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HEROISM IS NEVER OUT OF DATE

THE MORTAIN COUNTERATTACK

By Capt. Martin Blumenson
July 1958

(Office of the Chief of Military History)

In this age of atomic weapons and missiles, World War II seems so remote as to belong to a distant epoch, and many soldiers appear to have relegated that experience to oblivion. What can we learn, they say, from outmoded forms of warfare?

The answer is simple. "Heroism is NEVER out of date."

In repelling at Mortain the first large scale German counterattack launched after the Allied invasion of Normandy, two months to the day, brave men, though outnumbered, stood and outfought an enemy who had surrounded part of them, who threatened to isolate the rest of them, and who almost destroyed them all.

Confused fighting at close range, infiltration and counterinfiltration, action by small dispersed groups, operating in a battle area rather than along established front lines, the story is not unlike the combat envisioned for the future.

How the American commanders reacted is a story of courage, of the unabashed assumption of risks, and of confidence in the ability of the American fighting man, in short, an inspiring example of command.

And for those who are curious about "the other side of the hill", it may be of interest to learn of an attack, that in its essentials, was the prototype of the Ardennes counteroffensive launched by Hitler's forces four months later.

The German situation on 1 August 1944 was desperate. General Bradley had parlayed his American troops from a limited breakthrough operation, into a wide open, fast moving end run that outflanked the German defensive lines in Normandy, for a distance of thirty miles. From Avranches, Patton's Third Army swung south and west into Brittany, while First Army's Lt. Gen. C.H. Hodges, pivoted eastward on the first stage of a projected advance toward the Seine River.

Two days later the disintegration of the German left was so apparent, that Brittany was dismissed as worth only a "minimum of forces", and part of Patton's Army joined Hodges in the swing toward the Seine. By sweeping to the Seine River, where all of the bridges, (except at Paris), had been destroyed by air bombardment, the Americans, British and Canadians hoped to push the Germans back against the lower reaches of the river and destroy them.

As General Montgomery, the Allied Ground Force Commander, judged the situation, "the only hope" the Germans had of saving their two field armies in Normandy, was by making a "staged withdrawal to the Seine." On this basis, he saw his mission as the need to transform their retreat into a rout. These were his orders. But while Patton's forces raced through lightly defended territory in the German rear, First Army and the British and Canadians fought enemy troops who had no intention of abandoning their defenses.

Part of the German determination came from an analysis of their alternatives, that differed from Montgomery's.


WITHDRAWAL FROM FRANCE

The American breakthrough meant that the Germans might have to withdraw from France. There were no prepared positions in France in the rear, and the Siegfried Line or Westwall on the western approaches to the Rhine River, had been neglected for four years. With France no longer a buffer, the Germans would have to fight on their own soil.
Though Hitler ordered work begun on defensive lines, and the Westwall rehabilitated, and though he quickened preparations for raising a reserve force within Germany, and thereby admitted the possible necessity of withdrawal from Normandy and France, he was reluctant to withdraw because it meant the inevitable loss of a great part of his combat trained forces. Troops in withdrawal always abandoned equipment and straggled, and, what was worse, the Germans lacked not only the mobility of the Allied mechanized armies, but also control of the air. To surrender France, to lose the missile bases along the Channel coast, to withdraw to the homeland, might signify the beginning of the end, defeat and disaster.
The alternative was to restore the conditions that had made possible the static warfare of June and much of July. If a continuous defensive line could be re-established in Normandy, the shortest conceivable line in western Europe, the Germans might yet hold. To attain this goal, the Germans had to close the breach on their left. They had to recapture Avranches. A counterattack was in order, a thrust toward Avranches through Mortain.
The German field commander, Field Marshall von Kluge, began to assemble an armored force east of Mortain for this purpose. XLVII Panzer Corps, directing the 2nd SS, 2nd and 116th Panzer Divisions in an initial effort, and the 1st SS Panzer Division in exploitation, was to attack to the west after dark on 6 August, without artillery preparation, and seize and secure Avranches.

Into the path of this scheduled effort, and on the very day the attack was to start, came the U.S. 30th Infantry Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. L S. Hobbs.

A FEW DAYS OF REST

The 30th Division had been in the line for well over a month. It had fought in the hedgerows, made possible the capture of St. LO, participated in the Breakthrough Operation, and fought a particularly hard battle at Tessy-sur-Vire. To give the division a few days of rest, General Hodges moved it to a place he thought would be relatively quiet - MORTAIN.

Three days earlier, the 1st Infantry Division, (Maj. Gen. C.R. Huebner), had taken Mortain, a village at the foot of a rocky hill just to the east, Hill #314 (or #317). From this height in a region of convulsed and broken wooded highland, an observer has a magnificent view of flat tableland to the south and west. Avranches, twenty miles to the west, is visible on a clear day. When the VII Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. J. Lawton Collins, inspected the 1st Division positions around Mortain, he pointed to the high ground east of the town and said, "Ralph, be sure to get Hill #314." "Joe", Gen. Heubner replied, "I already have it."
As the 30th Division came into Mortain on 6 August, the 1st displaced to the south, to prepare for the projected move eastward toward the Seine River.

The 30th Division, having fought under XIX Corps at Tessy-sur-Vire, and scheduled to come under V Corps control, was, because of its abrupt shift to Mortain in the VII Corps zone, unable to complete proper reconnaissance. With little knowledge of the terrain and of neighboring unit locations, and with practically no information of enemy dispositions, the 30th Division hastily took over the positions established by the 1st Division. Shallow foxholes and field artillery emplacements far forward in offensive formation, were hardly suitable for an outfit soon to be fighting for its life in a defensive situation.

NO MAPS, NO COMMUNICATIONS

Maps were not available, for the most part, troops used the crumpled maps Big Red One men had pulled out of their pockets and off their map boards, and passed along before departing. The telephone wire nets left in place were unfamiliar. The 30th Division had no time to tie its positions together before the Germans struck.

Nor was the division at full strength. Almost 800 replacements who had joined a few days earlier, did not completely fill the thinned ranks, and they were not yet fully assimilated into the depleted units. Two infantry battalions were absent, one attached to an armored division, and another dispatched to Barenton, where it was soon to be isolated for a day.

Tired because of the preceding month of combat, fatigued by the road march from Tessy-sur-Vire to Mortain that day, manning unfamiliar positions in unfamiliar terrain, the 30th Division troops were hardly in the best position to meet the German counterattack.

General Hobbs assumed responsibility for the Mortain area at 2000 hours on 6 August, four hours before the German attack began.

Though well conceived, the German attack was faulty. Field Marshall von Kluge had misgivings, and as late as the day of attack, he was tinkering with the plans. He tried in vain to find additional units for commitment. He wondered whether his attack front ought to be broadened. He talked of changing the axis of advance.

He had reason to be apprehensive, for American pressure on the German line, north and northeast of Mortain, and American mobile forces slashing deeply into his left flank and rear, were coming close to nullifying the conditions necessary for the attack. American occupation of Mortain was a serious setback, threatening assembly areas. American capture of Laval on 6 August, endangered important supply bases near Alencon and Le Mans. And, American advances toward the high ground northeast of Mortain, menaced the lines of departure for the attack.

In order to regain operational initiative before additional developments further complicated the jump-off, von Kluge had to launch his attack on schedule. But on that day, just a few hours before the attack, Hitler interfered.

Hitler mad available to von Kluge, sixty Panther tanks still held in reserve east of Paris, and released eighty Mark IV tanks of a Panzer Division moving toward Normandy from southern France. He also wanted Eberbach to be commander of the XLVII Panzer Corps

It became obvious that Hitler and von Kluge were not thinking of the same kind of operation. While von Kluge hoped only to regain Avranches, ands restore the defensive line, Hitler was thinking of a big offensive to be launched by several Corps under Eberbach, a defensive blow that would sever the Allied front, throw the Allied armies into confusion, and eventually push them back into the sea.

To cater to Hitler's grandiose delusion, meant postponing the attack and awaiting the arrival of the armored reinforcements. Uncertain that the German defenses on the left flank could hold much longer, and fearing that the Allies would capture his assemblies, or bomb them out of existence, von Kluge persuaded Hitler to let the attack go as planned.


COMPOSITION OF THE ATTACK

There was a good possibility of success. The first wave of the attack was to be composed of three armored divisions in six columns, and a fourth armored division was to be ready to exploit initial success and capture Avranches. Between 120 and 190 German tanks were to operate in a zone where only the 30th Division and an armored division's combat command, (the latter assembled between Mortain and Avranches), were located.

But German assembly had been made in great haste, at night, and with great difficulty, due to almost constant pressure by American forces. In some instances, German units had to fight their way to assembly points while in danger of being encircled. No distinct line of departure was possible. Many units had taken heavy losses before the attack started.

Two hours before midnight, when the attack was supposed to begin, Funck telephoned to request a twenty four hour delay. He had two reasons.

First, the 1st SS Panzer Division, (the exploiting force), was not going to be able to reach its assigned position in time, nor would it be able to detach an armored battalion of the 2nd Panzer Division in time. Its relief from the Fifth Panzer Army front had been slower than expected, traffic congestion and Allied air attacks had harassed the approach march, and an Allied fighter-bomber had crashed on the lead tank of the heavy-tank battalion while it was moving through a defile in close formation, and had thereby blocked the entire column.

Secondly, the 116th Panzer Division had not detached a tank battalion to the 2nd Panzer Division as directed, through sheer perversity on the part of the division commander. This was not the first, (nor would it be the last), time that he had failed to comply with orders.

The only concession to Funck's request was postponement of the jump-off until midnight.

PANZER COMMANDER BALKS

Shortly thereafter, the 2nd Panzer Division, (on the left), attacked in two columns, encircled Mortain, overran and captured the village, and advanced towards the high ground west of Mortain, and to the southwest towards St. Hillaire. There was no significant American opposition, and by noon of 7 August, the German troops seemed on the way to St. Hilaire where they could threaten Avranches directly. One thing interfered: a Battalion of 30th Division infantrymen, surrounded, but still holding our on Hill #314, called such devastating artillery fire down on the panzer division, that the Germans were unable to advance after daylight.

The 2nd Panzer Division, making the main effort in the center, got off only one column. Without the tank battalion of the 116th, the troops moved off, achieved surprise, and rolled through the 30th division line for six miles. The refusal of the American troops to panic, and the effect of the American artillery fire on their flanks, (particularly from the 4th Infantry division under Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton), brought the Germans to a halt at dawn.

By this time, the other column, after having waited for the panzer battalion of the 1st SS to join them, jumped off and made a similar advance until likewise stopped.

In midmorning, Funck committed part of the 1st SS Panzer Division through the 2nd Panzer Division. A restricted roadnet, limited maneuver room and American resistance on the ground and in the air, balked progress. With German tank losses skyrocketing, Funck halted the attack and ordered the troops to dig in. (They had already done so.)

As for the 116th Panzer Division, it did not attack at all. The division commander felt that he had enough to do to prevent encirclement by troops of the U.S. First Army, so he continued to fight a defensive battle. He (Funck), was relieved during the afternoon of 7 August. The division launched a half-hearted attack that evening and it got nowhere.

Instead of a massed coordinated attack, only three of the six assault columns had jumped off on time. One additional column and the exploiting force joined them later. The Germans achieved surprise and made a sizeable penetration through the American line. Yet it was obvious to von Kluge and to other commanders that the attack had failed. Withdrawal seemed in order.

Hitler gave no choice. He commanded that "the attack be prosecuted daringly and recklessly to the sea."

Under this mandate, von Kluge pulled two armored divisions out of the Falaise sector, and moved them toward Mortain for an additional effort towards Avranches. Until they assembled and were ready to attack, (actually they never did), the committed elements at Mortain had to hold the positions reached by the forward elements. To assist them in an effort that had suddenly changed from offense to defense, von Kluge, on the evening of 7 August sent the remainder of the 1st Panzer Division into the line.

A HARD ROW FOR THE 30TH

The result pitted the 30th against three armored divisions, (the 116th was not in the 30th's sector), two of them SS divisions. Five battalions of German infantry, four of artillery, and two or three of tanks were behind the lines occupied by the 30th on the previous day.

Not only was the 30th threatened with destruction, but the Germans were threatening to cut the narrow Avranches corridor through which flowed American troops, equipment, and supplies to nourish the drives westward into Brittany and eastward toward the Seine. German success would separate the First and the Third U.S. Armies, and perhaps make the latter vulnerable to defeat.

American commanders recovered quickly from the initial shock, and reacted with an offensive intention, rather than a defensive attitude. General Bradley made available only one infantry division, the 35th, (Maj. Gen. Paul W. Baade), to reinforce the troops around Mortain, meanwhile meanwhile continuing the drive toward the Seine. By the following day, 8 August, he was convinced that the troops at Mortain would hold. At the time he proposed to General Montgomery, a daring maneuver to trap the Germans, who had put their heads into a noose, the maneuver that was to squeeze the Germans at Argentan and Falaise.

General Hodges kept the First Army exerting pressure on the Germans, while General Collins, localizing the counterattack within the confines of his VII Corps sector, set out to eradicate the German threat by an attack of his own. He sent the 35th Division into the breach, southwest of Mortain, committed the 2nd Armored Division, (Maj. Gen. E. H. Brooks), less a combat command, towards Barenton for a spear-like thrust deep into the German left flank, (and incidentally, to relieve the isolated troops at Barenton), attached the 39th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division, (Maj. Gen. Manton S. Eddy), - caught in the wake of the German attack - to the 4th Infantry Division, which had been in reserve and remained so, alert for commitment, which turned out to be unnecessary. He also attached to the 30th Infantry Division, the combat command of the 3rd Armored Division, (Maj. Gen. Leroy H. Watson), assembled several miles west of Mortain, and a regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, and instructed Maj. Gen. Hobbs to cleanup the German penetration. While all of the units of VII Corps contributed to the eventual defeat of the Germans, the main job rested on the shoulders of the 30th Infantry Division.

Maj. Gen. Hobbs had three problems: 1. Eliminating the penetration northwest of Mortain; 2. Blocking the thrust southwest of Mortain; and 3. Recapturing Mortain itself, and to re-establish contact with the surrounded 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment on the Hill #314.

FIERCE, CLOSE-RANGE FIGHTING

It took 5 days to do the job. During that period, the action was small-unit combat, fierce close-range fighting by splinter groups maneuvering to outflank, and in turn, being outflanked, a "see-sawing activity consisting of minor penetrations by both sides", characterized by ambush and surprise and fought on the level of the individual soldier.

"What does it look like down there?" the Division G-3 asked a Regimental Officer.

"Looks like Hell," came the reply. "We are just mingled in one big mess, our CP is getting all kinds of fire, and enemy tanks are within five hundred yards of us."

Disorganization and isolation of small units were the most serious factors. Communication throughout the division area was precarious; wires had been cut or shot out, and infiltrating Germans and raiding parties menaced liaison officers, messengers and command posts. Several infantry battalion command posts and one regimental headquarters were surrounded. More than a few battalions were isolated. Several companies were overrun.

The reaction to this situation?? The troops fought on!
Threatened by German tanks 400 yards away, the regimental commander of the 117th Infantry decided that moving his headquarters might have an adverse effect on morale: he stayed put and directed the battle, although virtually encircled.

A 5 man patrol checking outpost defenses, suddenly and unexpectedly confronted about 50 Germans. While Tech. Sgt. Harold V. Sterling engaged the enemy, his 4 companions maneuvered to positions of safety. Then all 5 of them conducted a fire fight for an hour, until reinforcements arrived and dispersed the Germans.

PHONE OPERATOR "DOUBLES IN BRASS"

When 2 German tanks worked their way to within 250 yards of the regimental CP of the 120th Infantry, Pfc. Joe O. Shipley, telephone switchboard operator, slipped away from his duties long enough to knock out one tank with a bazooka and drive the other one away.

The 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, attached to the 30th Division, lost 11 3 inch guns and prime movers, had 13 wounded, 3 killed and 91 missing in the first day of the counterattack; but, it destroyed 14 enemy tanks, 2 trucks, 3 tracked vehicles, a half-track, 2 motorcycles, a staff car and a machine gun crew.

A company roadblock eliminated very early in the attack by enemy tanks, moved back several hedgerows and set up another road block, even though its anti-tank guns had been lost. Bazookas proved to be very effective.

A battalion overrun and pushed out of its defensive line, established another line several hundred yards to the rear, and, although enemy tanks were swarming over the area, they defended along a sunken road with clerks, cooks, and messengers, all fighting along side of the riflemen.

Troops manning 81mm mortars, refused to move from their original positions and fired at ranges as close as 175 yards. An artillery battalion started firing at a range of 5,000 yards, and was soon firing at targets only 1,000 yards away, but the crew remained and continued to put out the shells.

This was the pattery of the battle. A typical message: "Very fatigued; supply problems not solved; defensive sector penetrated; however, key terrain feature still held."

While the infantryman stood his ground, American artillery operated on the premise that it was better to waste shells than to miss a target. The weather was clear, and while observation planes pinpointed German formations for the artillery, fighter bombers roamed the area and destroyed enemy materiel and morale. Much of the reason why artillery and air were so effective, came from the fact that the soldier on the ground had immobilized the German striking force and turned them into sitting ducks.

Of the 70 enemy tanks estimated in the original penetration, only 30 were judged in operation at the close of the first day. By the morning of 8 August, the estimate had dropped down to 25 tanks as operational.

As Americans around Mortain were proving their courage and stamina, only Americans in battle strength on top of Hill #314 were demonstrating the meaning of HEROISM in one of the outstanding small-unit achievements of the European campaign.

The battalion command post had been in the village of Mortain, in the Hotel de la Poste, and when the German attack surged through the town, the command group set out on foot to try to join their troops marooned up on the Hill. The group was captured soon after daybreak.

GERMAN MOVEMENT PARALYZED

On the heights east of the village, (Hill #314), Capt. Reynold C. Erichson assumed command of the surrounded force: the 2nd Battalion, 120th Infantry, reinforced by Rifle Company "K" and a few anti-tank guns, and two forward observers from the 230th Field Artillery Battalion - 1st Lt. Charles A. Bartz and 2nd Lt. Robert L. Weiss.

The battalion had split a rifle company three ways, to establish roadblocks, augmented by antitank guns. Two roadblocks were overrun at once. The third one remained in place and in action, and eventually accounted for the impressive score of more than 40 of the enemy's vehicles and tanks.

Occupying the most important piece of terrain in the Mortain area, the battalion held the crest of the hill for five days, and denied the Germans possession of the ground that would have given them observation over the major part of the VII Corps sector. The Germans knew this, and the regiment-sized 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, which had the mission of taking the hill, attacked almost constantly. American troop not only retained their positions, but called down fire n all German units within observation. Like Capt. Erichson, the other company commanders, Capt. Delmont K. Byrne and 1st Lts. Ralph A. Kerley, Joseph C. Reaser, and Ronal E. Woody, Jr., refused to consider surrendering.

Their isolation did not panic the troops. "Not worried about the situation, as long as friendly artillery fire continues", they reported. It was their stocks of supply that bothered them. And even this problem was partially solved. A light artillery plane tried to drop supplies by parachute, but the German fire drove it away. Army Air Corps cargo planes did better, and dropped food and ammunition.

The 230th Field Artillery battalion also brightened the supply picture by firing smoke-shell cases, normally employed for propaganda leaflets, filled with bandages, adhesive tape, morphine, and other medical supplies. Eventually, the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 113th Field Artillery Battalion joined in this supply shoot.

Nearly 700 men held out! By 12 August, 300 had been killed or wounded, but more than 300 walked off the hill unharmed. During the battle of Mortain, they had been, the Germans said later, "A thorn in the flesh", that had paralyzed all German movement in the Mortain area.

Not until 11 August did Hitler acknowledge defeat at Mortain, and that evening, the Germans began to withdraw from this salient. They had never pushed beyond the positions they had reached on 7 August, by virtue of the initial momentum achieved mainly by surprise.

During the 6 day battle, the 30th Division lost nearly 2,000 men. German losses were worse. One regiment of the 2nd Panzer Division was annihilated, the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions were seriously depleted. Nearly 100 German tanks lay abandoned around Mortain at the close of the battle.

The main effect of the counterattack was that it temporarily halted the VII Corps advance. It had prompted some readjustment of forces in the Mortain-Avranches area, but of no more than local significance. "What the counter-attack might have accomplished," seemed in retrospect, to have been its only merit.

"It was precarious for a while", General Hobbs reported to General Collins. "We are holding and are getting in better shape all of the time."

Collins was not surprised. He had gone along on the assumption that no position is untenable, when it is defended by men of courage and determination.
Taken by surprise, and manning unfamiliar positions, the 30th Division stood its ground and fought as hard as any unit was to fight in the European Theater. "It isn't very easy," a staff officer wrote, "to tell the man in the front lines that the battle is going well when he's still up against that old combination of machine guns, burp guns, mortars. 88's, artillery, tanks - terrain. But, the battle is going well, and its worth saying."

The battle had indeed gone well. By blunting Hitler's Avranches counterattack, and holding a considerable force tied down at Mortain, American troops made it possible for the Allies in Normandy, not only to fashion the Argentan-Falaise pocket, where 2 German field armies were soon to be destroyed, but to also to drive to the Seine River. But more, the German withdrawal from Mortain was the start of a retrograde movement that was to end a month later at the Westwall fortifications along the German border, more than 300 miles away.

Portent of the future?? Small units, disorganized, separated and isolated by surprise attack, can fight and can win against superior numbers, despite the absence of a well defined front line. The key factor is superior leadership, for men fight no better than their leaders. The determining factor is, in the final analysis -'plain old fashioned guts'!!

HEROISM IS NEVER OUT OF DATE !!

 

Updated December 2003.
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