DESPITE the travails of the Hürtgen Forest, Omar Bradley’s optimism rebounded, and he assured his lieutenants that Operation QUEEN—the 12th Army Group assault designed to scourge enemy defenses east and north of Aachen—would be “the last big offensive necessary to bring Germany to her knees.” Bradley shuttled between Luxembourg City and Spa, consolidating his divisions, encouraging his commanders, and scrutinizing weather forecasts. A successful lunge through the German lines to Düren could carry across the Roer River another twenty-five miles to the Rhine, he believed, replicating the breakout from St.-Lô to the Seine.
Just past the meridian on November 16, twenty-four hundred heavy bombers dropped ten thousand tons of high explosives and incendiaries on targets near Aachen—so much brimstone that a surrendering German confessed, “I feel very good about being captured.” Then gusts of white flame leaped from twelve hundred artillery tubes across the front, and shells by the tens of thousands detonated downrange “like yellow blossoms bursting on a gray wallpaper,” wrote the correspondent W. C. Heinz. Fluorescent orange sheets draped the decks of surging Sherman tanks, identifying them as friendly to the fighter-bombers swarming overhead, and infantry shock battalions again surged eastward toward the Roer, in that hunched scamper of exposed men trying to make themselves small. The sound of musketry became general, and it was said that the soldiers “all had the same expression because they had no expression at all.” In some sectors, sixty-inch searchlights, each like a tiny sun with 800 million candlepower, would point the way through the autumnal gloom, illuminating minefields and bedazzling defenders.
The entrenched enemy quickly stiffened. In Collins’s VII Corps, which spearheaded First Army on the right with nine attacking infantry regiments and an armored combat command, some companies managed only eight hundred yards before dusk. Tanks made a modest dent in the Stolberg corridor, but at a price: forty-four of the sixty-four Shermans at the point of the spear. In four days, the 1st Division would advance two miles and lose a thousand men; the next two miles cost another three thousand casualties. The 104th Division, commanded by Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, who had led the adjacent Big Red One in Africa and Sicily, outflanked the town of Eschweiler, where still-hot food and burning candles evidenced an enemy decamping in haste. But even after a week, General Hodges would find the Roer several miles beyond his grasp, and the battle reduced to a “house-by-house killing match.” Nor did Ninth Army on the left fare much better in attacking the plashy, mine-infested crescent between the rivers Wurm and Roer, where fifty stone villages had been converted into Wehrmacht citadels. As of November 22, XIX Corps had advanced three or four miles, fighting not only Model’s legions, but mud, despair, and a dozen types of mine.
Thirty days hath November, and only on two of them did it neither rain nor snow. Rainfall was triple the monthly average. Rain grayed the soldiers, as it had in Italy, melding them with the mud until they seemed no more than clay with eyes, as ugly as the beet and cabbage fields in which they fought. Radios and mine detectors shorted out, trucks bogged to the bumpers, and frozen mud made wool coats unbearably bulky. “Men were forced to discard their overcoats because they lacked the strength to wear them,” a staff officer noted. “Their hands are so numb that they have to help one another on with their equipment.” Riflemen tied kerchiefs around the triggers and bolts of their M-1s in a futile effort to keep them clean; condoms or the waxed paper from ration crackers covered the muzzles. Army ordnance shops and French fabricators made a million or more “duck bills,” five-inch steel cleats welded onto tank tracks to widen their purchase and give them better traction in the mud. A single Sherman could wear over three hundred of the things and still get stuck.
This was “thee or me” combat, in a First Army phrase, and it made men sardonic, fatalistic, and deeply sad. A soldier in the 5th Division wrote home, “They say cleanliness is next to Godliness. I say it’s next to impossible.… If I am killed and go to hell it can’t be any worse than infantry combat.” A nineteen-year-old comrade wrote, “With every heartbeat I seemed to hear a voice, relentlessly, and ever louder, saying, ‘It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming, nearer, nearer.’” A quartermaster soldier almost hit by a German shell told Robert Capa, “That one sounded like, ‘You ain’t goin’ back to Alabama.’” Most soldiers now “didn’t bother to button our flies,” a GI in the 78th Division reported. “Convenience for frequent emptying of a nervous bladder was preferable to pissing your pants.” An intelligence officer who would serve six terms as governor of Arkansas, Major Orval E. Faubus, found that he could no longer recall when the hollyhocks bloomed in his native Ozarks. “One forgets so much,” he mused. When his young son wrote that he had just seen Snow White, Faubus buckled. “I wonder,” he asked, “why I had to love him so much.”
Even the best soldiers frayed. Lieutenant Colonel Creighton Abrams, a storied tank commander who eventually would wear four stars, wrote his wife:
My heart and soul have been torn and seared by so many things already, by losses, by frustrations, by errors.… I haven’t been dry, I haven’t been warm, except for quick naps I haven’t slept for two weeks. There’s no time to eat right, there’s no time to think—it’s attack, attack, attack.
“War happens inside a man,” Eric Sevareid concluded. “It happens to one man alone. It can never be communicated.… A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one family table.” Among the empty chairs was that of Captain Thomas F. O’Brien, a New Hampshire boy killed on his birthday in the opening hours of Operation QUEEN. “He did not suffer very long,” the company war diary recorded, “perhaps ten minutes.” Succeeding him in command of the 16th Infantry’s Cannon Company was his best friend, Captain Jack E. Golden, who like many 1st Division veterans battled recurrent malaria contracted in the Mediterranean. “I feel about eighty years old now,” Golden told his family in Texas. He was twenty-two.
You get so tired you stop doing small things that are important to your safety and if you get tired enough you don’t care whether you live or die.… We gamble life and death. Daddy, you will understand this. Just like in cards you may win night after night but you can’t be lucky always.… I am always scared to death.
As fresh reserves came forward, legions of dead men were removed to the rear. Each field army developed assembly lines to handle five hundred bodies a day; under government regulations, twenty-five sufficed to open a new temporary cemetery. Great pains were taken to identify remains whenever possible. Innovative techniques allowed fingerprints to be lifted from bodies long buried and for hidden laundry marks to be extracted from shredded uniforms. Graves Registration artisans meticulously reconstructed mutilated faces with cosmetic wax so that Signal Corps photographs could be taken to help identify those without dogtags. Reuniting a dead man and his name was the last great service that could be rendered a comrade gone west.
For the living, small pleasures helped pass the time, since, as one soldier told his diary in November, “the process of making history is 90 percent boredom.” Blackjack and poker games raged in muddy beet-and-turnip burrows ten feet square, each illuminated by an old canteen filled with kerosene and a sock wick. During mail call, wrote the soldier-poet Karl Shapiro, “war stands aside for an hour.… A world is made human.” One officer told his wife that he had spent thirty minutes in an abandoned house “pulling the chain of a sit-down latrine and listening to the melodious crashing of water, just like home.”
Even for those who would outlive the war and die abed as old men in the next century, these were the most intense moments they would ever know. “I’ve learned what it means to be alive, to breathe and to feel,” a lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne wrote his sister. “I have seen men do such things, both good and bad, that surely the recording angel in heaven must rejoice and despair of them.” None could doubt that war would transform them, that at least some corner of the soul would never be what it once was. “I can see now,” a soldier in the 84th Division wrote his father on November 26, “how a man changes greatly.”
* * *
Operation QUEEN sputtered and stalled. After more than three weeks, Ninth Army closed to the west bank of the Roer, but not to the Rhine as Bradley had hoped. VII Corps in First Army would not reach the Roer until mid-December, requiring thirty-one days to move seven miles, or fifty feet an hour. Together the two armies suffered 38,000 battle casualties. In the three months since Staff Sergeant Holzinger became the first GI to set foot on German soil, the Allies had nowhere penetrated the border by more than twenty-two miles. Total American losses for the fall—killed, wounded, died of wounds, died of illness, died in accidents, missing, captured, sick, injured, battle-fatigued, imprisoned, suicides—climbed to 140,000.
The face reconstructors and the grave diggers stayed busy. SHAEF in October had set quotas for valor awards lest they be disbursed too promiscuously; each infantry division could give out three Distinguished Service Crosses, thirty-five Silver Stars, and seventy-nine Bronze Stars for every week in combat. Now the quotas seemed niggardly, and Eisenhower ordered the policy revised.
The Roer, already in spate from daily rain, remained susceptible to deliberate flooding. After several postponements for bad weather and at least one mission in which the navigators got lost, the Royal Air Force in early December dropped nearly two thousand tons on the Schwammenauel, the Urft, and other dams. Many direct hits did only enough damage to create a bit of sloshing downstream, and the RAF soon went back to smashing cities. SHAEF censors banned all reference to the dams in press dispatches, as if the enemy might not have noticed the Allies’ belated interest. Had even one of the four Army corps in QUEEN been able to fight on to the Rhine, the German plan for a surprise winter offensive—already far advanced—would no doubt have been disrupted if not undone. But no crossing of the Roer was yet feasible and the Rhine remained beyond reach.
Certainly the enemy had been badly hurt. The initial bombing had pulverized several Roer towns. Various German units disembarking from trains or otherwise vulnerable in Jülich and Düren were butchered. Of eight infantry battalions in one Volksgrenadier division, none could now muster even a hundred men. Twenty-two thousand gallons of napalm encouraged 8,000 Germans to surrender in the Ninth Army sector, among 100,000 prisoners who passed through 12th Army Group cages that fall. Enemy commanders were reduced to throwing clerks, engineers, and even veterinarians into the line. “Great losses,” a German officer added, “were occasioned by numerous frostbites.”
Yet there was no sign that Germany was on her knees, as Bradley had anticipated, and even he felt a resurgent gloom. “It is entirely possible,” he told a War Department visitor, “for the Germans to fight bitter delaying actions until 1 January 1946.”
* * *
Winter always seemed to catch the U.S. Army by surprise. The Americans had been unprepared for winter campaigning in the Atlas Mountains of Tunisia in 1942 and in the Apennines of Italy in 1943, and they were just as unready in 1944. Even beforeOVERLORD, War Department queries about cold-weather preparations had been mostly dismissed with a resentful scowl by Eisenhower’s provisioners. Arctic clothing tested at Anzio was offered to SHAEF but rejected as unnecessary. The Army’s quartermaster general in mid-August had predicted that “the war would not go into another winter,” and Major General Robert M. Littlejohn, the chief quartermaster in Europe, agreed that “the serious fighting cannot long continue.” In mid-September, Hodges assured his uneasy medical officers, “Don’t you know that this war is going to be over in a few weeks?” A late requisition for winter clothing was submitted to the War Department “as a precautionary measure,” but it included only enough to outfit one army of 350,000 soldiers at a time when four American armies were fighting in western Europe.
The alarming German resilience of late October had inspired Littlejohn to urge Bradley to expedite shipments of cold-weather kit to the battlefront. “General, the weather is getting cold. Soon you will need some winter clothing,” the quartermaster told him in Luxembourg City. Bradley waved off the warning, saying, in Littlejohn’s recollection, “The men are tough and can take it.” Supply-line sclerosis and delays in opening Antwerp aggravated matters, as did the severe wear on all uniforms and equipment: even as theater commanders in late September belatedly requested 850,000 heavy overcoats—double the number contemplated just a month earlier—plus five million sets of wool undershirts and drawers, quartermasters faced a need to reclothe a million ragged U.S. soldiers, as well as 100,000 French troops and throngs of German prisoners. “We can’t fight a winter war in the same clothes that we use in the summer,” Captain Jack Golden wrote his family. “We should have learned a little last winter in Italy.”
Instead, as the Army official history conceded, “front-line troops fought through a large part of the winter inadequately clothed.” Far less than half of the requested underwear reached the theater, despite Littlejohn’s contention that “wool is essential to combat, as much as ammunition.” Shortages of wool socks in medium sizes forced Army laundries to try shrinking size 12 pairs, even as unintended shrinkage remained a galling problem, with a “high failure rate in all woolens.” Three field launderings were typically enough to ruin a pair of socks, so the Army had to buy seven million new pairs a month.
The Army listed seventy different articles of winter clothing, guaranteeing a thousand permutations of confusion. Six different field jackets reached Europe, for example, and seven types of trousers. The “jacket, field, M-43” came in nineteen sizes, while the “jacket, field, pile” liner came in only thirteen, thus confounding mathematical efforts to match them. Attempts to develop decent sleeping bags were byzantine. The Harvard University Fatigue Laboratory invented a measuring unit of insulation called the “Clo,” with one Clo defined as the protection provided by an ordinary business suit when worn in an Alaskan winter. A single bag of quilted down and waterfowl feathers rated seven Clos, while two layers of Army blankets covered with a cotton windbreaker earned four. More than sixty bag variants were tested, including some made of chopped chicken and turkey feathers, milkweed floss, and reindeer hide, but the materials mattered little if the bags failed to reach the field armies, as, in 1944, they commonly did.
The Army was said to believe that every GI was fashioned from four elements—a belly, genitalia, a bundle of conditioned reflexes, and a pair of feet. Insufficient attention was paid to the last of these components, for among body parts it was the foot that most plagued the American war effort in Europe. Four types of GI footgear were available in late fall, “none of which were entirely satisfactory,” as a Pentagon investigation found. Combat boots fitted in warm weather were often too tight to accommodate more than a single pair of socks, and in rain and snow the boot was “nothing but a sponge tied around the soldier’s foot,” as General Littlejohn acknowledged. Far too few overshoes had been requisitioned, and virtually none larger than size 11 arrived before March 1945; half of the several million pairs eventually shipped to Europe proved too delicate to tug over a combat boot. The “shoepac,” a rubber-and-leather boot designed to be worn with two pairs of heavy socks, was ill-fitting and leaky. Until December, only enough were requisitioned for a small fraction of the GIs who needed them, and far too few in widths E, EE, and EEE.
And so the soldier suffered. The first case of trench foot—a crippling injury to blood vessels and tissue caused by prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions—had been reported on September 27. Within weeks, the syndrome was epidemic. “We are making some progress in the prevention of trench foot,” Eisenhower wrote Marshall on November 27. That was untrue. In November and December trench foot and other cold weather health problems hospitalized 23,000 men, nearly all of them combat infantrymen—a loss equivalent to the infantry strength of five and a half divisions. By late November, trench foot accounted for one-quarter of all hospital admissions. In Third Army, where trench foot was particularly virulent, physicians reported that almost none of the afflicted soldiers would return to duty before spring; four in ten eventually were evacuated home as disabled. A 30th Division account described “long lines of cots on which lay soldier after soldier, their feet sticking out from under the blankets, with a little ball of cotton wool separating each toe.”
Almost nothing had been learned from the Italian campaign, despite ample warnings after the experience of the previous winter. Nor had the Americans learned from the British or the Germans, who enforced prophylactic measures such as dry socks, foot massages, frequent inspections, and soldier education. Many GIs were told to lace their boots tighter, precisely the wrong advice. Bradley, who acknowledged soldiers “not having their wet shoes off for periods of five to ten days,” warned in late November that 12th Army Group could lose a thousand men to trench foot every day. In the event, 46,000 troops would be hospitalized by spring, almost 10 percent of admitted casualties in Europe, an avoidable calamity even worse than the malaria epidemic that had decimated Allied armies in Sicily. By Army regulation, trench foot patients, unlike frostbite victims, were ineligible for the Purple Heart, and some commanders likened the disgrace of trench foot to that of a venereal disease.
As every buck private knew, the weather would get worse before it got better. First Army meteorologists in one forecast put the chance of sunshine at “1 in 1,000.” Axle-deep mud caused a soldier to write that he had “never realized its omnipresence, persistency, and mucilaginous qualities. I especially dislike wading through it to get food.” Soldiers complained that conditions were so awful that they risked “trench body.” Men coped as they could by rubbing peppermint extract on their toes, or wedging newspaper in their shoes and around their genitals, or kneeling rather than standing in foxholes, or building sleeping platforms above warm dungheaps, or fashioning homemade footwear from wool blankets and overshoes. An antiaircraft gunner who noticed Eisenhower’s fleece-lined boots during a visit to the front offered five hundred francs for the pair. The supreme commander pulled off the boots and offered them in trade for “one dead Kraut.”
* * *
The soldiers’ misery contributed to a spike in combat exhaustion, a medical diagnosis coined in Tunisia to replace the discredited “shell shock” of World War I. The brutal fighting, oppressive conditions, and recognition that the war was far from over took a profound psychic toll, not least among troops said to be “ghosted,” haunted by the memory of dead comrades. “Each moment of combat imposes a strain so great that men will break down in direct relation to the intensity and duration of their exposure,” the theater surgeon general told Eisenhower. “Thus psychiatric casualties are as inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”
Those evacuated from the front with combat exhaustion—some were so badly unhinged they had to be immobilized by tying their boot laces together and lashing gun belts around their arms—were said to be “going back to the kitchen.” So many thousands now headed to the kitchen that SHAEF censors banned disclosure of their numbers; the public would not know that the U.S. Army alone hospitalized 929,000 men for “neuropsychiatric” reasons in World War II, including as many as one in four admissions during the bitter fall of 1944. “I can’t take much more of this fighting because it is getting the best of me,” an infantryman wrote his family. “This nerve business I’ve been trying to cover up from my own men, but I’m sure they have noticed it because I’ve noticed it in some of them.”
In contrast to the Army’s nonchalance about cold-weather injuries, the military had learned much in the Mediterranean about combat exhaustion, and that experience served the ranks well in western Europe. Most patients were treated as temporarily disabled and kept close to the front, to preserve their self-respect and emotional links to their unit. Division clearing stations now usually included a psychiatrist; as in Italy, exhausted patients often were put into a deep sleep, sometimes for days, with “Blue 88s,” sodium amytal or nembutal capsules. Of every one hundred exhaustion patients hospitalized in the European theater, ninety returned to duty in some capacity, although many were finished as killer riflemen.
But neither competent treatment nor all the Blue 88s in Europe could efface war’s capacity to fracture men’s psyches. “Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness,” an American Civil War veteran had once observed, and that dilemma still obtained. “The only way one could get out of battle,” a Canadian psychiatrist wrote, “was death, wounds, self-inflicted wounds, and going ‘nuts.’” Lieutenant Paul Fussell, who would narrowly survive the war to become one of its shrewdest expositors, believed that “after five months of combat duty, a frontline officer is used up, neurasthenic beyond saving.” Most experts concluded that soldiers wore out for good after 200 to 240 days of battle, although two psychologists monitoring the advance into Germany posited that a GI’s combat skills began to decline after a month of fighting, with many “close to a vegetative state” after forty-five days. One soldier who had been wounded for a second time tried to explain in a letter home why he was still hospitalized. “I’m not badly injured,” he wrote. “But I guess I’m hurt, Pop. Hurt inside—in my brain.”
How to mitigate such psychic battering would remain a quandary, as it had been since Homer’s day. “Morale is a darkling plain, littered with dead clichés, swept by pronunciamentos, and only fitfully lit up by the electrical play of insight,” an AAF study declared. The Army’s surgeon general recommended that frontline infantrymen be relieved for six months after completing two hundred days in combat, but the nation lacked enough replacements to effect such a solution. “Under present policy no man is removed from combat duty until he has become worthless,” a report to Eisenhower noted. “The infantryman considers this a bitter injustice.” One chaplain was reduced to suggesting that “sound mental health requires a satisfactory life-purpose and faith in a friendly universe.” On the battlefields of Europe in 1944, no such cosmology seemed likely.
* * *
George Patton had encamped in a villa with a grilled gateway at 10 Rue Auxerre in Nancy, not far from the World War I battlefields where he had first won glory as a tank commander. Owned by a French coal baron, the mansion was said by one visitor to be “filled with the most impossible bric-a-brac, including gilded angels three feet high and cherubs hanging from the ceilings, cheap and showy statuary lining the halls along with dull green, brown, and purple tapestries.” Aides drove to Burgundy on wine-buying sprees, and Willie the timid bull terrier often dozed on a chair by the sideboard. Eleven-inch German rail guns twenty-five miles away had found Third Army’s range, occasionally lobbing 600-pound shells into Nancy, including three rounds that broke the windows and doorjambs at No. 10 one night, while wrecking the house across the street.
Patton swanned about Lorraine with studied insouciance, loudly singing the obscene verses of “Lilly from Piccadilly” in his open jeep with its bleating klaxon and three-star insignia front and rear. To one reporter he showed off his famous ivory-handled pistol—“I killed my first man with it”—but he turned down a $250,000 offer for his diary from the Hearst newspaper empire. The discretion was well-advised: recent entries suggested that “Ike is the best general the British have” and that Third Army had been “halted to save Monty’s face.” Patton also speculated that supply allocations in the field were somehow adjusted to affect electoral politics at home, “a most sinister idea.” When Eisenhower ordered fifty thousand men in XV Corps transferred from Third Army to Seventh Army for better logistical support through Marseille, Patton confided to his diary that the new 6th Army Group commander in southern France, Lieutenant General Jake Devers, “is a liar and, by his glibness, talked Eisenhower into giving him the corps.… May God rot his guts.”
Incessant rain made Patton even more peevish. Picking up a spoon in the Rue Auxerre dining room during another downpour, he bent it double and grumbled, “How long, O Lord, how long?” To Bea he wrote, employing his unique orthography, “Send me a couple of bottles of pink medicin. When I am not attacking I get bilious.… It is raining like hell—what a country.”
Because of the Westwall’s eastward bow, which traced the German border, Third Army still had not approached the Siegfried Line. The removal of XV Corps and other large units had shrunk Patton’s strength by 100,000 men, to 250,000, although as Bradley’s right wing he still mustered six infantry and three armored divisions, along with thirty-eight additional field artillery and fourteen tank destroyer battalions on a seventy-five-mile front. In keeping with Eisenhower’s strategy to close on the Rhine along the entire Allied line—the same concept that had spawned Operation QUEEN and the relentless head-butting in the Hürtgen—Third Army’s immediate target remained the industrial Saar and the great river beyond. Yet the Rhine remained 130 miles away. Between here and there stood not only scores of manure-stacked Lorraine villages and obdurate German defensive works, but also one of the most rigorously fortified cities in Europe.
Metz had become an obsession for Patton. His earlier plan to blow past the city on his way to Berlin had been frustrated by supply shortages, unexpected enemy resistance, Allied politics, and those relentless rains that robbed the American Army of its mobility. Now he was determined to reduce this ancient citadel with a double envelopment and a direct thrust across the Moselle, which virtually enfolded Metz and provided a natural breastwork to the west.
Patton claimed that Metz had not fallen to assault since being sacked by Huns in 451, but in fact the Germans had taken it from the French in 1870, only to lose it again after World War I. Fortified and refortified over the centuries—Vauban told Louis XIV that the city was designed to defend not just a province but all of France—Metz was now a sprawling constellation of forty-three forts. Some were built to bolster the interwar Maginot Line, but the most modern works faced west. More than a dozen nineteenth-century redoubts arranged in an inner circle currently served as strongpoints, while a casemated outer ring, built by Germans after the Franco-Prussian War and strengthened upon Hitler’s annexation of Lorraine in 1940, included fuming guns nested in rotating steel turrets, deep dry moats sixty feet wide, and interlocking fields of fire that swept all avenues. Mines, barbed wire, and murderous machine-gun nests complemented the concrete bastions. Patton’s explanation that “we’re using Metz to blood the new divisions” vexed Bradley, although not enough to overrule his army commander. “Leave it alone,” Bradley urged. “For God’s sake, lay off it.… You are taking too many casualties for what you are accomplishing.” Patton ignored the criticism, telling his diary that “the tent maker”—Omar—was “too conservative.… I wish he had a little more daring.”
Daring had thus far gained naught. The September fiasco at Dornot was followed by an October debacle at Fort Driant, described by one historian as “probably the most formidable and well-prepared fortification that the American Army attempted to reduce in all of World War II.” A three-hundred-acre slab of concrete overlooking the Moselle valley, five miles southwest of Metz, Driant was said by Army intelligence to be “manned by about 100 old men and boys, whose morale is low.” Not true: it was stoutly defended by diehards behind walls seven feet thick, with a pentagonal central fort supplied through arterial tunnels. Neither American bombs, nor napalm, nor point-blank artillery salvos by Third Army’s biggest guns had any discernible effect; nor did day after day of infantry attacks that included pouring hot oil through Driant’s gun embrasures. “We were attempting to assault a medieval fortress in a medieval manner,” wrote a reporter with the 5th Infantry Division. Patton ordered his XX Corps to throw every last man at Driant if necessary because, as his chief of staff noted in the command diary, “he could not allow an attack by this army to fail.”
It failed anyway. After a week’s hard fighting, GIs had reduced only two peripheral barracks outside Driant, while the enemy still held five main casemates. Patton scolded his generals, suggesting that miscreants atone for their failings by personally leading the next attack, “or not come back.” But by mid-October the assault had collapsed—Third Army’s first substantial reverse. (Efforts were made to keep the bad news out of the papers.) In an October 19 letter to Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle, commander of Eighth Air Force, Patton wrote, “Those low bastards, the Germans, gave me my first bloody nose when they compelled us to abandon our attack on Fort Driant in the Metz area.” He requested “a revenge bombardment,” with “large bombs of the nastiest type, and as many as you can spare, to blow up this damn fort so that it becomes nothing but a hole.”
Even the largest, nastiest bombs failed to reduce Driant, and Patton now planned a bigger, broader attack on Metz, the biggest and broadest of his life. After stockpiling ammunition for several weeks, he wrote in his diary on Sunday, November 5:
Had a bad case of short breath this morning—my usual reaction to an impending fight or match. Went to church.… Had Marlene Dietrich and her troupe for lunch. Later they gave us a show. Very low comedy, almost an insult to human intelligence.
A day later he met with the reporters covering Third Army. “I told you we were going to be stopped for a while, and I was correct,” he told them. “Now we are going to start again. You do some lying and say this is simply what we called in the last war ‘correcting a line.’” To Bea he confessed, “I am having indigestion and the heaves as I always do before a match. I suppose I would be no good if I did not; it is not fear as to the result but simply anxiety to get started.”
Rain fell for a third consecutive day, giving Patton what one correspondent described as “a tired, aged appearance.” Two senior commanders arrived at the house on Rue Auxerre at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening, dripping amid the bric-a-brac and the cherubim peering down from the ceiling. The officers pleaded for a postponement of the attack until the skies cleared and the swollen rivers subsided. Patton refused.
* * *
He woke at three A.M. on Wednesday, November 8, to the thrum of rain on the roof. Patton had deliberately chosen this day to commemorate the TORCH landings in Morocco two years before; now, padding around the bedroom, he reminded himself to forgo the counsel of his fears and thumbed through a copy of Rommel’s World War I memoir, Infantry Attacks. He was sufficiently consoled by the account of foul weather on the Western Front in September 1914 to once more fall asleep.
Four hundred guns roused him again at 5:15, a sound he likened to “very many doors all slamming at once.” Third Army would shoot tens of thousands of shells that day; through the front curtains, this first barrage made the northeastern sky gleam as if kindled by heat lightning. The rain had stopped, and stars sprinkled the heavens above Nancy. “I thanked God for His goodness to me,” Patton scribbled in his diary.
Bradley phoned at 7:45 to wish him luck, then put Eisenhower on the line. “I expect great things of you,” the supreme commander said. “Carry the ball all the way.” At ten A.M., from a XII Corps observation post overlooking the Moselle south of Metz, Patton watched hundreds of fighter-bombers pirouette in the morning sun before blistering enemy command posts and artillery batteries. “I’m almost sorry for those German bastards,” he muttered. Smoke screens boiled across the river, at its highest flood stage since 1919, and three infantry divisions from XII Corps lunged forward, to be followed by a fourth in the afternoon. Two armored divisions coiled in the brakes and hollows, ready to exploit any fracture in the German line. The rains returned at five P.M., but Patton sensed momentum in his attack. At supper that night, an aide reported, “for the first time in days he was relaxed and talkative.”
Doolittle’s air fleets on Thursday brought more of those big, nasty bombs Patton favored—1,300 heavies dumping 2,600 tons on seven Metz forts in Operation MADISON. Dropped through dense overcast by bombardiers relying on murky radar images, more than 98 percent of the payloads missed their targets, often by miles. The infantry soldiered on, resupplied with rations, plasma, ammunition, and toilet paper tossed from the cockpit doors of single-engine spotter planes flying at ten to twenty feet, too low for German antiaircraft crews to depress their 20mm guns. As part of a XX Corps attack north of the city, gutful troops from the 358th Infantry scampered across the roof of Fort Koenigsmacker, blowing open steel doors with satchel charges and dumping gasoline and thermite grenades down ventilation shafts. Though badly flayed by German machine guns, the men rejected an order to fall back, replying by radio, “This fort is ours.” Soon it was: almost four hundred Germans emerged with their hands raised, the first Metz bastion to fall.
Almost half a mile wide, the Moselle rose farther until water lapped through villages fronting the river. Floodwaters inundated German minefields, which helped eight battalions from the 90th Division get a purchase on the far bank, but building a bridge to carry tanks took days. Engineers blue with cold and wearing flak jackets struggled to hold bridge pontoons in place against the bully current and crashing artillery. “The air seemed filled with white tracers,” a nineteen-year-old soldier in the 5th Division reported. “Men would get up in front of me, head toward the trees and, as a string of tracers would pass through them, [fall] to the ground or into the stream.”
“Groans, suffering, and pain. Men shot to pieces,” a surgical technician entered in his diary. “All wards were completely filled, also the barber shop, supply tent, pharmacy, and laboratory tents. And finally, the mess tent filled up.” A surgeon toiling over the mangled legs of a soldier whose jeep triggered a mine described “bolts, washers, [and] bushings in the muscle, as on a work bench.” Another GI was wounded when a shell detonated in a barnyard, “filling his thigh from knee to buttocks with manure, all tightly packed … as into a sausage.” Wounded men who had narrowly escaped death lay in silence on the ward cots, the surgeon added, “like somebody rescued from the ledge of a skyscraper.” Patton spent his fifty-ninth birthday on November 11 “by getting up where the dead were still warm,” as he wrote Bea. “However the enemy must be suffering more, so it is a question of mutual crucifiction [sic] till he cracks.”
On November 14, nearly a week into the offensive, engineers finished a Bailey bridge north of the city. Early the next morning, the 10th Armored Division rumbled over the Moselle in a spitting sleet storm, threatening a wide envelopment in tandem with the 90th Division, twenty miles above Metz, complemented by a shallower swing in the south by the 6th Armored and 80th Infantry Divisions. As other forces pinched the city’s near flanks, the 95th Division battered German garrison forces west of the river; many of these were the overage or infirm troops known as Halb-soldaten, half soldiers. Eisenhower arrived for a visit on November 15, tromping about in the mud before dining with Patton on the Rue Auxerre. “It was very jolly,” an aide noted, “and the two generals sat up and talked until after two A.M.”
Battlefield advances made them jolly. The next day, Patton more than doubled the daily artillery allocation for XII Corps to twenty thousand rounds, explaining, “If we win now we will not need shells later; if we do not use the shells now, we will not win the war.” Hitler had twice rebuffed Rundstedt’s suggestion to abandon Metz, but Nazi functionaries fled in stolen Renaults and Citroëns. The city water system had been smashed, ammunition was short, and reinforcements were so feeble—including constables armed with ancient French rifles and decrepit supernumeraries wearing brassards in lieu of uniforms—that a Wehrmacht general described them as “drops of water on a hot stone.” The phones failed on November 17 as the last German civilians were evacuated to the east by a police escort from Darmstadt. A new garrison commander summoned from the Eastern Front, General Heinrich Kittel, was made to swear an oath to defend the city “to the last man and cartridge,” the usual immolation blithely demanded of those in harm’s way by those far from it.
At 10:30 A.M. on November 19, the two wings of Third Army completed the encirclement of Metz when soldiers from the 5th Division met cavalry troopers from the 90th seven miles east of the city, in Retonfey. Patton’s two corps now held a line ten to twenty miles east of where they had begun eleven days earlier. In Metz, the end came quickly, with mercifully few room-to-room brawls. Six thousand prisoners were captured; General Kittel was discovered on November 21 in an underground field hospital, suffused with morphine after being badly wounded while fighting in the line. The city formally surrendered at 2:35 P.M. the next day.
* * *
Patton drove into Metz as the conquering hero, sirens wailing to herald his arrival, punctuated by the “steamboat trombone” on his personal jeep. “It was very pleasant to drive into a town which has not been captured for more than 1,300 years,” he wrote, still insisting on his fictitious version of history. To Bea he added, “I will be hard to live with. I have been a sort of demi-god too long.” He personally interrogated General Anton Dunckern, the bug-eyed security commander for Lorraine, who had been apprehended by a 5th Division patrol while trying to slink out of Metz with an aide. After threatening to turn him over to the French, who “know how to make people talk,” Patton told an interpreter, “If he wanted to be a good Nazi, he could have died then and there. It would have been a pleasanter death than what he will get now.” When Dunckern protested that he had been captured by Americans and should therefore remain in U.S. custody, Patton snapped, “When I am dealing with vipers, I do not have to be bothered by any foolish ideas.… I understand German very well, but I will not demean myself by speaking such a language.”
An honor guard played ruffles and flourishes for the victors. Patton sprinkled medals among his legions, acclaiming what he deemed “one of the epic river crossings of history,” and Metz formally returned to French custody. GIs in muddy boots and frayed uniforms stood at attention in a central square, as a military band with colors flying preceded French soldiers in black berets, white leggings, and Sam Browne belts, each with two submachine guns slung over his shoulders.
Little mention was made of the outlying forts, several of which remained defiantly unconquered. Sherman tanks blackened those works with thousands of rounds of French white-phosphorus ammunition, using special firing pins improvised by Third Army armorers. Fort St.-Privat surrendered on November 29, yielding more than five hundred prisoners, scores of whom had phosphorus burns. Fort Driant, that hard nut, would hold out until December 8, and Fort Jeanne d’Arc was the last to fold, on December 13.
By that time Third Army’s left wing had finally closed on the Saar River and the Siegfried Line, although Patton’s right remained short of the German frontier. The sixty-mile advance in the Lorraine campaign had liberated another five thousand square miles of France, but at a cost in three months of nearly a hundred thousand U.S. battle and nonbattle casualties. Third Army had yet to breach the Westwall, much less reach the Rhine, and the long autumn amounted to what one historian would call “Patton’s bloodiest and least successful campaign,” a season of unimaginative and dispersed frontal attacks of the sort he ridiculed when lesser generals launched them. Unable to resist the prestige of bagging Metz, he had forfeited the single greatest advantage the Americans now held over their adversaries—mobility—by permitting much of his army to be drawn into a sanguinary siege.
In a note to Henry L. Stimson, the secretary of war, Patton proposed that as part of any surrender terms the Germans be required to keep Lorraine, “this nasty country where it rains every day and where the whole wealth of the people consists in assorted manure piles.” He also summoned the Third Army chaplain, Colonel James H. O’Neill, to his office in an old French barracks in Nancy. “Chaplain, how much praying is being done in the Third Army?” Patton asked.
“I’m afraid to admit it,” O’Neill said, “but I do not believe that much praying is going on.”
“We must ask God to stop these rains,” Patton said, staring through his high windows at the sopping landscape outside. “These rains are the margin that holds defeat or victory.” O’Neill typed out an improvised appeal on a three-by-five card, and engineers reproduced a quarter-million copies to be distributed throughout Third Army. “Restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend,” the text asked.
Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.
To his diary a week later Patton confided, “It has certainly rained less since my prayer.”