January 11 2015

Advance to the Sarre

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The XX Corps Advance to the Sarre (19 November-3 December)

The First Attack on the Orscholz Switch Line

After the capture of Metz, XX Corp proceeded to advance in the direction of the Sarre River. The initial advance was led by the 90th and 5th ID, along with the 10th Armored Division. After the penetration of the Orscholz Switch Line the 90th and 95th ID continued the advance to the northeast.

Meanwhile the XX Corps offensive along the main axis toward the Sarre was being carried rapidly northeast by the 90th and 95th Divisions. Since the two-division advance was about to outrun the flank protection offered on the north by CCB of the 10th Armored Division, General Walker decided to turn all of the 10th Armored to the east. On 27 November he issued new operations instructions which assigned the 3d Cavalry Group to relieve CCA of the screening mission on the far north flank of the corps and regrouped the 10th Armored Division preparatory to clearing the remaining German forces from the west bank of the Sarre in the division zone. The armor assembled on 30 November and began the attack toward the river through a low-hanging mist, its armored infantry in the lead and tanks following. CCB, on the right, drove as far as Merzig, where the enemy blew the last two of the Sarre bridges in this sector. Only a few enemy troops remained west of the river to oppose the 10th Armored, and by 0300 on 2 December the last resistance in the Merzig sector west of the Sarre was ended by the capture of Dreisbach, on the north boundary of the division zone. General Walker ordered General Morris to establish an outpost line on the west bank of the Sarre between the 3d Cavalry Group and the 90th Division. Since this defensive mission required only a single combat command, CCB turned back to a rest area from which, on 18 December, it would move to take part in the defense of Bastogne.

The XX Corps Preparations for the Attack Toward the Sarre River

The successful completion of the battle to encircle Metz and neutralize its garrison marked the end of an important phase in the operations of the XX Corps. But the tired and combat-worn divisions had no time to rest on their laurels. At best the greater part of the troops could be given only a few hours of sleep, a bath, and a change to clean, dry clothes, before the XX Corps turned northeast to continue the offensive beside the XII Corps toward the next enemy barriers: the Sarre River and the West Wall.

On 20 November, of General Walker’s three infantry divisions, the goth was east of Metz proper and the 5th and 95th were jammed in and around the city itself. A hasty redrafting of boundary lines inside the city simplified the task of extricating units and regrouping.them again under the proper command. The lack of bridges, however, and the difficulties attendant on moving trains and troops through this crowded area-where small groups of the enemy still were fighting-combined to hamper the general reorientation and reorganization required for the drive to the Sarre. Late on 21 November General Walker ordered the 5th Division to relieve the 95th Division, many of whose troops were involved in containing the German forts west of the Moselle. This reshuffling would bring the 95th eastward into the former 5th Division zone and place it on the right of the 90th Division. The 90th had not turned inward toward Metz and at the moment was in the process of wheeling northeast behind an outpost line deployed on the west bank of the Nied which served as a screen for the body of the corps. General Twaddle, whose 95th Division had been chosen to make the main effort to secure crossings at the Sarre, was unwilling to throw his division into what promised to be a hard fight without taking some time for rehabilitation, reorganization necessitated by the number of casualties among company commanders and vehicle repair, the last particularly needed by the attached tank battalion (the 778th) after the operations west and north of Metz. The 95th Division commander asked for a four-day delay, time that would be required in any event for regrouping the corps before the resumption of the offensive; so General Walker set 25 November as the date for the new attack toward the Sarre.

The XX Corps Field Order No.13, issued on the early morning Of 22 November, outlined the plan for the three-division operation, placing the 90th Division in the center, the 95th on its right, and the 10th Armored Division on its left. (Map XXXVII) General Patton had ordered the XX Corps to destroy the enemy remaining west of the Sarre and to cross that river. Beyond the Sarre River the corps mission would be to penetrate the West Wall, destroy the German formations there, and continue the attack in a northeasterly direction. “The burden of this offensive, in mud and rain, across a defended river line, and through the strongly fortified zone of the West Wall, would have to be carried by the infantry. The XX Corps plan gave the 95th Division the task of making the first crossings at the Sarre, in the sector between Saarlautern and Pachten. Once the 95th had a foothold across the river, the scheme of maneuver called upon the division to extend its bridgehead northward in order to facilitate the 90th Division crossing. In addition the 95th was charged with the task of making and keeping contact with the left flank of the XII Corps, whose 80th Division at the moment was held more or less immobile, blocking along the gap between the XII and XX Corps which had opened while the latter was involved at Metz.

The 90th Infantry Division was to begin its attack simultaneously with that of the 95th, clear the enemy out of its zone west of the river, and, when the Sarre was reached, support the 95th Division crossing with all the fire power the division could bring to bear. Once at the Sarre the plan simply called for the 90th Division “to prepare to bridge [the] Saar river within zone in [the] bridgehead established by the 95th Division.” During the initial phases of the drive to the Sarre at least one regimental combat team of the 5th Infantry Division was to be left in the Metz sector and there contain the German forts still holding out. General Walker, however, could assume that new troops ultimately would be available to take over the 5th Division containing role, or that the intransigent enemy garrisons would capitulate. Therefore, General Irwin was ordered to prepare plans for an attack with the bulk of the 5th Division anywhere in the corps zone on six hours’ notice. The 10th Armored, as noted, was to secure a crossing in the north at Saarburg.

The country between Metz and the Sarre River offered no unusually difficult barriers to foot soldiers and vehicles, although the combination of continuous rains and clay subsoil would slow the speed of any advance. The Nied River, running obliquely northeast from Bouzonville, near which the bulk of the 90th Division was assembled, could hardly offer the retreating Germans a natural defense line. The Nied, however, did bisect the zone through which the corps would move, making it somewhat difficult for the two infantry divisions to give each other mutual support during the advance to the Sarre line. In general the terrain eastward was-moderately rolling and mostly open, with a few patches of dense evergreen forest breaking the monotony of the landscape but providing little continuous cover for any enemy withdrawal. Some minor streams, tributaries of the Nied, cut across the American front and, with their bridges destroyed, were potential sources of delay. A short distance from the Sarre, and just east of the German frontier, the ground rose gradually to a series of heights, which, on the reverse sides, tended to break away sharply to the river. This conformation of high ground was known to the German staff planners as the Saar Heights Position (Saar�Hoehen Stellung). Northwest of Merzig the heights lay contiguous to the Orscholz line. West of Pachten, in the 95th Division zone, the heights were particularly rugged and dipped so abruptly at the river as to form a regular escarpment. West of Saarlautern the heights terminated some distance from the Sarre channel, with the result that a natural bridgehead of lower ground extended to the west of the river. The main section of the city of Saarlautern lay in this west bank bridgehead.

In the German scheme of successive defense lines the Saar Heights Stellung was the last planned line of resistance in front of the West Wall, which in this sector had been constructed on the east bank of the Sarre generally parallel to the river. The heights constituted a Vorfeld, or forward battle position, which could be used either to cover the movement of field forces into the West Wall fortifications or to screen deployment and maneuver for counterattacks launched to deflect any frontal attack against the main works of the West Wall. Although the maps at high German headquarters showed the trace of the Saar Heights Stellung as a main line of resistance, it remained in actuality a geographicalposition, strengthened somewhat by temporary field works, but lacking concrete fortifications. It is not surprising, therefore, that the XX Corps G-2 estimates and air photos took little cognizance of the defense possibilities of the Saar Heights.

American intelligence sources predicted that the enemy could throw in the remnants of three infantry divisions (19th VG, 347th, and 462d VG) to oppose the new XX Corps offensive. It was believed that the German withdrawal to the east, now taking place, would not stop short of the Sarre, and that the enemy forces left behind were incapable of fighting more than minor rear guard and delaying actions. The possibility was recognized that some part of the 21st Panzer Division and 25th Panzer Grenadier Division, identified in the fighting at the Orscholz line, might be shifted from the north and used to bolster the enemy forces on the Sarre line.  Beyond this, American intelligence and reconnaissance from the air had developed some general knowledge of the outlines and extent of the West Wall; but little detailed information on these fortifications was at hand and more precise acquaintance with their strength and capabilities would have to be developed in actual combat, in as much as preliminary ground reconnaissance was denied by the Sarre River barrier.

The German Withdrawal East of Metz

Field Marshal Rundstedt seems to have been far from sanguine as to any hope of long delaying the American advance east of Metz. His fear that the fall of Metz might leave a gap in the lines of the First Army, into which General Patton’s divisions would wedge their way, found expression as early as 115 November in an unsolicited order that gave the Army Group G commander permission to withdraw his right flank to the Saar Heights Stellung “if necessary.” General Balck was no more willing to accept Rundstedt’s conservative and cautious advice than he had been prior to the beginning of the Third Army offensive. Balck apparently believed that the remnants of the 9th VG Division and 416th Division which had withdrawn to the Borg Boulay line on the night of 17-18 November might be able to make a stand. He gave orders that the 347th Division, just arriving from the Army Group B area, should be committed on both sides of Boulay to bolster up the broken and depleted units congregated there.  The American maneuver to close the escape routes east of Metz gave the German forces in the Boulay sector a brief respite. But on 19 November the 10th Armored Division attack east of Launstroff reached the edge of the Saar Heights Stellung, and this threat, coupled with that now developing in front of the Orscholz line, caused Balck real concern. Army Group G issued a flurry of orders: The First Army must hold at the Orscholz line; the Launstroff-Bouzonville sector must be strengthened by “recklessly” stripping forces from the First Army center; all penetrations which might be made in the Saar Heights Stellung must be wiped out. Finally, Balck ordered Knobelsdorff to rush all the reserves available on the right wing of the First Army into the Merzig sector to hold the vital Sarre crossings, a somewhat bootless gesture by the Army Group G commander,in view of the paucity of reserves along the whole First Army front. Subsequently, by considerable juggling of units in the line and with some help from the OKW strategic reserve, Balck was able to form a Kampfgruppe in the Merzig area composed of elements from the 21st Panzer Division and the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division. But the deterioration of the situation at the Orscholz line speedily absorbed this last reserve force.

When the XX Corps resumed the eastward attack on 25 November-the German First Army had in action elements of three weak divisions: the 19th VG Division, disposed along the German frontier with its right boundary east of Launstroff and its left on the Nied River near Niedaltdorf;Kampfgruppe Muehlen, holding a narrow sector behind the Nied River between Niedaltdorf and Bouzonville; and the 347th Division, whose front extended in a shallow salient along the Nied River south to Boulay and then swung back southeast to an anchor point at the Forêt de St. Avold. Of these units the 347th was still fairly fresh, but it was only a static division and poorly equipped; the others were hardly more than reinforced regiments. Artillery support was available, although most of the German guns seem to have been already displaced to positions behind the Sarre. The19th VG Division had a total of four assault guns for close infantry support, but the others had none. Finally, it should be remarked that even these weak forces could not be employed with the greatest degree of tactical effectiveness, since the Nied River was the boundary between two German corps, the LXXXII Corps and the XIII SS Corps.

The Advance to the Sarre by the 90th and 95th Divisions

The 5th Infantry Division completed the relief of the 95th at Metz on 23 November and the latter moved east to take up its attack position on the right flank of the 90th Division. The 90th had been holding the Nied River sector with light patrols, as well as part of the line earlier established in the north by the advance of CCB, 10th Armored Division. Now, with the arrival of the 95th, a realignment was carried out along the boundary between the two attack divisions. This boundary line followed the Nied River as far as Bueren and then thrust due east along the main railroad to the Sarre River. The northern boundary for the 90th Division zone of attack an obliquely northeast through Halstroff and Mondorf, terminating on the Sarre just south of Merzig. The southern boundary of the 95th Division zone at the moment was also the line of demarcation between the XX and XII Corps. This disposition of the XX Corps forces gave the 95th Division a wider front than the 90th. In addition the 90th already was echeloned forward northeast of Bouzonville; which meant that it had only five and a half miles to cover before reaching the Sarre, while the 95th Division, which was making the corps main effort, was sixteen miles from the river.

On the early morning of 25 November the two infantry divisions commenced the drive toward the Sarre, each attacking with two regiments abreast. The enemy had no cohesive line of defense but instead used small detachments of thirty or forty men, holed up in villages along the roads, to fight delaying actions. Blown bridges, swollen streams, and muddy roads caused more delay than did enemy action. The German artillery laid down occasional harassing fire, but fog and haze prevented any effective counterbattery work by the American gunners. The 90th Division progressed about two miles in the course of the day. Its left-wing formation, the 359th Infantry (Col. Raymond E. Bell), which was echeloned in advance of the 357th Infantry (Col. J. H. George), reached the village of Oberesch–only four miles from the Sarre River. The 95th Division, strongly reinforced by artillery from the III Corps and 5th Division, crossed the Nied, advancing with the 377th Infantry (Col. F. E. Gaillard) on the left and the 378th Infantry (Col. S. L. Metcalfe) on the right. By nightfall the division had taken Boulay, Narbéfontaine, Momerstroff, and Hallering, and had begun to move through the Maginot Line. The enemy made no attempt to hold the old fortifications but did engage in occasional sharply contested delaying actions during the course of the day.  As the 1st Battalion, 378th, marching in column of companies along the Narbeffontaine-Niedervisse road, came past Hill 384 the Germans opened a surprise fire and inflicted a number of casualties on the battalion, including its commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christian L. Oliver. Company E of the 377th also was hard hit while advancing in the open toward the Bois d’Ottonville. A sudden and withering fire from the woods-cut down the company commander and thirty-one men. Pvt. Willie H. Bishop, the company messenger, took charge, withdrew the company from the danger,zone, and then directed the removal of the wounded. For this action he was awarded the DSC.

The 10th Armored Division committed CCB to extend the north wing of the attack on 26 November. Its dismounted infantry, supported by fire from field guns, tanks, and chemical mortars, systematically scoured the woods to the front. But most of the Germans in this sector had retired across the Sarre and the combat command met little fire except that from the German guns east of the river. The 90th Division also encountered little resistance on this day, although antitank ditches and mine fields began to appear in its path and slow the advance. In the 95th Division zone the 377th Infantry, making the main effort, advanced about four miles, despite the flooded countryside east of Eblange which forced the regiment to queue in column of battalions and thread its way forward on the one passable road. Toward evening both the 377th and 378th began to meet resistance from small German detachments, which apparently had orders to make a stand. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the German garrisons holding the forts back at Metz were in no mood for quick capitulation; so General Walker ordered General Twaddle to extend his reconnaissance to cover the open area on the right flank of the 95th Division which tentatively had been allocated to the 5th Division. The 5th Division commander, however, was able to release the 3d Battalion of the 10th Infantry, and on 27 November it relieved the 2d Battalion, 318th Infantry, which had been holding the Bois de Kerfent at the boundary between the XII and XX Corps.

The 90th Division, pushing forward on a relatively narrow front, was well ahead of the divisions to its flanks by 27 November. General Van Fleet halted his division, except for minor patrolling, and set the engineers to work repairing the roads to the rear so that tanks and tank destroyers could be brought up for the final phase of the advance to the river. The 95th Division, however, was coming forward rapidly and on 27 November made a long drive at the expense of the 347th Division which put the 377th Infantry within a mile of the German border and brought the 378th up as far as Falck and Dalem. On the following day the 95th Division continued to make progress. The 377th entered Germany. The 378th made slight gains, but then was checked for several hours on its right by intense fire from the large woods east of Falck.21 At dark the front lines of the 95th were about four and a half miles from the Sarre, roughly abreast of the 90th Division.

General Walker now ordered the two infantry divisions to launch a coordinated attack on 29 November. Thus far the Germans had sought to delay the American drive by using small rear guard detachments and extensive demolitions, the main forces withdrawing the while to the Saar HeightsStellung. When the 95th began the attack on the morning Of 29 November it met more opposition than had been anticipated, for at this point the advance had to be made across the Saar Heights. The 1st Battalion of the 377th fought its way into the village of St. Barbara, located on a narrow spur about two thousand yards from the Sarre. Then tanks and infantry of the 21St Panzer Division made a counterattack, overran two 57-mm. antitank guns which had been manhandled into position on the road east of the village, and drove back into St. Barbara, where a bitter fight raged through the night.  Other elements of the 377th engaged in a desperate battle with troops from Muehlen’s Kampfgruppe who were disposed in and around Kerprich-Hemmersdorf, back to the northwest on the Nied. During the fight Sgt. Andrew Miller of G Company made a one-man assault into the German lines and there met his death. Two platoons rose, one after the other, to follow Miller and took the position. A posthumous award of the Congressional Medal of Honor subsequently cited the intrepid sergeant for “a series of heroic deeds” which had begun in the battles north of Metz and continued until he was killed.

The 378th also found the going tough and received counterattacks all along its front. The 3d Battalion mopped up in Falck, where a detachment from the 347th had held out during the previous night. When the battalion, supported by some medium tanks, moved east to clear the enemy from the woods and high ground ahead, the Germans lashed back with a succession of counterattacks, six in all, which were dispersed only after hard fighting.24 In the center the 1st Battalion took Merten and then held the village despite all German efforts to retake it. The 2d Battalion swung out on the left and started an attack toward Berus, but was hit immediately by a counterattack launched by a special “assault group” from Panzer Lehr. After a bitter engagement in which the battalion lost heavily and became much disorganized, it fell back toward Merten, reorganizing during the night behind cover offered by a group of farm buildings. The 95th Division had received no less than ten German counterattacks in the course of the day-an earnest of General Balck’s intention to defend the Saar Heights Stellung in front of Saarlautern. It would appear that all of the available German reserves had been thrown in to stop the 95th; north of the Nied River the 90th met little opposition and by nightfall it had patrols on the west bank of the Sarre.

On the last day of November the XX Corps began the final battle to destroy the enemy west of the Sarre. The 90th Division, responsible for clearing the triangle formed by the Nied and Sarre Rivers, dispatched the 1st Battalion of the 357th in assault boats across the Nied near Niedaltdorf, thus flanking the hasty field fortifications at the Nied. The battalion then struck east into Bueren, where the enemy continued to contest the possession of the village through the night. In the north the 90th closed up to the Sarre and at dusk occupied Fremersdorf, the largest town on the west bank in the division zone, without a fight. The American thrust in this sector had cut the 19th VG Division in two, leaving the 74th Regiment isolated north of Fremersdorf and the 73d Regiment crowded into the Bueren area.

 

During the morning Of 30 November the 95th Division consolidated its front-line positions and reorganized, after the disorder attendant on the counterattacks of the previous day, to resume the attack. In the meantime the rear echelons of the division worked doggedly to mend the boggy roads and better the supply situation, a necessary preliminary to any crossing attempt. In the afternoon the 377th Infantry hunted down the last Germans in St. Barbara and pushed on its right into Felsberg, where a particularly stubborn knot of the Panzer Lehr assault group held the edge of the village and delayed further advance. The 378th moved forward to positions beside the 377th Infantry and took a dominating hill (377) south of Felsberg which the Germans considered the “key” to the Saar Heights. At the end of the day, while not yet at the Sarre, the left wing of the 95th was poised on the slopes which led down to the river in front of the Saarlautern. The two-and-a-half-mile advance to Bueren, by the battalion from the 90th, likewise had moved the American line to the slopes leading down to the Sarre in front of Dillingen, which covered the right flank of the Saarlautern defenses. However, the 378th had not yet fought its way past the high ground on the right flank of the 95th, from which the enemy continued to deny access to the river.

Although the north flank of the two infantry divisions slated to make the river crossing was protected by the 110th Armored Division, which had driven forward to well within light howitzer range of the German defenses at Merzig, the south flank was only weakly outposted and presented some danger. In fact much of the trouble met by the 95th Division had come on its open right flank, where it had attempted to bypass German resistance emanating. from the rough, forested salient between the XII and XX Corps. With this potential threat in mind the XX Corps commander attached a task force, commanded by Col. Robert P. Bell, to the 95th Infantry Division. This force, taken from the 5th Infantry Division, consisted of the 10th Infantry (-), 46th Field Artillery Battalion, 5th Reconnaissance Troop, and one company each of engineers, tanks, and tank destroyers. Bell’s task force closed in the sector on the right of the 95th Division late in the afternoon Of 30 November. General Walker expressly prohibited the use of the task force in the crossing operation, for it was his intention to use the entire 5th Infantry Division to exploit any crossing secured by the 90th and 95th. General Patton, meanwhile, had assigned the 6th Cavalry Group and the 5th Ranger Battalion to the XX Corps, specifying that the Rangers could not be used offensively. These units were organized as a task force under Col. E. M. Fickett, who commanded the 6th Cavalry Group, and on 1 December it assembled near St. Avold with the mission of screening on the XX Corps south flank. The arrival of this force permitted a regrouping on the right of the corps, and the 10th Infantry was released from its protective mission to make an advance on the south flank of the 95th Division.

At the close of November the First Army had given ground all along its front. The American XV Corps was driving back the German left and now threatened to break through to Wissembourg and the Palatinate. The XII Corps had made an armored penetration at the German center and was preparing to widen the thrust by a push across the Sarre in the vicinity of Sarreguernines. On the German right the American XX Corps was in sight of the West Wall and in position to carry the attack directly across the Sarre and into the main line of fortifications. (Map XXXVIII)

At the moment Hitler considered the XX Corps attack the most serious of all the threats to the West Wall.26 In the sector between Merzig and Saarlautern the West Wall was more strongly fortified than at any other point and Hitler had committed himself to the thesis of West Wall impregnability. Furthermore, in this sector the West Wall shielded the great industrial centers of the Saar Basin; on 27 November the First Army had been told that its primary mission was the defense of the Saar mines and factories.  But although Hitler may have briefly considered an operation for the recovery of Alsace and Lorraine which would have brought reinforcements to the Army Group G front, the project for a great counteroffensive in the Ardennes was never forgotten nor were any but the most meager measures taken to restore the fighting strength of the forces under Balck’s command.

The Army Group G commander did what he could to wring adequate support from OB WEST, and thus indirectly from OKW. He described what he considered to be an alteration in American tactics. Earlier the Americans had attacked in force in a few sectors, giving the Germans opportunity to concentrate at the points of pressure. Now the Americans tended to break up their former large “assault reserves” and launch a whole series of smaller assault detachments in attacks on a wide front. The superior mobility of the American forces allowed a rapid regrouping after the initial penetrations and kept the Germans constantly off balance. These tactics, said Balck, could be met only by building up strong, armored, counterattack reserves behind all parts of the front. But such reserves, as Balck himself admitted, were not available.

The Army Group G commander also addressed himself to his troops�in his usual strident manner. On the night Of 29 November a general order prescribed “no more withdrawals.” The battle now must be fought to weaken the enemy and win time. All traces of the “West Wall psychosis” must be ruthlessly eliminated (apparently the propaganda on the strength of the West Wall had been too successful), and the troops must be told that safety lay not behind concrete but in bitter battle before the German frontier. Finally, wrote Balck, the army group commander will not tolerate “rear-area swine” but will have only soldiers in his command.

Actually there was little Balck or Knobelsdorff could do but issue resounding orders. On 30 November the only reserves on the First Army right wing (the 21st Panzer Division Kampfgruppe) were detailed to make one attack after another in the St. Barbara sector, but without avail. About mid�night Army Group G ordered Knobelsdorff to pull the right wing of the LXXXII Corps back of the Sarre, thus beginning the withdrawal into the West Wall. Subsequently Rundstedt reprimanded Knobelsdorff for this action, but Balck’s order had been precise: “He [the First Army commander] must not let the 19th VG Division be destroyed west of the river.”

The 95th Division Fight for the Sarre Crossing

Although the enemy continued to evince considerable determination to keep a foothold on the west bank of the Sarre, the 95th Division prepared to buck through this delaying defense and strike immediately across the river. General Twaddle ordered up the 379th Infantry (Col. R. L. Bacon) from reserve, with the intention of sending the fresh regiment through the 377th to force a crossing near Saarlautern. (Map XXXVII) This attack was set for 1 December, following a large-scale air assault that was planned to soften up the German defenses along the river. In the days just past, bad flying weather had precluded any extensive co-operation from the air force in the Third Army area. On 1 December the weather broke a little. The IX Bombardment Division had scheduled an assault by eight groups of B-26 bombers, but because of failures in Pathfinder equipment and late arrivals at the initial point only four groups made it to the target zone. The medium bombers struck at Saarlautern, Ensdorf, and Fraulautern; fighter-bombers, sent over from the XIX TAC, worked on interdiction three or four miles east of the river. Visibility was too poor for the kind of pinpoint bombing needed in a river crossing operation and the ground observers reported that the air attack was only moderately successful. At 1235 the last bomber ended its bombing run and General Twaddle gave the word for the 95th Division to advance.

The plan of attack hinged on the effort to be made by the 379th, which was to cross the river near Saarlautern, establish a bridgehead, and then continue the attack by turning sharply north and clearing the east bank in the neighborhood of Rehlingen- thus permitting the 90th Division to cross in that area. On the right the 378th was instructed to sweep the enemy from the west bank and then, on orders from the division commander, force a crossing in its zone and continue the attack to the east. On the left the 377th also had orders to clear out the enemy to its front. During this operation the 379th was to pass through the right wing of the 377th, which would lay down fire to support the crossing attack by the 379th and then take its place in division reserve.

The G-2 estimate of the number of enemy in front of the 95th Division, on both sides of the river, set the figure at 10,000 with elements of the 559th VG Division, 347th Division, and 36th VG Division represented. The 95th Division had incurred heavier losses than any other division in the XX Corps during the period since 9 November. The inclusion of over thirty‑five hundred replacements during November, mostly untried riflemen and officers with no experience in battle, would tend to reduce the combat effectiveness of the division. However, the relatively small number of combat fatigue and sick cases which had been hospitalized by the 95th Division indicated that it was fairly fresh and that its morale was high. Moreover, the 95th approached the fight at the Sarre with an impressive number of guns in support, since the III Corps artillery and the 4th Tank Destroyer Group had been sent forward to aid the division during the crossing operations.

The first hours of the 95th Division attack on the afternoon of 1 December showed that the German troops still west of the river intended to make a fight of it. The 377th Infantry met stiff resistance, but finally completed the job of clearing Felsberg about 1500. Colonel Gaillard then sent his 3d Battalion marching east toward Saarlautern. The 11st Battalion, on the north flank, was pinned down at. St. Barbara in an action lasting all afternoon. Enemy tanks and infantry, supported by guns across the river, fought with much determination in the village itself. The 378th, attacking toward the high ground in its front and hampered by an open south flank, also found the going slow and difficult. Slight gains were made on the left, aided by the advance of the 377th, and an important hill near Berus was taken. But the 1st Battalion, advancing on the right where maneuver was restricted by streams and flooded fields, was checked by an enemy detachment holding a hill west of Bisten and was forced to fall back on Merten. In spite of these reverses at the flanks of the division, two battalions of the 379th Infantry passed through the 377th and as the day ended swung into the advance down the gentle slope leading to Saarlautern.

The events of 1 December had shattered any German hopes of a systematic and homogeneous defense west of the river. The loss of the high ground near Berus was a matter of special concern to the First Army for it meant that the Americans could drive a wedge between the LXXXII Corps, forming the army right wing, and the XIII SS Corps, which constituted the army center. Knobelsdorff wished to retake the lost hill but found that there was insufficient artillery ammunition at the German guns to support such an attack. Apparently there was a plentiful supply of shells in the dumps at Darmstadt, but these were not reaching the front lines (probably the American air attack was the answer).

Despite the fact that his First Army commander had just received a stiff official reprimand from Rundstedt for “continually falling back,” Balck issued an order at 2130 for all troops north of an east-west line through Dillingen to retire behind the Sarre. Two hours later he extended the withdrawal zone as far south as Saarlautern and ordered the XIII SS Corps to pull its right flank back into the wooded area between Berus and the river. During the night of 1-2 December most of the remaining troops of the LXXXII Corps moved across the Rehlingen bridge or were ferried across the Sarre, but rear guard elements of the 21st Panzer Division remained in the vicinity of St. Barbara and other German detachments congregated to fight a holding action at Saarlautern.

Friendly planes again intervened on the morning of 2 December to help the American infantry. Eight groups of medium bombers, sent over by the IX Bombardment Division, blasted targets in and around Saarlautern. This time the ground observers reported that most of the drops were highly accurate.. The bombing must have shaken and scattered the defenders of the city; when the 2d Battalion of the 379th drove into the edge of Saarlautern the enemy reacted slowly and in disorganized fashion. By 1500 the battalion had driven the Germans from the barracks in the western section of the city and started a house-to-house fight deep inside the city itself. Only the 2d Battalion was committed in this engagement, because Colonel Bacon wished to hold his 1st Battalion for use in the crossing and the 3d Battalion had not yet come up.

The 95th Division continued to have trouble on its flanks, and attempts to shake free the regiments at the shoulders of the salient formed by the 379th were countered with desperate resolution. The 1st Battalion of the 377th Infantry finally gave up the effort to clear the resurgent enemy from St. Barbara and withdrew to the west, leaving the division artillery and friendly planes to smash the village. This merciless pounding by shells and bombs ended the fight, and by early afternoon St. Barbara and its key ridge were again in American hands. The 377th began to mop up. By the night of 3 December the regiment had completed its mission of clearing the west bank and was placed in reserve at Wallerfangen.

The 378th Infantry met “extremely bitter resistance” on 2 December. The troops on the left flank fought their way northeast and by nightfall held Pikard, only three thousand yards from the center of Saarlautern. This advance had been made against “some of the most severe resistance the regiment had yet encountered.” The regiment now was extended, along a very wide front, with the southern wing aligned almost at right angles to the forward line. All attempts to bring the right forward through Falck and Merten were unsuccessful.

The fighting of the past few days had taken heavy toll in the 95th Division, particularly in the ranks of the 377th and 378th. The effective combat strength in four of the infantry battalions was reduced to 55 percent or less. Very few replacements were available. At the close of 2 December the 95th Division G-3 Periodic Report called the division “tired,” and for the first time in its

pg516t

SAARLAUTERN. The area shown in the photograph is indicated on Map XXXVII. Circles indicate pillboxes.

record failed to carry the notation of “Excellent” or “Superior” under the Combat Efficiency heading. When more complete reports arrived in the division headquarters the efficiency rating of some battalions was changed to read “very weak.”  Such was the condition of the division which had yet to force a river crossing in the face of a fortified line. The fortunes of war, however, were about to favor the 95th.

In late afternoon of 2 December an artillery observation plane discovered an intact bridge spanning the Sarre between the center of the city of Saarlautern and the suburb north of the river; this bridge led to the main road connecting Saarlautern and Saarlautern-Roden. The air photo showing this find was sent to the commander of the 379th. After interrogating prisoners on details of the city plan and consulting General Twaddle, Colonel Bacon determined to send his 1st Battalion to seize the bridge. The Sarre makes a loop at the northwestern corner of the city of Saarlautern, and Colonel Bacon decided to take advantage of this configuration by sending the battalion across the near segment of the loop. After this move the attack would dash inland through the northern suburb and take the bridge from the rear or north side. With the bridge in the hands of the 1st Battalion, contact then could be made with the reserve battalion, which was now in position to join the 2d Battalion in the push eastward through the main part of the city.

In the early morning hours Of 3 December the 1st Battalion (Lt. Col. Tobias R. Philbin) moved through the barracks area, thus avoiding entanglement in the streets of Saarlautern, and forward to the river. Philbin’s troops were fresh, for the battalion had not been engaged since the fighting at Metz. At 0545 the first assault boats shoved off to make the 125 foot crossing. Ten minutes later the whole battalion was on the opposite bank. The noise of the American guns shelling Saarlautern had drowned out all sounds of the crossing and no German outposts were seen as the first troops debarked. Company B and a platoon of Company C, 320th Combat Engineer Battalion, led the surprise attack, double-timing a distance of about two thousand yards through an empty park and down the road to the bridge. Here a light German tank was discovered, sitting beside the bridge exit. In the half-light, shrouded by the fog and rain, the American advance guard moved up to the tank. A German inside the tank suddenly awoke to the danger and started frantically working his radio, persisting until he was knifed by the commander of D Company. Another made a dash for the switch connected with the demolitions on the bridge and was shot by Colonel Philbin. The engineers, commanded by Lt. Edward Herbert, raced onto the bridge, cut the demolition wires, and surprised and killed four German guards at the opposite end of the bridge. In the meantime L Company, reinforced for this mission, had driven cast through the city proper and arrived at the southern end of the bridge. With their backs secure the men of the 1st Battalion faced about and pushed out to the north. The enemy troops on the far side of the river seem to have been widely scattered and were able to gather only small parties of engineers to counterattack, all of which were handily beaten off. But the German artillery, working hard to destroy the bridge structure by shellfire, succeeded in making the bridge so hot that the engineers were unable to remove all the demolition charges until late in the afternoon. At nightfall the bridge still was undamaged and in American hands, the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion had put tank destroyers across to reinforce the 1st Battalion,45 and the 2d and 3d Battalions had taken nearly all of the city and tightened the hold on the bridge. After dark the Germans made a daredevil attempt to demolish the bridge by running in tanks loaded with explosives. The leading tank was destroyed when only some two hundred yards from the bridge and this venture was abandoned.46

The unexpected American success at the Saarlautern bridge had imperiled the German defense scheme and greatly perturbed the higher German commanders. Field Marshal Rundstedt was informed of what had happened soon after the event and ordered the First Army commander to attack at once, destroy the bridge, and hold the east bank of the Sarre “at all costs.” Army Group G immediately began an investigation, at the behest of OB WEST, to assess the blame for the loss of the Saarlautern bridge; it finally reported that the bridge guards had all been killed during the attack and that the Americans had engineered a surprise by using a captured German tank. This explanation seems to have been accepted without further question and the matter was dropped. In any event the Americans had a bridge and a foot�hold across the river, while the enemy on the spot was too weak to prevent the establishment of a real bridgehead- no matter what orders came from Rundstedt’s headquarters.



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Posted January 11, 2015 by Tom Martin in category "95th ID", "WWII

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