Dudek's Battlelog: Mortain

By John Dudek 07 Aug 2015 0

Location: Outside Mortain, France 7 August 1944

The "mixed-bag company" of German Pz.Mk. IV and Panther tanks came to a dusty, clattering halt that hot, early August morning directly outside a recently abandoned American artillery battery position.  A German major climbed out of his Panther tank's cupola hatch and sat down upon the turret roof surveying the gun position and the happy German troops now busily engaged in looting it.  The men of his tank company and an attached platoon of panzer grenadiers eagerly filled their bread bags with American canned rations, chocolate, odd bottles of French wine, or Calvados and the prized packages of American cigarettes.  The dry mouthed major hacked up a mouthful of phlegm and road dust before spitting it onto the dry ground below.  After taking a pull from his canteen, he called to his lieutenant, ordering him to put out a security screen to prevent them being caught unawares by a counter attack just as the Americans had been.  Placing the sling of his submachine gun around his neck, the major dismounted the tank and walked into the gun battery position. The Americans had been caught totally by surprise by the sudden German tank attack that had come in from two different directions and without the warning from the usual German artillery bombardment fires.  Seeing the quickly approaching German tanks nearly upon them, the shocked and surprised American artillerymen had only enough time to climb into their gun's prime movers, trucks and jeeps before frantically racing to the rear.  Abandoned military equipment lay strewn everywhere. The major could now hear loud radio static and indecipherable English messages coming from the American battery radio set located somewhere to the rear of the gun position. His tank driver, a mere lad of 17 ran up to him with a big grin on his face. He playfully tossed the officer a package of American cigarettes before running off to rejoin his mates.  As the major moved from howitzer to howitzer he nodded his head and grunted approvingly as he viewed each gun. Before retreating, some of the older, more professional American NCO's had had the presence of mind to remove each of the artillery piece's breechblocks, effectively spiking them and rendering all 4 of the guns unserviceable.  Presently he caught sight of an odd looking fence or wall standing off in the distance.  The wall stood well over a meter in height and ran the entire rear length of the gun battery position.  Intrigued and puzzled by the wall's composition he walked towards it and was immediately overcome by shock and awe as tendrils of fear overcame him.  The wall was not built of either stone or brick, but composed of hundreds upon hundreds of stacked American artillery shells.  In five years of war the major had never seen so many artillery shells in any single German gun battery position before.  He later wrote.  "I'd never seen so many artillery shells stacked so casually before.  This confirmed my worst fears that we were facing an enemy to whom the loss of so much ammunition would trouble them but little. I knew then we'd lost the war."


By late June 1944 Germany's military fortunes in France were rapidly going from bad to worse in the days and weeks following the Allies D-Day invasion.  In spite of continued Allied attacks the Germans had somehow managed to maintain a tenuous, elastic but still strong defensive line, limiting the Allies advance in Normandy to small incremental gains. In doing so, the Germans were taking ever mounting heavy casualties with no fresh formations of troops to replace them.  There was an ever increasing danger that the rapidly growing numbers of American, British and Canadian troops flowing into Normandy would one day soon mount a massive and unstoppable offensive that would overwhelm the German defenses and break the Allies out of their beach head perimeter. This would turn the war in France from a grinding WWI-like battle of bloody attrition thus far into one of rapid and decisive movement.   Any war of rapid movement was one the Allies with their completely mechanized armies were eminently well equipped to carry out.  On the other hand, the Germans who'd originally pioneered the blitzkrieg concept of a lightning war's constant and rapid offensive movement were still largely reliant upon much slower horse drawn power to do much of the hauling of their army's equipment and supplies. The Germans desperately needed to find some way to halt the Allies advance, overcome their superiority in weaponry on land, sea and in the air along with their growing quantitative advantage in Normandy. In short, they needed to find some way to regain the initiative and drive the Allies back into the sea.  The Germans needed to mount a massive counterattack of their own. By late June this was quickly becoming a forlorn hope.
Meanwhile, the Allies continued to exert ever mounting military pressure upon the German defenders.  Allied bombers bombed them by day, while keeping the German troops under increasing artillery fire from both land based big guns and naval gunfire offshore; There was little to no let up in between.  On 29 June, German Commander Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt received an urgent message from his panzer group commander near the town of Caen asking to be allowed to withdraw his forces beyond the range of Allied naval gunfire.  The pin point accuracy of the naval gunfire was making it impossible for his tanks and men to operate above ground or in the open during daylight hours; all the while inflicting huge and ever growing casualties upon the German troops. Von Rundstedt agreed to the plan and notified OKW headquarters. On 1 JulyGerman dictator Adolf Hitler countermanded von Rundstedt orders, ordering them instead to "stand fast" and hold the line.  An angry von Rundstedt was immediately on the phone with Hitler's adjutant Field Marshal Keitel and the two got into a loud screaming match over Hitler's criminally ridiculous order.  When Keitel asked for an alternative plan of how the Germans should deal with the increasingly dangerous and deteriorating military situation in Normandy,  the mercurial von Rundstedt shouted: "Schluss mit dem Krieg, Idioten!" This literally means "End (with) the war, idiots!", but is usually translated as "Make peace, you fools!" Von Rundstedt immediately found himself temporarily out of a job, although the heroic, many times decorated general was awarded the Oak Leaves of the Iron Cross (Germany's highest military medal) and sent to a rest home spa in Bad Tolz Germany.
The Germans had less than a month remaining before the Allies executed their much feared break-out "Operation Cobra". Martin Blumenson  later wrote: "The attack would take place in the American sector of the line in the Normandy hedgerow or bocage country. "Following a massive, aerial carpet bombing raid and equally massive and damaging preparatory artillery bombardment concentrated along a narrow 7,000 yard long front and some 2,500 yards deep, two U.S infantry divisions would open the way through the German lines and hold the flanks; Meanwhile a U.S. armored division and another infantry division would push their way through the gap, followed by a second armored division to fan out, moving south beyond the German line of resistance and towards the town of Coutances. "If VII Corps' efforts were successful the western German position would become untenable, permitting a relatively easy American advance to the southwest end of the bocage to cut off and seize the Brittany peninsula."  

As the American Operation Cobra attack was launched and went forward "...progress was slow on the first day, but German opposition started to crumble once the defensive crust had been broken.  After a slow start the offensive gathered momentum, and German resistance collapsed as scattered remnants of broken units fought to escape to the River Seine. Lacking the resources to cope with the situation, the German response was ineffectual, and the entire Normandy front soon collapsed. Operation Cobra, together with concurrent successful offensives by the Second British and First Canadian Armies, was decisive in securing an Allied victory in the Normandy Campaign."  
During the latter stages of "Operation Cobra," General Patton's 3rd Army was activated on 1 August 1944. Patton, an old-school cavalry officer, quickly put the spurs to his newly activated Army and didn't look back.  After making a rapid "end-around" American General Omar Bradley's 1st Army right flank, the Third Army broke out into open country, attacking west. They simultaneously drove into the Brittany peninsula, southeast towards the Seine River and the town of Avranches which was then already being liberated.  On 8 August, the Third Army captured the city of Le Mans, the former headquarters and logistics center of the German 7th Army. The long, bloody days of stationary, attritional warfare in France of the preceding seven weeks were now over.  Instead, the fighting became one of rapid, quick and decisive movement.  At the same time, the days of the German Army's hold over all of France now appeared numbered.  The entire remaining German front in Normandy was in danger of being broken wide open and it's army completely destroyed. 
While most of Germany's generals now advocated an orderly fighting retreat and withdrawal across the easily defensible Seine River, Germany's dictator Adolf Hitler instead ordered an immediate counter attack with all of his 7th Army's remaining armor and mechanized forces; This was done with the intent of cutting off the far flung and rapidly advancing 3rd Army's lines of communication with the main American Army.  Once Patton's 3rd Army line of supply was severed, the Germans would theoretically be able to methodically destroy them.  Should such a military disaster indeed befall the Allies, they could very well have been driven back towards the channel coast.  While Hitler made his attack plans and gathered his still considerable armored forces throughout France and Belgium, the Allies were reading of his secret military preparations via the British code breakers of ULTRA at Bletchley Park, England. The code breakers had broken the enemy codes and could now read all German military radio communiques virtually in real time.  The question was "Would the intelligence information of this coming German offensive arrive in the proper Allied hands and in time before the coming storm broke out all along the front?"


Hitler's plan for the Mortain Counteroffensive called Operation Lüttich (Liege) was named after the German's victorious WWI battle in Belgium. The battle plan called upon the services of virtually all of Hitler's remaining tanks and troops in France, many of them already worn out and exhausted from the past several weeks of unremitting, bitter fighting in Normandy.  Hitler envisioned a surprise attack that would cut off Patton's 3rd Army now in Brittany, immediately following a savage mad dash to the sea in the Avranches region.  This would deal the Allies a severe setback and at the very least cause a major withdrawal and realignment of the Allied Army Group's lines.  To achieve this end, Hitler would need the services of 8 of his 9 remaining panzer divisions in Normandy, along with two infantry divisions.  In addition, there would be the need for diversionary slight of hand tactics. These panzer divisions needed to be secretly withdrawn from those units still holding the line in the British sector in order to reinforce the Germans facing the Americans in the west. With his badly battered army already nearly bled white from the fierce fighting of the past two months, only Hitler could have conceived of such a crazily ambitious and potentially disastrous plan. Field Marshal von Rundstedt's replacement was Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge, an officer who personally hated Hitler and was later implicated in the assassination attempt against him.  Von Kluge had warned Hitler that a military collapse in Normandy was only a matter of time, but the dictator adamantly ignored his warning and ordered his army to stand fast in their current lines.  
On 2 August, Hitler sent von Kluge an order calling for "an immediate counter-attack to be made between Mortain and Avranches" in a drive to the sea. Von Kluge told Hitler there was no chance of success, and warned him that in any such attack the German Army would be placing its neck into a ready-made Allied hang man's noose.  Von Kluge believed the remaining German troops in Normandy should instead fall back to the easily defensible River Seine, while making a pivot upon their still intact defense lines at Caen.  
"On 4 August, Hitler categorically ordered the attack to be launched. He demanded that eight of the nine Panzer Divisions in Normandy be used in the attack, and that the Luftwaffe commit its entire reserve, including 1,000 fighters" to temporarily gain air superiority in the skies over the battlefield to guarantee the battles successful outcome. " According to Hitler, three qualifications had to be met for the attack to proceed and succeed. He said: 'Von Kluge must believe in it. He must be able to detach enough armour from the main front in Normandy to create an effective striking force, and he must achieve surprise' ".  Hitler ordered there would be no preparatory artillery bombardments made that would alert the Americans of the coming attack.  There was one major sticking point to Hitler's grandiose plans, Instead of the called for 8 Panzer Divisions,  only the battered remnants of four of them could be assembled on their jumping off points in time of the 6 August attack date.  They were the battle depleted 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions, the  Heer (Army) 2nd Panzer Division, the 116th Panzer Division and the battle shattered remnants of the once powerful Panzer Lehr Division, now consisting of but five small Kampfgruppen (Battle Groups)  The standard number of tanks in any German Panzer Division of 1944 was between 150 and 200 tanks.  After the severe mauling the German armored divisions had recently undergone in Normandy, only 300 battle ready tanks could be amassed overall for the coming operation. Three hundred tanks were not nearly enough to carry out so ambitious a battle plan.  In addition, there were also the attritted  remnants of 4 infantry divisions to support the operation.  The plan called for the Germans to attack sometime after darkness on 6 August and pierce through the U.S 30th Infantry Division lines located east of Mortain before breaking through into open country and continuing on to the coast.  "Had surprise been achieved, the attack might well have succeeded, but Allied decoders at ULTRA had intercepted and decrypted the orders for Operation Lüttich by August 4.  As a result, Bradley was able to obtain complete air support..."  Knowledge of the coming German attack was widespread in the higher echelons of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and their confidence was such that General Eisenhower didn't try to rein-in the continuing advances of General Patton's Third Army.  However, information of the German attack didn't get into the hands of the U.S. 30th Infantry Division commander General Leland Hobbs until the battle had already begun.  The German spearhead jumped off near midnight of 6 August catching the 30th Infantry DIvision completely by surprise in the foggy darkness. The Americans were able to absorb the first blows but were forced to fall back several miles.  The town of Mortain fell into German hands and was reoccupied for a time. The American battle line bent but did not break.

While "the American 30th Infantry Division stood alone in the initial phase it was not, however, a simple matter of American infantry against attacking German armor. The 30th Infantry Division had attached armor units, including the the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion, the 743rd Tank Battalion and the 105th Combat Engineer Battalion. And as the battle developed, CCB of the 3rd Armored (Spearhead) Division arrived in support. There were also elements of the 4th Infantry Division, 9th Infantry Division and 35th Infantry Division drawn into the battle." Another key factor in the blunting of the German armored thrust were the efforts of small tank killing teams of American troops armed with 2.36 inch bazookas.  While the bazooka's small rockets couldn't pierce a German tank's frontal armor, they could if striking the side or the rear of the tank. 
As soon as the thick early morning fog burned off in the summer heat, yet another important weapon came into play.  Ralph G. Martin later recorded this:
"The .50 caliber machine gunner from Charlie Company was telling how it was on Hill 314.  He told how the regiment had beaten back counterattack after counterattack, how they just sat on the reverse slope of a hill with some of their antitank guns looking over the top and how the Germans sent in 50 tanks with SS troopers yelling their goddam heads off.  Lots of dirty underwear got dirtier, then and there.  Then came the lovely, lovely sight of eight of our P-47 fighter bomber's swooping in so low you could almost see them smile, dropping 500-pound bombs ker-plunk on the tanks.  They were so close that one lieutenant even had his eardrums shattered.  The German tank-riding infantry were already jumping off by the dozens, scramming as fast as they could, and the soldiers of Charlie Company were picking them off like shooting gallery ducks.  When it was all over, there were 14 burned-out German tanks sitting in a neat semicircle at the bottom of the hill, almost as if somebody had posed them that way.  Everybody just loved the Air Corps. that day!"
In spite of Hitler's firm promise that the Luftwaffe would give the German armored attack a degree of air support and superiority over the battlefield not seen in years, the planes and pilots of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force and U.S. 9th Air Force decidedly ruled otherwise.  Von Kluge later wrote: "Our own air support which is requested becomes engaged in air battles at the very start and does not reach the place of commitment as ordered."  Allied fighter and medium bombers quickly seized control of the skies over Mortain and never relinquished it during the daylight hours.  German tanks, armored vehicles and trucks were repeatedly struck by clouds of attacking Allied warplanes.  Attacking German infantry were strafed, rocketed or bombed and forced to go to ground rather than continuing their attack.  Through it all, one must not in any way discount or undercut the impressive, hard fighting abilities of the 30th Infantry Division. Although facing numerous attacks all along their front from superior sized German infantry and tank units, their line bent but never broke.  The fierce fighting continued over the next six days, even though the American forces recovered the initiative within a day following the German surprise attack.
"Some military historians rank it among the the most impressive performance of U.S. infantry during the fighting in Europe. The 30th Infantry Division managed to delay and slow the German attack. The Division's 120th Infantry Regiment stand on Hills 314 and 285 were key to the American success. This bought time for the major American forces to set in motion a sweeping envelopment" as Patton's 3rd Army quickly swept around the German flank to gain their rear while General Montgomery was doing the same from the British sector.  Von Kluge saw the potentially dangerous trap closing behind him and knew all too well what was about to happen.  He pleaded with Hitler to allow his remaining forces to disengage and fall back.  Instead, Hitler flew into a carpet chewing rage and ordered the attacks to be continued in even greater intensity with fresh troops.
What followed over the next several weeks was one of the greatest military disasters ever to befall the German military, ranking equally with Stalingrad the year before.  When the German Army's Mortain Counteroffensive and the resulting Allied counter attacks against the trapped German troops in the constricting pocket around the town of Falaise finally concluded on 21  August, the once mighty German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army had been virtually destroyed in the Armageddon-like fighting. Over 100,000 prisoners were taken with more than 240,000 others killed or wounded. Over ten full German divisions simply vanished in the fighting. SHAEF commanding General Dwight Eisenhower later wrote of the slaughter he'd witnessed saying:
"The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest "killing fields" of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh."
At the same time, the German 15th Army had been grievously crippled by continued British and Canadian armored attacks that eventually forced them out of France and Belgium.  Still, some 100,000 Germans managed to fight their way back to friendly forces. With these cadres the Germans somehow managed to knit together and reconstitute new legions of troops and replace most of the combat losses incurred in Normandy.  However, these re-built divisions never approached the military professionalism and fighting abilities of the men now held in Allied POW cages or buried throughout France. Field Marshal von Kluge was later recalled to Berlin for an audience with Hitler.  When he reached the French town of Metz, he learned the Gestapo was waiting to arrest him for his role in the assassination plot against Hitler.  Von Kluge took cyanide and killed himself.  Field Marshal von Rundstedt was again recalled to active duty by Hitler in September 1944 upon the death of von Kluge.  He was again relieved of command early the following year. He survived the war and died in 1953, perhaps Germany's greatest WWII General.
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Blumenson, Martin. Breakout and Pursuit  U.S. Army in WWII  (The Green Books).
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Hastings, Max. Overlord D-Day and the Battle for Normandy.
Martin, Ralph G.  The G.I. War.
Van Der Vat, Dan. D-Day: The Greatest Invasion, A People's History
Wilmot, Chester. The Struggle For Europe.
Tags: World War II



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