24

The Mortain Counter-attack

Just before midnight on 2 August, General der Artillerie Warlimont reached the Château de la Roche-Guyon from East Prussia. He had flown to Strasbourg, where a staff car awaited him. His instructions were to assess the American breakthrough, but that day Panzer Group West had been far more concerned about the British drive on Vire, combined with the attack by XXX Corps. ‘Situation still more acute,’ Eberbach reported. ‘Allies trying to join up wedges of penetration on western flank and centre of front.’

The night before Warlimont left the Wolfsschanze, he and Jodl had been summoned by Hitler. They discussed the option of withdrawal to the lower Seine, but its twists and turns made it a difficult line to defend. Hitler was in two minds. He was extremely reluctant to lose contact with Spain and Portugal, dreading the consequent interruption to supplies of raw materials. Pulling back would also mean the end for the submarine bases on the Atlantic coast. Hitler showed himself more realistic than Warlimont had expected, yet he gave him the strictest instructions not to discuss the matter with Kluge. ‘Whenever a line of defence is prepared to the rear of the front line,’ Hitler remarked, ‘my generals think of nothing but pulling back to that line.’

After talks with Kluge, Warlimont then visited various headquarters in the field. He saw General Eberbach of Panzer Group West and Sepp Dietrich of I SS Panzer Corps on the Caen front. The rumbustious Meindl appears to have been the most outspoken, especially when Warlimont gave a dramatic account of near misses from Allied fighters on the road. Afterwards, he said of Warlimont, ‘He belonged to the set of toy soldiers into whose hands Fate had placed our fortune!’ All the officers to whom Warlimont spoke were ‘discouraged’ by the overwhelming effect of Allied air power.

On the morning of 4 August, Warlimont returned to Kluge’s headquarters at La Roche-Guyon. An order had just been received from Hitler to concentrate all the panzer divisions and attack towards Avranches to cut off Patton’s lines of communication. It was to be called Operation Lüttich. Kluge had already considered a similar plan himself, but he feared that ‘he could not hold the line and at the same time launch the counterattack’. Yet Kluge, suspected of complicity in the bomb plot, was in no position to oppose the Führer’s will.

Since his meeting with Jodl and Warlimont, Hitler’s mood had stiffened and he now rejected any idea of withdrawal. The gambler in him, combined with his taste for the dramatic, had inspired one of his map fantasies. He had been gazing at the divisional symbols on his map, while refusing to acknowledge that most were reduced to a fraction of their theoretical strength. For him, the idea of cutting off Patton’s Third Army proved irresistible. He also justified his idea of holding on in Normandy on the grounds that almost all the infantry divisions were without mechanized transport. Retreat would leave them at the mercy of the American armoured divisions and the Allied air forces. At the same time he refused to take Allied air power into consideration when planning Operation Lüttich. This was typical of his compulsion to see only what suited him.

Time was against them, as Kluge knew better than Hitler. On the evening of 4 August, Patton returned from Brittany and conferred with Haislip, the commander of XV Corps. Bradley had issued orders for the Third Army to strike east along the Germans’ open flank. Patton told Haislip to take Mayenne and Laval the following day. Less than two hours later, Haislip was briefing his divisional commanders for an attack the next morning. The 79th Infantry Division was to take Laval, while the 90th Infantry Division was to seize the town of Mayenne to the north.

Patton had been scathing about the 90th when he encountered them on the road east of Avranches just three days before. ‘The division is bad, the discipline poor, the men filthy and the officers apathetic, many of them removing their insignia and covering the markings on helmets. I saw one artillery lieutenant jump out of his Peep and hide in a ditch when one plane flew over at high altitude firing a little.’ But under its new commander, Major General Raymond McLain, the 90th rapidly showed how a formation with low morale could be turned round dramatically by good leadership and a change in circumstances. On 5 August, the 90th seized the town of Mayenne in just six hours. The main crossing over the river had been mined, but ‘a fifteen-year-old French boy went out onto the bridge, and cut the wires’. The 79th took Laval the next morning. The American attack into Brittany, even though it failed to seize a major port, had at any rate distracted the Germans from the real threat to their southern flank. They never expected the Third Army to advance east so rapidly.

Patton also remained privately scornful of Bradley’s concern that the Germans might launch a major counter-attack to his north around Mortain. ‘Personally I do not give much credence to this,’ he had written in his diary on 1 August, when Bradley broached the subject. He was then irritated the next day when Bradley ordered the corner of the front near Fougères to be strengthened. Patton felt that Bradley was being as cautious as the British. Yet Bradley’s instinct was right, though at this point he had no intelligence to back up his hunch.61

For Patton, the most pressing problem was logistical. His armoured divisions were running out of fuel and his supply dumps were still north of Avranches. The roads to the rear were jammed with supply trucks and troops. Military police were overwhelmed as they tried to control the traffic passing through the Avranches bottleneck twenty-four hours a day. Even divisional and corps commanders tried to sort out the chaos. ‘Approximately 13,000 trucks, tanks, jeeps, half-tracks and howitzers crossed over the Pontaubault bridge, averaging one vehicle every thirty seconds.’ The Luftwaffe, ordered to make any sacrifice to attack the Avranches route, launched raids by day as well as by night with bombers and fighter-bombers. But the Americans, having overestimated their needs for anti-aircraft artillery battalions in Normandy, were able to concentrate a formidable firepower around the key bridges south of Avranches.

While Patton’s Third Army began its advance east, Hodges’s First Army continued to push back the Germans south of Vire. On the right, the American 1st Infantry Division was ordered to advance on Mortain and then forge a link with Patton’s forces to the south. Huebner’s 1st Division had an easier task than its neighbours to the north. By the morning of 4 August, the 1st Division had taken Mortain and secured the dominant feature above it, Hill 314, known as the Rochers de Montjoie. When his corps commander, General Collins, reminded him of its importance, Huebner was able to make the satisfying reply, ‘Joe, I already have it.’

Mortain was a quiet town in dramatic countryside. Long and thin, it lay high on the west side of the Montjoie ridge, with the ravine of the River Cance below. At the north end of the town there were two waterfalls. Most houses had a magnificent view out over the ravine to the steep hills on the far side. Avranches lay less than twenty miles beyond as the crow flies.

French refugees escaping the battles to the north had sought refuge there. Most arrived on foot as German soldiers had seized their bicycles and carts to get away. The refugees envied its citizens, because the town had suffered no damage. Those who could afford it had a very pleasant lunch at the Hôtel Saint-Michel, and dreamed of peace to come. The only signs of war were Allied aircraft overhead. The Germans in the neighbourhood were mostly invisible during the day, emerging only after dark.

From behind curtains, others in the area watched the German retreat towards Domfront.‘Some of the troops held themselves well ,others were in a terrible state, men on horses, in pony-traps, pushing handcarts. It reminded us of our own exodus in 1940.’ When the Germans ordered villagers or townspeople to evacuate, the local mayor advised them simply to hide in barns out in the countryside. As the fighting came closer, mothers would check that their younger children had labels tied to their clothes with the address of a relative in case they themselves were killed.

025

On the evening of 5 August, Major General Huebner received orders to move the 1st Infantry Division towards Mayenne. At the same time, the 30th Infantry Division in reserve near Tessy-sur-Vire was to move to Mortain immediately in trucks to relieve Huebner’s troops. But it took time to assemble the transport and then the roads were so packed that the 30th Division convoys averaged little more than three miles an hour. Their first troops did not reach Mortain until mid-morning on 6 August. Officers of the 1st Division briefed them on the situation. The sector was quiet, apart from a few artillery shells and some patrol activity on the flank of the Montjoie ridge. They admitted their surprise, however, that the night before the Luftwaffe had attacked Mortain with bombs and incendiaries. It had not been very effective, so nobody considered it significant.

When Colonel Hammond D. Birks, the commanding officer of the 120th Infantry Regiment, reached Mortain, he found that shops were open and the hotels full. To some of his men ‘it seemed like an excellent place for a little rest and relaxation,’ he noted. But suddenly the mood changed. ‘As we arrived there,’ an aid man with the 120th Infantry Regiment wrote later, ‘the few French people left in the town suddenly started to vanish. The word was passed to us that the French had been warned that the Germans were about to attack and they were taking refuge in some caves near the town. This report seemed completely implausible and we continued to lie lazily on the grass.’

The 2nd Battalion of the 120th dismounted from their trucks in the main street of Mortain and trudged up the side of the rocky Montjoie ridge to take over the 1st Division’s positions around Hill 314. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, made the unfortunate decision to set up his command post in the Grand Hôtel down in the town, rather than with his battalion up on Hill 314. Other companies manned roadblocks leading into the town from north and south. A battalion was also sent south-east to secure the small town of Barenton.

Most of the German divisions were already concealed in their assembly positions on the Sourdeval-Mortain sector. The Das Reich and the 116th Panzer-Division had withdrawn under cover of darkness on 3 August. The 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler also pulled out of the line south of Caen to join the attack, but it had far to go. The remnants of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen were sent to strengthen the Das Reich, whose task was to cover the southern flank of the offensive and attack Mortain. In the centre, the main force was to consist of the 2nd Panzer-Division, which was to head straight for Juvigny-le-Tertre, just another fifteen miles away. On the northern flank, the 116th Panzer-Division was to attack from near Mont Furgon, west of Sourdeval. The 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, once it arrived, would pass through the other divisions after they had broken the American line and race on to Avranches.

Jodl warned Kluge that Hitler wanted the attack to be made with the maximum force and told him that he should delay the offensive until 8 August. But Kluge, having just heard that the Americans were advancing from the River Mayenne towards Le Mans, felt he could not wait. Beyond Le Mans lay the Seventh Army’s supply base at Alençon.

Kluge, Hausser and his chief of staff, Gersdorff, discussed this threat. An American map had been captured showing a thrust from Le Mans on towards Paris, but not north to cut them off. This encouraged them to think that the Allies were not aiming for encirclement. The heavy British attacks ‘were the greatest obstacles in making the decision,’ Gersdorff noted. Hitler showed little concern about the advance of the Third Army. In his view, it simply meant that the counter-attack would cut off even more American troops.

Kluge saw the Avranches offensive as a means of wrong-footing the Allies before withdrawing to the Loire in the south and the Seine in the east. Hitler, on the other hand, with his manic optimism, saw it as the first step towards re-establishing the front held in Normandy at the beginning of July. OKW promised 1,000 fighters in support of the operation, but none of the senior commanders believed this. ‘They had been deceived so many times in the past and they felt that they would be deceived again,’ Warlimont acknowledged after the war. Yet he himself had been one of Hitler’s deceivers, convincing generals that the situation was better than it really was.

Operation Lüttich was to be led by General der Panzertruppen Hans Freiherr von Funck, the thoroughly disliked commander of XLVII Panzer Corps. Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin, the intellectually arrogant commander of the 116th Panzer-Division, had already had a series of furious rows with Funck over his handling of the counter-attack west of the Vire on 28 July. Funck had accused the 116th Panzer-Division of ‘passive resistance, cowardice and incompetence’. Schwerin was now involved in another bitter argument with Funck over the fighting to maintain the start-line for Operation Lüttich. The newly arrived 84th Infanterie-Division on his right, which was supposed to take over his sector, was buckling under renewed American attacks. Then Funck believed wrongly that Schwerin had failed to transfer a Panther battalion to the 2nd Panzer-Division as ordered. He demanded that Schwerin should be relieved of his command. Since the attack was just about to start, Oberstgruppenführer Hausser refused. All the senior commanders were clearly in a very agitated state.

At 15.20 hours on 6 August, less than four hours before the offensive was due to begin, Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge received a signal which began in characteristic fashion: ‘The Führer has ordered . . .’ Operation Lüttich, it stated, was not to be led by General von Funck, but by General Eberbach. Hitler loathed Funck because he had been a personal staff officer of Generaloberst Werner Freiherr von Fritsch, whom Hitler had dismissed in 1938. In 1942, Funck had been destined to command the Afrika Korps, but Hitler appointed Rommel instead.

Kluge was appalled by this decision. He immediately rang the OKW in East Prussia to protest that a change of command a few hours before the attack was ‘virtually impossible’. When told that the operation should be delayed as the Führer insisted, Kluge replied, ‘The attack must be carried out this evening. If we wait any longer, we would have to deal with a grave deterioration in our position. The postponement by a day creates the danger that the enemy air forces would strike our assembly areas.’

Kluge managed to persuade OKW to postpone the transfer of command to Eberbach, but he had other worries. The advance elements of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler had only just reached Flers. Kluge rang Seventh Army headquarters to say that he was doubtful whether they would arrive in time. Although the Leibstandarte had started to pull out on the evening of 4 August, its move to the area of Mortain had been delayed by a sudden Canadian attack, then by traffic jams and the odd air strike.

In spite of Kluge’s fears of bombing raids on their assembly areas, the day saw ‘little air activity’. The 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich lay well hidden under the beech and oak trees of the ancient Forêt de Mortain, a long wooded ridge to the south-east of the town. On the right it had theFührer Panzergrenadier-Regiment, in the middle the battlegroup of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen, and on the left was the Deutschland-Regiment, supported by the 2nd SS Panzer-Regiment, ready to swing past Mortain to the south-west.

The American 30th Infantry Division in and around Mortain still had little idea of what was afoot. The 4th Infantry Division, which was in reserve, noted in its daily operations log, ‘The war looks practically over.’ This optimism was stimulated by the news of Turkey breaking off relations with Germany, the attempts by Finland, Bulgaria ‘and possibly Hungary’ to get out of the war, the American advances to Brest and Mayenne, and the Red Army reaching the outskirts of Warsaw and the edge of East Prussia. On 6 August, the division’s 12th Infantry Regiment finally pulled back to rest in ‘a beautiful bivouac near the picturesque little town of Brécey. Arrangements for showers, shows, movies and Red Cross “doughnut” girls have hurriedly been made. For the first time since D-Day the hollow-eyed, gaunt-cheeked men of the 12th combat team could relax.’

That afternoon and evening, the code-breakers at Bletchley Park began to work on a flurry of intercepts. The Luftwaffe was asked to provide night-fighter protection for the 2nd SS Panzer-Division for an attack on and beyond Mortain. The 2nd and 116th Panzer-Divisions and the Leibstandartewere also identified for an attack whose start-line was between Mortain and Sourdeval. Bradley, although more sceptical of Ultra intelligence than most commanders, was left in no doubt about the seriousness of the attack. He made sure that every artillery battalion available was rushed forward to the threatened sector between the rivers Sée and Sélune. A message was sent to the 30th Infantry Division to reinforce the battalion on Hill 314 above Mortain, but this does not appear to have been received in time. To the north-west, the mayor of Le Mesnil-Tôve warned a company commander of the 117th Infantry of the 30th Division that German troops with tanks were concealed in woods near Bellefontaine, which was behind American lines. When the company commander reported this, he was told by divisional headquarters ‘to stop spreading rumours’.

The start of the attack, originally scheduled for 18.00 hours, was delayed several times due to the SS Leibstandarte’s late arrival. Changes were also made to the formations at the last moment, mainly because other units to reinforce the operation failed to arrive as a result of Allied pressure on other parts of the front. Kluge, who wanted to make last-minute alterations to the plan, was persuaded to leave things as they were. Finally, at midnight, the advance began without any artillery preparation. The plan was to infiltrate as far as possible before daybreak.

The first clash took place on the northern flank even before Operation Lüttich officially began. At 22.30 hours on 6 August, two German half-track motorcycles charged through a roadblock of the 39th Infantry Regiment east of Chérencé-le-Roussel,but were knocked out by another company a little further down the road. Everything was then quiet, but around midnight tanks were heard on the road half a mile to their south which led from Bellefontaine to Le Mesnil-Tôve. Nobody made any connection with the mayor’s earlier warning. They assumed that the tanks were American.

Two hours later, at 02.00 hours on the morning of Monday, 7 August, the battalion in the valley was attacked by German infantry coming from Mont Furgon, just to their north, and more infantry and tanks of the 116th Panzer-Division coming from the east. With the support of some Shermans from the 746th Tank Battalion, they fought them off. The Americans still assumed that this was just a local attack. But it soon became clear that the main German axis of advance lay on the smaller road to their south via Le Mesnil-Tôve. This was the northern column of the 2nd Panzer-Division and, by 05.00 hours, they had swarmed through the village and on to Le Mesnil-Adelée.

The advance of the 2nd Panzer-Division’s southern column was delayed until 05.00 hours. Part of the 117th Infantry Regiment in Saint-Barthélemy could hear the ominous sound of panzers advancing, but the mist was so thick that visibility was reduced to little more than twenty yards. While some of the roadblocks outside the town were easily overrun, one anti-tank position managed to hold up a detachment of Panthers, knocking out two. Other groups of Panthers supported by infantry attacked from other directions, including an advance detachment from the 1st SS Panzer-Division. American infantrymen fought running battles, using bazookas. They resisted ‘extraordinarily well,’ as General von Lüttwitz of the 2nd Panzer-Division later acknowledged.

Eight Panthers entered Saint-Barthélemy and halted in the main street, just outside the advance headquarters of Lieutenant Colonel Frankland of the 1st Battalion of the 117th Infantry. One of his officers looked out of the window to see a Panther just below. They then heard noises at the rear of the house. Frankland went to investigate and found two of his signallers being marched out with their hands above their heads. He shot down two of the SS troopers who had called them out and saw another Panther in the street at the back of the house. Astonishingly, Frankland’s command group managed to escape out of a window and rejoin one of the companies. Under the onslaught of the SS panzergrenadiers, most of Frankland’s battalion had to withdraw, jumping hedges and scuttling down ditches.

Although Frankland’s battalion had been overrun, their fierce defence of Saint-Barthélemy had inflicted a crucial delay on the 2nd Panzer-Division’s advance towards Juvigny-le-Tertre. The Panthers did not resume their advance until late in the morning. This gave the Americans time to rush in reinforcements, especially to block the northern column in Le Mesnil-Adelée, two miles west of Le Mesnil-Tôve.

Soon after midnight, the three Kampfgruppen of the Das Reich and Götz von Berlichingen had advanced on Mortain and Hill 314. They too were helped by the heavy mist, which muffled the noise of their engines.

At 01.25 hours on 7 August, the American battalion on Hill 314 stood to on hearing small-arms fire. The Germans had found a route past the roadblock down at the southern entry to the town. They were attacking up the hill and into Mortain itself. Colonel Hammond Birks, the commander of the 120th Infantry, sent a company into Mortain to clear it, but the Germans were already too well established. At 02.00 hours, the Germans also attacked Hill 314 from the north.

Birks had no more reserves and Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, trapped in the Grand Hôtel in the centre of the town, could not rejoin the bulk of his battalion on the hill above. He and his group, including three other officers, tried to make their way from the Grand Hôtel across the town towards the hill, but patrols of SS panzergrenadiers forced them to seek shelter in an abandoned house.

While most of the roadblocks were quickly overrun, the defensive position near the Abbaye Blanche, just outside the northern edge of the town, inflicted heavy casualties on its SS Das Reich attackers. Lieutenant Springfield’s tank destroyer platoon with its three-inch guns fired at comparatively close range as each German half-track emerged from the fog. ‘A loud clang followed by a red glow announced each direct hit. As the occupants of the armored personnel carriers tumbled out of their stricken machines, they were sprayed with machinegun fire. Tracers ricocheted wildly off the road as well as the armored flanks of immobilized vehicles.’ Colonel Birks, aware of the importance of the Abbaye Blanche position, reinforced it with two platoons. One of their commanders, Lieutenant Tom Andrew, soon took over the direction of the defensive battle there.

A company from Lieutenant Colonel Lockett’s battalion of the 117th Infantry had been sent with four tank destroyers into Romagny, a mile south-west of Mortain, to block the road junction there. They received a nasty shock on finding that the Germans had already taken the place. Lockett’s battalion was not only split into different detachments, they were facing in three directions and Germans were infiltrating their positions using captured American weapons. With the very distinctive sound that they made, American soldiers kept thinking that they were being fired on by their own side. Lockett had only about thirty men left under his direct control. Many of them were not riflemen, but they had to fight as such. The battalion aid station was almost overwhelmed by the number of casualties.

Across the valley on Hill 314, the situation for the 2nd Battalion of the 120th was already desperate. They were surrounded by the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Kampfgruppe. Their wounded lay in the open, vulnerable to mortar rounds. Company positions were isolated and short of ammunition because they could not reach their dump, which was now covered by sniper fire. As a result of Hardaway’s absence, Captain Reynold C. Erichson was told to take command of the bulk of the 2nd Battalion on the hilltop position. Using boulders, foxholes and undergrowth for concealment, the ‘Lost Battalion’, as it became known, held out on Hill 314. Their greatest asset was a forward artillery observer who, once the mist began to lift, could call down fire and correct it from his commanding viewpoint.

In need of rapid support to halt the German panzers, General Bradley and General Hodges contacted General Quesada’s headquarters. As soon as the mist lifted at around 11.00 hours, P-47 Thunderbolts went into action. But the Americans, accepting that the RAF’s rocket-firing Typhoons offered the most effective weapon against tanks, contacted Air Marshal Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force. Coningham and Quesada agreed that the Typhoons ‘should deal exclusively with the enemy armoured columns’ while American fighters would provide a screen and American fighter-bombers would attack transport in the German rear areas.

Although it was a damp, misty morning at the airstrip of Le Fresne-Camilly, north of Caen, two Typhoons had been sent out on a reconnaissance mission. They spotted German armour moving in the Mortain area. On landing, the two pilots ran to the intelligence tent. A Jeep was sent over towards the aircrew tents beyond a tall hedge, the driver sounding his horn in warning. Ground crews rushed to prepare the Typhoons for take-off, while the pilots assembled in the briefing tent.

‘This is the moment we have all been waiting for, Gentlemen,’ Wing Commander Charles Green told them, having had confirmation of the mission from Coningham’s headquarters a few moments before. ‘The chance of getting at Panzers in the open. And there’s lots of the bastards.’ They were to attack in pairs, not in squadron formation. Flight time to target was no more than fifteen minutes. This meant that the whole wing could create a ‘continuous cycle of Typhoon sorties’.

The pilots ran to their aircraft. One of them, out of a personal superstition, insisted on his usual practice of urinating against the tailplane before climbing into the cockpit. Pilots in 123 Wing came from many nations. It was almost an aerial foreign legion, with British pilots, Belgians, French, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Norwegians, Poles, an Argentinian and even a German Jew called Klaus Hugo Adam (later the film-maker, Sir Ken Adam).

The sun was burning off the mist as the eighteen squadrons of 83 Group scrambled. In addition to their 20 mm cannon, the Typhoons had underwing rails which carried eight rockets, each with a sixty-pound high-explosive warhead. Some pilots claimed that their salvo was the equivalent of a broadside from a light cruiser. Trials, however, had shown that the average pilot firing all eight rockets had ‘roughly a four-per-cent chance of hitting a target the size of a German tank’. The plane at least had a ‘brute strength and ruggedness’ which stood up better than most aircraft to ground fire.

The first wave went into action against the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler on the road running west from Saint-Barthélemy. Dun-coloured dust stirred up by the tracks of the armoured vehicles revealed their target as the Typhoons approached. New pilots tried to remember the training mantra ‘Diving point - release point - Scram!’, as well as the need to prevent the plane from sliding into a sideways ‘skid’. The first target was the lead vehicle. The second was the last vehicle in the column. They either fired their rockets in salvoes of eight, or they ‘rippled’ them, firing in a sequence of pairs. Once their rockets were used up, pilots tried to bounce 20 mm cannon rounds off the road just short of their target so that they would hit the weaker underbelly of a tank or half-track. Soon the black smoke billowing from blazing panzers made it hard to see clearly, and the dangers of mid-air collision increased.

Within twenty minutes of take-off, the Typhoons were on their way back to rearm and refuel in a veritable production line. On the ground, the pilots sweated impatiently in the terrible heat of their cockpits under the bubble Perspex canopy. The propellers powered by the Typhoon’s Sabre engine blasted dust in clouds everywhere, so ground-crew and armourers, stripped to the waist in the August heat, had to wear handkerchiefs tied over their face like bandits. As soon as the pilot received the thumbs-up sign, he could taxi round ready for take-off again. And so the shuttle went on. The 2nd Panzer-Division’s advance on Juvigny-le-Tertre was also halted.

American fighter squadrons played their part superbly. Very few of the Luftwaffe’s promised 300 fighters arrived within forty miles of Mortain. The Luftwaffe later rang Seventh Army headquarters to apologize: ‘Our fighters have been engaged in aerial combat from the time of take-off and were unable to reach their actual target area. They hope, however, that their aerial engagements helped just the same.’ The Seventh Army staff officer replied stiffly, ‘There was no noticeable relief.’ The main opposition to the Typhoons came from machine-gun fire. Three aircraft were lost and many damaged, but soon the Leibstandarte reported that their armoured vehicles were running low on ammunition.

Round Mortain, where the opposing forces were more mixed up and harder to differentiate, there were a number of cases of Typhoons attacking American positions by mistake. They destroyed several American vehicles and inflicted some casualties. For example, at the Abbaye Blanche roadblock commanded by Lieutenant Andrew, they wounded two men from a tank destroyer crew. But ‘the British were soon forgiven,’ Lieutenant Andrew said afterwards, because ‘they did a wonderful job against the Germans’.

American soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in Mortain found it disorientating to shelter from Allied aircraft. An aid man hugging the ground during the attack found that he had to raise his chest from the earth to reduce the concussive effects from the explosions. After the Typhoons had left, their guards surveyed the burning vehicles, shook their heads and said, ‘Alles kaputt!’ This time, the first things the Germans had taken from them were water purification tablets, morphine and other medical supplies for their own wounded. Usually, German captors were more interested in grabbing cigarettes or any candy from their prisoners to relieve a craving which their own rations seldom satisfied.

By 16.00 hours, smoke and dust over the target areas made further low-flying operations impossible. Most of the Typhoons were diverted to deal with a German counter-attack against the British 11th Armoured Division east of Vire. The eighteen Typhoon squadrons of 83 Group had flown 294 sorties. ‘As the day developed,’ Air Marshal Coningham wrote in his official report, ‘it was obvious that air history was being made.’ He then went on to record the score. ‘During this day the rocket-firing Typhoons of the Second Tactical Air Force claimed to have destroyed 89 tanks, probably destroyed another 56 tracked vehicles and saw 47 motor vehicles smoking. These claims do not include 56 enemy tanks damaged and 81 motor vehicles damaged.’

Five months later Coningham was furious when he received the report of the Operational Research Section, which had examined the area immediately after the battle and studied the German vehicles left behind. In the Mortain area they found that out of seventy-eight German armoured vehicles destroyed, only nine were attributable to air attack. Clearly, some of the less seriously damaged had been recovered by the Germans before they retreated, but the general conclusion about the accuracy of the Typhoon came as a nasty shock to the Royal Air Force. Coningham seemed to consider the report somehow disloyal and rejected it, but a second report confirmed its findings.

German generals, on the other hand, were quick to attribute their reversal to Allied air power. ‘Whether you realise it or not,’ Geyr von Schweppenburg tactlessly told his American interrogators at the end of the war, ‘it was British rocket-carrying planes that halted our counterattack at Avranches, not your 30th Infantry Division.’ In most cases their argument was based on sheer self-justification. And yet German sources are not alone in attributing their reversal at Mortain to these rocket attacks.

In many instances, fear of the Typhoon prompted panzer crews to abandon their tank in terror, even though they would have been safer inside it than out. An American sergeant observed, ‘There is nothing but air attack that would make a crack panzer crew do that.’ And an abandoned tank was almost as effective as a destroyed tank in blocking a column on a narrow road. In any case, the Typhoon operation on 7 August forced the 2nd Panzer-Division and the Leibstandarte off the roads and into cover, thus halting their advance. This gave the First US Army the chance to bring in artillery and armour to strengthen the line.

There were soon twelve and a half field artillery battalions firing in support of the 30th Infantry Division, including three battalions of 155 mm ‘Long Toms’. Air observers in the Cub spotter planes could direct and adjust their fire, so that every major route was made virtually impassable. But although the German offensive had been thwarted, the position of American units around Mortain remained perilous.

Lieutenant Andrew’s roadblock at the Abbaye Blanche suffered frequent Nebelwerfer salvoes, although fortunately they had taken over well-built German foxholes with overhead protection. A hazardous supply route to the west via Le Neufbourg was also kept open. But there was little chance of sending help to the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry up on Hill 314. Captain Erichson’s force was split between three positions. They had many wounded and were very short on ammunition. Only American artillery fire, directed by Lieutenant Robert Weiss, the forward observer with the ‘Lost Battalion’, had prevented the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Kampfgruppe from overrunning them. He had pre-registered all the likely attack routes and assembly areas below them, so that their field artillery could support them even through the hours of darkness.

At 19.00 hours, Lieutenant Colonel Lockett sent part of his battalion of the 117th Infantry (which had been attached to the 120th) into Le Neufbourg, the village at the north end of Mortain and next to the Abbaye Blanche. The idea was to clear Mortain, but as soon as the leading company entered the north-west edge of the town, German machine guns opened up from houses on both sides of the street and artillery and mortar shells soon began to rain down. They suffered seventy-three casualties in a very short time and the company was forced to withdraw. Colonel Lockett, realizing the impossibility of storming Mortain with such a reduced force and recognizing the importance of the Abbaye Blanche roadblock, told the remnants of the company to join the force there. But a number were severely traumatized by the firefight that they had just been in and took little part in the rest of the battle.

Meanwhile in Mortain itself, a group of about forty-five men from C Company of the 120th were trapped without food and water and with a number of wounded. They had inflicted heavy casualties on the SS panzergrenadiers trying to clear the town. Colonel Lockett wanted to get them out so that Mortain could be bombarded at will. A rescue patrol was assembled with several stragglers from the beleaguered company and a dozen litter-bearers to carry back the wounded. They were led by Sergeant Walter Stasko, who had reconnoitred the perilous route down into the gorge and up the far side. Covering fire was given by the mortar platoon, which had a clear view from its position on a hill west of the ravine. The patrol managed to reach most of the men and lead them out, but the steep descent was so difficult that they had to carry the wounded down the hill on their backs.

On 8 August, the main concern of the 30th Division was to preserve the position of the ‘Lost Battalion’ on Hill 314. They tried to drop supplies by Piper Cub spotter planes, but the Das Reich had brought in anti-aircraft guns to thwart this. The Lost Battalion was ‘a thorn in the flesh’, a German corps commander acknowledged. ‘Its courageous commitment paralyzed all movements in the Mortain area.’ But without water, ammunition, food or medical supplies, their hopes of holding out seemed to be diminishing rapidly.

That day, while fighting continued in and around Mortain, the Americans launched a counter-attack against Romagny, to the south-west of the town. Meanwhile Bradley brought in the 2nd Armored Division and a regiment from the 35th Infantry Division to attack the German southern flanks round Mortain. The 2nd Armored, advancing from Barenton, ran into the remnants of the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg, which Eberbach had been forced to withdraw after its battering by the British 11th Armoured Division east of Vire. The increased strength of the Americans around Barenton ensured that the Germans were not able to relaunch their offensive further to the south, as they had hoped.

With Operation Lüttich thwarted by a much more robust American response than expected, the strain on German troops and their commanders increased dramatically. An American private who had been taken prisoner recorded how German officers and soldiers were steadying their nerves during American artillery barrages with bottles of cognac. And front-line units had started to hear from their supply troops that the advance of the American Third Army to the south threatened to cut them off.

In formation headquarters to the rear, the tension erupted in furious rows, most notably with General von Funck’s vendetta against General von Schwerin of the 116th Panzer-Division. In the suspicious atmosphere following the bomb plot, Schwerin was vulnerable after all his anti-Nazi quips. Funck, falsely accusing the 116th of failing to take part in the operation, finally persuaded Oberstgruppenführer Hausser to relieve Schwerin, even while the battle continued.

Kluge was close to despair. The Canadian offensive, Operation Totalize, launched towards Falaise on the night of 7 August, meant that he could extract no more forces from the Fifth Panzer Army. He had also counted on the 9th Panzer-Division joining the attack on Avranches, but now found that it was desperately needed to their rear. The American Third Army had sent one of its corps north towards Alençon and the supply base of his own Seventh Army. ‘It was quite clear,’ wrote Gersdorff, Hausser’s chief of staff, ‘that this was to be the knockout blow and the end of the army and the whole of the western front.’

Encirclement was now a real threat, yet Hitler insisted that the Avranches offensive should be renewed. On 9 August, General der Infanterie Walter Buhle from the OKW arrived at Seventh Army advance headquarters near Flers to ensure that this happened. ‘He insisted on seeing General Hausser personally,’ wrote Gersdorff, the chief of staff. ‘He asked Hausser in a direct question on Hitler’s orders whether he considered “that a continuation of the offensive could be of any success”. Hausser answered in the affirmative.’ He presumed that any other reply would lead to his instant dismissal. Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge, even though he knew that the operation was leading them to disaster, was also in no position to refuse. He ordered Hausser to relaunch the attack with what was now called Panzer Group Eberbach. Both men knew that even if their forces reached Avranches they would never have the strength to hold a position there.

In Mortain itself, Lieutenant Colonel Hardaway, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion of the 120th, managed to slip out of the town on the east side, but was captured trying to climb Hill 314 to rejoin his men.

At 18.20 hours, a Waffen-SS officer, accompanied by an SS trooper carrying a white flag, approached one of the battalion’s perimeters. ‘In formal manner’, he stated that he was offering the Americans on the hill the chance of an honourable surrender. They were surrounded and their position was hopeless. If they did not surrender before 22.00 hours, his forces would ‘blow them to bits’. The reply came back that they would not surrender as long as they possessed ‘ammunition to kill Germans with, or a bayonet left to stick in a Boche belly’. The SS attacked with panzers that night, apparently shouting ‘Surrender! Surrender! ’, but they were halted with anti-tank guns and bazookas. Only one tank broke through and took a single American soldier prisoner.

The Abbaye Blanche roadblock also fought off numerous attacks, including one with flame-throwers. In an attempt to help its defenders and to control the road north out of Mortain, efforts were made to seize the road junction on Hill 278, halfway between Mortain and Saint-Barthélemy. Part of the 12th Infantry Regiment brought down from its rest area in Brécey tried to force back the northern Kampfgruppe of the SS Das Reich. They were then to turn south into Mortain to relieve the beleaguered outposts of the 30th Division. The 2nd Battalion of the 12th Infantry had nearly reached the key crossroads when it was struck ‘a stunning blow’ by Leibstandarte panzers. They pulled back west of a stream and tried to bring up tanks and tank destroyers across the boggy ground, but it proved impossible.

On 9 August, the Germans attacked again in the early-morning mist south of Saint-Barthélemy. SS panzergrenadiers were seen wearing bits of American uniform and carrying American weapons. One group wore ‘American shoes, leggings, field jackets and helmets’. At times the fighting consisted of close-quarter combat, with panzergrenadiers throwing themselves at the 12th Infantry in their foxholes. German artillery fire was unusually intense. ‘For the first time we sustained heavier fire than we gave,’ an officer observed afterwards. The strain of four days of desperate fighting told after so many weeks of combat: ‘The Regiment had some 300 exhaustion cases during the period.’

The frenzy of the fighting is indicated by this extraordinary report from the 12th Infantry. Private Burik of E Company, 2nd Battalion, heard a tank approaching from the north. ‘The tank he could see was coming down the road toward the orchard. Grabbing his bazooka he loaded it and stepped out onto the road. On his first attempt to fire the bazooka it did not go off. He found that the safety was stuck. While the tank continued to approach him, [Burik] released the safety and fired point-blank at the tank.’ The tank then fired directly at him, knocking him down and seriously injuring him. He arose, loaded the bazooka, took direct aim and fired again. The tank fired another round, knocking him down again. ‘Dragging himself up to a firing position, [Burik] loaded the bazooka a third time and from his shaky position fired at the tank. Jerry had had too much and withdrew up the hill. [Burik] with utter disregard for his own safety then tried to push another injured soldier into a foxhole.’ Burik turned and called for more bazooka ammunition, then fell unconscious along the side of the road. Later he died from his wounds.

Another attempt to seize the road junction on Hill 278 was led by Lieutenant Colonel Samuel A. Hogan, with a battalion of the 119th Infantry riding on his tanks from the 3rd Armored Division. They took a circuitous route round to the west of Mortain and across the railway bridge near the Abbaye Blanche roadblock. Held up by the Der Führer Regiment of the Das Reich, they had to spend the night in all-round defence east of the road. Then, on 10 August, they were involved in furious fighting among high hedgerows which cost Hogan nine Shermans.

There was a particular hedgerow which the Shermans had to break through to continue the advance. After a ‘rhino’ tank made an opening, Lieutenant Wray, who had acknowledged that it was a suicide mission, led the charge through the gap. As his Sherman broke out into a wheatfield, a concealed German Panther scored a direct hit. Several of the crew died instantly. Wray himself jumped from the blazing tank, his body badly burned. He fell to his hands and knees, while the supporting infantry platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Edward Arn, watched in horror. ‘Then he pulled himself to his feet,’ Arn recounted, ‘and started back towards the hedgerow he had just busted through. It seemed as if he remembered something because he went back to the tank. He helped get another man out and they both started to run, but the Jerries cut them down with a burst of machinegun fire.’

Arn’s platoon had pulled back into the nearest hedgerow, but to their surprise they were able to exact a rapid revenge. A group of Germans walked up to inspect Wray’s burning tank. ‘They came out in a little bunch and stood around it,’ said Arn. ‘Curiosity, I guess.’ Arn and his men ‘mowed them down’.

Hogan’s combat team was so short of men that Sergeant Kirkman went back to Le Neufbourg to fetch reinforcements. He returned with thirty-six inexperienced replacements through German artillery fire. Several were killed or wounded on the way. According to Kirkman, the man right next to him was hit with a splinter from a treeburst which entered the back of his head and came right out through his face. The new arrivals were severely shaken by the time they reached the combat team. Lieutenant Arn asked Kirkman where his replacements were.

‘There, under that tank,’ the sergeant replied.

Most of these replacements, ‘suddenly placed under the heavy enemy artillery and machinegun fire, were frozen into immobility’. This, of course, made them doubly vulnerable. Arn recounted that he ‘had to actually boot some of them in the tail to get them to move for their own protection. One man crouched in a foxhole with his hands clasped over his head and got a direct hit from an 88 that took his head clean off.’ Out of the thirty-six new men, only four survived.

Hogan’s reduced force, almost within striking distance of its objective, was attacked in the flank by a panzergrenadier battalion. The Americans fought them off, then as soon as the Germans had disappeared into their foxholes, they bombarded them with white phosphorus. The shower of burning particles forced them to jump out. The Americans then switched to high explosive to cut them down. Soon after night fell, German aircraft arrived to attack the American positions, ‘but instead they bombed their own troops who frantically shot off green flares to stop this unexpected blow’. Colonel Hogan commented that the sight was ‘very enjoyable’.

Before dawn on 10 August, the SS Kampfgruppe besieging the ‘Lost Battalion’ began the first of a series of attacks. Lieutenant Weiss again called down fire from their supporting artillery battalions. Communications, however, were becoming increasingly difficult as he could not recharge his radio batteries. Medical supplies were desperately needed. The battalion had no doctor and aid men cared for their wounded in deep slit trenches. All the soldiers felt weak from lack of food. Some of the more daring slipped out in foraging parties at night to fetch carrots, potatoes and radishes from allotment gardens down the hill. Two sergeants even managed to find some rabbits in cages being fattened for the pot by locals.

That afternoon C-47 transport planes, escorted by P-47 Thunderbolts, dropped seventy-one containers on Hill 314, but due to the breeze only a few fell within the American perimeters. Ammunition and rations were recovered, but no batteries or medical supplies. The 230th Field Artillery Battalion then tried to fire packs containing blood plasma, morphine, sulfa and bandages on to the hilltop using 105 mm smoke shells hollowed out. Only three packages were recovered and none of the plasma survived its explosive journey.

Although little could be done for the wounded on Hill 314, ambulances ferried casualties from the fighting elsewhere back for treatment. In addition to the usual battle injuries, there were many caused by rock fragments. The 128th Evacuation Hospital near Tessy-sur-Vire ran out of tentage. Ambulances waiting to unload were backed up for half a mile down the road.

026

By the evening of 11 August, the Das Reich had been forced to withdraw from their positions west of Mortain. And although the American counter-attacks from the south with the 35th Infantry Division and the 2nd Armored Division had been badly coordinated with the 30th Infantry Division, they were finally within reach of Hill 314.

That day, Kluge managed to persuade the OKW and Hitler that, as a temporary measure before resuming the Avranches offensive, part of Panzer Group Eberbach should counter-attack the American divisions threatening the supply base at Alençon. This was Kluge’s only way of starting a retreat before they were encircled. ‘Under cover of this operation, the Seventh Army was to withdraw,’ one of his corps commanders observed.

That night, after firing off most of their artillery ammunition, German units began to pull back. They covered their traces well in most places, retiring behind an aggressive rearguard. The Americans were not sure of what was happening until after daylight on 12 August. The 1st Battalion of the 39th Infantry, as they advanced, found jocular thank-you notes from German panzergrenadiers for the chocolate, cigarettes and ammunition which had been dropped on them by mistake, instead of on Hill 314 above Mortain.

The withdrawal did not escape the attention of Lieutenant Weiss up on the Rochers de Montjoie. He called down fire on the troops and vehicles heading east and soon five artillery battalions were bombarding their exit. The ‘Lost Battalion’ was finally relieved. Trucks with food and medical supplies followed the troops as they trudged up the hill. The 2nd Battalion of the 120th Infantry on Hill 314 had suffered nearly 300 casualties out of 700 men. The battalion received a presidential citation for its outstanding resilience and bravery. Its heroic defence had been an essential element in the victory.

Colonel Birks, the commander of the 120th Infantry, had first hurried to the Abbaye Blanche roadblock, fearing to find only a few survivors. He was amazed to hear that just three men had been killed and twenty wounded out of this force. Birks walked up the different roads to survey all the burnt and smashed German vehicles. ‘It was the best sight I had seen in the war,’ he said afterwards. He proceeded down the hill and round the corner into Mortain.

The main street was impassable to vehicles. The centre of the town was little more than a heap of ruins, with just some walls and chimneys still standing. Most of the destruction had been wrought on the eve of its liberation. Almost unbelievably, the chief of staff of the 30th Division said, ‘I want Mortain demolished . . . hammer that all night, burn it up so nothing can live in there.’ This innocent French town had been destroyed in a terrifying fit of pique. Birks, to his astonishment, found himself being embraced by a small group of his officers and men in an emotional state, having been trapped there for several days and during its bombardment the night before.

Late on 13 August, the 12th Infantry Regiment and its ‘incredibly weary troops’ returned to the 4th Division to rest. It appears that their commander, Major General Barton, did not fully appreciate what his men had been through. He was more concerned about ‘the attitude of “silent mutiny” which recently appeared among some men who up to now had been good soldiers. These men have decided that they’re being pushed around, that nobody cares about them and they have decided that they are through and will quit trying.’ The officers, he implied, were partly to blame for not keeping their men ‘in fighting spirit’.

When Warlimont reported on the failure of Operation Lüttich, Hitler listened to him for almost an hour in the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia. ‘Kluge did it deliberately,’ was all he said when Warlimont had finished. ‘He did it to prove that it was impossible to carry out my orders.’

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