saarlautern bridgehead and initiate a drive that would bring its lines forward alongside the 90th. On 18 December the 3d Battalion, 359th Infantry, and the 2d Battalion, 358th, made a co-ordinated drive in Dillingen. The division commander strictly enjoined a "cautious attack," for he was most anxious to avoid excessive casualties and did not want to attract any strong German reaction until the 5th Division was abreast of the 90th.76 In spite of these limitations the advance moved forward very swiftly; resistance was astonishingly light and only twenty-two prisoners were
Lacking a bridge, the withdrawal of nine infantry battalions and about a hundred vehicles was a delicate operation. Through three successive nights the 90th Division moved men, weapons, tanks, trucks, and tank destroyers back over the Sarre.80 At 1040 on 22 December the rear guard arrived on the west bank, while the American guns smashed Pachten and Dillingen with salvo after salvo.81 An unknown battalion clerk wrote finis to the operation: "This was the first time this Battalion ever gave ground and even though it was a strategic retreat rather than tactical, it still hurt."82 During the December battle on the Sarre the 90th Division had captured 1,298 prisoners and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. But the 90th Division also had suffered severely, particularly among its veteran officers and men, and had lost 239 killed, 924 wounded, approximately 440 missing, as well as over a thousand officers and men evacuated as sick, battle-exhaustion, or battle-injury cases, the whole totaling more than one-third of its strength on 1 December.83