The Mortain Counterattack
The attack launched toward Avranches during the early hours of 7 August was the product of a curious lack of empathy between Hitler and Kluge. Hitler had issued the attack order on 2 August, and Kluge had carried out the planning, but by 6 August Hitler had developed his original concept into a grandiose scheme that Kluge had not even imagined.
The original goal of the counterattack was to regain Avranches and thereby re-establish a continuous defensive line in Normandy and restore the conditions that had made possible the static warfare of June and July. According to General der Panzertruppen Adolf Kuntzen, commander of the LXXXI Corps who was briefed by Kluge on 3 August, Kluge from the beginning felt that the counterattack could not fundamentally change the situation. The sole advantage, from Kluge's point of view, an advantage he was sure Hitler appreciated, was that the counterattack might facilitate a general withdrawal from Normandy to a new line of defense.1 Denied by Hitler the freedom to look backward, Kluge could only hope that OKW was in the process of organizing defenses in the rear.
As late as 6 August, the day before the attack, Kluge's misgivings were reflected in his attempts to make last-minute changes in the plan. He was dissatisfied with the strength of the attacking force as constituted under the XLVII Panzer Corps, and he tried vainly to find additional units for reinforcement. The LXXXI Corps, in the vicinity of Alençon, was the only nearby force, and Kluge wanted it to commit the 9th Panzer Division in a thrust to St. Hilaire-du-Harcouët once the division arrived in the area. In contrast, Hausser desired the LXXXI Corps to send the armored division in an attack toward Mayenne. The controversy soon entered the realm of academic discussion, for it quickly became evident that the divisions slated for the LXXXI Corps--the 9th Panzer and the 708th Infantry--would arrive from southern France too late to affect significantly the operations around either Avranches or Mayenne.
Unable to increase the striking power of the attack force either by additional units or by commitment of the LXXXI Corps, Kluge began to think that the XLVII Panzer Corps ought not to make the main effort north of Mortain as planned--between that town and the Sée River--but instead southwest through Mortain. Seventh Army staff planners, who had formulated the attack plan, had early pointed out that an axis of attack
south of Mortain--between the town and St. Hilaire--would not only broaden the front and tend to dissipate the limited forces available but would also commit the armored assault force to a poor road net. The best route to Avranches, they argued, was the most direct route, since it had the added advantage of keeping the attackers on the dominating terrain north of Mortain. Despite the completion of the attack preparations, it took the persuasion of Hausser's chief of staff, Gersdorff, to reassure Kluge that the plans about to be executed were probably the better, particularly since a thrust toward St. Hilaire would more than likely result in road congestion.2
It was a late hour to be thinking of altering plans, for the preattack situation was becoming increasingly dangerous, and an immediate effort was necessary to bolster the left flank before the lines there disintegrated completely. Even though the front had been contracted to the Chérencé-le-Roussel-Champ-du-Boult--Vire line, there was no telling how much longer the LXXXIV Corps could successfully hold on to the designated assembly areas and the high ground around Mortain. American occupation of Mortain was a serious setback that threatened to nullify these important attack prerequisites, and the American capture of Laval on 6 August endangered the supply bases near Alençon and le Mans.
Despite the disadvantages and difficulties, some commanders felt that the tactical situation between 4 and 6 August had actually developed more favorably than might have been expected. The II SS Panzer Corps and the II Parachute Corps had eased, at least temporarily, the crisis along the army boundary near Vire. Although Hausser had to keep the 116th Panzer Division committed defensively, he had pulled the 2d SS and 2d Panzer Divisions out of the line without breaking the connected front between the Sée River and Vire. The German field commanders nevertheless agreed that the attack had to be launched as soon as possible in order to regain operational initiative before new developments further complicated the situation.
Accepting the tactical necessity of executing the plans at once as scheduled, Kluge was rather disconcerted by several calls from Hitler on 6 August. Since 2 August, when Hitler had issued the original order, there had been neither instruction nor interference from higher headquarters. Kluge had interpreted his conversation with Jodl on 3 August as authority to command all the German forces in the west (including the Navy and the Air Force) and as clearance for attacking as he wished. Accepting the responsibility along with the freedom granted to deal with the American breakout and enjoying the implicit confidence thus accorded him, Kluge had arranged to have an advance command post set up west of Alençon so that he could personally supervise the attack. Suddenly however, on 6 August just a few hours before the attack was to begin, when Kluge was already committed to launching the effort that night, Hitler
called OB WEST for a report on the progress of the planning.3
Not only did Hitler want a report on Kluge's intentions and plans by that evening, he also placed additional strength at Kluge's disposal. He made available sixty Panther tanks still held in reserve east of Paris and released to Kluge eighty Mark IV tanks and all the armored cars of the 9th Panzer Division, which was moving northward from southern France toward Normandy. These troops were to reinforce the counterattack.4 It was rather late to be getting additional forces, but they were a positive contribution. Later that afternoon, after Hitler received preliminary reports on the counterattack during his customary daily briefing at the Wolf's Lair headquarters, Jodl called OB WEST to inform Kluge that Hitler wanted some changes made. The most important was that Hitler did not wish Funck, the XLVII Panzer Corps commander, to lead the attack; instead, he wanted Eberbach, commander of the Fifth Panzer Army.5
This telephone conversation revealed clearly that Hitler and Kluge were not tuned to the same wave length; they were not thinking of the same kind of operation. Kluge was ready to attack, whereas OKW was apparently only in the preliminary stages of planning. Kluge intended only to regain Avranches and restore the defensive line, while Hitler evidently thought in terms of a big offensive to be launched by several corps under Eberbach.
Artillery Observation Post near Barenton.
To accede to Hitler's wishes meant postponing the attack at least twenty-four hours to await the concentration of stronger forces and also disregarding the developments around le Mans. In view of the precarious tactical situation, any delay seemed unreasonable. The northern front at the Sée River might disintegrate, and the deep south flank of Army Group B might be so enveloped that contact between the combat troops and the supply complex based on Alençon would be impossible. Already that evening Barenton (seven miles southeast of Mortain) was being threatened, and the weakness of the 275th Division's defenses at the village made obvious the distinct menace to the southern flank. Furthermore, Radio Calais, a German
intelligence agency, informed Kluge that the Allies had recognized the shift of his troops for what it was. Uncertain of the ability of the German defenses to hold much longer and fearing that the Allies would bomb his assemblies out of existence, Kluge persuaded Hitler to let the attack go as planned even though it meant that he could not use the additional armor Hitler had made available.6
Only with great reluctance did Hitler permit the attack to be launched. Desiring the most massive blow that could be assembled, he was not convinced that the counterattacking force was as strong as it could have been. He accepted Kluge's recommendation nevertheless, and issued specific instructions for the conduct of operations once Avranches was captured. He directed that Eberbach take command from Hausser at Avranches and swing from there to the northeast into the First U.S. Army flank, thereby disrupting and nullifying the American breakout. To insure compliance, Hitler dispatched the chief of the OKW Army staff, General der Infanterie Walter Buhle, to the west by plane.7
Hitler's intention, which had crystallized too late to affect the initial attack, was clear in the order he issued on the following day, 7 August, after the attack was under way. "The decision in the Battle of France," he wrote, "depends on the success of the [Avranches] attack. . . . The C-in-C West has a unique opportunity, which will never return, to drive into an extremely exposed enemy area and thereby to change the situation completely."8 The Avranches counterattack, as the Germans called it, was to be the decisive blow sought since the invasion, the master stroke of strategic significance that was to destroy Operation OVERLORD. The first step in that direction was to divide the First and Third U.S. Armies at Avranches. Once this was accomplished, further measures were to roll up the Allied front. Choltitz, the former LXXXIV Corps commander who was being briefed by Hitler for a new assignment, recalled later that Hitler expected the offensive to throw the Allies back "into the sea."9
The field commanders did not share Hitler's conviction. Kluge had not suspected that Hitler anticipated such exalted results. Hausser, who considered the task of regaining Avranches relatively easy, felt that holding Avranches after taking it would be the difficult part of the assignment, to say nothing of launching a further attack to the northeast. The result of the conflicting intentions was what became known to the Americans as the Mortain counterattack, a drive launched in some uncertainty but with Avranches clearly defined as the objective. (Map X.)
The first echelon of the attacking force was to be composed of three armored divisions moving westward abreast toward an initial objective along
the Brécey-St. Hilaire road. The 116th Panzer Division on the right was to attack without prior assembly and strike along the north bank of the Sée River toward Chérencé; it was to be echeloned to the right rear to protect the north flank. Making the main effort in the center, the 2d Panzer Division (reinforced by a panzer battalion each from the 1st SS and the 116th Panzer Divisions) was to thrust along the south bank of the Sée, using the St. Barthélemy-Reffuveille road as its principal axis of advance. The 2d SS Panzer Division (reinforced by the 17th SS Panzer Grenadiers, a division reduced by combat to regimental strength) was to attack on both sides of Mortain; it was to be echeloned to the left to cover the open south flank. Following the first echelon closely, the 1st SS Panzer Division (less an armored infantry regiment and a tank battalion, which remained with the Fifth Panzer Army) was to exploit initial success and capture Avranches. The reconnaissance battalion of Panzer Lehr was to patrol the deep south flank. The LXXXI Corps was to block a possible American thrust toward Alençon.
The situation on the evening of 6 August was judged favorable. With regard to weather, a vital factor, forecasters had predicted fog for the following morning, a desirable condition for the attack. If the fog cleared later in the day, the Luftwaffe was prepared to furnish aerial support in strength. The commander of the fighter plane contingent in the west had visited the Seventh Army command post on 6 August to inform the ground troops that three hundred operational planes in France had been gathered to provide cover for the counterattack the next day. Ground opposition seemed weak, for only elements of two U.S. divisions, the 3d Armored and the 30th Infantry, had been identified in the attack zone, as was the actual case. Against them were concentrated between 120 and 190 German tanks poised for the surprise attack. Once Avranches was captured, a newly arriving infantry division, the 331st (scheduled to be at Tinchebray by 9 August), would be committed between the XLVII Panzer Corps and the LXXXIV Corps in order to regain Brécey.10
On the debit side of the ledger, the assembly of the counterattack forces had been made in great haste, at night, and with great difficulty. Units had assembled while in almost constant contact with Allied forces. In some instances, they had been compelled to fight their way to assembly points while in danger of being encircled. There was no distinct boundary between moving into position and jumping off in attack. Many units had already taken heavy losses before the attack started. In contrast with the usual daily personnel losses that averaged about 3 percent of those units in contact, German casualty reports for 6 August inexplicably attained heights of 30 and 40 percent. The meaning of the casualty figures was obscure to the Germans, for although it indicated the urgent necessity of getting the counterattack under way before attrition sapped the strength of their forces in Normandy, the fact that the 353d Division (kampfgruppe size) and 363d Division had together knocked out 28 American tanks on 6 August indicated that the German units, though
severely reduced, were still combat effective.11
At H Hour--2200, 6 August--Hausser received a phone call from Funck, the XLVII Panzer Corps commander, who wanted the attack postponed. Two factors, Funck felt, made this necessary. First, the advance elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division (the exploiting force) were only beginning to reach Tinchebray, even though the division commander had promised to be ready to cross the line of departure in strength a good six miles farther west around 2300. Obviously, the division would not be able to reach its assigned position in time. Nor would it be able to detach an armored battalion in time to reinforce the 2d Panzer Division as planned. The reasons for the delay in arrival were several: the 89th Division had been slow in relieving the 1st SS on the Fifth Panzer Army front; traffic congestion and Allied air attacks had harassed the approach march; and finally, a piece of pure bad luck, the panzer battalion hurrying toward the 2d Panzer Division had been moving through a defile in close formation when a crashing Allied fighter-bomber fell on the lead tank, blocked the entire battalion, and forced the tanks to back up and turn around in constricted space.
The second factor that Funck brought to Hausser's attention was the attitude of the commander of the 116th Panzer Division, Generalleutnant Gerhard Graf von Schwerin, who had not dispatched the tank battalion he was supposed to furnish the 2d Panzer Division. This was not the first time, Funck explained, that the commander of the 116th had failed to comply with orders. He requested that Schwerin be relieved.
Hausser was inclined to agree with Funck that the news of both incidents was serious, but he was unwilling to postpone the attack. Hausser's only concession was to delay the jump-off until midnight to give the 1st SS Panzer Division two more hours to come forward. He did nothing about Schwerin.12
The attack started shortly after midnight without an artillery preparation. The 2d SS Panzer Division on the left attacked in two columns, overran Mortain from both sides and captured the town, then advanced toward high ground west of Mortain and to the southwest toward St. Hilaire. There was no significant American opposition, and by noon of 7 August 2d SS Panzer troops held blocking positions about half way between Mortain and St. Hilaire, thereby protecting the southern flank of the attack. A thrust to St. Hilaire and a direct threat to Avranches from the southeast seemed simple except for the 2d Battalion, 120th Infantry, ensconced and encircled on Hill 317 immediately east of Mortain. This contingent, with unexcelled observation of the 2d SS Panzer zone south and west of Mortain, called for artillery fire on the division and thus pinned the troops down, preventing further advance.13
The 2d Panzer Division, making the
main effort in the center, got only half of its troops off during the early hours of 7 August, the column on the right moving along the south bank of the Sée. Despite the failure of a tank battalion of the 116th Panzer Division to appear for attachment, the armored column moved off, achieved surprise, and rolled through le Mesnil-Tôve to le Mesnil-Adelée. There, some elements turned north to protect the flank against a possible thrust from Chérencé, while the main body continued west toward the Brécey-St. Hilaire road. Shortly after daybreak, 7 August, just west of le Mesnil-Adelée and three miles short of the initial objective, the column encountered resistance that forced a halt.
The left column of the 2d Panzer Division delayed attacking until dawn of 7 August, when the panzer battalion of the 1st SS finally joined and completed the assault formation. The column then advanced easily through Bellefontaine. Strong antitank fire at St. Barthélemy made an organized effort necessary in order to reduce the opposition. The advance then continued almost to Juvigny before being stopped.
With the 2d Panzer Division bogged down short of the initial objective, Funck committed the 1st SS Panzer Division through the 2d Panzer units in mid-morning, hoping thereby at least to gain Juvigny. The restricted road net, limited maneuver room, and American resistance on the ground and in the air balked further progress. With tank losses skyrocketing, Funck halted the attack around noon and instructed the troops to dig in.
Because both columns of the 2d Panzer Division and the reinforcing column of the 1st SS Panzer Division had attacked on exceedingly narrow fronts, their spearhead wedges in unfavorable positions at le Mesnil-Adelée and east of Juvigny were especially vulnerable to counterattack. American artillery and antitank pieces located north and south of the Sée River struck the points of the German columns and kept the units immobile for the rest of the day.14
The north flank along the Sée was open, and it gave the German command particular cause for concern because the 116th Panzer Division had failed to attack. Schwerin had been threatened with encirclement by American attacks toward Gathemo and Chérencé, and he had simply withheld the attack order from his subordinates. He had no confidence in the ability of the 84th Division, which was relieving him, to hold against the American pressure, and consequently felt that he could neither detach a tank battalion to the 2d Panzer Division nor launch the attack toward Avranches. Also, Schwerin had apparently lost hope for victory. Involved in the conspiracy of July 20th, he was one of the field commanders who were to have negotiated with the Allies for an armistice. No matter whether tactical or political factors were more important to Schwerin, his failure to participate in the Avranches counterattack was a flagrant case of disobedience. At 1600, 7 August, Hausser and Funck relieved him of command and replaced him with Funck's chief of staff, Col. Walter Rein-hard. Thirty minutes later the division
finally jumped off. The troops made no progress.15
Instead of a well-massed, co-ordinated effort, only three of the six assault columns--the 2d SS Panzer Division and one column of the 2d Panzer Division-- had jumped off on time. The attack had achieved surprise, and the armored troops had rolled forward about six miles. When the day dawned clear, without the anticipated fog, the ground troops, who were experienced in Normandy and knew what to expect from Allied air superiority, began to dig in. At that moment the advance came to a halt, and the commitment of the 1st SS Panzer Division availed nothing. Heavy American artillery fires indicated that surprise was already gone. When Allied planes came out in force to bomb and strafe the armored columns, the troops were already under cover, their vehicles under camouflage, but British Hurricanes and Typhoons firing rockets nevertheless struck awe into the German formations. As for the mighty German air effort promised, the fighter planes that got off the ground near Paris did not get much beyond their airfields. Allied squadrons engaged them at once, and not a single German plane reached Mortain that day.16
By late afternoon, 7 August, it appeared to Hitler that Kluge had displayed poor judgment in allowing the commitment of the 1st SS Panzer Division north of Mortain rather than southwest toward St. Hilaire, where American opposition had been absent. It also seemed to him that the attack had been launched prematurely, hastily, and carelessly. If Kluge had waited until the 9th SS, 10th SS, and 9th Panzer Divisions had been assembled for a truly massive effort, Hitler felt, the attack more than likely would have brought better results. Deciding that he could no longer entirely rely upon Kluge, he took a more direct role in the operations.
Still under the impression that the situation offered him a unique opportunity for disrupting the Allied breakout and eventually destroying the Allied beachhead, Hitler determined to continue the attack to Avranches. "I command the attack be prosecuted daringly and recklessly to the sea," he wrote that afternoon. He ordered that, "regardless of the risk," the II SS Panzer Corps (with the 9th SS and the 10th SS Panzer Divisions and either the 12th SS or 21st Panzer Division) be withdrawn from the Fifth Panzer Army line and committed in the Avranches sector "to bring about the collapse of the Normandy front by a thrust into the deep flank and rear of the enemy facing Seventh Army." To consummate what to him had become the master stroke of the western campaign, "Greatest daring, determination, imagination must give wings to all echelons of command. Each and every man must believe in victory. Cleaning up in rear areas and in Brittany can wait until later."17
Kluge had already concluded that the attack had failed. His judgment was as much influenced by developments on the northern and southern flanks of the Seventh Army as by the progress of the attack itself. American pressure had not ceased, and renewed threats from the north at Gathemo and from the south at Barenton posed unpleasant thoughts that the Seventh Army spearheads directed toward Avranches might be encircled and destroyed. The wiser course of action, he began to think, might be to withdraw.18
A call from Eberbach on the afternoon of 7 August added to Kluge's concern. It also reinforced his feeling that withdrawal from Mortain might be in order. Eberbach was troubled by the weakness of his thinned-out defense-lines covering the approaches to Falaise--and asked for reinforcement. Kluge diverted the incoming 331st Division toward the Fifth Panzer Army front and was considering sending units from the Seventh Army when Hitler's order arrived to announce that the effort toward Avranches was to continue. Kluge virtually apologized when he phoned Eberbach to tell him that Eberbach not only would get no additional strength but would lose two panzer divisions at once and a third armored division eventually. "I foresee that the failure of this [continued] attack [to Avranches]," he told Eberbach, "can lead to collapse of the entire Normandy front, but the order [from Hitler] is so unequivocal that it must be obeyed."19
Transmitting Hitler's order to Hausser, Kluge informed him that the 10th SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions were to arrive in the Seventh Army sector on 8 August and be committed soon afterwards toward Avranches under the LVIII Panzer Corps headquarters, which had recently come up from southern France. As soon as the corps assembled its two SS panzer divisions, the Seventh Army would continue the attack without regard to the northern and southern flanks. Until the new attack was ready, the positions reached by the forward elements were to be held. The last remaining elements of the 1st SS Panzer Division (including twenty-five assault guns), which had become available for use that evening, moved into a line that had suddenly, if only temporarily, changed from offense to defense.
Hausser, too, admitted failure on 7 August. He ascribed the causes to the Allied air superiority, the immobility of the 116th Panzer Division, and a stronger than expected American resistance. Although additional striking forces augmented the chances of regaining Avranches, continuing threats to the army's flanks increased the chances of disaster. But since Hitler felt that the outcome of the war depended on another attack toward Avranches, there was no choice.20
The American Reaction
To the Americans who felt the force of the counterattack toward Avranches, there was little impression that the Germans had been clumsy in launching
their effort. Accompanied by surprise, the attack raised the specter of catastrophe. Loss of Mortain was a serious blow.
A town of 1,600 inhabitants, Mortain is at the foot of a rocky hill rising just to the east--Hill 317. The hill is the southern spur of wooded highland, convulsed and broken terrain around Sourdeval called by tourist bureaus "la Suisse normande" (Norman Switzerland). Near the juncture of the ancient provinces of Normandy, Brittany, and Maine, Hill 317 provides a magnificent view of the flat tableland to the south and west--the Sélune River plain, which is crossed by ribbons of road and stream. Domfront, fifteen miles eastward, and the bay of Mont St. Michel, twenty miles to the west, are visible on clear days. After the 1st Division had entered Mortain without difficulty on 3 August, the VII Corps commander, General Collins, inspected the positions and pointed to the high ground east of Mortain.
"Ralph," he told the 1st Division commander, "be sure to get Hill 317." "Joe," General Huebner replied, "I already have it."21
On 6 August the 30th Division occupied Mortain to free the 1st Division and its attached CCA of the 3d Armored Division for displacement south to Mayenne and exploitation east toward Alençon. Although the 1st Division was then rather far from VII Corps supply dumps (too long a run, General Collins thought, for effective supply),
Collins, who like the entire Allied command at the time was thinking in terms of the offensive, expected to move the corps beyond Mortain in short order. While the 4th Division remained in corps reserve near St. Pois, the 9th Division was to attack through Gathemo and Sourdeval, and the 30th Division was to push east toward Barenton and Domfront. There was no intimation that a German counterattack would upset these plans.22
Questions had been raised a week earlier--"Will the enemy counterattack against the VII Corps south of the Sée River? . . . Will the enemy counterattack against the left flank of the Corps? . . . Where and in what strength will the VII Corps encounter organized resistance?" But the answers were as anti-climactic as they appeared obvious. The corps G-2 estimated 5,400 combat effectives in opposition; a parachute division and an infantry division, each with 1,000 combat effectives, were the strongest units he believed to be on the corps front.23 The Germans could hardly offer serious resistance. The stubborn opposition in the Villedieu-les-Poëles and Gathemo sectors during the first days of August was apparently nothing more than rear-guard action covering a general withdrawal.
The 30th Division, because of traffic snarls, did not reach Mortain until six or seven hours after the planned time, and General Hobbs took responsibility for the sector at 2000, 6 August, four hours before the German counterattack started. His primary mission was to defend
the front from St. Barthélemy through Mortain to Barenton. Since the first two villages were in American hands, he set out to take the third. Because a small task force (attached tanks from CCA of the 3d Armored Division) of the 1st Division was to have taken Barenton that evening, Hobbs sent an infantry battalion (less one company but augmented by a company of medium tanks and a reconnaissance platoon) to relieve the armor at Barenton. Soon after this force departed Mortain, enemy aircraft strafed the column, destroyed several trucks, caused twenty-five casualties, and delayed the advance for an hour. Being attacked by German planes was a rather rare occurrence, but it did not necessarily signal portentous events; the column continued. When the men of the 30th Division made contact with CCA near Barenton, they learned that the armored troops had held the village but briefly before being expelled. Joining forces, the two units prepared to attack Barenton on the following morning, the 7th.24
General Hobbs was also to attack toward Domfront, and he planned to send a reinforced infantry regiment there on 7 August. His G-2 also raised questions: Would the Germans defend high ground north of Barenton, high ground east and north of Domfront, or the road to Domfront? Would the Germans counterattack between Chérencé-le-Roussel and Mortain?25 The questions came somewhat late.
Around midnight of 6 August, the VII Corps disseminated a warning that the Germans might counterattack near Mortain within the next twelve hours. Pilots had seen concentrations of German armor north and east of Sourdeval, forces thought to belong to the 1st SS, 2d, and 116th Panzer Divisions. If these units made a westward thrust to Avranches, they would cut the communications of those American forces operating south of the Sélune River. Until the threat either developed or vanished, the 30th Division was to postpone sending a regiment to Domfront; Hobbs was to move a battalion south of the Sélune to protect communications with the 1st Division; he was also to reinforce his troops on Hill 317 east of Mortain.26 This, too, came too late.
Activity on 7 August opened in the 1st Division zone near Mayenne during the early minutes of the day. Reconnaissance troops of the 9th Panzer Division launched an attack that seemed for a few hours as though it might develop into something serious. Though Americans later connected this with the Mortain counterattack, the action around Mayenne was local in nature and unrelated, except perhaps most tenuously, to the major effort around Mortain.
The German forces attacking at Mortain entered the 1st Division sector southeast of Barenton four and a half hours afterwards, about 0430, when six tanks and supporting infantry of the 2d SS Panzer Division broke through a screen maintained by the 4th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron attached to
North of Mortain. Enemy vehicles wrecked during the German counterattack to Avranches.
the 1st Division. The consequences were not important. The cavalry withdrew several miles, consolidated forces, and established new lines.
Throughout the rest of the day the 1st Division, outside the critical German attack zone, remained in spotty contact with the enemy. Extensive patrolling to protect Mayenne and the corps lines of communication established a pattern of activity that was to be characteristic for several days. Meanwhile, the division waited for "orders to continue the exploitation" eastward toward Alençon.27
It was Lt. Col. Van H. Bond's 39th Infantry, 9th Division, that was first seriously threatened near the Sée River during the early hours of the German attack. Separated from the main body
of the division, the regiment was attacking northeastward from Chérencé to make contact with the 47th and 60th Regiments pushing southeastward in the Gathemo area. At midnight, 6 August, the Germans still held the intervening ground about Perriers-en-Beauficel.
Shortly after midnight a forward observer of the 26th Field Artillery Battalion, which was supporting the 39th Infantry, heard tanks moving westward along the road between St. Barthélemy and Chérencé. The tank motors did not sound like Shermans. After establishing the fact that no American tanks were operating there, the artillery battalion, upon data furnished by the observer, began to fire at a range of five thousand yards but soon reduced it to only a thousand. By 0150, 7 August, not only the artillery battalion but also the infantry regiment was sure that a German armored column was moving west toward le Mesnil-Tôve.
A platoon of the regimental cannon company in le Mesnil-Tôve concluded that the Germans were already too close for effective defense. Dismantling their guns and disabling their vehicles, the troops abandoned the village and rejoined the infantry. So that German activity might be reported accurately, the platoon leader stayed behind. After verifying the fact that at least twenty enemy tracked vehicles were moving westward, he reported thirty-five more vehicles in the vicinity, including personnel carriers from which infantrymen were unloading. At the same time, word came from the regimental switchboard at le Mesnil-Tôve that the village was under machine gun fire, that all American troops had departed, and that field trains and ammunition dumps nearby had been overrun and set afire.
The regimental commander had taken his first action at 0250, 7 August, when he instructed one of the infantry battalions to switch its antitank defenses toward the south to protect the rear. Thirty minutes later he directed his reserve (an infantry company and several tank destroyers) to attack south from Chérencé to le Mesnil-Tôve in order to cut behind the German spearhead. When the attack made no headway out of Chérencé, it became apparent that the Germans had cut directly across the regimental axis of communication. All three infantry battalions were north of the German penetration. The regimental command post, the cannon company (less one platoon), the antitank company (less two gun platoons), and the firing batteries of the 26th Field Artillery Battalion were south of the German column.28
The German attack struck the 30th Division more directly. The 2d SS Panzer Division surged through Mortain, knocked out roadblocks manned by Col. Hammond D. Birks's 120th Infantry north and south of the village, overran the 2d Battalion command post in Mortain and drove the staff into hiding, and isolated the rifle battalion on Hill 317. The battalion, reinforced by a company of the 3d Battalion, had split a rifle company three ways to establish two roadblocks north of Mortain and one south of the village. One roadblock north of Mortain, augmented by a few antitank guns, remained in action and accounted for over forty enemy vehicles and tanks
during the next few days. Two roadblocks were destroyed at once, the survivors making their way to the surrounded hilltop to join the three rifle companies, the heavy weapons company, and the several antitank pieces that occupied the most important terrain in the Mortain sector.
Near St. Barthélemy, the Germans overran two companies of Lt. Col. Walter M. Johnson's 117th Infantry, surrounded a battalion headquarters, and threatened the regimental command post four hundred yards away. A patrol checking the outpost defenses of the regimental headquarters had suddenly been confronted by about fifty Germans. T. Sgt. Harold V. Sterling engaged the enemy while four companions maneuvered to safety. Then all five men conducted a fire fight for one hour until reinforcement arrived and the German group withdrew. In the belief that moving the regimental headquarters might have an adverse effect on morale, Colonel Johnson stayed to direct the battle in his sector, although he was virtually encircled.29
Despite these initial blows, the 30th Division made no report to higher headquarters of the counterattack until 0315, 7 August, when German tanks were already in possession of Mortain and had reached a point four miles west of St. Barthélemy near le Mesnil-Tôve. Still the division G-3 was "not yet greatly concerned," even though he admitted that the Germans had cut behind the 39th Infantry in the Chérencé-Gathemo sector, penetrated four miles behind the 30th Division front, threatened to drive uncontested to Avranches, and might attain St. Hilaire and Ducey without interference. Unperturbed an hour and a half later, he promised that the penetration would be cleaned up at the first light of day. Passing these reports to the First Army, a staff officer at the VII Corps headquarters added that the penetrations appeared to have been made by "uncoordinated units attempting to escape rather than aggressive action." Everyone on the lower echelons, it appeared, was confident that the attacks "would be rapidly taken care of." The army headquarters was under the impression that the disturbance was a local infantry counterattack that was repulsed without difficulty. Not until the coming of dawn was it obvious that the German effort was serious, "heavier than was first thought, but . . . under control."30
At daybreak on 7 August, Generals Hodges and Collins were highly conscious of the fact that the German counterattack at the least threatened the VII Corps, at the most menaced the entire bridgehead south of the Sélune. If the German forces north of Mortain thrust northward across the Sée River, they might run riot through the corps rear area, destroying supply installations and nullifying in great part the exploitation of COBRA.31
Fortunately the 4th Division, in corps reserve and anticipating several days of rest and recreation, had reacted in a positive manner during the early morning
hours. The 4th Division Artillery was placing a large volume of fire on German movements south of the Sée, and General Barton had assembled his troops for immediate commitment. By 0530 Barton was able to assure the corps commander that the Germans did not seem to be trying to go north of the Sée and that if they did, the 4th Division was ready.32
Though reassured about the situation along the Sée River, General Collins was far from satisfied with the southern portion of the corps zone, that part along the Sélune River. There was little to arrest German movement between St. Hilaire and Barenton, and the enemy was already established in that area. Only two men of the 120th Infantry Intelligence and Reconnaissance Platoon had returned from an ambush near Romagny, just southwest of Mortain. If Collins recalled the 1st Division from Mayenne to close the St. Hilaire gap, he would create a similar opening at Mayenne. In quest of additional forces to plug the hole, which was inviting the Germans to drive to Ducey and wrest the vital Pontaubault bridgehead from American control, he called upon CCB of the 3d Armored Division (relieved the previous afternoon from attachment to the 4th Division and assembled south of the Sée River in the 30th Division rear). He attached the combat command to the 30th Division and told General Hobbs "to handle the situation S W of Mortain with it."33 The more immediate necessity of meeting the German main effort north of Mortain and along the south bank of the Sée, however, forced Hobbs to commit CCB in that area.
By chance, an extra unit seemed to materialize out of thin air. The 2d Armored Division (less CCA, which remained near Vire) had departed the XIX Corps sector shortly after midnight, 6 August, leaving St. Sever-Calvados and moving to Villedieu-les-Poëles, then south through St. Pois toward Chérencé-le-Roussel and Mayenne with the intention of supporting or accompanying the 1st Division in an advance toward Alençon. As the leading units of the armored column approached Chérencé on the morning of 7 August, they began to receive artillery fire from across the Sée. The column stopped, but not for long, for General Collins seized upon the troops to plug the hole on the corps right.34 Meanwhile, the armor had provided temporary stability for the 39th Infantry of the 9th Division at the Sée River.
Backtracking from Chérencé, the armored column moved west several miles to get out of range of the enemy shelling, crossed the Sée, marched to St. Hilaire, and that night took positions near Barenton. So that "one man would be in command of everything at Barenton," General Brooks, the 2d Armored Division commander, assumed control over the troops of the 30th Division and of the 3d Armored Division's CCA, which had unsuccessfully tried to secure the village that day.35
Because the 2d Armored Division could not alone close the gap, General
Bradley gave General Collins the 35th Division, recently released from the V Corps to join the XX Corps of the Third Army in the Fougères-Vitré area. While still under XX Corps control and with some understandable confusion of orders and plans, the 35th Division, having planned to attack south with the Third Army, advanced that evening northeast toward St. Hilaire with the eventual objective the Mortain-Barenton road south of Hill 317.36
Thus, less than twenty-four hours after the Germans attacked, the VII Corps had a strength of seven divisions-five infantry and two armored (less one combat command).37 Still another was alerted for possible shift from the Third Army should the Germans effect a more serious penetration.
Meanwhile, the 30th Division was battling desperately at some disadvantage. Before coming to Mortain, the 30th was to have become part of the V Corps, and plans and reconnaissance had been made toward that end. When the division was abruptly shifted into the VII Corps sector, there was no time for real reconnaissance. With little knowledge of where neighboring units were located and practically no information on enemy dispositions, the 30th hastily took over the positions held by the 1st Division. Shallow foxholes and field artillery emplacements far forward in offensive formation were adequate to accommodate a unit pausing temporarily but were less suitable for defense. Large-scale maps showing the terrain in detail did not become generally available until several days later, and for the most part the lower echelons used crumpled maps that 1st Division men had pulled out of their pockets and off their map boards and passed along before departing. The 30th took over the telephone wire nets left in place and found it so difficult to repair breaks in the unfamiliar system that the division eventually laid its own wire. Although the defensive positions could have been better, the main drawback was that the division had not had sufficient time to become properly oriented. Nor was the division at full strength in meeting the counterattack. Nearly eight hundred replacements, which had joined only a few days before, were hardly assimilated. Two of the nine infantry battalions were absent: one had been dispatched to Barenton on the evening of 6 August, the other had been attached to the 2d Armored Division near Vire. The men of the remaining seven battalions were tired after their march from Tessy to Mortain on 6 August and soon reached a condition "of extreme battle weariness."38
General Hobbs at first tended to minimize the importance of what seemed to him to be only a German demonstration. He was concerned somewhat about a possible breakthrough southwest of Mortain to St. Hilaire, but the corps commander, who was making arrangements to block the gap there, directed Hobbs to the more immediate problem in the Juvigny area. Collins ordered Hobbs to
furnish four medium tanks to protect the corps wire teams so that telephone lines could remain operative and the corps be kept informed of developments as they occurred. He instructed Hobbs to report hourly on the situation at Juvigny, by radio if other communications were not functioning.
Apparently feeling that Hobbs did not fully appreciate the implications of the attack, Collins told him to take the counterattack seriously. Hobbs protested that he already had committed all his infantry and engineers and was without a reserve, surely indication enough that he was serious. Yet when Collins attached a regiment of the 4th Division to the 30th, Hobbs said he didn't think he needed it, everything was going fine. Surprised, Collins decided to "play it safe" and give Hobbs the regiment "anyway" as an immediate reserve.39
By noon of 7 August, intelligence officers estimated that the German forces behind American lines consisted of five battalions of infantry, four of artillery, and two or three of tanks. There seemed no question but that the Germans had "launched a major counterattack to separate First and Third Armies."40 Stopping the attack depended substantially on the 30th Division.
Hobbs had three main problems: cutting off the penetration northwest of Mortain, blocking the thrust southwest of Mortain toward St. Hilaire, and recapturing Mortain to re-establish contact with the isolated and surrounded battalion. Against the penetration north and northwest of Mortain, Hobbs ordered Col. Truman E. Boudinot's CCB of the 3d Armored Division (attached to the 30th Division) and Col. Edwin M. Sutherland's 119 Infantry to drive northeast and northwest from Reffuveille and Juvigny, respectively, toward le Mesnil-Adelée. He instructed the 117th Infantry to take St. Barthélemy then drive northwest to le Mesnil-Tôve. The two infantry regiments and the combat command, working closely together, established a cohesive front on 7 August and commenced attacking generally north toward the Sée River. To close off the opening that led to St. Hilaire, Hobbs could do little except hope that the 35th Division would arrive quickly. The 120th Infantry launched repeated company attacks in efforts to regain Romagny and cut the roads leading southwest, but the Germans were unwilling to relinquish their positions. Until the 35th Division exerted additional force and drove the Germans from the southwestern outskirts of Mortain, the isolated battalion on Hill 317 would remain encircled.
Meanwhile, the battle raged in the 30th Division sector. The most serious factor was the disorganization and isolation of small units. Communication throughout the division zone was precarious; wires were cut or shot out, and infiltrating German troops and enemy raiding parties menaced messengers and command posts. The 823d Tank Destroyer Battalion destroyed 14 enemy tanks, 2 trucks, a half-track, 3 full-tracked vehicles, 2 motorcycles, a staff car, and a
machine gun position before being overrun by enemy infantry and losing 13 wounded, 3 killed, 91 missing, and 11 of its 3-inch guns and prime movers. "There were many heroes today," the battalion commander reported, "both living and dead." One battalion of the 117th Infantry lost 350 men on 7 August, and enemy infiltrators were behind the regimental lines "at several different points." But at the end of the day, even though the troops were "very fatigued, supply problems not solved, defensive sector penetrated," the regimental commander could state: "however key terrain feature still held."41 The 30th Division lost more than 600 men and much equipment on 7 August, but after the initial shock of the counterattack, the troops held firm.
The situation was similar throughout the corps zone. The 4th Division reacted effectively with artillery fire, destroying during the afternoon of 7 August a German column that tried to move across its front. The division, besides releasing a regiment for attachment to the 30th Division, moved a second regiment to Chérencé in support of the 39th Infantry, which had been split in two by the initial penetration. Despite the precarious situation of the 39th Infantry, Colonel Bond in the early afternoon of 7 August moved those elements that were south of the German thrust around and through the 4th Division sector to rejoin the infantry battalions on the north bank of the Sée. The regimental line at the end of the day was generally the same as on 6 August. A few miles to the northeast, the other two regiments of the 9th Division failed to make contact with the 3gth, but they gained excellent hilltop positions to assure the integrity of the corps left. That evening General Collins attached the 39th Infantry to the 4th Division, which was in contact with the regiment and able to support it.42
American artillery had responded to the attack with liberal expenditures of ammunition, operating on the premise that it was better to waste shells than miss a possible target. The weather was excellent throughout the day, and in addition to the artillery observation planes that pinpointed targets, fighter-bombers roamed the area at will, destroying enemy matériel and morale. Ten squadrons of Typhoons of the RAF 2d Tactical Air Force operating from airfields in France flew 294 sorties in the Mortain area. Of seventy enemy tanks estimated to have made the original penetration, only thirty were judged to be in operation at the close of the day. On the morning of 8 August, the estimate was reduced to twenty-five still remaining behind American lines. Prisoners taken by the corps on 7 August numbered 350.43
Chance had played an important role in the American reaction. The German decision to make the main effort north of Mortain rather than south of it was vital. The 4th Division was in the right place from which to bring flanking fire
on the main effort. CCB of the 3d Armored Division, assembled near Reffuveille, a few miles from the deepest point of the penetration, was able to attack the German spearheads immediately. The accidental appearance of the 2d Armored Division near Chérencé brought comfort to the 39th Infantry, and the fact that the armor was not needed elsewhere and could therefore be inserted into the battle was a happy circumstance. The location of the 35th Division was another lucky break. The capricious factor of weather also was favorable for the Allies. It was fortunate, finally, that officers of good judgment had seen to it that American troops occupied Hill 317, "the key to the whole area."
There was more than chance involved.
The reaction to the counterattack demonstrated a flexibility and a rapidity of reflex that was most clearly illustrated by the fact that British planes operated effectively on the American front.
The forward motion of the Mortain counterattack had come to a halt soon after daylight on 7 August, when the Germans drove their tanks off the roads into the fields and hastily threw camouflage nets over them to escape detection from the ground and air. Although the Germans failed that day to regain the momentum that had enabled them to make a serious penetration of the American lines, they held stubbornly to their forward positions and awaited reinforcement for a renewed thrust toward Avranches. Meanwhile, the battle at Mortain continued.
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