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Noted for Your Lunchtime Procrastination for August 7, 2014

Liveblogging World War II: August 7, 1944: Mortain

NewImageFrom Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light:

Such a place was Mortain, a village of 1,300, twenty miles east of Avranches.... The last German occupier in Mortain had been gunned down on August 3 by a French policeman armed with a nineteenth-century rifle and one bullet. Hours later, the 1st Infantry Division arrived, only to move along on August 6, supplanted on that warm, luminous Sunday by the 30th Division.... Two of the division’s nine infantry battalions had been dispatched elsewhere; the rest now burrowed in across a seven-mile front.

Of keen interest was stony, steep Montjoie, looming over Mortain to the east and so named because from here joyful pilgrims first caught sight of Mont-St.-Michel, twenty-seven miles distant. To GIs the mile-long escarpment was simply Hill 314, after its height in meters; seven hundred men from the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry chuffed to the crest before scratching at the skimpy fieldworks left by the 1st Division....

Montgomery’s assessment that “the enemy situation is far from good” was unarguable, and that very vulnerability made the Germans desperate. From his East Prussian headquarters a thousand miles to the east, Hitler detected “a unique opportunity, which will never return … to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area.” At his direction, a counterattack spearheaded by four panzer divisions was to blast through Mortain to Avranches, cleaving Patton’s Third Army from Hodges’s First Army and, if not cudgeling the invaders back to their ships, at least reimposing the static war of early summer. “Tell Kluge,” Hitler added in a message sent through high command, “that he should keep his eyes riveted to the front and on the enemy without ever looking backward.”

Field Marshal Kluge replied that “such an attack if not immediately successful” would risk envelopment and annihilation. Even if the spearhead reached Avranches, the force would be too weak to hold its gains against Allied air, artillery, and armor. Eight German divisions had already been obliterated during July fighting in and below the Cotentin, plus others written off in Brittany and the isolated Channel Islands. Six replacement divisions had recently arrived on the Norman front from southern France and the Pas de Calais, permitting a reorganization of sorts: Panzer Group West was rechristened Fifth Panzer Army, with a dozen divisions in four corps, and Seventh Army counted sixteen divisions. Yet this host was fragile and dispirited. Hitler waved away all caviling. The attack would go forward, as ordered, “recklessly to the sea, regardless of the risk."

Swirling fog lifted and descended with stage-curtain melodrama in the balmy small hours of August 7. Shortly after one A.M., American pickets reported a spatter of rifle fire, followed by the distinctive growl of panzers on the hunt. Then the attack slammed against the 30th Division front in scalding, scarlet gusts: 26,000 Germans in the first echelon, with 120 tanks....

Almost nothing went right in the German attack. A stricken Allied fighter-bomber smashed into the lead tank of the 1st SS Panzer Division, blocking the column for hours. Only three of six enemy spearheads surged forward on time. The right wing, anchored by the 116th Panzer Division, hardly budged; the commander would be sacked for “uninspired and negative” leadership. Of three hundred Luftwaffe fighters promised for the battle, not one reached the front. The German weight fell heaviest on St.-Barthélemy, a crossroads two miles north of Mortain. Aiming at muzzle flashes, U.S. tank destroyer crews here demolished a Panther with a 3-inch slug at fifty yards, then another at thirty yards; both slewed across the road, burning with white fury. GIs at one roadblock let the panzers roll through, then butchered the grenadiers trailing behind. The 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry suffered 350 casualties and retired to a hillside a thousand yards west of St.-Barthélemy, but the German offensive had been delayed six hours, with forty panzers soon crippled.

Meanwhile, at the Abbaye Blanche, a twelfth-century stone heap just north of Mortain, a platoon of sixty-six men with bazookas and artillery repelled an SS regiment. GIs stood fast against tanks, flamethrowers, and grenades. More than sixty enemy vehicles would be knocked out hub-to-hub-to-hub. Dawn, that pitiless revealer of exigencies, unmasked the German predicament. Four armored divisions—from north to south, the 116th Panzer, the 2nd Panzer, and the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer—stood exposed and blinking in the brilliant sunshine once the fog burned off. “First really large concentration of enemy tanks seen since D-Day,” an RAF patrol reported. Typhoon fighter-bombers soon scalded the German ranks with two thousand 60-pound rockets and 20mm cannon rounds the size of tent pegs. Joined by cab ranks of Thunderbolts and Hurricanes, the planes attacked until dusk in a shark-feed frenzy. “Hundreds of German troops began spilling out into the road to spring for the open fields and hedgerows,” a Typhoon pilot reported. Only a few dozen tanks and trucks were actually demolished from the air, and more than a few sorties mistakenly hit American revetments. But scores of other vehicles were abandoned under the onslaught or were wrecked by field artillery: a dozen battalions—144 tubes—raked the two roads leading west from St.-Barthélemy.

A panzer corps headquarters described the attacks as “well-nigh unendurable,” and Seventh Army on August 7 conceded that “the actual attack has been at a standstill since 1300 hours.” The only exception to the “exceptionally poor start,” as Seventh Army described the offensive, was a narrow advance of four miles by the 2nd Panzer Division in the north, and the successful seizure of Mortain by the 2nd SS Panzer Division. Das Reich had struck at three A.M. on Monday in three columns, overrunning a roadblock to the south, capturing antitank guns to the north, and infiltrating through the 120th Infantry with help from two traitorous French guides....

A radioed query from the 30th Division headquarters six miles to the west—“What does your situation look like down there?”—drew a spare reply: “Looks like hell.” It also looked like hell from Hill 314, but at least the view was majestic. Lieutenant Weiss, with his field glasses and Signal Corps radio, had called in his first fire mission at six A.M., shooting only by sound and by map coordinates after sentries reported four hundred enemy troops scrabbling up the east slope. From a stone outcropping on the hill’s southern lip, among scrub pines and the animal fragrance of summer pastures, Weiss soon saw columns of German soldiers threading the plain below, including bicycle troops with rifles slung across their shoulders. Again he murmured incantations into the radio handset. Moments later, rushing shells fell in splashes of fire and the singing fragments that gunners called Big Iron. German mortar and 88mm shells answered, pummeling Montjoie’s rocky shoulders. Late in the afternoon Weiss radioed, “Enemy N, S, E, W.”...

Artillery curtains directed from Hill 314 paralyzed Das Reich, kept the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division from scaling the hill, and prevented a collapse of the 30th Division’s southern flank. White phosphorus forced enemy troops into the open, where they frantically brushed the burning flakes from skin and uniform; high-explosive shells then cut them to scraps. By nightfall, the German offensive had stalled completely; five divisions had been unable to punch through a single American division with fewer than six thousand infantrymen. “If only the Germans will go on attacking at Mortain for a few more days,” Montgomery cabled Brooke that evening, “it seems that they might not be able to get away”...

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