First Blood at Villiers Fossard
The initial action of division forces was in that flat, jungle-like
terrain before St. Lo. Here, the lush foliage of early summer
made visibility almost negligible, and the high, earthbound hedgerow
partitions between each small Normandy field made Jerry defenses
simple and allied attack a nightmare. Artillery observation was
denied the enemy, but he had carefully zeroed all crossroads
and highways in the zone of American activity. The Kraut had
plenty of field guns and he used them ceaselessly.
In the rough bocage country before St. Lo, the 29th Infantry
Division, grimy and tired after long fighting, was alternately
pushing the attack and holding against strong German counter
blows. A salient had developed around the little village of Villiers
Fossard, and here, at 0900, on June 29, 1944, Combat Command
"A" was committed.
The fight for Villiers Fossard was not important as such, but
it was a baptism of fire for 3rd Armored Division personnel,
and therefore noteworthy. It gave these well trained men the
sudden shocking plunge into action which must come to all soldiers
soon or late; the introduction to combat which, no matter how
terrifying, is a necessary climax to the long months of drill
Men of the 3rd learned quickly that there is no glory in combat,
that death strikes friend and foe alike, and that victory often
comes at an exorbitant price. For the first time, men of the
division heard that spine-chilling shriek of "incoming mail,"
the bell-like crash of a close hit, and the sudden, horrifying
screams of stricken men before the dust and debris has settled.
They saw death in its most violent form, and they smelled the
sick-sweet and terrifying scent of battle, of cordite, and decomposition,
the fresh, green smell of crushed shrubbery, and the pungent
odor of flame.
The line soldiers of the 36th Arrnored Infantry, of the 32nd
Armored Regiment, the 23rd Armored Engineer Battalion, and of
those other units attached to General Hickey's command, still
ducked at the sound of their own shells passing overhead, but
they learned fast. Lt. Colonel Nathaniel O. Whitlaw, in command
of the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Armored Regiment, wrote of the action:
"We seemed to be stunned by the ferocity of the German small
arms and mortar fire, but we collected our wits and advanced
in the face of this fire, just as we thought that we would do,
and showed little self-concern during the remainder of the battle.
We pushed on to our objective like veterans. I am sure that these
men will give great accounts of themselves in future battles."
The combat command, pushing out in two columns of task forces,
under Colonel Truman E. Boudinot, and Colonel Graeme G. Parks,
with a third force in reserve, commanded by Lt. Colonel Walter
L. Abney, did take its objective, but losses were relatively
high for such an action. Sgt. Lafayette Pool, later to become
a "Spearhead" ace, lost his Sherman to a dug-in German
bazookaman. He was one of many. Other tankers were green enough
to attempt stopping for coffee while under enemy observation.
Needless to say, they sustained casualties.
The Infamous Hedgerows
"Blitz Doughs" of the 36th had trouble too; they
discovered that frontal attack on hedgerow positions was suicide,
and they learned the hard way. There weren't enough of the newly
constructed tank-dozers, and every hedge-opening seemed to be
zeroed by machine gun and anti-tank fire. The doughs evolved
single squad tactics which saved men and produced results in
dead and captured enemy.
For all of their natural mistakes, the objective was taken and
depleted units came out of action to count losses, regroup, and
prepare for further combat. By this time no one doubted that
the enemy could fight, and fight hard. The Kraut was a veteran
and he was a good soldier. Yanks admitted this much, but they
never questioned the outcome of the affair. In late June, 1944,
the Normandy battle front was a precarious line from Cherbourg
to Caen. On every salient the enemy threatened to break through
and overwhelm allied positions. Yet, division personnel, with
all respect to the slugging, deceptive ability of their enemy,
expected Jerry's ultimate defeat. The men made wise cracks about
spending their Christmas holidays two hedgerows the other side
of St. Lo, but that was just for the sake of a laugh when all
the world was wet, muddy, and filled with the siren wail of 88's.
Normandy was not conducive to complacency in the early stages
of the campaign. Intermittent showers, mud, and German artillery
concentrations were accepted as normal.
During those few days of grace after first blood at Villiers
Fossard, the division refitted, added two-bladed dozer arrangements
to a percentage of its Sherman tanks, and waited for orders.
They came soon enough; both combat commands were attached to
XIX Corps, with the objective an attack south.
On the night of July 7, Combat Command "B", led by
Brigadier General John J. Bohn, crossed the Vire River at Airel,
under heavy shell fire. Division MP's remained at their posts
to direct traffic over the Vire bridge in a rain of explosives.
The action which began here, was a baptism of fire for CC "B".
Like Combat Command "A", there were casualties then,
and later, but the units under General Bohn pushed on to their
objectives and even managed to batter severely one of Germany's
elite panzer divisions in the process.
At Font Hebert the fighting was intense. The 3rd Battalion of
the 33rd Armored Regiment lost all of its command tanks, including
that of Lt. Colonel Sam Hogan. But there were victories too;
during their first fifteen minutes of combat, a tank crew commanded
by Sgt. Dean Balderson knocked out three German Mark-IV's. Balderson
pulled out of a small orchard at dawn, and his gunner, Cpl. "Swede"
Anderson, immediately spotted the enemy. Four Kraut tanks were
in position on the road ahead, their guns pointed in the opposite
direction and evidently waiting for another company of the 3rd
Anderson's first round, an HE, caught the nearest Mark-IV flush
on the turret, and things began to happen. The enemy tank blew
up in a sudden gust of flame and black smoke! Immediately afterward
the remaining Jerry vehicles were alert and moving. Excited,
Anderson called for an armor piercing shell, but his loader,
Pfc. Bill Wilson, threw in a second HE. This shell duplicated
the first, and a second Mark-IV blew up. Wilson found an AP round
for the third shot, and his gunner sent this projectile crashing
through for number three. Three enemy battlewagons in less than
fifteen minutes of combat! Sgt. Balderson and his crew decided
that war was a soft snap. Another week of fighting convinced
them that it was just the opposite.
In fact, Easy Company, attacked by Jerry infantry the night before,
had sprayed the hedges, each other, and the sky in wild confusion.
No one was hurt in the melee, but maintenance men, Sgt. Lewis
W. Thomas, and Pvt. "Shotgun" Richards, looked rather
sheepish when they discovered that they had been attacking one
of their own Shermans with a .30 caliber machine gun.
Battles at Haut Vents
The action around Haut Vents, Belle Lande, and Font Hebert,
was devoid of humor and vicious to the extreme. Heavy mortar,
machine gun, and shell fire assailed the troops under General
Bohn. One of Colonel Dorranee S. Roysden's task forces, led by
Lt. Colonel Rosewell H. King, was given the mission of taking
Hill 91, or Haut Vents, on July 10. Unfortunately the force was
small because of heavy losses in previous action, but regardless,
King mustered six mediums and two light tanks for the attack.
The little task force took Haut Vents on the 10th, were driven
back with heavy losses, and attacked again to reach the summit
and hold the ground. Repeated enemy counterattacks failed to
dislodge those few men who remained unscathed at the end of the
fight. Here, in the face of heavy German artillery and mortar
pounding, these elements of CC "B" held out for three
days until finally contacted by advance patrols of the 30th Infantry
Division. During that period they weathered some of the hottest
action of the entire European campaign. Later, it was ascertained
that CC "B" had been battling, in the Haut Vents, Belle
Lande, and Pont Hebert areas, the Panzer LEHR division, which
was reputed to be one of Germany's best armored units. Crack
troops or no, the Panzer LEHR took a fearsome lacing from green
GI's of the future "Spearhead" in this encounter.
In the meantime, Combat Command "A" under Brigadier
General Hickey had made slow progress. In the area of St. Jean
de Daye, men of the command fought bitter small scale actions
against parachutists and SS panzer elements. CC "A"
had occupied the terrain overlooking Le Desert, in which German
forces were strongly entrenched. Here, a tank scare on July 11
upset division forward elements and caused some confusion. The
counterattack was thrown back after enemy paratroopers worked
into division positions under a hail of automatic fire and artillery
air bursts. The 9th Infantry Division, already veterans of Normandy
fighting, went into action with the 3rd here at St. Jean de Daye,
and promptly set an example of cool efficiency under fire.
The troops of the "Spearhead" were still exceedingly
green. There was still a tendency to duck at every foreign sound,
and there was yet a wide misconception of battlefield operation.
There was nothing basically wrong with the division; that had
been proved in the fiery hell of Villiers Fossard and Haut Vents;
but, in common with every American force new to combat, the 3rd
had to assimilate front line knowledge and know-how. It had to
get over the feeling that every shell was an 88, and it had to
realize that no matter how much noise an automatic weapon makes,
it is still so much scrap metal unless properly directed. The
men of the 3rd had to learn these things, and they did. It wasn't
long before the division could truly be termed veteran.
On July 16, both combat commands reverted to division control
and moved into assembly areas west of St. Jean de Daye. Previously
attached to XIX Corps, and for a very short period to V Corps,
the 3rd was now a part of that crack assault force which it henceforth
led in nearly every major drive of the First Army: the VII Corps,
commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins.
The new assembly areas were close to forward positions, but regrouping
went on in spite of enemy shellfire and an occasional sweep by
Jerry fighters. New equipment poured in from the floating docks
at Isigny. Rations, ammunition, fuel, and other supplies were
loaded on tanks, half-tracks and trucks of the combat commands
and the trains. Overhead, in the grey, scud-blown skies, Thunderbolt
and Mustang fighters patrolled the air. Occasional German reconnaissance
flyers whipped over too. The big show was about to begin, and
the enemy was nervous.
At St Jean de Daye, and Le Desert, the 3rd participated in those
poison gas scares which ran up and down the Normandy beachhead
areas on July 21 and 22, and which occasioned such mad scrambling
for masks at the first long drawn out shouts of GAS! Unfamiliar
odors of the battlefront were voted to be the reason for these
panics, but enemy instigation was also suspected.
While waiting for wet weather to lift, the area was consistently
subjected to strafing and bombing attacks, none of which were
very effective. Usually, about dusk, after the last allied Thunderbolt
had disappeared, the first Kraut fighters would whisk out of
cloud cover and race over 3rd Armored Division bivouacs. Enemy
bombers droned over the positions at night, dropping flares and
anti-personnel bombs while ignoring the criss-cross pattern of
tracer which always seemed short.
Giant Air-Ground Operation
On the morning of July 26, the clouds seemed higher than usual,
and broken. Presently a sweep of Mustangs appeared over the front,
and then wave after wave of gigantic Fortress and Liberator bombers.
It was H-Hour for the greatest combined air-ground operation
in the history of modern warfare.
There was no mistaking the portent of those planes. This was
the big push. The men of the armored regiments knew it, and the
armored infantry - the artillery, the engineers, and tank destroyers
of the commands. The men of the " Spearhead" gazed
steadily at those vast fleets of Fortresses and Liberators, and
they knew that the moment would be great in history. This was
a prelude to battle such as the world had never seen. There was
an awe-inspiring, hypnotic quality about it. Ernie Pyle, the
doughboy's correspondent, wrote: "The flight across the
sky was slow and studied. I've never known a storm, or a machine,
or any resolve of man that had about it the aura of such a ghastly
relentlessness. I had the feeling that even had God appeared
beseechingly before them in the sky, with palms outstretched
to persuade them back, they would not have had within them the
power to turn their irresistible course. They stalked on, slowly,
and with a dreadful pall of sound, as though they were seeing
something at a great distance and nothing existed between. God,
how we admired those men up there, and sickened for the ones
Soldiers of the 3rd Armored Division who were poised for the
attack at St. Jean de Daye and Le Desert, felt that emotion,
and wondered how any living thing could survive the rain of bombs.
There were 1800 heavy bombardment machines, 400 mediums, and
close to 700 fighter-bombers operating over a relatively small
area on that fateful day in late July, 1944.
The front was moving even as the last air fleets turned for
home. Up ahead, advancing over the churned and smoking earth
of the target area, the 4th, 9th, and 30th Infantry Divisions
drove into a disorganized enemy line along the St. Lo-Perriers
road. Through a regretable miscalculation in defining the bomb
line, several companies of jump-off infantry were badly cut up
by explosives intended for the enemy; but all of the doughs went
forward at H-Hour, and the greatest coordinated air-ground attack
in history kicked off. On the following day, Major General J.
Lawton Collins committed his exploitation force, the 2nd and
3rd Armored Divisions, closely followed, and in many cases led,
by the veteran 1st Infantry. Operation COBRA had entered its
Breakout from Normandy
The great armored breakthrough out of Normandy was headline
news all over the world. It was truly a turning point in history,
for the allies had finally wrenched the initiative from their
enemies and were on the high road to victory. Of course, the
men who made that history never thought of it in such a light.
Later, they recalled the swift lunge of armor in strangely disjointed,
nightmare flashes of fear and emotion, of scenes indelibly printed
upon their minds. The big picture to them was not grand strategy;
it was the sniper in the hedgerow and the smell of death, the
gentle hum of German warplanes overhead in the deep night; it
was the space filling crash of direct fire, the burp guns and
the artillery, and sweat and dust and mortal fear, all so mixed
up and jumbled that they seemed a normal tapestry in the bitter
days of all out action.
The men of the 3rd Armored Division fought night and day. They
slept, whenever they might grab an hour or so of rest, in slit
trenches, and they kept their helmets on. The concussion ghosts
of the big guns dislodged dirt which slid down into these trenches
during the fitful night, and the night itself was filled with
the moan and whistle of "incoming mail." Shelled, mortared,
raked with machine gun fire, and terribly fatigued by the pace
of the constant assault, these men yet gave the enemy more steel
than he could send. And they attacked. They rolled forward in
blinding clouds of dust, eating cold rations while moving, and
never letting up the pressure.
"Spearhead" men weren't interested in fame; they just
wanted to kill the enemy and stay alive in that little sector
which, for the moment, encompassed all of life and death. The
stories that Americans read at their breakfast tables would have
given these men a grim chuckle, and that is because it always
seems so easy in print. You can use all the rhetoric in the world
to describe a battle, and yet it comes nowhere near the graphic
description afforded by a shell that screams suddenly and erupts
in a heart-sickening crash nearby.
General Leroy H. Watson's "Spearhead" Division went
out in multiple columns of task forces, CC "B" on July
2 6, and CC "A" on the 27th. Combat Command "B",
led by its new commander, Colonel Truman E. Boudinot, paced the
attack of the famed 1st Infantry Division at Marigny, then made
a right turn and drove for the high ground around Monthuchon.
Heavy opposition dogged the columns, but Boudinot's task forces
slashed ahead. The 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, supporting
the command with fire from its 105 mm self propelled guns, fought
snipers, and beat off an attack by 30 rocket-firing Focke-Wulf
Northeast of Coutances, and well behind enemy lines, division
GI's began to see the French people who had become refugees in
this furious hour of battle. They lined the roads for miles throwing
flowers and greeting their American liberators.
After taking its initial objective, the combat command bypassed
a second and clattered to within sight of Coutances. Here, while
tankers and infantrymen planned to go forward and take this first
relatively large city, an urgent order came to turn back and
aid the 1st Infantry Division in reducing a strongpoint of enemy
Fortunately, Normandy was drying during the weeks of the breakthrough
and exploitation; and, although the bocage country was not ideal
for tank warfare, the armor stormed ahead. Those hedge-choppers,
designed by division engineers, and installed by Maintenance
Battalion, were an invaluable aid to close fighting - and most
of the fighting was at close quarters. Tanks dueled at negligible
range, and infantry fought it out with small arms and grenades.
Jerry burp guns sounded as though they were in the next field,
and usually they were! Almost always the combat commands had
to fight their way into bivouac; then after digging foxholes
and camouflaging the vehicles, there was usually a night of sporadic
firing with automatic weapons and artillery. Men of the commands
learned to love those deep Normandy drainage ditches and the
high, earthbound hedgerows which bordered little, sunken roads.
These places were a haven when German artillery poured high explosive
into division positions. The enemy was not lacking in field artillery
during the battle of Normandy, and his gunners were uncannily
Close-quarter fighting was not reserved for the point elements
alone. Near Marigny, Battery "B" of the 391st Armored
Field Artillery Battalion participated in one of those free-for-all
fights which seemed to be SOP in the bocage country. While firing
a mission in support of Combat Command "B", the battery
learned that a unit of the 4th Cavalry Squadron was bitterly
engaged with enemy fanatics a few hundred yards away. The command
of the battery was immediately turned over to a single non-commissioned
officer and all available personnel went into the fight as infantry
in order to aid the cavalrymen. While five of the six gun battery
continued to fire support, the sixth was employed in direct laying
against the hemmed in, and soon annihilated, fanatics.
Also in this area, Captain Philip Shaw, commander of Battery
"B", 486th Armored Anti-Aircraft Battalion, and two
of his men calmly placed charges of TNT on the bogey wheels of
a Panther tank they found near their position at night. Then,
when the crippled Panther began to rumble into action, Shaw killed
its crew by tossing grenades into the open turret. One of the
Nazi's, attacked by an American ack-ack soldier armed with an
axe, shouted " Heil Hitler," and shot himself through
the head rather than surrender!
While elements of CC "B" neared Coutances, General
Doyle O. Hickey's Combat Command "A" was attacking
south toward Montpinchon. His task forces faced heavier opposition
than had those of Colonel Boudinot, because the enemy apparently
had expected such a sweep. Enemy infantry, anti-tank guns, and
the usual roving Panther tanks were a chief source of worry.
At Cerisy la Salle, battle raged far into the night. German troops
in the town fought a foot by foot withdrawal all afternoon and
were given air support by the Luftwaffe as soon as darkness settled
over the area and the last P-47 had gone home to roost. The sky
over Cerisy la Salle was filled with pyrotechnics that night
as Service Company crews brought up their vital loads of gasoline
and ammunition for the front line. One of the attacking Ju-88's
received a direct hit and came careening down the dark heavens
like a falling firebrand. The occasion was a morale booster to
men who had been dreading the wail and crunch of antipersonnel
The fight at Cerisy la Salle flowed into that larger operation
which had to do with the taking of Montpinchon. But pressure
exerted here by CC "A", together with that of other
armored columns to the east and west, forced German panzer columns
below Roncey. At this point, the 2nd Armored Division cut the
escape gap at St. Denis Ie Gast, and Jerry was trapped hopelessly.
American fighter bombers, finding the enemy's vehicles travelling
bumper to bumper on the narrow Normandy road nets, strafed and
bombed the convoys relentlessly. All along the battlefront on
July 29, a greasy black pall of smoke marked Nazi retreat and
destruction. When the wholesale slaughter was over, and the Thunderbolts
had finished their work, a single CC "A" battle group
moved into battered Montpinchon and mopped up the last disorganized
If Jerry hated our "Jabo's" because they were deadly,
men of the 3rd Armored Division loved them well. These chunky
little fighters seemed to be a part of the armored striking force.
It was a constant source of satisfaction to see them slant down
in those long, beautiful dives. You'd see the thin line of smoke
which told of hammering machine guns, and then, while "Blitz
Doughs" held their breath in suspense, the fly boys would
release bombs and slant up into the blue again.
The Thunderbolts ruled Normandy skies in daylight, but at dusk
Hitler's Luftwaffe took over. Kraut bombers rode herd on division
columns from sunset to dawn and, in isolated cases, inflicted
casualties by strafing and bombing attacks. Service Company of
the 32nd Armored Regiment suffered losses one evening when machine
guns in an adjoining field opened up on a circling Ju-88 and
disclosed the position. The German dropped a number of antipersonnel
bombs, killing one man and wounding five.
Frequently, for no sensible reason, the Kraut fliers seemed to
keep division spearheads under surveillance without attempting
to bomb or strafe. On the longer Normandy night drives it was
not unusual to have a dozen or more enemy airplanes dropping
flares at spaced intervals along the route.
In the white heat of battle, the 3rd Armored Division had begun
to find itself as a great fighting force. The division was still
green, still learning - but the esprit de corps was there, and
a characteristic drive which, in days to come, was to be the
hallmark of the "Spearhead" Division, General "Lightning
Joe" Collins' cutting edge of power.
The men of the fighting commands were well trained and alert.
They needed only those flaming days in Normandy to supply the
need of experience. And the division had excellent leaders too;
some of them were already making a name for the command in this
early stage of the fighting.
A Combat Command Show
The entire operation from the breakthrough to the reaching
of the Mayenne River was, from an operational standpoint, a combat
command show. This fact was beautifully illustrated by the action
of Combat Command "A" which, on July 29, was ordered
to turn south and seize a crossing of the Siene River, at Gavray.
Here, leadership asserted itself when Lt. Colonel Leander L.
Doan, the tall, loose jointed Texas tanker led his assault infantrymen
of the 36th across the stream on foot under fire, to secure a
bridgehead. This was the first of many such exploits which made
Doan a historic commander of the 3rd Armored Division. His Task
Force "X" was already assuming an aura of dash and
daring in the business of all out attack.
So fast was the advance thereafter that, at Brecey, the speeding
combat command caught German troops lolling under shade trees,
drinking wine. This was a pleasure which tommy-gun fire and grenades
quickly terminated. Brecey, however, was the scene of more vicious
fighting later. Company "A" of the 703rd Tank Destroyer
Battalion found that the town had been reoccupied after the lead
elements of CC "A" passed through. With their three-inch
guns, the TD men thoroughly wrecked the little town and again
routed its garrison.
Also in the vicinity of Brecey, an anti-tank platoon of the 36th
Armored Infantry Regiment set off pyrotechnics when a loaded
German ammunition truck ran into one of their mine fields during
the night. The resultant explosion could be seen for miles.
After crossing the See River, just south of Brecey, on August
1, CC "A" arrowed for Mortain, the new objective. The
task forces were now well inside enemy lines and moving swiftly.
German service troops and re-forming combat elements were surprised
and decimated or taken prisoner. The tanks of the 32nd Armored
Regiment made spectacular gains and the roads of conquest were
littered with smashed and burning vehicles of the Wehrmacht.
This Roman holiday ceased abruptly at Juvigny Ie Tertre and Reffuvieille.
Here, task forces of Combat Command "A" fought heavy
engagements with well organized Nazi units. The columns drove
through a sparkling rain of tracer bullets to reach Mortain on
August 2. Strong points were established at St. Barthelemy, just
north of the city, and at Romagny, to the southwest. Juvigny
Ie Tertre was taken after a vicious fire fight and troops of
CC "A" remained static in this area for two days while
German units, well supported by artillery, attempted to take
high ground around Juvigny. It had previously been announced
that this would be a rest period but, as one soldier commented:
" If this is a rest period - then I want to fight!"
A further advance was made on August 5, when Task Force "X",
under Lt. Colonel Doan, set out for Le Teilleul. A smaller force
joined the 2nd Armored Division at Barenton, and did not rejoin
the command until August 12-13.
At Barenton, this 3rd Armored Division battle group broke up
a determined German counter-attack which was launched under cover
of fog at dawn on August 10. Every available machine-gun was
brought forward and put into action. It was an eerie, wicked
battle there in the half light of morning, but after the enemy
had been beaten off, a spot check showed that he had lost 65
dead, plus a number of wounded and prisoners.
On August 6, Task Force "X" set out with the objective
of reaching Ambrieres Le Grand, on the Mayenne River. The task
force reached its objective for the day by 0830 hours. Considerable
fighting was necessary to clear Ambrieres Le Grand of the enemy,
but the bridge was seized quickly, permitting 1st Infantry Division
troops to push on across and establish a bridgehead on the east
side of the Varenne River, which was west of the Mayenne. On
the following day, Colonel Walter B. Richardson's task force
moved into positions around St. Mars sur Colmont. This maneuver
practically completed Combat Command "A" activities
west of the Mayenne River, excepting for an outposting operation
at Gorron. Troops of the command rested, refitted, and went swimming.
They made friends with the local mademoiselles, and drank a great
deal of calvados, that drink which was reputed to be made of
"ground-up hand grenades."
Battles at Mortain
Back in the Mortain sector, CC "B" soldiers were
not so fortunate.
General Boudinot's tankers and infantrymen had been attached
to the 4th Infantry Division during the attack on high ground
east of Villedieu les Poeles, on August 1. Ordered to cross the
See River and move south of the little town of Cuves, elements
of "B" were heavily engaged by crack units of the Wehrmacht.
Tankers of the 33rd Armored Regiment, plus the 36th Armored Infantry
"Blitz Doughs", the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion,
and all of the other units which made up the command, continued
to batter through this resistance to reach the objective on August
4. Of the prisoners taken, many were slant eyed Mongolians from
the outer fringes of Russia. These were former Red Army soldiers
who had been starved into the submission of serving in the Germany
army. Most of these men were perfectly willing to give information
which was of benefit to the attacking Americans.
On August 6, weary of combat and in dire need of maintenance,
refitting and rest, the combat command was ordered to an area
near Reffuvieille. The Red Cross Clubmobile was ordered, and
dirty men prepared to wash their bodies and their clothing in
nearby streams. Deaf from concussion of the guns, sick of the
sight and stench of battle, this promised pause was on oasis
to which all personnel looked forward. Unfortunately it turned
out to be a mirage.
There was no maintenance, no rest, no clubmobile, and no baths.
An urgent message came crackling down the lines of communication
and bone-tired tankers clambered back into the bucket seats of
their steel fighting machines.
During the morning hours of August 7, the German high command
in Normandy launched the great counter attack which was intended
to cut allied lines by reaching the sea at Avranches. Had this
operation succeeded, the American Third Army's supply lines would
have been severed and Patton's free-wheeling tankers trapped
before they could begin to execute the big sweeping drives through
Brittany. In a way, this was to be the first grueling test of
the American ability to meet and smash a well coordinated counter
The main German blow, which was chiefly armor supported by panzer
grenadiers and heavy concentrations of artillery, hit the 30th
Infantry Division. The enemy managed to isolate a battalion of
doughboys on a hill just east of Mortain while occupying that
city. The situation was desperate enough to warrant a swift redeployment
of available U. S. armor.
On August 7, therefore, Combat Command "B" was attached
to the 30th Infantry Division in order to aid in repelling the
serious breakthrough attempt. Extremely heavy fighting developed
around Le Mesnil Adelee, Le Mesnil Tove, and the surrounding
area. For five consecutive days the fighting swayed back and
forth. The command was shelled, bombed, attacked by infantry
and tanks. The intensity of the attack is perhaps best illustrated
by a notation in the official report for August 9:
"At 1145 Task Force 1 (Colonel Dorrance S. Roysdon) was
bracketed by rounds not over 100 yards apart. Expected enemy
fire began falling around noon. Artillery officers estimated
size from shell fragment to be 150 mm. Lt. Colonel Rosewell King's
command half-track exploded. An attempt was made to move Colonel
Roysdon's CP. A shell immediately struck the halftrack, wounding
an officer and cutting through the side of the vehicle so that
it looked like a sieve. One burst went through the radio. There
was a tree burst over the Colonel's tank; then a round landed
right by the front sprocket. Colonel Roysdon and his staff were
underneath the tank. Heavy shelling continued until 1600."
Division Pays a Price
German commanders were using a number of crack panzer units
in the breakthrough attempt, but although they gained ground
initially, the counter attack was a failure. Troops of Combat
Command "B" found that the terrain around Le Mesnil
Adelee and Le Mesnil Tove was not suitable for tank warfare,
but that was no revelation after a month of cracking stubborn
hedgerow positions in Normandy. The command took part in the
most bitter engagements of the battle and suffered relatively
heavy casualties, but General Boudinot's men held their ground
against far superior numbers in counterattack after counter attack.
An indication of this operation's violence may be gauged by the
fact that Service Company of the 33rd Armored Regiment processed
41 replacement vehicles and more then 60 work orders during the
short five day period of action. General Boudinot's fighting
men had contributed much toward the halting of the German Avranches
drive. Part of the 30th Infantry Division, to which CC "B"
had been attached, later received a Distinguished Unit Citation
for the battle.
By August 12, German forces had been thoroughly beaten back
at Mortain and another turning point of the war in the west had
been reached. Von Kluge's Seventh Army was retreating under heavy
aerial attack, and the Normandy campaign appeared to be a complete
allied success. The 3rd Armored Division closed into an assembly
area west of Mayenne, where supply, maintenance, and rest prepared
it for the next great armored drive.
Now the men of the 3rd Armored Division were quiet soldiers,
weathered and squint eyed from the acrid dust of battle. They
were schooled in the subtleties of war, their bodies toughened
to the sun and the rain and the constant grind of the attack.
They were tough, and they knew it. Death was no stranger. Fear
was still tangible, but it was honest fear - not the unreasonable
panic of those first hours when a man could not distinguish between
his own and the enemy's shell fire. It had been a bitter training,
but now the " Spearhead" was a crack team.
Major General Maurice Rose, then a brigadier, had assumed
command on August 7, relieving Major General Leroy H. Watson.
Rose, a former combat command leader of the 2nd Armored Division,
was an accomplished tanker and strategist. He surveyed the division
and found that it was not lacking in either training, experience
The cry was "On to Paris," but the men of the 3rd found
a more important mission for their arms. British forces, driving
south from Caen, and American First Army elements, smashing in
an easterly direction, had trapped a sizeable part of Field Marshal
von Kluge's Seventh Army in the Argentan-Falaise pocket. The
3rd Armored Division was ordered to drive deep into this Nazi
cauldron of elite units in an attempt to close the escape gap.
On August 13, the 83rd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion led division
elements out of the Mayenne area on an axis of advance which
touched Mayenne, Pre-en-Pail, Carrouges, Ranes, and Fromentel.
General Doyle O. Hickey's Combat Command "A" was chosen
to lead the attack with two parallel columns of task forces -
"X", commanded by Colorel Doan, on the south, and "Y",
commanded by Colonel Richardson, on the north. Initially, these
long, armored spearheads rolled forward without opposition. Crowds
of cheering French civilians stood in the brilliant sunshine
to throw flowers and offer cognac to dust-begrimed tankers. There
was no artillery fire and the sky belonged to the veering Thunderbolts.
It was hard to realize that, within hours, the entire combat
command would be fighting desperately for its very existence.
At Couptrain and Javron the first opposition began to slow free-wheeling
task forces. But not for long; the orders were to bypass resistance
wherever possible and push to a link-up with British troops.
Tanks of the 32nd Armored Regiment, closely followed by M-10
tank destroyers of the 703rd, battered swiftly ahead. With them
were the "Blitz Doughs" of the 36th Armored Infantry
Regiment, the 54th and 6/th Armored Field Artillery Battalions
in close support; the engineers, anti-aircraft, medics and maintenance
elements, all in the same column, pushing through the dust and
smoke and thunder of the attack.
Resistance became violent as the two parallel spearheads turned
north at Pre-en-Pail. Carrouges, on the late afternoon of August
13, was a picture of war at its grim height. Greasy smoke hung
in a pall over the town and wreckage cluttered its streets. German
vehicles by the score bore mute testimony to the new effectiveness
of the "Spearhead".
It was at Carrouges that the men of the 3rd first met the French
2nd Armored Division. These Free French seemed to have no idea
of march discipline or coordination. They rattled down the roads
at high speed, bumper to bumper or, if the whim took them, they'd
stop to talk it over, blocking traffic for miles. Lt. Arthur
Rutshaw, a CC "A" military police officer, exclaimed:
"I saw that French column hit a crossroads at 40 miles per
hour. One vehicle went straight ahead, one to the right, and
another to the left. Nobody was directing traffic!"
Along the Carrouges-Ranes road, the armor of both sides had suffered.
Panther tank and Sherman alike were left on that bitter boulevard,
wrecked and burning. The stench of death and flames filled the
air. French dwelling houses burned sullenly and, as darkness
approached, German aircraft dropped flares above the column.
To the north, Task Force "Y" battled its way beyond
Couptrain. Famed tanker Sergeant Lafayette Pool pointed the powerful
column with his Sherman, IN THE MOOD. It was a hard, unending
fight. Long after darkness had fallen over the flame podked countryside,
Colonel Richardson listened to the radio reports of the battle
from Pool's vehicle. He heard the Sergeant say: "I
ain't got the heart, to kill 'em ..." And then, over the
airwaves came the mad rattle of the .30 caliber bow gun, and
again the fighting Sergeant's voice: "Watch them bastards
run - give it to 'em, Close!"
Pool's crew - little, red headed Wilbert Richards, the driver;
Bert Close, his assistant; Willis Oller, who was the gunner;
and Del Boggs, loader, made a crack team. That night they fought
from dusk to dawn. After it was finished and the columns were
pushing forward again, the ground before their position was littered
Following an oral order from Captain Cyril Andersen to "keep
moving until something heavy hits you," S/Sgt. George Carver,
and his crew, led Task Force " X " on the direct route
to Ranes. Anti-tank guns blazed away down the narrow road and
machine gun fire crackled steadily as the armored column bit
deeply into enemy territory. As usual, bypassed fanatics closed
in behind, so that by the time TF "X" had leaguered
in small fields on the outskirts of Ranes, the force was completely
surrounded by the best troops of Nazi Germany - surrounded, and
cut off from outside assistance. General Hickey's troops knew
this, but they were not overly surprised or alarmed.
Surrounded? Of course - the matter had become a source of pride;
the 3rd was always surrounded during its long drives. GI's had
begun to chuckle over the division's new watch-word: "Call
Me Spearhead," and they expected to be surrounded even as
they expected to break out again and go smashing forward to lead
the First Army on its next sweep.
Enemy aircraft dropped flares overhead and scores of fires sent
a ruddy glow mounting into the dark sky as tanks and supporting
vehicles of the command rolled into temporary bivouac. There
wasn't much sleep that night but vehicles were camouflaged, slit
trenches dug, and weapons checked. A steady whirr and crash of
artillery added to the din of machine guns. The night was alive
with motors, and men of the 3rd systematically prepared to attack
Fighting at Ranes-Fromentel
August 14, 1944, saw some of the heaviest fighting of the
Normandy campaign in the Argentan-Falaise struggle. Elite German
SS units were well dug in and prepared to defend when the task
forces hopped off at daylight. Colonel Richardson's TF "Y",
attempting a juncture with "X" at Ranes, hit a stone
wall of resistance around Joue Du Bois, bypassed the town, and
were halfway to Ranes by dark. Closer to the disputed ground,
Task Force "X" was not only unable to mount an attack,
but had all it could do to beat off repeated counterblows by
crack elements of the 1st and 9th SS Panzer Divisions. Once again
all the men of the combat command, including staff officers and
cooks, fought a close quarter battle against a fanatic enemy.
Jerry used heavy concentrations of artillery and assault gun
fire on defensive positions, and his infiltrating teams of infantry
were extremely effective. General Hickey's CP, located a scant
field behind point tanks, was under continuous sniper and machine
gun fire. Company "A" of the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion,
maintaining road blocks at a road and rail junction, came under
heavy attack but managed to knock out three tanks and hold the
accompanying panzer grenadiers at bay.
A vicious battle raged throughout the entire day in this vicinity.
Mobile artillery of the 54th and 67th Armored Field Artillery
Battalions silenced a number of German batteries and pounded
strongpoints mercilessly; but still the enemy held fast and inflicted
heavy casualties for every foot of ground he yielded.
At dusk on August 14, the combat command was still isolated.
Medical aid men and surgeons of the units labored without rest
and cursed the fates which denied them passage to the rear for
casualties. Soldiers were dying because transportation to proper
hospital facilities was impossible; and yet under these terrible
conditions the medics saved lives. Tankers and front line infantry
are loud in their praises of these brave soldiers who disregarded
flame and hot steel to bring out casualties. It was not surprising
that men of the medical aid section, 32nd Armored Regiment, received
a Distinguished Unit Citation as a direct result of their heroic
work on this, and following days, at Ranes-Fromentel.
The fortunes of war seemed evenly balanced on August 14. Overhead,
the Thunderbolts and Lightnings of air support strafed and bombed
the nearby enemy. One of the unfortunate incidents of war occurred
when a P-47, attempting to attack German forces one field ahead
of American tanks, accidentally dropped a bomb short. Several
GI's were wounded seriously and one killed outright. Another
bomb fell within fifty yards of General Hickey's command post,
also injuring a number of soldiers. Faulty release mechanisms
on the airplanes were believed to be the chief reason for these
While CC "A" fought bitterly to hold its ground, the
3rd Battalion of the 33rd Armored Regiment had swung a powerful
left hook toward Ranes, and Division Reserve proceeded to attack
Joue de Bois. Combat Command "B" blasted into La Mone
Fouquet and continued to move up against heavy resistance. During
the day, "B" captured more than 1,000 prisoners, and
smashed 16 tanks. General Hickey's men, still surrounded, were
nevertheless gaining a mastery of the situation. Enemy shell
fire was lessening under continuous pounding by division artillery,
and every infantry counter attack was beaten back with heavy
losses. Prisoner cages were bulging with beaten Nazis, and the
dead lay everywhere.
Even beaten, the German soldier at Ranes - Fromentel was good.
He was a first class fighting man and troops of the division
respected his prowess as much as they hated his guts. At dawn
on August 15, an SS combat patrol worked its way into positions
of the 703rdTank Destroyer Battalion and captured a popular and
very fine TD officer, plus two of his security men and two engineer
soldiers. With the exception of one engineer, who escaped, all
of these men were later found shot to death. Such occurrences
did not engender any love of sportsmanship or pity between opposing
American and German troops.
Again the new day saw heavy fighting. Task Force "X"
plunged ahead and made slow progress toward the objective, Fromentel.
Enemy tanks, hidden in caves, caught the column and almost immediately
destroyed four Shermans, including the command vehicle of Company
"G", in which Captain Cyril Andersen lost a leg. The
attack did not progress very far.
Meanwhile, the rest of the division had been punching its way
through bitter resistance and, by nightfall, had burst through
and was grouped in the vicinity of Ranes. More hard fighting
lay ahead, but at least communication lines to the rear were
swept clean of Jerry battle groups.
At dawn on August 16, the "Spearhead" launched a coordinated
attack toward Fromentel. Roads were, for the most part, untenable,
and so the task forces used bulldozers and travelled across country.
Sergeant William Albert, a great tanker of the 32nd, rode the
blade of a dozer throughout the attack, seeking a path for his
driver and firing a tommy-gun at German infantry all the way.
Jerry assault guns and artillery contested every inch of the
route. "Screaming meemies" howled into division forward
positions and the whiplash slam of 88's broke through a constant
fabric of small arms fire.
On August 17, elements of Combat Command "A" had reached
Fromentel from the east while CC "B" was still pinned
down by heavy fire on the southwest of town. After the area had
been practically cleared, CC "A" was driven out by
American P-38 fighter-bombers which dropped their bombs too close
for comfort; but Hickey's men came back to take the town again
from the few enemy units still remaining. Once again Lightnings
bombed the command, and "Spearhead" soldiers began
to duck for foxholes whenever they saw the twin-boom fighters
Link Up with the British
The battle of the Argentan-Falaise gap was nearly over, but
it had not yet spent its fury entirely. On August 17, a mass
of German armor, estimated at 1,200 vehicles, passing across
the front of the division, received deadly artillery fire and
direct attack from the air. Mopping up operations continued in
the area, but it was not until the next day that Fromentel and
the high ground north of it were finally secured. On the afternoon
of August 18, the "Spearhead" Division, represented
by tanker Sergeant Donald Ekdahl of the 33rd Armored Regiment,
met advance elements of British armor on the road near Putanges.
It had been a bitter, fluctuating battle but individual performances
were faultless. Tank commanders had drawn straws to determine
which would lead the attack, and battle was often joined at ranges
of 75 to 100 yards. One tank destroyer engaged and destroyed
two Panther tanks simultaneously at the negligible range of 25
yards. Two shots from the American's 3-inch gun broke the thick
frontal armor of the two Mark Vs. The TD commander, Cpl. Joseph
Juno, was himself killed by exploding ammunition when he dismounted
from his M-10 to aid the enemy wounded.
Men of the 3rd Armored Division, resting and repairing their
broken equipment, knew that they had faced the best of Germany's
fighting forces, and that they had won by a slim margin. They
didn't know, or particularly care, that Argentan-Falaise would
be a shining name in history. However in the summing up later,
many competent military observers agreed that this action was
the true battle for France. After Field Marshal von Kluge's elite
elements were cut to bits here, it is certain that the Wehrmacht
never again attempted to stand and slug it out with allied forces
west of the Siegfried line.
Next Chapter: Northern France & Belgium