Note:June 6, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces invaded Normandy, France, in World War II. The following story is part two of an article about a soldier from Miles who served in the invasion. The story was written by the late Robert Melvold (also a World War II veteran) and first appeared in the Sentinel-Press more than two decades ago. Part one was published in the June 8 edition of the The Observer.
49 straight days of combat
The anticipated garrison defense of the Germans had been accidentally augmented by the veteran German 352nd Division, based farther west, at St. Lo. It had been maneuvering closer to Omaha Beach as part of an anti-invasion drill.
During the remainder of June, all of July, and early August, Erichson’s 120th Battalion and its counterparts inched their way through miles of German-infested hedgerows and endured deadly fire. Its engineers suffered heavy casualties while blasting openings in the hedgerows that would allow the American tanks to proceed.
The 30th Division had been in close combat with the enemy for 49 consecutive days when it reached the village of Tessy-sur-Vire. It took the town by destroying several German tanks and driving out the remainder.
A receipt of 1,200 replacement troops, covering some of their losses, brought the 120th and another infantry regiment back up to near its complement of 3,057 men and 157 officers each.
Suffered heavy mortality
The 120th had lost both its original commander and executive officer in the battles over hedgerows and the small French villages. Company commanders noted that some of their replacement infantrymen were on their roster for only three days or less before being stricken from the rolls as deceased or having been evacuated to the rear for treatment of wounds.
Finally, with another American division now protecting its front, the 120th Infantry Regiment and the other 30th Division units enjoyed Aug. 3 and 4 as days of showers, rest and relaxation.
Finally, baths and movies
A barn was converted into a movie theater where they showed a succession of audiences “Best Foot Forward,” featuring Lucille Ball and June Allyson.
The paymaster distributed some payroll in French currency for the first time since they left England. This made the shopkeepers in Tessy happy also.
On the night of Aug. 5, the 30th Division received orders to take positions in the newly established front lines. The division’s 117th and 119th Infantry battalions were directed to advance to the village of St. Barthelmy.
Erichson’s 120th was directed to proceed two miles further, to Mortain. They went by trucks, and it was the first time in France they had gotten to ride. But with all of the traffic and the French civilians out to welcome them, it was more like a slow parade.
When the 120th reached Mortain late in the afternoon, guides of the 1st Division led them to the assigned positions.
Mortain had been liberated from what were then retreating German forces on Aug. 3 by an infantry regiment of the 1st Division. Officers of the French resistance urged the American soldiers to seize the adjoining Hill 317 without delay, which they did.
First priority: Hill 317
When Maj. Gen. Lawton Collins arrived, the first thing he did was to point to Hill 317. The report of its occupation was welcome news when received by Gen. Omar Bradley.
From studying the maps, Bradley was well aware that Hill 317 would be vital in defending against any potential German counter attacks.
When Col. Hammond Birks, now commanding the 120th, arrived in Mortain on the pleasant Saturday afternoon of Aug. 5, it seemed as if his regiment would be enjoying some more rest. The shops were open and the little hotels and their bars in the village of 1,600 population were full.
The villagers, along with the American troops, were celebrating the fact that their town had been freed with no damage from either artillery shelling or door-to-door street fighting. A lone shell had landed in a vegetable garden but had not exploded.
In the coming days they would find their celebration was premature.
Birk assigned Erichson’s 2nd Battalion of the 120th to occupy Hill 317. Lt. Col. Eads Hardaway, his 2nd Battalion commander, reinforced by a unit from the 3rd Battalion, was to occupy the town itself and establish artillery and tank-manned road blocks north and south, as well.
Headquarters in hotel
Lt. Col. Hardaway established his headquarters in the Grand Hotel in Mortain while his phone network was being connected, giving him communications on lines strung up Hill 317 as well as to the roadblocks and other strategic defensive points.
Officers of the 1st Division predicted that the 120th had nothing to fear. The Germans now would not stop retreating until they were beyond the Rhine River.
The only ominous sign during the afternoon of Aug. 5, while Capt. Erichson and his battalion were digging in, was a strafing raid by German FW 190s. The planes almost scraped the top of Hill 317.
While members of Capt. Erichson’s F Company and others were digging in, they noted that other German planes were aloft, but those aircraft obviously were doing only reconnaissance.
However, it stood to reason the Germans wouldn’t be bothering with new photos of Mortain and Hill 317 unless they might be using them in a forthcoming assault.
Deepening the foxholes
So the 120th Battalion kept deepening the shallow foxholes left by the 1st Division units.
During that first afternoon, they had been given no vehicles for carrying up the steep hill more machine guns and larger quantities of ammunition, food and medical supplies. At the time it didn’t seem as though that omission was that important.
But as the next six days and nights on the hill wore on, there was a desperate need for fresh batteries to power the transmitters used by the artillery observers to communicate with their units based at numerous sites adjacent to Mortain.
The generals of the Allied Army didn’t know as yet what Hitler had in mind. Still holding on to his belief that the beach invasions just north of Cherbourg were just a diversion before a crossing at Calais, Hitler had held his main army units in France in reserve.
Generals were pessimistic
Hitler was shocked by their pessimism. Through aerial photos, his generals had seen the number of fresh troops and the number of tanks, vehicles and materials that the Allies were getting ashore over the then-protected beaches and the Cherbourg harbor.
With the Russians advancing on the eastern front as well, there would still be tremendous losses for each side, but the German generals could see that the outcome was inevitable.
With Hitler out of the way, Rommel and many other would have sued for peace.
Hitler was nearly gone. He miraculously survived the “briefcase bombing event” at a conference at Rastenburg. Hitler became well aware that many of his high-ranking officers were in on the plot.
Shortly after meeting with Hitler, Rommel was injured when British fighters strafed the car he was riding in. Rommel went home to his family and died a mysterious death soon after that. It was considered to have been a Hitler-prompted suicide.
Von Rundstedt was replaced with Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge as the commander of forces facing the Allied forces in France.
Before the July 20 bomb plot attack on Hitler, it had been difficult for the German generals to argue strategy with Hitler. And as author Alwyn Featherston relates, now it was impossible.
Von Kluge knew of plot
This was particularly true in von Kluge’s case. He had had previous knowledge of the conspirators’ plot and knew he might be implicated at any time. Von Kluge had already drawn up plans to move the German armies and their Panzer armored units closer to the German borders.
Scrapping his long-held concept that the Normandy landings were merely a diversion for a major landing at the closest channel crossing at Calais, Hitler dictated his new plan.
That plan was to give Hill 317 a measure of immortality in the history of the American armed forces.
Hitler promised von Kluge reinforcements for his 15th Army.
In an operation Hitler named Luttich, he promised von Kluge that he would assemble eight Panzer Divisions. They would cut off the Allied forces in the Cherbourg peninsula and roll north to defeat the Allied forces already ashore in Normandy.
Von Kluge knew that Hitler’s plan was not realistic in view of the total strength of the British, Canadian and American ground forces, combined with the Allies’ superior air power.
1st Panzer Division
He did have, in the lst and 2nd Panzer divisions, two of the most experienced and best units in their army. The 1st was named the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler. It had tasted its first blood against the Poles in 1939. It had been responsible for more than 30,000 Russian casualties and the destruction of 600 Russian tanks, 300 artillery pieces and 1,200 anti-tank guns. It was back at full strength.
H-hour for this major German attack on the 30th Division was about 11 on the night of Aug. 6. At about midnight a forward observer of one of the U.S. 30th Divisions artillery battalions heard tanks moving on a road paralleling the See River where it bends south toward St. Barthelmy and Mortain.
The two towns are only two miles apart.
At first it was assumed they were friendly forces, but it was quickly found out otherwise. Thus the American artillery opened up in the dark with a dozen 105 mm. guns at ranges of up to 5,000 yards. Within an hour tanks of the 1st German Panzer Division, accompanied by dismounted battalions of infantry, were attacking all along the 30th Division front.
By 1:25 a.m. Capt. Erichson’s 2nd Battalion, on Hill 317, reported receiving small-arms fire from the east. Within minutes, the Deutchland regiment of the 2nd SS Panzer Division had swept out of Foret de Mortain, at the base of Hill 317 and moved into the town itself.
Night battle in Mortain
The commander of the American 120th Infantry sent Lt. Albert Smith’s Company C to re-establish contact with the 2nd Battalion command post, at Mortain’s Grand Hotel, clean out the town and re-establish the roadblock south of Hill 317.
That was a formidable task for less than 200 riflemen. They were soon fighting for their lives and Lt. Smith was one of several members of his unit killed.
Lt. Col. Eads Hardaway, at the command post, soon realized they would be having great difficulty re-establishing access to Hill 317 for the purpose of reinforcing and resupplying their forces there. So as Alwyn Featherston’s book said, “If the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment wasn’t in a tight spot in the predawn hours of Aug. 7, it is hard to imagine what a tight spot would have been.”
Panzer grenadiers were pouring into Mortain with armored columns behind them. Squad-size units were beginning to infiltrate Hill 317, threatening the three American unconnected companies of the 120th that were defending its heights.
Counter attack clears hill
Lt. Joe Reaser, commanding K Company, knew that German soldiers were trying to infiltrate between his company and Company E. However, he mistakenly thought it was only 15 or 20 men, merely probing their positions.
The Germans failed to gain the high ground in that pre-dawn era, when surprise and darkness favored them. As author Featherston points out, that was their fatal mistake. A few squads of Panzer grenadiers had infiltrated the south and west slopes of the hill.
However, a dawn counterattack by G Company cleared the height in hand to hand combat.
A jeep climbed the hill, bringing the three companies one load of supplies just after dawn. The driver insisted on unloading fast and returning immediately before the German troops he had seen were able to cut off his return route.
German officer captured
At the base of the hill, German tanks were rolling by. Pvt. Paul Nethery and his squad were hidden within a few feet of their path. Following the tanks came a German officer in a small open car.
The officer stopped opposite them, apparently to study his map. Then as Nethery told it, the officer saw some movement. He pulled out a pistol and hit Nethery with a bullet that penetrated his helmet and grazed his skull. Nethery, in turn, shot the officer in leg, who returned the fire and hit Nethery in the thigh this time.
With the tanks long past, the squad evacuated both Nethery and the German officer up the hill, where they laid together. He learned the German officer was an artillery observer.
He spoke excellent English and told Nethery that Hitler was a great man, but admitted that the Allies were going to win the war. Later in the day the German officer was killed by a German artillery shell, but Nethery survived.
Cut off from supplies of even K-rations, the men of the 120th dug potatoes and picked cabbages from the garden of a small farm on the hill. Green apples from an orchard provided some nourishment and moisture.
Water was another problem and had to be secured from a well that was under enemy fire.
Late in their siege, the Air Force attempted parachute drops of supplies. At first they attempted it with two small, slower planes that would afford a more accurate drop. However, it made them an easier target for the German anti-aircraft fire. One was shot down and the other was badly hit without being able to make the drop.
Later they used C-47s, protected by Thunderbolt fighters that strafed the German positions as the cargo planes were making the drop. But because of the wind and other complications, few of the bundles landed in Allied hands.
None of them included the badly needed morphine and the batteries for the transmitters of the artillery observers.
By the afternoon of Aug. 7, German Gen. von Kluge was ready to admit that Hitler’s Operation Luttich was a failure.
The units of the 30th Division were providing too much resistance over a wide front, with Mortain in the center. However, Hitler insisted von Kluge continue to prosecute the attack.
He ordered the II Panzer Corps of three divisions to be withdrawn from the area facing the British further north and be thrown into the Mortain sector. Hitler also accused von Kluge of bungling the attack.
Bradley used Hill 317 as bait
American Gen. Omar Bradley saw the Germans’ continuance of the attack in the Mortain area as a chance to cut off the retreat avenue for several German divisions. The challenge for the Germans of occupying Hill 317 was the bait to keep them there long enough to cut them off.
Down in the valley below Hill 317, the American tank and tank destroyer battalions were confronting their German counterparts at Mortain and on roads leading to all of the nearby French villages.
Conditions were a bit better on Hill 317 by the morning of Aug. 10. In his book, Featherston said there was only sporadic shelling and occasional sniper fire. By Aug. 9, Hitler had turned over the responsibility for a new German attack in the Mortain area to Gen. Heinrich Eberbach. It didn’t take Eberbach long to know that Hitler’s plan for an Aug. 11 attack had no chance of success. He had only 75 Mark IV tanks and 47 Panthers, less than was available for the failed attempt six days before.
He needed more tanks, ammunition and fuel. And with the dominance of Allied air power, any attack had to be launched in the dark.
Hitler, on the basis of overwhelming evidence provided by Eberbach and other generals in the Normandy front, reluctantly decided to call off the Mortain attack and send his forces defending other fronts along the Allies’ road to Paris.
German traffic moves away
On Friday, Aug. 11, the observers on Hill 317 saw the sun come up and then detected German traffic moving east, away from Mortain. Their artillery observers directed fire at the retreating vehicles.
Burning enemy columns could be seen in all directions. But, in turn, German artillery was still being directed at Hill 317. The Panzer grenadiers, dug in at the base of the hill, still kept up sniper fire. It prevented Erichson’s infantrymen from still safely reaching that well for the water they so badly needed.
Col. Birks of the 120th Regiment considered loading several Sherman tanks with supplies and having them make a solo dash up the hill.
The adjacent 117th Regiment wouldn’t be able to help. It had suffered enough problems in the retaking of St. Barthelmy. Its troops were just too tired and depleted. They had only 167 “effectives” remaining in the three rifle companies, each with a normal complement of 212 men.
It was calculated it would cost too many casualties to break through the German units at the base of the hill. When asked how desperate the situation was for him, Capt. Erichson replied that he was sure his forces could hold out one more day. On that next morning of Aug. 12, only a few German snipers remained as a rear guard in Mortain, and in neighboring towns such as St. Barthelmy.
Rescuing the wounded
At Barthelmy’s tiny hotel the Germans had pulled out their lightly wounded, but had left the seriously wounded, both Germans and Americans. At once it was apparent the Germans were gone.
Thus a 30th Division quartermaster company loaded a truck with food, water and medical supplies and dashed up the hill. Ambulances followed. Taken by air, many of the wounded were back in a hospital in England later that same day or the next day.
The 30th Division’s report on the six days of the battle recorded 1,834 casualties, dead, wounded and missing. As noted previously, of the 700 men on Hill 317, 357 were able to walk off. This included many walking wounded.
Gen. von Kluge was Mortain’s last casualty. After being relieved on Aug. 19 by Field Marshal Walter Model, he wrote a frank letter to Hitler.
He accepted blame for the failure but criticized Hitler for not realizing the full measure of Allied superiority. He closed with an appeal to end the war.
Then von Kluge left his headquarters and committed suicide by swallowing a capsule of potassium cyanide.
Hitler’s Panzers decimated
Hill 317 was more than a defensive victory, as Featherston pointed out. It gave the Allied high command time to organize and spring a trap that would liberate France by the end of August. Mortain, St. Barthelmy and Hill 317 were cast as indelible names in the history of valiant accomplishments by America’s armed forces.
The deciphering by the British of the German military’s radio traffic, following the Panzer divisions’ withdrawal from Mortain, best illustrated the accomplishment of the 30th Division.
Translated to English, the German high command’s regrouping included what they termed “the remnants of their 1st (Adolf Hitler) division.”
Shortly after Germany’s surrender, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower selected the 30th Division as the most outstanding of the 50 such divisions that had seen action in the European Theater.