CHAPTER IV   FIRST BRIDGEHEAD                [1] prev contents next

 

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CHAPTER IV

FIRST BRIDGEHEAD


Attack!

The long-awaited order had come at last. Less than ninety days earlier its troops were training against a simulated foe in the peaceful Wisconsin hills; only two weeks ago the division was champing at the bit as VIII Corps reserve in the vicinity of Champlon, Belgium. Now the division was to undergo one of the most grueling tests modern warfare could provide.

Under the heading of XII Corps, the field order was one of those brief, concise, impersonal directions. It prescribed attachment of Combat Team 417 to the 5th Infantry Division for an attack at 0100, 7 February, north across the Sauer River, north bank of which washes German soil. The veteran 5th Division's immediate objective was the high ground in the vicinity of Ferschweiler and Ernzen. Combat Team 417 was to seize part of this initial objective and then revert back to 76th Division control.

Specifically, the Corps order gave as objectives the high ground in the vicinities of Welschbillig and Eisenach. Elements of the 76th were to support the crossing by fire, after which all units were to follow in the path of the 5th Division into the Sauer bridgehead. Additional missions necessitated protection of the Corps right flank and preparation for a continued attack north.

The enemy positions were in one of the most formidable defenses known to the military world, -- the Siegfried Line. The name is misleading. Actually it was not a line but a series of pillbox-studded positions arranged in depth. Where terrain favored the attacker the positions were most plentiful; where infantry and tanks normally would find tough going the defenses were correspondingly fewer. The positions were designed not so much to stop the attacker as to slow up and weaken him so that assault troops, lying in wait in large, protected bunkers, could counterattack at the ripest moment. All areas of approach to these positions were mined; roads interlocking the numerous defense areas were further strengthened by mines, road blocks and tank traps set up at all points of tactical importance.

"So help me," said one doughboy a few days after the initial assault, "the job at first seemed just too much for human beings to accomplish." The remark was not surprising. Pillboxes and bunkers -- some descending three stories below ground -- had been ingeniously camouflaged by netting, painting and natural vegetation to appear as haystacks, barns, integral parts of the hillside, and even summer homes. Designed specifically as defensive positions, with guns emplaced to cover lanes of approach, two basic types of structures had been built: one for ammunition, the other for troop shelter. Construction was of standard, reinforced concrete, with walls ranging in thickness from three to nine feet. In each troop structure were at least two rooms, the living quarters and gun room. Built-in electric light circuits, ventilators and stoves added considerable comfort to the protective features of the design. Many of the underground fortresses contained tiers of bunks, and in some cases even kitchens. The outer perimeters of the staggering total of pillboxes and bunkers were a collective series of foxholes, gun emplacements and carefully concealed communication trenches, while fronting these defensive devices were barbed wire entanglements and antipersonnel mines. Throughout this nightmarish objective the camouflage was masterful and detection practically impossible except under immediate surveillance.

Pillboxes were ingeniously camouflaged by netting, painting and vegetation . . . .

So much for the enemy fortifications. What about the enemy? Manning these Siegfried Line defenses opposite the 76th Division were the German 212th Volksgrenadier Division, the 23d Penal Battalion [23. Strafbataillon - U.Koch], and elements of the 44th Fortress Machine Gun Battalion [44. Festungs-Maschinengewehrbataillon - U.Koch]. Commanded by Lt Gen Sensfuss, the 212th had been reformed in October 1944 after undergoing a severe carving at the hands of the Russians, and was able, in December, to participate in the Ardennes counteroffensive to the point of establishing a bridgehead across the Sauer River. With the advent of the final, all-out push against the Reich, American Third Army troops successfully drove most of the division back across the Sauer, but several small combat groups still occupied some towns along the river's south bank. Of the 23d Penal Battalion, occupying Siegfried defenses since September 1944, this much must be said about these super-duper knights of the "master race": the battalion was composed exclusively of political, criminal, and army offenders who were redeeming themselves for their nazi heaven by military service.

The Siegfried Line, however, was only one of the obstacles facing ONAWAY troops. Midway between American and German-held positions stretched the narrow, ravine-like valley of the Sauer River, all of whose bridges in the 76th sector had been destroyed. Ordinarily a meandering, slumbersome stream, the Sauer River n February 1945 was a raging torrent fed by heavy rains and thawing snow. Swollen to a width of from 90 to 180 feet, its once graceful flow had developed a swirling current of twelve miles an hour. And smugly backing up this natural ally, from their positions of dominant terrain and heavy fortifications north of the torrential river, the Germans covered the area minutely by observation, fire and patrols.

Forward observation groups moved around with radios
on their backs . . . Command posts were informed
about every move the enemy made.

One of the kraut prisoners was a kid just turned seventeen, who had been, called to the Army, trained as a rifleman, and committed to action -- all in five weeks. He said the German soldiers were not informed of the war developments. The last newspaper he had seen had been six weeks old. He had received no mail from home since December . . . .

Preliminary preparations had been made to the split-second timing characteristic of a pending life and death struggle. The regimental field order, issued the day before by Combat Team Commander Col George E. Bruner, directed the 417th Infantry's 1st Battalion to lead the attack across the Sauer into the West Wall defenses. Once across, the battalion was to neutralize only those pillboxes in its zone of advance, and secure the high ground overlooking the crossing site. The 2d Battalion was to clear pillboxes to the right along the river and occupy the high ground to the east, while the 3d Battalion was to pass between the other battalions on regimental order and seize the final objective, the high ground west of Menningen. To cross the flooded river the lead battalion was to use assault boats manned by the 160th Engineer Combat Battalion. With the initial landing accomplished, the same engineer battalion was to construct a footbridge for the follow-up assaults of the two battalions. Zero hour for the surprise attack was to be 0100, 7 February. At 0130 artillery and mortars were to open up on predetermined targets.

 


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