(Picture from 1939 Hawkeye yearbook; Dept. of Special Collections;
University of Iowa Libraries; Iowa City, Iowa)
The medals and badges Major William R. Hinsch Jr. probably earned
(Click on picture to enlarge)
William “Bill” Richard Hinsch Jr. was born on February 10, 1912 in Fort Dodge, Webster County, Iowa, to Mr. William Sr. and Phoebe Hinsch. William had 1 brother named Peter (1910) and a sister named Bertha. William Hinsch's religion was Protestant. William Jr. went from 1936-1939 to the University of Iowa (Journal of Business- Business Manager- President, Cadet Officers Club- Student- Commerce. 1936: 182; 1937: 118; 1938: 65; 1939: 126). He graduated with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel from the University at Iowa.
The Daily Iowan, Tuesday, January 4, 1938
All 4 newspaper clippings above are from The Daily Iowan, Saturday, January 15, 1938
The Daily Iowan, Thursday, February 3, 1938
The Daily Iowan, Sunday, February 6, 1938
The Daily Iowan, Wednesday, March 2, 1938
The Daily Iowan, Wednesday, March 23, 1938
The Daily Iowan, Wednesday, April 20, 1938
When William graduated from the University of Iowa in 1939 he received an award or commendation (which was according to his daughter a big honor) that allowed Bill Hinsch to chose his branch of service, possibly the title Honorary Cadet. Bill chose the Army and went in as a 2nd Lieutenant. William Hinsch's date of entry on current active service is September 1, 1940. He was brilliant when it came to military strategy and was fluent in several languages including German and French. Bill Hinsch joined the 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. According to his IDPF he served as Battalion Supply Officer with the Headquarters 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, but more likely he served as Regimental Supply Officer (S-4) with the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division, as stated by Major Henry G. Spencer (1st Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt., 2nd Div.). After joining the Army, William R. Hinsch Jr. married miss Marvel Albert Hinsch.
William R. Hinsch Jr. in his Iowa University Cadet Officer uniform
(Picture from 1939 Hawkeye yearbook; Dept. of Special Collections;
University of Iowa Libraries; Iowa City, Iowa)
The 2nd Infantry Division was home-based at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The 2nd Infantry Division consists of 3 infantry regiments (the 9th, 23rd, 38th) and supporting units as the 15th, 37th, 38th Field Artillery Battalions. The Division served as an experimental unit, testing new concepts and innovations for the Army. The Indianhead Division participated in extensive training and maneuvers. Major events included the Louisiana Maneuvers in August of 1941 and winter warfare training at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin beginning in November of 1942. The 2nd Infantry Division sailed from New York (Camp Shanks) on October 8, 1943 in route to Belfast, Northern Ireland, then later to Wales to train and stage for the invasion of Europe.
In the San Antonio Express of February 13, 1944, the following article appeared: “Major and Mrs. William Richard Hinsch Jr., are the parents of a daughter, Mary Ann, born February 5, 1944, in Brooke General Hospital. Major Hinsch is on foreign duty.”
From October 18, 1943 until April 17, 1944, the Division was at the Swansea area and was stationed at Pembroke Dock. On April 14, 1944, the 2nd Infantry Division became part of the V Corps, First US Army. On April 19, the Division arrived in the Cardiff area. During the latter part of May 1944, everyone was talking about D-Day and troops were moved to restricted camps on the south coast of England, to await boarding orders. The GIs were restricted to the camp and just to keep the men busy, they did a lot of close order drill and calisthenics. Everyone knew that D-Day was close but obviously no one knew what day it would be. On June 3, 1944, they finally started boarding their pretty crowded ship. They just sat in the harbor waiting for the “go-signal”, which finally came. When the men of the 2nd Infantry Division got out into the British Channel, there were boats of all kinds and sizes as far as one could see. Most of them were towing a barrage balloon for protection against low flying German aircraft.
Situation in Europe June 6, 1944
The Invasion of Normandy: Allied Concentration and Routes June 6, 1944
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On the morning of June 6, 1944, D-Day, the US First Army and British Second Army invaded France between Caen on the east and St. Mere-Eglise on the west: The Normandy Beachhead. On June 6, the 2nd Infantry Division arrived off the V Corps beachhead at St. Laurent-sur-Mer. As the Division got closer to the French coast the men could hear shellfire and most of it seemed to be coming from the Allied Navy. They were too far out to see very much, though. After the sun went down the Division started moving closer to the shore. By the end of D-Day, the Allied Forces established a beachhead.
D-Day Objectives of V Corps
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On June 7, first elements of the 2nd Division that came ashore had to fight their way past a German bunker with an 88mm gun in it. Even the men that got to the beach when it was daylight still saw a lot of tracer bullets flying around, but most of the fighting had moved a little way inland by then. A short way in from the beach troops came across fields planted with upright posts. They were ten or fifteen feet tall with wires strung between them. The Germans placed the posts there so that Allied gliders would crash. The Germans also put Teller mines on top of some of them to explode when the gliders hit them. The Division Headquarters with its Command Post was established north of Trevieres on that same day. The 9th Infantry Regiment landed the evening of June 7, and used two battalions on June 8 in clearing out snipers behind the beach between St-Laurent-sur-Mer and Vierville-sur-Mer - the first real bloody engagements took place against German paratroopers. The 38th Infantry Regiment had two battalions ashore by evening of the June 8, and the 23rd Infantry Regiment had started landing - the 23rd Infantry Regiment came ashore last of the Division's infantry regiments. Two batteries of divisional artillery were also arriving. Behind the 2nd Division, the 2d Armored Division was ready to bring in its first elements on June 9.
2nd Infantry Division landing near St. Laurent-sur-Mer at the Ruquet Valley (Normandy, France) in WWII
First picture from above:
2nd Infantry Division in front of the Valley of Ruquet casemate (Omaha Beach)
near St. Laurent-sur-Mer in WWII
(Click on picture to enlarge)
Second picture from above:
Rick Demas at the Valley of Ruquet casemate in Normandy
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
First picture from above:
2nd Infantry Division men moving inland from the Valley of Ruquet, Omaha Beach, Normandy
Second picture from above:
Rick Demas at the Ruquet Valley standing at the same place from where the 2nd Infantry Division started the liberation of Europe in WWII
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
Rick Demas next to the 2nd Infantry Division Monument at the beach near St. Laurent-sur-Mer in front of the casemate seen in the pictures above
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
On June 9th, the 23rd Infantry Regiment was ashore with its supporting Field Artillery Battalion (37th) and went into an assembly area north of Trevieres. The infantry and artillery units were not combat loaded. The organic transportation was loaded on separate ships and did not arrive until after the foot elements were ashore. The heaviest weapon carried by the unit was the BAR.
V Corps Attack June 9-11, 1944
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On June 9, at 12.00 Hours, the 9th and 38th Infantry Regimental Combat Teams launched the first divisional attack, without the benefit of their heavy weapons. The heavy weapons were rushed to the units as fast as they were unloaded at Omaha Beach. The attack of the 2 Regimental Combat Teams was made in the middle of the V Corps sector, without the support of their machine guns and mortars. Their initial objective was Trevieres, a key position if the Germans planned to hold along their present line. While the 38th Infantry Regiment attacked from the north and west, the 9th Infantry Regiment would outflank Trevieres by seizing Rubercy, to the southeast. One battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment was near Rubercy by dark, out of contact with the 1st Division on its left. The 9th Infantry Regiment lost 10 killed and 80 wounded for the day's action. To the west of this advance, the 38th Infantry Regiment had made slow progress against Trevieres, where the Germans resisted stubbornly from well dug-in positions. Its 2nd Battalion, attacking from the north, was fighting into the village by nightfall of June 9. During the day, the 15th and 38th Field Artillery Battalions had been called on very heavily for supporting fires, mostly against Trevieres, and had used 3.652 rounds up to midnight.
By June 10, the 2 Regimental Combat Teams had received much of its missing equipment and transportation, and the attack was renewed in greater strength. The advances east and west of Trevieres had left the Germans there in an untenable salient. After a heavy artillery concentration fired before 0700 Hours, the village was cleared out by 0845 Hours, and the 2 Regimental Combat Teams went forward with no opposition except from isolated snipers and an occasional machine gun holding a delaying position. The result was the most extensive advance of the operation. The 9th Infantry Regiment got through Cerisy Forest after skirmishes with German scout cars, and bivouacked southwest of Balleroy with losses for the day of six wounded. The 38th Infantry Regiment reached the village of Cerisy-la-Foret, and at 2100 Hours its 1st Battalion was pushing on with orders to seize Haute-Litee at the southwest corner of the woods. Possession of the area by U. S. forces denied the Germans commanding ground from which to mount a counterattack against the beachhead; furthermore, it lay athwart the best direct route between St-Lo and the German forces defending south of Bayeux.
2nd Infantry Division men moving inland
By June 11, the 9th and 38th Regiments had moved through Trevieres, Cerisy la Foret and on June 11 they cut the Bayeux-St. Lo Highway by passing through the Cerisy Forest. The 1st and 2nd Divisions organized the ground won in their rapid advance. On most parts of the front there was no contact with the Germans, and patrols which pushed several miles southward found no opposition in any force. During this period the 2nd Infantry Division had advanced 24 kilometers inland against stubborn German resistance and was positioned along the line of the Elle River at the close of June 11 together with other Infantry Divisions. By nightfall of June 11, the 23rd Infantry Regiment arrived at an assembly area north of Cerisy la Foret after having moved from its first assembly area north of Trevieres; its vehicles and equipment were expected to arrive in a matter of hours. On that same day, the German mortar fire increased on the 2nd Infantry Division's positions. The 2nd Division was now 1 mile short of Hill 192.
V Corps Attack June 12-13, 1944
(Click on picture to enlarge)
In compliance with the V Corps' plan of attack for June 12, 1944, the 2nd Infantry Division planned to attack with the 9th Regiment to secure the high ground south of Littcou, the 23rd Infantry Regiment was to secure the high ground of Hill 192 and the 38th Regiment was to be in reserve. At the assembly area north of Cerisy la Foret, the 23rd Infantry Regiment was issued the order for the attack on Hill 192 about afternoon; all plans and orders were made at this assembly area. The order called for the 23rd Infantry Regiment to pass through the position held by the 38th Regiment with the 1st and 2nd Battalions, the 3rd was to be in reserve. The 1st Battalion would cross the Elle River west of Cerisy la Foret and move south against Hill 192 and the 2nd Battalion was to attack southwest and take the east slope of Hill 192. The 2nd Battalion was told to move south to the road that went from Bayeux to St. Lo, through the village of Berigny. The Germans had been using this road to move their troops laterally in front of the Battalion. The 2nd Battalion was to hold positions above the road to prevent the Germans from doing this while the 1st Battalion started the attack on Hill 192. Hill 192 was the highest point in this sector, from it you could see the town of St. Lo toward the southwest, the beaches of Normandy toward the north and to the south and the southeast you had a commanding view of all the German defenses. The terrain of the Normandy country side over which the Regiment was to attack consisted of small fields surrounded by touch, steep earthen walls from 3-7 ft. in height, sometimes in double rows with dense vegetation growing from its top: hedgerows. Hill 192 was the key point of all territory to the west toward St. Lo, some 3 miles away, and the sea. From Hill 192, the Germans had long range observation over all the 23rd Infantry Regiment's zone of attack. The Germans had defended the approaches to Hill 192 with a vigor proving the importance they attached to St. Lo. The German defense had already stopped several American units. Hill 192 was key terrain for any offensive operation aimed at St. Lo.
View from Hill 192
Reconnaissance of the line of departure or of the terrain over which the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment was to attack was not made by the Company Commanders or other subordinate Commanders prior to or after the attack order was issued. However, the combat efficiency of the 2nd Battalion was an undetermined factor as this was to be their first combat. The Battalion had trained for the past 18 months with at least 90% of its strength having been members of the Battalion during this period. The combat strength of the Battalion was that of a war strength battalion less the authorized over strength which had been left in England to follow the 2nd Battalion as its initial reinforcements. The Battalion had been on rations of the C and K types since landing. The rifle companies weapons carriers with the light machine guns and 60mm mortars had not yet arrived. There was ample ammunition and resupply was normal.
The line of departure was the southwest edge of Cerisy Forest, H-Hour 06.00, June 12, 1944. The 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment's plan of attack was to cross the line of departure in advance guard formation moving generally across country, guiding approximately 500 yards to the right of, but parallel to, the road leading up to Hill 192. A 20 minute artillery preparation by the 37th Field Artillery Battalion was to be fired prior to 06.00 Hours on Hill 192. Communication was to be by radio, wire to the Companies or from Regiment was not to be installed. The battalion motors to include the ammunition truck were to be left in the forward assembly area under control of the Motor Officer and Supply Officer (Major William R. Hinsch Jr.). The Battalion Aid Station was to remain with the motors and follow on orders of the Battalion Commander.
On June 12, 1944, the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment left its assembly area at about 03.30 Hours in a column of companies. The Battalion closed into the forward assembly area in the rear of the line of departure without incident. The companies immediately started making their final preparations for the attack. The Battalion Commander returned from the 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment Command Post with the latest information about the Germans. The information showed that German patrols had been active the night of 11-12 June and little resistance had been encountered by its companies. At 05.40 Hours, the artillery preparation began to fall on Hill 192. At about 05.45 Hours, the company weapons carriers arrived. These were quickly unloaded and the weapons integrated into the companies and all was ready to cross the line of departure. Just prior to crossing the line of departure, a wire head from the artillery arrived, which completed the preparations for the move forward.
On June 12, 1944, at 06.00 Hours, Company F (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) crossed the line of departure in advance guard formation. After crossing the line of departure the advance moved rapidly until it reached the road opposite the orchard. Here long range machine gun fire, mortar fire and rifle fire were received. This was heard back at the Command Group, but no report was received from Company F. The Battalion Commander not knowing the situation in front of Company F called for the Commander of Company G and ordered him to take his company around the left of Company F and move forward. After issuing this order, the Battalion Commander and Operation Officer (S-3) moved forward in the direction of Company F. The German positions on the west bank of the Elle River opened fire with small arms and machine gun fire, also the mortar fire increased. The American artillery began to deliver called fires. Under the protection of these fires both companies attempted to move forward. These attempts were repulsed by German small arms fire and mortar fire lacing the tops of the hedgerows. This fire was demoralizing to the advancing troops. It was so accurate that any exposed movement along the hedgerows brought some type of German fire. Both companies were pinned down by German fire.
Company E (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) started out from its location in the Cerisy Forest and began moving south, then a little bit toward the west. They had been told to watch out for snipers and, sure enough, it wasn't long before they started getting some rifle fire from the trees ahead. A patrol was sent to check it out and after some more small arms fire, things got quiet again. Company E started moving and it was so quiet one could hear insects buzzing and birds chirping, it didn't even sound like a war. Move slowly and watch the trees. The Company reached the eastern edge of Berigny where they could cover the road and were told to halt there and dig in. The buildings in front of the men were all vacant at this time because the Germans had moved all of the civilians out of the area back behind their lines. From their positions they could see the town to the left, the most prominent building being the church. To their front they could see a barn and by standing on the hedgerow they could see about 1000 yards to where the Germans were supposed to be. On their right front they could see the southern slope of Hill 192, which was held by the Germans. They deployed along the road in the rear of the orchard and along the road leading back into the forest.
Casualties began to come back looking for the Aid Station, some were assisting more seriously wounded men. It was apparent that they could not make the long trip back to the Aid Station in the forest. A runner was dispatched back to the 2nd Battalion Surgeon with orders to move the Aid Station to the right of the road leading from the forest. The German fire increased. Flat trajectory artillery began to lace the hedgerows. Snipers who had been bypassed became active and were firing into the rear of the assault companies. The 2nd Battalion Commander and Operations Officer (S-3) had not returned to the Command Group since departing for Company F. The Battalion Intelligence Officer (S-2) established an Observation Post along the road in the rear of the orchard and was trying to determine the German positions. This was an impossible task because of the smokeless powder used by the Germans and the excellent cover and camouflage offered by the hedgerows. While this action was taking place the 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment had crossed the line of departure and had not proceeded very far when it had met effective resistance. The Germans had counterattacked and the Battalion moved back a mile, but remained south of the Elle River.
About 10.00 Hours, the Aid Station was established at the stone fence and began to take care of the casualties. The 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company, possibly among them Major Bill Hinsch, moved back off the road into a field opposite the Aid Station and began to organize a Command Post. The Communication officer laid a wire from the 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment's switchboard and wire communications were established to the rear.
The 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment was committed through the forest between the 1st and 2nd Battalions and it too had met stiff German resistance and was making slow progress. By early afternoon, it became apparent that no further advance could be made by the 2nd Battalion. The rifle companies were still trying to cross the stream but were refused ground by small arms, machine gun and mortar fire. The 2nd Battalion began to organize for a defense and hold this ground. A line of defense was established about 200 yards east of the stream, which was along the hedgerows that ran parallel to the stream. The 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment had been stopped at the east bank also.
The litter teams of the Aid Station were still evacuating casualties. The strain was beginning to tell. Moving a man on a litter from the front over the hedgerows under fire was an exhausting, time consuming job. The 2nd Battalion Surgeon realizing this, established a litter collecting point near the Observation Post and from there used the litter jeep to evacuate back to the Aid Station. This saved the litter teams the long trek back to the Aid Station.
2nd Infantry Division litter jeep carrying wounded comrades
The 9th Infantry Regiment began to experience offensive patrolling by elements of the German 3rd Paratroop Division. A Platoon of Company E (2nd Batt., 23 Inf. Reg.) that was ordered to mop up the area of Germans that stayed behind the front lines captured a German soldier. As he was being marched back under guard to the Command Post, a front line GI who was returning from the Aid Station hit the POW over the head with the butt of an M-1 rifle. The POW was taken to the Aid Station where it was determined that he only had a bruise. No attempt was made to question the German POW and was taken back to the motor park and evacuated to the Division Collecting Point.
The 2nd Battalion Commander and Operation Officer (S-3) returned to the Command Post and began to relate all the events that had taken place during the morning and early afternoon. Orders were issued to establish wire communication to all front line companies. However, the Germans kept the initiative by continuing fire bursts of machine gun fire and mortar fire on the front lines. The 2nd Battalion received orders that it was not to participate in the continuation of the attack the next day (June 13, 1944). Preparations were made now for a deliberate defense of the position. Wire communications were established to all companies. Units began to dig foxholes and emplacements for weapons. The Battalion Commander issued no instructions for patrols for the night nor did he prescribe that outposts or listening posts be established. An air strike was directed against Hill 192 just prior to darkness. The casualties sustained by the 2nd Battalion for the days fighting had been less than anticipated or expected from the vigorous German defense put up in its advance. The 23rd Infantry Regiment reported a total of 211 casualties for the day. The losses in the 2nd Battalion were greatest among its leaders. The artillery support for the day had been excellent: the 37th and 38th Field Artillery Battalions had fired over 2600 rounds in support of the Regimental attack for the day. The 2nd Battalion settled down for the night. Ammunition had been resupplied and weapons were replaced from those recovered on the battlefield and the Aid Station. The security plan for the night called for 2 men per rifle squad to be on the alert, with one each at platoon and company headquarters. Each company was to report to the Command Post every 30 minutes. The 2nd Battalion's sector was quiet during the rest of the night of June 12. Reports from the companies came into the Command Post that all was quiet.
The Germans kept the initiative during the early hours of June 13 all along the line. At 01.15 Hours, the Germans launched a counterattack against the position held by the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment. This counterattack was accompanied by heavy bursts of small arms fire. All elements of the Battalion were alerted. The Battalion Commander called for the artillery liaison officer. This officer together with his section had moved out of the Command Post about 1000 yards in the rear of the Command Post. The German fire increased to include mortar fire and self-propelled fire, Companies F and G were firing into the darkness but had not located the advancing Germans. US artillery was delivered for approximately 5 minutes in the area in which German movement was supposed. German fire was heard up and down the entire 2nd Battalion front. Every frontline rifle and machine gun of the Battalion was firing into the darkness at what they hoped was a target, US artillery began to shift from one flank to another and 81mm mortars were firing under the direction of the forward observers in the frontlines. For about an hour this firing had continued by both sides at a rapid rate. As quick as it had started the German fire ceased.
No patrols were ordered as the fire ceased to determine if there were any German casualties and the security was not increased. American casualties began to move back to the Aid Station. The Aid Station was working under great difficulty. About an hour before sunrise, the 2nd Battalion Commander ordered all troops to be ready for a German attack. It was felt that the counterattack during the night had turned out to be a “reconnaissance in force” for a pending attack. This attack failed to materialize.
During the nights it was cool and just a little warmer in the daytime. The temperature caused it to be very foggy in the morning and sometimes it felt spooky. One could hear German tanks or trucks moving on the other side of the creek, but you couldn't see anything for the foggy mist. Things seemed to move softly in the fog. A lot of flares were used to determine each other's position. The secret to surviving a flare was to keep absolutely still. Any movement at all stood out like a sore thumb. Usually both sides started firing flares, mortars and artillery around daybreak. Probably to break up any German attacks and to try and catch night patrols going back to their lines.
View north from Hill 192
The rest of June 13 was spent digging deeper and improving positions. The frontline companies were resupplied with ammunition. The Pioneer and Ammunition Platoon moved this ammunition forward by using “Ammunition Hand Carts” as the transportation was still in the forest. In the afternoon a Division Order called for all 3 Infantry Regiments of the 2nd Division to prepare their present positions for a possible German attack. The Division was still 2 miles north of Hill 192 and had not succeeded in getting possession of the Berigny – St. George d'Elle area. Identification of German POWs taken by other units during the day revealed that units of the 8th Paratroop Regiment of the 3rd Paratroop Division were in the Berigny area and the German 352nd Infantry Division was north of Hill 192. The 3rd Paratroop Division was regarded as a first class unit of very high fighting quality. German mortar fire was increasing and it was clear that the Germans were prepared to hold Hill 192 with every means at its disposal. About an hour before sunset, the 2nd Battalion Commander ordered all troops alerted in case of an attack before darkness. This alert with the morning alert became known as “Stand-To” and were SOP from this time on. As darkness approached, the 2nd Battalion settled down for the night. The security prescribed for the night of June 12 was not increased nor were patrols ordered. The Battalion Commander assured himself that the Artillery Liaison Officer was present and with the coming of darkness the area was very quiet. No notable events took place during the rest of the night.
On June 14, 1944, the Division remained in the position held previously. Some units made limited objective attacks to straighten out their lines. These attacks made some progress, but were not major engagements. The 2nd Battalion improved its defensive position during the day. Some mortar fire and self-propelled artillery fire was received. As darkness approached, no patrols were planned for the night. The night passed without any notable events.
On June 15, the 2nd Infantry Division remained in its previous positions and began plans for the continuation of the attack on Hill 192 for June 16. The 2nd Battalion was notified that the overstrength had arrived and would be marched up as soon as the Battalion was ready for them. A guide was dispatched back to the Regimental Trains Area to pick up this personnel. They arrived at the Battalion position prior to noon. Here the companies picked up their men and guided them forward. The forward movement of this personnel to the frontlines caused the Germans to start firing their mortar concentrations. This fire fell intermittently for about an hour, but no casualties were reported.
During the day the 2nd Division announced the plans for the attack on June 16. The overall plan called for all 3 Regiments to continue the attack abreast. The 38th on the right, the 23rd Infantry Regiment to capture Hill 192 and the 9th Regiment to capture St. Germain d'Elle. The attack was to be preceded by a 15 minute artillery preparation on Hill 192. The 23rd Regiment plans for the attack were to attack with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions. The 3rd Battalion was to move against St. George d'Elle and across the east slope of Hill 192, the 2nd Battalion was to move west against Hill 192, link up with the 3rd Battalion and move against La Vallee Queron. E Company of the 2nd Battalion was to have a platoon of medium tanks attached. The attachment was to become effective on arrival of the tanks which was scheduled for prior to 08.00 Hours on June 16. The Mortar Platoon was to furnish fire on call. The 2 Machine Gun Platoons were to remain with Companies G and F. No reconnaissance was made by Company E after it received its orders to determine if Berigny was occupied by the Germans. The Battalion did not plan patrols for the night to determine routes of approach to the front or to Berigny. The area remained quiet throughout the afternoon with only periodic German shelling. No notable events took place during the night.
Dragon action figure: Bazookaman of the 2nd Infantry Division
On June 16, the artillery preparation fell on Hill 192 on schedule. The Tank Platoon arrived at Company E (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) just prior to their crossing of the line of departure. This Tank Platoon was guided to Company E by the Assistant Regimental Operation Officer. This was the first Staff Officer of the Regiment or any other Headquarters to make an appearance in the 2nd Battalion area during the period of June 12-16. This officer remained with Company E for the duration of the attack.
At 08.00 Hours, the Assault Companies E and G (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) crossed their line of departure. Company E made rapid progress until it was in a position about 300 yards outside the village of Berigny. Here a German Panzerfaust stopped the leading tank, which formed an effective roadblock. The rest of the tanks deployed astride the road in the fields on either side of the road. The E Company Platoons advanced under covering fire of the tanks. The tanks could not advance with the riflemen as the hedgerows were too high for them to go over or too thick to go through. Company G was making some progress. The German reaction to the attack was vigorous. Small arms fire and mortar fire fell throughout the area. Company G succeeded in crossing the Elle River and began a systematic advance from one hedgerow to another.
Company E continued its advance into Berigny. The Germans were using all means at its disposal to stop the American advance. Small arms fire, mortar fire, Panzerfausts and grenades were used. The outskirts of Berigny were reached and the attack became a house to house fight. The Tank Platoon still could not move due to the roadblock and hedgerows. Company G was still advancing slowly. The Germans were not giving ground until the last minute and then they fell back to the next hedgerow under protection of small arms and mortar fire. After Company G advanced approximately 700 yards past the stream, the Germans counterattacked on the left flank of the Company. This caused great concern to the 2nd Battalion Commander and all available fire was placed on this counterattack. Mortar and artillery fire pounded the area.
Company F (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) was ordered to advance and gain contact with Company G. This advance was stopped at the stream. Attempts to move forward were met with the concentrated fire that stopped the previous assault over this area. As soon as the artillery and mortar fire lifted from Company G's flank, the counterattack increased in size and forced Company G back across the stream and to its position which had been their line of departure. Company F was ordered back to its previous position. Company E had succeeded in capturing Berigny. The Germans were blocking Company E's attempts to move out of the village.
By early afternoon, the 2nd Battalion ceased all attempts to move forward and began to prepare their positions for defense. During the attack of the 2nd Battalion, the 3rd Battalion advanced 400 yards beyond St. George d'Elle. The 38th Infantry Regiment (on the right of the 3rd Battalion) succeeded in advancing their 3rd Battalion up to the crest of Hill 192 and consolidated positions half way of the north slope. The 9th Infantry Regiment had met stiff resistance at St. German d'Elle and failed to advance more than 300 yards. The casualties of the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment consisted of 1 officer wounded and a few enlisted men missing or killed in action. This ended the initial attack on Hill 192 for the 2nd Infantry Division.
2nd Infantry Division man checking out a disabled US Sherman tank
Lessons were learned from the combat activities in the period June 12-16. Some of these lessons are the following. Orders for an operation should be issued from a vantage point in order that commanders that are to execute the plan have full knowledge of their sectors, objectives and the terrain over which they are to operate. Artillery preparations of short duration by organic artillery should be planned on known German emplacements close in front of attacking troops to provide cover for the attacking troops. Patrolling must be continuous and vigorous prior to an attack and after the forward advance has been halted. Security must be established in front of each position to give early warning of a German approach. Only 1 officer from a higher Headquarters visited the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment during the entire period. Commanders and their Staff must make personal visits to the frontlines during both the attack and defense to enable them to keep current on the situation of their own troops as well as the Germans. During the action of June 12, the 2nd Battalion captured 1 POW. This POW could have been interrogated and possibly could have given some information of immediate value to the Battalion. The abuse of this POW by a rifleman rendered this interrogation impossible (the abuse of POWs was a thorn in the side of the 2nd Battalion throughout WWII).
2nd Infantry Division man in the Normandy Bocage armed with a Thompson .45-caliber submachine gun
GI with M1 30 caliber carbine rifle
By the morning of June 17, the soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment received 87 additional automatic weapons. In the wake of a bloody engagement on June 8 against German paratroopers, Major Henry G. Spencer (commanding the 1st Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) called together his surviving officers to discuss what had taken place. One of their chief complaints centered on the relatively low number of automatic weapons in the infantry platoon. Whenever an American fired his M1 rifle, German paratroopers replied with a withering barrage from automatic weapons. In open terrain US soldiers would have had a distinct advantage with their longer ranged rifles, but the hedgerows frequently permitted German paratroopers armed with short-range automatic weapons to approach within yards of an American position without being detected. After pondering the situation, Major Spencer asked the Regiment's Logistics Officer, Major William R. Hinsch Jr., to procure Thompson .45-caliber submachine guns from antiaircraft units protecting Omaha beach. On June 17, Major Hinsch arranged 87 Thompsons for the Battalion's soldiers. Major Spencer observed that “no longer would our scouts have to go out with M1s or carbines to protect themselves…with these additional automatic weapons we would give even the German parachutists a run for their money” . Other units were also complaining that the German Schmiezer machine pistol was better than anything they had. It fired so fast it sounded like someone tearing a piece of cloth. It could fire 30 rounds in the time it takes to say "burp" and that is the kind of a sound it made. To even things up somewhat other units like the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment were also issued Thompson submachine guns. They didn't fire as fast as the "burp gun" but they did give the GIs some automatic small arms fire. They got two per squad. Then someone came up with an idea to help the carbine. Officers were issued a 30 caliber carbine instead of the old .45 Colt automatic. It had a clip that held 15 rounds and someone had the smart idea to tape two clips together side by side so that when one clip was empty all you had to do was turn it over and insert the other end and keep on firing. That saved a lot time when the soldiers were in a hurry. The carbine had a little switch on it you could turn for single shots or semi-automatic fire. Most guys always left them on semi-automatic so that all you had to do was keep pulling the trigger. Some of the guys were able to work on the sears a little bit and make them fully automatic (this was dangerous, though, because they would go off accidentally if dropped). It rained all day and most troops spent the day resting or in reserve.
On June 18, 1944, the 2nd Division remained at their positions and saw some German airplanes coming over (and some shot down). On June 19, Lieutenant Colonel William Shepherd Humphries (commanding the 1st Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) got Wounded in Action. Lt. Col. William Humphries was a close friend of Major William Hinsch, like brothers, and also their wives were best friends back at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. Bill Hinsch never left Lt. Col. Humphries' side until he Died of Wounds on June 25, 1944. During this period of time the 2nd Division remained at its positions, dug in deeper and patrolled the area.
From June 26 until July 10, the Division kept holding their positions and further patrolled the area. German 88's and mortar fire kept falling down on the American lines and GIs kept getting wounded or killed. To celebrate the 4th of July, each gun in the US Army fired one round at twelve o'clock. The 2nd Division worked on plans for capture of Hill 192, whenever attack might be ordered. Intensive training in infantry-tank tactics was carried through and elaborate preparation for artillery and air support was made. Artillery fire plans were based on numbered grid squares 100 yards to a side, designed to insure coordination of the supporting fires with infantry advance. A tank-infantry-engineer team was devised for dealing with the hedgerow problem. The teams were trained to advance as a coordinated unit, each hedgerow representing a new line of departure. When the engineers had blown a hole for the tanks to pass through, the tanks would enter the field, fire their 75-mm guns into the corners, and spray the lateral hedgerow ahead to cover the infantry scouts advancing (in this case) along the axial hedges. These scouts would also be covered by BAR men. Two of the four demolitions men followed behind, and the engineers and the leader of the infantry squad would choose the best place for the tank to go through the next barrier. Special EE-8 phones were installed on the rear of the tanks and connected with the tank's interphone system for tank-infantry communication during action. Two engineers would stay with the vehicle to protect it during advance, scanning and firing at side hedgerows to keep down German bazooka teams. In the area close to the line of departure, hedgerow embankments were carefully scooped out on the American side, leaving a shell which the tanks could push through on the day of attack. Sunken farm roads crisscrossed Hill 192, making movement of armor difficult; the only feasible way for American tanks to cross these obstacles-often protected by antitank guns-was to use a dozer to push dirt from the near bank into the road, then cross and cut through the far bank. Four small villages - Cloville, le Soulaire, St.-Georges-d'Elle, and la Croix-Rouge - lay on the slopes of the hill, and might be expected to contain nests of organized resistance in the attack zone. St-Georges-d'Elle had already changed hands several times in the earlier fighting, and except for the southern outskirts was now in American hands. South of it on the road leading into the Bayeux-St-Lo highway, scattered farmhouses served as positions for German automatic weapons.
The attack on hill 192 - 2nd Division, July 11, 1944
(Click on picture to enlarge)
On July 11, 1944, Hill 192 was captured by the 2nd Infantry Division – on a day that started with bad weather but gradually improved. The Division attacked with the 38th and 23rd Infantry Regiments against Hill 192, while the 9th Regiment made strong demonstrations on their front. The Infantry Regiments were supported by fires of the 2nd Infantry Division artillery, 1st Infantry Division artillery, 2nd Armored Division artillery and Corps artillery. The final attack was preceded by a one hour artillery and mortar concentration which increased to its maximum during the last 15 minutes. More than 25.000 rounds, fired from organic and attached artillery according plan, fell within the small area occupied by the fortifications of Hill 192. This was approximately 416 rounds per minutes and was the largest concentration of artillery on the beachhead to that date. The infantrymen were told that they would be working with tanks on this attack and just before daylight Sherman tanks pulled up. The infantry platoons were given three tanks each with the aforementioned telephones mounted on the rear so the infantrymen could talk to the tank commander. As the Infantry Regiments advanced up the Hill, unit commanders could call for fire to support their attack by merely giving a code which had been prearranged. This support fire could be delivered by a maximum of 5 artillery battalions.
By 2nd Division order, the 38th Infantry Regiment (commanded by Col. Ralph W. Zwicker) was assigned the mission of taking Hill 192 proper, attacking with two battalions abreast on the right of the 2nd Division front. The 23rd Infantry Regiment (commanded by Col. Jay B. Lovless), fighting in the center of the 2nd Division zone, was ordered to attack with two battalions in column in the general sector of St-Georges-d'Elle - la Croix-Rouge, making its main effort in the west of its zone, on the eastern slope of Hill 192, in order to cross that slope and secure the St-Lo - Bayeux highway from the south of the hill to the east through la Croix-Rouge. The 9th Infantry Regiment, on the eastern flank of the division front, was directed to support the attack by all available fires.
23rd Infantry Regiment at Hill 192 - July 11, 1944
The 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, with Company A on the left and Company C on the right, jumped off at 06.00 Hours, 300 yards from the Line of Departure on the Cloville - St-Georges-d'Elle road (attacking from the road that ran west out of St-Georges- d'Elle). Company A did not meet stiff opposition until it reached Purple Heart Draw, where it took heavy casualties. Company C had moved forward against lesser difficulties. The company employed one variation of the standard tactics it had rehearsed in the preceding week. Fragmentation grenades were fired from rifles, and in two instances these grenades were placed accurately over German machine-gun emplacements in order to effect air bursts and silence the enemy weapons. At the end of the day, the 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment had gained up to 1.500 yards and dug in for the night 400 yards from the objective, the St-Lo - Bayeux highway. On the east, the Germans still held the lower end of Purple Heart Draw, but only as part of a salient position which would be hard to maintain. Close support by the infantry had prevented any tank casualties, although the Germans had been well supplied with bazookas and sticky grenades. East of the main effort, diversionary attacks had been made during the day by the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment and by elements of the 9th Infantry Regiment. Company L of the 23rd Regiment put in hard fighting, with severe losses, to gain only one hedgerow to the east of St-Georges-d'Elle. But these efforts helped to keep the German forces on that sector from shifting troops to the zone of main attack.
At 06.30 Hours, the 38th Infantry Regiment launched its main assault toward Hill 192, the 2nd Battalion on the right and the 1st Battalion on the left, following 100 yards behind a rolling barrage. The regiment was reinforced by two companies of the 741st Tank Battalion, a company of the 2nd Engineer Combat Battalion and a company of the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion. With Cloville (Kraut Corner) taken, the 2nd Battalion pushed its advance along the west slope of Hill 192, bypassing the village of le Soulaire. At approximately 17.00 Hours its assault units reached the St-Lo - Bayeux highway and the infantrymen began to cross the road one at a time. The tanks were held up because of rough, wooded terrain and the fire of antitank guns and bazookas which covered both the highway and the roads running south from it. They finally slipped across. By the end of July 11, the 2nd Battalion had organized and was defending the ground along the St-Lo - Bayeux road. It was the only assault battalion of the 2nd Division to reach its objective that day, having advanced approximately 900 yards on an 800-yard front. The 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment, while not quite reaching its objective, had fought a stubborn battle well past the crest of Hill 192. The right flank of the battalion zone was in the area most strongly defended by the Germans, and the advance here was directly over the hilltop.
The battle of Hill 192 had been won by the close of July 11, since every German position on the hill had been reduced and the St-Georges-d'Elle defenses had been smashed. During the night the American positions had been hit with considerable artillery fire, but the small counterattack that followed was ineffective and did not delay the 2nd Division's attack of the next day in order to capture the last objectives. The little work to be done in reaching the final objectives was accomplished quickly on July 12. General Robertson had ordered a resumption of the advance for 11.00 Hours.
On July 12, at 11.00 Hours, the 1st Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment attacked without artillery preparation, as no German activity was indicated. Long-range German artillery opened fire on Hill 192 and some machinegun bursts were encountered along the St-Lo road, but opposition was light and the 1st Battalion was across the road and on its objective shortly after noon. The 2nd Battalion had already consolidated its defenses. The Germans had replaced their battered troops and had withdrawn to positions south of the St-Lo - Bayeux highway, establishing a new main line of resistance which they immediately began to fortify with obstacles and mines. The 2nd Division's mission was completed when the 23rd Infantry Regiment occupied its objective in the early afternoon. The 1st Battalion met very little opposition. The 3rd Battalion sent Company K, supported by tanks, to occupy la Croix-Rouge. Resistance had been anticipated here, but the Germans had withdrawn during the night, undetected by the American outposts. The 2nd Battalion, late in the day, moved up to a position along the highway, extending the 23rd Infantry Regiment's line from la Croix-Rouge to Berigny, and cleared out a well-fortified German salient. No resistance was met, although the battalion had to pick its way through a heavily mined area. By the end of 12 July the American forces held not only Hill 192 but also the St-Lo highway as far west as la Calvaire. Their victory had cost the 2nd Division 69 killed, 328 wounded, and 8 missing. The left flank of the main drive on St-Lo had been cleared of a formidable obstacle, and the Americans had gained the best ground for observation on the battlefield.
In the period of July 13-24, the 2nd Infantry Division remained for a few more days in the Hill 192 area and the men could now face the carnage of war. The soldiers searched out houses and tried to rest for the next attack. After a few days units were moved to new positions and had to dig in for the big breakthrough out of the beachhead. Still, the GIs had a lot of problems trying to get the tanks through the hedgerows. The Germans positioned their machine gun nests set in the corners of the fields so they could cover both fields to their front and thereby give each other covering fire. The usual way a tank entered a field was to drive over the hedgerow. When they did, the tank pitched up exposing the belly, which was not heavily protected. A German with a Panzerfaust could knock out an American tank by waiting until it pitched up, then shoot it in the belly. Some US combat engineer back on the beach came up with an idea that changed all this. They took some of the German beach barricades, which were made of large angle iron, cut them off at a sharp angle and, welding several of them together, attached them to the front of the tank. It made a large saw-toothed contraption that looked very menacing and it worked. Instead of riding up over the hedgerow, the tank now plowed right through it. All kinds of ideas were tried, including using TNT satchel charges to blast holes in the hedgerows, but nothing worked as well as those sawtooths.
Sawtooths on US tank
Under the Overlord plan, the Allies had hoped to hold all of Normandy west of the Seine and Brittany within 90 days of the invasion, but, as of July 25, they were well short of that goal. Given the condition of Cherbourg (taken on June 26) and the lack of other major ports in the beachhead, possession of the Breton ports appeared critical to the ongoing buildup and resupply of troops. Although the capacity of the invasion beaches had exceeded expectations, a major storm had wreaked havoc on ship-to-shore operations in late June, underlining the risk of relying on over-the-beach supply for too long. Within the relatively narrow lodgment, the one million American troops - including thirteen infantry and four armored divisions with their equipment and supplies - were encountering severe problems of congestion, and a serious shortage of artillery ammunition existed. Nevertheless, German resistance showed no signs of weakening on the battlefield. There also remained the possibility that the Germans might force the Allies into fighting a defensive action by reinforcing their Normandy forces. General Eisenhower, Field Marshal Montgomery and General Bradley agreed that the next offensive would be to break through the German defenses which encircled the lodgment area and capture additional ports, particularly those in Brittany, rolling up the German flanks and freeing itself of the constraints imposed by operating in the Norman Bocage (hedgerows) countryside . The strategy to be employed envisaged drawing the Germans away from the US First Army sector (the 2nd Infantry Division is part of the First Army) by a diversionary British attack, and then making the breakthrough with the US First Army. The basic plan was to pierce the German line on a narrow front along the Lessay - Periers - St. Lo road by infantry following an intense air and artillery bombardment of the breakthrough strip. The infantry, after advancing through the German position, would fan out and block off the flanks and an armored and motorized infantry force would drive through the opening made by the initial infantry thrust and exploit this success to the south and southwest in the direction of Coutances (Operation Cobra).
General Gerow (Commander of the V Corps) planned to attack with the four infantry regiments already on line, the three of the 2nd Division and one of the 5th Division (recently arrived in Normandy). Because the V Corps zone was divided into almost equal sectors by wooded and swampy lowland that separated the interior regiments, General Gerow projected two simultaneous two-regiment efforts that would converge on the St. Jean-des- Baisants ridge. He expected to be in possession of the crest of the ridge in two days, after which he planned to send the 5th Division southwest to the Vire River, to St. Suzanne-sur-Vire. Together, the 2 divisions on the V Corps front easily outnumbered the Germans they faced. Twenty battalions of artillery were in support, and two tank destroyer battalions were tied in with the Corps fire direction center. The relative inactivity of the V Corps before the start of Operation Cobra had enabled adequate stockpiling of ammunition. Nevertheless, the Germans had excellent observation and supplementary defensive positions on the higher ground between the villages of Ste. Suzanne-sur-Vire and St. Jean-des-Baisants and all around them.
First Army Breakout July 24 - August 4, 1944
On July 25, 1944, Operation Cobra started. The men of the 2nd Infantry Division, still holding their positions near Hill 192 and Berigny, could see thousands of Allied heavy bombers flying over. On July 26, at 06.00 Hours, the V Corps' long-awaited attack jumped off following a 20 minute preparation by American and British artillery - 192 American and 44 British guns fired an artillery preparation to open the attack east of the Vire River. This was the precursor of a heavy artillery effort that by the end of the first day was to consume half the ammunition allocated to the V Corps for a five-day period. Concerned that two weeks of relative inactivity in this sector had enabled the Germans to prepare extensive defensive positions in considerable depth, the 2nd Division commander, General Robertson, had developed novel tactics for his attack. As the artillery lifted, the tanks (with their sawtooth front ends) attacked through the hedgerows in depth across the front for several hundred yards, tearing big holes in them so the infantry could get through. While the tanks were out there, the artillery fired T.O.T. (time on target) rounds. These were air bursts that exploded above the ground and kept the Germans pinned down. Achieving surprise and taking no losses from German fire, the tankers returned after twenty minutes to the Line of Departure to pick up infantry support. Together the tanks and infantry moved quickly through the gaps in the hedgerows before the Germans could reestablish their positions.
The attack was made by the 2nd and 5th Infantry Divisions towards the towns of Rouxeville - Vidouville. The advancing units progressed slowly southward throughout the day against well emplaced German troops who had to be driven from one prepared hedgerow position to another. Every hedgerow was full of machine gun emplacements, which made crossing those fields almost impossible. The American infantrymen had to knock them out with mortars or bazookas, then go on to the next field and do it all over again. With the help of the 2nd Division's tactics, two of the 2nd Division's three Infantry Regiments made
notable advances. On the division left, the 9th Infantry Regiment used 25 .50-caliber machine guns previously emplaced on high ground to deliver flanking fire across the regimental front and advanced steadily for almost two miles. Against artillery, mortar, and slight small-arms fire, the regiment nearly reached the St. Lô - Caumont highway. Comprising one half of the corps right flank pincer force, the 23rd Infantry Regiment gained almost a mile and reached a lateral country road. There, German artillery and high-velocity weapons placed flanking fire on the road and prevented a crossing in strength. The fire also made it difficult to evacuate casualties and bring up supplies. For the night they stopped on the edge of Notre Dame d'Elle. On the division right, where the 38th Infantry Regiment composed the other half of the pincer force, a comparable advance was made except on the extreme right. Stanch resistance and an increasingly exposed right flank forced a halt. By nightfall the 5th Division's 2nd Regiment cut the St. Lô - Caumont highway and made a total advance of two miles to the Rouxeville-Vidouville road south of Pierre-le-Cenilly.
By the end of July 26, the units of the V Corps had taken about 300 prisoners and advanced half way to the St. Jean-des-Baisants ridge. The drive cost nearly a thousand casualties, chiefly from artillery fire. The assault troops had broken through the crust of the German defenses, though they had been unable to exploit local penetrations because of the terrain, the wide frontages, and, in the case of the 5th Division's 2nd Infantry Regiment, a certain amount of disorganization within the battalions during their flanking approach to the St. Jean-des-Baisants ridge when intense and accurate German fire hit them. The V Corps clearly appeared to be accomplishing its main mission of containing some of the German forces and preventing them from bringing their strength to bear on the main development of Operation Cobra west of the Vire River. That day most of the 2nd Division's infantrymen qualified for their Combat Infantry Badge. They spent a very restless night. They were exhausted, extremely under strength and were expecting the Germans to counter-attack all night long. The GIs got a lot of German artillery and mortar fire.
On July 27, two days after the First Army had launched the operation to capture St. Lo, the Germans realized that their forces from the west of the penetration area to the coast of the Cotentin Peninsula might be cut off and withdrew. The withdrawal was covered by artillery and mortar fire and as they moved south they demolished bridges, laid extensive road and personnel mines and set numerous booby-traps. Now, the Germans were on the run and the GIs kept moving right after them, meeting only sporadic resistance, but when the Germans did stop to fight they were tough as ever and the Americans still suffered a lot of casualties. In the V Corps Sector a slight advance was made by the 2nd Infantry Division's capture of Notre Dame d'Elle, thus improving the position along the Rouxeville - Vidouville road. During the day V Corps issued Field Order 14 directing the 2nd Division to continue the attack to secure St. Jean des Baisants. The XI Tactical Air Force (TAC) continued to give close support to the ground action by flying armed recon missions to the west, south and east of the breakthrough area. The air support was very effective in hampering the Germans from moving in reserves and blocking their attempts to withdraw. At
the end of the day, the V Corps was still more than a mile short of the crest of the St. Jean-des-Baisants ridge.
2nd Infantrymen taking cover
On July 28, the V Corps (now 2nd, 5th and 35th Infantry Divisions), east of the Vire River, attacked south against vigorous resistance of the German 3rd Paratroop Division and only slight progress was made in that sector. However, the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division captured St. Jean des Baisants. Overall, the V Corps secured its Operation Cobra objective, the St. Jean-des-Baisants ridge from Ste. Suzanne-sur-Vire to Vidouville. However, the intensity, skill and aggressiveness of the coordinated infantry-air-armored attack by First Army's V, VII, VIII and XIX Corps and the IX TAC had severely crippled and disorganized the Germans from the Vire River west to Coutances. The failure of the Germans to contain, or even to slow down, the attack in the western section of the First Army's front and their tremendous losses in personnel and equipment broke their will to continue combat in this sector. The roads leading south from Coutances were full with German retreating vehicles and tanks. Fighter bombers continued to hit these columns and reported 1000 vehicles damaged or destroyed. The breakthrough operation was considered as a success. The early capture of Coutances enabled General Bradley to continue the exploitation to the south with 2 extremely mobile Corps'. Desiring to continue the success, the Army Commander readjusted the original “Operation Cobra”, and issued on July 28 the order to all Corps to prevent the Germans from regrouping by continuing to exert unrelenting pressure against the Germans, with the order for the V Corps to continue its attack.
Taken from issue no. 20, dated Wed. 31 January 1945 of the INVADER, a newsletter of the 23rd Infantry Regiment:
2ND BN IS CITED FOR NORMANDY ATTACK
General Robertson today announced a commendation for the Second Bn. for "outstanding performance of duty in combat operations against a highly trained and tenacious enemy during a three day period from 26 July to 28 July, 1944 of the Normandy Campaign."
The citation reads: Acting as the spearhead of a 23rd Infantry drive to the south, the 2nd Bn. crossed the St. Lo highway shortly after 0600 on 26 July and took up the attack in a column of companies with Co. E in the assault. Although intense concentrations from Division artillery preceded the attack, assault elements received heavy enemy artillery fire soon after crossing the Berigny-St. Lo highway, designated as the Line of Departure.
Pushing on through the heavy barrage, Co. E encountered fierce machine-gun, mortar and small arms fire when leading platoons neared the enemy Main Line of Resistance (MLR) a few hundred yards from the highway. Here the enemy had machine-gun emplacements, expertly camouflaged and well protected from both artillery and small arms fire, in the corners of every hedgerow.
Co E engaged the enemy in a heavy firefight, but was unable to advance until Co. F approached the area from the left rear and also engaged the enemy. During this firefight both companies were again subjected to heavy concentrations of artillery which inflicted a number of casualties since there was no time to dig in. With the aid of a company of tanks, however, the battalion pressed on, breached the MLR and closed with the enemy in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. During this stage of the battle rifle companies fought without the support of machine-guns and mortars, so close was the fighting. Finally, resistance slackened slightly and the advance rolled on. Shortly after noon the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Raymond B. Marlin (who recently rec'd the DSC from Gen. Marshall for this action), was wounded, but his executive officer, Maj. Louis F. Hamele, immediately assumed command and displayed remarkable coolness and excellent judgment in a critical situation.
The attack gained momentum during the afternoon in spite of continuous machine-gun, mortar and small arms fire from the well entrenched enemy. Late in the afternoon it was evident that the enemy was making a general withdrawal but sizable delaying parties were left to slow the battalion's advance. Companies E & F stopped for the night on the edge of Notre Dame d'Elle, after advancing more than a mile in the face of fanatical resistance from the elements of the Third German Paratroop Division. An estimated 350 prisoners, 33 enemy machine-guns, 4 anti-tank guns and innumerable anti-tank rocket launchers and small arms were captured in the zone of advance. Under a nerve-shattering artillery barrage, the already battered battalion re-organized for the night. Co. E, after sustaining 70 casualties, four of whom were Officers, was relieved by Co. G.
During early hours of darkness, the enemy succeeded in maneuvering about until Co. F was virtually cut off from other friendly troops. Contact was maintained throughout the night only by radio.
Attacking at 0800 the following morning, Companies E & G soon released pressure on Co. F, as the attack swept through Notre Dame d'Elle and south towards St. Jean des Baisants. On 28 July St. Jean des Baisants fell to the First and Second Battalions as the enemy reeled backward in disorganized retreat. This three-day attack broke the back of organized German resistance in the sector and paved the way for the drive across the Vire river several days later.
Without the unceasing pressure which the Second Battalion, 23rd Infantry, applied in the face of heavy casualties, difficult terrain, and fanatical enemy resistance, the seizure of the objective would have undoubtedly been delayed and made with an increased cost in men and material.
The Souloeuvre-Vire river line, eleven miles beyond the St. Jean-des-Baisants ridge, appeared the obvious V Corps objective. Although the water alone constituted an obstacle to vehicular movement, the river runs through a ridge mass more than two miles in depth that presented an even more serious barrier to military advance. Steep-walled hills from 600 to 900 feet high would provide the Germans dominant observation, cover and concealment, fields of fire, and a good communications network. Hoping to secure the area before the Germans could organize it for defense, General Gerow nevertheless felt that the intervening terrain precluded a rapid advance. In the heart of the bocage country, the corps sector east of the Vire was a region of small irregular hills, small winding roads, and small hedgerowed fields. Combat there was sure to resemble the earlier battle of the hedgerows in the Cotentin.
On July 29, the V Corps resumed its southward drive by attacking with 3 divisions abreast towards Vire, the 35th Division in the direction of Torigny-sur-Vire, the 2nd Division toward the high ground east of La Chapelle du Fest, and the 5th Division toward the high ground south of Brevil. During the day the First Army had completely destroyed many of the German trapped units as they attempted to escape from the encirclements and air attacks added to the heavy toll by bombing and strafing the clogged roads which were littered with damaged vehicles of all types. Several reports of the German contemplated action filtered through to the First Army indicating that the Germans realized the vulnerability of their position and might plan to use all their forces in Brittany to block the breakthrough and then reinforce them. The Germans facilitated the V Corps advance when the German II Parachute Corps, with permission, pulled back again. Moving to the first limit of advance with very little difficulty, the V Corps by noon of July 29th held a line from Conde-sur-Vire to the British positions near Caumont. When the V Corps commander ordered the attack continued, troops pushed forward again. Despite the absence of an organized German defensive line, the V Corps divisions did not have an easy time. The terrain inhibited rapid advance, and ambush lurked around every twist in the road. The bocage hills were populated by German rear-guard parties who used artillery, mortars, and small arms fire effectively. Though US Army Headquarters claimed that only some "tired old Austrians" were in opposition, the V Corps troops had moved into contact with a defensive line covering an important road net centering on Torigni-sur-Vire.
On July 30, the First Army continued its advance. On the eastern First Army sector stiff resistance and a major German counterattack stopped the XIX Corps' 30th and 29th Infantry Divisions against Tessy-sur-Vire. The V Corps met heavy resistance too. As the 35th Division tried to take Torigni-sur-Vire and the 2nd and 5th Infantry Division tried to occupy high ground east of the village, the Germans inflicted close to 1.000 casualties, halted the advance, and
dashed American hopes for an immediate pursuit. The 2nd Infantry Division was held to a 1300 yard advance. However, the 5th Division fought its way forward against stubborn German resistance and crossed the Torigny-sur-Vire - Caumont road. The German 116th Panzer Division was committed against the V Corps in the vicinity of Pontoise.
Road from Tessy-sur-Vire to Torigni-sur-Vire crossing the Vire River at the left center of the picture
To breach the new line, the subordinate units of the V Corps made detailed attack plans, only to discover as they prepared to launch a coordinated offensive on the morning of July 31 that the Germans had disengaged. The German commander Von Kluge had authorized the German II Parachute Corps to withdraw. In falling back, the Germans abandoned not only the Torigni-sur-Vire road net but also terrain that was highly defensible. After being held up by stiff German resistance for several days, now the V Corps met only light resistance during its advance forward south to the Vire. Only mines and sporadic harassing artillery fire opposed an uninterrupted advance. American troops cheerfully advanced across undefended ground, while their commanders chafed at the thought of the Germans slipping away undetected.
Although all concerned pressed for speedy pursuit, the pace of the V Corps advance slowed during the afternoon of July 31. Nearing the Souloeuvre - Vire water line, the Corps encountered pockets of resistance and delaying forces with increasing frequency. The pursuit again threatened to come to a halt. The boundaries delineating the V Corps zone of advance met near the town of Vire, fourteen miles southwest of Torigni-sur-Vire. If the British on the left and the XIX Corps on the right advanced as projected, the V Corps would be pinched out near Vire. Blocking the approach to the V Corps limit of advance was the east-west Vire - Souloeuvre river line and hill mass, seven miles north of Vire. These factors generally and a conversation with General Bradley specifically governed General Gerow's desire to cross the hills and the water barriers quickly. Earlier on July 31, General Gerow had instructed his division commanders to move only as far as the river line. Later in the afternoon he ordered each division commander to get at least one battalion of each frontline regiment across the river before dark. On the corps right and in its center, the 35th and 2nd Infantry Divisions met such strong resistance on the approaches to the water line, and particularly near Tessy-sur-Vire, that it became obvious that they could not comply with instructions. On the other hand, the 5th Division on the left met relatively light resistance, indicating that a hard push might gain a bridgehead across the stream. General Gerow ordered the 5th Infantry Division to mount their infantry on tanks, bypass resistance, use only good roads, and get to the water and across it in at least battalion strength. The 5th Division was to cover the more than six miles to the river line in record time. Less than an hour after Gerow forwarded these instructions, he learned that a British armored division had attacked to the southwest, entered the V Corps zone, and secured two bridges across the river. Since the British had already secured a bridgehead he saw no reason why the Americans could not use it, specifically the 5th Division, for a quick drive across the remaining seven miles to the town of Vire. Unfortunately, the intermingling of British tanks and American infantrymen caused confusion. The opportunity for an immediate exploitation by either the British or the Americans was lost. One regiment of the 5th Division reached the north bank of the Souloeuvre River during the early morning hours of 1 August. There it remained throughout the day, out of contact much of the time with other division units. By then, however, the V Corps had reached the end of what had earlier promised to develop into an unlimited pursuit.
First US Army August 1-6, 1944
(Click on picture to enlarge)
On August 1, 1944, the US First Army, command of which passes from General Bradley to Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, directs all but the V Corps to drive southeast. The V Corps is to take heights north of Vire and remain there until pinched out. XIX Corps overran Percy and Tessy-sur-Vire, Percy falling to the 28th Infantry Division and Tessy-sur-Vire to Combat Command A (CCA), 2nd Armored Division. As the 35th and 2nd Infantry Divisions fought on a 2-division front near Tessy-sur-Vire to get to the Souloeuvre-Vire line, the boundary separating the British and Americans was moved to the west, thereby narrowing the V Corps sector and pinching out the entire 5th Division on the right flank by the British. The 5th Infantry Division assembled in the rear in Army reserve. The V Corps' coordinated attack advanced the American-British front south of Foret-l'Eveque and the British were approaching the Beny Bocage. The breakthrough of the US First Army had succeeded in making possible the conquest of Brittany and an advance to Paris.
On August 2, General Eisenhower urged General Montgomery to press the attack. The XIX Corps advanced steadily southeast from the Percy – Tessy-sur-Vire area against moderate opposition from retreating German troops. In the V Corps area, the 35th Division on the west and 2nd Infantry Division on the east continued south toward Vire from the north. The V Corps' objective was a line several miles north of Vire where the Corps was to be pinched out by the converging advances of the adjacent forces. The 35th and the 2nd Infantry Divisions, crossed the Vire - Souloeuvre River line and pushed south with the intent of maintaining strong pressure against the Germans and insuring contact at all times. The Germans were withdrawing behind strong rear-guard action and were using the terrain advantageously, but General Gerow still hoped to gain enough momentum to go beyond his designated limit of advance. He requested permission from General Hodges to capture the town of Vire if the prospect became feasible. The army commander at first agreed, but on second thought refused because he was unwilling to chance the confusion that might result from intermingling XIX and V Corps forces.
2nd Infantry Division in the Normandy Bocage
By August 3, Generals Montgomery and Bradley had decided to send just one Corps into Brittany and turn the rest of 12th Army Group east in an effort to destroy the German 7th Army west of the Seine (the 2nd Infantry Division being part of this action). General Hodges' First Army ran into tough opposition, particularly on the V Corps and XIX Corps fronts, where Generals Gerow and Corlett were encountering stubborn resistance in their advance toward Vire. The V Corps (the 2nd Inf. Div.'s Corps) meets stiffening resistance as it approaches Vire.
On August 4, the V Corps reaches its objectives above Vire, the 2nd Infantry Division continued its advance through the night of August 4-5, and halted to permit the XIX Corps to cross its front to take Vire. The 2nd and 35th Divisions both reached their objectives early on August 5, the former having sustained nearly 900 casualties in the process, the latter almost 600. The 2nd Division established defensive positions north of the town of Vire.
On August 5, 1944, the US First Army adjusted its boundary between the US and British forces and gave a new mission to the V Corps. The V Corps was to drive through Vire to take the region between Tinchebray and St. Jean-du-Bois (8 miles southeast of Vire), employing the 2nd and 29th Infantry Divisions. Since the new V Corps sector would be narrow, General Gerow was to attack with the 2nd and 29th Divisions in column to capture Tinchebray. The 29th Division was to remain under the XIX Corps until it captured Vire. On August 6, the 29th Division broke into Vire and cleared the city. With fall of Vire, the V Corps was out of contact with the Germans.
Normandy front August 7-11, 1944
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On August 7, in the US First Army area, the Germans opened a strong counterattack with massed armor toward Avranches early in the morning in an effort to break through to the sea and split the US forces. The attack penetrated the line at the junction of the XIX and VII Corps, overrunning Mortain and rolling on to Juvigny and Le Mesnil-Tôve before it could be stemmed with the assistance of aircraft. In the V Corps area, the 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division relieved elements of the 29th Division (XIX Corps) in Vire for movement to the south. The remainder of the 2nd Infantry Division remained in a defensive status. The next day (August 8), the 2nd Division remained at its positions. On August 9, the V Corps orders the 2nd Division, whose mission was still primarily defensive, to move the 9th Infantry Regiment southeast. The 102nd Cavalry Group is attached to the 2nd Infantry Division, which relieved additional elements of the 29th Division (XIX Corps) on hills near Vire. On August 10, the 2nd Division began limited attacks to the southeast while continuing to defend Vire. The 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division advanced to the Maisoncelles-la-Jourdan area where it was ordered to halt. On August 11, the V Corps improved its defensive positions at and near Vire.
Normandy front August 9-12, 1944
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On August 12, the US First Army had completely defeated the German efforts to break through to Avranches. The XIX Corps released the 29th Infantry Division (less the 116th Infantry Regiment, which relieved the 2nd Division at Vire) to the V Corps in its current position. The V Corps, employing the 29th Division on the right and the 2nd Division on the left, attacked abreast southeast through a narrow sector of rough terrain lacking good roads, toward the town of Tinchebray, where the Germans were still fighting hard. The 2nd Division still working its way southeast, around Vire, ran into heavy resistance in front of the town of Truttemer-le-Grand, but took the town, and then moved on to Tinchebray. T he 29th Division reached positions overlooking the St. Sauveur-de-Chaulieu - Tinchebray road.
Argentan - Falaise Pocket August 12-16, 1944
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On August 13, 1944, in the US First Army's V Corps area, the 29th Division pushed southward in the direction of Ger on the right flank of the Corps, forward elements reached La Françaisere, east of Sourdeval. The 2nd Division headed for Tinchebray and overran Truttemer-le-Petit. The next day, August 14, the British 8th Corps continued southward toward Tinchebray while the V Corps of the US First Army pushed toward the same objective from the west. The 29th Division advanced east from positions below the Sourdeval - Tinchebray highway and reached St. Jean-du-Bois. The 2nd Division continued toward Tinchebray, but was soon stopped by lively German opposition.
On August 15, the 29th Division secured heights south of Tinchebray and the 2nd Infantry Division overran Tinchebray. The 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division circled the city while its 38th Infantry Regiment went in and captured it. This was just about the end of the great breakthrough from the beachhead. They had created what was later called the Vire-Falaise pocket, where thousands of German troops and material were captured. This concluded the current mission of the V Corps. With the V Corps front facing eastward and the troops out of contact with the Germans, the advance came to a halt. General Hodges had hoped to trap a considerable number of Germans, but the prisoners taken during the four-day attack came to the disappointing total of 1.200, less than the number of casualties sustained by the V Corps.
2nd Infantry Division medics caring for a wounded comrade
The 2nd Infantry Division spent three days in the Tinchebray area taking a break and getting their weapons back in shape. They also received a bunch of replacements at this time, although the Division had been getting some all through this campaign. So many had passed through the companies it was sometimes getting difficult to remember names. While the men were at Tinchebray, the USO put on a show for them. It was held in a large field with the stage at one end and the men all seated on the ground in front of it. The rear echelon troops had taken all of the best seats up close to the front and all the rifle company men had to sit wherever they could, way back in the rear. They used binoculars to see what the performers looked like. If they hadn't had them they couldn't have even seen the stage. Later that day (still August 15) they received what was called a NAAFI ration. This was a liquor ration the British issued to their officers each month. The men got three pints of Scotch and three quarts of Gin. In addition to that, they got bottles of Champagne, le Orange, Cognac, Armagnac, some 3 Star Hennesy brandy, Calvados (which is the regional drink of Normandy, made from apple cider) and some hard apple cider. The alcoholic drinks were used by the men for partying.
On August 16, the V Corps remained in place. The next day, August 17, the XIX Corps was given responsibility for the sector and troops previously held by the V Corps. On August 18, the 2nd Infantry Division, after a three-day rest, was attached to the VIII Corps of the US Third Army and moved from the First Army zone to Brest to relieve the 6th Armored Division. The 2nd Division got orders to load up the trucks and start a long move to the Brittany peninsula to take part in the attack on the city of Brest, which began on August 25, 1944.
Brest, a fortress city of 80.000 people situated on the northern shore of an excellent landlocked roadstead of 90 square miles, Brest had been a major base of the French Navy. Because it was primarily a naval base and remote from the industrial centers of France, Brest had never attained commercial importance. In World War I, the American Expeditionary Force had used it as the principal port for the direct movement of troops from the United States to France. Though the cargo-handling facilities were not as good as at other French ports, Brest offered the Allies an excellent deep water harbor. The railroad from Brest to Rennes, along the north shore of Brittany, had been captured in good condition, and supplies discharged at Brest could easily be transported to the troops in the interior of France.
The problems of getting the operation started and keeping it in motion were matched by the task of reducing the defensive complex of the fortress of Brest. The city itself, originally on the slopes of hills on both sides of the Penfeld River, spread over several neighboring communities, among them Recouvrance and St. Pierre-Quilbignan on the west, Lambézellec on the north, St. Marc on the east. The city proper and the small commercial port area are east of the river; the western side, known as Recouvrance, includes the naval base, with extensive repair shops, drydocks, quays, barracks, storehouses, and U-boat shelter pens. The countryside around Brest, a gently rolling plateau, presents a pattern of small hills and low ridges separated in some places by narrow deep-cut valleys, the whole criss-crossed by numerous streams. The Germans used these terrain features to good advantage and organized a system of positions of various kinds and in varying strengths to establish a defense in depth. The defensive works ranged from simple trenches to concrete pillboxes, casemates, and gun emplacements. Obstacles included barbed wire entanglements, mine fields, and antitank ditches. The Germans incorporated into their defensive system a number of old French forts, built before the Franco-Prussian War and located in the western and northwestern suburbs of the city. The Germans integrated into their land defenses dual-purpose anti-aircraft guns and guns stripped from ships sunk in the harbor by Allied planes. Batteries of coastal and field artillery on the Daoulas promontory and the Quelern peninsula provided additional fire support. Heavy guns near le Conquet, intended primarily to protect the sea approaches to Brest, could also help the landward defenses. Although the Germans considered their twelve batteries of Army field artillery and eighteen batteries of Navy FLAK (anti-aircraft) inadequate for the task of defending Brest, the Americans were to find them more than troublesome. Approximately 30.000 troops defended Brest, nearly twice the number estimated by the Americans. The core of the defense was the 2nd German Paratroop Division, composed of tough young soldiers. Their commander, Ramcke, who had gained prominence in the German airborne attack on Crete in 1940, was also the fortress commander. Ordered by Hitler to hold to the last man, Ramcke was determined to do so. If he needed to justify resistance that could count victory only in the number of days the garrison held out, Ramcke could feel that the Allied forces he tied down at Brest and the ammunition he caused the Allies to expend there would constitute just that much less that could be brought to bear on the German homeland. Having evacuated all the French civilians, Ramcke used his paratroopers as nuclei to stiffen the defense of strongpoints held by the miscellaneous naval and static personnel of the garrison.
Ancient wall and moat on land side, inner fortress at Brest
For the Americans was the (re)supply of ammunition a big thing during most of the phase of the attack on Brest. The difficulties in fulfilling the VIII Corps requirements had come from intense competition among the armies engaged in the pursuit for the severely limited overland transport available. Ammunition shortages in Brittany occurred at the same time that a gasoline crises affected the pursuit. The VIII Corps used the beach of St. Michel-en-Greve (near Morlaix) to receive LST-shipped items, but the seaborne cargo was not adequate to supply all needs, and trains and trucks had to bring most of the supplies to Brest from Normandy. An airfield near Morlaix was used to bring in emergency supplies and to evacuate wounded. Poor communications, long distances, and weather contributed their adverse effects, but at the bottom of the difficulties was improper co-ordination for the Brest operation at all the echelons of higher command due to the optimistic initial belief that Brest would fall quickly.
On August 19, the 2nd Division arrived at Landerneau. The next day, August 20, it rained badly and some troops (probably of the 9th Inf. Regt.) moved to new positions relieving the 8th Division in pillboxes near an airfield (probably the one between Gouesnou and Guipavas). It was still raining on August 21 and troops were again moved to new positions. The 2nd Infantry Division's 38th Regiment was together with some other units composed into a Task Force and had to attack from Landernau to Hill 154, a dominating feature on the approaches to Brest south of the Elorn River (they captured Hill 154 on August 23). The 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments were still 2 miles from Brest. On August 23, troops were still holding their positions and went to the frontline, where they received pretty heavy German artillery and mortar fire. On August 24, the day before the big attack on Brest, the sun finally came out.
Battle for Brest August 25 - September 18, 1944
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On August 25, in the US Third Army area, the VIII Corps launched a strong attack on Brest at 13.00 Hours, after a preparatory bombardment for an hour. There were three divisions attacking Brest. The 29th Division was to attack from the northwest, the 8th Division from the north and the 2nd Infantry Division from the northeast. The 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Inf. Div.) launched the attack from a sector leading from Guipavas to the southeast. The route of elements of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd infantry Regiment ran beside the Landerneau River and the closer they got to the city, the heavier the fighting became. The men were moving in a long column down a road that ran sideways below the crest of a hill where there were lots of trees and cover. The road ran down to the end of the hill, then angled off to the right with a ravine on the left-hand side. As the lead troops got to the ravine they started getting machine gun and 88 fire, which stopped them cold. By then, all three of the divisions were in contact with the forward edge of the German defense perimeter, which formed a rough semicircle four to six miles around the mouth of the Penfeld River. In that area were two defense belts. The outer line consisted of field fortifications developed in depth and reinforced with antitank obstacles, concrete works, and emplacements, most of which were built during the few previous months. The inner belt, about four miles wide but only 3.000 yards deep, strongly fortified throughout with field works and permanent-type defenses, had been built long before the Allied landings in Normandy for close-in protection of the naval base. Because of the shallowness of the defense area, the outer belt was the main battle ground on which the Germans had to fight the battle of Brest. Despite this heavy volume of preparatory fire, the well-coordinated ground attack of the three divisions made little progress. Attempting to soften the will to resist, RAF heavy bombers struck Brest around midnight of August 25, and on the following morning American and RAF heavy bombers blasted targets again.
On August 26, the VIII Corps continued to make slow progress toward Brest against firm opposition. This day's attack displayed the kind of combat that was to predominate during the siege of Brest. Because ammunition stocks were low, the artillery reduced its activity to direct support missions. As the Americans came to a full realization of the strength of the German opposition, and as the pattern of the German defense system emerged, commanders on all echelons saw the necessity of changing their own tactics. The units turned to more detailed study of their tactical problems with the purpose of reaching intermediate objectives. The nature of the battle changed from a simultaneous grand effort to a large-scale nibbling. The divisions began to probe to locate and systematically destroy pillboxes, emplacements, fortifications, and weapons, moving ahead where weak spots were found, overwhelming pillboxes with flame throwers and demolitions after patient maneuver and fire. Small sneak attacks, the repulse of surprise counterattacks, mine field clearance, and the use of smoke characterized the slow squeeze of American pressure. Fog, rain, and wind squalls during the remainder of August restricted air support, while continued shortages of ammunition curtailed the artillery.
On August 27, in the US Third Army area, the VIII Corps completed the encirclement of Brest. The next day, August 28, the VIII Corps continued to batter Brest. On August 29-30, in the 2nd Division sector, the troops were in the midst of dogged fighting to reduce strong positions. On August 31, 1944, the VIII Corps temporarily suspended its operations against Brest and regrouped.
On September 1, 1944, the VIII Corps continued preparations for its renewing all-out assault on Brest when ammunition was more plentiful. Aircraft, warships, and artillery pounded Ile de Cézembre, off St. Malo, in preparation for an amphibious assault by an 83rd Division force. On this day, the expected completion date of the siege, as ammunition prospects seemed momentarily improved and with the US divisions in the main German defenses, General Middleton again ordered a coordinated attack after a strike by medium bombers and a 45-minute preparation by the division artillery pieces and nine corps artillery battalions. Although the VIII Corps Artillery fired 750 missions, including 136 counterbattery, in 24 hours, and although single pieces, batteries, and sometimes battalions kept known German gun positions under continuous fire, the only apparent result of the attack was a gain of several hundred yards by the 8th Division. Even this small gain was almost immediately lost to a counterattack.
2nd Infantry Division artillery crew supporting its troops
On September 2, VIII Corps continued to batter the outer defenses of Brest. The first real break occurred when the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division captured Hill 105 southwest of Guipavas. Hill 105, dominating the eastern approach to Brest, was taken in a sneak maneuver under cover of early morning fog and supported by strong artillery and mortar fire. As the Germans fell back from Hill 105 several hundred yards in the center of the Corps zone, the 8th Division advanced and took another of the fortified hills (Hill 80) in the outer defense ring. The 29th Division fought to capture Hill 103 and elements of the 83rd Division invaded Ile de Cézembre, which surrendered.
For five more days (September 3-7) the divisions continued their individual efforts. While medium and heavy bombers attacked Brest every day save one, local ground attacks inched the front toward the port. When troops of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division were getting closer to the city wall they had been stopped at a broad ravine that they couldn't cross because of the pillboxes on the other side. They attacked them several times, but hadn't made any headway. Their Battalion Supply Officer, probably Major Bill Hinsch, had gotten them some bangalore torpedoes to help breach a bunch of barbed wire the Germans had strung out in front of their positions. Bangalore torpedoes were long pieces of pipe filled with explosives that you stuck together and push out in front of you. On September 5, the US Ninth Army became operational, taking command of the troops and zone of the VIII Corps, Third Army, on the Brittany Peninsula. By the end of the first week in September, the grip around the Brest garrison had tightened. The 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division was within reach of Hill 92 (the second hill dominating the northeastern approaches). By then the besieged area was so small that heavy bombers could no longer attack without endangering the American ground troops.
2nd Division troops move through a devastated area near Brest
On September 8, in the US Ninth Army area, the VIII Corps began an all-out assault on Brest at 10.00 Hours after a preparatory bombardment, employing the 2nd, 8th, and 29th Divisions. One day before (September 7), General Middleton judged that he had enough ammunition on hand (and the assurance of more to come) to sustain another effort on the whole front. General Middleton secured six planes per division for constant air alert. The weight of all three divisions carried a number of positions that previously had been denied. The 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) captured the strongly fortified Hill 92. As the 2nd Infantry Division progressed toward Brest, they captured suburbs as they went. Prisoners totaled close to 1.000 men; American casualties numbered 250. With the achievement of September 8th and the arrival of eight LST's and two trainloads of ammunition that night, the corps commander was optimistic for the first time since the beginning of the operation.
On September 9, the 2nd Division reached the streets of Brest. The battle for Brest entered its final but most painful stage. The 2nd and 8th Divisions became involved in heavy street fighting against troops who seemed to contest every street, every building, every square. Fire from machine guns, antitank guns, German snipers and fire from towed 88s all from well-concealed positions made advances along the thoroughfares suicidal. The attackers had to move from house to house by blasting holes in the building walls, clearing the adjacent houses, and repeating the process to the end of the street. It worked pretty well for the men and they managed to occupy several city blocks this way without the Germans knowing how far the Americans had advanced. However, it was slow going. Squads, and in some instances platoons, fought little battles characterized by General Robertson, the 2nd Division commander, as "a corporal's war". It was also very difficult trying to use artillery in the city. The guns had to be elevated at such an angle that you couldn't control their impact area, so the troops mostly used mortars. There really were some good observation posts for them up in the tall buildings. Prisoners that day totaled more than 2.500. As the numbers of prisoners rose, hopes of victory quickened.
Troops fighting their way through the streets of Brest
On September 10, in the US Ninth Army area, the VIII Corps closed up to Brest proper and finished clearing Le Conquet Peninsula. Because the 2nd Infantry Division had a larger section of the city to reduce before reaching the old wall, the 8th Division completed its street fighting and arrived at the fortified city wall first, at Fort Bougen. Since the converging movement on the city compressed the division fronts and deprived the divisions of sufficient maneuver room, General Middleton decided to withdraw the 8th Infantry Division.
In the night of September 11, the 2nd Division relieved the 8th Division east of the Penfeld River. On September 12, while the 2nd Infantry Division was still involved in vicious street fighting, the 29th Division faced the necessity of reducing several forts. The next day, on the morning of September 13, hoping that the Germans would surrender, General Middleton sent a proposal to Ramcke while guns remained silent. When Ramcke declined, although the garrison was being steadily compressed on all sides, Middleton published the letters of parley for distribution to his troops, "Take the Germans apart" he told his men. West of Recouvrance, Fort Keranroux fell to the 175th Infantry Regiment of the 29th Division. The 8th Division had been pinched out, and the 29th and 2nd Divisions held an area around Brest. On September 14-15, the 2nd and 29th Infantry Divisions continued to make slow progress at Brest. The 8th Division launched an attack to clear the Crozon Peninsula (September 15).
2nd Infantry Division involved in streetfighting
On September 16, Fort Montbarey fell to the 29th Division, opening the way to Brest proper from the west, while the 116th Infantry Regiment advanced toward Recouvrance, the 175th Infantry Regiment drove into Brest via a tunnel beneath the stone wall, and the 115th Regiment advanced toward the submarine pens. Meanwhile, the 2nd Division continued to press in from the north and fought its way through the streets of Brest to reach the city wall. On September 17, the battle for Brest continued, with the 29th Division clearing eastward to the Penfeld River while the 2nd Infantry Division, to the right, got elements across the old city wall. After a strongpoint near the railroad station was eliminated, and after a patrol exploited an unguarded railroad tunnel through the wall into the inner city, troops of the 2nd Division climbed the wall and swept the remaining half mile to the water's edge. The 8th Division, clearing the Crozon Peninsula, reached the town of Crozon.
2nd Infantry Division GIs involved in house to house combat
On September 18, in the VIII Corps area, organized resistance in Brest came to an end. As the battle for Brest had been fought in two sectors separated by the Penfeld River, so the German capitulation occurred in two parts, both on 18 September. Von der Mosel surrendered all the troops in Recouvrance to the 29th Division; Colonel Erich Pietzonka of the German 7th Parachute Regiment surrendered the eastern portion of the city to the 2nd Division, appropriately enough in President Wilson Square. Nearly 10.000 prisoners, who had prepared for capitulation by shaving, washing, donning clean uniforms, and packing suitcases, presented a strange contrast to the dirty, tired, unkempt, but victorious American troops. Ramcke, however, escaped across the harbor to the Crozon peninsula. The 2nd Infantry Division had advanced approximately eight miles at a cost of 2.314 casualties. It had expended more than 1.750.000 rounds of small arms ammunition, 218.000 rounds of heavy caliber, had requested 97 air missions fulfilled by 705 fighter-bombers, which dropped 360 tons of bombs.
On September 19, the VIII Corps successfully concluded the Brittany campaign as the 8th Division finished clearing the Crozon Peninsula and captured Ramcke, the German fortress commander of Brest. The men of the 2nd Infantry Division finally had a chance to relax for a while. Troops also received close order drill and training. It was felt strange by some of the men now walking the streets of Brest without hearing the sound of gunfire. Since the Breton ports, on which the Allies had counted so heavily, were not put to use later on, the immediate result of the battle for Brest was the elimination of a strong German garrison of aggressive, first-rate soldiers.
2nd Infantry Division men posing for the camera
From September 20 until 22, the men of the 2nd Infantry Division enjoyed their chance to finally relax and they received more close order drill and training. On September 23-24, the Division prepared to move out again a fter a few days rest outside the city. On September 25, the 12th Army Group assigned the sector at that time held by the V Corps to the Ninth Army (the 2nd Division was still part of the US Ninth Army). The First Army, at that time holding the sector, was to participate in the main drive of the 21st Army Group on the Ruhr by taking Aachen and protecting the right flank of the British. In order to prepare for the move to the V Corps sector, the 2nd Infantry Division moved to Landerneau. The men already expected a move towards the German front.
The route of the 23rd US Infantry Regiment
On September 26, the VIII Corps headquarters and the 2nd and 8th Infantry Divisions began to move by rail and motor to Belgium and Luxembourg for commitment in their new zone. On September 27, the men of the 2nd Infantry Division turned in their duffel bags and got that night (September 27-28), while it was still raining, on a train (the journey would take the men through St. Brieuc, north of Rennes, Alençon, Paris, Compiegne, St. Quentin, through Luxembourg and into Belgium). On September 28, the men rode on the train all night and day in cramped positions. To the men, it was a strange feeling to drive at night with the lights on and to camp at night without worrying about fires. On September 29, the men rode through the outskirts of Paris and didn't get to see much of the Paris they had heard so much about. Their route took them northeast of Paris into Belgium to the German border. The trip across France was rather pleasant for the infantrymen. Everything seemed quite normal. The towns were not crowded or destroyed and the people just went on about their business. The shops and cafes were open, although neither had much in them in the way of goods for sale. The farmers worked their fields with whatever draft animals they had. Sometimes it was horses, mostly it was oxen. There really wasn't much evidence that a war was being fought. However, the closer they got to Germany the more grim everything became. Even though there were no shell holes or blown up houses, things just started to look more ominous.
On September 30, 1944, the 2nd Infantry Division rode all morning before it got to Longuyon (at the Maginot Line), almost at the Belgian border. The men had to hike 3 miles mostly uphill and bivouacked in the field. The next day they would leave for a 108 mile trip. On October 1, the VIII Corps, consisting of the 2nd and 8th Divisions and supporting units, prepared to take over the sector of the V Corps, First Army. The 2nd Infantry Division rode in trucks in a convoy through Luxembourg and stopped in Belgium, 2000 yards from the German border (near St. Vith, Belgium). It had rained all day. The next day, October 2, the men bivouacked in the forest while it was still raining. They got word (from 1st Battalion HQ, 9th Infantry Regiment) that they could take anything they wanted from German POWs, because the same happened to American POWs. October 3 went by raining.
On October 4, the VIII Corps assumed responsibility for the sector between the First and Third Armies, previously held by the V Corps. The front ran from Losheim, between Camp d'Elsenborn and the northern end of the Schnee-Eifel, southward generally along the Belgian and Luxembourgian borders with Germany. Eventually it stretched all the way to the southeastern corner of Luxembourg. It extended into Germany at two points: along the Schnee-Eifel, where the 4th Division in September had pierced a thin sector of the West Wall, and near Üttfeld, where the 28th Division had driven a salient into the West Wall. The mission of the VIII Corps was to defend the long front in place, deceive the Germans by active patrolling, and make general plans and preparations for attacking to the Rhine. That day, October 4, the men of the 2nd Infantry Division hiked 10 miles and entered Germany in the Schnee-Eiffel, 10 miles east of St. Vith and took over the defense of a 27-mile sector along the Siegfried Line. Elements of the Division also stayed at and near St. Vith. The 2nd Division relieved units of the 28th Infantry Division. This was a sector, supposedly held by the Germans in light force with deep pine forests and ridges. The 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division covered the right flank, occupying terrain near Üttfeld where a German flame-throwing half-track had awed men of the 28th Division in September. In general, the 2nd Division covered a relatively quiet sector for the most part, which was felt as good by the men because they were spread out all over the place.
The infantrymen actually saw the German pillboxes and dragon-tooth tank obstacles which had appeared in the pictures they used to see in Life magazine. Elements of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division occupied several German pillboxes, but the thing was that they were all facing the wrong way. The men could see the German positions from the pillboxes and knew the Germans could see them since the GIs occupied the forward slope of the hill, in full view of the Germans. Other units of the 2nd Division built (large) foxholes in the forest, instead of occupying pillboxes. Most of what the GIs did had to be done at night and in the daylight they just stayed in their foxholes. It wasn't easy because some units were completely exposed to the Germans, making it very difficult to get food and ammunition up to the American lines. All supplies moved at night. It helped that every once in awhile the units could send some of the their GIs back to a rest area in the town of Vielsalm. There the GIs could get a hot shower, some clean clothes, hot food and, if they were lucky, see a USO show. Also men sporadically visited Belgian towns and cities like Liege if they had the chance.
American soldiers cross the Siegfried Line
Siegfried Line fortifications
In the 68 days between October 4 and December 11, 1944, the 2nd Infantry Division waged incessant patrol and artillery warfare with German troops in the deep pine forests and ridges of the Schnee-Eiffel. By day and night reconnaissance patrols roamed the forests seeking out German positions. Ambush scouts pounced on unwary Germans. Combat groups jabbed the German lines and battled German patrols in a mine-strewn no-mans-land. At night, German patrols made raids through gaps in the lines that existed in the wide sector. The 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Inf. Div.) was subjected to frequent and costly shelling and several night attacks, sometimes in strength as great as two companies. Because of the lengthy front line, certain strong points were selected for defensive purposes. The 2nd Engineer Battalion quickly constructed Tobruk-type bunkers in these areas. Protected by wire and mines, they could hold a platoon and be defended against attacks from any direction. During this period of time, the 2nd Division was slowly being brought back up to strength with replacements of officers and enlisted men. The men were not idle. They might not have to attack, but still they had to stand watch in mud that even duckboards in the bottom of foxholes did not eliminate entirely. They had to buck the wet, cold winds of the Ardennes heights. They had to fight trench foot, had to patrol, also had to keep improving their defenses constantly, stringing barbed wire, laying mine fields, roofing and sandbagging foxholes and squad huts, foraging for stoves, lanterns, fuel - these and myriad other tasks.
On October 5, it was really cold and the men were still digging in and preparing defensive positions. The next day, October 6, booby traps were found all over the place and some were set off. In the night of October 6 to 7, the men got very little sleep as everybody was shooting. October 8 was spent relatively quiet. On October 9, General Bradley decided to shift the Ninth Army HQ to the north flank of the 12th Army Group, where it had to take command of the XIX Corps of the First Army in place and to leave the VIII Corps (the 2nd Division is still part of the VIII Corps) in their current positions and attach it to the First Army. These changes were to become effective on October 22, 1944. On October 10, it was raining a lot of the day and on October 11 the men heard German rocket guns (Screaming Mimis or Nebelwerfer) going off. On October 12, it was really cold and units were watching the frontline from outposts and manning their foxholes and positions. The next day, October 13, US planes strafed the German lines. That same day the Germans fired rockets and with their machine guns at the American positions. From October 14 until 19, it rained all day. On October 20, it finally didn't rain.
On October 21, General Bradley ordered the Ninth, First, and Third Armies to prepare for the drive to the Rhine (November 5 target date for the Ninth and First Armies and November 10 for the Third Army). On October 22, major regrouping began in preparation for the offensive toward the Rhine. The Ninth Army HQ moved from its positions in Luxembourg between the First and Third Armies to left flank of the First Army, where it took command of the zone and troops of the XIX Corps. The First Army took control of the zone and troops of the VIII Corps, placing the new southern boundary of the First Army along the previous boundary between the Ninth and Third Armies. On October 23, the front was generally quiet as preparations for the offensive in November continued. German flying bombs were also coming over that same day. It were V2 rockets Germany was firing at London. It was about this time that the men also started to see the V1 rocket plane, the so-called buzz bomb. They sounded like an outboard motor running without a muffler, except that they made a throbbing sound. They didn't fly very high and were really easy to see. The Germans aimed the V1s at Liege, Antwerp and London. The men saw more of them when time went on. On October 24, the frontlines remained generally static and buzz bombs were still going over head. On October 25, the infantrymen were laying barbed wire and fixed their foxholes. They also put out more booby traps. The next two days (October 26-27) were spent relatively quiet. On October 28, German buzz bombs were going over about fifty minutes apart. It snowed during the night of October 28-29. On October 29, the weather was beautiful. That same day the Germans fired rockets at the men of the 2nd Infantry Division. On October 30, again buzz bombs came over (in general, casualties and damage from it were not high for the Division). With Halloween, October 31, not much happened.
V1 Rocket (the so-called buzz bombs)
In November 1944, snows came. Small groups of soldiers huddled around fires that could be built by day, and guards stood their posts in snow several inches deep. The forests rang to the sound of axes, as the troops felled thousands of trees for shelters. The 2nd Division proved rich in log cabin architects. Despite the weather, most of the men lived comfortably. The men of the 2nd Division were still able to go back to Vielsalm on a rotation basis to get cleaned up and rest a little. They billeted in the homes of civilians and were not too sure how much to trust them. Although several of the women were married to German soldiers they really never gave the GIs any trouble. Companies also planned officers parties and troops tried to relax.
From November 1 until 7, it was cold, wet and rainy all the time. On November 2, elements of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division got word the Division was pulling back to straighten up their lines and withdrew to positions of the commanders' own choosing a mile to the rear. They were sure glad they were finally getting to move. This would get them out of that "sitting duck" situation they had been in for so long (as they were totally exposed to the Germans). Before they left the pillboxes, however, the engineers “fixed” them so that the Germans couldn't use them again. They brought up tons of explosives and packed them inside each pillbox. There was case after case of TNT and a new explosive that the men had never seen before. It was called Composition C or Plastique. You could wrap it around a post or a girder and it would stick there, just like putty, which made it very easy to use. The engineers stacked a whole lot of TNT in the pillbox and packed some of the Composition C into the corners and around the top of the wall, then stick a cap in it and wire it to be exploded later. The men moved back to their new positions during the night and that's when the engineers blew the charges. It was like a fireworks display. The men saw pieces of concrete twenty feet square take off up in the air. They blew 43 pillboxes that night and the men had often wondered what the German soldiers thought when they saw all that stuff going up. They must have thought the entire Allied army was coming after them. Their new positions were really great. They now too had dugouts made of logs with dirt piled on top and dug-in kitchens so that they could finally have some hot food and get off the K-rations. It felt good to walk into a room in which you could stand up for a change. In their platoons positions out front, trenches connected the squads so they wouldn't be exposed to German fire. About all they were getting now from the Germans were a few mortar rounds and some patrols that didn't seem to amount to much. Things had loosened up quite a bit now for e lements of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, so they were able to do some prowling around and got back to Liege a few times (like other guys from the Division). Though the new positions contained gaps between companies sometimes greater than a mile, the withdrawal enabled General Robertson to withhold a battalion in reserve, thereby permitting gradual rotation of front-line units.
Chow at St. Vith for GIs of the 2nd Division
On November 8, it started to snow and some troops still didn't have their dug outs finished. The men were happy they got cigarettes every day. That same day, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the 2nd Infantry Division and presented Silver Star awards at a ceremony at the forward CP in St. Vith. In the night of November 8 to 9, it snowed all night and the troop shelters sometimes half fell in because of the snow. On November 9, the troops saw buzz bombs coming over. The next day, November 10, it snowed very little. The weather was turning colder every day now. The men of the 2nd Division had been in winter uniforms for some time and they really needed them. The overcoat and gloves were all right, but the combat boots did not keep their feet dry in all that cold wet snow. Somewhere around early November 1944, they finally received overshoes and some of the men were issued shoepacs, which helped a great deal. The men wearing heavy overshoes were not always very pleased about them. The snow was getting deep and the roads had turned to ice in most places.
2nd Infantry Division men in the pine forest
GI in snow camouflage clothing like it was worn during the Battle of the Bulge - picture taken in the Baugnez 44 museum in Malmedy, Belgium
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
Left: US Officer with British made winter camouflage clothing
Right: GI dressed with his trenchcoat and improvised snow camouflage
Both pictures were taken in the Baugnez 44 museum in Malmedy, Belgium
(Pictures Courtesy of Rick Demas)
On November 11, in the US First Army area, the VIII Corps takes command of 83rd Division from the XX Corps. As it was Armistice Day, at 11.00 Hours, it sounded like the whole Corps fired a round and the 2nd Division observed a barrage of small arms, mortar, and artillery fire. From November 12-15, 1944, men of the 2nd Division cut wood all day, it was cold, and snowing pretty hard. On November 16, the US Ninth and First Armies opened a coordinated offensive to clear the Roer Plain between the Wurm and the Roer. The combined air-ground effort was called Operation Queen. The air phase of Queen marked the greatest close support effort made to that date by the Allied air forces, British and US strategic and tactical air forces joined in the assault on a relatively small zone of attack and dropped 10.000 tons of bombs. In the US First Army area, the VII Corps opened the attack of the First Army at 12.45 Hours, pushing toward Duren and Koln to secure the Roer River crossings. The VIII Corps, which includes the 2nd Division, remained at its position. On November 17, elements of the 28th Division were relieved and moved to the VIII Corps sector. In the 2nd Infantry Division area nothing special happened. On November 18, the snow started to melt. The next day (November 19), the Division again spent a quiet day. From November 20 until 22, the men cut a little wood, worked on their holes and got rain all day.
On November 23, 1944, Thanksgiving Day, the Germans made a feeble retaliation for the barrage on Armistice Day and the Germans threw artillery on the men of the 2nd Division. Further that day, the GIs continued cutting wood and working on their holes. They hoped to spent Christmas amid their pine log luxury. The next day, November 24, the Germans fired more artillery at the Division area. On November 25, 1944, the 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division held what was believed to be the first Regimental parade on German soil in WWII. General Robertson decorated a number of men in the ceremony at Hemmers, Germany. Again, it snowed a little and was cold. The other men of the Division spent the day with cutting more wood. From November 26-30, the men spent their time working on their holes and cutting more wood. On November 29, it again rained all day.
General Robertson decorating a number of 2nd Division men
In early December 1944, the VIII Corps at the direction of the First Army used Headquarters of the 23rd Special Troops to imitate a build-up of strength in hope of drawing German units from the Aachen sector. Using the name, shoulder patches, and vehicular markings of the 75th Division, not yet committed to action, the special troops simulated arrival of the division by occupying billets, command posts, and assembly areas, employing vehicular sound effects, and executing fictitious radio and telephonic traffic. For a time this activity was reflected on German intelligence maps by a question mark, but the Germans soon became satisfied that no new division existed.
On December 1-2, 1944, not much happened in the 2nd Infantry Division area. On December 3, it was raining again and some units of the Division switched positions. The next day (December 4), was a quiet day for the men and on December 5, it again started to rain. December 6-7, not much happened in the Divisional area. On December 8, it again started to snow. On December 9, the First Army maintained at and improved their defensive positions. The men of the 2nd Division were notified that they would go the next day to an area to the north in the vicinity of Aachen for an attack. It again snowed hard and everything was covered with ice. On December 10, in the midst of a driving snow storm and in real cold, the 2nd Division moved north to a rear assembly area (Sourbrodt vicinity, near Camp d'Elsenborn, Belgium), just beyond the 99th Division, for an attack on a Siegfried Line stronghold at Wahlerscheid in the Monschau Forest (in an effort to attack the Roer River dams). The 106th Infantry Division assumed the defense of the Schnee-Eiffel, and, as the men of the 2nd Division pulled away, there were mutterings about the luck of the 106th Division inheriting such a quiet sector. But five days later, Von Runstedt's Ardennes Offensive struck the 106th Division in full force, inflicting grievous casualties (the 2nd Division had missed Von Runstedt Offensive by five days in the Schnee-Eiffel, but it was to meet him head-on on the sixth day). One officer and a few non-commissioned officers from each company stayed to help the 106th Division get settled. The men of the 2nd Division were amazed at what they saw when the men of the 106th Division arrived. Half of them weren't wearing their helmets, it looked like they carried more baseball bats than rifles, built fires out in the open and drove around with their headlights on. The men of the 2nd Division which stayed behind to help settle the GIs of the 106th Division showed them how to set up their aiming stakes and fields of fire for their guns, but they acted like they'd never heard any of it before. The 2nd Division guys had the impression that the GIs of the 106th wouldn't listen to them, so they moved and went their own way reporting back to their units up north in an area just east of Elsenborn (Belgium) and got ready to move to the dams.
On December 11, 1944, the 2nd Division closed in the V Corps zone and got attached to that Corps. On December 12, the Division moved by truck to the frontlines, first to Büllingen (the main Division Supply Point), then north to Rocherath and Krinkelt, two villages so close together they had been nicknamed the "Twin Villages". The 23rd Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Division was the reserve Regiment (moving 30 miles north to the vicinity of Sourbrodt, Belgium, near Camp d'Elsenborn) and had to follow the 9th and 38th Regiments later on to a road junction at a place called Wahlerschied, which was later named "Heartbreak Crossroad" (and with a good reason: it was a savage, costly four-day battle in freezing weather, which ended with the fruits of victory being snatched away under circumstances utterly beyond the control of the men who fought there); it was heavily defended and took a long time to overcome. This was the middle of December and there was a lot of snow on the ground; it was unbearably cold. The 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments were to attack in the morning of December 13, with snow 3 inches deep and all the way through the woods. The 2nd Infantry Division had the mission of capturing the dams if possible, or to force the Germans to blow the dams and eliminate the threat of the floodwaters wrecking the river crossings planned along the river. From Gemund, the river ran north several hundred miles and was a dangerous threat to the Allied advance as long as the Germans controlled the dams. Roads into Germany had proved to be scarce and heavily defended. There was only one good one leading to the dams in the Division's zone. This one ran from Rocherath, Belgium, across the German border at Wahlerscheid – Heartbreak Crossroad – and thence beyond the Siegfried Line where it branched into an excellent road net. Along the German border the Rocherath road passed through the Monschau Forest, and at Wahlerscheid, in the heart of the forest, Siegfried Line fortifications were clamped across it like a giant vise. Barring the way into Germany were 25 concrete pillboxes sqautting in the forest on both sides of the road. For 200 yards the approach to the pillboxes had been cleared of trees to give German gunners a field of fire, and across the clearing, with its profusion of mines, stretched masses of barbed wire. A severe ordeal obviously awaited any troops attempting to force their way into Germany over this route. Yet as the war developed in early December, the road, as a means of approach toward the Roer River dams, became more and more important in relation to the overall Allied strategy on the Western Front, and the 2nd Infantry Division was given the mission of smashing through the Wahlerscheid stronghold into the open country south of the dams.
2nd Division troops move through Monschau forest
Aiming first at the Wahlerscheid road junction, the meeting point of the Höfen-Alzen and Dreiborn ridges, the 2nd Division had as mentioned but one road leading to the first objective. Faced with this restriction, the division commander, General Robertson, had little choice of formation for the first leg of the attack other than regiments in column. He directed the 9th Infantry Regiment to attack astride the road, take the Wahlerscheid road junction, then swing northwest to clear those Germans opposite the Höfen-Alzen ridge. Following in column as far as Wahlerscheid, the 38th Infantry Regiment was to be committed northeast from the road junction along the Dreiborn ridge in the direction of the Roer River Dams. As said, the 23rd Infantry Regiment in division reserve was to remain near Camp d'Elsenborn and join the attack later on. That part of the Monschau Forest through which the 9th Infantry Regiment first was to push was a kind of no man's land of snow-covered firs, hostile patrols, mines, and roadblocks. Because the forested no man's land between Krinkelt-Rocherath and Wahlerscheid was some three miles deep, obtaining accurate intelligence information before the attack was difficult. Any real estimate of German strength at Wahlerscheid or any pinpoint locations of German pillboxes and other positions were missing. This situation made it particularly difficult to plan artillery fires in support of the attack. The artillery tried to solve the problem by plotting checkpoint concentrations by map, which might be shifted on call from infantry and forward observers as trouble developed. The fact that no preparation was to precede the attack also alleviated the problem of unspecific targets. Looking upon the 2nd Division's attack as the main effort of the V Corps maneuver, the corps commander had provided strong fire support. Attached to the 2nd Division was a battalion of 105-mm howitzers, another of 4.5-inch rockets, a battery of 155-mm self-propelled guns, a company of chemical mortars, the usual medium tank battalion, and two battalions of tank destroyers (one self-propelled). In addition, the 406th Field Artillery Group with four battalions of field pieces of 155-mm caliber or larger was to reinforce the division's fires. The V Corps reserve (Combat Command B: the 9th Armored Division) was attached for possible exploitation of a breakthrough, so that the organic artillery of this Combat Command also was available.
On December 13, the V Corps opened the offensive for the Roer and Urft dams, employing the 78th Division (untried as yet in combat), the 2nd Division, and the 99th Division. The newly formed 78th Infantry Division attacked German positions farther north along the German border between Lammersdorf and Monschau. The 78th Division was held up near Kesternich. The 99th Division attacked in the Monschau Forest and gained preliminary objectives. One hour after daylight, the 2nd Division's 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments, with the task of capturing Wahlerscheid, drove into the Monschau Forest astride the Rocherath-W a hlerscheid road with the attack s pearheaded by the 9th Infantry Regiment. The attack was not preceded by an artillery preparation. It had been planned to surprise the Germans, and the R egiment advanced several hundred yards to the vicinity of the clearing around the pillboxes without opposition. Two hundred yards away, beyond the rows of barbed wire, were the pillboxes, squat, ugly, lay half-concealed in scrub pine. As the troops (first some scouts) closed up to the clearing at the Wahlerscheid road junction, hundreds of German guns of many caliber split the silence of the forest and they exhaled murderous fire. Grouped compactly about the road junction and sited to provide interlocking fires were machine gun and rifle positions in and about four pillboxes, six concrete bunkers, a forester's lodge, and a custom house. The forest and deep ravines formed a kind of moat around the entire position. Where trees and underbrush had encroached upon fields of fire, the Germans had cut them away. In some places rows of barbed wire entanglements stood six to ten deep. The snow hid a veritable quilt of lethal antipersonnel mines. The attack had been detected when the men crossed the anti-tank ditch. Machine guns clipped the bushes, kicking up dirt around the embattled GIs. Artillery and mortar shells, shearing off the tops of trees, sprayed shrapnel in all directions. Casualties were heavy (the battle would continue for several more days before the GIs captured their targets). Hardships beset the troops from the start. Snow, knee-deep in places, covered the ground and made the going laboriously hard for doughboys burdened with weapons, ammunition, and packs. The forest was so dense the branches were interlocked as stiffly as gates, and the men had literally to push their way forward. To make matters more miserable a thaw was sending the snow on the pines dripping down on the men, soaking them to the skin. That night the weather turned intensely cold. They had to sleep without blankets, and their wet clothing froze. Through the night they tried to keep warm by painfully etching some form of foxhole or slit trench in the frozen earth.
On December 14, the V Corps continued its offensive, but made little headway. Repeated attempts to assault and to outflank the Wahlerscheid position through the day ended in failure. This prompted a directive from the division commander that set the tone for conduct of the next day's operation: "Base future operations," General Robertson said, "on thorough reconnaissance, infiltration, and finesse. Get deliberate picture, then act." During the afternoon, troops were pulled back several hundred yards into the forest to provide the artillery a clear field. Throughout the night, patrols probed for gaps in the mine fields and for passage through the barbed wire obstacles.
On December 15, the V Corps continued to gain ground slowly. The 78th Division secured Kesternich, but German forces infiltrated in some strength and isolated elements of the 78th Division. Meanwhile, bright prospects were opening to the 2nd Infantry Division thanks to the grieve fighting of the 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments. The first belt of the Siegfried Line had been breached at Wahlerscheid. By midnight the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Regiment held a substantial bridgehead within the Wahlerscheid strongpoint and another battalion was filing silently through the gap. One battalion swung northwest, the other northeast. From one position to another, the men moved swiftly, blowing the doors of pillboxes with beehive charges, killing or capturing the occupants, prodding sleepy Germans from foxholes, and capturing seventy-seven at one blow at the customs-house. The roads to Hofen and Monschau and the road to Dreiborn and Schleiden were ready to fall, but German artillery was growing in volume along the entire line. Two hours after daylight on 16 December even mop-up was completed, and the 38th Infantry Regiment already was moving forward to pass through the 9th Regiment's positions and push northeastward along the Dreiborn ridge toward the Roer River Dams. The Wahlerscheid road junction firmly in hand, General Robertson and others of the 2nd Division now started to give greater attention to other developments that, when dwelt upon, had disturbing connotations. Beginning two hours before daylight on December 16, German artillery fire had been increasing with an ominous persistence. Counterbattery fire was particularly heavy. German troops penetrated the lines of the 99th Infantry Division and soon that division was out of communications with (some) its units.
Map showing troop movements in the Elsenborn area, 16-19 December 1944
(click on picture to enlarge)
On December 16, Field Marshal von Rundstedt opened an all-out counteroffensive in the Ardennes early in the morning, taking the Americans by surprise and penetrating the lines of the US First Army. The German 6th Panzer Army on the north and the 5th Panzer Army on the south pressed vigorously toward the Meuse River on a broad front, the former directed ultimately toward the Albert Canal in the Maastricht-Antwerp area and the latter toward the Brussels-Antwerp area. German paratroopers (under the command of Otto Skorzeny) dropped behind the American lines seized key points and succeeded in disrupting communications and causing widespread confusion. In the V Corps area, the German counteroffensive hit the south flank of the Corps and the VIII Corps line to the south. The 99th Division held back the Germans in the Hofen area, south of Monschau, but gave ground to the south.
Map of the Elsenborn area - December 16, 1944
In the morning of December 16, in the 2nd Division area, the Battalion commanders were hurriedly summoned to the Regiment. There the full truth became known. A serious German counter-attack was developing around Rocherath. That morning around 05.00 Hours, elements of the 2nd Battalion (Company E), 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division bivouacked alongside a road in the woods, waiting for word to advance, when they heard there was heavy fighting just to the east of them. Figuring that the 99th Division could handle the trouble to the east, they got everyone up and battle ready so they could move on through the 9th Infantry Regiment in the attack on the Roer dams. In the afternoon of December 16, threatening shadows assumed a darker and more menacing appearance when General Robertson received orders not to commit the 23rd Infantry Regiment (Major Hinsch's Regiment), which at that time was preparing to move from Camp d'Elsenborn/Elsenborn area, site of the Division's rear echelon, to aid in the exploitation of the Wahlerscheid breakthrough. The men of Company E, 2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt, started taking a lot of artillery fire and things began to get a little scary. They had moved to set up a line of defense to the east, near the town of Krinkelt when, suddenly, they were fighting in every direction. Some Company E members moved to the top of a small hill overlooking Krinkelt where, through their field glasses, they could see German troops moving through the town. They were about a thousand yards away so the Americans couldn't do much with small arms fire. Back down the hill the GIs found three towed 3-inch guns, pulled by jeeps, and had the drivers bring them up to the back slope up the hill. By then there were all kinds of vehicles moving down the road into Krinkelt. The E Company members saw a crossroads in the center of the town, flanked by three or four houses to the left. The men set up the three guns (one had a sight that wouldn't work because it was full of water, so they bore-sighted it) to fire at the crossroads. When a German truck passed the first house, the Americans fired all three guns. The German vehicle and the American shells got to the crossroads at about the same time. When there were enough disabled trucks piled up in the juncture to block it, the Americans started firing at the rear of the German column. In a short while the GIs had a lot of fire power with them; seven self-propelled 75mm guns, the three 3-inch guns, a rifle platoon on the forward slope of the hill with machine guns on either flank and a section of 60mm mortars behind them. After they stopped the column at the crossroads, the German troops started massing for an attack up the hill. They were at the bottom of a wide snow covered field and the Americans could clearly see each man, an estimated 200-300 German soldiers. When they got within about fifty yards of the Americans they opened up on the Germans. The machine guns started working them over on the front side and mortars caught them in the rear. The American troops also had some 81mm mortars, the 3-inch guns and SP-75s firing high explosives into them. Not a single German soldier got out of that field alive.
Later in the afternoon one Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment was detached from Division control and attached to the 99th Division to plug gaps in the lines. Shortly afterwards another Battalion was attached to the 99th Infantry Division, leaving only one Battalion of the 23rd Regiment in Division reserve – the 2nd Battalion. The 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) had set up a defensive position on a ridge northeast of Rocherath, prepared to support the 393rd Infantry Regiment (99th Div.). The 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment (probably among them Major Hinsch) had assembled in the late afternoon of the 16th approximately a mile and a quarter north of Rocherath. The 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment would be at Hunningen. Troops of the 2nd Division had continued the attack on December 16, but during the afternoon Major General Walter M. Robertson made plans for a withdrawal, if necessary, from the Wahlerscheid sector. The 9th and 38th Regiments had to pull back quickly to avoid encirclement and help stem the German attack. The pillboxes so dearly won must now be relinquished without a fight.
In the meantime, at the Company E (2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt.) area, German tanks maneuvered around the stalled vehicles on the road at Krinkelt, below the Americans. Because the GIs were in such a great position, they ended up calling for fire from their Regimental Artillery, Division Artillery and some of the 240mm guns from the V Corps, along with the mobile guns the men had behind them. The men were knocking tanks silly down in the town. It went on all day long. A German plane strafed the men and shot up the kitchen area. Nobody got any sleep that night (December 16 to 17). Troops were moving all night long and because it was dark the Americans couldn't tell a friend from a foe. They shot at anything that moved in front of them. The many counter-attacks at their positions didn't seem to stop. Tanks were the most frightening, although the men didn't get any direct tank attacks. They were at the top of the hill and there was too much snow and ice for them to make it up the steep incline.
Absolutely vital to the German advance were the two roads leading to Malmedy (Belgium) . They had to be captured quickly by German infantry, for just behind the foot troops several hundred tanks, halftracks and armored cars waited. Once the Losheimergraben crossroads was taken, the pent-up force of SS Colonel Joachim Peiper's armored battle group (Kampfgruppe) of the 1st SS Panzer Division would rush through the breach and dash headlong for the Meuse River and beyond. The division's ultimate objective was Antwerp. The commander, SS Colonel Joachim Peiper, was furious. After being stalled all day at the rear of a long column, he had finally received orders to break out to the west any way he could. Waiting for the 3rd Parachute Division to clear a path through the 99th Infantry Division's lines, in addition to traversing broken terrain and mined roads, had cost him even more time - time that he feared he might not be able to make up. He was not in the mood for any more delays. Pushing the men and equipment ahead of him off the road, he had finally reached Lanzerath as midnight approached - several hours later than scheduled.
Map of the Elsenborn area - December 17-18, 1944
On December 17, the V Corps was fully occupied with holding their current positions north of the breakthrough area and with delaying the German offensive, which continued to gain ground slowly toward Malmedy. The Germans renewed their attack at Losheimergraben early that day. German engineers had repaired a bridge along the Losheim-Losheimergraben road, and shortly before noon German armor made an appearance on the road, crawling slowly toward the disputed crossroads. As even more German infantry joined the fray, the few remaining GIs pulled back from the woods and took up positions in basements in the few buildings around a small customs house.
Two dead American soldiers at a road intersection in Honsfeld, Belgium, close to the German border at Losheimergraben - December 17, 1944
It was hardly 07.30 Hours on December 17, when General Robertson learned from the V Corps Commander that the Germans were attacking in force along the entire front of other divisions and had already broken through defenses of a neighboring division on the right and rear, thereby seriously threatening the 2nd Division's flank and Command Post at Wirtzfeld. Almost immediately after word was received that the neighboring division had been overrun by superior forces of German tanks and foot troops, the 9th and 38th Infantry Regiments of the 2nd Infantry Division began disengaging from the Germans and started a daylight withdrawal from the Wahlerscheid area to defensive positions around Rocherath, Krinkelt, and Wirtzfeld, covering the roads leading to Eupen and Verviers. General Robertson's order, "withdraw at once," reached the 9th Infantry Regiment a little after 10.00 Hours. By 11.00 Hours the 2nd Battalion had assembled and started south, with the 3rd and 1st Battalions forming in that order to complete the column. The withdrawal from the front lines, shielded by a heavy barrage laid on the West Wall positions (Siegfried Line), was accomplished readily but of course took much time. The 1st Battalion (commanded by Lt. Col. William D. McKinley), bringing up the rear of the 9th regiment column, did not set out until 14.15 Hours. As they headed south, the men heard the sound of the battle through the falling snow. Meanwhile the rumor that American prisoners were being butchered in cold blood by SS troops was spreading like wildfire through the 2nd Division, a partial explanation of the bitter fight finally made at and near the Twin Villages.
2nd Infantry Division GIs moving through the snow
The battle in the forest northeast of Rocherath and Lausdell reached a critical stage. Just after the survivors of the 3rd Battalion of the 393rd Regiment (99th Div.) had passed, German tanks and infantry unleashed a torrent of fire against the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment's (2nd Div.) roadblock. Company I was hit especially hard but held its ground until ammunition gave out. Falling back to a firebreak just a few yards behind their original line, the Americans attempted to establish another defensive position, but the Germans, sensing victory, closed too quickly. Two Sherman tanks positioned to back up the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment dueled with the advancing German panzers in a gallant effort, but they were no match for the Tigers and Panthers and were quickly knocked out. As they withdrew, the GIs came out onto large stretches of open ground that were raked by German artillery and rocket fire, adding to the confusion. Many men became separated from their units and made their way to the rear individually or were rounded up and captured by the rapidly advancing Germans. At 16.00 Hours, General Robertson (2nd Div.) learned that the 3rd Battalion of the 393rd Regiment had pulled back from the woods and that his 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment had been badly mauled. He realized that there was now no effective resistance to the east and that the Twin Villages and the Wahlerscheid road could be captured at any time. Hurrying back along the road toward Wahlerscheid, General Robertson came upon Company K, 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division. He quickly directed the commander to take his men southeast to Lausdell, a point where several farm roads and trails converged. That done, the General jumped back into his jeep and rushed north toward Wahlerscheid again. Just up the road he met McKinley's badly depleted 1st Battalion of the 9th Regiment (2nd Div.). Locating 10 trucks, General Robertson instructed McKinley to load as many men as possible and have the rest follow on foot. He then led the convoy to the Lausdell junction. Once there, he told McKinley to round up and take command of all the troops in the immediate vicinity, set up a defense around the junction and hold 'until ordered otherwise.' Lt. Col. McKinley's force (roughly 600 men) began the tedious but necessary task of digging in. As they began, survivors from the 3rd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment streamed back from the woods to the east.
The redeployment of the 2nd Division had a double aim: securing a firm hold on Wirtzfeld, essential to the control of the road net in the final phase of the move to Elsenborn, and defending Krinkelt and Rocherath until such time as both the 2nd and 99th Divisions could be withdrawn to the Elsenborn ridge. The 9th Infantry Regiment, leading the move, was to concentrate the bulk of its troops around Wirtzfeld; the 38th Infantry Regiment, to build up a defensive line at Krinkelt-Rocherath as its battalions arrived. In Mürringen, due south of the Twin Villages and just north of Hünningen, the lone 1st Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment still held positions. Even before the withdrawal order reached the 2nd Division Command Post at Wirtzfeld on the morning of December 17, German tanks had been spotted moving on Bullingen, the main Division Supply Point. Possibly Major Bill Hinsch was there too as Regimental or Battalion Supply Officer, or he was at the Command Post in Wirtzfeld, or with the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. General Robertson ordered the headquarters commandant to prepare a defense at the Division Command Post at Wirtzfeld (a few hundred yards north of Bullingen) and sent his only free rifle battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, south from the Rocherath area. The 2nd Battalion (23rd Inf. Regt.), plus a Tank Destroyer (TD) Company and a Company of medium tanks, started to head south at once toward Rocherath, Krinkelt, and Wirtzfeld, the latter being the Division Command Post. During the withdrawal, the 2nd Battalion (23rd Inf. Regt.) clashed with a large group of Germans. With their ammunition dangerously low (the biggest part of the 23rd Regiment was low on ammo), the unit commander was unwilling to risk another fight, and he led his troops into the woods southeast of Mürringen until a clear determination of friendly positions was made. For the time being, the threat to the southern terminus of the 2nd Division line of withdrawal was ended. The 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, and additional tank destroyers from the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion and some medium tanks soon arrived and deployed in the deep snow south of Wirtzfeld (the village at which the 2nd Division would have to turn toward Elsenborn) on the slope facing Bullingen, there to watch the 1st SS Panzer Regiment as it filed southwest. During the withdrawal GIs (with their ammunition dangerously low, as was the same case for most of the 23rd Regiment) came under German artillery and rocket fire. Units clashed with large groups of German forces. Unit commanders, unwilling to risk another fight because of the low ammunition, led their troops into woods until a clear determination of friendly positions were made.
2nd Infantry Division soldiers moving through the snow
M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer
(Pictures Courtesy of Rick Demas)
After the capture of Bullingen the German column turned away to the southwest, but a reconnaissance party composed of a tank platoon and a few riflemen in half-tracks continued in the direction of Wirtzfeld. They had been anticipated by only a few minutes with the arrival of a self-propelled gun platoon from Company C of the 644th Tank Destroyer Battalion. When the Germans reached the ridge south of Wirtzfeld they were momentarily profiled against the sky line. Two of the American tank destroyers and a 57-mm gun accounted for three of the panzers and a half-track. Through the afternoon the prospect of a large-scale German armored attack from Bullingen had loomed large in the calculations of both General Robertson (2nd Div.) and General Lauer (99 Div.). Fortunately the attack failed to come. Before dark the 2nd Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) had traversed the seven and a half miles of congested and shell-torn road, deploying south of Wirtzfeld in line with the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.). The 3rd Battalion, next in the 9th Infantry Regiment column, arrived after dark and dug in between the two Battalions already south of Wirtzfeld. The remaining men of the 394th Infantry Regiment's 1st Battalion (99th Div.) at Mürringen, as well as the 23rd Infantry Regiment's 1st Battalion (2nd Div.) at Hünningen, gave up their positions. Adhering to General Lauer's (99th Div.) orders, both units broke off contact and made their way to the Twin Villages. In the confusion around Krinkelt, many men became lost and separated, but the majority of the 1st Battalion, 394th Regiment (99th Div.) made it through Krinkelt and Wirtzfeld to Elsenborn while those of the 1st Battalion 23rd Regiment made it to Wirtzfeld, where they joined the 9th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment in establishing a defense of the village. By 18.00 Hours, Lt. Col. McKinley's positions at Lausdell were fairly well-established, including some mines and a direct communications line to supporting artillery emplaced around Elsenborn. At about 18.30 Hours, one of the forward companies reported that tanks were approaching. By now it was pitch dark, and positive identification of the armor was impossible. Forewarned that still more men from the 23rd (2nd Div.), 393rd and 394th (99th Div.) Infantry Regiments might yet come out of the forest, the GIs held their fire, and by the time anyone realized the tanks were German they had rumbled past the forward outposts and headed for Rocherath.
General Robertson's 2nd Division and attached troops had carried through a highly complex maneuver in the face of the Germans, disengaging in a fortified zone, withdrawing across a crumbling front, then wheeling from column to secure and organize a defensive line in the dark and under attack. Having completed this mission, the 2nd Division was under orders to hold in place while the remnants of the 99th Division's right wing passed through to Elsenborn; then it was to break away and re-form for the defense of the Elsenborn ridge. The flanks of the 2nd Division's position at the villages were more or less covered by elements of the 9th and 23rd Infantry Regiments (2nd Div.) in Wirtzfeld, to the southwest, and the Battalions of the 393rd Infantry Regiment (99th Inf. Div.) deployed in blocking positions to hold the road net north of Rocherath. As yet, however, there was no homogeneous line sealing the 2nd Division's front, and the men and vehicles of the 99th Division still passing through to the west complicated the problem of coordinating the defense and artillery fire.
That night, east of the Twin Villages, the roads and fields were akin to a scene from hell. Vehicles and buildings burned brightly, tracers skipped back and forth, and flares of all colors floated down through the inky darkness while artillery shells and rockets exploded everywhere. In the Twin Villages, the tanks that had earlier gotten by Lt. Col. McKinley's men roamed the streets shooting at anything that moved. Near the church they encountered three Shermans. The ensuing fight was short and one-sided; soon all three American tanks were smoking hulks. Adding to the bedlam, German artillery bracketed the villages, setting more buildings afire.
On December 18, the V Corps' mission, on its smaller front, was to stabilize the line Monschau-Butgenbach-Malmedy-Stavelot. The Corps held firmly at Butgenbach and the Elsenborn ridge, but the Germans continued to move west through a gap south of Butgenbach. The Germans now held Honsfeld and Bullingen. The battle for Krinkelt, if it can be separated from that raging around Rocherath, commenced sometime before dawn when five German tanks and a body of infantry moved cautiously up to the eastern edge of the village. When the German tankers halted to confer with their infantry escort, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, which had been placed in the line after its retreat from the woods the day before, killed some forty of the Germans and the panzers decamped.
At 07.00 Hours, with thick fog and smoke obscuring the battlefield, the Germans sallied forth again, a heavy barrage of artillery and rockets preceding their advance. Near Lausdell, Lt. Col. McKinley's men, fed and resupplied overnight, prepared to meet the challenge. They did not have to wait long; soon, hundreds of SS Panzergrenadiers supported by tanks loomed out of the fog. Letting the first wave of armor pass, the GIs rose from their foxholes and engaged the German infantry with any weapon at hand – guns, knives, even shovels. Bazooka teams crept up to the slow-moving armor and knocked out several, small-arms fire picking off any crewman who tried to escape. Excellent shooting by American artillery finally broke up the savage attack, but the determined Germans were not finished. At 08.30 Hours, after regrouping in the woods, they came on again in even larger numbers. This time, even with the deadly artillery fire right on target, the GIs around Lausdell were unable to stem the German tide. Several tanks broke through followed closely by German infantry, both headed for the Twin Villages. Via radio, Lt. Col. McKinley told Colonel Francis H. Boos (38th Inf. Regt., 2nd Div.) that he could not disengage unless tank or tank destroyer support could be found. Suddenly, four Shermans appeared at the Baracken Crossroads, about a kilometer north of Rocherath. The Shermans moved in quickly, firing at German armor between the front lines and Rocherath. In quick succession, they accounted for four knocked out German tanks. The planned withdrawal commenced shortly after noon with the Shermans providing close support, as American artillery again rose to the occasion and prevented any interference by the German infantry. Just a little over a day earlier, 600 men had gone into Lausdell; now only 217 came out. The magnificent stand by Lt. Col. McKinley and his men saved Colonel Boos' 38th Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) by covering his retreat and built up of his defenses.
2nd Infantry Division men in winter clothing
The savage fighting continued nonstop that day. Infantry and tank battles raged throughout the villages. The streets and lanes of both were filled with wrecked and burning tanks. Bodies of American and German dead were strewn about everywhere, frozen into the grotesque positions that only violent death can fashion. Men were captured, escaped and were recaptured. When a brief period of quiet followed, during this lull soldiers from Company E, 2nd Batt., 23rd Inf. Regt., 2nd Div., found a column of troops of the 394th Regiment, 99th Division from Murringen, that was wandering around lost (approximately 200) and they led them back through American lines en route to Wirtzfeld and Elsenborn. A lot of them had lost their rifles, but the GIs found enough lying on the ground to arm them and get them back in the fight. For hours GIs and German grenadiers fought one another separated only by a narrow road. Word that the SS had been murdering prisoners and bayoneting wounded spread like wildfire through the American ranks and as the battle for Krinkelt and Rocherath continued - they neither gave nor expected quarter.
On December 18, at 18.00 Hours, the V Corps commander (Gen. Gerow) attached General Lauer's 99th Division to General Robertson's 2nd Division. General Gerow's instructions, given to General Robertson late on December 17, for a defense of the Rocherath-Krinkelt-Wirtzfeld line until such time as the isolated American troops to the east could be withdrawn, finally were fulfilled on the night of December 18-19, when the remnants of the 1st Battalion of the 393rd Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the 394th Regiment (99th Div.) came back through the 2nd Division's lines. These were the last organized units to find their way to safety, although small groups and individual stragglers would appear at the Elsenborn rallying point for some days to come. Then, despite the fact that the 2nd Division was hard pressed, General Robertson made good on his promise to the Corps commander that he would release the elements of the badly battered 99th Division which had been placed in the 2nd Division's line and send them to Elsenborn for reorganization within their own division. The tactical problem remaining was to disengage the 2nd Division and its attached troops, particularly those in the Twin Villages, while at the same time establishing a new and solid defense along the Elsenborn ridge. On through the night of December 18-19, German attacks continued relentlessly.
On December 19, the Allied commanders conferring at Verdun decided to halt the offensives toward the Rhine and concentrate on reducing the German salient in the Ardennes. In the V Corps area, the 2nd and 99th Divisions repelled further attacks and later that day started toward new defensive positions from which they could defend the Elsenborn ridge. Elements of the 9th Infantry Division took up defensive positions in the 2nd Division zone, relieving elements of the 2nd and 99th Divisions.
December 19th, German General Staff officers from the high headquarters appeared in the battle zone to peer over the shoulders of the combat commanders and diagnose the irritating failure to achieve a complete breakthrough. The conclusions they reported had consequences for the future conduct of operations on the Sixth Panzer Army front, which were simple enough and in accordance with established German doctrine: more maneuver room must be secured so that the attack could "unfold"; the entire Elsenborn area, therefore, must be won and at once. The right wing must be brought abreast of the 1st SS Panzer Division, at that moment 20 miles to the west of Stoumont. This new plan, probably only a reflection of conclusions already reached in the higher echelons, actually had gone into effect on 19 December when German tanks and infantry made the first serious attempt to drive northwest from Büllingen, shoulder the Americans out of the Butgenbach position, and open the Büllingen-Malmedy highway. The German plans for December 19, 1944, in the Elsenborn region, were these: the 277th Volks Grenadier Division and advancing troops of the 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division were to continue the attack at Krinkelt and Rocherath; the 89th Regiment, 12th Volks Grenadier Division, which had come up from reserve and initiated an attack from Mürringen against Krinkelt the day before, was to maintain pressure in this sector. Meanwhile, the 12th SS Panzer Division was to complete its withdrawal from the Twin villages and move as quickly as the poor roads would allow to join a Kampfgruppe of the 12th Volks Grenadier Division in a thrust against the American flank position at Butgenbach. The direction of the German main effort, as a result, would shift, substituting an armored thrust against the flank for the battering-ram frontal attack against the now well-developed defenses in the area of Krinkelt-Rocherath. Fresh German infantry were en route to the twin villages, and some reinforcements were employed there on December 19, but the attack lacked the armored weight whose momentum had carried earlier assault waves into the heart of the American positions. Before noon German infantry was edging in as close as they could in preparation for a final night assault. Headlong assault tactics were no longer in evidence, however.
The plan for the withdrawal from the Twin Villages had been finalized by early morning December 19. Finally, at 13.45 Hours, the withdrawal order was issued for the 99th and 2nd Infantry Divisions, to be put in effect beginning at 17.30 Hours. The plan was simple: units would be pulled out from left to right, or from north to south. General Robertson encouraged the officers who were actually leading men not to use the word 'withdrawal'. This action was 'a move to new positions', and would be conducted in an orderly fashion. The men would 'walk, not run'. The Germans, still unwilling to give up, attacked throughout the day, but not on the scale of previous days (partially due to the fact that the 12th SS Panzer Division had been ordered to detour south and bypass the bottleneck, and continue on to its final objective – the banks of the Meuse River).
Commencing at 17.30 Hours, the 395th Infantry Regiment (99th Div.) retired from its lines north of the villages Krinkelt and Rocherath (the Baracken Crossroads) and moved cross-country (by a single boggy trail) west to Elsenborn. The 2nd Battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) and its attached units, more closely engaged and in actual physical contact with the Germans, were next to break away from the Twin villages, they fell back west through Wirtzfeld, then moved along the temporary road which the 2nd Division engineers had constructed between Wirtzfeld and Berg. The 1st Battalion of the 38th Regiment followed. Once the 38th Regiment had cleared through the Wirtzfeld position, now held by elements of the 9th Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.) and the 2nd Battalion of the 23rd Regiment (2nd Div.), it occupied a new defensive line west and northwest of Wirtzfeld, while the 9th Infantry Regiment in turn evacuated the village of Wirtzfeld. After darkness on December 19th, the last elements of the 2nd Division had withdrawn and taken positions south of the Elsenborn Ridge (the dominating terrain feature overlooking the Twin Villages of Krinkelt and Rocherath which were being shelled heavily by American artillery). Elements of the 2nd Battalion (Co. E), 23rd Infantry Regiment (2nd Div.), made a withdrawal at night to consolidate and straighten up the lines. The troops plodded along, tired as hell and looking battered, jeeps and 1/2 tons slipped and slid in the mud, shell bursts went off everywhere, flares lighted up the sky so that one was afraid to move. A lot of the men were never so scared in their life. They were tired and exhausted, but managed to get to the high ground west of Krinkelt (Elsenborn Ridge area), where they decided to stop. The Germans kept coming at them all night long into the next day, but were never able to get through the American lines. By then, German tank attacks picked up followed by infantry. The GIs could handle the infantry all right, but the tanks were something else. If one was close enough to the tank it was okay, because they couldn't depress the gun enough to fire into the foxhole - you just had to stay down in your hole.
99th Division Vehicles moving through Wirtzfeld en route to Elsenborn
2nd Division Infantrymen on the move
The 2nd Division Command Post was set up at Camp d'Elsenborn, where plans for reorganization and regrouping were formulated. Riflemen dug in and improved their dug outs. By the end of December 19, the 2nd Division covered an area south of the Elsenborn Ridge, running roughly from Roderhöhe in the north until the east end of Lac d'Bütgenbach in the south, and extending towards the Elsenborn – Nidrum area in the west. The bulk of the 23rd Infantry Regiment covered an area at the road running south from Elsenborn to the Berg vicinity. A rear guard consisting of infantry, engineers and some tank destroyers held the back door through Wirtzfeld open until early morning on December 20. Then they too made their way back along the muddy, deeply rutted road to Elsenborn.
The veteran 2nd Infantry Division had taken considerable punishment from exposure and battle loss beginning on December 13 with the start of the Wahlerscheid operation. There is no total available for the 2nd Division during these important seven days. The 23rd Infantry Regiment, in reserve before 16 December and then committed by Battalion, sustained the following battle losses:
~ 1st Battalion, 10 officers and 221 men;
~ 2nd Battalion, 1 officer and 100 men;
~ 3rd Battalion, 10 officers and 341 men.
The 9th Infantry Regiment, which was engaged both at Wahlerscheid and the Twin Villages, lost 47 officers and men killed, 425 wounded, and 192 missing. The Regiment likewise had lost nearly 600 officers and men as non-battle casualties (trench foot, respiratory diseases induced by exposure, fatigue, and related causes), a figure which tells something of the cost of lengthy battle in snow, damp, and mud, but also reflects the high incidence of non-battle cases in a veteran unit whose ranks are filled with troops previously wounded or hospitalized - often more than once.
The bitter character of the initial 24 hours of the 2nd Division's fight to occupy and hold Krinkelt and Rocherath, after the march south, was mirrored in the battle losses taken by the 38th Infantry Regiment in that critical period: 389 officers and men were missing (many of them Killed in Action but not so counted since the Americans subsequently lost the battleground); 50 wounded were evacuated; and 11 were counted as killed in action. In the three days at the twin villages the 38th Infantry suffered 625 casualties.
After three long, difficult days of practically nonstop combat, the initial phase of the battle around the Elsenborn Ridge was over. Although some units lost as much as 80% of their combat strength, the back of the German offensive in the Ardennes was effectively broken at the Twin Villages. The continuing efforts of the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions, in concert with the 1st Division to the south and the 78th Division in the north, near the Elsenborn Ridge, would soon end all German hopes for a successful drive to the Meuse River and then the vital Belgian port of Antwerp.
The successful withdrawal from the Krinkelt-Rocherath sector to the more favorable terrain of the Elsenborn ridge had resulted, by December 20, in a fairly homogeneous and well-constructed defense with the 2nd Division on the right and the 99th Division on the left. By then, the men had been fighting constantly for several days and nights, shifting back and forth to stop the German attacks. The Elsenborn Ridge, put the GIs on higher ground, making it easier to defend their area. The ground was frozen so hard they couldn't use shovels to dig their foxholes and they had to use TNT to blow holes in the ground. On the morning of that same day, the 9th Infantry Division took over the Monschau-Höfen sector (its 47th Infantry Regiment had moved earlier into a supporting position west of these two towns) and so covered the northern flank of the 99th Division. The German attempt to crack the newly formed north-south line was handled in catch-as-catch-can and piecemeal fashion, for the primary mission was the flanking maneuver in the Bütgenbach area. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division, which had relieved the 12th SS Panzer Division at the Twin villages, went to work at once against the 99th Division's portion of the Elsenborn line (although the bulk of its rifle strength was not yet in hand). On the morning of December 20, German tanks and infantry made the first of three assaults. But the 99th Division, on a forward slope with perfect visibility and good fields of fire, checked this and the subsequent attempts were met with heavy losses to the attacker.
During the day of December 20, German soldiers felt out the American defenses with several small attacks which were repulsed. They tried tank attack after tank attack, followed by infantry, but the men of the 2nd and 99th Infantry Division stopped the strong attacks cold every time. Men of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Division, recalled that it was hard to believe the slaughter that took place. The ground was littered with dismembered bodies, mostly Germans, and destroyed vehicles of all types. Deciding that the sector was too strongly fortified and too firmly held, the Germans made no further efforts to continue their offensive. It was a foregone conclusion that one section of Von Rundstedt's sweep toward Antwerp had been definitely halted after one of the hardest battles along the entire First Army Front. The Germans continued the shelling of the 2nd Division area with artillery and rockets. Artillery fire increased in Elsenborn and Camp d'Elsenborn, and the ambulance regulating point of the 99th Division was moved from the area. The Luftwaffe reappeared to bomb and strafe supply routes and elements of the Division at Camp Elsenborn. Buzz-bombs sputtered over the sector at almost constant schedules. It was bitter cold and intermittent snows fell.
Map of the Elsenborn area - December 19-26, 1944
On the following day, Thursday, December 21, the 3rd German Panzer Grenadier Division was caught by American artillery fire just as its assault waves were forming. Confused and disorganized, the German infantry were unable to make another bid. The defense of Elsenborn stabilized and activity was confined to artillery duels and patrolling. On that same December 21, 1944, Major William R. Hinsch Jr. was Killed in Action at age 32 in Elsenborn, Belgium, by a penetration wound in the head . In the time Major Bill Hinsch served at the front he earned a Bronze Star Medal and a Silver Star Medal. Besides his parents and brother and sister, Bill Hinsch left behind his wife Marvel Albert Hinsch and their 11-month-old daughter Mary Ann. According to Bill Hinsch's daughter Mary Ann, Major Hinsch had just been promoted to a full Colonel before his death (he and 2 other people), it was to go into effect on January 1, 1945, which would have made him one of the youngest Colonels in the US Army at that time.
Major Bill Hinsch's final resting place
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
On December 23, 1944, at 17.00 Hours, Major Hinsch was buried at the US Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, at Plot RR, Row 5, Grave 85 in his uniform and a mattress cover.
On September 27, 1945 Mrs. Marvel Hinsch was informed that some additional personal effects together with a footlocker were delivered at her address at 1015 Cedar, Tipton, Iowa (September 19) and suggested that she contacts the postmaster at Tipton to forward the property to Waterloo, Iowa, 1515 West 4th Street (August 23, 1949 more property was received from overseas). The inventory of effects consisted of 1 sleeping bag, 1 pair of pajamas, 1 pair of leather gloves WKG, 3 field jackets, 6 trousers OD, 1 field coat with liner, 12 rank insignias, 5 shirts OD, 8 bath towels, 4 washcloths, 32 handkerchiefs, 6 cotton drawers, 7 cotton undershirts, 1 pair of canvas leggings, 1 coverall suit, 13 pairs of socks, 1 canvas wash basin, 1 pair of moccasins, 1 pair of service shoes, 3 mechanical pencils, 1 good luck charm, 1 valpak (officer's travel bag), 1 coat mackinaw, 2 fountain pens, 1 bathing trunk, 1 money belt, 1 nazi belt buckle, 1 pair of leggings, 2 clothes hangers, 2 HBT trousers, 2 waist belts, 2 HBT jackets, 1 sleeveless sweater, 1 combat jacket, 1 pair of gauntlet gloves, 1 pair of jumping boots, 3 wool undershirts, 1 combat trousers, 2 electric shavers, 1 pair of sunglasses, 1 watch band, 1 wool knit cap, 1 wool drawer, 2 khaki ties, 2 caps garrison, 1 HBT cap, 1 pair of pink trousers, 1 blouse, 1 Fourraguerre, 2 US insignias, 2 khaki shirts, 1 pair of oxfords, 1 silk cotton map, 1 check book, 1 new testament, 1 pocket knife, 2 regimental crests, pocket combat ?, 1 clock, 1 Bronze Star Ribbon, 1 overseas cap, 1 pair of swim trunks, stationary tablet kit , wash rag, 1 game kit, 12 bars of soap, 1 harmonica, 1 scarf, 2 cans of popcorn, 1 pouch with pipe, 1 box misc., 2 photographs (leather and silver picture frame), 1 short coat, 1 raincoat, books, 2 souvenir coins, 1 combat medal, 1 infantry insignia, 1 major insignia, 1 ring, 1 lighter, 2 notebooks, 1 wallet, pictures, receipts and a card.
On October 9, 1945 the War Department informed Mrs. Marvel Hinsch (515 Eleanor Street,
San Antonio, Texas) that the remains of her late husband, Major William Hinsch, were interred at the US Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, at Plot RR, Row 5, Grave 85. On January 21, 1947 Mrs. Marvel Hinsch received a letter with a picture enclosed of the US Military Cemetery in Henri-Chapelle (Belgium), in which her late husband was buried.
On March 4, 1947 Mrs. Marvel Hinsch received a letter stating: “The people of the United States, through the Congress have authorized the disinterment and final burial of the heroic dead of World War II”. As Mrs. Marvel Hinsch was the nearest relative of Major Hinsch, she was asked to decide whether the remains of Major Hinsch will be permanently interred overseas or repatriated to the US for burial. According to the Request for Disposition of Remains Form, Mrs. Hinsch decided that her late husband be interred permanently at the Henri-Chapelle US Military Cemetery in Belgium.
On November 6, 1947 Major Hinsch was disinterred in the awaiting of his final interment. The conditions of the remains were described in the Disinterment Directive Form as: “skull fractured, upper and lower extremities disarticulated”. On June 25, 1948, William R. Hinsch Jr. was permanently interred at the US Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle. On July 20, 1948 the flag was sent to Major Hinsch's widow Marvel.
On September 9, 1948 Mrs. Hinsch (905 12th Street, Bismarck, North Dakota) received a final letter which informed her that the remains of her loved one, William Hinsch Jr., have been permanently interred in Plot A, Row 7, Grave 14, in the US Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, side by side with his comrades who also gave their lives for their country. Customary military funeral services were conducted over the grave at the time of burial. The letter also said: “You may rest assured that this final interment was conducted with fitting dignity and solemnity and that the grave-site will be carefully and conscientiously maintained in perpetuity by the US Government”.
When Colonel Ross B. Smith (holder of the Distinguished Service Medal), being the father-in-law of Lt. Col. William S. Humphries - the close friend of Bill Hinsch that died in Normandy - was liberated from Cabanatuan (after serving in the Pacific and surviving the Bataan death march) and returned to San Antonio (Texas), Major Hinsch's widow Marvel helped to care for Colonel Smith and was a close part of his family. Colonel Smith's wife died in 1947 in a car wreck. In 1949 Colonel Smith and Marvel married (in 1951 Colonel Smith died of a heart attack).
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Ross B. Smith, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an armed enemy while serving with the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts, in action against enemy forces on 24 and 25 January 1942, in the Philippine Islands. Lieutenant Colonel Smith's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.
Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, General Orders No. 21 (1942)
On June 7, 1950, Mr. William Hinsch Sr. (2002 First Avenue, South, Fort Dodge, Iowa), Major Hinsch's father, received a letter at his own request regarding the remains of his son. The letter stated that William Hinsch Jr. was finally interred in Plot A, Row 7, Grave 14, in the US Military Cemetery Henri-Chapelle, Belgium, as directed by his widow.
Major William R. Hinsch Jr.’s grave
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
Major William R. Hinsch Jr.’s final resting place is, together with 7,989 brothers in arms, the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, Plot A, Row 7, Grave 14.
Rick Demas next to Major William R. Hinsch Jr.’s grave
(Picture Courtesy of Rick Demas)
If anyone has information about Major William R. Hinsch Jr. that may be of assistance to me, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Ann Hinsch Shoptaw, daughter of Major Bill R. Hinsch Jr
Susan Humphries Goodwin, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel William S. Humphries and granddaughter of Colonel Ross B. Smith
Thomas Clayton Quigley, My War: The Family Version, Bedford, Texas, 2001
Henry G. Spencer, Nineteen Days in June 1944, Kansas City, Mo.: Lowell Press, 1984, p. 179
Captain Henry L. Calder, The Operations of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, in the attack on Hill 192, West of Berigny, France, 12-16 June 1944 (Normandy Campaign). Expansion of Omaha Beach.
The Daily Iowan newspaper
The Twenty Third United States Infantry, 1812-1945
From D + 1 to 105: The Story of the 2nd Infantry Division
D + 106 to VE: The Story of the 2nd Division