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East of the Vire River - June 29, 1944
William J. Carney
Fire Control Officer, Division Artillery, 3AD
Published in 1986 as a section in Haynes Dugan's "First Combat" manuscript,
available at the University of Illinois 3AD Association Archives


The Division landed on Omaha Beach on June 23rd and 24th, 1944, two and one-half weeks after D-Day. We were transported from Southampton on LST's (Landing Ship Tank). These ships would partially ground themselves on the beach. The bow would open and vehicles could be driven off into shallow water. We then drove from the beach up roads leading to our assembly area two to three miles inland. The American beach head at that time was not very deep. The beach was still receiving sporadic artillery fire. We reorganized in the assembly areas, removed the waterproofing from our vehicles, and waited for our first combat action.

We did not have to wait long. On June 29th, CCA (Combat Command A) of the Division was committed in an attack to take out a German salient in our lines near the town of Villiers-Fossard, three or four miles north of St. Lo. This part of Normandy is the bocage country -- apple orchards, dairy cattle, small fields with high earthen hedgerows, and sunken roads -- a terrain which favored the defense because tanks have very limited mobility. German infantry could get good defensive position with overhead cover from artillery air bursts by digging into the hedgerows. Due to the nature of the terrain, there is very limited visibility, which made it difficult for an observer to adjust artillery fire. It was also very difficult for an infantry company commander on the attack to know the location of his platoons.

The attack jumped off in time at 0900, Combat Command A with two task forces abreast. Each task force had a 105 mm self-propelled artillery battalion in direct support. I was running the Division Artillery Fire Direction Center and had three more 3rd Armored Artillery Battalions in general support under my control as well as a call on battalions of XIX Corps Artillery.

We had worked together as a team for two and one-half years but this was the first combat action. Things went relatively smoothly at first. However, because of the terrain and a profusion of vegetation it was almost impossible to know the exact location of some of our units. One of the duties of a forward observer is to keep his fire direction center informed of the location of his supported leading elements. This information, which is vital for the safety of the command, is then relayed to the Division Artillery Fire Direction Center.

Our leading element reports were not too good for several reasons. First, in this compartmented terrain it was sometimes impossible to see them, and even if one did, to get a correct map reference. Normally, map coordinates for enemy positions and for adjusting fire are given by radio in the clear. Map coordinates for friendly forces are given using a simple map code. The reporting of leading elements was a low priority when you were getting shot at, when you didn't know for sure where the friendly's were, and when these dubious results had to be encoded.

The Division Commander, Major General Leroy Watson and Division Artillery Commander, Colonel Fredric J. Brown, had an O.P. (Observation Post) on a small hill where they could observe the action. I had a telephone line to them.

In mid-afternoon, CCA was hit with a major tank infantry counterattack. We learned later that the counterattack was mounted by elements of Panzer Lehr Division, (one of the best Divisions the Germans had in Normandy). One of the direct support battalions requested a T.O.T. laid down just in front of their leading elements. T.O.T. (Time on Target) is an artillery concentration fired so that the first volley of maybe 100 guns bursts on the target at the same time. This technique is most effective.

The officer firing the concentration will synchronize the watches of the other fire direction centers. Example: Time now is 16:45 - T.O.T. 16:55. Knowing the time of flight of the projectile to the target, the Battalion would fire at 16:52:30.

In spite of not having the most accurate front-line reports, I believed that it would be safe to shoot. I arranged for all five 3rd Armored Division Battalions to fire, plus five Battalions from XIX Corps, approximately 150 guns, everything from 105mm to 240mm. The light Battalions were to fire closer to our lines, the heavier Battalions, deeper. I assigned concentration areas to each Battalion by map coordinates. A Battalion concentration will cover an area of 300 to 400 yards in diameter so a ten Battalion T.O.T. would cover an area about the size of a country club golf course, like Onwentsia, for example.

I called Colonel Brown on the telephone and told him that it was close to our front lines but that I thought it would be safe to shoot. He said, "Bill, you have to shoot it!" Ten Battalions, 10 volleys hit the counterattack with devastating effect -- 1500 artillery rounds exploding in less than 5 minutes. The attack stopped but was not broken. Even before we had ceased firing we got reports of short rounds. One battery out of the 30 firing made an error of 1000 yards and was shooting into an Engineer company in reserve causing some casualties.

Normally with short rounds you call a cease-fire and have every fire direction center and battery check their data. With this many Battalions involved and with rather cumbersome communication, it could be 30 to 45 minutes before we could resume firing.

The attack was stopped but not broken. The German troops were reorganizing to press home their attack. I had a terrible decision to make. If I ordered a cease-fire, the Third Armored Division, and part of XIX Corps, would be without Artillery support for a very critical 30 to 45 minutes. The veteran German troops could very well have overrun our leading formations in their first combat action and caused severe casualties.

If I ordered the concentration fired again, I would cause more American casualties. I really had no choice, however. I ordered the T.O.T. retried, and the same battery fired short again causing additional American casualties. The counterattack was broken, but I still agonize over this decision.

We had been playing at war as a unit for the last 2 and 1/2 years with maneuvers, firing practices, command-post exercises, etc., but the real thing is very different.

First, the sounds -- you begin to learn very quickly the difference in sound between an incoming artillery shell and an outgoing one. You can pretty well tell also by the scream of one coming in how close it is going to be. You can tell the difference for example between the conventional howitzer-type weapon and the high velocity gun such as the 88mm. This would typically be a crack-bang. The German small arms made a different sound than the American. The Schmeisser (burp-gun) machine pistol and the German MG42 had much higher cyclic rates (rounds per minute) than did the American weapons.

Then you had the smells of cordite from the explosions, and from death. This was summer and even on the Atlantic Coast it got reasonably hot during the day. The medics and grave registration people were pretty good about picking up American and German dead. Normandy is dairy cattle country and the bombing and shelling killed hundreds of cattle. After a few days in the sun, they began to bloat and stink. Eventually the engineers would bulldoze mass graves for the dead cattle.

When we came into Normandy there was some concern that the Germans would use poison gas. We had gas masks and wore coveralls that were treated to withstand the so-called blister gases. When the gas threat never materialized, people become more lax about carrying their gas masks and usually left them in their vehicles. One evening a German shell hit an American supply dump. It started a big fire and a worse odor. Some idiot thought we were under a gas attack. He yelled, "Gas". This call went over the whole front and everyone went running for their mask. Mine was in my vehicle, 100 yards away; it is impossible to run that far without taking a breath. I tried.

The action at Villiers-Fossard was successfully concluded with the elimination of the German salient in our lines. Elements of the Division were committed to further action a few miles to the west. This was part of the First Army's continuing efforts to fight its way through the bocage country, seize the important road and rail junction, the town of St. Lo, and get favorable terrain for a breakout.

[Web Editor's Note: This is the piece identified in Dugan's manuscript as "A chapter in 'A Guided Tour' by William J. Carney." A search at the Univ. of Illinois Archives in 2005, as well as in Dugan's own files, has failed to locate Carney's 'A Guided Tour.' Hopefully his family will see this note, and will know the whereabouts of any additional writings by Carney, whose clear and informative style on the subject of artillery is a rarity.]

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