Chapter XXXI
The Drive Beyond the Seine

The Framework of the Pursuit

The implications of the essentially simple decision on 19 August to cross the Seine were far reaching. Once across the Seine, the Allies would be heading toward the Rhine River and Germany. Where they were to make their main effort and how far they were to go occasioned much debate.

The basic directive of the Combined Chiefs of Staff governing Allied operations in western Europe pointed the Allies merely to "the heart of Germany." The Combined Chiefs had very likely chosen such a vague objective in the expectation that changing circumstances would offer the Supreme Commander a variety of goals. The Allied strategic planners perceived Berlin as the most significant political objective, but they were also conscious of its great distance from Europe's western shore. Closer and within striking distance from France was the Ruhr, the heart that pumped industrial lifeblood to the German military forces, the goal selected by SHAEF planners as the most practical for Post-OVERLORD operations. An Allied attack on the Ruhr would compel the Germans to commit a considerable number of forces in its defense, thus enabling the Allies to close with and destroy a sizable part of the hostile army.

There were four routes from northern France to the Ruhr: by way of the flat-lands of easily flooded Flanders; via Amiens, Maubeuge, and Liège along the northern edge of the Ardennes; through the hilly woodland of the Ardennes; and, less direct, south of the Ardennes through Metz, the Saar, and Frankfurt. Having eliminated Flanders and the Ardennes on the basis of terrain considerations, the planners recommended that the Allies advance north and south of the Ardennes with mutually supporting forces on a broad front oriented on Liège and on Metz. Initially, they had ruled out this dual concept because of the disadvantages of maintaining forces on two widely separated lines of communication, but they came to believe that success would force the Germans to withdraw in both areas, thus permitting adequate lateral communication.

Of the two recommended axes--northeast from the lower Seine through Liège, and east from the upper Seine through Metz--the planners indicated that the main effort should be made northeastward along the direct route to the Ruhr. Historically the most traveled invasion road between France and Germany, the route offered the most advantages: the best facilities for military traffic, a left flank protected by the sea, the Channel ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam, excellent airfield sites, a combat zone within range of light and medium bombers


based in England, liberation of Belgium and part of the Netherlands, and seizure of the V-weapon launching sites.

The route of a complementary thrust through Metz was less advantageous. More difficult for tank warfare and having fewer airfield sites, it did not lead directly to the Ruhr but to the Saar Basin, which had a much smaller industrial capacity than the Ruhr. Nevertheless, twin drives on a broad front would stretch the enemy and allow the Allies to shift the main weight of their attack if necessary.1 Applied to the troop dispositions in August, the planners' recommendations meant that the 21 Army Group would strike northeast through Amiens, Maubeuge, and Liège in the main effort; the 12th Army Group would go east toward Metz in a subsidiary thrust.

When General Eisenhower decided on 19 August to cross the Seine, the Allied forces were destroying those enemy units still west of the river. The fact that the bulk of the enemy troops could escape only across the lower Seine emphasized the reasonableness of making the principal Allied effort in the coastal region. Pressing on the heels of the retreating Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies, the Allied forces would also unhinge the Fifteenth Army from its positions along the Channel coast. To support the drive, General Eisenhower proposed to reinforce the 21 Army Group with the First Allied Airborne Army (activated on 2 August under the command of Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton) and perhaps also with a "minimum" of U.S. ground units. At the same time that the 21 Army Group thrust northeastward, the 12th Army Group would move eastward into the interior of France in order, among other aims, to sever lines of communication between Army Group G in southern France and Army Group B.2

A day before, on 18 August, General Montgomery had concluded that the 21 and 12th Army Groups should keep together in a solid mass of some forty divisions, a force so strong that it need fear nothing. This steamroller, in Montgomery's estimation, should move northeast from the Seine to clear the Channel coast, the Pas-de-Calais, and west Flanders, and also to secure Antwerp. The initial objectives would be the destruction of German forces on the coast, the establishment of air bases in Belgium, the seizure of the V-weapon sites, and the opening of ports. Montgomery had not yet discussed his conception with Eisenhower, but he did so with Bradley, who, according to Montgomery, seemed impressed with the cogency of Montgomery's thought.3 Bradley and Patton about this time were talking informally of sending three U.S. corps toward the Rhine near Karlsruhe, Mannheim, and Wiesbaden.4


Montgomery had still not talked with Eisenhower when Bradley informed Montgomery two days later that the Supreme Commander inclined toward the idea of splitting the Allied force, sending half east toward Nancy. Since no firm decision had been reached, Montgomery resolved to try to change the Supreme Commander's mind. Meanwhile, he tentatively alerted the 21 Army Group for movement to the northeast, the 12th Army Group for two possible movements: either a dual thrust northeast toward Brussels and east to the Saar or a concentrated drive to the northeast on the 21 Army Group right flank.5

General Eisenhower, although still basically reflecting the planners' recommendations, made an alteration on 22 August. As before, the 21 Army Group (reinforced by the Allied airborne army and other units) was to go northeast from the Seine toward the Ruhr in the main effort north of the Ardennes, and the 12th Army Group was to go eastward in a subsidiary drive. But now, despite a general orientation eastward south of the Ardennes, the 12th Army Group, he thought, might shift its direction of advance from east to northeast toward the coastal region and Belgium and the Netherlands if it became necessary to bolster the main thrust.6

After General Montgomery saw the Supreme Commander on 23 August and presented his concept for a concentrated thrust north of the Ardennes, General Eisenhower modified his plans again.7 "For a very considerable time," he confided to General Marshall, "I was of the belief that we could carry out the operation to the northeast simultaneously with a thrust east, but later have concluded that due to the tremendous importance of the objectives in the northeast we must first concentrate on that movement."8

For his main effort, General Montgomery requested not only reinforcement by the airborne army but also by the First U.S. Army. Despite General Bradley's feeling that a corps would be sufficient and General Eisenhower's belief that Montgomery was being overly cautious, the Supreme Commander acceded. Instead of driving eastward to pass south of the Ardennes, General Hodges was to go northeast from the Seine--north of the Ardennes--in support of the 21 Army Group. General Eisenhower then allocated the bulk of the 12th Army Group stocks of gasoline to Hodges, thereby depriving Patton of adequate supplies for a long strike toward the Saar. Since the more important objectives lay to the northeast--the V-weapon sites, airfields, the Channel ports, and the Ruhr--the subsidiary effort was curtailed. Yet since Patton had about a week's supply of fuel on hand, he would be able to initiate an advance beyond the Seine. "I cannot tell you," Eisenhower wrote Marshall, "how anxious I am to get the forces accumulated for starting the thrust east from Paris. I have no slightest doubt that we can quickly get to the former French-German


boundary but there is no point in getting there until we are in a position to do something about it."9

Thus three armies were to drive northeast from the lower Seine--the First Canadian, the Second British, and the First U.S.--in the Allied main effort north of the Ardennes and directly toward the Ruhr. The Third U.S. Army, alone, was to make the subsidiary thrust east from the upper Seine and pass south of the Ardennes. Although the First U.S. Army was to perform a supporting role, it had the most direct and best route to the Ruhr--the Maubeuge-Liège axis. The Second British Army, designated to make the main effort of the principal thrust, and the First Canadian Army on its left, were to move through the water-crossed flatlands of Flanders, passing over the old battlefields of World War I.

Specifically, according to Montgomery's instructions, Crerar's Canadian Army was to clear the Channel coast, including the Pas-de-Calais; Dempsey's British army was to drive into northwest Belgium, west of a boundary from Mantes-Gassicourt generally through Beauvais, Amiens, Lille, and Ghent to the southern bank of the Schelde estuary; Hodges' First Army was to move generally northeast along the Paris-Brussels axis to the Maastricht, Liège, Charleroi, and Namur areas east and south of Brussels. Simultaneously, Bradley would send Patton toward the Rhine River between Koblenz and Mannheim.10

Montgomery had drawn the boundary between the army groups along a line from Mantes-Gassicourt to a point just east of Antwerp.11 The 21 Army Group thus had a zone that ended at the Schelde--the Canadian and British armies at the conclusion of their advance would be facing the estuary. Looking all the way to the Rhine, Bradley suggested that Montgomery curve the boundary northeastward at Tournai to allow the British army to wheel through Antwerp toward the Rhine and the Ruhr, and thereby cover the First Army left flank.12

Though very much aware of the Ruhr as the goal, Montgomery had his eyes fixed on the immediate objectives assigned by Eisenhower--capture of the Channel ports, destruction of the Fifteenth Army, and seizure of the V-weapon sites. He foresaw that the Canadians would have to drop elements off to deal with the fortified port cities as they moved northward along the coast. He was also uncomfortably aware that British logistical deficiencies dictated a reduction in combat forces for the initial drive east of the Seine. With limited forces, Montgomery had limited his sights. His primary concern was to destroy the Fifteenth Army, the last uncommitted German force in France and Belgium, by pinning that army against the Schelde estuary. With this force eliminated, the V-bomb launching sites overrun, and airfields secured, the Allies, it appeared, would face virtually no opposition, and after taking Antwerp could


go where they pleased.13 Since changing the boundary at Tournai would have no effect on these initial goals, and since the change would facilitate an airborne operation near Tournai that was being planned for early September, Montgomery readily acquiesced in Bradley's suggestion.14

The objectives disclosed no basic difference between the two men insofar as they judged the future course of the campaign. Both were optimistic, and they accepted the prophesies that were common that the end of the war was "within sight, almost within reach." There was "no clue yet as to the enemy's final intentions," but it seemed that "events may move too fast for him."15 The Germans were thought to have lost the equivalent of thirty divisions since D Day, and the Allies judged that only four or five divisions of the once-powerful Fifteenth Army still remained uncommitted east of the Seine. The forces that had fought in Normandy and that were rapidly retreating east of the river seemed to comprise two weak groups north and south of Paris. "The enemy forces are very stretched and disorganized," Montgomery observed; "they are in no fit condition to stand and fight us."

The time had come to "cripple his power to continue in the war."16

The German situation was every bit as bad as the Allies thought. Hitler and Jodl had been concerned with rearward lines of defense since the end of July, and at the beginning of August the military governor of France, Kitzinger, had been charged with responsibility, under OKW, for erecting field fortifications along the Somme, Marne, and Saône Rivers to the Jura Mountains of the Franco-Swiss border. With the Seine River forming a potential outpost line and the terrain around Amiens-Compiègne-Soissons sector forming the center of the Kitzinger line, the Germans hoped to stabilize a withdrawing front far west of Germany.17

Unequivocal German withdrawal in the west had begun on 16 August in three separate movements. Army Group B comprised the main body, with fourteen battered infantry divisions, nine fresh but incompletely trained divisions along the Channel coast in reserve, the remnants of fourteen divisions released from the Normandy front for rehabilitation, and nine mangled armored divisions providing a sort of cavalry screen. Army Group G was withdrawing five divisions of the Nineteenth Army northward up the Rhône River valley in a rapid but orderly movement. Its LXIV Corps, with two divisions encumbered by noncombatants, was retiring from southwest France through a hostile country infested with FFI guerrilla


bands. All three groups headed for the Kitzinger line.18

Work on the line did not progress far. Kitzinger did not have enough engineer units to supervise the preparation of tank obstacles, mine fields, and the like. Organization Todt, which had been ordered to stop construction on the Atlantic Wall--except at the V-weapon sites--in order to work for Kitzinger, was slow in responding and short of materiel and equipment; even under optimum conditions it could not have furnished enough workers to build a defensive position of the proper length and depth in the time required. Impressed civilian labor did little good, for unlike the Germans in East Prussia, who willingly dug trenches to try to stop the Russians, the French in France were hardly enthusiastic about working at a task that would only postpone their own liberation.19

Warned on 22 August that the Kitzinger line seemed hardly begun, Jodl consulted with Hitler and on the following day placed Kitzinger under Army Group B control. Putting Model in charge of the construction had little effect--it was already too late. The Seine River line had already been breached at Mantes-Gassicourt, and heavy American pressure on the approaches to several crossing sites along the Seine indicated that the Seine River position concept might soon, perhaps in a matter of hours, be hopelessly compromised. This meant that time for building up the Somme-Marne defense line, roughly seventy miles from the Seine, was extremely short. Even though Model assured Jodl on 28 August that he was getting nearby French civilians to do nothing but dig, dig, dig, he did not believe it possible to stop the Allies short of the western approaches to the Rhine River. Only on German soil could the German Army count on civilians to help construct effective fortifications.20

Model needed troops, and he asked for fifteen additional divisions in the Troyes, Dijon, and Jura Mountains area; four army headquarters, twelve corps headquarters, thirty or thirty-five divisions for front-line duty, plus a panzer army, four panzer corps, and twelve panzer divisions as a mobile hard-hitting reserve for the Kitzinger line. With these, he thought he could meet with some degree of equality the fifty Allied divisions that he expected to be facing on 1 September.21

Though Hitler had been making arrangements to get new units to the west, he hardly could fulfill Model's request. In mid-July Hitler had ordered approximately one hundred fortress battalions, then being used in rear areas, to be transformed into replacement battalions for the front, and of these approximately eighty would eventually reach the west. In mid-August he had ordered twenty-five Volks Grenadier divisions organized in Germany as a general reserve, and four became available for the west almost immediately. The 3d and 15th Panzer Grenadier Divisions, experienced troops,


were traveling from Italy for commitment in France. Two "shadow divisions" (filler troops trained to restore veteran units reduced to cadre strength) and two panzer brigades (tank-infantry task forces designed to defend critical positions) were also slated for OB WEST. These forces would not become available until the end of August or early September, nor would they give Model his desired strength. Meanwhile, the front was disintegrating.22

Logistical matters seemed somewhat less discouraging. The difficulties of transporting supplies to the front in July and early August had diminished as distances shrank--the reverse of the Allied situation. Summertime had provided the Germans with insufficient hours of darkness for supply movements to the Normandy coast, and their railroad trains and motor convoys, forced to travel in daylight, had attracted Allied fighter-bombers. Wrecked and plundered trucks, wagons, and freight cars littering the countryside attested to the extent of losses. The Germans had attempted to ameliorate the situation by assigning mobile Flak units to guard railroads and highways. Barges on the Seine had supplemented overland traffic. As the front withdrew eastward, though the problems were by no means solved, the combat troops came closer to three supply complexes that had been established on 25 July just east of the Meuse River--one in Luxembourg near Arlon, another in the Nancy and Toul area, and the third around Belfort.23

The location of the supply bases appeared fortunate. With the Kitzinger line practically invalidated by the speed of the Allied advance and by its incomplete state of construction, the Germans looked toward the next natural rearward obstacle that might halt the Allied drive toward Germany. The Schelde estuary, the Albert Canal, and the Meuse River formed a continuous water line. Perhaps the armies could make a successful stand there.24

Since 21 August LVIII Panzer Corps had supervised the rehabilitation of the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies' fragmentary panzer divisions in "refreshing areas" immediately east of the Seine, but Model soon realized that "a smooth and efficient refreshing of the divisions was out of the question." He ordered the panzer divisions to move behind the Somme and the Marne. With the Seine River crossings intolerably congested by 25 August, he instructed the Seventh Army--commanded by Eberbach after Hausser was wounded in the Argentan-Falaise pocket--to reconstitute its divisions behind the Somme also, while the Fifth Panzer Army, commanded by Dietrich, was to cover the withdrawal. Whether the troops could get back to the Somme before the Allies arrived was a matter of grave conjecture. The First Army forces along the upper Seine were so few that whether or not they reached the Marne was really of little importance. By 29 August Model frankly admitted that the Allies had "attained absolute tactical superiority" in both mobility and weapons, and he judged them capable of sweeping through the still uncompleted Kitzinger line and


destroying the German military forces in the west.25

Patton's Advance to the Meuse

Holding Seine River bridgeheads south of Paris, General Patton faced a dilemma. Eastward lay Metz, an objective that had fascinated him for a long time.26 Yet an equally glowing opportunity existed to make a third envelopment according to the pattern established at Argentan and Elbeuf. If after moving south and east of Paris the Third Army wheeled north toward Beauvais, Patton would stick armored spearheads into the flank of those German forces that had escaped across the Seine River. To some commanders it seemed that the maneuver was the old Schlieffen plan in reverse, w ith the same weakness on the right. The maneuver would also place the Third Army athwart the routes of advance of the other armies and probably delay a drive toward the German border. Nevertheless, Patton prepared to execute both plans--a drive to Metz and an envelopment--until Bradley pointed him unequivocably eastward, toward the upper Rhine, two hundred and fifty miles away.27

A series of water barriers lies between the upper Seine and the Rhine. To the northeast is the Marne, a semicircular tiara ornamented by Château-Thierry, Epernay, Châlons-sur-Marne, Vitry-le-François, and St. Dizier. Beyond is the Vesle River and the cathedral city of Reims. Cutting across the army zone of advance next in succession come the Aisne, the Meuse (flowing through the familiar World War I towns of Verdun, St. Mihiel, and Commercy), and the Moselle (flowing through Metz and Nancy). Farther east, one hundred miles away, is the Rhine River itself, the objective of the Third Army pursuit.

Though the water obstacles offered excellent defensive opportunities, the Americans did not believe the Germans capable of organizing serious resistance.28 They were right. Although the First Army knew of the two possible routes the Third U.S. Army might take, so few German forces were on hand that little could be done to prevent Patton from moving freely. Losses in vehicles and signal equipment, which had been extremely heavy, intensified the problem of deploying inadequate numbers of troops to threatened sectors. Knobelsdorff tried to protect the First Army left flank along the Seine east of Montereau by committing the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division--which had been restored to nearly full strength by two newly arrived panzer grenadier regiments composed mostly of school personnel with no unit training--and remnants of the 9th Panzer Division--consisting of a battalion of armored infantry, four or five tanks and assault guns, and one battery of artillery. To oppose a Third Army drive toward Reims, Knobelsdorff counted on the LXXX Corps, which had organized absorption points along the


Demolished Bridge at Chalons-sur-Marne
Demolished Bridge at Châlons-sur-Marne

Marne from Melun via Château-Thierry to Châlons and, with organic remnants fleshed out by stragglers, had established a thin but coherent line from Soissons through Epernay to Châlons. Security troops, provisional units, and stationary antiaircraft detachments supplemented the combat forces in the First Army sector.29

Although it was true that the German opposition posed no great problem, the distance from the upper Seine to the Rhine, the frontage to be covered, and the wide-open right flank were serious matters. The strength of the Third Army south of Paris and the status of supply might not be equal to the task.

The Third Army south of Paris consisted of two corps, the XII and the XX, standing abreast, each with one armored and one infantry division--contrary to general belief, far from "top heavy" in armor. To flesh out the corps, Patton added one infantry division to each, the 90th going from Argentan to XX Corps, the 80th from Orléans to XII. The VIII Corps was not available for the eastward drive since it was engaged in Brittany, but the XV Corps, which was holding the Mantes-Gassicourt bridgehead in the First U.S. Army zone, was soon to revert to Patton's command. Patton hoped to match the XV, the XX, and the XII Corps with his three immediate


objectives, Reims, Châlons, and Vitry-le-François, but the XV Corps did not become available as soon as expected, and since only two corps were south of Paris, objectives had to be juggled.30 As it turned out, the XII and XX Corps were adequate.

The problem of supplies was more serious. No appreciable ration reserves had been accumulated, clothing and individual equipment needed replacement, shortages of medical and signal supplies were becoming critical, and gasoline stocks were dangerously low. With the exception of clothing and individual equipment--which had top priority for the rest of the month--stocks were replenished by emergency measures and by good fortune. On 25 August two hundred and seven air transports landed at Orléans with 507 tons of supplies, mostly rations, and on the following day 80 tons of medical supplies were airlifted in. Ten tons of medical equipment were captured at Orléans, fifteen tons at Dreux, and twenty at Fontainebleau. Three hundred miles of German telephone wire found in a cave near Chartres replaced to a certain extent the innumerable reels of wire unraveled across the countryside. Other signal supplies arrived from England with a shipment of four truck companies to the Third Army. When Third Army gasoline receipts on 23 August fell short of daily expenditures, the Communications Zone established a special trucking service from the beaches. This, however, could not remedy the situation at once, for the XII Corps, which estimated that it used between 200,000 and 300,000 gallons of gasoline to move fifty miles, found only 31,000 gallons on hand on 24 August and 75,000 gallons on the following day. Only the capture of thirty-seven carloads of German gasoline and oil at Sens restored stocks somewhat and made possible at least the commencement of operations east of the Seine bridgeheads.31

Before moving his forces beyond the Seine, Patton relinquished to the First U.S. Army the Melun bridgehead, which had been secured by the XX Corps. He also relieved XII Corps of the duty of guarding the Loire River west of Orléans by extending VIII Corps responsibility.32 With these details attended to, he ordered XX Corps to advance from Fontainebleau and Montereau to Nogent-sur-Seine, then to Reims; he instructed XII Corps to drive from Troyes to Châlons-sur-Marne. (Map XV)

In the XII Corps zone, CCA of the 4th Armored Division was capturing Troyes on 25 August. The German garrison of security troops and miscellaneous remnants resisted surprisingly well. Not until noon of the following day did the battle come to an end, with the Americans in possession not only of the town but of 500 prisoners and with Allied fighter-bombers harassing a small group of fleeing Germans.

While CCB swept the corps zone without encountering any resistance to speak of, and while the 35th Division protected the right flank from Orléans to Troyes, CCA on 28 August sped fifty miles from


Troyes to Vitry-le-François without difficulty and crossed the Marne. As the 80th Division attacked from Troyes toward Châlons on the west bank of the Marne, CCA moved down the east bank. By noon of 29 August the squeeze play had netted Châlons.

By then XII Corps was virtually out of gasoline. Fortunately, more than 100,000 gallons of German fuel were captured, mostly at Châlons. By careful restrictions of vehicular movement, the corps could continue toward Commercy and the Meuse River.33

CCA of the 4th Armored turned southeast from Châlons and entered St. Dizier, which had earlier been captured by the 2d Cavalry Group, and on the morning of 31 August, in a heavy rain, the combat command drove toward the Meuse. A light company in advance of the main body surprised enemy outposts at Commercy, neutralized artillery emplacements by shooting the gun crews before they could so much as remove their breechblock covers, seized the bridge across the Meuse intact, and took possession of high ground immediately to the east.

On the same day, while the 35th Division guarded the corps right flank, CCB advanced across the Marne near Joinville. A day later, on 1 September, CCB took Vaucouleurs and seized high ground east of the Meuse. The 80th Division moved through Bar-le-Duc, took over the bridgehead at Commercy, and established another Meuse bridgehead at St. Mihiel.34

Much the same thing was happening in the XX Corps sector. The corps lacked positive knowledge of the forces in opposition, but it was not long before the 7th Armored Division, attacking east from Melun on 25 August, encountered troops of the 48th and 338th Division, horse-drawn artillery of the 708th Division, and tank elements of the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier. The 5th Division attacked east from Montereau on 26 August and met somewhat less opposition as it seized Nogent-sur-Seine and Romilly.

To free the 7 th Armored Division for a quick thrust northeast to Reims, Walker instructed the 5th Division to clear Provins. Then, as the 5th Division followed on the right and the 90th followed on the left, the 7 th Armored spearheaded the attack toward Reims on 28 August with two combat commands abreast--a total of six columns driving ahead to fulfill General Silvester's hope that one or two at least would capture bridges over the Marne intact. Advancing against small pockets of resistance, in actuality the disintegrating panzer grenadiers, the armored division reached Epernay and came into contact with the LXXX Corps' Marne River defenders. Two platoons of American armored infantry got across a still-intact bridge near Dormans before the Germans demolished it. Though most of the bridges were already destroyed, engineers quickly threw treadways across the river during the night. From Epernay, CCB drove north toward the Aisne, bypassing Reims on the east. Meanwhile, CCA and CCR on the left jumped ahead to Château-Thierry, overran roadblocks on the outskirts


of the city, and seized several Marne River bridges. Continuing through Fismes to the Aisne on 29 August, CCA and CCR wheeled eastward and cut the roads north of Reims. The 5th Division then liberated Reims on 30 August without difficulty.

That afternoon XX Corps drove eastward in a column of divisions toward Verdun, seventy miles away. Difficult terrain such as the Argonne Forest, increasing but still scattered resistance, and the necessity of conserving gasoline slowed the advance. The Germans had installed mines to destroy the Meuse River bridge at Verdun, but the FFI prevented demolition. By noon on 31 August, 7th Armored Division tanks were in town and across the river, and on the first day of September, despite German air attacks that vainly tried to destroy the bridge, XX Corps was across the Meuse in strength.35

The Third Army's eastward advance during the last week in August had been a spectacularly fast movement against disorganized opposition--pursuit warfare at its best, a headlong, pell-mell rush that swept Allied troops irresistibly toward the German border. By its nature opportunistic and relatively uncontrolled, it was also exciting. Units sought the enemy for battles of maneuver and surprise, and reconnaissance detachments and advance points had occasional nasty engagements. It was a motorized advance, everybody riding on tanks, trucks, trailers, and jeeps. It was a frantic search for bridges or fords. The Americans had the exhilaration of striking toward distant objectives and maintaining an incredibly rapid movement to deny the enemy the ability to organize and defend natural terrain obstacles. It was an immense clearing operation that liberated thousands of square miles.

Pursuit warfare meant capture of exciting booty such as the thirty-four carloads of German freight that contained parachutes (the silk was excellent for scarves and as gifts), tinned food, margarine (rumored from Indianapolis), powdered milk, sardines (supposedly from California), liver paste (allegedly from New York), and plenty of wine and cognac (indubitably French). It was also a time of hysterical happiness for liberated Frenchmen.

It was a period of confusion, when a jeepload of soldiers who had missed a turn in the road might capture a village, when an antiaircraft battery or a few Quartermaster truck drivers might inadvertently take a hundred Germans prisoner, when a single officer might go way ahead of his unit only to find that another outfit had already seized his assigned objective.

It was also a time of anxiety for commanders, of worry that gasoline supplies might be inadequate to allow continuation of a virtually unimpeded advance, of reflection that the tyranny of logistics might be more baleful than the opposition of the enemy. It was not clear then whether the reason was a shortage of gasoline on the Continent or an inability to get it forward from the beaches. The ever present possibility of a lack of fuel supplies hung like Damocles' sword, threatening to cut the triumphant Third Army movement toward the Rhine. Yet Patton remained cheerful, the most optimistic man in the world, unwilling


to be concerned, at least outwardly. Patton was also, it seemed, the luckiest man in the world, for captured stocks of fuel had helped him get across the Meuse.36

In possession of Meuse River bridgeheads between Verdun and Commercy, Patton was in position to attack toward the Moselle between Metz and Nancy, and from there the Rhine River was barely a hundred miles away.37 This was his intention, but by then his supply lines were drawn to the breaking point. Soldiers in the forward echelons needed shoes, heavy underwear, and socks, and these items could not move fast enough to reach the advancing spearheads. The mechanical beasts of burden needed spare parts and maintenance. Still the most critical shortage was gasoline. The 12th Army Group on 30 August had notified the Third Army that no appreciable gasoline stocks would be forthcoming until at least 3 September, and, sure enough, the army received no gasoline on the last day of the month.38

By then the army was virtually bone dry. Individual tanks were dropping out of combat formations for lack of gasoline. The chance of a speedy resumption of the pursuit east of the Meuse, a hope that depended on motorized columns, appeared nil. To glum commanders whose units had swept across France only to immobility at the Meuse, the Biblical quotation, "But what shall it profit a man . . . ," seemed apt. "It seems strange to me," General Eddy confided to his diary, "that we should be sitting here. . . . I am convinced that if we could obtain the necessary fuel this war might be over in a matter of a few weeks." He forgot that the Third Army drive toward Metz was only the subsidiary Allied effort, and the disappointment of halting an exhilarating drive was doubly galling because he thought that the other Allied armies were still "forging ahead, evidently with everything that is needed."39

Although General Eddy's reflection mirrored a feeling prevalent throughout the Third Army at the beginning of September, the other armies were not getting everything they needed. Nor would a plentiful supply of gasoline for the Third Army have won the war.40 When gasoline became available in the first week of September and General Patton's troops attacked eastward toward the Moselle, they discovered that strong and organized German forces opposed them. Although it might have seemed to the Third Army that its brief halt had allowed enemy units to gather, the German defenders did not spring from Hitler's head full grown and fully armed as did Athena from Zeus'.

It was true that the advance east of the Seine had almost immediately eliminated the newly reconstituted 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division and had reduced the 48th and 338th Divisions to small kampfgruppen, but it was also true that the American drive that threatened Dijon, toward which the German troops in southern France were withdrawing, forced the German high command to allocate the most immediately available reinforcements to the First Army. By


29 August the large gap on the First Army left, which left open the road to the Saar by way of Vitry-le-François, Verdun, and Metz, caused OKW to assign to the First Army, in addition to the two panzer grenadier divisions coming from Italy, four Volks Grenadier divisions, two panzer brigades, and eventually several divisions that had fought in Normandy. With these forces, the First Army received the mission of defending the exposed German border between Luxembourg and Nancy and of preventing the potential encirclement of Army Group B by fighting at Moselle River.41

The Germans had shown no evidence of rout or mass collapse. On the contrary, German military government officers and OKH inspectors had manifested considerable individual initiative in scraping together provisional units and trying to slow the Americans by forcing spearheads to deploy off the roads or by destroying an occasional bridge, and by fighting wherever possible. Despite serious losses, the Germans had extricated fighting men of good quality. It was the security troops, the antiaircraft personnel, and the supply forces who filled the American prisoner of war cages, not the combat soldiers, and American intelligence officers recognized that the enemy was preparing a defensive line "known only to himself." Although the Germans were wholly on the defensive, they were trading earth for time in the hope that worsening weather conditions, bringing poor visibility and mud, would ground Allied airplanes and immobilize Allied tanks.42

If Patton's troops had not met stiffened resistance at the Moselle, they would have encountered it at the Rhine. In either case, the rugged warfare that awaited the Third Army was to bring disturbing memories of the hedgerows. The Lorraine campaign was to prove that the August pursuit was a finite experience. Adequate gasoline at the end of the month would probably not have sustained the dream of an unlimited pursuit terminating in quick victory.43

The Main Effort

The Allied pursuit launched across the lower Seine and from the Melun bridgehead exhibited the same characteristics displayed by the pursuit beyond the upper Seine. "The enemy has not the troops to hold any strong position," General Montgomery had advised.

The proper tactics now are for strong armored and mobile columns to bypass enemy centers of resistance and push boldly ahead, creating alarm and despondency in enemy rear areas. Enemy bypassed will be dealt with by infantry columns coming on later. I rely on commanders of every rank and grade to "drive" ahead with the utmost energy; any tendency to be "sticky" or cautious must be stamped on ruthlessly.44

More German forces than had opposed the Third Army were in the Allied path of advance nearer the coast, but


they were in bad straits. Road congestion added to the problems of German commanders who sought with little success to preserve a semblance of order in the flight to the Somme River. With artillery and antitank guns lost, staffs and technical services dispersed, command and communication virtually nonexistent, and rumors spreading among the troops that everyone was heading back to Germany, the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies found it impossible to conduct controlled operations. There had been no over-all planning early enough to make the withdrawal beyond the Seine an orderly procedure, and after a brief attempt by some units to make a stand, all fell back to the Somme.

The LXVII Corps, under the control of the Fifteenth Army and responsible for the coastal area between the Seine and the Somme, had received no orders to direct the river crossings of the troops streaming eastward, but did so anyway. Co-ordinating with the Fifth Panzer Army traffic control staff, the LXVII Corps tried to collect troops, allocate them to assembly areas, and secure supplies for them--a hopeless task that came to an end on 27 or 28 August when the Fifteenth Army ordered the corps to withdraw behind the Somme.45

The LVIII Panzer Corps had appointed about one hundred officers to block the roads and stop the beginnings of a panic-stricken retreat toward Reims and points east. Under the control of the First Army, the corps tried to form a defensive line between the Oise and the Seine, positions generally northeast of Paris, from Beaumont to Meaux--with panzer remnants; with the 348th Division, which was arriving in a dilatory fashion from northern France too late to strengthen the Paris defenses as intended; and with fragments of the 18th Luftwaffe Field Division and the 6th Parachute Division. When news came that the First Army was falling back from the upper Seine toward Reims, Army Group B assigned the LVIII Panzer Corps to the Fifth Panzer Army. Lacking communications with army, without even knowledge of where the army command post was located, the corps decided to withdraw toward Compiègne.46

The LXXXI Corps, directed to hold the area around Vernon, tried to cling to wooded terrain near Mantes with several straggler battalions and panzer troops formerly belonging to the II SS Panzer Corps. Allied attacks as well as the general climate of retreat soon dissipated combat strength, and, without units capable of battle and without supplies, the LXXXI Corps withdrew toward the Somme.47

As the German forces rushed rearward, a vast undefended gap opened between the weak forces of the First Army and the conglomerate masses of the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies seeking refuge in the Pas-de-Calais area, which was defended by the Fifteenth Army. Into the gap came the First U.S. Army.

General Hodges was to support the British by advancing in a northeasterly direction from the Mantes-Gassicourt-Melun line to Peronne-Laon, more than


eighty-five miles away. Then, after driving about fifty miles to Mons-Sedan, the army was to turn gradually to the east and advance a hundred and twenty-five miles through Liège-Arlon, the duchy of Luxembourg, and across the Rhine River between Cologne and Koblenz to the southern fringe of the Ruhr.48

The terrain, the best invasion route to Germany, posed no special problems. The army would generally follow the Oise River valley to Landrecies, the Sambre River valley from Maubeuge to Namur, the Meuse River valley to Liège. Only in the right side of the zone were there several obstacles--the Marne, the Aisne, and the Meuse Rivers crossed the routes of advance in succession, and later the Ardennes interposed its rugged terrain. But if the army could move quickly, and there seemed no reason why it should not, it would forestall effective opposition on these terrain features. In the left part of the army zone, where General Hodges was to make his main effort to support the British, no major waterways or terrain obstacles intervened. Enemy resistance was expected to be ineffective along the whole army front.

Hodges had four corps, only two of which were immediately available. Gerow's V Corps in the center was liberating Paris. Haislip's XV Corps headquarters, commanding the forces in the Mantes-Gassicourt bridgehead, was to rejoin the Third Army after being replaced by Corlett's XIX Corps headquarters. Collins' VII Corps was to take over the Melun bridgehead. With Corlett on the left and Collins on the right, Hodges would launch a twin pursuit to encircle Paris and drive to Peronne and Laon. Heavy artillery was to remain west of the Seine for the time being. Supplies for the pursuing troops seemed adequate.49

Collins' VII Corps attacked to the northeast from Melun on 26 August and quickly unhinged the LVIII Panzer Corps line near Meaux. Dispersing the defenders and passing within a mile of the First Army command post near Fontenay-Trésigny, American tankers sped through Château-Thierry and Soissons on 28 August, reaching Laon two days later. On the last day of the month armored troops were at Rethel and Montcornet, a hundred miles beyond the Seine. General Rose, who had developed the 3d Armored Division "into a marvelous thing, . . . built up morale, taught the division how to . . . fight," led the advance, with the 9th Division (commanded now by Maj. Gen. Louis A. Craig) and Huebner's 1st Division clearing the corps zone behind the armor.50

Until the XIX Corps headquarters took over the Mantes-Gassicourt bridgehead, XV Corps continued in command. Hobbs' 30th Division reinforced Wyche's 79th (which had held the bridgehead for a week with the help of extensive artillery support and a "big program of harassing and interdicting fires") on 27 August, and Brooks' 2d Armored Division


crossed the Seine on 28 August to protect the left flank of the bridgehead. The 79th and 30th began to expand their hold on the east bank by seizing and securing badly broken and heavily wooded ground. Thirty-five artillery battalions fired "a generous amount of ammunition" in support.51

At noon, 29 August, as Haislip's XV Corps headquarters started to move to an assembly area southeast of Paris and eventual Third Army assignment, Corlett's XIX Corps took command of the three divisions east of the Seine. Since the troops were emerging on terrain favorable for rapid advance and since the organized resistance of the LXXXI Corps had disintegrated, Corlett moved the 2d Armored Division into the lead, and the corps drove forward against virtually no opposition. Two days later the corps was fifty miles to the east, on a line between Beauvais and Compiègne.52

Gerow's V Corps joined the pursuit on 29 August in the army center when Cota's 28th Division, after parading in Paris, joined Barton's 4th. Two days later Oliver's 5th Armored Division passed through both infantry divisions to move into the lead. In five columns, with three combat commands abreast, the armor dashed to the Fôret de Compiègne, hampered only occasionally by hastily erected roadblocks. There, the troops met units under control of the LVIII Panzer Corps. Bogged down in poor terrain, hindered by some confusion of communications, the tankers let 4th Division infantry pass through to clear the forest and take the city of Compiègne, forty-five miles northeast of Paris. In the early morning hours of 1 September, contingents of the corps got across the Aisne River between Compiègne and Soissons.53

For the soldiers, the countryside had become a monotonous blur of changing scenery. Their eyes bloodshot and tear-filled from sun, wind, dust, and weariness, they followed a blinding road all day long and at night strained to keep the cat eyes of the vehicle ahead in sight.54 Little seemed spectacular except the lack of opposition and the growing feeling that they would soon reach Germany. "Unfortunately," it often seemed, "the Germans pulled out of the town before we arrived."55 Those infantrymen who clung to the tanks of the advance units were grateful that the "tank-riding detail" got them "first into the towns, with first shot at the cheers, the cognac, and the kisses."56

There were exhilarating moments such as the one in the little village of Braine (on the Vesle River ten miles east of Soissons). When the French stationmaster informed American tankers


passing through that a German train coming from Paris was due in fifteen minutes, no one was interested, no one except Sgt. Hollis Butler, who commanded a gun section of the 468th Antiaircraft Artillery Automatic Weapons Battalion (self-propelled). German planes had been virtually nonexistent east of the Seine, and his men had not fired for several days. Although a train was bound to be less exciting than a plane, Sergeant Butler pulled his carriage mounting a 37-mm. gun and dual .50-caliber machine guns out the column and covered the railroad so that his men could shoot a few rounds. When the train appeared, the crew quickly disabled the locomotive and raked the cars with machine gun fire. Turning themselves for the moment into infantrymen, the artillerymen advanced in squad formation with marching fire, captured thirty-six cars (among them machine shops for tank repair) and seventy prisoners. Local FFI members were on hand to take the prisoners, and the Americans got into their vehicles and rejoined the column. Because the train blocked the tracks, it was easy for men of the 54th Armored Field Artillery Battalion to capture a second train thirty minutes later.57

While the First Army was having such easy success, the 21 Army Group was also getting across the Seine and toward the Somme, some seventy miles distant. The First Canadian Army, instructed to drive up the Channel coast with the main weight on the right for pursuit purposes and at the same time to develop right hooks to secure the Channel ports, faced a more difficult problem in getting across the Seine. Not only was the river wider between Rouen and the sea, German troops had been deflected downstream by the American drive down the west bank and were fighting with desperation to maintain escape routes across the river. Canadian forces nevertheless secured five bridgeheads--two in the Elbeuf-Rouen area, three between Rouen and the coast--and on 30 August, against slight opposition, entered and liberated Rouen, the capital of Normandy and the second largest port in France.

The Second British Army, beset by logistical difficulties, retained one corps west of the Seine and used its transportation facilities to support the two corps making assault crossings near Vernon and Louviers. Armored forces departed the Vernon bridgehead on 29 August, but weather, scattered mine fields, and small German pockets of resistance kept the advance to a mere twenty miles. On the afternoon of the following day, as the weather improved and resistance diminished, British tankers drove forward with increasing speed. After continuing to advance through the night, they reached Amiens early on 31 August and, with FFI assistance, secured the city and took several bridges over the Somme intact. Eberbach, the Seventh Army commander who had just signed an order for the defense of the Somme River line, was captured.58

With the capture of Amiens, the last sector of the German Somme-Marne defense line fell into Allied hands, a line earlier penetrated by the Third Army


capture of Châlons and the First Army advance northeast of Paris. With the exception of the Albert Canal and Meuse River water line, which appeared undefended, virtually no obstacles seemed to lie between the armies making the main Allied effort and the western approaches to the Rhine.


Table of Contents
Previous Chapter (30) * Next Chapter (32)

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation