January 11 2015

Battle at the West Wall


The XX Corps Battle at the West Wall
(4-18 December)

After weeks of severe fighting, troops of the Third Army finally had come up against the fortifications of the German West Wall. On 3 December, following the seizure of the Saarlautern bridge, the 1st Battalion of the 379th Infantry, 95th Division, captured two bunkers that commanded the exit from the span.1 Although somewhat isolated, the twin bunkers were part of the West Wall system; their seizure marked the beginning of a slow, bloody attempt to chip and pry an opening that would lead to the Rhine.

The XX Corps entrance into this formidable fortified zone was not the first made by the Allied arms. As early as 11 September advance guards of the 5th Armored Division operating on the right wing of the First Army had captured the first bunkers in the West Wall position. This initial penetration was made in a sector some eighteen miles northeast of Trier, near Wallendorf, which, like many parts of the West Wall at the beginning of September, had not yet been fully manned. Subsequent German reports indicate that CCR (reinforced) of the 5th Armored Division went clear through the West Wall before being driven back by a hastily organized counterattack. It is not clear whether the Americans on the spot realized at the time what they had done. Aerial reconnaissance failed to show many of the overgrown positions in the West Wall, and most of the intelligence reports on the subject dated back to 1940. As a result the Allied maps of September 1944 possessed only very general tracings of the West Wall and often were in disagreement with one another. Then, too, the Germans had built fortifications in various positions forward of the West Wall proper. The resulting complex puzzled even the German staffs: on 21 September, for example, OB WEST was forced to give Army Group G a ruling as to what really constituted the West Wall. However, when the First Army hit the West Wall defenses at Aachen in mid-September there was no question that the hard-fought advance was being made against the main German fortifications. The Aachen sector was the second most heavily fortified portion of the entire West Wall–the Saarlautern sector ranked first–but although the First Army had effected a breach in the Aachen area the subsequent stalemate at the Roer had prevented a thoroughgoing exploitation of this Allied penetration.

Hitler had set the Third Reich to building an “impregnable” wall in the West in 1936. At that time only the fortifications reaching from the Moselle south and east to the Rhine were called the “West Wall,” but in 1938 Hitler extended the name to the entire system–a fact probably unknown to the composers of the popular marching song of 1940 when they immortalized the “Siegfried Line.” A series of extensions had been planned at either end of the West Wall in 1940, but the quick German victory in France and the necessity of moving the defenses of the Third Reich forward to the Channel and the Atlantic forced these plans into the discard. A little work on the original West Wall between the Moselle and the Rhine was done during the succeeding years; however, no real effort was made to strengthen the entire line prior to 20 August 1944, when Hitler issued a decree for a levy of “people’s” labor to put these fortifications in repair. Concrete, steel, machinery, and manpower–not to mention the heavy arms required for antitank defense–all were in very short supply in the autumn of 1944, but by December the West Wall had been somewhat strengthened in those areas where the Allied forces had not won an early foothold.

The West Wall, as it existed in 1944, had its northern terminus at Roermond, near the southeastern corner of the Netherlands. The fortified zone extended south through the Aachen sector, where a second zone backed up the first as a double barrier to any advance into the Cologne Plain; continued along the eastern border of Luxembourg; looped to the east bank of the Sarre, which it followed to a point northeast of Forbach; then turned gradually east until it reached the Rhine in the vicinity of Karlsruhe. Here the West Wall followed the German bank of the Rhine, coming to an end at Basel and the Swiss frontier.

Throughout its length the West Wall zone had been planned with an admirable eye for ground. Where the terrain denied cross-country movement by large mechanized forces the German fortifications were relatively weak and scattered. Where the ground offered a corridor to the attacker the fortifications were the strongest and provided mutual support by works in great density. It is true that the West Wall was of 1940 vintage and that warfare had made considerable advances by the fall of 1944. German staff officers recognized several weaknesses in the four-year-old system. First, it lacked the antitank defenses necessitated by the newer, heavier tanks. Second, many of the smaller works were not adequately protected against aerial bombardment, and the whole line had insufficient antiaircraft artillery. Next, the bunkers seldom were built to mount guns of calibers larger than 75-mm., and the smaller pillboxes could not use the 1942 model machine gun in embrasures constructed for the MG 34. Furthermore, the entire system was so complex as to require a considerable familiarity with the individual works by those who manned them. Germany’s lack of manpower in 1944 forbade the necessary training period in the West Wall; as a result most formations entered the fortifications with the Allies hot on their heels and with no time to coordinate the defense of their own particular sector. In addition, co-ordination of fire plans and tactical dispositions was made difficult by the lack of communications equipment–switchboards, wire cables, radios, and the like–in the fortified zone. Finally, the original German plans had been predicated on one division in each four miles of the line, plus large field forces in reserve. In early December 1944, however, the First Army would defend the West Wall with an average force of one division–much under the 1940 strength–per ten miles of front. Elsewhere single German divisions held as much as twenty-mile sectors in the West Wall.  All these factors contributed to a reasonable skepticism by many German field commanders as regards the “impregnable” nature of the West Wall. Rundstedt, for example, freely characterized the West Wall fortifications as “mouse traps.” But many of their points of weakness would be negated by the bad weather of the late fall and winter months, which drastically limited close tactical support by the Allied air forces, curtailed the use of heavy armor in cross-country maneuver, and shifted the burden of attack almost entirely to the infantry. Even the tremendous superiority enjoyed by the Allies in the artillery arm (with better guns and projectiles than those of 1940) would be partially erased when the ground fogs and lowering clouds of the late months cut down observation, thus somewhat restoring an equilibrium between the 1944 gun or howitzer and the 1940 bunker.

The section of the West Wall which the XX Corps proposed to attack was now regarded by the Germans as the strongest in the entire West Wall system. Two factors had worked to make it so. In January 1939 Generaloberst Walther von Brauchitsch, then Commander in Chief of the German Army, had prepared an estimate of the French plan of attack in the event of war. Brauchitsch and the General Staff concluded that the French would make a strong attack between Merzig and Saarlautern, aimed at reaching the Rhine Valley. (Map XXXVII) As a result of his recommendations this particular part of the West Wall was strengthened;9 subsequently more works were added in the last part of 1943 and the early months of 1944. As for the second factor: the Allies had reached the West Wall in the strong Aachen area before much of anything was done to rearm the fortifications or build auxiliary field works;10 in the Merzig-Saarlautern sector, however, the Germans had been given time to arm the line and strengthen the original works with trenches, wire and some additional reinforced concrete.

In the area between Beckingen and Ensdorf, where the XX Corps would launch its attack, the forward part of the West Wall zone bordered the east bank of the Sarre River. At some points the bunkers and wire reached to the river; at others they lay as much as half or three-quarters of a mile inland. This forward zone was thickest in and around the cities of Fraulautern, Saarlautern-Roden, and Dillingen, here averaging nearly a mile in depth. Farther to the east the German works continued, although in much less strength, to a second main zone which began on the higher ground some five or six miles east of the Sarre. This second zone was deeper than the first, but the state of its defenses in 1944 is unknown. Actually it was a part of a semicircular fortified zone known as the Hilgenbach Stellung, which extended from Beckingen to the Blies River west of Zweibruecken and was intended as a kind of tampon in the event of a penetration in the forward zone. Still another barrier, the Westmark Stellung, existed farther east in the Trier-Zweibruecken area. The fortifications in this zone, however, had never been completed.

Hoernlein’s LXXXII Corps, deployed in the West Wall positions in front of the American XX Corps, had been badly shattered during the battles west of the Sarre, but had withdrawn across the river in good order. In the north the 416th Divisionhad regrouped and now held the Orscholz line and the Sarre-Moselle triangle as an anchor for the main West Wall defenses. East of the Sarre the 19th VG Division was deployed with its right flank touching the Orscholz line and its left resting on the village of Beckingen. The 73d Regiment held the north wing, the 74th Regiment held the south, and the 59th Regiment was assembling in the rear at Dueppenweiler. The 19th VG Division had been reduced to one-third its normal strength by the time it reached the West Wall and was reported as “completely fought out,” with only 630 infantrymen left.  Officer losses had been extraordinarily high throughout the division and much of its heavy equipment had been lost west of the river. The replacements handed the 19th when it crossed the Sarre were uniformly rated as poor. They included a Luftwaffe security battalion of some six hundred untrained men, a fortress battalion, and a Volkssturm battalion. The latter was relegated to the Hilgenbach Stellung in the rear. This was the standard disposition of the Volkssturm during the first days of the December fighting, although occasionally a company would be caught in the forward line before it could be relieved and the American intelligence officers would have a field day predicting that these old men and beardless youths were harbingers of the imminent dissolution of the German Army.

The 21st Panzer Division and Kampfgruppe Muehlen (the latter reinforced by an “assault” detachment from Panzer Lehr) held the Sarre line from Beckingen to the boundary between the LXXXII and XIII SS Corps south of Ensdorf. In theory the21st Panzer Division was a counterattack reserve, although the First Army continued to warn higher commands that this division could not be considered an “attack unit.” On 4 December the 21st had only two hundred effectives all told among its armored infantry. However, replacements quickly were brought in and the tank strength of the division was raised to seventeen Mark IV’s and V’s.15 In the past the 21st Panzer Division had been reputed to have good morale, but now its fighting spirit had declined, partially, at least, because of Allied bombing raids over Wehrkreis VI where most of the troops in the panzer division lived.16 Kampfgruppe Muehlen had reached a new low–even for that battered outfit–and the division staff was serving in the line. The total strength of the Kampfgruppe on 4 December was 360 officers and men, but replacements were added to bring the formation up to the strength of a weak regiment. The LXXXII Corps was reinforced by five battalions of field artillery under the 404th Volks Artillery Corps, totaling about a hundred pieces of various makes and calibers. The 404th was hard pressed for shells, however, and its officers were mostly superannuated infantrymen with little experience in artillery.17 The battalions were grouped on the high ground northeast of Saarlautern-Roden.

An additional division had been promised the First Army. This was the 719th Division (Generalleutnant Felix Schwalbe), which on 4 December began to detrain at Saarbruecken after a move south from Holland. The 719th had been employed in the Netherlands as an over-age garrison unit, but had been caught up in the fighting there just before the switch to the First Army. The infantry were considered poor, although they proved better than anticipated, and the division artillery train was characterized as the “Artillery Museum of Europe.”18 So hard beset was the whole First Army front that for some days the higher German commands could not decide where the various trainloads of the 719th should be committed. The division was shuttled forward and back in answer to orders and counter orders until the Army Group G staff named it “our gypsy division.” The 719th finally came to rest in the Saarlautern sector of the West Wall.

Map XL
Saarlautern Bridgehead
3-19 December 1944

The forces listed above were obviously not strong enough to garrison the West Wall defenses properly. On 4 December the First Army reported that it could not man all of the works in the forward zone and would have to place the available troops in the first line of bunkers. Defense in depth, therefore, the tactic on which the West Wall was based, would really mean retirement from one layer of fortifications to another in what amounted to linear tactics. Hitler himself had intervened to order that there be at least one man in each and every pillbox or bunker, but this order–though several times repeated–had little practical effect when the single occupant was an old man or a boy from the Volkssturm.Psychologically, however, the defenders of the West Wall were in a position to make a stubborn fight. This was the “last line,” here the German soldier fought to defend German soil, and here he had the greatest amount of artificial protection that he could hope to find.

The 95th Infantry Division Expansion of the Saarlautern Bridgehead

The capture of the Saarlautern bridge was followed on 4 December by a rapid regrouping in the 95th Division sector intended to exploit this new and unforeseen situation. The 3d Battalion of the 379th Infantry crossed the bridge, which the German gunners still were trying to destroy, and attacked obliquely to the right toward the suburb of Fraulautern. This fortified area lay in the West Wall and formed a barrier to future American deployment and maneuver east of the river. (Map XL) The 21st Panzer Division had finally gathered a small force to counterattack, and about 1000 the American 1st and 3d Battalions were hit by two companies of infantry, reinforced by five tanks.20 The American tank destroyers, which had been rushed across the bridge the day before, here proved their worth, knocking out two of the German tanks and so discouraging the rest that they turned and fled;21 the enemy infantry were driven off by the American riflemen and machine gunners. After this brief interruption the 1st Battalion pushed slowly north toward Saarlautern-Roden, while the 3d Battalion continued the attack into the Fraulautern outworks, beginning an inconclusive and hard-fought battle for possession of the suburb which did not end for the 95th Division until the 5th Division took over the fight on 17 December. The two battalions of the 379th made little progress on 4 December. German pillboxes and bunkers were less thickly clustered in the open space between the bridge and Saarlautern-Roden and Fraulautern than in the two towns themselves, but the enemy had assembled much of his artillery behind Saarlautern-Roden and maintained a constant barrage on the open approaches. All of the XX Corps artillery that could be brought to bear concentrated on shelling Saarlautern-Roden and the hills beyond, but with only limited success. As later events showed, the supremacy of the American artillery arm, which had marked nearly every step of the fight across France, would be reduced considerably during the whole period of battle in the Saarlautern bridgehead. Continuous bad weather curtailed aerial observation. The common German use of flash-hider salt, which here proved to be a very effective means of reducing muzzle flash and thwarting American flash-ranging techniques, further limited the effectiveness of counterbattery fire by the American artillery. Moreover, the enemy was able through this and subsequent days to pound the bridgehead with his heavy guns, while his own battery positions were out of range of the American medium and heavy field artillery battalions emplaced west of the Sarre. But as usual the number of American batteries engaged was vastly superior to the number of opposing German batteries. The American artillery would average approximately 15,000 rounds expended in each day of action, as compared with what the “shell-rep” teams estimated to be a maximum German expenditure of 6,000 rounds on the days of the most intense enemy fire.

FRAULAUTERN. Circles indicate pillboxes

It must be noted here that American air power was of relatively little use in complementing the efforts of the artillery arm during the fighting in the bridgehead. Almost continuous bad weather during the first weeks of December permitted the heavy and medium bombers to intervene only on occasion; when they did come into the area they were forced to bomb through the overcast, with generally unsatisfactory results. The fighter-bombers, working closer over their targets but carrying small bomb loads, were called upon to render most of the air support given the XX Corps. Yet even the XIX TAC, well known in the Third Army for flying in all kinds of weather, could give but little support to the effort on the ground. Photo-reconnaissance flights showed mostly cloud and mist patches on the pictures taken during these weeks, adding to the difficulties inherent in attacking a deep zone of strong fortifications.

While the 379th Infantry (-) pushed out from the Saarlautern bridge, the 378th Infantry advanced to the near bank of the river on the southeastern edge of Saarlautern. Although the regiment had been engaged against the enemy in the southern suburbs as early as 3 December, its right flank was held in check for some hours. Lisdorf, the town south of Saarlautern from which the 378th was to launch a crossing attack, was not taken until 4 December. General Twaddle then ordered the 377th up from reserve, with instructions to relieve the rear elements of the 379th inside Saarlautern, as well as the troops of the 378th at the edge of the city. When the reserve regiment came up, the 378th assembled in Lisdorf, on the west bank of the Sarre, preparatory to an assault crossing set for the morning of 5 December.

The 378th Infantry, using two battalions in the assault, made a successful predawn crossing as planned, receiving only a small amount of small arms fire. The German West Wall fortifications at this point did not extend as far as the river bank, but when the 3d Battalion, moving on the left, came up against the first belt of pillboxes outside the village of Ensdorf the enemy fire increased sharply. Nevertheless this first phase of the attack inland moved slowly ahead; by noon the 3d Battalion had penetrated the forward line of pillboxes and was at the edge of Ensdorf. The 1st Battalion, on the right, crossed the railroad line south of the village but here was halted by direct fire from concrete works whose weapons covered the open ground beyond. All told, the two battalions captured fourteen or fifteen pillboxes during the first day’s operations–but the toughest sections in the West Wall yet were to be engaged.

North of Saarlautern, the 2d Battalion of the 379th crossed the bridge on the early morning of 5 December, passed through the lines of the 1st Battalion, and attacked toward Saarlautern-Roden. The 2d Battalion reached the edge of the city before receiving the usual German counterattack, and this was repulsed. Four pillboxes, built to cover the southern entrance to Saarlautern-Roden, checked further advance. The remainder of the daylight hours were needed to reduce three of the four. Over on the right flank the 3d Battalion, in a day marked by hard fighting, won a foothold at the south edge of Fraulautern and cleared most of four blocks. Again pillboxes, manned by machine gun crews and a few covering riflemen, were the chief obstacle; built into the streets and between houses each required discovery and the slow process of “buttoning up,” approach, and demolition before the advance could proceed.

The fighting on 6 December gave the troops of the 95th Division a real taste of the difficulties attendant on forcing a way through the West Wall. In Saarlautern-Roden, Fraulautern, and Ensdorf, the enemy contested every yard of ground, every house, and every street, filtering behind the American lines in small groups each time a pillbox or a block of houses was taken, and forcing the American infantry to turn back and fight for each strong point two or three times. In the northern sector the 2d Battalion of the 379th was hit during the early morning by an intense shelling estimated to be about fifteen hundred rounds in a matter of three hours. It refused to be disorganized or demoralized and fought its way slowly, house by house and room by room, into Saarlautern-Roden. The 1st Battalion, which had come forward on the right of the 2d, paralleled its dogged advance, but at the end of the day was stopped short by “a warehouse full of Germans.” The 3d Battalion was able to report a net gain of only one city block in Fraulautern.

The two battalions of the 378th Infantry in the Ensdorf sector also found the going slow and the enemy determined. While the 3d Battalion hammered away at strong points within the town the 1st Battalion reduced fourteen pillboxes in the zone south of Ensdorf. Here the flat, open terrain was barren of cover and the 1st Battalion found that all movement in daylight was answered by sharp fire and led to high losses. As a result, the gains made by this battalion were confined to the hours of darkness, when the German pillboxes could be engaged without incurring needlessly heavy losses. The 2d Battalion of the 378th had not yet been able to cross the river, because the enemy gunners had brought the Lisdorf crossing site under extremely heavy fire. Nevertheless General Twaddle now had five infantry battalions across the Sarre in position to continue the attack against the West Wall and expand the Saarlautern bridgehead. The 95th Division, however, was no longer alone on the enemy bank of the Sarre. On 6 December the 90th Division seized a bridgehead in the Dillingen area about two miles north of Saarlautern, and the XX Corps attack against the West Wall began to assume new proportions.

Operations on the South Flank of the XX Corps

At the beginning of December the right wing of the XIII SS Corps held a salient northeast of St. Avold athwart the boundary between the XII and XX Corps. The XII Corps drive in the Sarreguemines sector and the XX Corps attack at Saarlautern had increased the angle between the axes of advance for the two corps and widened the gap between their main forces. This divergence may be explained in part by the direction in which lay the strategic objectives assigned the XII and XX Corps and the bend, at this point, in both the West Wall and the German frontier. The terrain northeast of St. Avold in any case was most unpromising. This area generally is known as the Warndt Forest, although in reality the Warndt is surrounded by a series of smaller forests such as those of St. Avold and Houve. Not only is this country heavily wooded, but it is extremely rugged, marked by mining towns and shafts. What few roads cross the Warndt are poor. In the years before World War II the French General Staff had written off this sector as being generally too difficult for offensive operations and had planned to bypass the Warndt in any advance to the Sarre River. The Third Army had adopted a like scheme of maneuver, with the result, as already noted, that the advance of the 95th Division on the XX Corps right ran into considerable trouble at the hands of the XIII SS Corps troops (elements of the 36th VG and 347th Divisions) who were gathered in the rugged salient.

The XII Corps left was deployed in echelon and thus somewhat protected against the enemy in the Warndt, although the commitment of the 10th Infantry on the extreme right of the XX Corps initially had been ordered to give cover for the 80th Division. The subsequent Sarre crossing in the Sarreguemines sector had swung the XII Corps wide of the Warndt, leaving the corps cavalry and 6th Armored Division patrols to screen along the Rosselle River on the shoulder of the German salient. The main part of this difficult, enemy-held terrain lay in the zone of the XX Corps, uncomfortably close to the Saarlautern bridgehead.

The XX Corps plan to place General Irwin’s 5th Division on the corps right, as soon as a part of the 5th could be relieved at the Metz forts, was put in motion on 1 December. Irwin’s command was assigned a narrow zone on the right of the 95th Division. The 5th Division right in turn was covered by the 6th Cavalry Task Force, which had been employed earlier as a screening force in the Forêt de St. Avold. General Walker intended that the 5th Division should advance to the Sarre, clearing the Warndt salient as it progressed, and arriving on the river between Buss and Voelklingen. As yet General Patton had not definitely decided to release Irwin’s division for use across the Sarre.

On 2 December the 3d Battalion of the 11th Infantry moved east from Metz to join the 1st and 2d Battalions of Colonel Bell’s 10th Infantry, which were attacking through the southwest corner of the Forêt de la Houve. Meanwhile progress was slow. The Germans had strengthened the natural defensive features of this broken, heavily wooded ground by ingenious field works and obstacles; in the mining villages they fought stubbornly from shafts and pits. At Creutzwald, on 3 December, troops of the 10th Infantry fought a day-long battle to dislodge the Germans from mine shafts and houses. On the same day the 6th Cavalry Group and the 5th Ranger Battalion were hit by two counterattacks west of Lauterbach, but beat off the enemy and continued the advance.43 The Germans returned to counterattack on 4 December, this time striking K Company of the 10th Infantry. The American infantry held their ground, despite rising losses, until tank destroyers from the 818th Tank Destroyer Battalion swung into firing positions and put an end to the enemy assault.44 The 3d Battalion of the 11th Infantry came in on the right of the 10th during 4 December, beginning an advance to cross the Rosselle and clear the enemy between that river and the Sarre. Lauterbach, a key crossroads village, was taken without a fight on 5 December. The enemy was beginning to weaken, although artillery and mortar fire increased to cover the withdrawal toward the Sarre. By 7 December the 10th had reached its objectives on the near bank of the river and tied in with the 95th Division. Two days later the regiment was relieved by the 6th Cavalry Group–the cavalry had taken over the southern sector earlier–and the entire 5th Division assembled to begin training in preparation for a future attack against the West Wall fortifications.

The 95th Division Fight at the West Wall, 7-18 December

The fortified area in which the 95th Division had begun a penetration was one of the strongest sectors of the entire West Wall. The city of Saarlautern itself had been cleared without much difficulty since it lay on the west bank of the Sarre River and did not constitute a part of the West Wall proper. But the suburbs on the east bank, Saarlautern-Roden, Fraulautern, and Ensdorf, were most heavily fortified and their defenses well integrated. (Map XL) Pillboxes and bunkers constituted the main obstacles to an advance through this sector. Spread in great density, these works were found everywhere: they guarded the approaches to the fortified towns, they were built to command cross streets, and they nested inconspicuously between ordinary dwellings. Some pillboxes were small, with only one or two firing apertures for small arms and machine guns. Other pillboxes and bunkers had as many as sixteen rooms, extending for two or three levels below the ground. These works were built of reinforced concrete, some having roofs and walls that were ten feet thick; most were impervious to anything but a direct hit by heavy artillery or an aerial bomb. The high-velocity projectiles fired by the 90-mm. gun generally were unable to cope with these works, as shown by the experience of one crew, serving a self-propelled 90-mm. gun, which fired seventy-five rounds at a range of less than one hundred yards without breaching or neutralizing the pillbox target. Many of the reinforced concrete works were skillfully camouflaged, giving the harmless appearance of manure piles, mounds of earth, and ordinary buildings. In one case a bunker simulated the appearance of a suburban railroad station with ticket windows appropriately marked. It was discernible as a fraud only when the attackers were within rifle range. Some of the pillboxes and bunkers inside the towns could not be precisely located until all of the surrounding buildings were razed by shelling and bombing. Besides having formal field works of the pillbox or bunker type, the enemy had turned ordinary dwellings, shops, and factory buildings into miniature forts by the use of sandbags, wire, and concrete reinforcement.45 Most of these defensive works were occupied initially by third-rate troops from the Volkssturm companies, but as the tide of battle moved into the city sectors these troops were replaced by first-line units. In addition, roving assault guns, dual-purpose 88’s, and tanks reinforced the city defenses, fighting in the narrow streets where they could be protected by their own infantry and where the American tanks or tank destroyers could not readily bring them within range. German artillery and heavy-caliber mortar fire continued to be intense and accurate through all of this fighting and reached a volume in both the 90th and 95th Division zones never before experienced by these divisions.

ENSDORF. Circles indicate pillboxes.

The American attack, both here and in the zone of the 90th Division, was hampered by the fact that the main German defenses crowded so close to the east bank of the Sarre as to prevent proper tactical deployment for assault in front of the fortified line and seriously hamper the amassing of supplies within close supporting distance of the assault forces. Poor weather denied the troops on the ground the kind of tactical co-operation by the air force which had made the going easier for the infantry in the early battles across France. Limited observation and the difficulty of moving medium and heavy field artillery across the river and into a bridgehead still under small arms fire at many points further curtailed the conventional use of the combined arms in assault against the West Wall.

Nearly every pillbox or bunker captured by the Americans entailed some reduction in the actual rifle strength on the firing line. At no time were sufficient explosives available to demolish any large number of these enemy works. The engineers welded shut the steel doors and casemates on some pillboxes, but there was never sufficient welding apparatus to make this a general practice. Bitter experience soon taught the Americans that each captured pillbox or bunker must be occupied to prevent German infiltration and the reoccupation of a presumably “dead” work. The type of close combat which continued for so long in the Saarlautern bridgehead, and in the Dillingen area as well, not only resulted in numerous combat casualties, but also was distinguished by a high rate of sick and combat-fatigue cases. This kind of fighting was disheartening enough for veterans; it was worse for the inexperienced soldier. In the case of the 95th Infantry Division, for example, the body of the division–as it stood in November–had had two years of training in the United States. Now, like the rest of the American divisions actively engaged on the Western Front, the 95th Division had to rely more and more on green replacements who were being thrown into battle with generally no more than basic or refresher training. These replacements did not suffice to fill the gaps in the ranks, for an alarming shortage was already making itself felt as the replacement depots and battalions ran dry.

In the face of such difficulties the rate of progress made by the 95th Division attack was very slow, measurable in terms of a block of houses cleared or a few pillboxes captured. On 7 December the 379th Infantry edged ahead in Saarlautern-Roden. The 2d Battalion, on the left, repelled sorties by small batches of infantry and roving tanks, cleared one city block, and late in the afternoon crossed the railroad tracks, after the 1st Battalion had taken a factory in which a hidden tank was holding up the advance on the right. The 3d Battalion, which had been engaged at Fraulautern, was relieved by the 2d Battalion of the 377th Infantry and returned to join the rest of the regiment, while the 377th took over the attack in Fraulautern and the protection of the all-important bridge at Saarlautern. The 378th Infantry was held almost to a standstill in the Ensdorf sector under exceedingly severe shelling that knocked out all support bridges as fast as they were put in and made it impossible to cross the 2d Battalion, still west of the Sarre River. Finally, on 8 December, the 2d Battalion was brought across and added its weight to the attack on Ensdorf. Throughout this and the following days, the 378th was handicapped by the necessity of using its riflemen in carrying parties (since no vehicles could be brought across), by the lack of any tank destroyer or tank support, and, in addition, by the fact that the right wing of the regiment was in the air.

During 8 and 9 December the 95th Division fought on, house to house and pillbox to pillbox, but with little to show for its efforts.46 Behind the battalions the Sarre River was rising rapidly; by 9 December it had swollen to a width of between four hundred and five hundred feet in the 378th area, which as yet had no bridge and could be supplied only by strenuous efforts on the part of the assault boat crews. The Saarlautern bridge served to supply the other two regiments across the river and made it possible for the whole of the 607th Tank Destroyer Battalion and 778th Tank Battalion to reinforce the attack, with considerable impetus to the morale of the infantry.

Finally, on 10 December, resistance in Fraulautern began to crack a little.47 The 377th, still fairly fresh, wedged through the fourth and fifth city blocks, after capturing a large hotel whose defenders had beaten off several assaults. Characteristic of this close-quarter fighting, the battle for the hotel progressed from room to room and ended in a hand-to-hand struggle in the ballroom. Said a squad leader, “There was plenty of dancing in that ballroom today, but it sure wasn’t a slow fox trot.”48 German counterattacks checked the 378th and 379th on 10 December, but the next day brought gains, dearly won as usual, along most of the 95th Division front. In Fraulautern the 377th Infantry drove the Germans back across the railroad line in the center of the city. The enemy fought as stubbornly as ever, but there were a few indications that the will to resist was weakening; the regiment was encouraged greatly when Lt. Peter H. Skala, an IPW (Interrogation Prisoner of War) officer, was able to talk the defenders of four pillboxes into surrendering without a fight.49 At Ensdorf the 378th cleared most of five city blocks. But in Saarlautern-Roden the 379th Infantry made little progress, becoming involved in a stiff fight to take a large brickyard that blocked the advance on the left flank.

This brief spurt forward came to an end on 12 December, although the 377th took several more blocks in Fraulautern. At the close of this day the 378th Infantry was able to report that after four days of fighting it had taken a cluster of four interlocking pillboxes. Such was the measure of advance in this battle. During the next few days the 95th Infantry Division made a little progress through Ensdorf and Fraulautern.50 The Germans were fighting with what seemed to be little cohesion or direction, although the individual soldier showed stubborness and determination.51 But if the enemy was weakening, so was the 95th Division. As early as 12 December the combat efficiency of the division (an index largely based on actual rifle strength) had been rated at 61 percent; 2,000 replacements were needed but were lacking. On 13 December, therefore, the XX Corps commander attached a battalion of the 2d Infantry to the 377th Infantry as bridge guards, the first step in bringing the 5th Infantry Division across to relieve the weary troops in the Saarlautern bridgehead. On 16 December, first word of the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes reached the Third Army. But no change was made in the plans to relieve the battle-worn 95th Division. By 0400 on 17 December the 11th Infantry had taken over the 379th Infantry battle at Saarlautern-Roden, and at midnight the 2d Infantry had completed the relief of the 377th Infantry in Fraulautern, where the 377th was able to turn over a greater part of the city. General Irwin took command of the Saarlautern bridgehead the next morning and the 95th Infantry Division, minus the 378th Infantry, moved out of the line after fifty-eight consecutive days of combat. Its respite would be very brief. The Third Army was about to intervene in the Ardennes battle and elements of the 95th Division would be returned to the bridgehead to free the 5th Division for use in the new American offensive. Nonetheless the 5th Division had time to make very considerable progress forward, as it did on 18 and 19 December. General Irwin’s troops were generally fresh, the companies were mostly at full strength, and the 95th Division already had driven through the main bunker lines of the forward West Wall zone.53 Time was lacking, however, for the 5th Division to capitalize on its gains.

The 378th Infantry was not included in the relief on 17 December because General Patton had ordered the regiment to continue the fight for a bridgehead in the Ensdorf area. Here the river was returning to its normal channel, and on the night of 15-16 December six antitank guns were ferried across. By 17 December the engineers had a bridge in. Guns and supplies began to roll, but the 378th Infantry was not to be allowed to carry out its mission of expanding the bridgehead. On 20 December the last covering troops evacuated Ensdorf and withdrew across the Sarre as part of General Patton’s plan to fight a containing battle at the Sarre while turning the bulk of his forces north to meet the German offensive.

The progress of the 95th Infantry Division in the attack east of the Sarre River had been marked on the Third Army situation maps in terms of yards won or lost. But to the staff and line of the 95th the story of this bitter fight was best expressed by the number of buildings and fortifications wrested from a determined enemy. During the period 1 December to 18 December the 95th Division had captured 146 pillboxes and 1,242 defended houses or other buildings. In addition the division had taken over three thousand prisoners and inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy (estimated by the Americans, albeit superficially, at over five thousand dead and wounded). In the same period the 95th Division had lost close to two thousand officers and men in battle, plus at least six hundred hospitalized as nonbattle casualties, these losses totaling one third of the combat strength with which the 95th Division had started the December operation.

The 90th Division Fight at the West Wall Continues, 8-19 December

On 7 December General Van Fleet had decided to commit his reserve, the 359th Infantry, in the Dillingen bridgehead battle. (Map XLI) This decision to reinforce the flagging efforts of the attacking force east of the Sarre was strengthened on the following day by reports coming in from the 357th which indicated that the situation on the exposed left flank was growing steadily worse. At noon on 8 December the reserve regiment began to assemble around Bueren and Itzbach in preparation for a crossing that night, leaving its supporting weapons and a small detachment from the cannon companies and antitank platoons of the three regiments to hold the old outpost line on the west bank of the river. The 90th Division commander planned for the reserve regiment to cross the river in the zone of the 357th Infantry and then attack between the two regiments already east of the Sarre. He hoped that the fresh formation would crack the stalemate at Dillingen, but to do so the reserve regiment would have to capture the high ground northeast of Dillingen and, in addition, destroy the enemy salient separating the 358th from the 357th. The initial objective assigned the 359th was the southwest edge of the Huettenwald heights, just north of Dillingen and about one thousand yards east of the railroad line at which the 358th had been checked.55

During the night of 8-9 December the 359th moved down to the river. The crossings were made as planned, one battalion following the other as the assault craft were released, and at 0700 the 3d Battalion, bringing up the rear, finished debarking on the east bank. The two battalions in the lead had marched inland immediately, passing through the right wing of the 357th and crossing the railroad tracks. At dawn the battalions began the attack up the pillbox-infested slopes to the east, with the 1st Battalion on the right (and about a thousand yards north of Dillingen) and the 2d Battalion on the left. These fresh troops attacked with vigor and determination, but no speedy advance was possible so long as the enemy, behind reinforced concrete, held the ground above.56 By dark, however, the leading infantry were within two hundred yards of the Haien Bach, a small stream that here ran north and south along the edge of the Huettenwald. The 3d Battalion, under orders to gain contact with the 358th Infantry, made its attack due south toward Pachten. Immediately, it came under fire from the pillboxes in the long, slender enemy salient which, reaching nearly to the Sarre, had frustrated earlier attempts to link up the American forces in the 90th Division zone. This fortified area was strongly manned and hard to penetrate. The pillboxes were grouped so as to give mutual support and the whole position was reinforced by two forts, or large bunkers, so strongly constructed that they had successfully withstood direct hits by shells from the American 240-mm. howitzers. The approach taken by the 3d Battalion lay across flat ground completely barren of cover and swept by fire. At the end of this first day the battalion could report no progress; in fact it had been forced to take shelter, under the searching German fire, in the few houses along the railroad track. The two companies of the 3d Battalion, 357th Infantry, already engaged in a fight to drive through this enemy salient farther to the west, cleared a few pillboxes during the day, but later lost most of them to German infiltration.

Although the advance by the 359th Infantry lessened the German pressure on the right flank of the 357th during 9 December, the situation on the left and center of the latter’s thin line grew more desperate by the hour as assault after assault hit at the American positions and bounced back, each claiming casualties among the defenders. The 1st Battalion, aligned east of the Beckingen-Pachten road, was in a particularly precarious state. Its ranks were so reduced that some men whose feet were too swollen by trench foot to permit walking were carried by their comrades to the forward foxholes. The platoon from C Company which had been stationed at the road block positions astride the Beckingen-Pachten road was the target of persistent German attacks. At dawn each morning the enemy maneuvered in on the platoon and attacked to wipe out the detachment. But each assault was repelled and this anchor for the left wing of the 357th Infantry held fast.

The 358th Infantry continued to battle along the railroad tracks in Dillingen. The 3d Battalion resumed its efforts to clear the buildings west of the tracks, using a captured 75-mm. gun and twenty-two rounds that fitted the piece to blast the houses in which the enemy fought most stubbornly. This enemy gun was the only field piece that the 90th Division possessed east of the river, and the sole item of antitank artillery. In the center the 2d Battalion initiated a futile assault to cross the railroad. Company F discovered a tunnel under the tracks, but the men who got through were cut off and captured by the Germans on the other side. The 1st Battalion, on the right, was subjected to heavy attacks by superior forces in the slaughterhouse area, the fight surging back and forth in the buildings at this strong point without any decisive result.58

Behind the 90th Division the Sarre was still at flood stage. Late in the afternoon of 9 December the engineers began rafting operations in the 358th Infantry zone, ferrying across a few jeeps and light antitank guns. In the early evening the first tank debarked from the treadway ferry, but this and the tanks following could not be used on the left flank of the division, where armor was most needed, so long as the hostile fortified salient separated the 358th from the rest of the division. Assault boats and carrying parties remained the only means of supplying the 357th and 359th, although four P-47’s flown by pilots of the XIX TAC, swept over the 357th at treetop level and dropped urgently needed medical supplies squarely in the drop zone that had been marked by the infantry. The hard-pressed 357th received additional help in the form of two hundred replacements who were crossed in assault boats and sent immediately into line.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE AREA IN DILLINGEN. Circles indicate pillboxes.

December 10 was a day of snow and rain, chilling and soaking the men in the foxholes. It was also the day on which the entire force of the 719th Division finally was brought to bear against the 90th Division bridgehead defenses. Balck’s threats and fulminations had accomplished little as to rerouting the wandering 719th or remedying the disorder that had resulted from the conflicting missions assigned the division. On 9 December the bulk of the 719th had been rounded up and was in process of assembling in the woods east of Saarwellingen. But when the division began the march west to its attack positions a traffic jam resulted; the division artillery, nineteen light and eleven heavy guns, could not be moved forward to support the scheduled attack. The Army Group G commander was furious, started court martial proceedings, and issued the strictest kind of injunctions for the 719th to make a full-scale attack on the morning of 10 December.

Just before dawn the 719th and the 19th VG Division began piecemeal attacks all along the American line, while the German artillery, numbering some 110 guns, increased its shelling to a tempo the 90th Division had not heretofore encountered in the bridgehead. The 90th Division, with all its rifle battalions committed, was not able to take the initiative and during most of the day could only hold grimly to its positions. The 357th Infantry was hard hit, since the main effort by the 719thwas thrown against it, but continued to beat off each assault.61 The 359th Infantry fought a seesaw battle in the pillboxes west of the Haien Bach against enemy sallies coming down the slopes. The 3d Battalion fought its way into the fortified salient, making a desperate attempt to join hands with the 358th Infantry to the south, but by nightfall had lost nearly all organization as its squads and platoons were cut off in captured pillboxes or isolated and pinned to the earth by raking machine gun fire. The 358th received a terrific pounding by the German guns and several counterattacks.62Company F, which had won a precarious footing east of the track, was forced to withdraw. Elsewhere the regiment held its ground63 and L Company succeeded in destroying five German tanks. Company A was hit and surrounded by a very strong enemy force intent on retaking the slaughterhouse area. For several hours telephone connections with the company were severed and the company was reported lost, but at the end of the day this strong point was still in American hands. Late in the afternoon the 1st Battalion saw the Germans forming east of the tracks for a final assault. Hastily organizing a counterattack, elements of A and B Companies dashed across the tracks, wheeled left through a cemetery and into a fortified church on the enemy flank. This unexpected assault broke up the German formation. The exposed position was untenable, however, and the American troops withdrew from their temporary shelter as soon as darkness gave them the opportunity.

Supply for the 90th Division continued to be handled by assault boats, for the river dropped abruptly and stranded the heavy ferry, which German guns then damaged when veering winds blew away the smoke screen at the crossing site. The shoestring nature of the supply lines on the left flank and their continued interruption by German raiding parties made General Van Fleet decide to regroup the 357th. To do this he ordered the 1st and 2d Battalions to redress their lines on a shortened front, and withdrew the 3d Battalion from the attack on the fortified salient, setting it to secure the supply roads close behind the battalions in the line. He further ordered the 359th to continue the attack to the east, but to use its 3d Battalion to force a way to the 358th in the sector north of Pachten.

On 11 December the 357th withdrew its lines in the north and northeast as the division commander had directed.66 The 358th and 359th confined their activities to probing for a corridor through the fortified salient still separating the two, after the 359th was hit by a German night attack that drove in between the 1st and 3d Battalions and recaptured three pillboxes and their occupants. All efforts to reduce the pillboxes in the salient by direct assault were fruitless; as was precision shelling by heavy artillery west of the Sarre. During the day General Van Fleet brought the scratch covering force from the west bank to fill the gaps in the firing line, leaving the 90th Reconnaissance Troop to patrol west of the Sarre. This movement brought on so much enemy shelling as to indicate the possibility that the Germans might attempt to flank the 90th Division by a counterattack across the Sarre, and General Walker alerted the 10th Armored Division to meet such a riposte if it should come.

The following day brought the successful completion of the scheme of maneuver outlined on 10 December by the division commander. The 3d Battalion of the 357th finished mopping up the pillboxes and knots of enemy riflemen which had harassed the rear of the regiment all through the operation. For the first time the left flank of the 90th Division was stabilized. The 358th and 359th finally made contact and established a lateral corridor through the German fortified salient. This feat was accomplished by a combination of accurate artillery fire, daring infantry assault tactics, and a kind of “homegrown” psychological warfare. The 8-inch and 240-mm. howitzers that had been brought to bear on the German pillboxes produced real results on 12 December, smashing some by direct hits and badly shaking the nerves of the defenders in the rest. A combat patrol sent out from the 359th on the previous day, and written off for lost when it failed to report, turned up in possession of one of the key pillboxes, making the task of the following assault teams much easier.68 The 358th pressed into service a Luxemburger known as “the old Kraut.” He succeeded in convincing the occupants of five strong pillboxes that wisdom was the better part of valor, after condign threats that they would all “be blown to hell.” The first contact between the 358th and the two regiments in the north was made about 1530. Fortunately the winds now favored the Americans, the smoke screen held, the vehicular ferry was again put into operation, and by late afternoon one company each of tanks and tank destroyers had been put across. Two tank platoons were sent at once through the corridor to the 357th. Although all but four of the tanks mired down before they reached the regiment, their presence brought a considerable lift to the flagging spirits of the men in the foxholes.69Meanwhile the 358th turned its attention toward Dillingen and began preparations to resume the attack. Corps artillery blasted the city, the 4.2 chemical mortar companies of the 81st Battalion laid in 2,500 rounds of white phosphorus, and by nightfall Dillingen was burning brightly.

VEHICULAR TREADWAY FERRY in the 358th Infantry zone was left stranded by the receding river on 9 December, but became operational again three days later.

In reports on the morning of 12 December, the “combat efficiency” of the 90th Division was rated at 43 percent, the result of the exhausted condition of the troops and the acute shortage of replacements. It is true that the arrival of the armor and antitank support plus the final tie-up of all three regiments raised morale appreciably during the day. But the chief difficulties facing the division still obtained: gravely reduced rifle strength in the battalions and the necessity of holding on to the innumerable pillboxes after their seizure, for here, as in the 95th Division bridgehead, demolition supplies were insufficient to destroy more than a very few of the captured enemy works.

General Van Fleet decided to concentrate the limited strength of the 90th Division in a determined effort to complete the capture of the city of Dillingen. Devastated though the city was, it would offer some cover from the winter cold and rain and provide a defensive position more easily held than the open terrain on which the American main line of resistance now was drawn. Once Dillingen was secured the 357th Infantry could be withdrawn from its exposed sector and aligned as flank protection in the Pachten-Dillingen area. Furthermore, the capture of Dillingen would put the 90th Division in possession of the Prims River crossing at the south edge of the city from which a main highway, skirting the swamp land to the west, led to Saarlautern-Roden and possible contact with the 95th Division.

General Van Fleet set 15 December as the date for the renewal of the attack, giving time for the 90th to regroup and build up its stock of supplies and ammunition east of the Sarre. The last was no easy task, for the bottom had gone out of the muddy road between the river and Pachten; to make matters worse, at noon on 14 December the German guns again knocked out the vehicular ferry. Nevertheless, by the night preceding the attack ample supplies were at hand and enough vehicles had been crossed to relieve the infantry engaged as carrying parties.

The Saarlautern-Dillingen bridgehead meanwhile had lost its paramount place as the greatest threat to the German forces under Army Group G. The offensive by the American Seventh Army along the west bank of the Rhine had gained momentum on 11 December and promised to drive straight through the weak forces under Group Hoehne who were fighting with their backs to the West Wall. Here in the Wissembourg sector, on the edge of the Rhine Valley, the West Wall was none too strong, consisting as it did of only a single fortified line. Furthermore, OB WEST reckoned the ratio between the opposing forces as 10 to 1 in favor of the Americans. By 14 December the German situation had deteriorated so markedly that Rundstedt’s headquarters expected “hourly” to receive news that the Americans had broken through into the Palatinate. The battle now could only be one to win time and to hold until the great Ardennes counteroffensive was unleashed.

Needless to say Balck could expect no help from the armies in the OKW strategic reserve. Requests for help from the Nineteenth Army only resulted in the brusque statement by Jodl that no troops could be taken away from Himmler. Balck did the only thing he could do and commenced to strip the rest of the Army Group G front in order to reinforce General Hoehne. With his eye on the double zone of fortifications in the Saarlautern sector Balck gave orders that the remainder of the21st Panzer Division and all of the 404th Volks Artillery Corps were to be relieved from the bridgehead battle and sent to the south. The First Army commander, General Obstfelder, pleaded and even argued, then fell back on the conventional alibi that he lacked the gasoline necessary to move these troops out of his area. By various dodges Obstfelder managed to delay the departure of the 21st and the 404th, but by 15 December only the rear elements of these units were left in the Saarlautern-Dillingen area. In the meantime OB WEST had secured the 526th Replacement Division to take the place of the 21st Panzer Division, but the movement of the former was long delayed and on 15 December only a few of its troops had arrived in front of the XX Corps bridgehead.

Early on the morning of 15 December the 90th Division attack to mop up Dillingen jumped off as planned under a dense smoke screen put down by the 4.2 mortars. Two battalions of the 358th Infantry led off in an assault across the railroad tracks and fought their way under terrific enemy fire into the streets and houses of Dillingen, followed closely by tanks and tank destroyers. Within a few hours the Germans began to break and when night came the 358th had cleared the buildings for some three hundred yards east of the tracks. The 359th Infantry gained about five hundred yards, against moderate resistance. In the late afternoon elements of the two regiments met on the north side of the city. The Americans had penetrated the main line of defenses in the Dillingen sector and mopped up numerous bunkers. The Germans could no longer defend along a co-ordinated line, but instead would have to hold at individual strong points and in islands of resistance. The success of this attack allowed General Van Fleet to risk weakening his left flank. On 16 December he took the battered and depleted 1st Battalion from the 357th and sent it back across the river for a few hours rest. The remaining battalions of the 357th were in little better state than the 1st, although refleshed somewhat by the arrival of the scratch force from the west bank.74 Indeed, the rifle strength of the entire division was so low that the division commander was forced to eliminate all antitank platoons and reduce the cannon companies and mortar platoons in order to provide more infantry for the continuation of the attack.

After the drive into Dillingen the German forces, now stripped of the 21st and 404th, failed to react with their usual counterattack tactics and a lull developed along the front.75 General Van Fleet purposely postponed any continuation of the attack at Dillingen since he wished to give the 5th Division time to relieve the 95th Division in the Saarlautern bridgehead and initiate a drive that would bring its lines forward alongside the 90th. On 18 December the 3d Battalion, 359th Infantry, and the 2d Battalion, 358th, made a co-ordinated drive in Dillingen. The division commander strictly enjoined a “cautious attack,” for he was most anxious to avoid excessive casualties and did not want to attract any strong German reaction until the 5th Division was abreast of the 90th.76 In spite of these limitations the advance moved forward very swiftly; resistance was astonishingly light and only twenty-two prisoners were taken. Within three hours the assault battalions had cleared eleven blocks and most of Dillingen was in American hands. But the 90th Infantry Division was soon to lose its hard-won ground. On the afternoon of 19 December General Patton ordered the division commander to begin the evacuation of the 90th Division bridgehead. The Third Army was in the process of shifting its divisions toward the Ardennes.77 There were some indications that the enemy was assembling a force in the Sarre-Moselle triangle, from which base a German attack could be mounted against the new American line of communications.78 General Patton needed every division that could be freed. For the time being the Saarlautern bridgehead would suffice to ensure a foothold east of the Sarre, in the event that the Third Army should return to the offensive in this area.

Lacking a bridge, the withdrawal of nine infantry battalions and about a hundred vehicles was a delicate operation. Through three successive nights the 90th Division moved men, weapons, tanks, trucks, and tank destroyers back over the Sarre.80At 1040 on 22 December the rear guard arrived on the west bank, while the American guns smashed Pachten and Dillingen with salvo after salvo.  An unknown battalion clerk wrote finis to the operation: “This was the first time this Battalion ever gave ground and even though it was a strategic retreat rather than tactical, it still hurt.” During the December battle on the Sarre the 90th Division had captured 1,298 prisoners and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. But the 90th Division also had suffered severely, particularly among its veteran officers and men, and had lost 239 killed, 924 wounded, approximately 440 missing, as well as over a thousand officers and men evacuated as sick, battle-exhaustion, or battle-injury cases, the whole totaling more than one-third of its strength on 1 December.

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


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