Military history

Chapter Five

The Siegfried Line: October 1944

As THE Americans reached the German border from Luxembourg north, they were entering country that had been fought over since Caesar's time. It was interlaced with ancient walled cities, and villages that made natural strongpoints.

The French region of Lorraine is south of Luxembourg. Since the beginning of European civilization it has been a battlefield. It was an invasion route for the Germanic tribes coming from Central Europe into France. Over the centuries there have been many fortifications in the area, which is bounded on the east by the Saar River and on the west by the Moselle River.

Metz is on the Moselle, 45 kilometres north of Nancy, the historic ruling city of Lorraine. Metz is perhaps the most heavily fortified city in the most heavily fortified part of Europe. Fifteen fortifications were built close around the city in the seventeenth century by the famous French military engineer Sebastien Vauban. The Prussians came through Metz in 1870, nevertheless. After the Franco Prussian War, Bismarck incorporated Lorraine into the new Germany, and the German army constructed a second, outer belt of twenty-eight forts, mainly north and west of the city. In 1918 Lorraine returned to France. Soon the French army was building the Maginot Line some twenty kilometres east and north of Metz, while the Germans built the Siegfried Line another twenty kilometres to the east, along the line of the Saar River, the prewar border.

Hitler, whose faith in reinforced cement never wavered-a result of his World War I experiences-poured a lot of it into the Siegfried in this area. By 1940 the strongest part of the Siegfried faced the strongest part of the Maginot Line. In the summer of 1944, when the retreat from Normandy began, Hitler poured more cement, put more guns into the Siegfried and Metz forts, and waited.

Hitler had the weather on his side. Fall is the wet season in Lorraine, with an average monthly rainfall in autumn of 3 inches. In November 1944, 6.95 inches of rain fell during the month.

Patton cursed. His Third Army's mission was to take Lorraine, but in the sheets of cold rain, with the mud clinging to boots and tank treads, and the Moselle at flood stage, he couldn't do it. He lusted for Metz. To get it, he had to take Fort Driant. The fort stood on a dominating hill, with clear fields of fire up and down the Moselle. The Americans could not cross the river above or below Metz until Driant was theirs. Built in 1902 and later strengthened by both French and Germans, the fort covered 355 acres. It was surrounded by a 65-foot wide moat, which in turn was surrounded by a 65-foot band of barbed wire. It had living quarters for a garrison of 2,000. Most of the fortification was underground, along with food and ammunition supplies, enough for a month or more. The only way in was over a causeway. There were four outlying casement batteries and a detached fifth battery. Concealed machine-gun pillboxes were scattered through the area.

On September 27 Third Army made its first attempt to take Driant. Although they had only a vague idea of the fort's works, they figured that a pre-World War I fortress system couldn't possibly stand up to the pounding of modern artillery, much less air-dropped bombs of 500 to 1,000 pounds, not to mention napalm. From dawn to 1415 hours the Americans hit the fort with all the high explosives in their arsenal.

At 1415 the llth Infantry Regiment began to move in on the fort. To their astonishment, when they reached the barbed wire surrounding the moat, Germans rose up from pillboxes all around and opened fire. Shermans came forward to blast the pillboxes, but their 75-mm shells hardly chipped the thick concrete. The infantry ignominiously withdrew under cover of darkness.

Third Army now faced the oldest tactical-engineering problem in warfare-how to overcome a fortified position. It helped considerably that the Americans eventually got their hands on the blueprints of the fort, which showed a warren of tunnels. No amount of high explosive was going to knock the fort down. Infantry would have to get inside and take possession.

On October 3 the second assault on Driant began. Captain Harry Anderson of Company B led the way, tossing grenades into German bunkers as he ran across the causeway into Driant, where he established a position alongside one of the casements. An intense firefight ensued. Germans popped out of their holes like prairie dogs, fired, and dropped back. They called in their own artillery from other forts in the area. American engineers got forward with TNT to blast a hole in the casement, but the heavy walls were as impervious to TNT as to shells and bombs.

On top of the casement Private Robert Holmlund found a ventilator shaft. Despite enemy fire, he managed to open the shaft's cover and drop several bangalore torpedoes down the opening. Germans who survived evacuated the area, and Captain Anderson led the first Americans inside the fort. The room they had taken turned out to be a barracks. They quickly took an adjacent one.

The Germans counterattacked. The ensuing firelight was a new dimension of combat. It shattered nerves, ears, and lives with machinegun fire and hand grenade explosions reverberating in the tunnels enclosed by thick, dripping masonry walls. The air was virtually unbreathable; men in the barracks room had to take turns at gulping fresh air from firing slits.

B Company was stuck there. It had neither the equipment nor the manpower to fight its way through the maze of tunnels. It couldn't go back; being on top of the fort was more dangerous than being in it. At dark, reinforcements accompanied by a half-dozen Shermans crossed the causeway and assaulted another casement, but they were badly shot up and forced to withdraw.

Captain Jack Gerrie, CO of G Company, llth Infantry, led the reinforcements. On October 4 Gerrie tried to knock down the steel doors at the rear of the fort. Direct cannon fire couldn't do it, and protruding grillwork made it impossible to put TNT charges against the doors. The Germans again called down fire on Driant, which forced G Company to scatter to abandoned pillboxes, ditches, anywhere for shelter. That evening Gerrie tried to reorganize his company, but the Germans came out of the underground tunnels-here, there, everywhere-fired, and retreated.

At dawn on October 5 German artillery commenced firing. After hours of this, Gerrie wrote a report for his battalion commander: "The situation is critical. A couple more barrages and another counterattack and we are sunk. We have no men, our equipment is shot and we just can't go on. We may be able to hold till dark but if anything happens this afternoon I can make no predictions. The enemy artillery is butchering these troops. We cannot get out to get our wounded and there is a hell of a lot of dead and missing. There is only one answer the way things stand. First either to withdraw and saturate it with heavy bombers or reinforce with a hell of a strong force, but eventually they'll get it by artillery too. This is just a suggestion but if we want this damned fort let's get the stuff required to take it and then go. Right now you haven't got it."

Written from a shell hole under fire by a man who hadn't slept in two days, it is a remarkable report, accurate and rightly critical of the fools who had got him into this predicament. It moved right up to the corps commander, who showed it to Patton and said the battalion commander wanted to withdraw. Never, Patton replied.

Over the next three days Third Army threw one more regiment into the attack, with similar ghastly results. The lowliest private could see clearly what Patton could not, that this fort had to be bypassed and neutralized because it was never going to be taken.

Patton finally relented. Still, not until October 13 were the GIs withdrawn. About half as many returned as went up. This was Third Army's first defeat in battle.

The only good thing about a defeat is that it teaches lessons. The Driant debacle caused a badly needed deflation of Patton's hubris. That led to a recognition of the need to plan more thoroughly, to get proper equipment. The next time, Third Army was going to get it right.

NORTH OF Luxembourg, at Eilendorf, just outside Aachen, Captain Dawson's G Company was holding its position on the ridge astride the Siegfried Line. By October 4, G Company had repulsed three German counterattacks and endured 500 shells per day from 105 howitzers. The Germans came on in division strength, but again Dawson's company beat them back, with help from the artillery and air. "We had constant shelling for eight hours," Dawson remembered. "We had twelve direct hits on what was our command post."

An officer in Dawson's battalion, Lieutenant Fred Hall, wrote his mother on October 6, "This action is as rough as I have seen. Still the hardships are borne with little complaint." Hall told his mother, 'Tn the lower echelons of command, faced with the realities of the situation, the feeling is that the war will not be over before the spring of 1945 at the earliest."

Because of the weather, planes could not fly, tanks could not manoeuvre, soldiers marched only with the greatest difficulty. Patton was stuck. Antwerp was what Eisenhower wanted, but Montgomery failed to open it. According to reports coming to Eisenhower, the Canadians trying to overrun the Schelde estuary were short on ammunition because Montgomery persisted in trying to widen the Market-Garden salient in Holland and had given priority in supplies to the British Second Army.

Eisenhower ordered Montgomery to put his full effort into opening the Schelde. But not until October 16 did Montgomery give priority to the Canadians. Not until November 8 were they able to drive the Germans out of the estuary. Then the mines had to be cleared and the facilities repaired. Not until November 28 did the first Allied convoy reach Antwerp's docks. By then the weather precluded major operations.

Under the circumstances, an obvious strategy would have been to abandon any offensive moves, create defensive positions facing the German border, go into winter camp, and wait for the supply situation to improve and the weather to clear. But Eisenhower gave no thought to winter quarters. With the V-2s coming down on London, with thousands dying daily in concentration camps, he could not. With the Red Army pushing into Central Europe, with the unknown factor of how the race for an atomic bomb was progressing, he could not.

Eisenhower urged his subordinates to offensive action. The campaign that resulted was one of the toughest of the war. The strategy was just to attack to the east. The terrain in the centre of the American line-the Eifel mountains and the rugged Ardennes and Hurtgen forestsdictated that the main efforts would take place to the north and south of these obstacles. To the north. First and Ninth armies would head towards the Rhine along the axis Maastricht-Aachen Cologne. The major obstacles were the Siegfried Line, the city of Aachen, and the northern part of the Hurtgen. To the south, Third Army would continue to attack through Lorraine and advance towards the Saar River.

To CARRY out those missions, the American army needed to overcome problems aplenty. For the first time since early August, when they had fled the hedgerow country, the Germans had prepared positions to defend. One of the first tasks they accomplished as they manned the Siegfried Line was to put S-mines-Bouncing Betties-in front of their positions. Thousands of them. When triggered by a trip wire or foot pressure, they sprang a metre or so into the air before exploding. The canister contained 360 steel balls or small pieces of scrap steel. They were capable of tearing off a leg above the knee or inflicting the wound that above all others terrified the soldiers.

Lieutenant George Wilson had joined the 4th Division at the time of St. Lo. By early October he had been in combat for nine weeks, but he had not yet seen an S-mine. On October 10, when he led a reconnaissance platoon into the Siegfried Line east of Malmedy, Belgium, suddenly they were everywhere. Engineers came forward to clear the mines and use white tape to mark paths through the fields. They set to probing every inch of ground, gently working trench knives in at an angle, hoping to hit only the sides of the mines. They began uncovering-and sometimes exploding-devilish little handmade mines in pottery crocks, set just below the ground. The only metal was the detonator, too small to be picked up by mine detectors. They blew off hands.

A squad to Wilson's right got caught in a minefield. The lieutenant leading it had a leg blown off. Four men who came to help him also set off mines, and each lost a leg. Wilson started over, but the lieutenant yelled at him to stay back. Then the lieutenant began talking calmly to the wounded men around him. One by one he directed them back over the path they had taken into the minefield. One by one, on hands and knee, dragging a stump, they got out. Then the lieutenant dragged himself out.

Wilson had seen a lot, but this was "horribly gruesome. Five young men lying there, each missing a leg." After the war he declared that the S-mine was "the most frightening weapon of the war, the one that made us sick with fear."

Behind the minefields were the dragon's teeth. They rested on a concrete mat between ten and thirty metres wide, sunk a metre or two into the ground to prevent any attempt to tunnel underneath them and place explosive charges. On top of the mat were the teeth themselves, truncated pyramids of reinforced concrete about a metre in height in the front row, to two metres high in the back, staggered in such a manner that a tank could not drive through. Interspersed among the teeth were minefields, barbed wire, and pillboxes virtually impenetrable by artillery and set in such a way as to give the Germans crossing fire across the entire front. The only way to take those pillboxes was to get behind them and attack the rear entry. But behind the first row of pillboxes and dragon's teeth, there was a second, often a third, sometimes a fourth.

Throughout the length of the Siegfried Line, villages along the border were incorporated into the defence system. The houses, churches, and public buildings were built of stone and brick. The second floors of the buildings and the belfries on the churches provided excellent observation posts.

The US Army had no training for driving Germans out of villages where the streets were jumbled and tanks had difficulty manoeuvring, where gunners had crisscrossing fields of fire. It was going to have to learn such basic things as the first rule of street fighting-stay out of the streets-and the second rule-a systematic, patient approach works, while audacity and risk taking don't. Reconnaissance pilots, meanwhile, had taken tens of thousands of photographs, creating an intelligence picture almost as complete as that developed for the Normandy beaches. Commanders were given maps that plotted all known strongpoints.

FIRST ARMY'S mission was to break through the Siegfried Line. That route would be along the narrow Aachen corridor, between the fens of Holland to the north and the Hurtgen Forest and Ardennes to the south. To avoid getting caught up in the urban congestion of Aachen, breakthroughs would take place north and south of the city. When the two wings linked to the east, Aachen would be enveloped and could be neutralized.

Aachen had little military value. It was more a trading centre than a manufacturing site. But Aachen's psychological value was immense. It was the first German city to be threatened, symbolic enough by itself, and a city central to German civilization. The Romans had medicinal spring baths there, the Aquisgranum. It was the city where Charlemagne was born and crowned. It was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire-what Hitler called the First Reich.

Hitler was determined to hold the city and, to do so, sent in the 246th Volksgrenadier Division, about 5,000 boys and old men with a small assortment of tanks, assault guns, and artillery pieces. He ordered the CO, Colonel Gerhard Wilck, to hold the city "to the last man, and if necessary, allow himself to be buried under its ruins."

For six days prior to jump off, First Army's heavy artillery pounded forty-five known German pillboxes immediately in front of the American 30th Division. This stripped away camouflage, ripped up the barbed wire obstacles, set off hundreds of mines, and forced the Germans to take cover. Otherwise it had little effect except to let the Germans know where the attack was coming.

H-hour (the planned hour of attack) was set for 1100, October 2. At 0900 hours the American artillery shifted targets from the German front to antiaircraft batteries in the rear, sending up clouds of black smoke that hampered German visibility. Unfortunately, it also hampered American visibility. The 360 medium bombers and 72 fighter-bombers committed to the pre-assault bombing of German positions went astray. Only a half-dozen bombs fell in the target area-almost a total failure.

As the planes left, the artillery shifted targets back to the pillboxes. Mortarmen rushed to their positions and in a few hours fired 18,696

shells from 372 tubes. As the infantry moved forward, tanks put direct fire on the pillboxes to prevent German gunners from manning their weapons. Infantry platoons accompanied by engineer teams manoeuvred their way behind the pillboxes, where the engineers blew the rear doors with satchel charges, bangalore torpedoes, and bazookas.

By the end of the day, the 30th Division had breached the first line of pillboxes. The next day the 2nd Armoured joined the attack. By October 7 the Americans had made a clean break through the Siegfried Line north of Aachen. The 1st Division, meanwhile, broke through to the south. The two wings hooked up, and Aachen was surrounded. First Army was on the verge of a classic victory.

On October 10 First Army sent Colonel Wilck an ultimatum. When he rejected it, the 1st Division prepared to take the city. It fell to Lieutenant Colonel Derrill Daniel, CO of the 2nd Battalion of the 26th Infantry, to lead the attack. He got three Shermans, two towed antitank guns, and other weapons to support his rifle companies.

H-hour was 0930, October 13. The jump-off line was a high railroad embankment, with the German lines just on the other side. At 0930

every soldier in the battalion heaved a hand grenade over the embankment. Daniel's men came after the explosions, shouting and firing. Resistance was light. The tanks punched holes in the sides of buildings, through which infantry could move from one building into the next without exposing themselves in the street. The battalion was nearing the city centre as night came on.

In the morning German resistance stiffened. The battle grew desperate. The GIs brought wheeled artillery into the city and were able to fire parallel to the front, dropping their shells just beyond the noses of the American infantry. Building by building Daniel's men advanced. Colonel Wilck's men fought back from every conceivable hiding place. They used the city sewer system to mount counterattacks from the rear so effectively that the Americans had to locate and block every manhole to prevent further infiltration.

FOR CAPTAIN Dawson and G Company the task wasn't to attack but defend. Dawson and his men were holding high ground east of Aachen, which gave them observation posts (OPs) to call in targets to the gunners and pilots. The Germans were desperate to get him off that ridge.

At 2300 hours, October 15, an SS panzer division hit G Company. The first shots came as a surprise because the leading tank in the column was a captured Sherman with American markings. The battle thus joined went on for 48 hours. There was hand-to-hand fighting, with rifle butts and bayonets. It was surreal, almost slow-motion, because the mud was ankle-deep. Dawson called in artillery to within ten metres of his position. At one foxhole a German toppled dead over the barrel of an American machine gun, while in another a wounded American waited until the German who had shot him came up and looked down on him, then emptied his tommy gun in the German's face. The two men died at the bottom of the hole in a macabre embrace.

INSIDE AACHEN the battle raged. The Germans fell back to the centre of the city, charging a price for every building abandoned. Rubble in the streets grew to monstrous proportions. The old buildings, made of masonry and stone, were almost impervious to tank cannon fire, so Lieutenant Colonel Daniel brought a 155-mm artillery piece into the city, using a bulldozer to clear a path. Daniel reported that its effects were "quite spectacular and satisfying."

On October 16 the battalion ran into a strong German position in the city's main theatre building. Daniel brought the 155-mm forward and fired more than a dozen shells, point-blank, into the theatre. It survived, but its defenders, dazed, surrendered.

For another four days and nights the Germans and Americans pounded each other while they destroyed Aachen. Finally, on October 21, Daniel's men secured the downtown area. Colonel Wilck dared to disobey Hitler and surrendered his 3,473 survivors. At his interrogation he protested bitterly against the use of the 155-mm in Aachen, calling it

"barbarous" and claiming it should be outlawed.

American losses were heavy, over 5,000. The 30th and 1st divisions were exhausted, used up. They were in no condition to make a dash to the Rhine. German losses were 5,000 casualties and 5,600 prisoners of war. Aachen was destroyed, with the exception of the cathedral, which housed Charlemagne's coronation chair. It escaped major damage.

OUTSIDE AACHEN, Dawson's company continued to hold. After Aachen fell, there were fewer, less vigorous German attacks. On October 22 reporter W.C. Heinz of the New York Sun got to Dawson's headquarters to do an interview. Dawson summarized the action simply: "This is the worst I've seen. Nobody will ever know what this has been like up here."

Heinz arranged to stay a few days to find out. The dispatches he filed beginning October 24 give a vivid portrait of a rifle company commander in action in World War II. Of them it can be truly said that they held the most dangerous and difficult job in the world.

Dawson's HQ was in a cellar in the village. There was a kerosene lamp, a table and some chairs, a radio playing classical music, and a couple of lieutenants. Heinz got Dawson talking about what it had been like. "And the kid says to me," Dawson related, " 'I'll take that water to that platoon.'

And he starts out. He is about fifty yards from this doorway and I'm watching him. He is running fast; then I can see this 88 hit right where he is, and, in front of my eyes, he is blown apart."

Dawson spoke of other strains. "I had a kid come up and say, 'I can't take it anymore.' What could I do? If I lose that man, I lose a squad. So I grab him by the shirt, and I say, 'You will, you will. There ain't any going back from this hill except dead.' And he goes back and he is dead."

Dawson sighed. "He doesn't know why, and I don't know why, and you don't know why. But I have got to answer those guys."

He looked Heinz in the eye. "Because I wear bars. I've got the responsibility and I don't know whether I'm big enough for the job." He continued to fix his eyes on Heinz. "But I can't break now. I've taken this for the thirty-nine days we've held this ridge and I'm in the middle of the Siegfried Line and you want to know what I think? I think it stinks."

Dawson began to shed tears. Then he jerked his head up. "Turn it up," he said to a lieutenant by the radio. "That's Puccini. I want to hear it."

Two GIs came into the room. They were apprehensive because Captain Dawson had sent for them. But it was good news. "I'm sending you to Paris," Dawson announced. "For six days. How do you like that?"

"Thanks," one replied reluctantly.

"Well. you had better like it," Dawson said, "and you had better stay out of trouble, but have a good time and bless your hearts." The men mumbled thanks, and left.

"Two of the best boys I've got," Dawson told Heinz. "Wire boys. They've had to run new lines every day because the old ones get chopped up. One day they laid heavy wire for two hundred yards and by the time they got to the end and worked back, the wire had been cut in three places by shellfire."

Dawson told Heinz that he had men who had been wounded in midSeptember, when he first occupied the ridge, who returned four weeks later. They had gone AWOL from the field hospital and made their way back, "and the first thing I know they show up again here and they're grinning from ear to ear. I know it must sound absolutely crazy that would want to come back to this, but it is true."

The following morning one of the lieutenants told Dawson, "Captain, those wiremen, they say they don't want to go to Paris."

"All right," Dawson sighed. "Get two other guys-if you can."

THE BATTLE of Aachen benefited no one. The Americans never should have attacked. The Germans never should have defended. Neither side had a choice. This was war at its worst-wanton destruction for no purpose.

Lieutenant Colonel John C. Harrison (who later became a justice of the Montana Supreme Court) was a 31-year-old Montana State University graduate, acting as liaison officer with corps headquarters. On October 22 he went into Aachen to report on the damage. He wrote in his diary,

"If every German city that we pass through looks like this one the Hun is going to be busy for centuries rebuilding his country."

Harrison saw not one undamaged building. The streets were impassable. It made him feel good. "I thought how odd it is that I would feel good at seeing human misery but I did feel that way, for here was the war being brought to the German in all of its destructive horror. The war has truly come to Germany and pictures of these terrible scenes should be dropped over the entire country to show them what is in store for them if they continue."

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