Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – Siegfried Line to Aachen

Many historical accounts or discussions about the Second World War in Europe skim over the events of the fall of 1944. They focus on the D-Day Landings and the battle in Normandy. Next comes the liberation of Paris and the race across France to the German border. From there they jump to the Battle of the Bulge and cover the terrible winter of 1944-45. Yet from the first of October through mid-December, 1944, intense battles raged all along the German border.

Until my husband got me interested in researching the 30th Infantry Division, I knew little about the fight to breach the Siegfried Line. I had heard of Aachen but didn’t really understand what happened there or its significance. So in this post, I will continue my discussion of the 30th Division’s combat experiences beginning where I left them along the infamous Siegfried Line not far from the historic city of Aachen.

30th Infantry Division Patch
30th Infantry Division Patch

At the beginning of October, 1944, the 30th Infantry Division faced the German border from southernmost Holland only a few miles from Belgium. Before them lay a section of what the Germans called the West Wall, a series of pill boxes, trenches, tank traps and dragon’s teeth built in the 1930’s to defend Germany from the French. The West Wall, also known as the Siegfried Line, was intended to provide a defensive position from which the Germans would attack, rather than fortifications to defend like the French Maginot Line.

After the German invasion of France, Belgium and Holland, the Third Reich no longer needed the West Wall defenses, so they stood unused and neglected. But when the Germans rapidly withdrew to their borders in the summer of 1944, the Wehrmacht again occupied the West Wall fortifications. They quickly repaired and reinforced the last line of defense of their homeland. In the area around Aachen the West Wall extended from the north around both the eastern and western sides of the ancient city.

Aachen held great significance as a symbol of German supremacy. The city had been Charlemagne’s capital during the time of the Holy Roman Empire or the “First Reich.” Determined to hold the city, Hitler and his henchmen moved more troops into the area for its defense. On the other side, the Allies were just as determined to make Aachen the first German city captured.

In the last half of September the 1st Infantry Division and the 3rd Armored Division crossed into Germany from Belgium south of Aachen and attacked through a gap in the West Wall fortifications. By the end of September they reached the southern edge of the city, but determined German resistance brought them to a stand-still. To relieve the pressure on the forces of VII Corps the XIX Corps attacked from the north through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line or West Wall. The 30th Infantry Division led the way followed by the 2nd Armored Division while the 29th Infantry Division guarded their flanks.

On October 2, 1944, the 117th and 119th Regiments of the 30th launched the attack. The 117th on the left attacked through Marienberg while the 119th on the right went through Rimburg. The Americans crossed the Wurm River under heavy German fire. After crossing the narrow, steep-banked stream, they climbed up to the railroad track just beyond. Ahead lay the numerous pill boxes of the Siegfried Line. One by one the 30th captured or destroyed the German fortifications which were barely touched by the pre-attack bombing. Old Hickory sharpshooters took out numerous German machine gunners by firing through the narrow pillbox ports. On October 3rd the 117th took Palenberg and controlled much of Ubach. By October 7th the 117th occupied much of the city of Alsdorf opening the way to Aachen.

The 2nd Armored Division followed the 30th’s initial attack and swept north and east to Frelenberg and Beggendorf expanding the bridgehead into Germany. With their objectives met the 30th and 2nd Armored hoped for a break to rest and regroup. It was not to be. XIX Corps and VII Corps wanted to press on and link up thus surrounding Aachen and forcing its surrender. So Old Hickory pressed on southward to Wurselen where the intense German resistance halted their progress. Both sides utilized everything they had from artillery barrages to bombing to tanks and anti-tanks to house-to-house fighting.

Meanwhile the 1st Division fought off repeated counter attacks to hold on to the ground already taken. On Oct. 8th the First Division began an offensive to take the high ground southwest of Aachen including a high point dubbed “Crucifix Hill,” where they were to link up with the 30th Division.

To break up the 30th’s stalemate, on Oct. 16th the 117th and the 120th Regiments undertook a diversionary attack east of the main force which successfully drew the German artillery fire away from the 119th and 116th Regiments. That afternoon Company E 117th Regiment attacked through a wooded area held by the Germans toward a railroad. The intent was to convince the enemy that it was the main attack. Despite heavy casualties the 117th repeatedly attacked the German forces successfully diverting them away from the 119th pushing south toward the 1st Division positions.

Elements of the 30th from XIX Corp and the 1st from VII Corp finally linked up on October 16th. Street fighting continued in Aachen for another week. Finally, on October 21st, the last garrison in Aachen surrendered.

From the kickoff on October 2 to the final surrender of Aachen the 30th Infantry Division suffered approximately 3,000 casualties. Few of the old National guardsmen remained. Not many who landed with the Division on Omaha Beach were still with the division. Some who had been wounded along the way and sent to hospitals to recover would rejoin the 30th in later battles. Despite the turnover in personnel the 30th Infantry Division proved to be a formidable force in Europe. For their “Diversionary attack in the Battle of Aachen Gap” Company E, 117th Infantry Regiment received a Presidential Citation.

The first breach of the Siegfried Line and the battle to capture the first German city, Aachen, in October gave the Allies hope that the war could be won by Christmas. Little did they know what Hitler had planned.

Read more about the battle for Aachen on the following sites:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Aachen

http://www.history.army.mil/books/wwii/Siegfried/Siegfried%20Line/siegfried-ch13.htm

http://www.oldhickory30th.com/Aachen%20Gap%20Closing.htm

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – From Mortain to the Siegfried Line

This is the second post in a series following the 117th Regiment (originally the Tennessee National Guard) of the 30th Infantry Division through their World War II combat experiences. My primary reference has been an excellent and detailed account of the 30th entitled “Workhorse of the Western Front – The Story of the 30th Infantry Division in World War II” by Robert L. Hewitt. I have also gleaned valuable information from the Unit History of Company B, 117th Regiment and the 30th Division Old Hickory websites. As I continue to research the 30th, I find their story more and more fascinating. I hope you do, too.aubel-30th-inf-div-0003

The fighting around Mortain ended on August 13, 1944. With no time to rest the 117th Regiment and the entire 30th Infantry Division moved northeast encountering some enemy opposition but nothing substantial. After crossing the Seine near Mantes-Gassicourt, some 25 miles west of Paris, the 117th relieved the 79th Division. It took them two days to clear the German defenders from the high ridges on the north bank. By August 30 enemy opposition along that section of the river collapsed.

Orders came for the 30th to proceed to the French-Belgium border as part of a First Army task force commanded by Brigadier General William K. Harrison Jr. Without enough trucks to transport the entire division, the 117th remained behind in reserve while the 119th and 120th along with various support units – 125th Calvary Squadron, 30th Reconnaissance Troop, 743rd Tank Battalion, 118th Field Artillery Battalion, Company “A” 105th Engineer Battalion, and Company “A” 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion –  headed for Tournai, Belgium.  After beating back the German rear guard, who attempted to delay the Americans while the bulk of their army retreated, the 30th Infantry Division became the first American division to enter Belgium on September 2, 1944.30th Inf Div artillery

The 117th Regiment followed on September 4, camping near the famous Waterloo battlefield. Assuming the Germans would take a stand at the Meuse River, command ordered “Old Hickory” to proceed across Belgium toward the Meuse and the southern border of Holland. Lack of gasoline forced the soldiers to go on foot, slogging through the rain and mud for the over one hundred mile trek. What would have taken one day by truck became an exhausting three-day march.

Anti Tank gun going to MaastrichtOn the west bank of the parallel waterways of the Meuse/Maas River and the Albert Canal, the 30th poised west and south of Maastricht, Holland, readying their attack on the most heavily fortified area along the border between Belgium and Holland. Organizing the scattered units of their retreating forces, the Germans scrambled to man the natural and man-made defenses in an effort to slow the Allies advance.Crossing Meuse near Vise

Attacking on September 10, “Old Hickory’s” regimental columns moved forward with the 117th to follow the 119th. Despite the enemy blown bridges at Vise, Belgium, south of Maastricht,  the 119th managed to cross the dual waterways. At the same time the 120th took the locks on Maastricht Island, further north, and then proceeded to capture the famous Fort Eben Emael finding the Germans had deserted it. By the morning of the 12th the 117th streamed across the river at Vise. Company A of the 117th pushed northward and became the first Allied unit to cross the Belgium-Holland border and enter Holland.30th Crosses Meuse

Lieutenant Elwood G. Daddow, Company B, 117th Regiment, defied the danger of a German counter-attack to retrieve a dispatch case from a damaged German command car. The case contained papers and maps indicating the German plans for withdrawal and deployment of their forces along the Siegfried line as well as other pertinent data. With the extensive enemy reorganization due to their rapid retreat to the German border, this intelligence proved invaluable.

The battle for Maastricht and the surrounding area continued through September 14th with ongoing counter-attacks by the Germans. Pressing eastward “Old Hickory” pushed on toward the Siegfried Line also known by the Germans as the West Wall. Significant enemy artillery fire greeted the Americans for the first time since Normandy. On September 18 the 117th took up positions facing the Siegfried Line near Scherpenseel.Monument to 30th at Maas River

In the weeks since leaving Mortain, the fighting and the casualties had been light compared to Normandy. The demonstration of welcome in the towns liberated along the way was different as the 30th moved from France and its wild hugs and kisses to Belgium with its enthusiastic greetings to Holland with its smiles and waves. All were equally glad to be freed from the German occupation but the Americans learned quickly that the cultural differences between the countries meant there were differences in how they showed their gratitude.

In mid-September, with supplies still being brought ashore on the landing beaches of Normandy and supply lines stretched for hundreds of miles across France and Belgium, the shortage in all essentials from fuel to ammunition to food forced the Allies to halt their advance. An attack on the German homeland called for not only sufficient men and equipment but also the essential supplies to sustain the push into Germany. So the 30th settled in waiting for the Red Ball Express to deliver the much-needed materiel. They utilized the time in planning and training for the coming battle, along with a little rest and relaxation for the men, including hot showers, hot food and movies.

Although the 30th had trained in the U.S. for three and a half years before embarking for England and had trained for months in England before landing in France, the tremendous casualty rates left few men who had specialized training in weapons like the flame-throwers, bazookas, or demolition charges that would be needed in assaulting the Siegfried Line pill boxes. Command decided that everyone should be trained in all weapons and instituted an intense training program. This training allowed the replacements and the recently promoted non-com’s and officers to forge themselves into effective fighting units.

To prepare for the assault on the Siegfried Line specific information on the terrain ahead was compiled utilizing aerial photographs and reconnaissance patrols into dangerous enemy territory. With this information an elaborate sand table model was constructed in the command post. The sand table gave the men a visual representation of what lay ahead and what their specific objectives were. Men were rotated off the line to study the terrain depicted on the sand table. This detailed preparation would prove invaluable in the assault into Germany.

The 117th would breach the Siegfried Line and go on to help take Aachen, but more about that in the next post.

 

 

Posted in 30th Infantry Division, History, Research, WWII

117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division – Tennessee National Guard

The 30th Infantry Division’s record in World War II garnered them the title of “Workhorse of the Western Front” by the Allies and “Roosevelt’s SS” by the German high command. Since the “SS” were Germany’s most elite troops, this reference by the enemy was high praise. The 30th’s nickname “Old Hickory,” in honor of Andrew Jackson, and their distinctive patch originated during their service in World War One where they fought with distinction. Since the division was originally created from National Guard units and since I am from Tennessee, I’ll focus my comments on the 117th Regiment made up of the Tennessee National Guard.

30th Infantry Division Patch
30th Infantry Division Patch

 

The unit history of Company B of the 117th Regiment, based in Athens, Tennessee, provides an interesting insight into the men who made up the Tennesseans in the 117th Regiment of “Old Hickory.” These were men who grew up together, some were related and many had fathers or uncles who had served in the 30th Division during WWI. In 1938 Company B had an authorized strength of three officers and sixty-one enlisted men. Federalization came in September 1940 and the strength increased to five officers and one hundred men.  There were eight groups of brothers on Company B’s roster at that time.

Originally authorized for one year under Federal control, world unrest led to an extension. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the National Guard remained part of the U.S. Army for “the duration.” Under federalization enlistees, draftees and officers transferred from other divisions diversified “Old Hickory” with men from all over the country.

In September, 1940, the 30th Infantry began three and a half years of training, preparing for the fight everyone knew would eventually come. During this time many of the 30th’s officers and non-coms were transferred to other divisions as cadre (experienced soldiers responsible for turning new recruits into battle-ready soldiers). All of Company B’s original five officers were sent to officers training and reassigned to other divisions. In addition twenty-two of the company’s enlisted men were trained as officers and reassigned. These reassignments spread the influence of this small company of Tennessee National Guardsmen throughout the Army.

117th Regiment in NormandyThe 117th Regiment arrived in England in February, 1944, along with the rest of the 30th Infantry Division and its support units. They landed in France on Omaha Beach in mid-June. Although they came under enemy artillery fire in their assembly area, Company B’s first real combat came in early July, 1944, with the crossing of the Vire River. They fought through the hedgerows of Normandy learning the essentials of live combat that could not be taught in training. Due to casualties four different officers commanded Company B 117th Regiment  in the nine day period July 7-16. On July 20th St. Lo was taken and the Allies took this opportunity to “break out” of the small area they held along the Normandy Coast.

In the Normandy hedgerows
In the Normandy hedgerows

On July 24, 1944, three divisions, the 30th, 4th and 9th, comprised “Operation Cobra.” The 30th lined up its regiments for the attack – the 119th and 120th Regiments and two battalions of the 117th, with the remainder of the 117th held in reserve. The massive bombing by the Army Air Force preceding the infantry’s attack went badly. Bombs fell short and landed on the 30th, causing 152 casualties. Command stopped the main body of bombers and delayed the attack for a day. On the next day the Army Air Force made the same disastrous mistake, bombing short and causing 662 more casualties for the 30th. That day the operation proceeded with the remnants of the 30th plus reserves attacking in their sector as planned. Despite heavy casualties from “friendly fire,” the remaining men of “Old Hickory” pulled together and did their job. Although the Germans survived the bombing with little damage, the American attack was successful. By the end of July the Allied armies had “broken out” of their limited foothold on French soil and had opened a narrow corridor along Normandy’s western coast allowing Patton’s Third Army tanks to pour into the interior.

In the three weeks from the crossing of the Vire to the capture of Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th Infantry Division suffered the most casualties of their entire combat experience in WWII. Other more famous battles lay ahead for the division but none would be as deadly. After the fight for Tessy-sur-Vire, the 30th rested for a few days. Replacements arrived but not near enough to make up for the men who had been lost.

On August 6th, orders came for “Old Hickory” to take over 1st Division positions in and around Mortain so the 1st could pursue the Germans further south. The American lines faced the German-held territory to the east with the 30th’s position around Mortain  on the southern end. Beyond Mortain small, mobile Americans units chased the Germans further inland.

A short distance to the west of the 30th’s position was Avranches and the narrow corridor supplying the Third Army and elements of the First Army pushing further into France. Unknown to the Allies, the Germans were massing forces for a counter-attack. They saw their chance to cut off Patton’s army by attacking west to the coast at Avranches, cutting the American supply lines, and thus bottling up Patton in Brittany and restricting the rest of the Allies to Normandy.  The German plan could have worked – if the 30th Infantry Division hadn’t stood in their way, blocking key roads and holding the only high point in the area.

Location of Road Block Near Mortain - Current
Location of Road Block Near Mortain – Current
Road block Near Mortain - 1944
Road block Near Mortain – 1944

The 117th Regiment took up positions around St. Barthelemy just north of Mortain. They set up road blocks using anti-tank guns, established their headquarters, and occupied positions vacated by the 1st Division. No tanks were available. German aircraft attacked before the 117th could settle in, followed by heavy artillery bombardment. Early on August 7 the tanks of the 1st SS Adolf Hitler Division encountered the road blocks and knocked out the anti-tank guns, but not before some of their tanks and other mobile equipment were destroyed. The 1st Battalion of the 117th took the brunt of the attack. Although the Americans scattered and sought shelter, they did not withdraw. Without tank support, the infantry men used bazookas, machine guns, mortars and rifles to fight off the German onslaught and blocked one of the main routes to the coast. With limited communication with each other or their headquarters, small units fought ferociously. A squadron of British Typhoons provided the only effective air support by flying low and destroying German tanks, troops and vehicles. Read a fascinating account from the RAF at http://www.oldhickory30th.com/RAFatMortain.htm.

Hill 314
Hill 314

Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion of the 120th Regiment occupied Hill 314 (named for its height) which overlooked the plain east and south of Mortain. Surrounded by the Germans, artillery Forward Observers called in fire almost continuously and men fought hand-to-hand as the Germans repeatedly attempted to take the hill. Isolated and low on supplies, the Americans held out on the hill for six days without reinforcement or resupply.

Photo NARA Mortain 12 Mark V & TDPhoto NARA Mortain 2 Mark V at St. BThe 117th stopped the German advance in the area around St. Barthelemy, an action for which they received a Presidential Citation. The 119th defended the road  through Juvigny and the ridge road through Le Mesnil-Adiele which represented the deepest German penetration toward the sea, while the 120th clung to the high ground on Hill 314.

By August 12th the German offensive lost steam and they pulled back. The 30th drew a deep breath of relief as reinforcements rolled in. But there would be no rest. With only a day to regroup and receive replacements, “Old Hickory” pushed eastward chasing the withdrawing Germans.

After the war the importance of the battle surrounding Mortain became clear. Surviving German commanders cited the loss at Mortain as critical to holding France and defeating the Allies. The German counter-offensive was their last chance to stop the invasion. Afterwards their focus became the defense of their homeland.

Monument Near Mortain
Monument Near Mortain

The exciting story of the 117th Regiment 30th Infantry Division continued on until the final German surrender. In my next post I will continue to discuss the 30th and their exploits after Mortain.