The Saar-Moselle Triangle
During September 1944, the great pursuit across France and Belgium had ended in the north along the German frontier and the West Wall, in the south generally along the line of the Moselle River. In the bitter fighting that followed through the autumn and early winter, the Third Army in the south had breached the Moselle line around Metz, pushed northeast across the German border, and broken the outer crust of the West Wall along the Saar River at Saarlautern, thirty-two miles south of Trier. Although a combination of Third and Seventh Army attacks compromised the Moselle line along most of its length, the Germans had continued to hold the east bank in a triangle formed by confluence of the Saar and the Moselle southwest of Trier. The Third Army had yet to clear the triangle when the call had come in December to move into the Ardennes.
To American troops the uncleared sector was the "Saar-Moselle triangle." From an apex at the meeting of the Saar and the Moselle in the north to a base along an east-west line roughly coterminous with the southern border of Luxembourg, the triangle measured some sixteen and a half miles. The base extended not quite thirteen miles. Although the West Wall in this sector lay behind the Saar, the Germans in 1939 and 1940 had constructed a supplementary fortified line across the base of the triangle from Nennig in the west to Orscholz, at a great northwestward loop of the Saar. The Germans called the position the Orscholz Switch; the Americans knew it as the Siegfried Switch. Assuming the neutrality of Luxembourg, the switch position was designed to protect Trier and the Moselle corridor and to prevent outflanking of the strongest portion of the West Wall, that lying to the southeast across the face of the Saar industrial area.
The Orscholz Switch was similar to the West Wall itself, a defensive position two miles deep, fronted by dragon's teeth or antitank ditches and composed of pillboxes and concrete bunkers reinforced by field fortifications. It sat astride high ground forming a watershed for streams flowing generally northeast to the Saar and west and southwest to the Moselle. The terrain is rolling and sharply compartmented, in many places covered with dense woods. The major roads converge on the town of Saarburg, halfway up the east side of the triangle on the west bank of the Saar River.
In November and December, while striking toward the Saar at Saarlautern, General Walker's XX Corps on the left wing of the Third Army had been able to turn only a scant force against the Orscholz Switch and the triangle. In late November an armored combat command
The Saar-Moselle Triangle
13 January-1 March 1945
and an infantry regiment had engineered a minor penetration of the left portion of the switch at the villages of Tettingen and Butzdorf; but the XX Corps had had to relinquish the ground in December in the general belt-tightening process to free units for the Ardennes.1 When in early January a relatively inexperienced infantry division, the 94th under Maj. Gen. Harry J. Malony, arrived in this sector, the forward positions were south of the Orscholz line.
As the 94th Division moved into position on 7 January, the levies imposed by the Ardennes fighting had so severely reduced General Walker's XX Corps that all sectors were thinly manned. Beyond the corps left boundary at the Moselle, a cavalry group of the neighboring XII Corps held the west bank of the Moselle. The 94th Division faced the entire 13-mile stretch of the Orscholz Switch, from Moselle to Saar. The 3d Cavalry Group defended the XX Corps center, approximately nine miles along the Saar River to the confluence of the Saar and the Nied. The 95th Infantry Division held the remainder of the corps front, roughly equal to the distance covered by the cavalry but involving an added responsibility of defending a bridgehead over the Saar at Saarlautern. (The 95th subsequently was replaced by the 26th Division.)
Before arriving in the Saar-Moselle triangle, the 94th Division had fought to contain Germans corralled in the Breton ports of Lorient and St. Nazaire. In part to provide the division offensive combat experience, in part to contain the Germans in the Orscholz Switch and possibly to draw reserves from other sectors, and in part to gain a foothold in the line for later exploitation, the corps commander, General Walker, told General Malony on 12 January to begin a series of stabs into the line in strengths not to exceed one reinforced battalion.2
Probing the Orscholz Switch
As had other units in November, the 94th Division made its first thrusts into the left portion of the Orscholz Switch in an attack designed to hit a sensitive point that might evoke German counterattack, which the Americans might crush with heavy German losses. At dawn on 14 January, the 1st Battalion, 376th Infantry, commanded by Lt. Col. Russell M. Miner, plowed through a foot of snow and in just over an hour overran surprised German outposts to take Tettingen, the first village behind the dragons teeth on the western slopes of a high hogback ridgeline marked by the trace of a major highway leading northeast to Saarburg. (Map V) So successful was the assault that the regimental commander ordered Colonel Miner to continue into the adjacent village of Butzdorf. Although fire from an alerted enemy in nearby pillboxes made this task more difficult, Butzdorf too was in hand before noon. The next day, when the 3d Battalion of the 376th Infantry attacked
toward Nennig and two other villages on the Moselle floodplain northwest of Tettingen and Butzdorf, the going was less easy, but as night came on 15 January these three villages forming the western anchor of the Orscholz Switch also were in hand.
The rapidity with which the two thrusts had broken into the switch position was attributable in large measure to the fact that the enemy's 416th Infantry Division, responsible for the sector since November, was gravely overextended. Only two regiments held the entire Orscholz Switch, while the third defended in the West Wall beyond the Saar. Only the division replacement battalion was available as a reserve.3
Before dawn on 15 January, even as the 3d Battalion, 376th Infantry, moved toward Nennig and the other villages on the Moselle floodplain, the 416th Division's replacement battalion counterattacked at Butzdorf and Tettingen. Although close-in fighting raged for a time in both villages, the Germans in the end had to fall back. Of some 400 who made the counterattack, scarcely more than a hundred escaped; some died from minor wounds after prolonged exposure in the subfreezing cold.4
As General Malony had hoped, the attacks had prompted German counterattack with attendant German losses. What he had not counted on was a coincidence that provided the Germans in the Orscholz Switch a powerful force for another counterattack. While the 94th Division was preparing its two thrusts, the enemy's 11th Panzer Division had been en route to the very sector General Malony had chosen for his first attacks.
Having been scheduled for the Ardennes counteroffensive but not committed, the 11th Panzer Division early in January was shifted south across the army group boundary, which bisected the northern corner of the Saar-Moselle triangle. With the shift the panzer division became a reserve for Army Group G.
The commander of Army Group G, General Blaskowitz, planned a variety of exercises in which he would use the panzer division in concert with other units to complement a faltering Operation NORDWIND in Alsace, but for lack of additional units, none of the plans had materialized. In the end, Blaskowitz assigned the panzer division to the LXXXII Corps (General der Infanterie Walther Hahm), one of three corps operating directly under the army group without an intervening army headquarters. The LXXXII Corps was responsible for a long stretch of the Saar and for the Orscholz Switch. In order to relieve pressure on the embattled Seventh Army in the Ardennes, the 11th Panzer Division was to make a strong armored raid out of the Orscholz Switch, three and a half miles to the southwest to heights on the east bank of the Moselle overlooking the meeting point of the German and Luxembourg frontiers. Target date for the raid was mid-January. The axis of attack was to run directly through Butzdorf and Tettingen.5
CREW OF A 3-INCH GUN on the watch for German tanks in the Saar-Moselle triangle.
For want of fuel and because capacity of bridges over the Saar was limited, some 50 Mark V (Panther) tanks of the 11th Panzer Division had to remain east of the Saar. The raid would be entrusted to 30 Mark IV (medium) tanks, 20 to 30 assault guns, and 2 relatively full-strength panzer grenadier regiments.6
American pilots reported German armor crossing the Saar during the day of 16 January, so that when night came the 94th Division was fully alert. At Butzdorf, Tettingen, Nennig, and the other
villages, the men worked through 17 January to lay antitank mines and bring up tank destroyers and additional bazookas. (The 94th Division as yet had no attached tank battalion.) Through the night the sound of tracked vehicles emanated from woods and villages to the north and northeast. Then at 0300 on 18 January a patrol returned with two prisoners who confirmed all suspicions: the prisoners were from 11th Panzer Division.
At dawn on the 18th the storm broke.
For twenty minutes German mortars and artillery worked over Butzdorf and Tettingen, then from the northeast from the nearby village of Sinz emerged a long column of tanks, assault guns, half-tracks bulging with greatcoated Germans, and infantry on foot. Despite heavy concentrations of defensive artillery fire, the Germans kept coming. As half the force struck Butzdorf, the other half swung in a wide arc to hit Tettingen.
For more than an hour confusion reigned in both villages as German tanks and assault guns shot up the landscape and infantrymen of both sides fought at close quarters among the damaged buildings. Mines disabled some of the German vehicles, and a 57-mm. antitank gun caught one tank broadside, but in the main it was a job for intrepid infantrymen stalking with bazookas.
Shortly after 0900 the Germans fell back, but just before noon ten tanks again emerged from Sinz, took up hull defilade positions and persistently pounded the two villages. At 1430 three battalions of German infantry launched a fresh assault, this time directed primarily at Butzdorf. Again the Germans occupied many of the houses. Again close-in fighting raged.
Throughout the afternoon the lone American company in Butzdorf fought back, but as night approached the survivors controlled only a few buildings. So fire-swept was the open ground between Tettingen and Butzdorf that the Americans could bring neither reinforcements nor supplies forward. As darkness fell General Malony authorized the survivors in Butzdorf to fall back.
The company commander in Butzdorf, 1st Lt. David F. Stafford, already had arrived independently at the conclusion that withdrawal was the only course left to him short of surrender or annihilation. Tearing doors off their hinges to serve as litters for the seriously wounded, what was left of the company slowly pulled back through Stygian darkness and a heavy snowfall while guns of the 284th and 919th Field Artillery Battalions fired covering concentrations.
When the survivors reached Tettingen, they found a fresh battalion of the 376th Infantry in position to defend that village. Although no one could have known it at the time, the high-water mark of the raid through the Orscholz Switch had come and gone. The Germans had taken Butzdorf, and three days later, during the night of 21 January, they succeeded in fighting their way into half the village of Nennig on the Moselle floodplain and into a castle northeast of Nennig, but that was the end. Handicapped by absence of heavy tanks, severely restricted by the snow-covered terrain (one thrust on Nennig bogged down when the tanks foundered in an antitank ditch concealed by snowdrifts), and punished by artillery fire directed from an observation post on heights west
REMOVING GERMAN DEAD AFTER FIGHTING IN NENNIG
of the Moselle, the 11th Panzer Division could only slow the tempo of the 94th Division's thrusts.7
Hardly had the echoes of the fighting with the panzer division died down when General Malony aimed another limited objective attack into the German line. This time he chose to strike at the eastern anchor of the Orscholz Switch, at Orscholz itself, where a regiment of the overextended 416th Infantry Division still was responsible for the defense. A penetration at Orscholz, combined with that at Tettingen, might be exploited later into a double envelopment of the center of the switch position.
Orscholz perched atop a ridge with snow-covered open fields gently sloping to the south. The only logical covered approach to the village from the positions held by the 94th Division was through the Saarburg Forest, southwest and west of the village. Through this forest the 301st Infantry commander, Col. Roy N. Hagerty, planned to send his 1st Battalion in a surprise attack just before dawn on 20 January. The battalion
was to reach the east-west Oberleuken-Orscholz highway running through the woods, then to turn eastward and strike at Orscholz.
As the men of the 1st Battalion moved into position, the night was bitterly cold and a swirling snowstorm made night-time control even more difficult than usual. Daylight had come before the two assault companies were ready to cross the line of departure, a stretch of dragon's teeth in a clearing a few hundred yards south of the Oberleuken-Orscholz highway. Company B on the left moved silently forward, not a shot barring the way. Company A on the right was less fortunate. As the men passed among the projections of the concrete antitank obstacle a drumbeat of explosions filled the air. Mines.
Company B meanwhile continued silently through the forest, reached the highway, and turned east toward Orscholz. The advance guard overran several German machine gun positions, but in general the move was unopposed. Reaching the edge of the woods overlooking Orscholz, the company commander, Capt. Herman C. Straub, halted his men to await the rest of the battalion.
At the line of departure, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. George F. Miller, had tried to shift Company A to the left to follow in the footsteps of Company B, but too late. The explosions in the minefield had alerted the Germans in pillboxes and communications trenches overlooking the clearing. Company A came under a withering crossfire from automatic weapons. As the men fell to the ground for protection, mortars and artillery ploughed the clearing with deadly bursts. Among those killed was Colonel Miller.
Athough the regimental commander, Colonel Hagerty, sent a company from another battalion to reinforce the attack, every effort to get across the clearing merely increased the casualty toll. One company lost sixty men to antipersonnel mines alone. Tank destroyers tried to help, but the ground in the clearing was marshy and not frozen solidly enough to support the self-propelled guns. Patrols sent out after nightfall in search of a route past the German defenses found no solution.
When daylight came again, the regimental executive officer, Lt. Col. Donald C. Hardin, sent to replace Colonel Miller as battalion commander, told Colonel Hagerty it would take an entire regiment to push the attack successfully. Although the corps commander, General Walker, earlier had modified the 1-battalion restriction imposed on the 94th Division's attacks and had granted approval for using as much as a regiment to exploit a penetration,8 General Malony saw no reason to reinforce what was in effect a failure at Orscholz. He gave his permission to abandon the effort.
Captain Straub and Company B in the meantime had not long remained undetected at the woods line overlooking Orscholz. Learning by radio of the misfortune that had befallen the rest of the battalion, Captain Straub shifted his men south of the Oberleuken-Orscholz highway to a position adaptable to all-round defense. With the aid of protective fires from the 301st field artillery, the company held, but not without serious losses aggravated by the bitter cold.
With the attack abandoned, word went out to Captain Straub to fight his way
out. Straub answered that he "could not comply." Many of the men were seriously wounded; at least one already had frozen to death; and ammunition was almost gone. Although Colonel Hagerty himself talked with Straub by radio, outlining a plan to cover the company's withdrawal with smoke, the captain again said withdrawal was impossible. Every attempt to move, he said, brought heavy enemy fire that pinned the men to their positions.
Company B and attachments, a force of approximately 230 men, raised a white flag.9
Expanding the Penetration
For another day after the misfortune at Orscholz, those units of the 94th Division that had penetrated the western end of the switch position at Tettingen and Nennig would be fully occupied fending off the 11th Panzer Division. Only on 23 January would the division be free to recoup the minor loss of ground incurred and return again to consolidating and expanding the penetration.
Renewed limited objective attacks began early on 23 January when a battalion of the 376th Infantry moved to retake the northern half of Nennig, lost to the Germans the preceding night. It took all day to root a stubborn enemy from the damaged houses and at the same time eliminate five Mark IV tanks.
Two men, T. Sgt. Nathaniel Isaacman, a platoon sergeant, and Pvt. John F. Pietrzah, alone accounted for two of the tanks and set up a third for the kill. Spotting three tanks advancing up a narrow street, the men climbed to the top of a house, then crept from one rooftop to another to gain a position above the tanks. The first rocket from Pietrzah's bazooka missed, but a second sent the lead tank up in flames. Another rocket put a quick end to the tank in the rear. The third tank, trapped between the other two, fell ready prey to a rifle grenade fired by a man on the ground, Pvt. Albert J. Beardsley.10
In the attack at Nennig, the battalion of the 376th Infantry had the assistance of a company of armored infantrymen. This presaged introduction of a new force in the Orscholz Switch, a combat command of the 8th Armored Division. The armored division, yet to see combat, had rushed across France earlier in the month in reaction to Operation NORDWIND. Not used in that fight, the division had been attached temporarily to the Third Army for combat training. The army commander, General Patton, saw in the attachment an opportunity to give the division battle experience while at the same time remedying the 94th Division's lack of attached tanks. He gave General Malony the 8th Armored's Combat Command A (Brig. Gen. Charles F. Colson), but stipulated that the armor
was to be used for only forty-eight hours.11
Prodded by General Walker and his staff officers at XX Corps headquarters,12 Malony was determined to get as much help as possible from the combat command before the time limit expired. He intended to use the armor to help turn the limited penetration of the orscholz Switch into a genuine breach that might be exploited quickly into breakout.
Malony's plan revolved around capture of Sinz, northeast of Butzdorf and Tettingen, and wooded high ground northwest of Sinz. From there, in a subsequent stage, he planned to take Munzingen, a mile and a half to the east, a village crowning the hogback ridge leading deep into the Saar-Moselle triangle. Holding the high ground northwest of Sinz and at Munzingen, the 94th Division would be all the way through the Orscholz Switch, in a favorable position for exploitation.
The role of the armor in the Sinz attack was to advance northeast from the vicinity of Nennig, clear pillboxes along a road leading into Nennig from the west, then help infantry of the 94th Division take the village. Before committing the armor, General Malony intended his infantry to occupy high ground northeast of Nennig, including the castle occupied earlier by units of the 11th Panzer Division. That would set up more favorable conditions for using the armor.
As events developed, the battalion of the 376th Infantry assigned to take the castle was, by the early hours of 25 January, so worn out from the fight at Nennig that the commander urged that some other unit be given the task. The CCA commander, General Colson, volunteered his unit. At dawn on 25 January, half the combat command, organized as a task force under Lt. Col. Arthur D. Poinier, commander of the 7th Armored Infantry Battalion, jumped off, only to discover quickly that the 11th Panzer Division still had a lot of fight left. So perturbed at the slow pace of the day's advance was the corps commander, General Walker, that he removed all restrictions on the size of the forces the 94th Division might commit. "Go ahead," he said, "and use them all."13 At the same time, he tacitly agreed to extending the time limit on use of the combat command an extra day--through 27 January.
As finally decided, two regiments and the combat command were to make the attack. On the left, the 302d Infantry (Col. Earle A. Johnson) was to pave the way for the armor; on the right, the 376th Infantry (Col. Harold H. McClune) was to move on Sinz. Avoiding open ground south of Sinz, the regiment was to attack through woods southwest and west of the village and link with the armor along the highway in the woods for the assault on the village itself. A battalion of the 302d, operating directly under division control, meanwhile was to recapture Butzdorf, lost on the first day of German counterattacks.
The most encouraging success on 26 January came on the right. There an antipersonnel minefield hidden by the deep snow stymied one battalion, but
two companies of another battalion slipped past and gained the woods overlooking Sinz from the west. Although three German tanks supported by infantry counterattacked, bazookas accounted for two of the tanks and drove the other away. Artillery fire took care of the German infantry. The two companies dug in for the night, protecting their left and rear with the 376th Infantry's reserve battalion, which got safely past the minefield and into the woods by following the route the two leading companies had taken.
According to the plan, the armor was to have linked with this force along the highway bisecting the forest, but the armor and the 302d Infantry on the left ran into trouble. Intense machine gun fire from the north stopped the infantrymen, while the armor after getting into the western edge of the woods came to a halt before a deep antitank ditch.
The next day, 27 January, as the corps commander, General Walker, warned that the armored combat command would be withdrawn that night, General Malony committed a battalion of his reserve, the 301st Infantry, to help clear a path for the tanks. Although armored engineers during the night had bridged the antitank ditch, the fresh infantry battalion had to spend all morning taking out machine guns and an antitank gun before the armor could cross. Soon after midday CCA's tanks at last started forward and quickly linked with men of the 376th Infantry overlooking Sinz.
Assault on the village itself was delayed, first by a counterattack against the left flank in the woods, then by accurate German tank fire from hills and woods north and east of Sinz. Darkness was falling when a platoon of tanks and two infantry companies at last gained a toehold in the village against stalwart defenders of the 11th Panzer Division. In the process, CCA's 18th Tank Battalion knocked out eight German tanks but lost six of its own.
When General Malony asked to keep the combat command to finish taking the village the next day, General Walker declined. The period of indoctrination was over. The 94th Division was to take a rest, then later to resume its limited objective attacks.14
Broadening the Effort
Almost coincident with the arrival of a new directive from General Walker to resume the attack but to employ no more than a regiment at a time, the February thaw and the rains came. Beginning on 2 February rain fell for eight days, turning foxholes into frigid dirty bathtubs and roads into oozing ribbons of mud. Yet the attacks began, concentrating on objectives designed to obtain eventual control of the hogback ridge leading into the depths of the Saar-Moselle triangle.
Malony first turned the 302d Infantry against Kampholz Woods, southeast of Tettingen on the western slopes of the ridge. Resistance was stubborn, particularly from a nest of pillboxes on approaches to the woods from the west. The last of the pillboxes held out until 8 February.
Meanwhile, Malony reverted to his original plan of gaining a hold on the hogback ridge at Munzingen by first taking Sinz. Moving just before daylight on 7 February, a battalion of the 301st
Infantry quickly took the first houses and went on to clear the rest of the village during the day; but another battalion, trying to clear Bannholz Woods, a dominating copse north of the village, ran into tanks and panzer grenadiers of the 11th Panzer Division and had to fall back.
From the German viewpoint, a ready explanation for the differing resistance at Sinz and in the Bannholz Woods was available. Persistent protestations by the 11th Panzer Division commander, General von Wietersheim, that his reconditioned panzer force was being needlessly bled to death on an inappropriate assignment had begun to pay off two days before. On the 5th the first contingents of the 256th Volks Grenadier Division had arrived to begin relieving the panzer division, although a small contingent still was present on the 7th in Bannholz Woods.15
Units of the 94th Division made three more tries to take Bannholz Woods during the next few days, but without success. Although the opposition continued to come from the panzer division, bit by bit intelligence information gathered from other parts of the line revealed the gradual withdrawal of the tanks and introduction of the 256th Division. In light of the condition of the volks grenadiers, badly mauled in Operation NORDWIND in Alsace, the shift could only weaken the enemy's hold on the Orscholz Switch. The time clearly was approaching for a full-scale attack to reduce the switch position and open the entire Saar-Moselle triangle to swift reduction. Conferring with Malony on 15 February, the corps commander, General Walker, gave the word to lift all restrictions and launch a major assault.16
General Malony developed his plan as a logical extension of the earlier probing attacks, this time aimed at a complete rupture of the Orscholz Switch and early capture of the hogback ridge. Colonel Hagerty's 301st Infantry was to make the main effort from Sinz to reach the crest of the ridge and the highway leading northeast from Munzingen. Colonel McClune's 376th Infantry was to protect the 301st's left flank, while Colonel Johnson's 302d Infantry on the division's right was to strike almost due east from the Kampholz Woods to the crest of the hogback ridge and then roll up the forward line of pillboxes farther east. An
elaborate program of corps and division artillery fire was designed to isolate the battlefield but to guard surprise by beginning only as the infantry moved to the attack.17
To exploit success, General Walker had no armored force immediately available. The 8th Armored Division early in February had passed to another command. Even though the 10th Armored Division (Maj. Gen. William H. H. Morris, Jr.) had been attached to the XX Corps on 11 February, General Eisenhower had specified that the division be employed only with his approval, a reflection of post-Ardennes insistence on a sturdy reserve. Walker asked Eisenhower, through General Patton, for permission to use the 10th Armored, but received only a promise that the armor would be released once the infantry achieved a clear breakthrough.18 Walker took the reply as sufficient authority to direct General Morris to reconnoiter zones of advance and prepare for early commitment.
Rain was falling when before daylight on 19 February men of the 301st Infantry moved east from Sinz up the slopes of the hogback ridge in the direction of Munzingen. In less than two hours the pattern the fighting would assume became apparent. An occasional group of Germans would fight back tenaciously, particularly when protected by pillboxes or bunkers; but in the main the opposition bore no comparison to that put up earlier by the panzer division. By daylight the 1st and 3d Battalions held the crest of the ridge, just short of Munzingen.
Antipersonnel mines were the biggest problem. Company B's 1st Platoon, for example, lost all but sixteen men in a minefield before the platoon sergeant, T. Sgt. Henry E. Crandall, managed to blast a path through with primacord. The Germans in a nearby pillbox kept Crandall and his trapped men under vicious machine gun fire until the survivors got past the mines, then surrendered docilely.
A battalion of the 376th Infantry had a similar experience in Bannholz Woods, north of Sinz, the scene of such bitter fighting in the earlier limited objective attacks. Before dawn, men of this battalion pushed past unwary German defenders to gain the far edge of the woods with little difficulty, then later rounded up the prisoners. Totally different from the panzer grenadiers, these Germans had no stomach for the fight.
By this time, the 94th Division's lack of tank support had been remedied with attachment of the 778th Tank Battalion, which participated in the 376th Infantry's attack. Tanks also came to the rescue of men of the 302d Infantry in their drive from Kampholz Woods to the crest of the hogback ridge along the forward line of Orscholz Switch pillboxes. There the infantrymen were taking comparatively severe casualties from pillboxes manned by troops of the 416th Infantry Division until, with daylight, the tanks arrived.
Only a few hours after dawn on 19 February, the fact was clear that the 94th Division had penetrated the Orscholz Switch, whereupon General Malony urged General Walker to send the 10th Armored Division through. Walker in turn telephoned the Third Army commander, General Patton, for permission. Unable to reach General Bradley at 12th
Army Group headquarters, Patton telephoned directly to SHAEF, where the operations officer, Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull, agreed but with the proviso that the armored division be returned to the SHAEF reserve as soon as the Saar-Moselle triangle was clear. Since Patton already was thinking of going beyond the original objectives if all went smoothly, the restriction rankled. He had to accept it nevertheless and notified Walker to turn the armor loose.19
The delay in permission to use the armor held up the exploitation until the next day, 20 February, but once committed, the armor was not to be denied. Moving along the west side of the triangle close to the Moselle, the Reserve Combat Command (Col. Wade C. Gatchell), with the 94th Division's 376th Infantry attached, was to advance almost thirteen miles to the northern tip of the triangle while CCA (Brig. Gen. Edwin W. Piburn) drove north up the center of the triangle. When CCR reached the tip, CCA was to swing northeast, hoping to take advantage of enemy confusion to seize bridges across the Saar at Kanzem and Wiltingen, and thereby point a dagger toward Trier.20
Except for the problem of herding prisoners, CCR's advance on the 20th was almost a road march, even though the attack was delayed until midday while a battalion of the 376th Infantry cleared two villages along the line of departure. Not long after midnight the combat command coiled for the night almost halfway up the triangle.
CCA encountered greater difficulties at first. One column, attacking up the highway astride the hogback ridge, ran into mines and fire from assault guns in the first village beyond Munzingen and at each of two succeeding villages, but in all cases the result was more a question of delay than genuine opposition. At one point the column overran a regimental command post.
CCA's left column, hampered by a traffic jam and an unmapped American minefield at the line of departure near Sinz, got moving only after full daylight had come; but by midafternoon it was apparent the column would quickly make up the lost time. Although antitank minefields and craters blown in the roads forced the tanks to move cross-country at the beginning of the thrust, once high ground three miles northeast of Sinz was taken the column returned to the roads. Bypassing opposition, one task force streaked north and then northeast along secondary roads and as darkness came occupied high ground north of Tawern, almost at the tip of the triangle.
The next day, 21 February, CCR renewed its advance and reached the extreme tip of the triangle, while the rest of CCA headed for Tawern, eliminating last remnants of opposition. The 94th Division meanwhile was clearing that part of the triangle southeast of the armored columns and taking the remaining pillboxes of the Orscholz Switch from the rear.
After two days of exploitation the Saar-Moselle triangle was clear at a cost to the Germans in dead and wounded of an
estimated 3,000 and as many more captured. Only in the 94th Division, where the thick antipersonnel minefields encountered on 19 February raised the division's casualties to over a thousand wounded, were U.S. losses severe.
Crossing the Saar
Despite the speed of the 10th Armored Division's advance, the bridges over the Saar River at Kanzem and Wiltingen were blown before the tanks got there. Operating on the theory of using the armor until SHAEF said stop, General Walker in midafternoon of 21 February ordered General Morris to jump the river. During the night the armor was to cross northeast of Saarburg while the 94th Division crossed southeast of the town. The bridgeheads then were to be joined, whereupon the 94th was to protect the armor's south flank while Morris drove on Trier. The crossings of the Saar then could be linked with the long-held bridgehead to the southeast at Saarlautern.21
Influencing General Walker's desire for a quick crossing before the enemy could recover from the debacle in the triangle was the nature of the terrain on the far bank, plus the fortifications of the West Wall. Almost everywhere the east bank dominates the approaches from the west, usually with great wooded, clifflike slopes. West Wall pillboxes arranged in the normal pattern of mutual support covered all the slopes but were in greatest depth, sometimes up to three miles, at those points where the terrain afforded any real possibility for an assault crossing. The river itself was from 120 to 150 feet wide, still swollen from the early February thaw.
Through the night convoys carrying assault boats toiled toward the Saar, but dawn came in the 10th Armored Division's sector with no sign of the boats. Alerted to make the crossing opposite the village of Ockfen, a mile and a half northeast of Saarburg, men of the attached 376th Infantry took cover in houses and cellars.
Southeast of Saarburg, sixty 12-man assault boats and five motorboats were available for the assault battalions of the 301st and the 302d Infantry; the first boat arrived an hour after the planned assault time of 0400 (22 February). Concealed by the darkness and a dense fog, men of both battalions then prepared to cross, one battalion opposite the east bank village of Serrig, the other at the west bank village of Taben.
Carrying a squad of Company C, 302d Infantry, under Staff Sgt. John F. Smith, the first boat pushed out into the river at Taben at 0650. The fog still held, and so difficult was the terrain that the Germans had positioned few defenders at the site.
The road leading down the west bank was steep and winding. Along the far bank ran a 12-foot retaining wall, backed by precipitous wooded slopes leading to Hoecker Hill, an eminence three-fourths of a mile from the river. Finding a ladder in place, Sergeant Smith and his men quickly scaled the retaining wall and captured the startled occupants of a pillbox. Other boatloads of men crossed with little enemy interference, pulled themselves up the clifflike sides of Hoecker Hill, and sent patrols upstream and down to broaden the base of the bridgehead. Before the morning was well along,
all the 1st Battalion was across and heading north toward Serrig to link with men of the 301st Infantry, while another battalion crossed to defend Hoecker Hill and the south flank.
The crossing went less smoothly opposite Serrig. There the assault boats for the 3d Battalion, 301st Infantry, were even later arriving, and the noise of manhandling them to the water's edge alerted troops of a local defense battalion in the east bank pillboxes. Although German fire was blind in the dark and the fog, it served to scatter the boats of the leading company so that the men touched down with little organization remaining. Since few of the boats survived the swift current on the return journey, through the morning only one company, operating in little isolated groups, was on the east bank. One group under the company commander, Capt. Charles W. Donovan, nevertheless took a few buildings on the northern edge of Serrig and held them until the afternoon when other men of the 3d Battalion crossed in a fresh batch of assault boats equipped with outboard motors. White phosphorus shells fired by the 81st Chemical Battalion and smoke pots emplaced at the crossing site helped make up for loss of the fog cover. As night fell on 22 February, Serrig was secure, the bridgeheads of the 301st and 302d Infantry Regiments joined.
At Ockfen, northeast of Saarburg, the 10th Armored Division's assault boats finally arrived at midday. Under pressure from Patton,22 General Morris ordered a crossing in late afternoon; but by this time the fog had dissipated and German machine gun fire from West Wall pillboxes so splattered the flats leading to the crossing site that the 81st Chemical (Smoke Generator) Company could get no smoke generators into position to screen the site. Neither could the assault companies of the attached 376th Infantry get down to the river.
In the brief time between daylight and late afternoon of 22 February, the Germans had managed to supplement the local defense battalions in this part of the West Wall with those remnants of the 256th Volks Grenadier Division that had escaped across the Saar ahead of the American armor. Although ill-prepared to counter such a quick thrust against the Saar line, the LXXXII Corps commander, General Hahm, was helped when his southern boundary was shifted northward to coincide roughly with the east end of the Orscholz Switch, thereby freeing one regiment of the 416th Infantry Division that had not been involved in the Orscholz fight. He also benefitted from the fact that one of the panzer grenadier battalions of the 11th Panzer Division had yet to leave the area. These forces General Hahm would be able to bring to bear as the bridgehead fight continued.23
At Ockfen General Morris had no alternative but to postpone the 376th Infantry's assault again until after nightfall. Beginning an hour before midnight, two battalions, each in column of companies, at last began to cross.
In the northernmost sector, that of the 3d Battalion, the darkness was all that was required. The leading company reached the east side of the river without drawing a single round of enemy fire, quickly cleared the pillboxes guarding
the bank, and opened a way for the rest of the battalion.
Not so at the 1st Battalion's crossing site a few hundred yards upstream. As the boats of Company C touched down on the far bank, the Germans in the pillboxes brought down their final protective fires. Fortunately, visibility was too restricted by darkness and fog for the defenders to spot the attackers, even at distances of only a few feet. Discerning the pattern of enemy fires from tracer bullets, the men of Company C began to advance by small groups in short rushes, gradually forcing their way into the pillbox belt and beginning, one by one, to reduce the fortifications.
German artillery and mortars meanwhile pounded the river itself and the west bank, sinking many of the assault boats and three times wounding the 376th Infantry commander, Colonel McClune. The rest of the 1st Battalion nevertheless crossed to the east bank before daylight, though for lack of assault boats one company had to move downstream and use the 3d Battalion's craft. There, in wake of the 3d Battalion, the 2d Battalion already had crossed. In midafternoon the 2d Battalion moved behind a heavy artillery preparation to take Ockfen; and by nightfall, 23 February, units of the regiment outposted wooded high ground on three sides of the village.
To the XX Corps commander, General Walker, it had occurred earlier in the day that expansion of both his Saar crossings might be speeded by early blocking of the main east-west highway into the sector, a road leading from the enemy's main lateral route behind the Saar at the settlement of Zerf westward to the river at Beurig, across from Saarburg. Walker ordered a special force, the 5th Ranger Battalion (Lt. Col. Richard P. Sullivan), to cross into the 94th Division's Serrig-Taben bridgehead, then to slip through the woods toward the northeast for some three and a half miles and establish a roadblock on the highway west of Zerf.
Guiding on a compass bearing, the Rangers began to move at midnight, 23 February. They reached their objective just before dawn. Quickly establishing a perimeter defense, they began to collect unwitting Germans as they passed along the road.24
Anticipating a determined German reaction against the Rangers' roadblock, Walker arranged a maneuver designed both to relieve the Rangers and to capture the village of Beurig so that tactical bridges could be built across the river from Saarburg to take advantage of the roadnet around the town. As a first step, he ordered General Malony to drive north to Beurig. Since likely bridging sites in the 10th Armored Division's zone still were under observed fire, Walker told General Morris to take his armor south and cross the Saar on a 94th Division bridge that would be ready at Taben in midafternoon on 24 February. The tanks then were to follow units of the 94th Division into Beurig. There they were to pick up their armored infantrymen, who were to cross into the Ockfen bridgehead in assault boats late on 24 February and push south to Beurig. Tanks and armored infantry together were to drive east along the main highway to relieve the Rangers.
The maneuver failed to develop exactly as planned. Although the tanks and
half-tracks of Combat Command B (Col. William L. Roberts), leading the 10th Armored's advance, crossed the Taben bridge early on 25 February, the 94th Division's northward drive had been slowed by tenacious resistance from pillboxes and by heavy mortar fire. Held up on the fringe of Beurig, the infantrymen realized they would be unable to take the village before the armor arrived. They sent guides back down the road to intercept the tanks and lead them along a wooded trail that bypassed Beurig and led to the Beurig-Zerf highway. The only infantry available to assist the tanks were three officers and twenty-four men of the Ranger battalion who had become separated from their unit and had joined CCB's column in Taben.
By midafternoon the lead tank platoon of CCB had emerged from the woods onto the main highway and was headed east into the village of Irsch. Despite a roadblock in the center of the village, Irsch appeared deserted. Two of the platoon's five tanks had passed the roadblock when a Tiger tank, a ground-mount 88-mm. gun, and two Panzerfausts, all concealed behind nearby buildings, opened fire. In rapid succession they knocked out the last three U.S. tanks.
Hurrying forward, the little group of Rangers helped the tankers put the Germans to flight, but CCB delayed clearing the village until after nightfall, when a company of armored infantrymen, moving southeast from the Ockfen bridgehead and also bypassing Beurig, arrived to help. The infantrymen took 290 prisoners from the 416th Division.25
The next day, 26 February, while the 301st Infantry cleared Beurig with little difficulty now that the Germans' escape route had been cut, CCB headed east on the last leg of the drive to relieve the 5th Ranger Battalion. By midmorning, despite long-range fire from the same Tiger tank that had caused trouble in Irsch, contingents of the combat command reached the Rangers. Hard-pressed by shelling and counterattacks during the second day and third morning in their isolated position, the Rangers had not only managed to survive but also had bagged about a hundred Germans.26
While these events were taking place beyond the Saar, General Patton had been fighting a rear guard action against return of the 10th Armored Division to the SHAEF reserve. On 23 February all Patton could achieve was a 48-hour respite. When that period expired, he pleaded with the 12th Army Group commander, General Bradley, for help. Bradley himself took responsibility for letting Patton use the armor until nightfall of 27 February for the express purpose of taking Trier.27
By dawn of 27 February conditions were good for a quick strike north to Trier. During the preceding afternoon, CCB had advanced beyond the Rangers' roadblock, taking Zerf and gaining a hold on the highway leading north to Trier, eleven miles away. Light ponton bridges were operating both at Taben and Serrig and a heavy ponton bridge was at Saarburg. Only the disturbing fact that prisoner identifications on 26 February revealed the presence of a new German unit, the 2d Mountain Division, appeared
to stand in the way of a rapid drive to Trier.
Rushed forward by Army Group G to bolster the sagging LXXXII Corps, the 2d Mountain Division, like so many other German units, was considerably less impressive than its name might indicate. Its two infantry regiments, for example, had only recently been reconstituted from supply and other noncombatant units, and most of the men were Austrians lacking fervor for a losing cause. Utilizing the sharp defiles, woods, and dense concentrations of pillboxes below Trier, the mountain division nevertheless might have proved an effective delaying force had sizable numbers of men been able to get into position to block a northward drive before CCA started it. As it was, the division, arriving from the southeast, got there too late and could be used only to block to the east and southeast.28
Defense of Trier itself remained a responsibility of Army Group B's Seventh Army, already sorely pressed by the drive of the U.S. XII Corps on Bitburg. By this time most of the troops of the Seventh Army's 212th Volks Grenadier Division, originally charged with defense of the city, already had gone north to oppose the XII Corps and about all that was left to defend Trier were two local defense battalions, the city's police, and the crews of several stationary 88-mm. antiaircraft batteries.29
At dawn on 27 February, while the 94th Division and the Ranger battalion sought to expand the Saar bridgehead to east and southeast, General Morris turned CCA north up the main highway to Trier. As directed by General Patton the preceding day, the 76th Division of the XII Corps turned away from the successful drive on Bitburg to head toward Trier from the north.
For all the lack of solid defensive units, the Germans on 27 February managed to delay CCA's column at several points, usually with isolated tanks or assault guns lying in ambush in terrain that restricted CCA's tanks to one road. The most serious delay occurred in midafternoon south of the village of Pellingen where a minefield 300 yards deep disabled two tanks. Armored engineers had to spend painful hours under small arms fire clearing a path, and further advance for the day was stymied.
Since Trier still lay some six miles away and the appointed hour for release of the 10th Armored Division had come, General Patton again had to appeal to General Bradley for continued use of the armor until Trier fell. Having had no word from SHAEF on keeping the division, Bradley told him to keep going until higher authority ordered a halt. And, the 12th Army Group commander added, he would make it a point to stay away from the telephone.30
The morning of 1 March, after CCA took Pellingen, General Morris sent the main body of the combat command northwest to the juncture of the Saar and the Moselle to prevent any Germans remaining in West Wall pillboxes along the Saar from falling back on Trier. A task force continued up the main road toward the city while CCB passed through Pellingen and swung to the northeast to come upon the objective
from the east. In late afternoon, as both CCA's task force and CCB continued to run into trouble on the fringes of the city from pillboxes and 88-mm. antiaircraft pieces, Colonel Roberts, CCB's commander, ordered the commander of the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion, Lt. Col. Jack J. Richardson, to enter Trier along a secondary road between the other two attacking forces. Richardson was to head straight for the city's two Moselle bridges.31
The night was clear, the moon full, and visibility excellent as Task Force Richardson in early evening started toward Trier. Entering the city before midnight, the task force encountered a German company with four antitank guns, but the surprised Germans surrendered without firing. One of the prisoners revealed that he had been detailed as a runner to notify a demolition team at one of the bridges when the Americans arrived.
Splitting his force, Richardson sent half toward each of the bridges. The northern team found its bridge blown, but the team moving to the ancient Kaiserbruecke, which had stood since the Roman occupation of Trier in the earliest days of the Christian era, reported its bridge intact. Rushing to the bridge himself in a tank, Colonel Richardson found his men under small arms fire from the far bank. Directing .50-caliber machine gun fire from his tank onto the far end of the bridge, Richardson ordered a platoon of infantry and a platoon of tanks to dash across. As the infantrymen complied, a German major and five men ran toward the bridge from the far side with detonating caps and an exploder.
They were too late.
It mattered not whether the delay in blowing the bridge was attributable to concern for the historic monument or to the fact that the German officer was drunk. What mattered was that the 10th Armored Division had a bridge across the Moselle.
By morning contingents of Combat Commands A and B had swept into all parts of the city, and the prisoner bag increased as sleepy-eyed Germans awoke to find American tanks all about them. Task Force Richardson alone took 800 prisoners. A day later, early on 3 March, troops of the 76th Division arrived to establish contact with the armor on the north bank of the Moselle.
The Orscholz Switch, the Saar-Moselle triangle, Trier, and the heavily fortified section of the West Wall around Trier--all were taken. With the success of the operation, the Third Army had torn a gaping hole in the West Wall from Pruem to a point below Saarburg.
Studying the operations map, General Patton could see two new inviting prospects before him. Either he could turn to the southeast and envelop the Saar industrial area, or he could head through the Eifel and up the valley of the Moselle to the Rhine at Koblenz.
In either case, the Germans appeared powerless to stop him.
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (6) * Next Chapter (8)
1. Cole, The Lorraine Campaign, chs. XI, XIII.
2. In addition to official records of the 94th Division and a series of combat interviews, see an excellent unit history, Laurence G. Byrnes, ed., History of the 94th Infantry Division in World War II (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1948). See also XX Corps Association, The XX Corps: Its History and Service in World War II (Japan, n.d.) (Hereafter cited as XX Corps History), and detailed comments by General Malony on the draft manuscript for this volume.
3. MS # B-573, Battles of the 416th Infantry Division Between the Moselle and the Saar From 5 October 1944 to 17 February 1945 (Oberleutnant Karl Redmer, after consultation with various officers of the 416th Div, LXXXII Corps and adjacent units); MS # B-090, Rhineland Campaign (Generalleutnant Kurt Pflieger, CG 416th Div).
4. Ibid., Byrnes, History of the 94th Infantry Division in World War II, pp. 95-98.
5. MSS # B-417, The 11th Panzer Division in the Rhineland, 20 December 1944-10 February 1945 (Generalleutnant Wend von Wietersheim, CG 11th Panzer Division); # B-066, Engagements Fought by LXXXII Army Corps During the Period 2 December 1944 to 27 March 1945 (Oberst Ludwig Graf von Ingelheim, CofS LXXXII Corps); # B-573 (Redmer). See also Magna Bauer, Army Group G, January 1945, MS prepared in OCMH to complement this volume.
6. Unless otherwise noted, sources for 11th Panzer Division actions are as cited in the footnote above. Note that some of the German officers, having worked without benefit of contemporary records, sometimes erred on dates. Byrnes in his 94th Division history provides a detailed lower-level German account, apparently from prisoner interrogations.
7. For a description of German difficulties, see MSS # B-417 (Wietersheim) and # B-066 (Ingelheim).
8. 94th Div G-3 Jnl, 18 Jan 45.
9. 301st Inf and 94th Div AAR's, Jan 45; 94th Div G-3 Jnl, 21-22 Jan 45; Byrnes, History of the 94th Infantry Division, p. 138; Combat interview with Hagerty. Direct quotation is from Hagerty.
10. On the same day, T. Sgt. Nicholas Oresko led his platoon of the 302d Infantry in an attack to clear German-held pillboxes near Tettingen. Sergeant Oresko singlehandedly knocked out a machine gun that was pinning down his men with fire from a bunker. Wounded in the hip, he refused evacuation and again advanced alone to knock out another machine gun firing from a field fortification. Still Oresko refused evacuation until his platoon's mission had been accomplished. He subsequently received the Medal of Honor.
11. In addition to official 8th Armored Div records, see also 94th Div G-3 Jnl for the period; Capt. Charles R. Leach, In Tornado's Wake--A History of the 8th Armored Division (8th Armored Division Association, 1956); Gay Diary, entry of 17 Jan 45.
12. 94th Div G-3 Jnl, 23-26 Jan 45.
13. 94th Div G-3 Jnl, 25 Jan 45.
14. 94th Div G-3 Jnl, 27 Jan 45.
15. MSS # B-417 (Wietersheim) and # B-066 (Ingelheim).
16. Byrnes, History of the 94th Infantry Division, p. 239.
17. 94th Div FO 11, 16 Feb 45.
18. Combat Interview with XX Corps G-3, 5 Mar 45; Gay Diary, entry of 18 Feb 45.
19. Patton, War As I Knew It, p. 244; Byrnes, History of the 94th Infantry Division, p. 254; Gay Diary, entry of 19 Feb 45. Intentions to go beyond the triangle are clear from XX Corps FO 16, 19 Feb 45.
20. An excellent account of the 10th Armored Division's action is to be found in Maj. J. Cantey, et al., The 10th U.S. Armored Division in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, a research report prepared at The Armored School, May, 1949.
21. XX Corps FO 17, 21 Feb 45.
22. Gay Diary, entry of 22 Feb 45.
23. MS # B-066 (Ingelheim).
24. 5th Ranger Bn AAR, Feb 45.
25. Cantey, The 10th U.S. Armored Division in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, pp. 90-91.
26. Combat Interview with Lt. Col. J. J. Richardson, CCB, 10th Armored Division,
27. Patton, War As I Knew It, pp. 246-47; Gay Diary, entries of 24 and 25 Feb 45.
28. MS # B-066 (Ingelheim). See also MS # B-238, Report, 10 February-24 March 1945 (Generalmajor Wolf Hauser, CofS First Army.
29. MS # B-123 (Gersdorff).
30. Patton, War As I Knew It, p. 249.
31. The following account is based primarily on combat interviews with Richardson and Maj. C. R. King (10th Armored Division historian).