HEROISM IS NEVER
OUT OF DATE
THE MORTAIN COUNTERATTACK
(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"Heroism is NEVER out of date."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.
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
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
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
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
"What does it
look like down there?" the Division G-3 asked a Regimental
"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."
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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
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 !!